Worlds of Design: Golden Rules for RPGs

There are several Golden Rules, really. These are my three for role-playing games.

goldenrules.png

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Practicing the Golden Rule is not a sacrifice, it's an investment.” Byllye Avery

The topic today isn’t the one people are familiar with from religion and philosophy: treat people as well as you yourself want to be treated. That Golden Rule is present in some form in most religions and in many philosophies. These rules are the ones I use in my games.

Rule #1: The GM is the Final Arbiter​

The much-debated Golden Rule, also called Rule 0, is expressed many ways but amounts to “the GM is always right but should exercise that prerogative with much restraint.”

Especially if you favor storytelling RPGs, this is an obvious rule to follow, as the storyteller must be able to arrange things as they wish. On the other hand, if the storyteller promulgates outlandish conditions, the entire enterprise may fail as immersion is broken.

The reason this rule is sometimes controversial is because some players want the GM to only be the arbiter of the rules, not the rule-maker. This arbitration tends to happen with games that have enormous quantities of rules, many hundreds of pages; it’s not practical in games with short rules.

In team sports terms, some want the GM to strictly apply the rules, as many sports referees do, but others prefer that there is a large number of judgment calls for the referee.

Rule #2: Whatever PCs Can Do, NPCs Can Do​

The second RPG Golden Rule is, “whatever the player characters can do, the NPCs should be able to do, and vice versa.” Or to put it another way, “what's practical for the good guys is practical for the bad guys, and vice versa.”

If the good guys can kill an unconscious opponent with one blow, then the bad guys should be able to do the same thing. And since most players don't want that to happen to their character, then they will be reconciled to making it harder for them to kill an unconscious opponent. Saving throws may be required in certain situations as well.

When an RPG is played as a storytelling device, rolls can be as lopsided as you like. In stories the protagonists or heroes are often incredibly lucky. In games this luckiness happens much less often. This most common application (or lack thereof, depending on the game) involves critical successes and fumbles. Because players roll less frequently than monsters, critical hits or fumbles happen more often when monsters are using this rule because there are generally more of them.

This is something a GM should explain to the group before the campaign starts. Most players will see the logic of this when you explain it. It depends on the idea that they're playing a game and not telling a story, because it relies on the idea of applying the rules equally to everyone in the game, PCs and NPCs alike.

This is why I always say to GMs beware of players who try to find new rules that give them advantages even if the bad guys can do the same thing. The difference is that the player will always be involved in the action, whereas only certain bad guys will have that advantage.

Rule #3: RPGs Are Played to Have Fun​

I’d add a third rule, about which there’s likely to be less agreement: “RPGs are played for the benefit of the players too, not just the GM.”

As a player I hate to be manipulated by a GM who is doing whatever they like, rather than consider what’s best for the group in the long-term (even if the players think they don’t like it in the short-term, like having their characters potentially die). If your GM plays only for their own benefit, it may be time to find another GM.

Your Turn: What are your Golden Rules?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ramaster

Adventurer
I disagree with rule number 2. I think that your reasoning works well in "Combat as war" systems, but it creates less than optimal gameplay patterns when you use "Combat as sport". The bottom line is to be transparent with your players on which type of combat you'll be running and which interpretation of this rule you'll be using.

Other than that, interesting read. Could've used another editing pass. There are several errors throughout the piece.
 

I'd also change number 2 to:

The NPCs may try to do the same things that PCs do. But they don't always play by the excact same rules (narrative protection).

In the case of killing unconscious enemies:
NPCs don't have the luxury of death saving throws. So while you can usually kill an NPC with one attack, PCs usually need at least 2 attacks from within 5ft.

This helps a lot.
 

Plageman

Explorer
I'd say nay with the rule number two in some aspects. I love to surprise my players with abilities and spells that my NPCs are the only one to have access to. It helps deconstructing the habits some players have of applying their knowledge of the game to their characters.
 

payn

Legend
The only thing that comes to mind is, "Never ever start a long term campaign with folks you don't know and/or have played with before". My approach is always low commitment and exploratory. I want to know the basics, like are they reliable and courteous. Then, I want to make sure we have similar interests in gaming, playstyle, etc... I guess Id call it building a rapport. Many folks launch right into long running adventure paths and sandbox campaigns. It never really works out in the long-term in my experience, and the quality is wanting. YMMV.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
My biggest rule is "Make Sure Everyone Is On The Same Page Before You Even Start."

