The Life of a Prop (or, Confessions of a Dire Pack Rat)

I moved a bunch when I was younger. I didn’t pack up my life every six months and shuffle around the country, but I had a lot of opportunity to clean out my desk drawers. As annoying as it was, I’m something of a pack rat, so moving was a good excuse to make a frank assessment of what I did and did not think would be useful in the future.

Throughout all the moves, there’s one thing that I’ve kept for a startlingly long time because I always figured I would find a way to use it. At first it was because it was neat, didn’t take up a lot of space, and stood a strong chance of me coming back to it (unlike, say, the Star Wars VHS* tapes I had for at least two moves), but once I got into DMing I saw it as a prop I could use in a game. For years the opportunity never arose, and I went through campaign after campaign sitting on it and waiting for the right moment.

That moment finally came in the dungeon I most recently ran, when I hit my players with this:

It’s not that big a deal as a puzzle, I’ll admit. But it hits all of the points I have for a good puzzle (since the players got pieces one by one, they were expected to solve it as a group rather than tossing everything at a player and waiting for a solution to occur), it fits with the storyline, and most relevantly it shows that you can find a use for anything if you hang onto it long enough. But the older I get the more I see that sometimes “long enough” is a milestone on the far side of “too long”.

I’ve said before that I never delete a file. By the time I started DMing, disk space was cheap enough that I could store my session maps as bitmaps* without blinking an eye. All the files for my first campaign, compressed, are less than 500K, and even the Great Tower of Oldechi with all its monster and location art is only 100M. As long as most of my notes are digital there’s no compelling reason to delete any of it, so I’ve never considered which files I might never need again.

Far trickier judgments lie around the physical paraphernalia I use for sessions. I have a poster map of a previous campaign’s capital city in my closet, but no record of the elaborate maps I’ve made with borrowed foam terrain. I kept another map with the layout of Floor 19 but none of the physical objects represented on that layout. I have some, but not all, of the books I’ve acquired with various logic and thinking puzzles. And I have a plastic miniatures collection whose size dwarfs everything else on this list combined. How can I, or any DM, decide what’s worth keeping and what’s just taking up space?

There’s no exact formula for how long to hold onto a real-world gaming tool, but when I consider whether to keep something or throw it away, I weigh it by these categories:

Size: The smaller something is, the easier it is to hang onto it until you need it. A hundred character sheets fit in a three-ring binder for the next time you want a paper copy of them, but the custom minis for those characters are somewhat more daunting. For the same reason copies of a puzzle or map on paper or in a file are easier to justify keeping than a to-scale minotaur maze.
Reusability: The more ways you can use something, the more likely you’ll find a way to fit it into a session (this advice may sound familiar). Part of this is because you can attach stories to the same item over time, but it’s mostly for practical reasons. Something’s a lot easier to throw away if its usefulness is very definitely over. A set of cardboard, wooden, or plastic pieces you can assemble into a map and disassemble for storage are a better idea than the same items glued together into a permanent arrangement.
Emotion: This is a lot of the reason there’s no exact formula. We can weigh size on a scale from “house” to “keychain”, but there’s too much variability between “I spent two years making this structure as the set piece for the culmination of my magnum opus campaign” and…well, “keychain”. The more I feel an emotional connection to a prop, whether it’s because of the time I put into it, the fun I had using it, or its role as a persistent spectacle, the more I try to preserve it.

There are a bunch of props I’ve used that have not stood the test of time. The tangram puzzles for Floor 19 were fairly small, but doing another tangram puzzle seemed derivative and they didn’t get anybody excited, so I didn’t see a need to keep them. The jigsaw puzzle for the same floor fails at all three metrics. I used to keep old video game player’s guides and magazines for monster, plot, and map ideas, but their size vastly outweighed their usability, so once I was far enough removed from acquiring them for the emotion to tick down from “I spent forever getting these” to “you know, I haven’t gone through them in a while”, they were gone.

The aforementioned puzzle stacks up fairly well. It and its companions fit in a 7” x 7” x 1” box, which isn’t a huge investment but is pushing my limit for a short-term feelie*. I can give the same puzzle to players in a different campaign and they won’t remember the solution, so it’s reusable (and again, it has companions). And I can remember the exact moment I first got the puzzle some twenty years ago and how I’ve kept it from move to move over the years to break it out every so often. All told this is probably the sort of thing I’m more likely to lose in a lightning strike than throw away.

In fact, I’ll probably find a way to leverage it again this campaign. I think my players didn’t know until this exact moment that the shapes can do this:

So, you know, spoilers.

* — If you don’t understand this word, ask your parents.

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Racial Alignment Preferences (or, the Evil of Being Born Human)

There’s been an understanding in previous editions that most NPCs are neutral. That is, neutral is the default of the universe for any creature with the ability to have an alignment (as opposed to fiends, celestials, dragons, etc. who are born with certain moral and ethical predilections). PCs are no different; characters tend toward good because players like being heroes and because books and DMs shy from evil characters, not because evil is any less likely to acquire class levels than any other alignment.

Given this tendency toward neutrality, let’s see how the common PC races in Dungeons and Dragons: Mordenkainen Goes West deal with it:

Dwarves are mostly lawful and tend toward good.
Elves are mostly chaotic and tend toward good.
Halflings are mostly lawful good.
Humans tend toward no alignment.


I could rant all day about how the arithmetic of “most creatures are neutral, also most races are good” works out, or how limiting “PCs races have free will, except most of the time” is. But getting into the mindset behind those design decisions is just depressing. Instead I want to talk about the fact that humans are the only common PC race that doesn’t lean good and what that means.

There are a lot of traits rulebooks apply to humans to differentiate them from other races: adaptable, ubiquitous, varied, ambitious, and other words that mean “humans are harder to define than other races because we can’t just create them from whole cloth as something simple“. But one traits humans have never had is “good”. Other races are allowed to lean toward one alignment or another, but humans aren’t. They’re supposed to be the average, the baseline by which other races are measured. When we say dwarves are short and and rigid, and when we say elves are lithe and haughty, we mean in comparison to a Platonic universal human. It’s what we as players understand the best, so we phrase things in terms of their differences from us.

