Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?
  • Is D&D Too Focused on Combat?


    Dungeons & Dragons' wargame roots are well-known, but what is sometimes forgotten is how much its origins influenced role-playing games. Although D&D has been a platform to tell many different kinds of stories, its mechanics focus on a few core themes and one of them is combat -- but it's not the only one.

    The Three Modes

    Jon Peterson in Playing at the World explained that there are three modes of D&D play, in which dramatic pacing is achieved by transitioning between the three:

    ...a mode of exploration, a mode of combat and a mode of logistics. Time flows differently in each of these modes, and by rationing the modes carefully a referee guides the players through satisfying cycles of tension, catharsis and banality that mimic the ebb and flow of powerful events.

    These modes are interrelated in important ways, and modern role-players tolerance for all three has changed over time. Exploration has experienced a resurgence with sandbox-style play. Combat has been de-emphasized, particularly in story-telling games. And logistics are back in vogue thanks to the Old School Renaissance. Let's take a look at each in turn.

    The First Mode: Exploration

    In the original boxed set of D&D, exploration was important, but beyond the scope of the rules. It was a key part of emergent play -- using basic guidelines to encourage creative strategies -- but it wasn't actually part of D&D itself. Instead, D&D encouraged players to buy Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game, as Peterson explains:

    The object of Outdoor Survival is to navigate a wilderness, though there are five scenarios providing distinct justifications for doing so: for example, lost players returning to civilization at the edges of the map or racing to find the object of a search party. Given that the board itself is not a secret from the players (Outdoor Survival has no referee), some other means is required to simulate being lost in the woods, since the players necessarily command a bird’s-eye view of the environment. Dice therefore determine whether or not players are lost, and if so, in which direction they will wander. The board is overlain with a hexagonal grid, segmenting the board into hexagons about 1.5 centimeters across; as there are six possible directions on a hexagonal board to move, a six-sided die can easily dictate the orientation of lost players. Each hex contains a particular terrain type, in much the manner of Hellwig: there are mountains, swamps, rivers, deserts, plains and even roads (well, trails).

    Evidence of D&D's interest in hexcrawling is strongly represented in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, which was published after the original set but before the rest of the AD&D line. Each monster has a few noteworthy statistics, particularly: frequency, number appearing, and % in lair. Much of these stats do not make sense in a typical dungeon context, where the rooms are planned out; DMs would likely know the monsters that were to appear in their dungeons, and in fact author Gary Gygax states, "...It is not generally recommended for use in establishing the population of Dungeon Levels." But when used in hexcrawling they're useful in describing the encounters there, beginning with frequency, then determining if the monster encountered is in its lair, and then concluding with number of appearing (which could sometimes be in the hundreds, befitting a camp but not a dungeon room).

    For a time, hexcrawling and emergent play were out of favor as more scripted adventures came into vogue. The OSR has reinvigorated sandbox-style play, in which the players generate the world as they adventure, one roll at a time.

    The Second Mode: Combat

    D&D's second mode is the one most gamers are familiar with: killing things. D&D grew out of Chainmail, itself a product of wargaming, so combat's relevance to D&D goes all the way back to its first iteration. Additionally, it mimics the style of the fiction that influenced it, including the violent Conan among other swords and sorcery novels. What's changed is how D&D scales combats. The emphasis on leveling up was treasure, as explained in a previous article, "The Original End Goal of Dungeons & Dragons." Kiva Maginn (Battletech design lead) on Twitter explains how this changes the style of play:

    As a player, you could gain experience by fighting monsters or claiming treasure. You could lose it by dying in battle with monsters. You could encounter monsters without treasure, and you could encounter treasure without monsters. So there was an obvious 'best' path. Get in, get the treasure, get out. Do as little fighting as possible, because fighting risks XP loss. Avoid encounters when you can, and subvert them with clever tricks if possible. Money you find without a fight is free XP.

