Story game Big Three Questions and the OSR/NSR version

So there are “The Big Three” questions that get quoted for TTRPG game design.

  1. What is the game about?
  2. How is the game about that?
  3. What behaviors does the game incentivize in the players?

I like them, but I am also a story gamer. To me, these are very much rooted in that perspective. These questions only really make sense when you have the perspective that the rules, procedures, and mechanisms are for what the narrative/story is about. So rather than be “all of TTRPGs”, I’d rather just call them the “Story game Big Three”. To me, these three questions help to get to the core of a story game.

From my understanding, the OSR and NSR perspective is different. The rules, procedures, and mechanisms are for what players are likely to argue about. Those Big Three, don’t make sense. I could translate the Big Three into something from the OSR/NSR perspective… but I don’t think that even makes sense. The story game perspective is too embedded in the questions.

I am definitely a story gamer and like story game big three for looking at games. This does mean that games I tend to value are games that can answer these three questions in a way that I value.

So, what are some heuristics, things, questions do you ask yourself when looking at OSR/NSR stuff to determine whether you like it or not? What stuff in a game text, gives it value, to you?

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I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those questions for non-“storygames”; ironically, I think answering those questions from a storygame perspective is what’s causing you to view them as storygame-exclusive.

“What is this game about?”

To use the most famous example, this game is about climbing into deep dark holes in the ground, fighting big nasty monsters, and leaving with as much silver as we can carry-- so that we can climb into deeper darker holes in the ground, fight bigger nastier monsters, and leave with as much gold as we can carry, so that we can climb into deeper, darker holes in the ground, fight bigger nastier monsters, and leave with was much platinum as we can carry.

That’s a game.

The game’s about it because almost all of the rules revolve around either fighting big nasty monsters, finding/resolving obstacles to the hoards of money you’re looking for, and how much you can carry away.

To segue into the next question, the game’s entire reward and progression schema is based on doing that.

“What behaviors does the game incentivize in the players?”

Cautious, meticulous exploration; greed and paranoia; so on.

As for me… I don’t do a lot of dungeon stuff (working on that) and I’m not very interested in pre-planned adventure paths-- my interest in the OSR/NSR is more about player agency and living worlds-- so most of what I’m looking for in OSR/NSR products are aesthetics and mechanics that are novel to me, that I can freely poach for my own work. I’ve got certain themes that I keep coming back to… like space fantasy and martial arts… and I look for games that do those things in ways that I can recombine.

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I think this is an interesting question, but I’d say you can ask the same questions. That the rules function as a sort of negative incentive (try to avoid fair combat it’s dangerous etc.) doesn’t really mean they don’t incentivize stuff?

A more serious issue with Classic/OSR/Post-OSR games is that what they are generally more “universal” when it comes to rules then most story games, meaning that the goal of a rule set is to provide structure for almost any story rather then a specific type of story. So if I was running B/X or a B/X derivative one session I might run a heist, later a siege battle, a dungeon exploration, or social intrigue at a ball – all with the same basic rules. This extends to setting as well. SWN is space B/X for example. There are still limitations of course. B/X based rules have an sort of ethics or culture associated with them that’s about “adventuring”, but there’s also a (false) claim that you can run anything with them (false in that you certainly can’t run everything well).

What all this might mean is that the questions feel off because the rules design isn’t linked to “What the game is About” in a direct way. The Setting and to an extent player decision become the vehicle for that. The kind of “story” you end up telling is defined largely by player expectations, the nature of the setting and how players and referee combine the two?

Typically I could say the rules of OD&D as I play them emphasize exploration and treasure recovery and de-emphasize combat with the advancement system and a bunch of other things. I can’t really say though what the GAME is about – only what my particular campaign is about, or maybe my Setting (desperate low-life schemers and faction conflict in a magical post-collapse frontier that is somewhere between 19th century California, 9th century Spain and 7th century Byzantium.) I can tell you exactly how my setting is about these things, but not the game.

