D&D Does Digital Part II: Virtual Tabletops

We previously discussed the rise of MUDs and MMORPGs, led by D&D clones that mimicked the tabletop game's innovations while leaving the company that owned the brand (TSR and later Wizards of the Coast) behind. With the advent of networked audio and video tools, a new innovation came to pen-and-paper gaming: the virtual tabletop. Virtual tabletops seemed like an obvious evolution for tabletop...

We previously discussed the rise of MUDs and MMORPGs, led by D&D clones that mimicked the tabletop game's innovations while leaving the company that owned the brand (TSR and later Wizards of the Coast) behind. With the advent of networked audio and video tools, a new innovation came to pen-and-paper gaming: the virtual tabletop. Virtual tabletops seemed like an obvious evolution for tabletop gaming, but the path to a viable tabletop platform was so arduous that WOTC never succeeded in pulling it off.


VTTs: Dancey's Answer to MMORPGs

Virtual game tables have always been top-of-mind for WOTC. Wizards always knew that gamers wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons online. Ever since their 2000 survey of tabletop gamers, 51% reported that they played a game on the Internet and 50% wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons over the Internet with others.

Frank Mentzer, father of the BECMI version of D&D, shared in an interview that online play was where gaming was heading:
Brick-and-mortar stores are struggling as a class, and most game stores have folded. As Friedman has been saying for over a decade, it's a flat earth now; we're all interconnected like never before. I started my online D&D game in a chatroom in 1992, and it's still going, with almost all the same players. A chatroom is crude and primitive compared to the wonderful apps and web sites we have now, but it's enough. All we need is to sit around a table and talk; the internet has become the table. The rest is detail.
Ryan Dancey, formerly the Dungeons & Dragons brand manager for Wizards of the Coast, shared his opinion on ENWorld about where D&D could compete with the MMORPG market:
The first thing that a lot of folks ask for when engaged about the future of the hobby is a virtual table top. It seems kind of obvious – if MMOs are breaking the social network of TRPGs then the way to fight back is to take the TRPG to the MMO’s territory and enable distributed on-line play.
Way back in 2007 when Wizards of the Coast announced 4th Edition, several changes were planned for Dungeons & Dragons' online presence. Gleemax was to become the new social networking site for gamers, Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine became PDF-only publications as part of D&D Insider, and there was one additional feature that had everyone excited: the virtual game table. The Virtual Game Table would finally address that need. According to the Wizards FAQ:
The VT provides an interconnected set of online tools that you can use to help facilitate a session of D&D. The main tools include an editable map, movable tokens, a dice roller, character and monster information storage, condition tracking and both text and voice chat. It is currently loaded with a number of tokens from the Dungeon Master's Kit and tiles from the Dungeon Tiles Master Set: The Dungeon.
Three years later, things didn't quite turn out that way. Dungeon and Dragon Magazine became part of Dungeons & Dragons Insider, with free- and subscription-only content. Gleemax was cancelled, replaced by The Wizards Community. And the virtual game table? Nowhere to be found.

The D&D Virtual Table was resurrected on November 22, 2010, and then killed off...again. WOTC Josh explained why the virtual table was cancelled:
I wanted to inform you all about an important decision that Wizards has made regarding the D&D Virtual Table and Virtual Table Beta. While we appreciate the enthusiasm and participation in the Beta phase, we were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public. Effective July 30, 2012 the D&D Virtual Table Beta will be coming to an end and the VT will be closed. Over the next three weeks, we encourage you to wrap up your existing campaigns and make sure to gather contact information from your online group members so that you can stay in touch if you like. We realize that because all data generated in the tool is in a proprietary format usable only by the Virtual Table, it is not possible to export your campaigns for use in another tool. You can, however, take screenshots of any notes, maps or adventures that you would like to hang on to or use in your home games. We would like to thank everyone who participated in the VT Beta and look forward to continuing to support D&D game play through our D&D Insider digital tools and D&D Next.
It turned out there was quite a bit of drama behind the scenes. Dancey explained how the D&D brand failed to meet its $50 million sales goals by transitioning to an online format. He shared a pivotal moment in that failure: a sad story of domestic abuse.
The DDI pitch was that the 4th Edition would be designed so that it would work best when played with DDI. DDI had a big VTT component of its design that would be the driver of this move to get folks to hybridize their tabletop game with digital tools. Unfortunately, a tragedy struck the DDI team and it never really recovered. The VTT wasn't ready when 4e launched, and the explicit link between 4e and DDI that had been proposed to Hasbro's execs never materialized. The team did a yoeman's effort to make 4e work anyway while the VTT evolved, but they simply couldn't hit the numbers they'd promised selling books alone. The marketplace backlash to 4e didn't help either.
That tragedy was the murder/suicide of Melissa and Joseph Batten. The effect on the gaming industry was far-reaching.