    This changed with Third Edition, in which experience points were rewarded for defeating a monster:

    Consider 3rd Edition D&D, by contrast. Gold provides no inherent advancement. At a certain point, you simply don't need it anymore. You have so much of it that it's absurd to bother picking up any more. So there's a new obvious 'best' path. Ignore tricks and clever solutions. Never avoid fights. Kill every single monster in the dungeon, with 'it's in the dungeon!' as your justification for doing so. Seek out harder fights with bigger monsters. Don't stop killing.

    Ironically, D&D became MORE about killing than less, as PCs were no longer incentivized to just accumulate gold to advance. Third Edition also did away with name levels and retainers as being an end gold, so the purpose of spending gold had shifted from building strongholds and hiring mercenaries to personally enriching the character through acquisition of magic items. This change was a recognition that players were less interested in leading armies and transitioning back to a life of perpetual adventuring, and the game shifted gears to reflect that.

    Of course, role-playing has since moved beyond combat -- relying more heavily on the narrativist style of play -- even if it started with the primarily tactical dungeon and overland exploration of D&D.

    The Third Mode: Logistics

    Logistics have largely fallen out of favor today due to onerous nature of keeping track of encumberance, equipment, and gold. These factors were all intentional controls on player greed, ensuring that PCs couldn't just cart out mountains of gold (and thus experience points) without some challenges. You can read a more detailed discussion of inventory management and encumbrance in a previous article, "The Lost Art of Packing it All In."

    Third Edition's shift towards combat meant that the nature of logistics changed to be less about accumulating gold and more about personal advancement, exemplified by Pathfinder which spins out even more options than Third Edition for character development.

    D&D Today

    So where does that leave us with D&D today? Kiva points out that the combat biases are still there, but now D&D has expanded to encompass other styles of play -- it just doesn't emphasize it equally:

    The flaw in later D&D was that it was a game that was good at modeling killing, and spent a decade trying to be anything *other* than a game about killing.

    Inspiration, Personal Characteristics, and Background were added to incentivize players to role-play but as the AngryDM points out, many players forget all about it because of the way it's implemented:

    It’s just this thing that’s easy to forget and sits in the game not really doing anything. It feels tacked on. Vestigial. An afterthought. It certainly doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, as evidenced by the fact that the DM and the players get different advice about it and how it is weirdly disconnected from the mechanics that it seems to be connected to. It seems thrown in. “People like Bonds in Dungeon World and Aspects in Fate, we should probably slap something like that in there.”

    Fifth Edition D&D has also changed how experience points are gained, providing an option to level up through milestones instead. This shifts the incentives yet again away from combat.

    Is combat overemphasized in D&D? Maybe, but that's at least partially due to the other two modes of exploration and logistics falling out of favor. If the eight pages detailing combat are any indication in the Basic D&D Rules, combat is still an integral part of the game, and many players are just fine with that.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 228 Comments
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      These statements are true, but it is undeniable that the game rules offer support for some of those over others. The questions seem to be whether that is as it should be, and if not how to go about changing it.
      I suppose I was not clear. You can replace D&D in my list of play styles with GURPS, V:TM, even Toon. The group has more influence over play style than the game system.
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      I suppose I was not clear. You can replace D&D in my list of play styles with GURPS, V:TM, even Toon. The group has more influence over play style than the game system.
      Sure but you can't simply dismiss what the rules do and do not support and whether the support or lack thereof determines the group's engagement with those playstyles.

      "The GM can just make it up" isn't a reasonable response to people that actually want games to have rules for the things you are supposed to be able to do in said games. So in a game like D&D that relies on fairly intricate rules for combat, telling people to just handwave courtly intrigue or perilous exploration is dismissive and unhelpful.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      Sure but you can't simply dismiss what the rules do and do not support and whether the support or lack thereof determines the group's engagement with those playstyles.