Alternatively I could answer the question of what the rules of a distinct Classic/OSR/POSR are “about” but it’s gonna be very general a bit tricky, because it shifts so intensely with changes in game culture. Like B/X is about different things than BECMI or Labyrinth Lord - though they are all essentially, almost completely, the same system. It remains a question of emphasis and play culture because the ur systems that OSR and POSR games are modeled on are all (as far as I know) similar open-ended systems that incentivize certain play styles but don’t demand them. There’s not usually any defined narrative even though there’s an implied setting. Relatedly the classic/OSR/POSR is a huge swath of games and especially when the POSR is involved has often very different goals and tools.

Not sure if that helps.
<Edited to correct for the effects of 5oz of whiskey>

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I think for NSR or modern minimalist OSR design it’s probably something like:

  1. What do players want to do?
  2. How can the rules most quickly and easily allow the players to do those things?
  3. What is supposed to be challenging?
  4. How do the rules facilitate that challenge?

I couldn’t get it down to 3.

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I would agree with @DammitVictor and @GusL that you don’t need a different set of questions. When Jared Sorenson developed these questions, he was directing them to people designing role-playing games, generally , regardless of the given purpose of play that the designer was pursuing for the game in question.

Having said that, to answer the OP’s question: how do I determine whether I like a game text or not? First, any “liking” of a text is going to be provisional: I might like something that I read but then find it doesn’t come out in play, and it’s how it plays that is important to me. So from a text I want something that inspires me to play: it can be a procedure, it can be setting material, it can be completely ephemeral or aesthetic (seeing a drawing of a character and wanting to DO THAT). And then I’d want it to deliver on that inspiration — or provide something else that turns out to be different but equally inspiring of continued play. But that’s what I’d want from any game, any text, not just restricted to the OSR/NSR design space.

Okay - now what follows is a tangent, and admittedly doesn’t address the questions/ideas posed by the OP, but does put my above response in the context of my personal history of engaging in design discussions over the years:

My observation based on my peripheral participation at the Forge during the time these questions were first formulated and put into use to help people with their design process, is that at first they were extremely helpful to focus conversations and to cut through some of the murk involved in design discussions. The questions facilitated moving beyond unhelpful answers to the question of “what’s your game about?” along the lines of “it’s about having fun with your friends” (maybe true, but should be true of any game) or “it’s about adventures” (maybe true, but vague and not that helpful to guide design advice). Or, going in the other direction, answers to that question along the lines of 50 pages of detailed world-building history of the specific cultures of 50 different species none of which are elves yet all of which are elves. Again: these answers potentially were accurate or reflective of the game’s unique properties, but not helpful to discuss design problems in the workshop-like setting of the Forge.

However, after serving that purpose of clearing out the murk, I think they soon started to be used in a much less helpful fashion, with the third question especially taking on a prescriptive tenor that pushed people into a design space focused on a very crude understanding of reward mechanics. (The later developments and elaborations of the Big Three — into Troy Costisick’s Power 19, for example, were even more prescriptive and less helpful, IMO).

All of which is to say, at this particular historical point in the discourse around RPG design, and especially around RPG design in the broad OSR/NSR space (defined however we want to define it) I’m not sure I see a particular utility to the questions. Or, rather, since the usefulness they once had has been diluted by the change they made throughout the design discourse more generally, but the potential for a more pernicious influence of question #3 remains, I’d rather take other approaches to facilitating and focusing design discussions. I’m also unsure that an alternate set of questions tailored to the OSR/NSR space would serve a practical purpose that isn’t already served by existing design discussion practices. I don’t tend to see the kind murkiness that characterized many of those discussions at the Forge in discussions about current OSR/NSR design.

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I generally agree with what others have said, but I’ll add that NSR types tend to approach rulesets less like you would a designer car and more like you would some rusted old thing in a junk heap.

People by and large don’t get excited about rulesets because they want to give them a drive. They get excited because they want to pick the rules apart and build their own thing.

This is only possible because almost every game is some variation of explore dungeons, get treasure. The difference between games is just “oh, they changed that rule here, they used that rule from that system here,” etc.