But what’s happening here is that all of the common PC races are “good” as compared to humans. All of them. This shifts the baseline, and now humans are the outlier. It’s more accurate to say “humans lean evil more than every other PC race”*. It’s just one metric but it’s an important one especially with how 5E treats alignment.

Perhaps things aren’t as dire as all that, because there are other PC races even if they’re in the “uncommon” section. So let’s consider them:

Dragonborn tend to be either incredibly good or incredibly evil.
Gnomes are good, specifically neutral good.
Half-elves tend toward chaos.
Half-orcs are mostly chaotic and often evil.
Tieflings tend toward chaos and evil.

A few of the uncommon PC races lean evil (one might make the argument that this is why they’re uncommon races, but that’s neither here nor there). But look at it more closely. Tieflings lean evil, and they explicitly descend from fiends. Half-orcs lean evil, and per 5E rules this is because that’s how orcs are and they’d better like it. Dragonborn can lean evil, and while it’s not called out in the rules it’s hard to ignore that they also have born-evil dragons in their ancestry.

So to be a PC race that leans evil, or more specifically a race that does not lean good, one of the following must be true:

  1. The race is made of the progeny of an explicitly, inherently, unfailingly evil creature.
  2. The race is part human

This is not good company.

It’s a fairly common trope to lambast humans, mostly because we invented every other race. Elves are allowed to say “How uncivilized human are!” because we’ve written them to be enlightened. Dwarves are allowed to ask “Why do humans kill each other?” because we’ve written them a history with no internal conflict in hundreds of years. Usually there’s no opportunity for debate; humans are just worse and that’s the way things are. It varies by the author whether we do this to point out how terrible humans are to each other, or to use an idealized race in a storytelling role, or because we’re making a comment about conflict inherent in differences, or out of sheer laziness, or some other reason.

But I’m not used to seeing it in D&D rulebooks. Normally all PC races have the capacity for all alignments, with trends one way or another but noting too strong. In 3E we called this “often [alignment]“, which represented that a plurality but not a majority of a given creature fit that alignment. Dwarves were “often lawful good”, which meant about 50-60% were other alignments not counting further adjustments for subraces. Changing this to “most dwarves are lawful good” not only morally elevates dwarves as a race but damages a race like humans that shows actual variance.

I have seen plenty of systems, games, movies, etc. that specifically call out humans for being awful to each other and to the rest of the world. Almost universally, these are depressing, often dystopian worlds where conflict is inevitable if not encouraged and the threat of evil looms large if it hasn’t already won. If you’re the sort of player who takes pleasure in being a real-world race your fiction actively despises, you’re probably the kind of player who also takes pleasure in very dark media. There are plenty of systems and D&D worlds where that’s true, but they tend to be dark for everyone: dwarves are more militant, elves exercise their ancient grudges, etc. It changes the tenor of the game when humans, and only humans, are as a race unable to rise above the alignment median.

Of course, elevating humans in kind doesn’t much work. If humans tended good, we’ve moved our baseline, and “good” no longer means anything because that’s where we’re supposed to be. Instead of good / neutral / evil, we have normal / evil / Dick Dastardly.

I think it comes down to the story the game wants to tell. Unfortunately, that story is that races are morally better for not being humans, and that race is a strong factor in determining worldview. It’s a nature versus nurture debate where 5E comes down hard on the side of the former by presenting it as the latter; elves are born chaotic and good, and luckily they tend to be raised in a society that emphasizes chaos and goodness and there’s no reason to consider what would happen if they were raised elsewhere. For all the vaunted “free will” that PC races tend to have in choosing their alignment, most of them sure don’t show it. It’s a cartoon version of alignment, where you can kill the orc because it’s an orc and you can trust the dwarf because it’s a dwarf and there’s no reason to put any more thought into it than a simple knee-jerk racial stereotype.

So the question is, why? Do we have Saturday morning morality because we asked for (or the designers thought we asked for) something simple? Are the races set up this way to appease people who want racial alignment with the expectation that many DMs and players will ignore it? Is this just so the variants, like a chaotic evil halfling, seem that much more important because they’re unusual (though, see the “all of them are unusual” argument)? Did we just really, really want halflings thrown out and hobbits in their place?

I don’t know. But I strongly suspect that this is the inevitable result of having a primary design consultant who believes that race is the most important part of a character, more than personality, alignment, class, backstory, goals, flaws, or achievements. And the more we tie character traits like alignment to race, the more correct that view gets at the expense of player freedom and a realistic world.

* — Is this contraposition? I didn’t do well in that class.

Posted in D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Game Design | 2 Comments

DMG Basic Rules – A Quick Comment

I’m sure I’ll be spending some time going over the basic version of the DMG, which the World Engineer was kind enough to link and which you can find here, but I had to get this one out. Most of the document is example monsters, so the first section with real, usable DMing information begins on page 56 (of 61). There, the rules discuss encounter difficulty and construction via XP budgets.

Page 57 has a large table with XP values per player. The intent is that the DM will get a player’s level, look up that row in the table, add it to the numbers corresponding to the second player’s level, then the third, etc. to get the budget. Then the DM thinks of an encounter, adds the XP values for the monsters together, multiplies that total by a number from another table based on the number of monsters in the encounter, and compares that to the budget.

If you think that’s a lot more simple arithmetic than “4th-level party gets CR 4 encounter”, you’re right, but I can’t fault them for trying to err on the side of balance. It’s not like CRs were perfect anyway. If nothing else it’s encouraging me to build monsters worth 163 XP just to see the math go wrong for other DMs.

And that’s the thing. 25% of page 57 is the table. Another 25% is a detailed example showing how the system works, because it’s complicated enough that it needs as much text to explain as the PHB’s description of the origin of magic. But what gets me is that another 25% of the page is a sidebar with the exact same example, to the word. Except in the sidebar, the math is wrong.

I get that the rules are still in flux (within reason—if major rules changes are still happening a month before the street date, that’s a bit worrying) and that being upset at the basic rules is like being mad at a video game in beta. But if the new process for designing encounters is so complicated that the designers get it wrong in published material the first time they try to explain it to players, maybe CRs weren’t so bad.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 5th Edition | Leave a comment

Player’s Handbook

I’ve spent about a week going through my copy of the The Dungeons and Dragons Strikes Back Player’s Handbook. It’d love to give a review if it, I really would. But normally when I look at a book that book exists in a framework already created by the core system. I can consider what the book adds, whether it’s done well, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and so on. But these are the core rules. This is establishing a new framework, so a review of the book is really a review of 5th Edition.