      "The GM can just make it up" isn't a reasonable response to people that actually want games to have rules for the things you are supposed to be able to do in said games. So in a game like D&D that relies on fairly intricate rules for combat, telling people to just handwave courtly intrigue or perilous exploration is dismissive and unhelpful.
      And yet, millions of people for 44 or so years have managed to do just what you say they shouldn't have to do. The original game rules were rules for fighting at 1:1 scale combats. And with those rules, people played out palace intrigues, heist style capers, dungeon crawls, all other mixes of combat or non-combat. The rules for all RPGs are just toolkits. And where those toolkits are found wanting, the GM fills in the blanks. And the game continues, and people show up session after session.

      Frankly, if the need you say is truly necessary, truly a glaring hole in the rules, at some point, those rules would already exist and by now, after 13 revisions (od&d, Holmes Basic, AD&D, Moldvay Basic/Expert, AD&D UA, Metzner B/E/C/M/I, AD&D2, AD&D2 Skills and Powers, D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, D&D 4.0, D&D 4.5, D&D 5 (and I left out Rules Cyclopedia and OSR versions, etc)), after hundreds of official books, etc. we still do not have these rules. And yet, people are still able to do palace intrigue without specific rules for it. So, don't tell me I'm handwaving or being dismissive. I have 44 years of history behind my statement that such rules are not necessary. Necessary is the important word. I did not say it would be bad to have such rules. But even if they existed, some population of players would ignore them, some population would use them, and the rest would house rule them to varying degrees of recognition. Just like they do with all the other rules in the books.
    1. hawkeyefan's Avatar
      hawkeyefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      I'm more bothered by Perform. If you have a lyre and are proficient in Perform, can you play the lyre with proficiency? If not (and by the rules no is probably the answer), what does Perform proficiency do? If you are using Perform for acting, shouldn't you use Decpetion instead? If you are using Perform for giving a rousing speech, shouldn't you use Persuasion instead? When does Perform do something?
      I actually don't mind that some of these things are a bit nebulous. I think it promotes multiple paths to success. It can be a bit sloppy in places from a design perspective, yes, but at my table? doesn't bother me in the slightest.


      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I think there's an intermediate position between super detailed rule systems and nothing/leave it up to DM judgment. WotC erred on the side of nothing. 4E had some pretty good material in this, with some suggested tasks and DCs. Even just three or four possible tasks under each heading with some examples of consequences would be nice. It doesn't have to be complicated and over-burdened.

      There are two reasons to flesh things out a little: Suggestions are helpful to both players and DMs, especially newbies, who may be wrapping their heads around how one would make use of skills and have little to work from. The other is that some players---including some folks I play with---are uncomfortable winging it on a lot of things. It doesn't make them bad players, but they like things a bit more cut and dried and laid out and it cuts way back on arguments when there are some rules to point to on common and/or life threatening tasks. My understanding is that the current WotC folks are a bunch of freeform drama types but not everyone is.
      I agree about the intermediate approach. They could have used a bit more with the skills, and a few other areas of the game. I think that they likely went with the approach they did...to provide a minimal framework....because they expected that this would be the part of the game that would vary the most from table to table, regardless of how many rules they implement. So perhaps they saw a highly detailed approach to be not worth the effort? There's no way to know, but that's how it seems to me.

      They could have included more examples and suggestions. But I also think they were moving back toward DM judgment rather than codified rules. So winging it, or the DM making a ruling, is baked into the game. Neither approach is right nor wrong, but will of course appeal to different people. For me, 5E was a breath of fresh air in getting rid of codified rules and leaning on rulings, but I recognize that for others, it's more like an incomplete system.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      And tracking xp? It's already a thing of the past for me. Using milestones is way better. It neatly solves a bunch of problems, e.g. leveling up when there's no time to rest, lagging behind the expected power level due to missed encounters, and most importantly the freedom to solve conflicts and quests in whatever way the players prefer without having to fear that they'll be punished for not picking a solution that would grant them xp according to the rules.
      And let's not forget that there are plenty of RPGs that don't use the concept of 'levels'.
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    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      Frankly, if the need you say is truly necessary, truly a glaring hole in the rules, at some point, those rules would already exist and by now, after 13 revisions (od&d, Holmes Basic, AD&D, Moldvay Basic/Expert, AD&D UA, Metzner B/E/C/M/I, AD&D2, AD&D2 Skills and Powers, D&D 3.0, D&D 3.5, D&D 4.0, D&D 4.5, D&D 5 (and I left out Rules Cyclopedia and OSR versions, etc)), after hundreds of official books, etc. we still do not have these rules.
      Almost all of those editions have some versions of those rules, from the War Machine to the Wilderness Survival Guide to Birthright. The issue here (for me) is why 5E is so weak on them.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      "The GM can just make it up" isn't a reasonable response to people that actually want games to have rules for the things you are supposed to be able to do in said games.
      I want to zoom in on this. Among the more popular (or even less popular) rules systems, how many of them support these other styles of play? Not many, I presume, but I could be wrong. Enlighten me.