If I told you my “heuristics” to determine whether I like a rules-light-OSR-style game, you’d probably be completely baffled, because it’s just a long list of nitpicks.

  1. I don’t like the six stats.
  2. I think numbers to tell me how strong and dexterous I am are silly and unnecessary.
  3. I hate perception and knowledge checks.
  4. I don’t like inventory slots.

And so on and so forth. I think a lot of us judge rulesets just based on how little they offend our peculiar sensibilities.

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I think the questions are applicable either way. The difference lies in whether the answers
are ludic or narrativist in nature.

A system can be about killing monsters and taking their loot, or it can be about social dynamics and personal change. Ludic systems tend to rely more heavily on randomness in resolving uncertainty, while narrativist systems deliberately prompt for direct player decisions.

A system manifests what it is about through mechanics that model and emphasize appropriate challenges.

A system incentivizes player behavior through its reward/advancement mechanics.

This is all complicated by the possibility that players may use a system with a drastically different focus than what it was designed for.

There are some great answers so far, keep them coming!

So the reason why I wanted something different for OSR/POSR/NSR stuff is that I honestly can’t answer those 3 questions for any OSR/POSR/NSR things. When I try to answer them the closest I get are things like @GusL mentioned,

I can’t really say though what the GAME is about – only what my particular campaign is about

or @flyrefi

almost every game is some variation of explore dungeons, get treasure.

But as @forager23 pointed out,

The questions facilitated moving beyond unhelpful answers to the question of “what’s your game about?” along the lines of “it’s about having fun with your friends” (maybe true, but should be true of any game) or “it’s about adventures” (maybe true, but vague …

I disagree with @forager23 here,

I’m not sure I see a particular utility to the questions. Or, rather, since the usefulness they once had has been diluted by the change they made throughout the design discourse more generally

I absolutely think they are still useful, well at least to me, because they are a heuristic I use to examine games that helps me determine if I would enjoy them.

When I looked at these 3 questions in relation to OSR/POSR/NSR I couldn’t answer them with any meaningful or helpful answers. It might be something like:

  1. About adventures in dungeons
  2. The setting has dungeons, the equipment is for exploring dungeons, the conflicts support is for stuff you find in dungeons.
  3. Incentivizes not engaging with randomizers and solving things with clever thought by having all rules with randomizers be very harsh and unforgiving, so the “optimal” path is to use them as little as possible.

It might be that these questions are not terribly useful for OSR/POSR/NSR stuff. So I sort of want to understand how others look at view OSR/POSR/NSR stuff how others select and determine what they like.

I really appreciate the junk heap analogy by @flyrefi. This is a great insight, and totally not how I think. I definitely get excited about rules sets and want to give them a drive. I definitely DON’T look at rulesets for spare parts and get excited to build something from them. On the contrary having a lot of little pieces that I have to cobble together from multiple sources is intimidating, stressful and sounds like a lot of work I don’t want to do.

The build something from different parts also really helps solidify the perspective of picking rules that minimize particular nitpicks. Which helps me understand how there are lots of different rules sets and variations. There are lots of little nitpciks everywhere in everything, which can lead to an infinite number of possible solutions. Even as all the variations answer the Big Three in more or less the same way.

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This is a fantastic question, a great point to look at.
I agree with a lot of the points already made here, about the same three being usable and how OSR-NSR-ish games interact with it.

However, I do believe there’s a set of three questions that naturally pop up while looking at those games. Both if you’re looking to give it a try or if you’re looking for scrap parts to utilize. I’ll be using the Into the Odd family as a example to them:

1. Who the PCs are?

This is commonly explained in the opening of the game, and reinforced through its text.

  • In Cairn, they are hardened adventurers exploring a dark, dangerous forest.
  • In Electric Bastionland they are residents of a piratically infinite megalopolis who have turned to treasure hunting as their last option after their enterprises went wrong.
  • In Mausritter they are brave mice adventuring in a massive world.