And if I don’t want to talk about 5E before I play it, what can I really review? The layout? (Four stars—it’s arranged the same way as the 3E PHB, which I at one point had nigh-memorized, so it’s easy to find things even if I still can’t stand that picking your race comes before picking your class and both come before determining your personality.) The art direction? (Three stars—I recognize some pictures from older books, which is a little weird for a book based around a fresh start on rules, but the art itself is very good except for every atrocious picture of a halfling.) The sturdiness? (Jury’s still out—let’s see how well the spine holds up in five years.)

So rather than give any sort of real review, I’m going to go over my list of Headscratchers, which is not about mysteries or puzzles but rather what TV Tropes now calls the It Just Bugs Me section as part of its concerted effort to make names as unhelpful as possible. Basically, the things that bother me about how I understand the current incarnation of the rules, in decreasing order of severity:

  • Alignment is everything I’ve been telling players it’s not since I started DMing—a shackle applied to creatures that restricts their behavior and forces them into specific actions. PC races can choose their alignment because the gods love them, but monstrous races were made by evil gods and will always lean toward evil no matter how heroic they want to be. Celestials can never fall, fiends can never rise, there is no room for interpretation on what “good” and “evil” are, and so on. It’s a very children’s cartoon mentality that I’ll be resolutely ignoring.
  • Faerun. Just…Faerun. And on a related note, apparently Drizz’t is the iconic elf character now.
  • There are eight schools of magic, so wizards have eight archetypes. There are dozens of domains, so clerics have seven archetypes. There are dozens of powerful creature types across the planes, so sorcerers get…two archetypes. There are myriad ways to combine expertise with nature, magical aptitude, spirit channeling, combat, and animal transformation, so druids…also get two archetypes. I get that the company is named after wizards, but this feels like the designers were more worried about disappointing the subset of gamers who want each school specialization than the much larger subset who prefer having more options for another class or, blasphemy of blasphemies, being a generalist wizard.
  • There are only thirteen backgrounds, and we’re missing things like “farmer” and “raised to be an adventurer”. I love the background mechanic and though I know they’ll add some in supplemental material I was hoping for a little more out of the box.
  • Bards can only use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus. If you’re an oratory bard? Carry a piano. (Note to self: no players may be a bardic El Kabong. He was clearly a rogue.)
  • Each class table has a column for proficiency bonus, but it’s the same for every class and the same column is already in the “all characters use this information” table in Chapter 1. It seems like a waste of space to duplicate that column twelve more times.

These got really nit-picky by the end, but it’s a fairly complete list. If I didn’t mention something else (like advantage/disadvantage, shared spell slots for multiclassing, proficiency bonuses to spell DCs, etc.) I either like it, tolerate it, or didn’t notice it.

I’m sure I’ll have more likes and gripes when I start playing it, and even more when I start running it. But for now I’m just rifling through the book, seeing which characters of mine are newly or no longer viable and daydreaming about whom I’m going to play.

Posted in Book Reviews, D&D 5th Edition | 4 Comments

The Great Tower of Oldechi: Conclusion

I’m still really, really happy with this campaign. Normally the further removed I am from a campaign the more I see what I did wrong and the less I remember about its successes, which is why I had to reread everything I had done for the Monster Campaign before I could talk about it on a podcast. But this campaign generated more good stories, more awesome moments, and more great characters on both sides of the screen than any other I’ve run. Sure, it had an advantage in that it had three times as many sessions as my second-longest campaign, but a good thing is a good thing.

There were a lot of little lessons I learned during this campaign: sometimes a build for your character doesn’t exist in the core rulebooks, a single good picture can generate an adventure’s worth of plot hooks, deathjump spiders are terrifying, and so on. But looking at the whole thing from start to finish, here’s are the bigger lessons, the ones it took me the entire campaign to accept and use:

  • 4E can’t do everything, but it’s really, really good at the things it can do and much of the rest can be added on. I came in more familiar with 3E, which was a different system with a different goal and a different target audience, and initially I was disappointed that I couldn’t do in 4E what I could in 3E. But working in it for so long gave me a chance to see what 4E was designed for and add things to it that I found lacking. We’d push the system a bit harder for the One Piece Campaign, but this was a good start. At this point I’ve stopped looking at it as a system I have to use because it’s what’s running and started seeing it as a different tool to get a specific feel out of a campaign, which is what it (and every system, really) is. It’s a lesson I’m carrying with me as I look at 5E.
  • Player composition makes or breaks a campaign. Usually this is one of the first lessons a DM learns by getting it wrong, but I’ve never had a single campaign that let me compare apples to apples so strongly. We had eleven players running a total of nineteen characters (counting all versions of a given character as one, and not counting any guest players or characters) plus me and everyone I threw at them. It was startling how much the feel of the campaign improved from when we had players and characters who didn’t get along to when we had the final party. I’ve gotten a lot pickier since then about players, which is probably as bad as it is good.
  • Reskinning is awesome. I’d encouraged it in 3.5E, but 4E has a design aesthetic of “write powers that do things and worry about the abstraction later”, which makes it real easy to tweak said abstraction. Because early on I tended to use published monsters and powers (see about two paragraphs down) I got a lot of practice at stripping away the pretty parts of a power, getting to the roots, and building new prettiness. That’s helped me in a lot of ways over my career and it’s opened the floodgates for character design.

In general there’s not a lot I’d change about the campaign because it ran pretty well at it was. But if I had to change things, it would be these:

  • A little less monster-of-the-week, a little more myth arc. As I said in the Senna and Giza posts, there weren’t a lot of plots that lasted from floor to floor. There were some (dealing with the tower guardians; the tower-spanning organization and the havoc it caused) but they weren’t as strong a thread as they could have been. It wasn’t until late Act 2 that the party really got rivals to compete against, for example, and my players will let you know how much I normally love that trope.
  • Complete monster redesigns. When I started the campaign I wasn’t comfortable with making custom monsters and I ended up cobbling together powers from other published creatures. One campaign later, I won’t allow a pre-built monster at all. I think the early campaign would have been a lot more interesting if I’d had this level of system expertise from the get-go.
  • Get a better handle on the late tower guardians early, and allow the guardians to meet the party in sections of the tower that weren’t their own. There’s no reason the tower guardians couldn’t have had a bit more to do with each other, perhaps subverting each other’s floors and using the party as a catalyst to bicker. It would have given the players a better handle on the guardians’ personalities and let me introduce some smaller multi-floor arcs to mitigate the monster-of-the-week problem above.