Tragedy Strikes

Melissa Batten was a Harvard-educated lawyer and Software Development Engineer in Test for Microsoft, supporting Rare on their Xbox 360 titles. Working for Microsoft since 2002, she earned credits in games such as Halo 3 and Gears of War 2. When she was previously a public defender for the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office.

Joseph Batten's LinkedIn profile (now defunct) listed him as Senior Manager, Digital Technology Projects for Wizards of the Coast since February 2008. Prior to that he was Senior Technical Producer for just three months, with responsibilities for supporting http://Gleemax.com, integrating Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI) with Gleemax, and overseeing the back-end infrastructure that all of Wizards of the Coast multiplayer games run on.

Melissa had obtained a restraining order against Joseph the week before her death:
In her request for a protection order, Melissa Batten described how her husband had called her more than 30 times on July 19 and 20 and warned her never to hang up on him. She also described a chain of circumstances that led to the phone calls, including how her husband broke into her workplace at Microsoft on July 16 and was caught by security guards. "The biggest incident which clouds all his subsequent behavior occurred on June 5," she wrote in the request. "He had, unbeknownst to me, obtained a gun." At that time, she continued, the couple were living together but he discovered she had had an affair and he confronted her about the affair at dinner, then "brandished the gun from the back waistband of his jeans and pointed it at me," she wrote. Joseph Batten then showed the gun was loaded and the safety was off and he put the gun to his head and said he was going to kill himself, Melissa Batten continued.
Melissa moved to an apartment on 156th Avenue Northeast in Redmond, where she was staying with a friend. Evidence indicated that Joseph had sinister plans for his estranged wife:
“So while we don’t know what his master plan was, we are led to believe it much worse, and likely much more drawn out, than what happened,” according to Jim Bove, Redmond Police Department public information officer. Investigators found fuzzy handcuffs, hardcore pornography, an 8-inch cutting knife and $6,000 in cash in the trunk of Joseph Batten’s Mercedes sedan, Bove said. “Common sense would say he wanted to abduct her,” Bove said.
Joseph confronted Melissa in the parking lot, shooting her several times with a 9-mm handgun and then shot himself in the head.

D&D Virtual Tabletop

The collapse of the Dungeons & Dragons Virtual Table left a void filled by a few competitors. One was GameTableOnline, who coded and developed the Virtual Table for Wizards of the Coast and intended to keep it alive.

Robert Eng, Vice-President of GameTable Online, sent a broadcast to the Wizards of the Coast Online Roleplaying Game group updating members on the status of the D&D Virtual Table and how it would transition to RPG Table Online (RPGTO). In late September GameTable Online signed an agreement with Wizards of the Coast to adopt the D&D VT system and hosted it at RPGTableOnline.com. This enabled RPGTO to use Fourth Edition D&D content but as part of the requirement it also offered non-D&D content and could not be labelled an "official D&D product."
The anticipated name for the new VT will be RPGTable Online and we have claimed the URL address of www.rpgtableonline.com. We have some work to do to prepare for the transition but expect to be back to hosting online RPG sessions at the end of July! A big concern for us was making sure that your existing VT Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are transferred to RPGTO.
It didn't last. GameTable Online shut down at the end of 2014 with plans to relaunch under Knetik Media in 2015:
The next reason for the hiatus is that our licenses for the Wizards of the Coast titles expire on December 31, 2014 and for the first time in all these years, Wizards did not renew them right away. This gives us a good window to upgrade the site. Knetik will then approach them to discuss a licensing renewal later in 2015 after development has significantly proceeded – in order to then show them the leap forward from GTO's current technology.
The titles referenced are for digital versions of WOTC's board games. WOTC had other plans for VTTs with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Escaping the Dungeon Online