      I know such rules aren't really in generic games like GURPS and HERO.

      Does WoD have rules for palace intrigue? I mean that's the wheelhouse of V:TM, right, with it's princes of cities and houses?

      Aspect games like FATE don't really have rules for intrigue since it all hinges on the aspects you create.

      I'm also curious what these rules would look like. Are you envisioning something like 4E skill challenges (but fixed)? Or are you hoping for some kind of social points analogy to hit points?
    1. Thomas Bowman's Avatar
      Thomas Bowman -
      The more rules there are for everything, the harder the game is to play! You ever try to play GURPs? The Generic Universal Role Playing System has a lot of volumes and a lot of rules for every little thing. There is a Core rulebook in fact, but if you want to have a fantasy game with any depth to it, you need to buy a few other volumes, you need a setting, you need a list of spells which is a separate volume, you need a list of creatures to challenge your players, that is another volume, and if you want to play another race beside a human, you probably need to consult yet another volume for that! That is five books! Dungeons & Dragons has just three, the information is organized differently. If you are a player, you keep the player's handbook handy, if you are a DM, you need the DM's guide and a Monster manual as well as the Player's handbook.

      Now as a GURPS player what do you need? The Core Rulebook, probably GURPS Fantasy. Now imagine there are several players at your gaming table and they are fighting over the Core rule book, GURPS magic because some of them want to cast a spell and GURPS fantasy because they want to look up the particular abilities of the fantasy race of the character they are playing, and they want to buy some stuff, so they need to look at GURPS High Tech! See the problem?
    1. Reynard -
      It isn't so much the idea of "more rules" as it is "similarly complex rules." So if players have lots of options and tactical choices in combat I think a game should have similarly complex social mechanics. In games with more breezy combat mechanics, breezy social mechanics are fine.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      Almost all of those editions have some versions of those rules, from the War Machine to the Wilderness Survival Guide to Birthright. The issue here (for me) is why 5E is so weak on them.
      WSG came out 10-11 years after the PHB and DMG. Birthright came out 6+ years after AD&D2. Neither of them are in the DMG for their respective editions. (I have no idea what War Machine is.) And I don't own either of them so I don't know what rules you are talking about. But still, they weren't including, apparently in 3e, 4e, or 5e.
    1. mach1.9pants's Avatar
      mach1.9pants -
      Coming into this late, and haven't kept up with the thread. But D&D is focused on combat, and that's right for it. Other games tickle my itch for non-combat; but if normally I want a lot of fighting (or potential fighting and running away, old school style) so D&D is just right.
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      WSG came out 10-11 years after the PHB and DMG. Birthright came out 6+ years after AD&D2. Neither of them are in the DMG for their respective editions. (I have no idea what War Machine is.) And I don't own either of them so I don't know what rules you are talking about. But still, they weren't including, apparently in 3e, 4e, or 5e.
      I think we are probably talking past one another at this point, but I just wanted to point out I was giving examples. D&D has always been focused on dungeon style adventures in the core set, sure, but then adventures and supplements expand upon that framework pretty quickly. Some editions have whole settings dedicated to specific non-combat style play while others used splat books. 5E has been interesting in its light and very focused supplement schedule. I do not own Xanathar's so it is possible that book has covered some of these things, but it is notably light on codified rules for things to do outside of combat.

