Them’s Me Magic Spells: The twisting paths of live action roleplaying.

The recent Ultima entries brought the subject of Live Action Roleplaying (or “LARPing” as it’s known in the “industry”) to mind. But I was a little hesitant to post this stuff on such a highly accredited website as to Protozoic. As Loki has pointed out information on this hobby abounds on the internet already and I hate to fool anyone into thinking the stuff I’ve written on LARPs is particularly more informative than any existing LARP-ocentric sites already out there.

The stuff below may serve as a general introduction and outsider’s totally biased critique of LARPs, but does suffer slightly from being pulled straight out of my ass. Not that I’m saying anything made from whole cloth, or even in part intentionally fictitious. But while I’ve followed table-top roleplaying games (RPGs) in general alot over the years, as I’ve mentioned at other times, I sort of steer clear of LARPs. I’ve picked up a few tidbits about them here and there, but my knowledge of LARPs is about as informed as my knowledge of football: I might have a vague ideas of the rules and paraphenalia, and maybe remember an amusing anecdote or two someone told me about the game, but when it comes to the background, sub-culture, and details of specific games/teams/conferences/etc. then I’ve been pretty much willfully ignorant of the whole deal.

Still, even though my understanding might not be perfect, I would like to discuss it at the moment. So, for the sake of argument consider the following a primer written by an outsider, or better yet a straw dog to be beaten apart so as to stimulate more elucidating discourse.

With that excessively long disclaimer…

In some iterations LARPing is not unlike when you are a kid and pretend to be a super hero or other character, running around shooting at things with toy guns or weapons, flying invisible ships, etc. As a little kid this usually works ok to some degree but with “contests” or conflicts between players it can quickly degenerate into:

  • Dragon: I shot you.
  • NottheJFK: No you didn’t.
  • Dragon: Yes I did.
  • NottheJFK: I was wearing armor. It bounced off.
  • Dragon: But I used black-hole bullets, they pull you in even if you’ve got armor so you can’t move.
  • NottheJFK: But I was wearing white-hole armor. It counteracts the bullets so I’m still free.
  • Dragon: But I shot a really powerful bullet so it overcomes your armor.
  • (etc.)

Live action roleplaying games are a more “adult” version of this which seeks to impose some sort of rules to mediate these types of conflicts of vision.

The funny thing is up until a few weeks ago I always sort of thought LARPs were dumb. In fact even before I knew that there was a word for the practice of LARPing I thought they were dumb. As with many gamers who grew up in the 1980s, seeing a young Tom Hanks slowly comming unhinged did practically nothing to frighten me away from roleplaying in general, however running around a sewer pretending to battle crude monster props did seem ridiculously corny.

Over the years I’ve tried to qualify why I’m so put off by live action roleplaying games while still feeling table-top RPGs are a valid form of entertainment. And what I’ve come up with is this:

In table-top RPGs there are elements of problem solving and/or storytelling. And you get to sit down to play them, very relaxed and not “in your face” as it were.

By contrast I always viewed LARPs a bit less like collaborative storytelling, and more like impromptu acting. Thus they provide more opportunity to do strange things rather than just discuss them, and more opportunities to look ridiculous rather than just say something stupid. However, even though LARPs are more like acting, your audience is a bit unclear: in theory you are just acting for yourself and for the other people involved. But in practice you might also be acting for passing pedestrians in the street who’s ridicule you’ll invariably invoke, if not verbally then in their hearts and on their faces.

In this regard LARPing is also more in your face. Also it’s more of a challenge to carry across the image you’re going for. You can imagine the troll or elf that someone is narrating in a table-top RPG, you can picture the fireball or invisibility spell taking effect, but it seems like in a LARP it would be harder to ignore the fact that it’s really a pasty skinned white guy just wearing a cloak and fake pointy ears, or some guy throwing a bean-bag (a common spell-signifier in some LARPs) or folding his arms across his chest (a gesture representing the invisiblity power in a popular LARP).

Also there’s the simulation element of LARPs to consider: For example Society for Creative Anacronism (SCA) folks are all about trying to get your outfit to be as “real” as possible (or so I’ve heard) for the historic time period your re-creating (Though technically I think the SCA is more of a “re-enactment” organization than a rather than LARPing one) (1). For me that’s just too picky. If I’m going to dress up weirdly then give me a tunic and a cloak any day, but for footwear I’d prefer to wear some of my own choosing, and maybe the Ideal Pants (or just cargo shorts) rather than mens hose and/or pumkin pants.