I think of this as having a Session -1, or maybe a bunch of them. I run idiosyncratic, personal weird fiction games with small groups, and that's not a style everyone is into.

It's imperative to make sure that potential players are interested in this approach even before having a Session 0, because otherwise we just end up wasting everyone's time.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
My Golden rule is "Don't be a Jerk".

This is mostly meant as a comment toward your fellow players and DM but it also has a general signification. I don't care if that's how your character should react or if this is how you roleplay or if this is just the way you DM; just don't be a jerk.

You can play a jerk character, but be very mindful as to not be a jerk player. Your NPCs can be jerks to your PCs, but be just as mindful about not being a jerk to your players, which I assume are also your friends. Positive metagaming is a good thing.

Now I understand that being a jerk or pulling a jerk move can mean different things for different people and in different contexts bringing different expectations.

...which brings me to my second golden rule: "Know your Group".

Whether it is via session zero or casual discussion or safety tools; know your group's interests, sensibilities, and expectations. That is instrumental to golden rule #1. Playing an old-school AD&D or OSR game brings different expectations than a more "modern" campaign. Playing a cinematic Alien RPG one-shot brings different expectations from a long-term Star Wars game for example.
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
my adds:
  • Discuss the game before starting, things like house rule, what the players want from it and so on.
  • Don't let the players run the game.
  • and number 2 rule, player characters are a cut above NPCs. They have stuff like luck, the gods, faith on their side.
  • Get feedback on the game.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Player Agency is Sacred. There are two big things that make tabletop roleplaying games distinct from movies, novels, and video games. This is one of them. The players are at the table to make choices and have those choices actually matter. Their choices are not and should not be limited to what the referee has planned. The referee should never take player agency away. Even when the player wants to do something stupid, the referee should let them. The referee should prepare NPCs, hooks, setting elements, etc but never prepare a plot or story. It's not up to the referee what the PCs do. The only exception to this is metagaming and cheating. Those players lose their agency only as much as necessary to prevent the metagaming and cheating.

Characters Can Try Anything. There are two big things that make tabletop roleplaying games distinct from movies, novels, and video games. This is the other of them. In movies and novels, the audience has no choices to make. In video games, the player has a limited number of choices to make. In a tabletop RPG, the players can try anything. Literally anything. They are not limited to what the referee decided beforehand. They're not limited to a few options from a dialogue tree. They're not limited to whatever artificial boundaries the referee tries to impose. If they try something impossible, it fails, but they can still try it. They're certainly not limited to what's on their character sheet. The mechanics aren't buttons to smash. Use some imagination.

Play Worlds, Not Rules. Immersion in the setting is wildly more important than the rules of the game. Players quickly take to gaming whatever systems they're presented with, which destroys immersion. Get the system out of the way as much as possible to enable immersion in the setting and characters. If there's a conflict between what makes sense for the setting and what the rules say, toss the rules. They're guidelines at best anyway.
 

@overgeeked's points are pretty good - I could add a few footnotes here and there, but overall they have my support.

In addition:
Roleplaying is a group activity. Not only the GM, but everybody on the table should be invested in creating an enjoyable gaming experience. This includes at least some effort before sessions (e.g. basic knowledge of the system) and some during sessions (creating interesting situations for everybody). Specifically, player's should think about reasons why their characters go on adventures and are willing to work together as a group.

System matters. It's not the only thing that matters, and probably it doesn't matter as much as Ron Edwards claimed, but I expect a ruleset to support the experience it strives to create. If it doesn't or if I feel I would have to do extensive modifications to make that happen, it's better to drop it and look for something else than trying to bend the game into something it is not. That might mean that some games will end after a session or two, but it's really better that way.

All play styles are valid, but not all are compatible. I firmly believe that no play style is inherently better than another, but not all of them might work in a single game. Similar things can be said about preferences regarding the use of VTTs and the preferred degree of automation. It's helpful if all people have a general idea of what they enjoy and it can be checked in session 0 if the individual preferences align. As with system preferences, it's better to stop a campaign early than drag on half-heartedly for too long.
 