Wizards of the Coast announced a new licensee in 2014, Trapdoor Technologies, who would be responsible for providing digital support for the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons:
Trapdoor is working on an integrated toolset and rules knowledge base to support the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Combining rules, character sheets, and adventures together into a clean interface, Trapdoor's goal is to create tools for Dungeon Masters and players that will allow for fast and easy management of their game. Known for now as Codename: Morningstar, the tools will have a limited playtest at Origins Game Fair.
So who was the company taking on a task where so many failed? According to Trapdoor Technologies' LinkedIn Profile:
Trapdoor Technologies is a Boulder, CO-based pioneer in enhanced digital publishing software. Our flagship product, The Story Machine™, is a scalable, automated, cloud-based publishing engine offering integrated interactive features for digital books, documents, and periodicals. Published for tablets and smart phones running iOS and Android, our interactive digital applications are focused on simplicity and leveraging how people actually learn, explore and play.
They didn't get very far. The beta for the DungeonScape platform was abruptly cancelled in October 2014, as announced on the web site:
Wizards of the Coast and Trapdoor Technologies will no longer be working together to develop DungeonScape for Fifth Edition D&D, and we will not be releasing the product in its current form. The beta program on all platforms will be shutting down at noon (MST) on Friday, October 31.
Wizards responded with a terse release of their own:
Wizards of the Coast has ended its relationship with Trapdoor Technologies and their DungeonScape application. If you participated in the beta and have questions regarding the application itself, please contact Trapdoor directly. It’s never easy to end a relationship with one of our business partners, but we remain committed to creating great tabletop and digital gaming experiences for Dungeons & Dragons players and DMs around the world.
The statement made it clear that it was Wizards who ended the relationship with Trapdoor Technologies. But Dungeonscape wasn't dead yet.

Paizo Gives it a Shot

The Trapdoor Technologies team believed they could leverage the work that went into the Dungeonscape platform:
This project, 100% internally funded, conceptualized, and built by our talented team at Trapdoor, has been a labor of love from the very beginning. We set out to change the way RPGs are played at the table—making our game night more about enjoying the adventure than searching for rules. We still hold true to that quest. We believe that our Story Machine™ is a powerful tool for converting information into something more useful and rich.
The company rebranded Dungeonscape to Codename: Morningstar (returning to its original beta name) to support the Pathfinder SRD and launched a Kickstarter to fund it. It achieved only $74,000 of its $425,000 goal:
We are extremely passionate and we are not going to give up. The adventure will continue albeit at a different pace. Our current plan is to release Morningstar 1.0 focused on the characters, adventures, campaigns, parties and library modules already developed. The initial release will support iOS - with Android and web versions to follow. Pathfinder PRD is the current rule set of choice, although we are exploring other options. While we can't commit to an exact release date, our goal is to release Morningstar 1.0 quickly. Additional development, including the Forge, will be funded organically and prioritized, as always, by community feedback - a slower process than Kickstarter but still achievable.
Eventually, Morningstar was reborn as Playbook:
We did some soul-searching. We played a few games, got re-addicted to Pathfinder, wrote some code and worked on some corporate contracts outside of gaming. Our passion and love for the project never faded and though it took no small effort from our band of misfits, we did it. DungeonScape/Morningstar has been reborn as Playbook (for PRD).
Morningstar wasn't the first attempt to leverage Pathfinder for a virtual tabletop. Paizo announced Game Space in July 2012:
Paizo Game Space is amazing software that lets you play with the people you know... anywhere in the world. All you need is the internet...Paizo Game Space runs right in your web browser. There's no software to install! None. Not even a plug-in. If you can get to http://paizo.com, you and your friends can play on Paizo Game Space...you'll be able to play with Paizo Game Space sometime this summer. How much will it cost? Nothing. We haven't worked out all of the details yet. Or really any of the details. But you'll be able to play a game on our virtual tabletop and not pay us a dime.
Three years on, Game Space still hasn't come to fruition.

If You Can't Beat 'Em...

