5E Adventure Review: The Holy MacGuffin

The Holy MacGuffin is the first in a series of short adventures by Matt Evans of Mithgarthr Entertainment. It’s a very short adventure – two pages of content, with two additional pages used for the cover and legal information. The name of the series is “Drop-In Dungeons”, and that’s basically what the adventure is: a short background, a dungeon map, and six encounter areas.

The adventure is designed for tier 2 adventurers (levels 5-10), and is a delightful expression of a small dungeon. A group of humanoids led by a troll have stolen a local relic (a magic sword) and are living in a nearby set of caves. The adventure basically consists of the player characters exploring the caves, slaying the humanoids, and recovering the sword, but it is enlivened by good descriptions, interesting combat situations, and a little bit of entertaining role-playing.

There are a few oddities in the adventure: the first is that a hook of the players being asked to recover the sword by the townsfolk is missing; instead the adventure just has the group running into some orcs talking about the sword (and then investigating). The second is that the last two rooms don’t have descriptive text. It’s a small point, but I found it curious.

The last point is that the adventure doesn’t give scaling notes; the foes would probably be best faced by level 5 or 6 characters, with some adjustment needed for higher-level characters.

Despite those points, the adventure is nicely constructed, and well worth taking a look at.

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5E Adventure Review: Conclave of Evil

Conclave of Evil is an adventure by Frank Schmidt in his Adventures in Filbar series. It is designed for a party of 4th-6th level adventurers and is presented in a 15-page pdf.

The adventure sets the party against a gathering of evil humanoids in the Mystic Wood, who are seeking to form a coalition against the kingdoms of the south. These kingdoms might have been able to deal with this under normal circumstances, but they’re currently at war and somewhat distracted. The only force they can send is the adventurers, who are probably enough to face the threat.

The adventure is fairly basic in form, with seven encounters being keyed to various areas on a hex-based wilderness map. Those hoping for a dose of intrigue will likely be disappointed: most of the encounters are presented as little more than opportunities for combat. It is possible that a DM may be able to add more material so that the players can sow dissension within the ranks of the delegates, but this is not supported by the adventure as written. There’s precious little motivations for the monsters here; rather, their combat strategies are emphasised.

There are some nice touches in the adventure: several of the encounters make good use of terrain, and there is one encounter with priestesses trying to unearth an ancient evil that may form a good climax to the adventure. There is also a good amount of descriptive text.

The major flaw of the adventure is the same as in many of the adventures I’ve reviewed: it really needs better editing. Incorrect grammar and poor phrasing are everywhere in the text. “You have struggled to climb up from recent rains making the slopes slick and difficult to traverse.” There’s a nice idea in that sentence, but the phrasing is awful.

Ultimately, Conclave of Evil doesn’t quite come together. The adventure is a little too basic, and the editing pulls down a few nice combat encounters. There’s the potential here, but I would have preferred to see more ambition and better grammar.

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More on the D&D release schedule: Seeking the Middle Ground

I’m very sympathetic to the people who want more D&D releases. I own a lot of D&D books, and I’ve gained great pleasure from them, especially some of the odder releases such as Weapons of Legacy and Magic of Incarnum. I gain great delight from seeing the interesting places the game can go.

However, this is tempered by my experiences in seeing how broken the system can become. Around 2013, I spent a year running a Pathfinder game. Because I don’t have the same affection for Pathfinder and Paizo that I do for D&D and Wizards, I found I was far less tolerant of issues with the rules than I otherwise would have been. I ran two APs to completion that year (Council of Thieves and Kingmaker), the first using core-only and the second allowing more options, and quickly became disenchanted with the optimization required by the game and the adventures. I was growing sick of the optimisation when I stopped playing 3.5E (after 8 years of the game), and Pathfinder seemed to have gone down that route but even more so!

This isn’t to say optimisation doesn’t have a role to play, nor that people who enjoy it are having badwrongfun, but, for me personally, it’s a very dangerous path.