Hussar

Legend
Don't let the players run the game.
I WISH my players would run the game. I LOVE it when players run the game. The players know the rules better than I do? Fantastic. I have a lore guru player who constantly assists me with rules. It's fantastic. The players want to add, fold, spindle or maul anything in the setting? Let 'em. Get those creative juices flowing and make sure that the players are pro-active and engaged. Nothing sucks the joy out of a game faster than a DM who insists that the world belongs to the DM and you, as a player, are just playing in that setting.

Oh, and I would add that nothing sucks the air out of a game faster than players who have been taught that they are not allowed to fold, spindle or maul the game and are nothing but reactive passengers who are only allowed to make choices and decisions from a pre-selected palette.

Give me players who are so engaged in the game that they basically write the campaign themselves.


Lewpuls said:
The second RPG Golden Rule is, “whatever the player characters can do, the NPCs should be able to do, and vice versa.” Or to put it another way, “what's practical for the good guys is practical for the bad guys, and vice versa.”

Nope. Designing games where NPC's and PC's use the same rules is a very, very bad idea. They serve entirely different purposes and trying to force them into the same mold simply overwhelms the DM. Even the mentioned Critical Hits/Critical fumbles rules only serve to punish the players. Sure, the Monsters will roll more fumbles, but, they function in the game is to exist in one (or maybe two at the outside) encounters. The PC's OTOH, will function in hundreds of encounters. Any random event that increases lethality will only punish the players in the long run.
 
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Not really a fan of any of these rules, albeit for very different reasons each.

Rule 1 is used to justify a lot of crappy GM behavior. A LOT of it. Even the rephrased version (which I have never once seen before today, something I find very telling) leaves me cold, and again I find it very telling that the rephrased version does not actually appear in the linked Stack Exchange page. It can be sort of extrapolated from what was said there (two posters mention that it is possible for things to go wrong), but not a single one of them references a need to "exercise that prerogative with much restraint."

More importantly, my problem is that presenting this rule in this way, even with the caveat of restraint, positions the GM as god-emperor of the game and the players as their peons. It ignores or even outright denies negotiation, discussion, consensus, and compromise, things that are utterly essential for healthy and productive human interactions. By framing things as "absolure power" (a phrase very frequently used on this very forum) and resorting almost instantly to brinkmanship and nuclear options (the phrase "vote with their feet" and similar ideas is nearly universal here), this "rule" encourages problems on a regular basis.

My alternative would be, "The GM makes final calls when absolutely necessary, and otherwise leads discussion toward consensus." I further reject in no uncertain terms the idea that the GM should never ever be bound by any rules. Some rules should not be broken--some rules are such that breaking them is never a good idea, no matter how cool the GM thinks the results would be. Such rules may not be common in all systems, indeed some systems may not have any such rules at all. But it is just as foolish to say that all rules ever are mere suggestions as it is to say that every rule must be followed to the letter without thought.

Rule 2 is simply a false belief held by a lot of designers, both amateur and professional. The purpose of game design in TTRPGs is to provide certain kinds of experiences. Mechanics, that is the numerical and procedural components of play (as opposed to thematics, the narrative and ecological components of play), exist to facilitate or induce those experiences in the player. There are many, many ways in which a perfect mechanical symmetry between player characters and non-player characters can be detrimental to the intended play experiences of most TTRPGs. Hence, NPCs should not work the same as PCs, unless doing so is reasonably compatible with the intended experience of play. 3rd edition is a huge cautionary tale here, as is its child, Pathfinder. One of the biggest complaints from 3.X/PF DMs is that DMing it is exhausting, in large part due to the workload required to create and run combat encounters that are actually interesting and meaningful. Though the single biggest problem is of course that the game's math and class balance are a dumpster fire, the fact that every monster must be built as if it were a PC is a huge contributing factor to this problem. The DM must effectively make whole new parties of player characters over and over and over again just to keep up.