WOTC understood that online play was an important factor in the game's future, such that it affected how the Fifth Edition of D&D was designed. Mike Mearls, lead designer of D&D, said in an interview:
We haven’t tried to gather specific information on that, but I think it makes sense given how digital media and the Internet have evolved. It’s much easier to get a game going if you don’t have to worry about driving to someone’s house or finishing up early because of time constraints. We’ve tried to focus our design efforts on making adventures about an hour long knowing that shorter sessions become more viable if people are able to just meet online to play.
In the end, WOTC stopped trying to develop their own version of a virtual tabletop and endorsed SmiteWorks' Fantasy Grounds instead. All of the rules, classes and monsters available in the core rule books have been converted to be usable within Fantasy Grounds, with plans to include all the core adventures as well.

It was a strong endorsement for third parties like SmiteWorks, who have been managing virtual communities successfully for years. Over time these groups have begun to consolidate or disappear (SmiteWorks just acquired Tabletop Connect); the comprehensive list at the RPG Virtual Tabletop wiki is illustrative of these changes.

The Mad Adventurers Society explained what the endorsement of SmiteWorks meant for Fantasy Ground's major competitor, Roll20, which now boasts over a million users:
Virtual tabletop app sales are mostly a zero-sum game, so a win for Fantasy Grounds means a loss for Roll20, by far the largest player in the space. I’ve previously estimated Roll20s current user count at 875,000, and they’ve confirmed a whopping 1,300 new users per day. From a profit maximization standpoint, Roll20 seems to be the natural partner for Wizards of the Coast, since D&D 5E is now a full 25% of games played on the platform.
Where D&D goes so goes the industry, and Roll20's industry reports reinforced that trend. Orr Group co-founder and Roll20 spokesperson Nolan T. Jones said in regards to D&D’s continued popularity surge:
We’re happy to see staying power for the renewed title. For us, though, the real kicker is this dispels the notion that people would only use our virtual tabletop for games set on a gridded map, as Fifth Edition has no such requirements. That’s a big confidence booster towards what we’re doing.

Why is This So Hard?

Dancey summed up the challenges with VTTs:
The problem is that VTTs exist, and they’re not successful. If you give people the choice between a VTT and an MMO, they pick the MMO. The VTT doesn’t solve the real problem that is that the MMO experience is simply better for a significant portion of the former TRPG social network. My opinion is that a successful and widely used VTT will remain an elusive mirage despite how much effort is poured into developing them. That is not to say that there’s no role for digital in the future of the TRPG. Transforming the delivery mechanism of TRPGs into digital products is, I think, the likely evolutionary path. And I’m not talking about just PDFs of printed books – I’m talking about the idea of making a digital product that takes advantage of all that implies to deliver an improved tabletop experience using iPad-type technology.
Dancey's vision of iPad technology isn't far off from what Mearls is seeing. It turns out that players already have the tools they need to play and share online:
We’re kind of riding a wave of RPGs, tabletop RPGs...There’s a bit of renaissance taking place. Because we finally now have online tools. Not necessarily virtual tabletops, although those help. But just things like video chat and streaming games on Twitch and YouTube and stuff like that. I think that technology, people are really starting to figure out how to use it beyond just streaming games like Hearthstone or Dota. We see more and more people using that to stream their tabletop sessions. Then you have a group like Geek and Sundry that has their roleplay show on Thursdays. I was watching that last week. It was really cool, as a guy who works on Dungeons & Dragons, to open up my Twitch app on my iPad and see Dungeons & Dragons in the first row.
The Mad Adventurers Society was less diplomatic:
This statement might be approaching axiomatic at this point, but nothing about Wizards of the Coast’s agreement with Fantasy Grounds really changes the perception that Wizards just doesn’t get digital. From the 4E days of D&D Insider (which, to this day, lacks a fully-functioning character builder) to the D&D Next playtest days of DungeonScape, to the current 5E content deal with Fantasy Grounds, Wizards still seems to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Even if the deal proves to be a smashing success for both parties, it will seem to some observers, including this columnist, more like a blind squirrel finding a nut than a well-executed strategy. And either way, critics will point to the elephant in the room, which Wizards of the Coast seems hellbent on ignoring: simple, bookmarked and hyperlinked PDFs.
We'll address PDFs in the next installment. For more in the D&D Does Digital series, please see:

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Good read.

