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Simulating Cultural Phenomena

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Mar. 19th, 2006 | 02:07 pm

I started this blog by asking questions, primarily hoping to spark discussion. So here's another question:
In designing RPG settings, especially "fantasy" worlds (whatever you take that to mean), to what extent, and for what purposes, should one work toward simulation of such cultural phenomena as religion, magic, and arts?


I haven't read nearly as many games as most of you have, but it does seem to me that the "classical" gaming traditions of fantasy (D&D, Runequest, etc.) place considerable emphasis on simulation in certain respects. Physics and biology seem particularly important. We can certainly debate endlessly to what extent any given system or setting is in any sense accurate about the physics of combat, falling, strength, and whatnot, or the ecology and biology of species and so on; on the whole, these things are rarely especially accurate. But a surprising amount of noise gets generated about such "accuracy," with all sorts of homebrew "fixes" imposed upon subsystems seen as insufficiently "accurate" to "real-world" physics and the like. You know what I mean, I'm sure.

But I have rarely seen such claims made particularly strongly about religion, magic, and the arts. There are some exceptions, of course:
Ars Magica at times made some (weak) claims about historical accuracy with respect to "hermetic" magic and medieval European life.

E. Gary Gygax has made all sorts of claims about accuracy in AD&D, though it's worth bearing in mind that in his books Role Playing Mastery and Master Of the Game he also indicates that he thinks the level system is an accurate reflection of how people live and learn.

Some pieces of Runequest material suggest an attempt at accuracy about religion, although this is not (as far as I know) especially strongly stressed.

Nevertheless it seems that the traditional mainstream gamer is, or is perceived to be, more concerned with "real life" and "accuracy" as they reflect limited spheres of the hard sciences, especially physics.

Now presumably an enormous amount of this comes from the comparatively low standard of awareness about things like religion and magic and arts in a comparative, cross-cultural manner; that is, most people -- including gamers -- do take for granted that religion is "obviously" about faith and gods and so on, and that the arts are in some sense "obviously" a possibly interesting but nonessential secondary dimension of culture, and so on. Presumably part of it also comes from the apparently relatively high standard of technical education: computers, math, and so on seem anecdotally associated with "geek" culture, and certainly the large military faction of players would have a good deal of technical training as well.

But I wonder whether that's the whole explanation.

In any event, I'm wondering what you all think about the possibility and value of "accuracy" when it comes to cultural phenomena in fantasy settings. (Obviously this is something I've been thinking about for these very slowly developing chapters on fantasy religions.)

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Comments {31}

James

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from: jholloway
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 01:39 am (UTC)
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I think that this goes back to a discussion contracycle and I, among others, had on the Forge waaaaay back in the day, in which it was pointed out that, for the most part, early gaming was focused very much on the -- well, on the "here and now," if you like, in the sense of "us four guys here in this physical, tactical crisis." Religion, culture, arts are just kind of props to provide a colorful context -- weapons, strategy, and maneuver are what the thing is actually about.

Which says nothing, of course, about the possibility or value of "accuracy" when it comes to these things in fantasy settings. The impression I get is that for the most part players who value these kinds of things have traditional gravitated toward games with historical or pseudo-historical settings ... or modern ones, I suppose. Very few fantasy games have bothered with "accuracy" in their religious or cultural systems. Glorantha has a very rich fantasy religious element, but I'm not sure that it's "accurate" in the sense that Gloranthans have the same relationship to their religions as real humans do or did.

The part of me that studies medieval burial practices wants to say "but what's 'realistic' is the question. How can I have a 'realistic' view of how people relate to religion and faith in their daily lives when the question itself is so vexed?"

But at the same time, even bullshitting it, I'd probably include a lot of assumptions that differ from mainstream games, just because of my background.

There, that was unhelpful, wasn't it?

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 06:25 am (UTC)
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Why yes! That was unhelpful!

But seriously, I think your points are solid. At the same time, I wonder whether there might be interesting potential in developing a game-world that insists upon a kind of realism in cultural phenomena, whether or not one also bothers with the physics.