With that answer, you can already know what to expect from the game. What the mechanics will reinforce, on what aspects of the concept they’ll focus on, what truths will be solidified through the rules. In the case of Mausritter, you are small, the world is dangerous, and everything is massive by comparison.

2. What is the system’s focus?

Into the Odd is religiously devoted to speed. Everything is built so that it’s solved quickly and doesn’t drag. Combats last mostly three rounds and more often than not end on the first one. All rules fit on a sheet. There’s no bloat in rolling, every situation is solved in a single roll.
The game is built to be this oiled machine that gives punchy setup-deliver, the jump from situation to resolution is always direct and immediate.

While question one told you what to expect from the game, together with two you’ll know how is it going to feel like.

3. What’s this game peculiarity?

This is the most elusive of the three, but what tells this game from the others? It can be something simple like a small difference from other similar games, or it can be something truly unique that you probably haven’t seen before. Sometimes there are multiple of them.
If you’re just looking for spare parts, your gold is probably here.

In the case of Into the Odd, it certainly is auto-hit attacks. It brings other rules with it (like the multiple attackers rule that was added in EB) that all help deliver the original purpose: Combat is dangerous, visceral, and once it starts, blood flows immediately.
Basically all of its hacks keep it, since even though they have different aims, they still want to keep that danger there. We Deal in Lead more or less added hit rolls back, but too create the danger and uncertainty of primitive guns, which is one of it’s own peculiarities.


Now, those three aren’t as firm as the “Story game Big Three”, but I’m sure everyone goes through them while checking a new game on this space.

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I wonder if you could give a specific example of a specific OSR/NSR text you’ve looked at and been unable to answer these questions for it. That could allow for some more detailed, specific discussion points.

But the more I think of it, I think Jared’s third question just isn’t very helpful. Troy Costisick’s alternative — “What do the players do?” — is probably preferable for all kinds of games. Because it isn’t clear to me that there’s a straightforward answer to Jared’s question three for, among other games, InSpectres, Lacuna (at least the first edition), Sorcerer, The Pool, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master, Trollbabe, or The Mountain Witch. Which is to say, trying to answer Jared’s question 3 for those games seems about as useful as trying to answer it for Cairn. In all of these cases, there is very little the text instructs you to do to “reward” anything: rather, it gives you the tools to do a specific activity; you have to pick up those tools and actually want to DO the activity. You could think about it in terms of how the tool is designed to fit with a given purpose of play, and I guess if you stretch it you could say that using a tool to do what it fits with is “incentivizing” using it that way, but I think the language of “incentivizing” or “rewarding” warp things (and historically lead to lots of very crude design choices and a very lack of nuances discussion of play).

The more I think about it, the more I think you could almost approach the OSR as a kind of folk game. You know how Chess was developed by players all over the world over the course of hundreds of years? It’s like that.

There were a lot of people who felt left behind or unserved by the direction D&D went after 2E, but there was also recognition that the rules of the older editions were busted and unfriendly to newcomers.

So, without professional designers working on the problem, hobbyists took it upon themselves. They produced a thousand fixes for thief skills, a thousand ways to incorporate unified task resolution, etc.

In a lot of ways, it’s less a community devoted to a variety of games and more a community trying to build the perfect D&D like a kind of hive mind. There are forks in the road, of course — the lighter stuff has sort of branched off the heavier stuff — but there’s a general, incremental progress toward better and more focused rulesets.

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Sort of orthogonal to much of this discussion, the Alexandrian was on the most recent episode of Roleplay Rescue, and I found his discussion of game systems instructive. Unless you push really hard in another direction, RPG sessions tend to be about whatever there are systems in place to handle. RPGs in the OSR vein tend to be about combat and dungeon-crawling because those are the activities for which those games provides the most robust systems. Even if the GM tries to gear the story or scenario in a different direction, players will tend toward using those systems — not out of any innate love for systems, but because in the impersonal operation of a system, they may feel that they have a greater degree of agency. Rules can restrict, sure, but a rule is also a tool players can use to assert momentary control over the direction of the game, or at least over their character’s role in it.