There’s also a difference between “boffer” LARPs and more “rulesy” LARPs (for lack of a better word).

Apparently “boffer” LARPs (like N.E.R.O. apparently) get their distinction from using padded weapons and spell packets (small beanbags thrown to simulate combat spells). With boffers people actually try to hit each other and the best wins, etc. I’d assume that “boff” is the onomatopoetic sound of someone being hit with a padded weapon. Social contests in boffer LARPs are apparently all just acting. This is fine but means that if you personally are bad at physical combat they you probably shouldn’t play a fighting character, or if you are bad at social interaction then there’s really no way you can convincingly portray a social character.

By contrast the “rulesy” (I’m sure there’s another word for these, but I don’t know it) LARPs have specific rules for different interactions. You can carry weapons as props but don’t actually use them. If you get into a conflict you resolve it by comparing some simple traits and possibly undertaking a contest that doesn’t involve dice (usually something like rock-scissors-paper I think). “Rulesy” LARPS include games like White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theatre line, and offshoots like Rice Games’ Laws of the Bayou (sadly now only available as a google cache).

The problem I see with these is that they try to exclude the out-of-character expertise element so that how good you are in real life theoretically has nothing to do with what your character knows and can do. But if this issue poses challenges in table-top RPGs where characters are merely mental constructs somewhat seperate from the player, it seems like it’d be more of a problem in a LARPs where players physically portray the character to some degree. How do you keep someone from using out-of-character knowledge and skills when no one’s around to watch them? And even in person-to-person confrontations how do you keep a person from using their real-life social skills to some degree?

Also there’s the matter of conflict between the pretend world and simulated world in the areas of setting, props, staging, and execution. I’ve heard of people wandering around cities acting as vampires in gothy attire (not so bad) and elves in leather fetish gear (gaak!!), and other folks participating in a badly staged mock funeral while being bitten to death by quite-real mosquitoes.

…or worse: the many cases in which a referee (or “rules marshal” or whatever you call the “game master” (GM) in the LARP you’re playing) heavily plays favorites with certain players. Apparently if having an unfair GM for tabletop RPGs is bad, then having an unfair referee in LARPs usually involves a much less subtle trial of hazing, intimidation, maniuplation, and extreme social discomfort.

Now, all that said, something made me change my tune a little of late. Brian’s little Ultima exercise actually sounded kind of cool. I haven’t figured out all the reasons why yet, but here’s some conjecture:

Maybe it’s because the people involved in the Ultima outing were (apparently) not competing with each other or trying to one-up each other socially, but instead were working toward a common goal.

Or maybe it was more of a “re-enactment” than a LARP. Although the difference between a LARP and a re-enactment is kind of vague to me, I suspect that a LARP generally involves more freedom of action and choice where-as a re-enactment has stricter allowances for what is possible or can (or will) actually happen. In a sense I think a re-enactment could either be a sort of play staged for an audience (such as some historical dramatizations like the one to commemorate Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts) or an attempt to re-create and simulate the given conditions of a particular part of history (ie. Colonial House, Manor House and similar PBS series).

But the Ultima trek would be a “re-enactment” of an event that never actually physically happened. So then what sort of -enactment would it be? I don’t know. But this stuff bears some more looking into.

Maybe there is a LARP or -enactment exercise that would satisfy me. Possibly more than one sort of exercise. The idea of a model world appeals to me (hence conventional RPGs) but there are some variables I’d want to be able to toggle or adjust somehow to make the LARPs I’ve heard and read about seem less stupid, or possibly even to create the “Ideal LARP” (2).