I didn't know about most of these things! Tha whole thing with Melissa and her husband is awful.

Regardless, the info on the VTTs is quite insightful.

Cody C. Lewis

First Post
I have been using Roll20 for some time now, and it is certainly my go to VTT and the one I recommend to anyone who asks. However I have been very intrigued by the idea of Fantasy Grounds by smiteworks. Everything built in is wonderful, though it comes at a higher premium. This is not really a huge problem, as though I can be slightly cheap at times, I do place a high value on my time.

I have been following and following and trying out Fantasy Grounds. It's like... I WANT it to be better, but first and foremost I am not going to move to something that cannot support live video chat that is built in. Also, it is difficult to truly grasp the concept that Fantasy Grounds is a less-polished yet more-complete experience than Roll20. I really cannot describe the difference in any other way than with that oxymoronic statement.

But I did not know half of the things in this article. I have heard some, and done a LOT of research before investing my time in Roll20. After reading the industry's history and metamorphosis into what it has become though, I am almost positive even with improvements I will not move my weekly group over to Fantasy Grounds anytime soon. I use to believe that eventually, FG will be the future. A perfect meld of the tabletop experience and convenience for DMs new and old. I use to believe that Roll20's lack of specific system support was a hinderance, and that while it originally made them successful it would also be what would one day hold them back.

But no way. It's become clearer and clearer. These gaming companies are clueless to what people want in their VTT (not everything mind you just VTTs). They lack experience and putting them in control, where they can just decide not to renew a license for a partner is ultimately not what is going to bolster the VTT market to improve. I cannot believe, seriously I'm stunned, that Fantasy Grounds is going to build Kobold Press' new monster book into their system knowing WotC has NOT granted them (KP) a true license to produce a 5th Edition material beyond RoT.

What's to say WotC isn't happy with this and they can/will put pressure on smiteworks in a future contract to stop doing this for other companies. Now I want to be clear I am not saying that WILL happen, but rather that it CAN happen. Michael Irvin (yes I know) tells people all the time that "Your biggest strength is also your biggest weakness". I think that is certainly fitting here. At the end of the day, Fantasy Grounds or any other software company is at the mercy of the whims of WotC in order to be a partner; whether it is in their current contract, or more likely, one in the future. Their biggest strength, being officially endorsed and supported by WotC, is their biggest weakness.


I think you can check the reviews on Steam or on ENWorld for Fantasy Grounds to see that the implementation of D&D fifth edition has been very successful with meeting or exceeding user expectations. Our Steam community is generally a small segment of our overall user population, but it should give you an idea of what users are thinking.


Showing the date of some of those comments is probably important and it would be interesting to see if any of those views changed over time. I remember seeing some of those quotes when they were made nearly 6 months ago.

If I only read this article and didn't know numbers from the inside, I would walk away thinking that online play was failing and that nobody had been able to do it well. I would also think it was a zero sum game. Neither one of these statements is accurate. The success found by VTT companies is no where near what a successful MMO would generate and never will be, but that doesn't mean it can't be called an unqualified success.

Roll20 has reported growth in their user base and we have similarly experience massive growth. We count our users significantly differently than Roll20, but I would venture to guess that our paying customers has grown by a larger factor over the last year and that we were overall larger in this capacity as well. Roll20 likely has more free accounts than we do, but we don't require our free users to create accounts and don't otherwise track that number.

Regarding the support of Fantasy Grounds for other game systems, this is something that we have discussed with Wizards of the Coast from the very beginning and it was never brought up as concern to us from Wizards of the Coast. Those things don't really erode the market away from D&D. We currently have agreements with Green Ronin, Sasquatch Games and Kobold Press, along with many other publishers who do stuff completely different from D&D. Each of those have been trusted partners for Wizards of the Coast and I'm sure will be again for future projects. Everyone involved here is a professional publisher with enough experience to know what is commonly allowed with regard to system compatibility and intellectual property. This is a small community that knows each other and most of the animosity is fabricated within the minds of people on the Internet. The Wotc people we talk with regularly have always been great.

I think another take-away from this article is the competence in the book publishing industry doesn't necessarily translate to managing and shipping a software product or service.