      I also want to point out that I don't think GMs are somehow limited from including those playstyles in their home campaigns. They can wing it, adapt earlier edition systems or even systems from entirely different games. They can design their own systems. But all of those options are ultimately less attractive than official support for different playstyles, if for no other reason it gives a sense of D&D officially supporting all broad definitions of fantasy you see on the store bookshelves. It may not be that D&D wants or needs to do that, but I prefer it when it tries (hence 2nd Edition being my favorite from a varied support stance).

      It is probably the case that this is the sort of thing WotC wants to offload to GMsGuild creators and 3rd party companies, though.
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sqn Cdr Flashheart View Post
      Coming into this late, and haven't kept up with the thread. But D&D is focused on combat, and that's right for it. Other games tickle my itch for non-combat; but if normally I want a lot of fighting (or potential fighting and running away, old school style) so D&D is just right.
      Absolutely but that doesn't mean the other pillars should not get the same amount of care in the rules.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Xanathar's has the downtime rules from UA in them. But that's not really the outside of combat you are talking about. And it doesn't solve the magic "economy" issue.
    1. ArchfiendBobbie's Avatar
      ArchfiendBobbie -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      Xanathar's has the downtime rules from UA in them. But that's not really the outside of combat you are talking about. And it doesn't solve the magic "economy" issue.
      Xanathar's approach I am incredibly unhappy with.

      It basically felt like they took the idea of random rolls and went, "Let's do this for everything!" Even in areas where such random rolls are very much not helpful, and actually end up removing a lot of the noncombat roleplaying. If you're suddenly going to end up married just because a roll of the dice said so, then what's the point of even bothering to be in-character to begin with? With Xanathar's, even your roleplaying is just rollplaying.
    1. Kobold Boots -
      Hi Reynard -

      You're posting rather eloquently and succinctly regarding your point of view so I feel like it's reasonably safe to reply to a couple of your points.

      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      It isn't so much the idea of "more rules" as it is "similarly complex rules." So if players have lots of options and tactical choices in combat I think a game should have similarly complex social mechanics. In games with more breezy combat mechanics, breezy social mechanics are fine.

      Sent from my [device_name] using EN World mobile app
      The above makes perfect sense from a completeness point of view but every game on the market is going to have what it is known for and D&D has its roots in combat, so many of the structures of resolution are going to be around combat. I'd also like to point out that many games well known for the social aspects, don't really have much in the way of rules around social interactions, but have a lot of time spent on building out settings and plot devices (Masquerade comes to mind)

      Gygax also did a lot of social dynamics work in his Dangerous Journeys: Mythus game but I have to be honest with you, the game is so rules-heavy that while I personally love the system it doesn't stand up well in actual game play. It's too crunchy and it actually distracts from the role-playing as a result.

      Sure but you can't simply dismiss what the rules do and do not support and whether the support or lack thereof determines the group's engagement with those playstyles.

      "The GM can just make it up" isn't a reasonable response to people that actually want games to have rules for the things you are supposed to be able to do in said games. So in a game like D&D that relies on fairly intricate rules for combat, telling people to just handwave courtly intrigue or perilous exploration is dismissive and unhelpful.
      It may not be the most reasonable response at first look, but I can tell you that if you have to make a decision between a rules-heavy and a rules-light system, you really want to skew towards rules-light. If I have to make a choice between supporting your statement of "equal rules for all pillars" and work inside the D&D combat frame as the level of detail required to apply to social situations, I think I'd pass and a whole lot of players would too.

      End of day, if I want a framework for social situations in the campaign, I'm starting with the economy, then the feudal situation vs. mercantile situation, then the religious background and about 100 years worth of history in a small area of the game world, then putting the players into the mix as members of the families in direct opposition to each other, but pulling them together to take on a regional threat. Guarantee you that the players themselves will rp the intrigue and you won't need rules for it. It'll happen naturally.