From a design perspective, then, providing robust player-facing systems for things other than combat and dungeon-crawling is a step toward making a game about those things, not just in the abstract but also in play.

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I think that’s a great way to look at it. I tend to bring up the idea that the OSR play culture and the storygame play culture have different orientations to game texts and how those texts relate to what goes on at the table. In OSR play culture there’s an understanding that much of our procedures for play will not be provided by the text, but rather we’re going to take them from what I have been calling an oral tradition, but folk tradition is a much better term for what I was trying to get at.

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I’ve been writing about Proceduralism as a focus of Post-OSR design, largely as a way to break away from increasingly nostalgic takes (either reactionary or dismissive) about what OSR design consisted of. I find the reinvention of what OSR means (lately: “The popularity of 2014’s OSR, with the cultic worship of Gygax and lack of creativity of 2007’s!” or “Whatever came before the ideas of 2011 that I want to pass of as my own to sell an .itch jam!”) to be pretty irksome, and I don’t even think I have rose colored glasses on about the OSR. I suspect it’s all pretty confusing for people who are looking into older styles of RPG play for the first time.

My hope is that actually promoting the codification of procedure and an appreciation of how its distinct from mechanics can help demystify it. I think the failure of OD&D to do so was a real problem from the start (though Gygax and Arneson can’t really have been expected to know what they’d hitched a ride to in 1974) and cause a rapid branching of play styles. So maybe not a problem, but certainly not great for the longevity of Gygax’s vision about play style.

Oh this whole post was meant to share Marcia’s Proceduralism definition which I largely agree with and even where I don’t I find interesting:

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Can you summarize and rephrase the definition, as well as comment on what you liked about it?

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The definition (and I may not be doing Marcia justice here - I have my own similar, but somewhat contrary take on proceduralism) is that procedures are overarching, perhaps extrinsic ways of understanding a system or style of play. They are perhaps a species of rules.

Procedure often presents itself as a set of steps for play: X, then Y, then Z that also tell you then meaning of other rules and information structures - Marcia uses D&D PC statistics as and example of these structures, and combat procedure as a method of interpreting them. What interesting is that the written rules are something that’s often open to multiple interpretations and procedures. This can lead to multiple understandings of a system’s goals and create confusion.

Marcia attempts to describe procedures for various activities in various games via computer programing languages as far as I understand, but I’m not really on board for that - being a non-tech person (well not a coder at least).

What I agree with and want to support is the idea that one needs to better understand and define the procedures of a system and/or play style is helpful I think, especially in the highly contested Post-OSR scene. I have my own version/definition of proceduralism, largely drawn from US Legal Procedure and Legal Proceduralism, but they Marcia and mine are similar. I think it’s a growing and valuable contribution to post-OSR design, which has lost a lot of the technical knowledge of the OSR, because a lot of that knowledge is lodged in oral history and procedure that contextualizes classic mechanics. Codifying that and theorizing on it is something that’s been a personal project since 2018. It’s nice to see younger designers reach similar conclusions and goals.

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On the topic of procedures (and mods, if this is too far afield from the core of the thread, feel free to split this off), I also found the Rules vs. Procedures sections of this post by Ava Islam to be helpful: Permanent Cranial Damage: Errant Design Deep Dive #2: Core Procedures In particular the way she calls out adventures as repositories of procedures for specific types of situations (i.e. the opening of Deep Carbon Observatory, which has a procedure for introducing a series of quickly moving events that players have to make decisions about, and can’t possibly address them all. The adventure has a specific series, but in theory you could plug your own into the procedure). This is one way OSR culture is different from story games in the way it transmits ideas for gameplay, putting them in adventures rather than rule books.

One thing that none of these posts get into is that ALOT of GM advice is fundamentally procedural, at least in NSR/OSR sphere. The back third of Electric Bastionland, framed as advice for running the game, is essentially a set of procedures for how to handle different situations in game. These can be procedures for game play (Here’s what to do when players want to do X…) or for prep (Here’s how to build a neigborhood map).