This campaign has even colored later campaigns from an in-universe perspective. The final party ascended to godhood and has been added to the pantheon of almost every campaign I’m running regardless of the system or who the others gods are. It does mean that universe-wide divinity leans more toward evil than it used to, and that’s something we’ll have to explore in bits and pieces over the coming years. Right now I’m still trying to convince somebody to follow one of these new gods; it seems having a player worshipping another player is a bit squicky.

I don’t think I’ll ever run another campaign like the Great Tower of Oldechi because I don’t see a need to explore that story again. It works fine on its own, the sense of discovery wouldn’t be the same a second time, and I have more campaigns I want to run than I have time and players anyway. Right now I’m running a campaign set in Hyrule (the rare setting where I’m not adding the new gods) and I expect the campaign after that will be the Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl. If players won’t pray to other former players, maybe they’ll rescue them instead.

For anybody who was playing at home, the tower guardians were based on the seven wonders of the ancient world: Alex and his lighthouse (the Lighthouse of Alexandria), Rody and his giant construct (the Colossus of Rhodes), Haelyn (the mausoleum at Halicarnassus), Jay (the Statue of Zeus at Olympia [I couldn’t come up with a way to make this one fit without being obvious, but Jay did fight with large statues and made it clear that he was not using his real name]), Diana (the Temple of Artemis [Diana’s Greek expy] at Ephesus), Senna and his hanging trees (short for Sennacherib, a potential owner of the place on which the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are based) and Giza (the Great Pyramid of Giza).

Posted in Campaign Writeups, D&D 4th Edition, DMing | 3 Comments

The Great Tower of Oldechi: Giza

The thing I liked most about Senna was that he wasn’t entirely wrong. Players do love causing havoc. In my experience there’s nothing a player enjoys more than doing something for which they believe the GM is not prepared, whether it’s ignoring the plot hooks or killing the big bad with a lucky critical hit or stabbing the king instead of negotiating with him. It’s a proclivity I see less in experienced players than new and less in story gamers than other types, but even the most narrative, deeply-embedded, bleed-heavy roleplayers sometimes get that look in their eyes that comes with an understood “Dance, DM monkey, dance for my amusement!”

Most campaigns have a plot that helps limit this. The players won’t stab the king because then they’ll be hunted by the guard, and they won’t ignore the plot because the plot is about saving kittens and the players are generally affable folk. But as I pointed out last time the Great Tower of Oldechi was different. It took a certain type of floor and a certain type of guardian to give the players long-term consequences for their actions. On top of that the characters were pretty bad people (three evil and three unaligned, and of them four were largely self-serving). With this situation and this group facing the end of the campaign, I figured the final tower guardian would either have to finally punish or reward them in a meaningful way for being who they were and doing what they did.

Giza did both. He was the only unabashedly evil tower guardian, and he wanted to lead climbers into depravity. He wanted to see them commit evil great and small, maiming and cheating everybody they wanted to, and he would happily reward them whenever they took the easy way out. But as it is with evil, the rewards weren’t always as good as they seemed.

Let me tell you a story. Way, way back in the far-off year of 2006 our FLGS became a site for beta-testing a new card game, The Spoils. Like Magic: the Gathering The Spoils* used five “mana types”, but they didn’t represent magical energy. Players played factions or guilds warring for dominance, so resources were trades that suited the game: bankers representing greed, rogues representing deception, warlods representing rage, gearsmiths representing elitism, and arcanists representing obsession. The beta of the game came with a slew of these resource cards. Eventually the game collapsed, leaving us with a bunch of cards for a game nobody was playing. Since there wasn’t a demand for them at the store I requested them, figuring I could use them somehow.

Years later I finally figured out how. Whenever a character in Giza’s floors succumbed to one of those traits (greed, elitism, etc.), I gave them a Spoils resource. For example, if a player ended negotiations by rolling initiative I would give them a rage card, and if they insulted a crowd of NPCs I would give them an elitism card, and so on. Players could trade in these cards for specific benefits, like trading in a rage card for +5 damage on an attack. This worked largely the same in-game as it did at the table, with Giza awarding the character an intangible magic charge that would manifest at their command.

It quickly became clear that I had some hidden agenda for doing this, and immediately after that it became clear that almost nobody cared. Regardless of the true purpose behind the cards, a +10 bonus to an Athletics check was too tempting to resist. I can’t be sure how much players went out of their way to acquire cards but I know they cashed them in a lot. The players used sixty-two cards between Floor 27 and Floor 30 and they gained a few they didn’t end up using.

I don’t have numbers for the cards I gave out because those number didn’t matter. Only the cards spent mattered because that was what Giza cared about. He knew that people sometimes got angry or haughty or deceitful, and that was fine. What he wanted to know was how often people would do it for their own benefit and whether they would lie, cheat, and steal more often if they knew there were further benefits down the line. He (read: I) was running a study on the characters to see what they did when evil was more rewarding than good but carried an unknown future penalty. And at the end he made sure they knew how far they had fallen: for each card a character spent, the bosses at the end of Floor 30 would increase in power.

Long story short, we had a boss with an AC of 57 and another with a +131 bonus to Intimidate checks. The full story requires more gesticulation than a blog post can handle.

The material downside of the cards wasn’t the point. The point was that Giza said to the players “You’ve been getting away with a lot this campaign. In the previous section of the tower you learned that your actions have consequences. Now, with that in mind, are you willing to take shortcuts to get what you want, knowing that short-term gain will lead to long-term consequences?” And the players overwhelmingly said “Of course we are! What’s wrong with you?”

I’m not saying that the players learned nothing, though that’s possible. It’s also possible that they trusted in their ability to handle anything that came their way regardless of its power level, or that I would never throw anything at them they couldn’t handle, two sides of the same coin. Maybe they wanted to play their characters to the hilt, and since the party ranged from “overly, passionately evil” all the way to “morally ambivalent” that’s somewhat likely and I can’t really fault them for it (though I can always fault a player for creating a given character, and often do). There’s even a chance they carefully weighed all possible outcomes and chose to use cards only at the most dire times; if that’s the case, apparently things got dire around four times a week.