The more options that a game gets, the more likely that optimisation will come into play, especially – as in 3E – the game has a lot of easily combined mechanics. You could write a lot of new classes for AD&D, but because they wouldn’t combine, it wouldn’t cause the same problems that the addition of feats and spells (especially enhancement spells) causes in 3E. With a plethora of options, unexpected combinations occur. If you ever get the chance, try playing a game of D&D with only the original rules (which have a very limited spell list). It’s not really a superior game to what developed later, but it does change your perception on how the game can be played.

Paizo didn’t introduce their “core-only” Pathfinder Society adventures for no reason, after all!

I’ve recently been writing some fan articles on my site to help introduce new players to the Forgotten Realms. I’m not an expert on the Forgotten Realms: I played and collected its products for the first few years after it was released (1987-91, roughly), and have come back to it later. However, my early exposure to the Realms has stayed with me, and I’ve been paying more attention to the Realms recently. I try to research the articles thoroughly, but one thing I noticed very quickly was exactly how much material there is on the Realms. There’s a huge amount. It’s terrifying.

Being an expert on the Realms these days requires a lot of reading. Existing fans, who have stayed with the Realms for years, are in a very privileged position. A new D&D player is likely to be absolutely lost (thus the articles, btw). Just to read all of Bob Salvatore’s Drizzt books requires you to read 28 novels!

(I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it takes less time to watch every Doctor Who episode ever made than to read every Forgotten Realms product).

That’s the trap of producing content: it produces this fantastically detailed world, but at the expense of making it harder for new people to enter it – and, especially, to design for it.

The answer is not to produce no content, of course! We need content. But the middle ground, where the content doesn’t overwhelm us, is something we’re still searching for. The limited releases of 4E’s Forgotten Realms material can probably be considered a failure, as can the jump ahead of the timeline (and consequent “wrecking” of the Realms). Where’s the proper balance? This is what concerns the managers of D&D. They’ve started slowly, but the rate of releases can be increased. It’s harder (nay impossible) to go back the other way!

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On the slow release schedule of Dungeons & Dragons

There’s been a lot of discussion recently on a series of tweets by Mike Mearls on challenges as a publisher of producing Dungeons & Dragons.

My own experiences with 5E are unusual mainly because I was responsible for converting the Book of Lost Spells by Necromancer Games into 5E (in addition to all the games I’ve been running). So, speaking as a developer…

It’s hard writing good 5E rules material. The core game is really, really good, thanks largely to the extensive playtest it received. Adding new class material that doesn’t distort the game is difficult. It’s not impossible, but it really needs the designers to be familiar with the system – and (hopefully) go through a good run of playtesting first. I’m sure the “missing” supplement book that we expected to come out with Princes of the Apocalypse fell prey to that: the material really wasn’t ready for prime time.

Another thing that the managers have been grappling with is the effect of a front-loaded release schedule. There’s a *lot* of options in the core books. If we had a full set of Complete books at this point, would players have explored them all? Individual groups have likely not explored all of the PHB! My opinion is that we didn’t need a lot of extra options in the first year. However, as we move into the second and third year, these option books will become more important.

If the books all come out in the first year, then what of Year 2? Year 3? Mike specifically says in his tweets that “in terms of a business model, the biggest challenge of 5e will be years 3 – 5.” In 3E, the game got the 3.5E revamp in year 3! It was too soon (originally the plan was for Year 5), but it displays the trouble that RPG lines have. By reducing the rate at which we get new material, there seems to be the hope that it will prolong the lifespan of the edition. If you only get one or two books of new options a year, which makes those books a big event.

Of course, this probably also explains some of the hold-ups with the Open Gaming License that the WotC people have occasionally hinted at; if an 5E-specific OGL were currently available, then we’d probably see a flood of 3rd-party supplements. As it stands, there are very few. (There are probably two other major hold-ups: the first is that Wizards as a corporation is still unsure of whether the OGL is a benefit for them specifically, and the second is due to the disruption caused by jury duty).

My expectation for the future is that we will see option books, and at a greater rate than we’re seeing at present. (Not hard, since the current rate is practically zero!) However, the current time sees Mike and the other people at Wizards paying attention to fan reaction and trying to work out the best plan going forward… and then adjusting that further given our reaction to that!

Slowly but surely? That’s my impression of it at any rate.