Seems to me you could build your cultures up from the bedrock of fundamental socio-religious relationships, working from respected anthropological and religious studies sources (as well as good histories, where available), and you'd end up with a world very rich and deep extremely rapidly. But I rather wonder whether it would catch on: I sort of suspect that this is exactly the sort of thing most people who play FRPGs do not want, although I'm not sure exactly how to explain why.

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Robots Prepare To Torch Gene Autry

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from: robotnik
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 03:18 am (UTC)
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You know the old story about the man looking for his lost car keys under a lamp post in the middle of the night: Passerby asks, "are you sure this is where you dropped your keys?" Man says, "no, I have no idea where I lost them, but the light is much better here under the lamp post."

In other words, I figure games traditionally model simple physics and biology (or "falling and drowning," as they call such rule sets at Story Games) rather than religion and culture because "falling and drowning," unlike religion and culture, are things that can be modeled with a few statistics and a handful of dice.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 06:30 am (UTC)
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I agree, but this is based on the fundamental assumption that what is modeled must be modeled statistically and numerically. And I have never entirely seen why this should be. That is, I do not entirely see why it is necessary, granted that a given culture has professional ritual specialists who can be played by PCs, why their profession has to have external, quantifiable "effects" (such as cleric spells and the like). I see that it is convenient to have statistics for how NPCs will respond to such people in whatever circumstances, but on the whole I don't see why you have to have objective results for your rituals in order to make them worth doing.

I suppose it's really a question of thinking through your character. If you buy the Eliade theory that the traditional religious person experiences the sacred as the "really real" and that performing traditional religious obligations is a matter of keeping the whole cosmos afloat, I don't see why you need rules like, "If you fail to do this X number of times, there is a Y% chance that the universe will in fact collapse."

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hummingbird

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from: unrequitedthai
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 09:40 am (UTC)
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What sort of gameplay are you shooting for here? Obviously play determines the feasibility of inclusion of these elements.

The traditional "kill things and take their stuff" form associated with fantasy games is not particularly amenable to depiction of people. For this style, cultural phenomena have next to no value (you can use them as a hook to hang interesting mechanical stuff, but they are per se pointless), and depicting them at all is a doubtful proposition.

I can't speak for other playstyles really.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 22nd, 2006 02:38 am (UTC)
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I guess I'm saying, to pick up your other question, "What sorts of things would be served, in gameplay terms, by a really serious, principled attempt to design fantasy cultures around integrated religious and other cultural models?" I work backwards from the Forge-style approach, which is essentially, "Tell me what gameplay should be like, and then let's engineer a system to produce it"; I think the other way around. But then, for me it's largely a thought experiment.

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Ben Lehman

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from: benlehman
date: Mar. 20th, 2006 12:53 pm (UTC)
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I think that the way to have realistic fantasy cultures is to center play around the creation of said cultures' ethics, ideals, and stories.

yrs--
--Ben

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 22nd, 2006 02:50 am (UTC)
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Well, that would certainly center attention on these things, but without a sufficient base that links together cohesively, it'll never get off the ground.

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ewilen

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from: ewilen
date: Mar. 21st, 2006 12:08 am (UTC)
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I see a great deal of value in "accuracy" when it comes to cultural phenomena in fantasy settings. For me the obvious value is what I think has been called "benchmarking" in some contexts: for the sake of immersion, the fantasy world must be intelligible and not seem arbitrary. One way to achieve this is to base expectations on real-world models.

Now it might seem at first blush that I'm saying fantasy settings should be constructed so that people who are well-read in history and anthropology will feel comfortable in them, and maybe that's really who would benefit the most. On the other hand, there are many surface details of life in premodern settings that are familiar points of attraction for the general audience--I think. Attempts to reproduce them without an understanding of the underlying causes can produce a distorting and incongruous affect which spoils the whole experience. A great deal of gamer culture (and secondarily, fantasy literature) has absorbed and rationalized the distortions, but they can be powerful turnoffs, or at least points of difficulty, to people who were attracted by the original subject material.