Giza didn’t help matters. He made sure to give characters a chance to flex their muscle on the less-powerful. His floors were filled with things to destroy, NPCs to bully, passive monsters to kill, and the occasional task that actually merited action. They were rife with temptation and opportunity to do evil. In a sense they were like sandbox video games, like Grand Theft Auto. There’s a vast world out there for the players to destroy, and they can destroy it to their hearts’ content, but the more they do the more the weight of the world will bear down on them.

He was something of a sadist DM, presenting the players with great freedom and hoping they didn’t see the fine print. But he also didn’t give the players any situation where they were guaranteed to lose, just situations where it was very, very likely. Giza shared a lot of his philosophy with Senna but went about it in a different way. He was willing to give players a bonus instead of just a lack of a penalty, and he created multiple worlds that he wanted to see the players break instead of a single perfect world that he despondently expected the players to ruin.

Fittingly for a near-final boss, Giza was the most Gygax-like DM in the tower. He viewed the players as antagonists and expected them to do the same to him, he littered his floors with ways the players could suffer for doing mundane things and suffer worse for doing them wrong, and he made it clear from the start that he was in charge and the players should consider themselves lucky to experience his world. But he also had the broadest scope of environments by a wide margin, he gave the players lots of interesting and different things to do, he challenged them in ways they did not expect, and he did it all by throwing out the rules where reasonable and coming up with situations live during play. Whether or not his style is fun depends largely on the campaign, the players, and how friendly the DM is about it.

I never did go back at the end of the campaign and ask what the players thought abut Giza, partially because it broke the story flow and partially because I thought he was too recent for the players to have a proper retrospective opinion about him. Given the heavy player and character rotation, I think it might be hard for the party to look at the campaign as a whole like I can. But that’s another post.

* — I understand that naming things is hard, but that sentence was really rough to type with all the weird capitalization.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Senna

If the premise of the Great Tower of Oldechi had one problem, it was that every floor was separate from each other. The players might meet other characters who climbed the tower, but an NPC from Floor 1 would not show up on Floor 2, Floor 3, or ever again. On the one hand it let me focus on the important recurring NPCs, like other climbers and the tower-spanning organization, but on the other it quietly encouraged the players to do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted. If they burned down a town for giggles, that’s fine! Nobody in later floors would know.

This became most clear in Diana’s floors because they were divorced not only from each other but from D&D. Alex’s floors felt like a campaign or video game where you killed the boss and moved to the next area, but vanilla D&D is kind of like that anyway. Diana didn’t even have that structure because she told the players “this is a puzzle, and when you solve it you advance”. Her area of the tower was even less real than Alex’s and it showed even fewer long-term consequences because it lacked even the same threat of combat death.

The players pointed this out to me somewhere in Act 2 and early Act 3, and once I looked at it I realized they were right. So for the sixth section of the tower I wanted floors that connected to each other even if it wasn’t obvious at first. And I needed a tower guardian who made sense for this concept and represented an escalation from Diana as we approached the end of the campaign.

Sennacherib was probably the longest-reigning tower guardian. He’d been around to see what hundreds if not thousands of parties had done with and to the tower and the NPCs that lived in it. By the time the party made it to him he had long ago become sick of the nonchalance with which climbers fought, threatened, insulted, demeaned, and murdered people when they thought there would be no repercussions. So he inflicted consequence on the players.

All of Senna’s floors were set in the same area at different points in time, a fact that players didn’t learn until they had already beaten the first floor. His section of the tower was a branching timeline where a party’s actions in Floor 23 would create a Floor 24 showing the world some hundreds of years later. If the party set themselves up as heroes, they might still be revered in the future and asked to save the town from demons. But if they murdered everybody they saw, they would be history’s greatest villains and hunted as soon as they arrived in the bleak ruins of the future.

To my players’ credit they did not kill everyone. But they did try to kill the entire ruling family, so let’s not give them too much credit.

But that’s where the puzzle got interesting. The players could very well have opted to burn down the entire city in Floor 23, which would have triggered a level-up because it sufficiently affected the future. If they had, Floor 24 would have been a barren wasteland with no buildings, creatures, or activity of any sort. I trusted the party not to do this because they’re good players, but the possibility existed (not the first time I put an instant-win or instant-lose opportunity into the campaign that I trusted the party to either not recognize or consciously reject). Because of the way the floors branched it was unlikely that another party would ever make it to the same version of Floor 24, so anybody who made it there would either starve to death, die of old age, or spent eternity trapped in a prison they accidentally built. Diana had cute little puzzle floors with rules and an outcome, like Professor Layton. Senna was more like a Sierra game, where a choice in the first room could lead to guaranteed death at the very end and there was no way to know until you got there.

The floors themselves were a D&D-based, pseudo-, I’ve-never-actually-been-so-please-don’t-hit-me version of Tokyo. Floor 23 was the city in the feudal era, Floor 24 was modern, and Floor 25 was an unspecified time in the future. Finally I got to use all those ninja minis, but more than that we broke with the D&D tech level and introduced guns and cars, then laser guns and flying cars. At one point the players fought a pitched battle against (and eventually with, because my players are like that) a platoon of tanks in an intersection in the middle of the day. It’s the sort of combat you just don’t expect to have when you’re used to a campaign where you play goatball.

Because of this Senna set himself up in a weird way to the players. He was happy to give them ways to show off, like Jay, but he also was happy to test their mental mettle, like Diana. What made him different is that he made everything into a consequence. Jay and Diana didn’t care what the players did as long as it fit some specific idea of success. Senna’s vision of success was a lot more fluid and murky, and it’s more accurate to say he had a lot of visions of failure and a few gaps in between*. This gave him a different relationship with the players and the campaign. With the other guardians, the players either liked or didn’t like them. Approval wasn’t a factor with Senna. I think he was the first guardian that actually scared them, and that speaks volumes about his DMing style.