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Book Review: Night of the Hunter (Companions Codex 1)

Goodreads lists Night of the Hunter as the 25th book of the Legend of Drizzt, and it draws heavily on events of past books. This makes it a challenging book to read if you’re not familiar with the series. A reader entering the series with the 24th book, The Companions, had a good introduction to the characters, with a very accessible book, as I mentioned in my review. Proceeding onto Night of the Hunter is a shock.

Although I read the first seven or eight Drizzt books a long time ago, I returned to the series with The Companions and I’ve missed out on a lot. Although the plot of this book is somewhat intelligible, much of the action is less clear than I would have liked. It is not helped by the multiplicity of viewpoints, and it’s obvious I also need to relearn how to read what appeared to be quite chaotic battle scenes. The narrative is split between three groups: the progress of Drizzt with his reunited companions, the challenges faced by the one-time assassin Artemis Entreri and his companions, and the plans and feuding of the drow of Menzoberranzan.

For the most part, the adventures of Drizzt and his companions in this book are the least interesting part. Unlike the immediate challenges their reborn selves faced in The Companions, they spend a lot of trime travelling without
really having a strong threat to work against. Artemis Entreri has a much more interesting plotline, but there are so many breaks in it to look at other characters, the immediacy is lost. I’m not actually that fond of books that spend a lot of time looking at what the villains – in this case, the drow – are doing, but at least they’re actually doing something. The early part of the book is concerned with them trying to reform the power structure in Menzoberranzan, and the latter stages of the book sees them kidnap Artemis and his companions and finally coming into conflict with Drizzt.

Once all the plotlines in the book converge in the final chapters, with Drizzt coming to the aid of Artemis and fighting against the drow, the storyline clears significantly and there’s real drive to a book that felt it was meandering for much of its length.

My biggest problem with the book is, as mentioned, the number of viewpoints used. I’ve got a feeling that Night of the Hunter is trying to advance the stories of at least twelve separate characters, not all of whom get that much time. At 352 pages in the mass-market paperback, that’s not a lot of space in which to do so. The book is more successful at some of the big moments, some of which are quite disturbing (not least the fate that befalls Dahlia), but I found it very difficult to become engaged in the story. I didn’t feel the urge to complete the book as quickly as I could, which has a lot to do with how scattered the plot threads are as it starts.

So, I’d rate this as a middling book. It advances the story of Drizzt and his friends, but rarely lives up to its potential.

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Princes of the Apocalypse, session 8

The Stoneheart Monastery. The Sumber Hills. 9th Kythorn, 1491 DR

The rest of the adventurers was disturbed by a small group of guards sent from the monastery to deal with the intruders; they came in the middle of the night, but were swiftly dealt with by the group without too much trouble. The next day, the adventurers prepared for another assault on the monastery, now convinced it had something to do with the missing delegation. They were direct in their approach to the monastery, and simply broke down the door… only to find two minotaurs standing behind it along with one of the monks.

It should be noted that minotaurs are dangerous, especially for a group that is still quite low-level. Krovis took the lead, aided by Thumbalina, and both suffered several near-deadly blows in the melee that followed. The reckless attacks of the minotaurs may have exposed them to the blows of the barbarian and paladin, but their own blows were of such power that – if not for the ability of the paladin and barbarian to ward off damage – one or both of the adventurers would have died.

The adventurers then chose to examine the other corridor leading off from the entrance chamber. The corridor turned after a short span, and a number of doors led off from it. A party of monks were keeping watch there, and they moved to engage once the door was opened. Unfortunately for the monks, both Krovis and Thumbalina were still able to ward off their blows and the combined force of the archers and spell-casters behind them were able to deal with the monks quite quickly; it was certain that the monastery was now alarmed, however.

Investigating one of the doors led to a scriptorium, with many books and scrolls piled about. Rather than moving onwards quickly to foil any plans the monks might have, the group paused to rummage through the papers. This, of course, gave the monks the chance to summon the leader of their order.

She was less than amused to find the adventurers, and words were exchanged. Amazingly, instead of a mass combat, we ended up with a duel between her and Krovis, with the adventurers and monks watching on from various points around and outside the room (and, in Thumbalina’s case, from outside through a window).