Now, on the thematic side, this rule is less of a problem, but still imperfect. See, if enforced as you describe @lewpuls, it has a huge risk of accidentally creating a perverse incentive opposite of GM intent. Instead of becoming more cautious and merciful due to knowing that if they can get an instant kill, so can the NPCs, it may instead drive the players to ever greater depths of viciousness and depravity in order to guarantee that they are the ones who get the drop first and thus instantly win. It's sort of like the problem of making all crimes punishable by death: if you are dead whether you rob someone without killing vs murdering them, perversely this punitive measure actually increases murders, because it is better to have no victim who can bear witness, when both things have the same result.

I don't think I would make a "golden rule" at all here, but if I truly had to, it would be something like, "Tell your players the kind of world you want to run--and that their behavior in that world will be judged and responded to in a way that supports the intended tone."

Rule 3
is worse than useless in 90% of cases. It is like telling a chef to change how they cook because people cook in order to have tasty things, so just make your food tastier 4head. Making "fun" the standard by which gaming is evaluated is not productive: "fun" is too undefined; the relationship between "fun" and the rules and procedures is too nebulous; and the obsession with creating "fun" over both short- and long-term meaningful play experiences is a detriment.

Instead, it should read, "The game is played for a purpose. Know what that purpose is, and make sure your players do too. As long as everyone shares that purpose, and the rules actually serve it, everyone will have a good time." Note I say "that" purpose, but it could have more than one purpose bundled together. Point being, you need to know WHY you play a game, that game needs to actually support that reason, and the playwrs need to know and be on board with that reason. Just as striving for happiness directly very frequently results in failure, but striving toward other goals has a surprisingly high success rate at producing happiness as a result, striving for "fun" directly is often counterproductive, but one will often find a great deal of fun purely by striving toward some goal you believe worth pursuing for its own sake.
 


I'm still waiting for anybody to discuss the other tier rules, like Silver, Copper, and Platinum.
Well, at least in moral senses, the Silver Rule is the usually considered to be the older, "original" form of the Golden Rule, which was purely negative in character: "Do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you." The key difference being, the (modern) Golden Rule is a call to action, whereas the Silver Rule is only about avoidance--you could stand there and watch someone drown without lifting a finger and not violate the Silver Rule, but not the Golden Rule.

I'm afraid I can't remember things I've heard before about any "Bronze Rule," but looking things up, that would be something akin to the negative version of the Wiccan Rede. The Wiccan Rede says, "An it harm none, do what ye will." A negative version would be something like, "If someone isn't bothering you, don't bother them." Another, perhaps more interesting Bronze Rule, is one that is more self-referencing: "Do unto yourself as you would do unto others," in other words, don't be cruel or hurtful to yourself if you wouldn't do that to someone else (or if you would get upset if someone else did it to you.) That's one I've had to use a lot in helping a friend of mine who is overcoming some personal issues stemming from their childhood and needing a guiding light to separate self-destructive thoughts from rational self-appraisal.

I don't believe there is a Platinum Rule, and it's hard to outdo the modern Golden Rule, also known as (the positive version of) the "ethic of reciprocity." Some like to propose an extension or expansion of the Golden Rule, "do unto others as they would want you to do unto them," but this has a litany of very serious problems (e.g., someone who has broken the law would want you to cover up or ignore their deeds.) Perhaps, then, the Platinum Rule would need to be something like, "Exercise virtue with wisdom in all your actions." (Meaning, of course, the Aristotelian sense of "virtue" and "wisdom": for the former, "finding the context-appropriate balance point between extremes of deficiency and excess," and for the latter, "the ability, in both practical and theoretical contexts, to make sound judgments.") This might be cognate with another version I've found with some casual google searching, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

----

That said, I think we can do quite a bit to adapt some of these rules into specific ones for D&D contexts.

Golden Rule: What I already gave as my response for the first rule. "The GM makes final calls when necessary, and otherwise leads discussion toward consensus." I think I've already explained why I think this is important, but if my previous post wasn't enough, it's all about communication and finding common ground. Being a GM means taking on a social role. It induces a lot of responsibility, and a big part of that is being a leader. A leader needs to understand, and should aim for consensus and unity as much as possible. With a small group (half a dozen or less), it is quite achievable to get every single person on board in most cases--and the GM should do so.