In terms of style Senna was somewhere between a simulationist and a narrativist. He felt that the world should progress without the players and that anything they do should have consequences like it would in a non-tower environment. But his world wasn’t the star of his story, it was the hero, and the villains were the PCs. He wanted them to look at themselves, think about what they’d done and what they intended to do, and change for the better. His floors had the first real party conflict, with players drawing swords against each other and eventually going through redemption arcs. He forced them to react rather than act, putting them on their back foot for the better part of his section, and he gave them (relatively) long-term villains who went through character growth that led to their own destruction.

Which was sort of what his section of the tower was about. The capstone for Senna’s section was Floor 26, a literal junkyard no matter what the players had done previously. At his core Senna felt that players by their nature cause ruin and decay. It doesn’t matter if they think they’re heroes or world-savers because they function by death, destruction, trickery, theft, and every other action that deserved to be punished. And he made advancement from Floor 26 the ultimate representation of that goal: the only way to advance was PvP. If a party wasn’t willing to turn on each other or kill another party they couldn’t advance, and if they were willing they faced Senna and his hanging tree in combat. Because regardless of what the PC’s intentions were, they had killed a real person with hopes and dreams, perhaps even a friend of theirs, and that merited a judge and an executioner.

The players rightly viewed this as the ultimate kick-the-dog moment, and they didn’t take kindly to being forced to kill another climber and then being punished for it. In the same way that players don’t appreciate being forced into a corner and punished for getting out of it, the party didn’t appreciate that the only solution to Floor 26 was the only thing they had managed to avoid for the entire campaign, and in fact the things that differentiated them from many of the campaign villains. But more than just giving the party somebody to punch, Senna gave them a transition to the final section of the tower, where the players and the characters got their chance to prove whether or not they were good at heart. But that’s another post.

* — I’m willing to bet that a plurality of my players will say this is closest to my style, and that of course I would put myself into the campaign as the grumpy old man who’s resigned himself to disappointment. I’m more inclined to think that I have elements of all seven guardians, or more accurately they all have elements of me.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Diana

I said that I intended the Great Tower of Oldechi as a three-act campaign, and that was true even with the Gaiden adding an extra thirteen or so sessions into the middle of it. My original intent was to have the acts transition midway through Haelyn and again midway through the fifth tower guardian. But with the Gaiden lengthening Jay’s section of the tower I could make floors 15 through 18 be Act 2. Now the party knew that the tower was in trouble, they knew what was at stake if the maybe-enemies-maybe-allies group continued unabated, and they were ready to do something about it.

So while I originally had an idea for the fifth tower guardian, pushing forward the act transition let me turn the character up to eleven because I didn’t need them to execute a shift, just be emblematic of it. I was already planning on a guardian who allowed as much player agency as Jay but did it differently, and somebody who was a lot less glib about it along the way. The campaign was serious and difficult, so the story needed a guardian whose floors were serious and difficult.

Diana was the opposite of Jay in a numbers of ways. She found humor and lies frivolous, and she didn’t believe in advancing via awesomeness because it was too subjective. Her floors had singular, objective measures for success. The method by which that success would be obtained, however, varied significantly within the boundaries of rules that the party discovered along the way. Combat as a solution was almost universally unacceptable, and her floors probably had the fewest combats, including a couple of sessions (in D&D 4E!) with no fights or threat of fights at all.

This is because Diana’s floors were all puzzle floors. The environment only existed in so far as it set up the mental challenge that the players, not the characters, had to solve. Basically Diana’s theory was “If you solve all your problems by violence, you don’t deserve to go to epic tier play.”

The main problem with this is that D&D, especially 4E, is a violence-based system. The fifth section of the tower worked mostly by being things that weren’t D&D. One floor had the players interviewing people, putting together a schedule of events, and trying to find a killer, so it was more Phoenix Wright. Another floor was set inside a body dying from a sickness, so it was more Trauma Center. A third floor was explicitly and unabashedly based on one of my favorite flash games, Archipelago, but with less swimming and inventory management and more looming specters of world-devouring leviathans.

I suspect the players really liked Diana’s floors. I suspect this mostly because near the end of the campaign I asked them which floor they liked the most and every player chose one of Diana’s floors. In fact, among the five players all four of her floors were represented, so it seemed they were pretty universally beloved.

But speaking of the players, we lost three and gained four between the beginning of Jay’s floors and the beginning of Diana’s floors. By the time floor 19 got rolling the party was:

  • Tela, goliath warden, as before.
  • Lao!ze, thri-kreen ranger, a creature born in the tower but to a retired climber, so he retained the ability to advance in floors. His was a fairly interesting mystery because he had no pre-tower life to discover, and the question of what would happen to him was an occasional recurring issue. (For those of you playing at home, Lao, Laotzu, and Lao!ze are all from the same player. See if you can figure out his naming scheme.)
  • Cid Viscous, slime man reskinned from a shardmind druid. His story is interesting enough to save for a podcast, but suffice it to say that this is one of the characters I reference whenever I talk about how powerful reskinning is.
  • Rousseau, dragonborn fighter/cleric. A devotee of the god of tyranny, Rousseau did everything in his power to be nothing like the philosopher who was his namesake. But he did flex his way out of an obdurium cage, so that’s pretty serious.
  • Miesha, succubus stripper reskinned from a dragonborn sorcerer/warlord. This is the kind of reskin where I would normally choke out a player for trying it, but Miesha’s player was not only female but also, like, three feet taller than I am and trained in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Plague, changeling warlock pretending to be a tiefling. He had a tendency to debuff the party accidentally and damage the party on purpose. Normally this would not endear him to other players but on the first floor with Plague he sacrificed himself in a nuclear explosion to destroy thousands of monsters simultaneously. He got better, but that kind of gave him a pass on “I deal 1d10 damage to you sometimes”.

With one exception this party made it to the end of the campaign, and they worked startlingly well with each other considering their disparate backgrounds and playstyles. By this point the campaign design was much more freeform, with heavy reskinning of monsters and powers, weird environments, unclear and mutable goals, and playing fast-and-loose with the conventions of 4E in general. This party was really good at saying “I do X” and trusting that we would come up with some sort of rule or check to adjudicate it, and they spent as much time subverting the tower as it tried to spend subverting them. The Act 3 party was nothing like the Act 1 party, but it was perfectly suited to the situation and the opponent.