Likewise, the extent to which so many procedures are unarticulated elements of table culture. “This is how a new character is introduced to the party.” I think there’s a lot of this happening in lighter story games, actually. How do you handle picking up and putting down NPCs in a Belonging outside Belonging game? How do you handle conversations around introducing setting elements in GMful games more generally? Sometimes the game tells us, but we often figure it out at the table, sometimes instinctively, and then repeat the procedure next time around.

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Since both principles for play and the OSR’s reliance on adventures have been raised, I’ll link this post of mine where I define context, rules, content, and principles as the four building blocks of RPGs: The Four Channels of Creative Constraints on RPGs

I think I disagree with the classification of GM advice and best practices as procedure, but obviously the above post makes clear that I think such principles are important and often overlooked.

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Ava is absolutely someone else who’s been working in this area for quite a while, and Errant should be out shortly - we’ve even been converting some of my adventures for it. The card version is worth checking out for sure. Chris McDowell and ITO have also been consistent champions of a proceduralist approach, though I think less on the theoretical side and more in the creation of his specific games.

That as you pint out, so much of procedure is unarticulated is I think is a big hurdle for people coming to or starting to work in a new style of play. Not just classic/OSR play. I remember trying to write a Trophy Dark incursion, and even after reading the game not really grasping how it functioned, thus not being able to write a good incursion.

I would say it reaches back to yoshi’s original question - because I suspect the reason that the classic style has little codified procedure, but huge piles of table culture and uncodified procedure is precisely because at its creation and since the question of “What is D&D about” - even “What is OD&D about” have been constantly in flux, contested. Likely contested even between Gygax and Arneson, and seemingly evolving during design (Look no further then the ‘Alternate Combat System’). This isn’t a dig at OD&D - I suspect it’s something that is almost unavoidable in rpgs as different tables and communities adapt and transform a game, filing it’s voids with their own desires (which sound pretty Lacanian to reference an earlier piece on Marcia’s blog).

This of course raises the question if one can really answer the “3 questions” about a game without examining its play culture - meaning it needs to have developed one, or if doing so is itself an effort to constrain it? It’s also a challenge for proceduralism, as procedures are rules (I’d say rules about the application of “mechanics”) and so there will always be voids. Still, I think one can benefit from codifying procedure (and from declaring intentional design goals) because especially with rulesets that are broadly similar (as most OSR and POSR ones are) procedure and intent helps one examine the utility of mechanics. For example - I think both 5E and Mork Borg fail at Classic-style challenge based play because they lack the exploration supporting mechanics of turnkeeping and supply - meaning that any encumbrance and random encounters mechanics they have don’t function to support exploration. We can investigate this by seeing if either game has a coherent procedure for exploration, navigation and movement through fantastic locations. If not or if it’s something that elides the risks of exploration etc, it’s easy to see that the locus of play for these systems is not exploration.

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I think both 5E and Mork Borg fail at Classic-style challenge based play because they lack the exploration supporting mechanics of turnkeeping and supply

I think 5E has a decent example of why codifying procedures can be essential, somewhat in this context. The structure of short and long rests is meant to encourage a certain type of play, and there is advice on how to balance adventures for those mechanics, but none of it is a solid procedure.

In practice, a common complaint is that parties are constantly stopping and resting, always having their key abilities ready and making encounters difficult to balance. There are hints at a procedural structure that the rules were designed to work around, but because that procedural structure isn’t codified, GM’s struggle with that aspect of the game.

Which gets back to a big question of OSR play, and maybe all games, which is what procedures are codified? OSR generally codifies resource management or dungeon delving.

This is related to “What behaviors does the game incentivize in the players?” but a bit stricter. In 5E, short/long rests are supposed to be incentivizing behaviors for both players and for GMs (who are also players and need to have the rules incentivize good GMing), but in practice the lack of a procedural framework means the intended incentives are very weak and the results are not as desired.

I think OSR tends towards codification of the core game loop, making it an important note about OSR games.

(Also a bit far afield of topic, here. Sorry.)

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