The duel was long and hard, with Ivan occasionally shouting words of inspiration and healing in Krovis’s direction, but for the most part it was a battle between Krovis’s excellent defences against the superior open-hand fighting style of the abbess. And the abbess was good – much better than Krovis. Krovis was lucky, getting in a couple of critical hits, which severely hurt the abbess, but he wasn’t able to quite keep up with the damage the abbess was inflicting on him.

Thus he fell, and the abbess moved in to finish him off, only to have the remainder of the group (chaotics all) to attack. The abbess had survived Krovis’s attack, but she couldn’t survive the rest of the party, and soon the monks and their leader lay dead on the floor.

Considering the wreckage – and the poor state of Krovis’s health, the group retired from the monastery to get some much-needed rest.

The Players and their Characters

  • Michael is playing Krovis Thorn, LN human Paladin 3/Fighter 1. (Soldier, Lord’s Alliance)
  • Mikey is playing Diablo, N dragonborn Warlock 3 (Sage, Lord’s Alliance)
  • Jesse is playing Jandar, CN human Fighter 3 (Criminal, Zhentarim)
  • Noah is playing Gimble, CN gnome Rogue 3 (Criminal, Zhentarim)
  • Josh is playing Ivan, CN water genasi Bard 4 (Pirate, Lord’s Alliance)
  • Danielle is playing Thumbalina, CN dwarf Barbarian 3 (Outlander, Emerald Enclave)

DM Notes

What happens when you camp near an outpost of evil? You get attacked, that’s what! The decision to run the attack was pretty easy, with particular attention being paid to how hard it would be for the cultists to discover the party (not particularly hard, in my opinion). It wasn’t a really dangerous attack, but it was a taster of what may occur in the future.

The adventure has certain notes as to what reinforcements are brought in for when the party leave and return; the minotaurs in particular were described in the adventure. For this group – which is still very low level, especially compared to the level of their opposition – it was potentially lethal, although the resistance that Thumbalina possesses due to her rage and the damage reduction Krovis has in heavy armour mitigate a lot against this type of opponent. Less well against spell-based attacks, but we’ve had very few of them so far.

The level disparity is expressed during play by the group engaging in much shorter trips into the monastery than you’d otherwise expect: it’s just too difficult to stay in there for long. This actual session ran short at about 90 minutes compared to the regular 2 hours, but with the group retiring after the fight with the abbess, it seemed the appropriate time to end things.

The Chaotic nature of most of the party was well expressed in their reaction to the “duel” – where only Krovis was really talking it seriously (and, as he was unconscious when his friends pitched in, could hardly object). Michael’s chosen for Krovis to follow Kelemvor – a particularly amusing decision given his mis-step in the earlier session when talking to the necromancer. Although I’m not drawing attention to it in my reports, at every chance Jesse gets, he’s having Jandar announce that the group represents the Zhentarim, who are there to help. (Michael and Josh are rather less than amused at this).

Although the leader of the monastery is now dead, the second-in-command – the priest seen last session – still survives and so further defense of the monastery will be organised. It will be interesting to see what the players do. My challenge now is to work out how much the monastery will be defended before it is abandoned as a lost cause…

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An Introduction to the Forgotten Realms: Gods of Evil

This article gives a short introduction to five of the prominent evil deities of the Forgotten Realms. There are many, many gods in the Realms, and the current state of several of the gods is unknown. If you see that I’ve missed something in my descriptions, please let me know! Links in the article will typically be to where you can get the sourcebooks – either DriveThruRPG or Amazon.

Bane, the Black Lord

If the Forgotten Realms has an iconic evil deity, Bane would probably be it. He gets this status by being the patron deity of the Zhentarim, and by being the God of Tyranny, basically one of the most dependable of traits for evil you can think of. If Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine had a deity, Bane would be it.

Bane is the patron of those who want to rule the world. His alignment is Lawful Evil, and his followers basically think that the world would be a lot better if it everyone lived in one big empire, with one person on top. (Exactly who is on top depends on the individual… and yes, it’s normally that individual!) This isn’t a chaotic view of world dominance, but one that is well-organised and has everyone in their proper place. Mostly as slaves.