For example, I recently saw a thread on RPG.net where a GM complained that even though the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy RPG gets much of its feel from Early Modern Europe, he couldn't reproduce the 16th-17th century interplay of politics and religion because the game uses the standard fantasy rpg religious tropes.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 22nd, 2006 02:43 am (UTC)
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Nice point, Elliot (sorry, I don't remember whether you use one L or two, and ditto for T's). I had something like this rumbling around in the back of my own head. I suppose I'm wondering whether, if one were to design a fantasy world full of really rich, plausible (which is to say, horribly complicated) cultures, there would be something mysteriously "familiar" about them to players -- precisely because they work much more like real human cultures and the players are, well, real humans.

Of course, this raises two related questions:

1. If the cultures are so complex and intricate that explaining them clearly takes enormous space (or alternatively must presume considerable sophistication on the part of the readers), could one ever sell such a thing to a potential GM? I mean, I might be able to pull it off for my friends, but could I convince someone else? (I don't mean ME as such, but the designer with such knowledge.)

2. If the cultures are too human, doesn't this raise problems when we start dealing with the abnormal, extra-real elements of fantasy, e.g. intelligent non-human communicators and such?

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Jiituomas

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from: jiituomas
date: Mar. 21st, 2006 08:50 am (UTC)
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I've noticed that the needed level of accuracy depends heavily on how finished a product one needs. As a rule of thumb, a tabletop game needs less than a larp needs less than a piece of fiction. In other words, how much adiegetic leeway for development is available determines how finished the culture has to be. (In tabletop, you can easily negotiate and invent more, but in a larp the facts have to be straight if one wants to avoid game breaks.)

As I saw Chris' initial post, I went through a lot of the old rpg /setting/ books on my shelf, and noticed that a lot of them touch on issues of religion and culture, but rarely make any consistent effort to create something holistic. ICE's Shadow World is an excellent example: on some points, they have thoroughly thought about cultural ramifications, on others, it's just another list of fantasy-versions-of-the-graeco-roman-pantheon.

There's of course one exception to the rule: whenever any game presents an evil culture worshiping a demon or somesuch, the religion gets a broad (if often shallow) description so that their evil antics can be suitably presented in play.

One of the things I loved about WW's Trinity rpg was that it had a lot of significantly well-thought-of, internally consistent cultural material. It made the whole game seem more "real", more logical.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Mar. 22nd, 2006 02:49 am (UTC)
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The remark about tabletop and larp (and fiction) is striking to me, because in some respects I see it quite in reverse. I see what you mean about the ability to wing it, of course, but it seems to me that we're talking about the difference between breadth and depth, or even extension and intension. The tabletop designer needs enormous coverage, because he has no control whatever over where things will go; on the other hand, given a shallow picture he can wing it into the depths at need. By contrast, as I read you, a larp requires considerable depth because "fudging" can break the game; on the other hand, a larp is much more constrained in extension, since there is usually some sort of relatively determinate situation, story, moment, space, or the like. Does that work? (You know I'm on thin ice with larps....)

I like your remark about WW. I can't stand WW games, so I rarely think about them much, but your point is well taken. Perhaps this is part of what was attractive about them? They had a kind of extreme detail (of a limited sort) about the cultural phenomena of vampires and whatever, which made it fun (I gather) to delve into minutiae; on the other hand, they mostly didn't bother detailing other things, because this was after all more or less the modern world. The same point strikes me about what games like UA and Nephilim were getting at: they're trying to create the "feel" of a culture (a subculture, really), and by setting that in the middle of the modern world they neatly solve a number of structural and presentation problems.

So can that be done in a pure fantasy, I wonder? Tolkien did it -- but then, he was crazy, and spent far, far too long at it.

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(no subject)

from: silmenume
date: Mar. 23rd, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
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It appears that I am late to the party – again - as usual! To what extent and for what purposes should one work toward simulation of such cultural phenomena as religion, magic and the arts I have no response other than to say it’s a matter of local taste. As to why this hasn’t happened much and, when it has happened, why it hasn’t been very effective I have a couple of thoughts.