Issues I’d like to see discussed:

  • Degree of Simulation – Simulation is great (that’s what the Ultima exercise was to some degree), but what about the “fantastic elements” you can’t simulate with real-world resources (ie. magic and monsterish abilities)? Do you just choose to simulate only genres (or games/movies/books) that you know you can pull off with real-world resources? Or do you simulate the real-worldish things and just ignore the fantastic elements? Or do you impose some artificial system to quazi-mimic the fantastic elements (like spell packets or calling a band-aid and antibiotic ointment “healing spells”)? All this might vary with the LARP or type of re-enactment you want to preform. Is there some better compromise or combination?
  • Costuming – Anachronism and dressing up in odd clothes can be interesting (or so I feel), and I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of it even in certain public venues. But basic cosplay, seems very focused on a specific genre (something the Ultima exercise was) without being really simulational in nature. Cosplay can be fine, but I always feel it’s lacking some sort of immersive element I’d really prefer. Not-so-simulational anachronism in attire wouldn’t be that bad either, but I’d be more interested in something that allowed true mixing of genres, where people made their own costumes rather than trying to duplicate a popular existing show or genre (3). On the other side of the costuming issue, call me a puritan if you will, but I’d like to avoid costuming crossovers with BDSM and other subcultures that make me uncomfortable.
  • Fairness vs. Personal Expertise – This is a bit of a dilemma. The table-top roleplayer in me really wants to have some artificial system imposed on the proceedings to make them “fair”, at least as far as things like economics and fantastic elements are concerned (see the Degree of Simulation bullet point above), but the Boy Scout and DIY wannabe/poser in me (not to mention the Harrison Bergeron reader) makes me want to let people excel, at least at things like woodcraft and building contrivances to help them accomplish stuff. Again, this goes back largely to the Degree of Simulation issue.
  • Keeping It Down to Earth – This is a big one. One thing that’s driven me away from LARPs possibly more than any other is the perception that people who participate in them try to impress one another or lord their abilities (real or imagined) over each other. In the real world you can often avoid someone if they’re acting like a jerk, or prove someone wrong if they’re claiming something that’s clearly impossible, or call someone out if they seem to be acting in a “fake” manner. But depending on the type of LARP being played some or all of these things will be more difficult to do since the “reality” of the LARP world is, by nature, more consentual than that of the real world. So “Keeping it down to Earth” could mean alot of things. It might simply mean not taking your characters precieved abilities as an excuse/means to seek power over others, or it might mean choosing characters you know you can portray (ie. ones alot like you, or just yourself in an altered context (as I assume was done in the Ultima exercise)). And in general I guess it might mean keeping a good sense of humor and proportion while avoiding farce and melodrama.

Anyway, these are sort of my preferences, or at least things I’d like to think and hear more about regarding LARPs and -enactment exercises.

What do you prefer? Or think you might prefer?

Are there any other concerns or focuses we should be discussing with regard to the LARPing?

(1) – And, sadly, they don’t even re-enact all time-periods, only Earth’s middle-ages and the few hundred years surrounding it. You can imagine my disappointment to find out that, in spite of what the name implies, they aren’t too keen on the combination of elements from earlier time periods, nor futuristic ones. “Anachronism” indeed! *Society for Medieval Recreationism” (SMeR) would be more accurate.

(2) – For additional volumes in Dragon’s “Ideal _____” series please inquire in the space provided below.

(3) – Though I fear the path of total “make it yourself” piecemeal anachronism is the surest route to madness. Or at least annoying farce.

About Peter

This guy lives in Boston MA with his beloved wife and two kids. You can get some idea of his likes and dislikes from posts on this website or elsewhere.

6 thoughts on “Them’s Me Magic Spells: The twisting paths of live action roleplaying.

  1. I do not think you need to apologize for your thoughts on LARPing. From what I’ve read on the net, your introduction is as good as any. Furthermore, I would not necisarily trust a LARPer’s take on LARPing to be any more accurate, as I am certain a LARPer would have a bias towards whatever LARP they played.

    One of the most interesting points you raise is just who a LARP’s audience is. Is it for passerbys? Is it for the other players? Is it for the GM/moderator? I don’t think there is a clear cut answer. To some degree this must be contingent on the LARP itself. However, I have a sneaky feeling, that if you asked particular people who LARPed with a specific group, you would find an array of conflicting answers.

    As for your question about the degree of simulation problem – again I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer, at least in real-time reality. You could, for example, film a LARP and add your Mazes and Monsters styled goblin lighting later. Then it wouldn’t be a LARP however. Maybe the answer lies in the fact that a LARP cannot simulate real-time goblins. It will only ever simulate pasty nerds in goblin make-up. Therein however lies the intrinsic charm of a LARP though and what draws people them in the first place: the opportunity to dress up and be a bit theatrical.