Bane was originally human, and ascended to godhood along with his co-conspirators Myrkul and Bhaal through the beneficence of an old god, Jergal. In 1358 DR, Bane and Myrkul precipitated the Time of Troubles by stealing the Tablets of Fate, which led to all the gods walking Faerûn as mortals. Bane, Myrkul and Bhaal were all killed in that time, with the mortal Cyric gaining their powers and becoming a god. For a while, Bane’s son, Iyachtu Xvim walked the Realms gathering support, but in 1372 DR, Xvim suddenly transformed into a reinvigorated Bane. Since that day, Bane has renewed his desire to dominate the entire Realms.

Unfortunately for Bane, the Zhentarim are no longer the force they once were. Once ruled by Manshoon the Mage and Fzoul Chembryl, High Priest of Bane, the Zhentarim have suffered many reverses, including the destruction of their major stronghold, Zhentil Keep. The current Zhentarim are trying to use more underhanded methods of gaining power than before, and seem unable to muster the mercenary armies that once threatened the peace of the Realms.

Bane is the chief god in Mulmaster, and for a while was the only god worshipped in Thay.

He is worshipped by members of the Lord’s Alliance and (of course) the Zhentarim.

Bhaal, Lord of Murder

The assassins of the Realms have their own patron, Bhaal, Lord of Murder. When someone wishes another killed by underhanded methods, it is in Bhaal’s name that the deed is done.

In fact, Bhaal was the god of all death, but we tend to associate him with just assassinations. Truly, Bhaal didn’t care how people died, it just needed to be often.

Bhaal is Lawful Evil. As with Bane, he was slain during the Time of Trouble. However, he was exceptionally busy during that period, and afterwards there appeared a number of mortals who were descended from him: the Bhaalspawn. Their story is told in the Baldur’s Gate computer games, in which your character is one of the Bhaalspawn. The two Baldur’s Gate games are brilliant. Released using the AD&D 2E ruleset, they’re very close to the pinnacle of what can be done using D&D concepts in a computer game. They’re currently available in enhanced editions through Steam.

Bhaal’s plan was to be resurrected through his spawn, but that didn’t work as well for him as it did for Bane, as it turned out that Abdel Adrian, one of his spawn, was a far more virtuous figure than expected and lived for many years as one of the Grand Dukes of Baldur’s Gate. (His story is told in the two Baldur’s Gate novelisations. I’ve never read them, but they are not well-regarded!) However, during the Sundering, Adrian was struck down by another Bhaalspawn and the resulting conflict between factions in Baldur’s Gate provided the power needed for Bhaal to rise again. (These events are played out in the adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate, which I rather enjoyed).

Incidentally, servants of Bhaal are the chief antagonists in the very first Forgotten Realms novel, Darkwalker on Moonshae! (Published in 1987!)

Due to Bhaal’s recent return, I’m unsure where shrines to him are – the Citadel of Assassins in Damara and the Murder Hall in Tashalar are the old temples to him, which might be a place to start. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a small shrine to him in Baldur’s Gate…

Cyric, the Prince of Lies

The mortal Cyric, after killing Bhaal and Myrkul (and his companion Kelemvor), was “rewarded” with godhood. He didn’t use it well. He was granted the powers of Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul – the powers that were once Jergal’s – and from there let his hatred and jealousy consume him. Kelemvor stripped Cyric of some of his powers when Kelemvor became the new God of Death, and Cyric has continued on his merry (and insane) way since then.

Cyric’s powers are likely reduced in the current age, since Bane and Bhaal (and possibly Myrkul) have returned. At his height, he was the most feared god in Faerûn, but even now his followers are everywhere. He and Bane are enemies, both competing for the hearts and minds of the Zhentarim (and everyone else). While Bane was dead, Cyric was the chief god of the Zhentarim, and it’s almost certain that not everyone in the organisation returned to Bane once that deity returned.

Cyric is Chaotic Evil, and his actions are a far cry from the measured plans of Bane. He is impulsive and rash, and loves to hold grudges. His murder of Mystra (Midnight) ignited the Spellplague, and for that crime, he was imprisoned by Tyr, Lathander and Sune in his own plane, the Supreme Throne, although his influence is still felt throughout the Realms. His followers care little for laws and morality – they seek power, and care little who they betray to get it.

