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Author Topic: Mechanics, Contribution, and Doug the Dice Guy  (Read 18921 times)
John Kim
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« on: February 09, 2005, 02:30:25 PM »

Quote from: clehrich
But mechanics carry baggage: they have particular places in complex systems which we have (as you put it) preloaded into the game, and furhermore they have strong ascribed values and meanings from the broader hobby of gaming.  So I think it is not technically correct to say that mechanics never contribute anything.  The insertion of a mechanic also brings in whatever is attached to it, kind of the rest of the iceberg below the water, as it were.

Anyway, a thought for another thread.

OK, Chris thought that this was a good topic for another thread, and I'm inclined to agree.  Thus, I'm starting a new thread.  I'm often unclear by what is meant by "mechanics never contribute anything".  Now, to get specific, I'd like to consider two hypothetical cases: Will the Writing Guy, and Doug the Dice Guy.  I've heard of roughly similar discussion before, but I thought I'd make a thread entirely about these two.  

1) Will the Writing Guy

So Will was GM and pals with a gaming group for years, until Will's parents moved to Timbuktu.  For their next campaign, Will remotely wrote up everything for the new GM Graham and the gang.  So they're using a homebrew system written by Will, in a setting he created -- including the adventure module, maps, and so forth.  The players are playing pre-generated characters which were written by Will.  

Question: Has Will contributed anything to the game?  

In my mind, Will has undoubtedly contributed to the game in a practical sense.  However, my impression is that some people consider that he hasn't contributed.  i.e. He has to be there and speaking at the table to "contribute".  

2) Doug the Dice Guy

So Doug is buddies with a bunch of D&D players in school.  They all go off to camp, and due to an oversight are stuck without their dice.  So they decide to make Doug the "dice guy".  He's not a player or a DM in the usual sense.  Just whenever people want a roll, they ask him and he says a number.  The group otherwise plays by the straight D&D rules.  

Doug isn't a machine, though, nor do they expect him to be.  He hears the game, and he comes up with numbers based on what he thinks would be interesting to him.  He rewards cool moves by better rolls, keeps up tense uncertainty in the fight, and otherwise makes for interesting twists.  For example, Chuck's character died from a failed save after valiantly saving his lifelong friend.  

Question: Has Doug contributed anything to the game?  

Again, I think the answer is yes.  But I'm interested in definitions which suggest that he hasn't.
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Sean
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« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2005, 02:44:43 PM »

Knee-jerk reactions:

Doug is clearly contributing to play.

Will is a more complicated case. If he's contributing, then it seems like Gary Gygax is contributing to play when I play in Greyhawk (which I never, ever have, but never mind that). On the other hand, because Will was part of the group and they're continuing something they all did together, there is a personal connection that muddies the waters there. But I guess I'd still say no. Will has contributed support materials to the game, but he isn't contributing to play in the sense that I took to be at stake in this part of the discussion. Any more than the guy who wrote the encyclopedia, or William the Conqueror, contributes to a historical fantasy game set in England.
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xenopulse
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« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2005, 03:00:13 PM »

[Edited for clarity]

Doug changes the outcome of play. That does not automatically mean he contributes. In fact, he is an arbiter. I would say, even though Doug makes a difference and decides on direction of play, he has made no substantive contribution, i.e., he has not opened up new possibilities. He chooses between possibilities already brought into play by the players.

Will has provided basic material. The selection and introduction of these into play, however, is up to the players. Just like Doug cannot introduce a situation that the other players have to deal with, Will cannot decide to throw anything specific of his material in there. He's an influence, and maybe a really really strong one. But the contribution comes from the players accepting his material and putting it into play.

So, the difficulty might lie with the interpretation of the word "contribution." For me, in the context of RPG theory, it indicates very clearly an act by which something is actively brought into the SIS.
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Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2005, 03:07:46 PM »

can you provide a more specific definition for Contribution in this context.

I can see a case for saying the guy who did the illustration for the third supplement, which inspired the GM to create an NPC "contributed" to the game for a certain sense of the word.