Cody C. Lewis

First Post
First off, I am absolutely thrilled that you are active here [MENTION=87795]smiteworks[/MENTION]. Getting direct input and feedback through a forum like this is simply great. I am also serious when I say I have, in the last month, approached my group to moving over to your software. We are by no means blindly loyal to our current VTT, that we would ignore the vast amount of improvements I have seen since your company acquired FG. I mean that with earnest. Anyone who has followed the product before and after, I'm sure would echo my feelings about just how much it has improved.

But I don't want to be overly critical of FG publicly. I think FG is in fact, a great product. I could not play weekly as I currently do without VTTs and I feel just like when Android started to really catch up with the iPhone; competition is what drove innovation. I hope competition between Virtual Tabletop companies will drive all of those with skin in the game to constantly improve and provide us end users with more and more innovation.

The only reason I made a comment about the KP/WotC/FG relationship is because at it's core it concerns me. I want innovation. I have seen what WotC has done over the past decade and it does not make me feel better about their involvement in anything outside of what they do best, Dungeons & Dragons. Not to pile on, but even that hasn't had a great history of rock-solid decision making over that period. I also get the TTRPG industry is not a huge one, and that all of the players involved probably know each other. I am sure whatever arrangements that have been made between a publisher and their partners are not ones made hastily.

However, I cannot trust WotC just yet. Has WotC 'pulled the rug out' from under other companies in the last ten years? Some people feel like they have. Look at the transition from the OGL to the GSL and then ultimately nothing for 5e. Just look at the formatting Necromancer Games has and Kobold Press will have to use when they publish their monster blocks... its silly. KP collaborated on official 5e material in a partnership and they are having to use backdoor workarounds just to put a product out on the market that is relevant to what people are interested in right now. Paizo got left in the dust when they as a company didn't feel confident in producing ONLY 4e stuff. Tough, WotC's GSL wouldn't allow companies to produce material for both.

So yes, I have trepidation when I think that WotC will have/could have... influence involving a great piece of software like what FG is blossoming into. If B2B sales have taught me anything about how delicate the relationship is between a manufacturer and a distributor is this: The manufacturer, or in this case publisher, has the control contrary to popular belief.

Nike may need Foot Locker to cut them POs, but trust me, if Nike pulled all of their shoes out of Foot Locker, Nike would be just fine. Foot Locker would be the business trying to stay afloat with just Reebok and Adidas. I hope WotC doesn't affect the path that FG is on. It is a good one.


It's a valid concern and a decision to work with a few publishers making 5E content was not done lightly on our part as a result. Our ability to continue selling official D&D content is obviously dependent upon Wizards of the Coast's desire to continue the relationship. Anyone who already has the official D&D content will be able to continue to use it if we ever lost our license, but we would not be able to sell anything more. That would definitely be a big blow to our future growth. While I can't predict the future, I can assure you that we did have conversations with Wizards of the Coast about 5E compatible products specifically. We are the small player in that relationship, but Wotc never made it seem like that. They have been very supportive from the beginning.

If you look at the Kobold Press kickstarter that we are converting over to Fantasy Grounds, I think you'll see a great new resource for DM's that more than doubles the amount of monsters available for your game. The KS for this is going extremely well, and yet I don't think that affects whether or not someone will decide to buy the official Monster Manual or the FG version of it. If Wizards of the Coast were to release an MM2 next week, I still don't think it would detract from their sales volume at all.

Companies like KP, GR or SG need to keep a certain amount of releases going to keep the companies afloat. If Wizards later needs another small publisher to produce new material, they are better off for having stable companies around to pull from.

Cody C. Lewis

First Post
Thank you for the feedback [MENTION=87795]smiteworks[/MENTION]. It matters.

Please proceed in writing the 100,000 lines of code (or probably higher) it takes to support both voice and video integrated into FG.

Also, do something better than the little blocks R20 has. I want the option to toggle between really seeing my players (like 80% of screen) when we role play and the actual VTT with the small blocks when we're in combat.

Thanks! hahaha


We do have some cool stuff planned in that area. In the meantime, a lot of people just run a Google Hangout side-by side with FG. Running over two monitors helps.

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