Silver Rule: "When a final call isn't needed, the GM shouldn't make one." One I think a LOT of GMs today either ignore or only pay lip service to. It's one of my bigger criticisms of the "rulings not rules" approach to play; there is a huge concern from its proponents about dealing with an excessive proliferation of rules, but no parallel concern for an excessive proliferation of rulings.

Bronze Rule: "Be the kind of GM you would want to play with." Pretty straightforward.

Platinum Rule: "Show wisdom and restraint, regardless of which side of the screen you sit on." Again, pretty straightforward.
 

Teo Twawki

Coffee ruminator
1) Rules are for running the system. Agreements are the contract between players and between players and the gm.

2) As a GM, I hold myself to--the four of us in our group attempt to measure to--the (platinum is more valuable than gold, so I suppose it's a Platinum Rule) standard of presenting to the players a different perspective than they've never experienced before. Considering our normative collective have known each other and gamed together for 20-30 years and as we get older we see the ends of stories almost from the beginning and the patterns that lead us to those conclusions [Rebecca West], it's a noble challenge to find those different perspectives.

3) There is a symbiotic relationship both in and out of game between the gm and players. The gm presents blueprints for the campaign to the players. The players gather tools and build the structure. The gm wallpapers the rooms and plants mysteries in the garden outside. The players explore the rooms and floors and cultivate that garden of mysteries so strange flowers bloom [Ken Kesey] and sometimes build add-ons to the structure and introduce neighbors. The gm populates the neighborhood and beyond and encourage--but not force--the players and their characters to explore in prescribed directions.

4) A localized agreement that must be met within our core group that may not hold any truth for others -- in addition to having fun something within the game should be presented that can provide learning beyond the game. There are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves [Clifford Geertz]. They show our understanding of ourselves. They are a way of showing ourselves know how we believe our world can work: the "right way" and the ways that are not so right [Harry Crews]. As such, we value them as reflection of our continuing lives, evolving beliefs, and insatiable curiosities.

5) Collective games allow us all to explore territory that would otherwise be hazardous to life and limb or transgressive to our own ethics. Playing a role, we are not held to our own belief system and can then experience ideology that we otherwise might not otherwise be able to do without harmful repercussions. This doesn't mean screwing over the other players, but it might mean screwing over the other characters at some crucial moments. Story is driven by conflict, not compliance. Ah! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal! [Hoban Washburne]

6) Character death should not be avoided within a story, but neither should it be inflicted unnecessarily. Character action should cause the death. How a character dies is often remembered more both in and out of the game than how they lived.

As always, this might be worth 2¢ depending on local exchange rates.
 




RareBreed

Explorer
Player Agency is Sacred. There are two big things that make tabletop roleplaying games distinct from movies, novels, and video games. This is one of them. The players are at the table to make choices and have those choices actually matter. Their choices are not and should not be limited to what the referee has planned. The referee should never take player agency away. Even when the player wants to do something stupid, the referee should let them. The referee should prepare NPCs, hooks, setting elements, etc but never prepare a plot or story. It's not up to the referee what the PCs do. The only exception to this is metagaming and cheating. Those players lose their agency only as much as necessary to prevent the metagaming and cheating.
To each group their own, but I do not buy into this concept.

I started my gaming "career" playing historical American Civil War and Napoleonic wargames, followed by "modern" (circa early 1980s) microarmor. In these wargame systems, the concept of morale is pivotal. You don't need to kill your enemies if you can rout them. And shaken or suppressed soldiers are almost as good.

But trying to get a player character to be afraid, or panic voluntary is nigh impossible. And I also don't believe in rewarding the players with brownie points for "good roleplaying" by accepting such consequences voluntarily. Both the Fate and 2d20 system in Conan try to emulate this by for example having "Doom" points which, by suffering some kind of bad consequence now, you can have fortune smile on you later. I prefer systems that bake in the concept of psychology into the system (Pendragon, Fellowship of the Ring and Twilight 2000 come to mind).

Call me a simulationist, but I prefer emergent roleplaying that doesn't always follow the imagined narrative in the player's (or GM's) head. After all, most PC's want to be the uber hero that saves the day, that doesn't bat an eyelash staring down an army all by himself, and otherwise following the myriad tropes of being "bad ass" and cool.