For a certain sense of the word, the pizza delivery guy contributed to the game (in the sense of the meta experience of the evenings session).

I sense that neither of those is where you're going with your question, however.
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John Kim
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« Reply #4 on: February 09, 2005, 03:47:45 PM »

Quote from: xenopulse
Will has provided basic material. The selection and introduction of these into play, however, is up to the players. Just like Doug cannot introduce a situation that the other players have to deal with, Will cannot decide to throw anything specific of his material in there. He's an influence, and maybe a really really strong one. But the contribution comes from the players accepting his material and putting it into play.

But if the players accept Will's material, isn't he contributing?  Remember that Will has created and assigned the pregenerated characters.  i.e. Will mailed all the character sheets with the players names on them.  So Zack gets a character sheet with his name on it, with stats on the front and the written background on the back.  Now, the players can all say "The heck with Will, let's play something else".  But let's say they accept what Will has written.  They all are imagining based on what he has written.  So I would think that is part of the Shared Imaginary Space.  

I could go further and say that Will's module includes a boxed introductory text which Graham reads aloud at the start of the adventure.  (This is pretty common in many modules.)  Does that change anything?  

Quote from: xenopulse
Doug changes the outcome of play. That does not automatically mean he contributes. In fact, he is an arbiter. I would say, even though Doug makes a difference and decides on direction of play, he has made no substantive contribution, i.e., he has not opened up new possibilities. He chooses between possibilities already brought into play by the players.

So by the definition you are using, choosing among options isn't contributing?  So, for example, if players are in a fight where they choose different maneuvers and which to spend fortune points on, none of that is contribution?  

Quote from: xenopulse
So, the difficulty might lie with the interpretation of the word "contribution." For me, in the context of RPG theory, it indicates very clearly an act by which something is actively brought into the SIS.

Let's consider Will's boxed introductory text.  Will deliberately mailed this to Graham to be read aloud.  On the other hand, Graham is the one who spoke the words to the players.  By "active", it seems like you are concerned with agency.  Would it be Graham's contribution if he spoke it aloud?  What if someone else spoke it aloud or passed it around based on Will's written instructions?  

Quote from: Valamir
Can you provide a more specific definition for Contribution in this context.

Well, no.  In fact, I'm trying to understand what other people mean by "contribute" when they say things like "mechanics don't contribute anything".  So my question is for however you tend to think about the word "contribute" in the context of RPG theory.
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2005, 03:51:06 PM »

I can't really speak to Doug the Dice Guy, but I do have something I hope is useful regarding Will the Writing Guy.

To that end, Ralph, here's what I think "contribution" means: "What gets put into the SIS."  For something to enter the SIS it must be shared, and it also must be negotiated (even if this negotiation takes the form of no one objecting).  Without negotiation it's not in the SIS, it may be potentially in the SIS, but until we negotiate it we can't be sure that we are all imaging it.

What Will the Writing Guy and the Artist you suggest are giving to the game is what I call Constraint.  According to the (terribly rough) current draft of my essay on the subject Constraint is: "The body of all things that provide boundaries for acceptable contributions to the Shared Imagined Space (SIS)."  That is, Constraint tells you what you can contribute, or as Lumpley would say: (paraphrase) "How do I know what I can/should say?" when playing.

Will and the artist can't contribute because they can't be involved in negotiation.  However, they can be used as Constraints.  The group can decide "The world will be like Will wrote up here", or "The world looks like the pictures in supplement X."

So, going by our definition above shouldn't levels of Constraint that have been previously negotiated (i.e. Will's text) be considered to be contributed?  I say "no", Constraint only potentially exists in the SIS, it doesn't actually exist until someone calls on it and the group negotiates it into being.

That doesn't seem too coherent as I read back over it, but I really should just get back and finish this article on Constraint.  Maybe that will help.

NOTE: I almost cross-posted with John Kim on this one.  I think his points are addressed in this post.

Thomas
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xenopulse
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« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2005, 06:55:09 PM »

Yeah. What Thomas said.