I do believe some of the fault lies in the bias of the gaming culture being skewed towards the engineering end of the spectrum. I also believe that institutional inertia has also played a role in that role-playing still carries some of the baggage from which it originally arose. I think that the mania for quantization is both a historical artifact as well as a “cultural” predilection of the hobby’s constituents.

On a number of occasions, Chris, you have mentioned to me that ultimately myth is grounded in or rests upon the physical world. To some extent the mechanics as physics and biology attempt to fill in that role. Historically mechanics have been regarded as fixed and players have been loath, on the aggregate, to tinker with them wholesale and on a regular basis. At least, there seems to be this zeitgeist that mechanics ought not to be messed with. I think that part of the reason for this feeling lies in the role mechanics take as representations of the tangible though fictional world.

This proposed rational for the need for quantization does not address the issues of why it seems that players do not want a world with very rich and deep cultures. On the one hand it is vastly easier to render down “physics and biology” to a manageable level than it is model the “horrible” complexity of human culture. Conversely part of the reason I think lies in that “falling and drowning” are ultimately external to the human psyche. I mean external in contrast to the “internalness” of human culture. We don’t have to get inside physics in order to make it a useful construct of game play. Culture, however, is so intimately bound up to reality maps that to simulate it to any reasonable degree of granularity would start to challenge that reality map at a very deep level. Given the vast complexity of any human culture, to really get in there and make the culture rich, full and vibrant would basically require the players to surrender their current reality map for that of the fictional culture. I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that is a daunting proposition.

I also believe that players may avoid such play is simply due to laziness. I believe that the difficulty of creating and maintaining the oodles and oodles of all those cultural bits and the relationship among them extremely taxing. It would require a greater commitment from the players to come up to speed than say some of the more finely tuned indie-games out there. Whereas players of such well wrought games can be up to speed on the important concepts within a couple of sessions, players of a game which emphasizes the (absurd level of) complexity of culture would just be barely scratching the surface. Even though a fictional culture would probably be less complex than an existing “real world” culture, it would still require the players to engage in what is normally an extremely difficult process of acclimating to a new culture. I’m not saying this wouldn’t be fun or interesting, but rather that there is this notion that role-playing is just a “game” which implies a certain levity as far as a commitment to the process. Games are supposed to be fun, not engrossing. That’s what “real” hobbies are for and even then one who is that committed to a hobby is frequently regarded as something of an eccentric.

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(no subject)

from: silmenume
date: Mar. 23rd, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
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continued -

Finally I believe that such play requires a certain level of mastery of a skill that is largely alien to western culture – bricolage. Not only is it largely absent but it is a very difficult concept to explain. How likely is it that a game would have been designed around a process that is chiefly unknown or at least unrecognized?

I do not believe that quantification is an just indicator an indicator what is important to the designers, I think it also represents a lack of awareness of the necessary tolls combined with current contemporary sensibilities that frequently equate a cultural point of view with bigotry.

None of which implies that such a game should not be done.

My uninformed ramblings…

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Apr. 23rd, 2006 01:37 am (UTC)
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I have to say that I don't see much point in accurate simulation of religion and magic without correspondingly accurate simulation of the real-world environmental factors most likely to strongly contribute to those cultural phenomena. I'm talking, in particular, about disease (in all its forms including infection, malnutrition, genetic disorders, childbirth complications, and mental illness). As by far the greatest hazard to life and limb in just about every real-world culture in history (even under extreme circumstances such as war or migration), and one whose causality is largely unfathomable to nontechnological peoples, disease becomes the likeliest motivator and focus of magic.

Thing is, I'm not really interested in realistic representation of disease in fantasy role playing settings. If I'm imagining a setting in which the greatest hazard to life and limb is something else with far more overt causality -- warfare, perhaps, or monsters -- then I really have to imagine the corresponding magic, religion, and mythology to match. The real-world principles and examples wouldn't seem to be a very useful guide. Especially if I'm also imagining that the magic actually works. Realism with respect to the real world would be simply wrong in the fantasy setting and so is pretty much out of the question; the only question is whether whatever I invent in its stead should be "realistically" abstruse.