It’s worth noting that the payers seemed to be much happier near then end of the campaign than they were at the beginning. We can chalk this up to the players who rotated until we found an amazing group, but this is a blog and post series about DMing, so I think we need to focus on the change to this more freeform style of design and play. It’s as though players like a campaign best when they get to decide their own way. Imagine.

In fact, at no point did the players seem to resent or disagree with the “there’s only one solution” approach Diana used because the method by which they could approach that solution was variable. They could use any tactics they wanted to treat the disease eating away at the body, navigate the library maze, or interview suspects during the murder mystery (yes, even violence, though the players determined that beating up one member of a close-knit family was not going to aid them in interviewing the rest). They could also gather information however they wanted—at one point a player tapped directly into the body’s nervous system to try to communicate with the brain. The campaign had transitioned from “this is awesome, so you level” to “this is awesome and makes sense, so you make progress toward your goal” even if that goal was set in stone. The players could make their own decisions, the DM got to design around known quantities, the world could move at its own pace, and the action-success-reward pacing of D&D remained intact. For Diana’s floors, at least, everybody was happy.

The biggest takeaway I got from this section of the tower and perhaps the campaign as a whole, besides that players like puzzles, is that I tend to best put together things players like when I have a specific end goal but provide some variance in getting there. We reinforced this with Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant, where I had no specific end goal and the campaign was terrible, and the Eight Arms and the Empire of Sin, where I followed Diana’s formula and the campaign was great even if I did kill nearly everybody. A good campaign is lot like a puzzle in that you start by explaining the rules and restrictions then pace feedback and rewards based on experimentation and success. Perhaps it was just a confluence of play style, players, characters, system, tides, blood sugar, and any number of other things, but I’ve been trying to duplicate that magic ever since.

Diana did end up serving as a transition, but to a much harder style of puzzle in the next section, the type that doesn’t explain the rules at all while still letting you get the game into an unwinnable state. That was when some cracks in the party started to show. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Gaiden

So here’s the thing.

The summer between floors 16 and 17 was rough for the campaign. I lost players to the summer break, more than I was expecting. I had a falling-out with another player. Of the players who were still there, all but one expressed an interest in changing their characters. In a campaign based entirely around “the party is a unified group and cannot split up”, the players themselves split up instead.

At a loss, I decided to put together a gaiden. The campaign proper went on hiatus for three months while we waited for things to reassemble and to give me some time to sort out what was happening. In-story, right before the summer break Tela’s player missed the only session she missed that entire campaign. As a reward for her attendance and dedication, in the middle of that session a hole opened in reality and stole her soul. The players carried her lifeless body for the rest of the floor, and once they finished floor 16 they met with Jay to ask what was happening.

He told the party that Tela was a victim of the tower’s increasing instability, caused by that maybe-allies-maybe-enemies group I mentioned last post. Her soul still existed but it existed in the Space Between Floors, the parts of the tower that climbers never saw or, ideally, knew existed. Creatures bitter at being abandoned by their creators had stolen the soul and split it into six pieces hidden in the detritus of forgotten, broken, and incomplete floors that had never been destroyed by the guardians.

Luckily, the guardians were prepared for something like this. Occasionally climbers would express an interest not in completing the tower or living there but joining it with the eventual goal of becoming a guardian themselves. These former climbers were able to navigate the Space Between Floors, and Jay tasked them with finding Tela’s soul. The problem was their time limit; if they didn’t reassemble the whole thing in one week parts of it would be lost forever.

And so we started a side story following a new party as they tried to find and destroy the offending creatures. They included:

  • Varon, half-elf bard, who you may remember as a ranger. Arcane Power had come out since the campaign started, and it included a Charisma-based archer. This was a redesigned version of Varon, changed from a striker to a leader, and it explained what had happened to him once he left the party.
  • Bjarn, dwarf fighter/runepriest, who spend most of his time complaining about how the runepriest was terrible. This was the same player as Borris, continuing his tradition of dwarves with startlingly high-damage builds whose names begin with B.
  • Midnorton Jones, wilden monk, an archaeologist who loved the forgotten bits of the tower. His eventual goal was to discovers its origin.
  • Thor, dwarf invoker, who joined midway through the summer. I don’t remember too much about this character, mostly because I was in another campaign with the same player also playing an invoker. That character was interesting enough that it largely wiped this one from my memory. I do remember his “reroll any attack that targets Will and misses, but if the reroll also misses I’m stunned” ability, though. He missed a lot.
  • Siven, rogue, who wore a mask and only joined the party for a few sessions. I recall him spending a lot of time pointedly not interacting with the party. Maybe he stabbed them once? It’s vague.

The neat thing about the Space Between Floors was that it was made of scrapped floors, so I made it of scrapped floors. I used it as a way to throw things at the players that I had considered for the real campaign but discarded for one reason or another, usually because I couldn’t justify making an entire floor out of them. So the players were literally going through a set of levels that the tower designer had created but was not using. It was a pretty meta adventure.

The Space Between Floors was set up like a fragmented computer, with various bits of floors tossed around, often abutting each other in weird ways. The players started in a prehistoric land fighting dinosaurs (scrapped because I had insufficient minis to make it as exciting as I wanted), then went to Ravenloft (scrapped because it wasn’t interesting on its own given Haelyn’s entire section), and eventually went to one-fight-large floors based on concepts that didn’t make for interesting enough plots (sewers, gravity, chaos, music, etc.). Along the way they found that Tela’s soul was held by six pumpkin-men (because I like pumpkin-men for reasons that probably have something to do with The Nightmare before Christmas, but I couldn’t pack six of them into a single floor), one of whom they actually befriended in what I guess I should now interpret as foreshadowing for all later campaigns.

Given the computer milieu, it’s unsurprising that we played with the tech level of D&D. The players got lightcycles from Tron when they started, which were very fast but completely unable to handle anything but the most gradual slopes. Eventually they made it into a Spelljammer spaceship, sabotaged its wireframe control crystal, and fought the MCP. The final boss was Abyss from Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (because he was technically made of Tron lines), for which our local game store owner made some fantastic custom miniatures.

(During this time it became clear to my wife that I had never seen Tron. She remedied that, then took me to see the sequel coming out later that year. So at least now I have an excuse.)