    Another question I have always had is if LARPs have stories to them. From what I gather some do and some do not. I think a story, even outline/timeline of general events and goals might clarify some of the questions you pose. RPG games have a loose chain of events, even if players completely disregard the story. The same was true of Dick’s Ultima Forest Walks. Dick and his party chose to go around a field. They had a goal of using a torch, and trying not to depend too much on modern-day technology. Perhaps I’m completely off-base here, but at least this was my interpretation.

    I do, however, know that you should write up your “Ideal LARP” post you have hinted at.

  2. There are so many questions brought up here that don’t look like they have a clear cut answer.

    I’d like to LARPers seem to go for drama. Their audience is deffinitely themselves first, in a way. They enjoy being dramatic for that ‘performance high,’ as well as actively creating a storyline. At least that is what I see in my ex-g/f’s experiences.

    You can get that from roleplaying too. Roleplayers like my ex often come to D&D nights ready with a little prop (if not a costume) and act out their characters in a voice. They are in character more than anything. Relatedly, my ex will often fall asleep during combat, letting ‘the guys’ do all the math work.

    But, is that LARPing? Is the fact that you have to move around and never get out of character what makes a LARP? Like you guys noted, what about re-enactments? Are those civil war battles people re-enact LARPs too? I’m pretty sure they stay in character a lot of the time. Or, maybe they are only in character when there is a ceremony, official meeting or a battle.

    I wonder if LARPers only know some other LARPers by their character’s name. That would be cruel, yet self-inflicted, if one of the only venues for these poor nerds doesn’t even count for being social in the way that we know it.

    The Ultima thing was very much like a hike or a camping trip. Consider you want to cross a certain distance on the Appalachian mountains. You could use modern modes of transportation to drive or bike from point A to B. Or, you could downgrade your technology and simply take a walking stick. The difference with the Ultima thing were the frivolous points: the weapons, the anachronistic food and drink, anachronistic light sources and a few articles of clothing (mainly cloaks, though they were quite useful for warmth and protection from thorns). Food and light could have been provided in more modern ways but we chose to downgrade the technology. Weapons and cloaks were purely frivolous and added a fantasy element. Still, none of us donned a different persona or other than ourselves as adventurers with a distance that we wanted to travel. So, I guess it was half hiking (doing without technology), half fantasy (RPG/re-enactment/LARP/etc.).

    LARPers, on the other hand, probably don’t do without technology except for show. Show is different from ‘making do’ with older technology, like in the Ultima walk. It’s all about drama. I also think that LARPers are much less concerned with ‘winning’ as are roleplayers. Even though techincally neither should be overly conerned with winning over storyline, I have to assume the cultures, at least the roots of the cultures, are different.

    Joe Galetti told Loki and I that there are some LARPers who re-enact certain historical events (what did he say…like, Cuban Missle Crisis talks or something. I don’t remember). Again, it’s not about winning or losing, but using drama to get to the final point. That what I assume anyway, because I don’t have any clue what those kinds of LARPs would be.

    All this and I didn’t even mention Everquest yet. Those guys are majorly concerned with winning, though there are some storyline and character aspects to it all. Plus, costuming and setting are always al taken care of. Where they lack in real drama, they make up for in atmosphere

  3. LARPer goals: I’m sure there are multiple different “goals” that LARPers have. As Loki points out they’d like to be a bit theatrical. Dick refines this by pointing out that “drama” is a particular goal, and also points out the Everquest goal of “winning”.

    There’s a pretty decent little book (32 pp.) called Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. As the title suggests this book gives advice on how to be a better GM for RPGs. One of it’s primary theses is that gamers fall into several different groups when it comes to their motivations in playing an RPG. The author then goes on to suggest techniques for satisfying players with these different inclinations.