That in turn depends on whether the player characters are currently situatied in their own characters' cultures, or experiencing a culture alien to them. (While it might make little sense for player characters to come from a "simple" culture, it makes even less sense for the player-characters to be having difficulty understanding their own culture, which is what is likely to happen if we make it complex.)

- Walt Freitag

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Radical Religions

from: anonymous
date: May. 15th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm just a beginner in RPG theory but it seems that, as stated earlier, the creation of culture and religion is deemed unnecessary to many roleplayers if there is not a physical effect, adverse or beneficial.

E.G. a D&D cleric chooses their deities not based on how the PC's background but rather on the benefits created by said deity choice. Players then attempt to justify their choice by altering their PC's background.

The idea of an accurate religion or culture in an RPG seems to also be unusual in the fact, as stated earlier, that any religion or culture is built off of contemporary religious ideals. To truly create accuracy in religion or culture, it seems that one must radically push away from the basic fantasy archetypes e.g. the evil demon-worshipping horde or the blue-eyed blonde-haired valiant paladins, and to create a religion or culture as radically different from the player's society as the setting of the RPG is. By destroying these archetypes, players are then able to truly expand their roleplaying abilities and create true cultures and religions in their games.

By bringing in "radical religions" or other complex cultural aspects without physical benefits, the player is then, if not forced, subtly coerced into shedding the need for physical benefits in culture and sheds their true selves and begins to truly roleplay.

But like I said, I'm just a beginner in theory and all of this is probably ignorant and unorganized

Genaro Silva
silva@mexicansrule.com

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A couple of thoughts on music, art and accuracy

from: anonymous
date: Aug. 23rd, 2006 02:23 am (UTC)
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"and that the arts are in some sense "obviously" a possibly interesting but nonessential secondary dimension of culture"

As it happens I was just reading Plato's "The Laws" in reference to another discussion on RPG-Create (Yahoo Group) where he talks about the topic of the importance of music. It is not only important, but, Plato argues that from art and music the Civilization either ascends to the heights of virtue, or the depths of depravity. So I thought that was interesting. It's a bit of a bear to read but if you're interested you can read about it here:

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/laws.2.ii.html

As for the question of "accuracy", I'm not so sure that "accuracy" is as important as "effectiveness". Some designers I think want to have accuracy in their games because they feel it will lend realism. To some degree they would be right if they could but do it. The problem is that reality is too difficult to model into a form that can be played by humans easily, and so in lue of that we fudge things, which creates simulations. The simulations we create are never really accurate, only roughly so. To attempt "accuracy" or claim it is not exactly what I think of as useful because it can not be truly achieved, and if it were achieved in some sort of game rules it would be in all likelihood unplayable because the calculations would be odious in the extreme. And that's for physical things. When you come to the question of art and religion the problem is compounded infinitely because these things can not really be measured, nor has history been sufficiently recorded (which would be impossible) to get "accuracy". Instead we get opinions and impressions and thoughts and feelings. But not accuracy. So to call what we fathom about religion in terms of historical views accurate is, well, inaccurate. At best we can say, This is my impression, or This is what I believe. That, in my opinion, however, is perfectly acceptable for game design, and in fact desirable. I would not wish to create an "accurate" game as it would take far too long and be a failure in the end at the goal. I prefer to create games that are Effective, which is different. By Effective I mean simply that it achieves the goal of my game, which is to cause the players to feel immersed in the World I am weaving for them, and for them to have fun in the process. That goal can be achieved, but not via an effort toward accuracy. It is achieved in the same way that Tolkien achieved it, or Homer, or any of the great film makers or story tellers. Not accuracy, but effectiveness. That's my take on it, for what its worth. Thanks for the question! Interesting.

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Loh123

from: anonymous
date: Feb. 21st, 2007 09:30 pm (UTC)
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NSU - 4efer, 5210 - rulez
[url=http://bk-magazin.com][/url]

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