Since there wasn’t a tower guardian to act as a DM this section of the tower doesn’t have a lot of unifying themes. If there was anything I learned from it, it was “don’t throw out anything”, which I already knew. I do think that the pumpkin-men were a discrete leap in my understanding of 4E monsters, because they were the first times I really designed weird monster powers from scratch to fit a narrative goal rather than using powers I knew were reasonable and balanced given the party’s level and abilities. The result was raucously successful, enough that my monster design escalated almost immediately. It’s safe to say the warden never would have had his aura if I hadn’t changed how I designed monsters, and that’s a story too good to not exist.

Eventually the gaiden party succeeded, reassembled Tela’s soul, and rode off into the sunset. Tela woke up after a week asleep to find a note pinned to her armor that said “Got bored waiting, sorry!”. The tower assigned her a brand-new party, and together they completed Jay’s section and moved on to a tower guardian who was less inclined to help them. But that’s another post.

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The Great Tower of Oldechi: Jay

I kind of assume everybody is familiar with some version of the Rule of Three because it’s so ubiquitous, but in case you’re not familiar with it, in general it means that audiences like it when things come in threes. Movies come in trilogies, books have three-act structures, jokes and fairy tales repeat lines and setups three times, and so on. There are enough examples online that I won’t bore you by repeating them.

I lean on this every once in a while in campaigns, and I try to split campaigns into three acts: understanding the world and the central conflict, escalation of the conflict through the actions of the antagonist, reaction from and resolution by the players. Given the nature of a medium where the designer is only responsible for some of the storyline the length and content of a given arc is subject to change. The Monster Campaign followed the rule well, with enemies that were at their strongest in Disc 2 but passive for most of Disc 3. The Eight Arms and the Empire Sin sin was also very good, as the players chased an unrelated plot in Act 1, dealt with immediate problems in Act 2, and spent Act 3 chasing the bad guy and invading his home. The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori wasn’t quite as perfect because the third act ended up heavily rushed, but it was there.

Given this eye on the Great Tower of Oldechi, The first fourteen floors were Act 1. They got the players together and functioning as a unit, introduced many of the major players, and gave the party a feel for how the tower itself worked. Arithmetically-inclined readers may note that this is half of the way to Level 30, so Act 1 was half the campaign. Well, sort of. I expected the early levels to be simple while the later levels were complex, so I designed for each floor in heroic tier to take two sessions, paragon three, and epic four. When all was said and done the party beat Haelyn in session thirty-four of a 108-session campaign, so we were right on.

For the fourth section of the tower I wanted the conflict to ramp up. I wanted to force the players’ hands and have them decide whether to ally with or fight against a looming organization that may or may not have been evil, either setting them up as campaign villains or the party’s only lifeline. I wanted the floors to get to the point where players really felt like they could die, which in this campaign was a permanent death and a new character. And I wanted a tower guardian who moved the campaign at a right angle to where the players thought it had been heading, who knew he was in charge and leveraged it instead of letting them go about their business, and who could in the right light be seen as a legitimate threat instead of just a rough-around-the-edges moderator.

Jay made it clear from minute one that he was messing with the party. One of the first things he said was that “Jay” wasn’t his real name to get across that his reality was exactly as he intended it. He also actively trolled the players, some more than others, with lies and jokes. He was an active participant in his floors, not taking up arms as such against the party but certainly willing to step in to make their lives a little more interesting.

But what really set Jay apart from his predecessors was his advancement mechanics. Alex said, “Beat this guy and you level”. Rody said, “Beat one of these guys and you level”. Haelyn said, “Find the guy to beat, then beat him, and you level”. But this was all too concrete for Jay. Jay said, “Impress me.”

He went on to explain that sometimes all it takes to impress him was finding a big guy and killing him. But that was because Jay cheated wholeheartedly. The most powerful guy on each floor was ten levels above the party; killing something like that was legitimately impressive and merited a reward. But killing a guy who merely looked powerful was not sufficient. Nor was steamrolling a bunch of enemies with the raw power of an excellent character build. Jay didn’t want to see the party strong-arm an equivalent-level solo, he wanted to see something that made him sit up and take notice. And except for “feel free to get yourselves killed fighting a demigod or something” he provided no further direction.

For the first time the players were on their own. They had to explore the floor, think of something to do, try it, and look at the sky expectantly to see if that was enough to make Jay happy. Often it wasn’t. Jay wasn’t treating the tower like a gamist system any more. He was more narrativist: “Get yourself in a ton of trouble, find a way to get yourself out, and do it in an emotionally satisfying way”. Combat still happened on his floors but was no longer encouraged or required. When the party did kill a scary guy, it was only after that guy harassed them for the better part of three sessions by virtue of being largely unstoppable. Instead the party looked to other options, like stealing artifacts, ending ancient rituals, and collapsing entire societies.

The floors themselves weren’t that impressive. Jay based them on the four classical elements, so the party dealt with lava floes, an ancient jungle, incredibly windy cliffs, and undersea ruins. But the story wasn’t about the floors. Jay didn’t put them out and say “and now you will love them”, he put them out and said “find a way to wreck these for me.” In Act 2 the campaign started being more about the players and less about the world they inhabited.

Speaking of the players, there was a fairly radical shift in party makeup midway through Jay’s floors. I’ll mention some of the changes in a future post, but there’s one new character I won’t get another chance to mention:

  • Cletus Hightower, redneck ranger, and his animal companion The President, squig, which is a pretty weird confluence of words for a character in what until that point was mostly a high-fantasy campaign. Cletus was only with the party for two floors, so there’s not a lot I can say about him.

I think the characters don’t have many good memroies about Jay, but the players really liked him. He kept things light, he gave them some agency to decide their own path, he hit them with some hard and some fun challenges, and he seemed more like a regular person than a standoffish arbiter. Running Jay reinforced a few things I wanted to confirm about DMing: players like present opponents more than absent ones, good worlds can stand up to a little meddling without falling apart, and players are happiest when they can make their own way, especially when that way allows them to do things they think the DM hadn’t planned for. It made for a good transition between the serviceable but uninspiring tower guardians of the Act 1 and the challenge-the-player, more freeform floors of Act 3 where the guardians would start really coming down on the players for the first time.

Of course, a lot of Act 2 only worked as Act 2 because of a side-arc that happened between floors 16 and 17. This not only lengthened the campaign but also explained some of the mysteries of the tower itself, letting the campaign focus more on the people in it than its own ontological mystery. But that’s another post.

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