    Really most players have a combination of some of these motivations. But although not the end-all and be-all of categorizations. The breakdown of motivations provided still seems pretty useful and goes as follows:

    • Specialists – Interested in a particular type of character which captures their imagination as being cool for some specific reasons. Specialists typically try to re-create this character type to some degree in whatever game they play.
    • Method Actors – Interested in portraying various types of characters well. Specifically “getting into” the character’s mind rather than just using the character as a means to an end.
    • Storytellers – Interested in helping take part in or shaping an interesting overall narrative rather than focusing so much on themself and their character in particular. Will eve take actions detrimental to their character as long as they move the story forward in an interesting way.
    • Tactician – Interested in solving problems and overcomming challenges with appropriate planning. Often find the stated motives and personality of their allies and even their own character to be annoying hinderances to appropriate strategy. In effect they want to “win”, in the sense that winning means achieving the goals of the adventure through work.
    • Power Gamers – Want their character to be the best by whatever metric the game measures success (strength, XP, money, weapons, etc.). They want to “win”, in the sense that winning means gaining something important or comming out ahead of other people.
    • Butt-Kickers – Don’t necessarily want to be the best or “win”, but want the catharsis of eliminating enemies in some forceful and cool way, probably involving heavy physical contact.
    • The Casual Gamer – Various motivations. Usually don’t have a strong opinion about things in the game. Might have been dragged in (though not necessarily). Or might just like the social context of the gaming table without necessarily having a feeling about the particulars of the game it’s self.

    I suspect that in alot of LARPs these motivations also apply, and that you’ll generally find alot of people who claim to be in it for Storyteller and Method Actor motivations, and a few who might admit to being Casual Gamers.

    The setup of LARPs doesn’t seem like it’d lend it’s self well to the Tactician motivation. Although from what I understand there are mysteries in some LARPs or other problems to be solved, there’s also a significant emphasis on personal interaction rather than careful strategy, and clever planning might easily fall prey to Murphy’s law in the real world. Butt-Kickers might be satisfied if they can participate in physical combat (as some LARPs provide), but probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the “rulesy” simulations of combat (ie. compare traits and/or do rock-scissors-paper to see who wins a contest).

    I suspect that a few LARPers who consider themselves to be Method Actors might be Specialists which probably is no big deal usually. However I further suspect that a bunch who consider themselves Method Actors or Storytellers might actually be Power Gamers.

    Now being a Power Gamer in table-top RPGs isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the most popular table-top RPGs is practically designed around the constant acquisition of power and wealth. But a Power Gamer is likely to be seeking the most influential commodity in the game, which in LARPs seems to be prestige or some other form of social influence or control over other characters.

    Most horror stories (or at least “moderate discomfort stories”) I’ve heard regarding with LARPs go like this: someone, usually a clique of players and/or the referee, was trying to prove how bad-ass they or their character were, or they were using the context of the LARP in an attempt to dominate others (ie. force other characters into specific actions). I’ve never heard of this going to the point of physical or sexual abuse, but apparently it can be pretty bad (See note below).

    Audience: As Dick says I’m also sure the audience for LARPs is primarily the participants themselves. However, especially in urban LARPs the participants will have a difficult time ignoring the fact that there is a secondary audience of unintentional bystanders. Some LARPers might have an easier time ignoring the bystanders than others of course, and some might even be so comfortable in their activities that they show off a little. In some LARP-like things (like certain more historical re-enactment type stuff) putting on a preformance for the bystanders might even be the primary interest, or close to it.

    I’m sure there’s a spectrum of who the intended audience is from self and other participants to accidental bystanders or intentional onlookers. The funny thing is, from the little I’ve heard of LARP and enactment events, it sounds like the extremes of this spectrum are covered but there’s not a huge degree of LARP type things geared for both (ie. doing it to act out your fantasy and doing it to get something across to non-participants). My guess is that LARPs are more freeform in their “plot” (in fact the plot may be made up as they go along) making it tougher for outsiders to really get into the story, whereas the -enactment things specifically meant for outsiders to observe are at least a bit more tightly scripted to make them accessable.

    From what I know most LARPers are in character most of the time. They might call a sort of “time out” to ask the referee a question, shift to some other form of action (a battle scene, etc.), make an important out-of-character comment, or take care of important business. But if they’re serious LARPers then for the most part I think they’re usually (theoretically) in character.

    Character Name: I’m pretty sure a fair number of LARPers know each other by something other than their character name. From the little I’ve heard groups (in some cases clearly “cliques”) of LARPers are not uncommon, or at least a couple friends who attend events together. Although I have no confirmation of it I suspect that at many of these events there’s sort of a greeting period before the event starts so you can identify the LARPers participating and tell them apart from Joey Avrejgai or his cousin Jenny Saikopath who just wandered into the area in the middle of things without signing up.