      Be well
      KB
    1. Olgar Shiverstone's Avatar
      Olgar Shiverstone -
      Yes, but it's a feature, not a bug.
    1. mach1.9pants's Avatar
      mach1.9pants -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      Absolutely but that doesn't mean the other pillars should not get the same amount of care in the rules.
      They could, but they never have over the decades. DnD is a combat game, from inception. The 75% of rules on combat has worked well so far!
    1. MichaelSomething's Avatar
      MichaelSomething -
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      Okay, lets get a little ridiculous, lets say the player characters are in a shop trying to buy weapons, and one of them asks, "How much is that weapon?" The DM informs the player that he must roll a D20 to decide the outcome of this encounter. So the player rolls a D20 and the result is a natural 1, so the DM informs the player that the store proprietor gets mad, grabs the sword that is on the table and he attacks the player characters with it, and tells the players to role for initiative to determine the order of combat. The player who rolled the dices asks, "What happened, what did I do?" The DM tells the player, "You rolled a 1 on the d20 and as you know a natural 1 is an automatic failure in whatever you are trying to accomplish, sorry, just bad luck I guess."
      That's TOO ridiculous! What would actually happen is the shopkeeper would go, "that weapon is defective, sir" since the 1 means the PC picked a weapon that is defective. The shopkeeper would then tell the PCs that he doesn't have anymore of that type and recommends they go to another shop/location if he/she wants to buy one of that weapon type. As a punishment for rolling a 1, the PCs have to spend more time to buy that weapon.

      What the PCs don't know is that they embroiled themselves in a spy adventure! A secret agent from a foreign land was suppose to come in and ask for a broken weapon, and get told to go to buy it somewhere else, and go get it there. You see, that weapon (somehow) stores a great deal of super important information and this process was all a super secret way to get that information to the secret agent.

      So buying that weapon from the other location will ensure that SOMETHING will attack the PCs. Either the foreign agent trying to get the info storing weapon, or some other powerful entities/town guard/counter spy/mercenaries trying to prevent the agent from getting it! That's what would happen!
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      Whether there is combat or not is up to the individual DM, the Game designers can't control what sort of DM he is going to be, using abstract die rolls as a substitute for social interactions is not every DM's style. Lots of DMs simply use common sense, for example the store proprietor is there to make money, to logically his actions are geared toward selling items to customers so he can make money and keep his shop open. If we use die rolls to determine what he does, he ends up behaving erratically, he would probably end up in jail if he attacked a customer like I just described. People's actions typically have some sort of logic behind them unless they are crazy.
      Well,
      1) in my game you don't get to roll a die unless you've described what you intend to do, and no, "I diplomate the shop-keeper" isn't sufficient. So, a die roll is never abstract. In fact, a good description of your actions may grant you a bonus on the roll, and a brilliant one may grant you an automatic success.
      2) There's no such thing as common sense. It's a myth. Trust me on this.
      3) What rolling dice in a social encounter does, is to move from a pre-determined outcome by GM fiat to a variety of different but likely outcomes. Rolling a crit or a fumble results in an outcome that is less likely but still entirely within reason. Such an unexpected result can be the seed for a whole new story idea: Why would the weapons merchant refuse to sell to the pcs? Obviously someone with sufficient influence must have told the merchant about the pcs and instructed him not to sell weapons to them. If the pcs have backgrounds, made contacts, allies, and enemies in the past, such a development is actually quite easy to integrate into an ongoing campaign.
      4) I already explained why I think your example is an unreasonable scenario.
      Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Bowman View Post
      The more rules there are for everything, the harder the game is to play!
      1) This is wrong. 2) Who says that you need more rules to model encounters that deal with something else than combat? What I'm proposing is to use the same system to resolve encounters, i.e. using a skill system. Why should using a weapon skill be inherently different from using a debate skill? Both can be determined by a die roll with a target number derived from the opponent's abilities. This actually results in fewer rules, not more.
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