But if you have rules that take away player agency depending on some situations, players start to realize they can't do everything they want. They may panic, or suffer anxiety, or give in to a rage and do something they wish they hadn't. This is all the more important in game systems where you buy "disadvantages" or flaws of some sort to get extra points. Some systems allow you to "override" this loss through stress points. Basically you have to sacrifce something to overcome the character's mental state and regain agency. And perhaps that is my biggest beef with the concept of never taking away a player's agency: where is the sacrifice? Where is overcoming the limitations that would otherwise be imposed on the character?

One of the most memorable campaigns I played was a Vietnam era game using the Phoenix Command system. The players were American troops (in one campaign marines, in another SEALs, and in yet another, members of the 173rd Airborne brigade LRRPs). What was fascinating was that we played it very simulationist style (as befitting a system like PCCS), and despite what some may think, the stories that emerged out of the simulationist combat was far more real and poignant than so-called narrative systems where players and GM's drive the story to their liking.

The reason is that due to morale, and stressful situations, players panicked and had to make some horrible choices under duress. The players (not just the characters) learned to fear combat. Was the villager VC? Did the little boy running towards them carry a grenade? Maybe because our gaming group all started out playing wargames, the concept of losing agency was not viewed as stripping one of freewill.

If the argument is that games are supposed to be fun and an escape from the constraints and limitations of the real world, I will argue that roleplaying isn't only about escapist fun, it can also be a tool used to explore possibilities we otherwise could not.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
To each group their own, but I do not buy into this concept.

I started my gaming "career" playing historical American Civil War and Napoleonic wargames, followed by "modern" (circa early 1980s) microarmor. In these wargame systems, the concept of morale is pivotal. You don't need to kill your enemies if you can rout them. And shaken or suppressed soldiers are almost as good.

But trying to get a player character to be afraid, or panic voluntary is nigh impossible. And I also don't believe in rewarding the players with brownie points for "good roleplaying" by accepting such consequences voluntarily. Both the Fate and 2d20 system in Conan try to emulate this by for example having "Doom" points which, by suffering some kind of bad consequence now, you can have fortune smile on you later. I prefer systems that bake in the concept of psychology into the system (Pendragon, Fellowship of the Ring and Twilight 2000 come to mind).
Don't confuse player agency with character agency. The referee shouldn't violate the player's ability to choose, the character is a fictional construct, they have no agency to violate.

How do you make characters afraid? That’s what saves are for. This monster causes fear, save or run away. That’s not a violation of player agency. The referee telling the player their character cannot go left because the story is to the right is a violation of player agency. Moving the story to wherever the player decides to go is a violation of player agency. Having a game mechanic that enforces fear or terror and the character succumbing to that is not a violation of player agency.

How do you make players afraid? You don't. It's never the referee's job to do so, no matter what horror scenario you're running.
Call me a simulationist, but I prefer emergent roleplaying that doesn't always follow the imagined narrative in the player's (or GM's) head. After all, most PC's want to be the uber hero that saves the day, that doesn't bat an eyelash staring down an army all by himself, and otherwise following the myriad tropes of being "bad ass" and cool.
Maybe read some more of my posts before you assume what I’m after. I agree with you 100%. Emergent storytelling is the only viable storytelling in RPGs.
One of the most memorable campaigns I played was a Vietnam era game using the Phoenix Command system. The players were American troops (in one campaign marines, in another SEALs, and in yet another, members of the 173rd Airborne brigade LRRPs). What was fascinating was that we played it very simulationist style (as befitting a system like PCCS), and despite what some may think, the stories that emerged out of the simulationist combat was far more real and poignant than so-called narrative systems where players and GM's drive the story to their liking.

The reason is that due to morale, and stressful situations, players panicked and had to make some horrible choices under duress. The players (not just the characters) learned to fear combat. Was the villager VC? Did the little boy running towards them carry a grenade? Maybe because our gaming group all started out playing wargames, the concept of losing agency was not viewed as stripping one of freewill.
Sounds awesome.
If the argument is that games are supposed to be fun and an escape from the constraints and limitations of the real world, I will argue that roleplaying isn't only about escapist fun, it can also be a tool used to explore possibilities we otherwise could not.
I agree.
 
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