    The Ultima Thing: That’s what I liked about the Ultima exercise. It seemed to lack something that always bugged me about LARPs. The closest I think I can come to putting a name on that something is pretension. It seemed the goal wasn’t “drama” at all. No one was particularly trying to impress anyone else with either their own attributes, or the abilities of their assumed persona. In fact, as you say, not much of an alternate persona was assumed at all, just an alternate choice of accouterments.

    The thing that always attracted me to RPGs really wasn’t the drama, it was more the idea of unusual physical situations, creating things I couldn’t personally create, and having to deal with conditions I wouldn’t in normal life. It’s nice to have characters involved who are a bit fleshed out and don’t have a one track mind (ie. “acquire wealth”, “kill stuff”, “make other characters look stupid by comparison”, etc.). But I’d rather the characters relationships with each other and with those around them arose naturally in the course of other activities, not having social interaction and it’s consequences be the main focus of the story.

    I think this is why the Ultima exercise sounded so good. Basically the physical goals, problem solving, and testing out unusual conditions were the main thrust of it. The “drama” such as it was (ie. the emotions and inter-personal interactions relating to being off course and late, etc.) simply arose from the other conditions, not from some externally imposed social scenario.

    My Goals: I’m sure alot of the issues I brought up aren’t very clear cut and alot of the questions probably don’t have definite answers. I guess it really boils down to not, “What is the perfect LARP?” I doubt there could even be such a thing. But more:

    • What are some different ways to look at LARPs and their ilk?

    • What specific factors, or combinations of factors, would produce something LARPish that I (and, more importantly, you(s)) might find particularly interesting? And why do you think so?

    Note: I can’t cite any specific LARP horrors I’ve read, but there are alot of just bad table-top gaming situations one can get into that apparently are similar. While apparently partially fictionalized a guy named Al Bruno III recounts a bunch of his bad gaming experiences here (scroll down to the “EditoriALs” section) much to the reader’s discomfort and amusement.

    While it appears he’s embelished things to some degree the tone and content of his writings is entirely consistant with nearly every aweful gaming experience story I’ve ever read. Often there’s the sense of claustrophobia and wrongness that you should immediately get away from, but coupled a “trapped” feeling possibly from the sense that there is no other place to get your “gaming fix” in the near future.

  4. At the moment I am reading Directing Actors by Judith Weston. The book suggests that actors focus on their real relationships and interactions with other actors as oppossed to their internal judgements of who a character is. Having actors focus on each other and working together creates natural chemistry as opposed to individual and isolated actorish theatrics.

    You write:

    • The thing that always attracted me to RPGs really wasn’t the drama, it was more the idea of unusual physical situations, creating things I couldn’t personally create, and having to deal with conditions I wouldn’t in normal life. It’s nice to have characters involved who are a bit fleshed out and don’t have a one track mind (ie. “acquire wealth”, “kill stuff”, “make other characters look stupid by comparison”, etc.). But I’d rather the characters relationships with each other and with those around them arose naturally in the course of other activities, not having social interaction and it’s consequences be the main focus of the story.

    I realize I’m being completely tangential here, but your observation really gets at the same thing. The RPG sessions I always enjoyed the most were the ones where I was goofing off with my friends. I liked the natural chemistry we’d improvise in facing a set of imaginary events. Also like you, the thing that always turned me off about LARPs was that notion in my head, that I was going to get around a bunch of people trying to out-talk, out-act and/or out-power each other rather than working together. Similarly, I don’t think Weston would like the type of LARPing where everybody was trying to out-do everybody else.

    I’m not sure if this answers your second question, “What specific factors, or combinations of factors, would produce something LARPish that I (and, more importantly, you(s)) might find particularly interesting? And why do you think so?”. I do, however, feel that having people work together like in Dick’s Forest Walks, would produce better LARPs.

  5. I agree with you about the “people working together” thing by the way. It’s one of the reasons that on “reality” television I mostly prefered the things PBS things like Manor House (and some other totally unrelated re-creation projects on other channels), rather than the competition type ones like Survivor. Though Survivor: Antarctica might be interesting.

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