Temples to Cyric are in something of a strange state, as he basically took over all of those belonging to Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul, but with Bane and Bhaal returning, the current status of the temples is unclear. They’re mostly hidden, however, as few rulers enjoy having worshippers of Cyric amongst their citizens.

The primary tales of Cyric can be found in the Avatar books: Shadowdale, Tantras, Waterdeep, Prince of Lies and Crucible: Trial of Cyric the Mad. (The first three tell of the Time of Troubles, the last two are set after he became a god).

Auril, the Frostmaiden

A few readers may be surprised by my inclusion of Auril in the first set of evil gods I’m covering. I’m doing so for a very specific purpose: her Chosen is one of the primary antagonists of Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the second adventure in the Sundering series.

Auril is the goddess of winter, and a servant of Talos, god of storms. She has a singular purpose: to cover the lands of Faerûn in ice. Not surprisingly, very few actively worship her – possibly some of the Frost Giants, although their own god Thyrm tends to hold their allegiance – but she’s feared and sacrifices are made to her in the northern lands, especially amongst the barbarian Uthgardt tribes of the Far North.

During Legacy of the Crystal Shard, she invests part of her power into a scorned barbarian woman named Hedrun. You can gain a lot of insight into Auril’s state of mind when you learn that Auril froze Hedrun’s lover because Auril wanted Hedrun to love no-one but her. She takes jealousy to an art form. And fickle doesn’t even begin to describe her; she is amused by at first aiding her petitioners, only to betray them at the last moment. Despite that, she’s Neutral Evil, not Chaotic Evil.

The harsh winter that Auril and Hedrun created around the Ten Towns caused a few to convert to her worship – and several would have survived the adventurers who came to the region to end the unnatural winter. Whatever the result, Auril’s power is strongest in the frozen north, and those who travel there fear her power.

Despite Auril’s connection to ice, she does not feature in the Elemental Evil campaign. At least, not that I know of… (Ice isn’t exactly one of the four elements, despite being frozen water. Occasionally we get paraelemental planes, of which Ice is one).

Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders

Which god has featured in more Forgotten Realms novels than any other? I don’t know, but I’ve got a very strong feeling that it’s Lolth, the Demon Queen of Spiders. She’s the chief deity of the drow, and as such her shadow hangs over Drizzt; she’s never forgiven him for betraying her. This is despite the fact that Drizzt never really worshipped Lolth at all. In Lolth’s mind, he was hers because he was a drow. He was brought up in Menzoberranzan. He was hers. And he fled rather than be killed or do her bidding!

Lolth was once the consort of Corellon Larethian, chief god of the elves, but she rebelled against Corellon and was banished to the Abyss in the form of a spider demon. (The elves also split, with those evil elves banished beneath the earth eventually becoming the drow). Lolth has, since that time, attempted to gain power for herself.

Her mindset can be witnessed in the affairs of the drow. They constantly scheme against each other for power over the drow race, with treachery and dark magic being their weapons of choice. Females are dominant to males, and only female drow may be priestesses of Lolth. Meanwhile, men are condemned to the lesser art of arcane magic. A few years ago, Lolth attempted to become the new goddess of Magic following the destruction of Mystra; although she was unsuccessful in that task, her interest in arcane magic caused the status of wizards to rise, which caused more than a few ripples throughout drow society.

Yes, Lolth is Chaotic Evil. Unlike some demons, she’s able to plan far, far ahead, but those plans tend to be strange, labyrinthine affairs that are hard for outsiders to comprehend. Every time the drow appear on the surface of Faerûn, it’s wise to assume that they’re serving Lolth in some way.

Well, there’s a brief summary of five gods of evil. My primary source for these articles is the 3rd edition sourcebook Faiths and Pantheons, supplemented by research from the Forgotten Realms wiki. Other sources include Faiths and Pantheons (2e) and the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide (4e). Links are to DriveThruRPG if the book has been released in PDF, or to Amazon otherwise. (Novels are always on Amazon).

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