Look, what we're doing here is coining terms. We do that in order to be able to talk about the things that we analyze. Of course you could define the term "contribute" to include every single influence into the game. I prefer to call that simply influence. Maybe it's the same thing that Thomas calls Constraint. So, I prefer to define the term "contribute" to mean the decisionmaking and/or creative process of, as Thomas said, getting something accepted in the SIS. I need a word for that, because I see that as distinct and different from the general influence. Now it could be you have a better word for it, and we can talk about that, then, and decide which one seems to make more sense.

Quote
So by the definition you are using, choosing among options isn't contributing? So, for example, if players are in a fight where they choose different maneuvers and which to spend fortune points on, none of that is contribution?


Correct. This may be something where my definition is not standard, and I'd like to know how other people feel about this. But I see roleplaying as a creative process. Any in-game decisionmaking regarding already established options is not part of that process. That's what sets RPGs apart from wargames. In wargames, you choose from the options given. In RPGs, you create your own options. That's where D&D is so close to its wargame roots. The combat in D&D is almost completely void of creativity.

Quote
Let's consider Will's boxed introductory text. Will deliberately mailed this to Graham to be read aloud. On the other hand, Graham is the one who spoke the words to the players. By "active", it seems like you are concerned with agency. Would it be Graham's contribution if he spoke it aloud? What if someone else spoke it aloud or passed it around based on Will's written instructions?


Graham contributes, because it's his credibility that allows the material to enter the SIS. If it was Will's, then Will, though not physically present, would still be the GM, and therefore contribute. In either case, it's Will's material. The point is, who actively puts it in the SIS? I think that distinction is worth making, and I think "contribute" is as good a word for it as I can come up with at this point.
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Marco
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« Reply #7 on: February 09, 2005, 07:07:20 PM »

I think both Doug and Will have contributed significantly. I think Paul the pizza guy contributed--but not significantly.

I think the bar for significant contribution is that you ask this:
1. Would the game have been significantly different if not for that person (and you get to set the standard for "significantly" but, you know, if you say the guy who wrote the module, made the characters, and wrote the system you ran made no significant contribution to the gaming experience I think you'll have a hard time convincing most people you are using the word "contributed" correctly).

2. I think the degree of intentional input the person has to the specific game is important. This seems strange, I expect, but I think it's so. Being an inspiration is certianly important in some senses but I based a game off a Steely Dan song and I doubt the band members (or Buroughs, if we resurrected him) could guess what impact Do it Again had on my game.

On the other hand, Will and Doug will be able to tell me what impact they had with a high degree of accuracy.

I think once something becomes an "inpsiration" the person who is inspired by the subject is doing enough of their processing that the input to the game belongs to the person who is inspired. I'm sure there are gray areas though.

Paul: YES
(1) Strong Yes, the game would clearly be very much different.
(2) Strong Yes, his input was intentional and for that game.

Will: YES
(1) Strong Yes. The game would clearly (likely) be very much different if not for his input.
(2) Strong Yes. He created his input for that specific game.

Paul the Pizza Guy: NO
(1) Strong No. It is unlikely the arrival of the pizza made a significant difference.
(2) Strong No. He had no intentional input into the game.

Amy the Artist: Probable NO
(1) Medium Yes. We don't know what the NPC was--but unless the GM was working to re-create that scene and wrapped the game around it, I find it probable that another NPC inspiration would have been similar.
(2) Medium No. Unless the third supplement is directly relevant to the game that was run (and I'm assuming it wasn't) then her intentional input into this game is accidental. As with a song on the radio she could not accuately tell what input she had and so I give the majority of the credit to the GM for the game impact.

Walt the Worldbook Writer: Unknown
(1) Unknown. If his world book's text contained elements that were directly fundamental in shaping the adventure then I think he counts. If he has a very wide-scale world and some fairly generic notes then I think the impact is minimal. If the GM used stuff directly from the world book and fleshed it out a little and ran it I would be inclined to say Yes.
(2) Unknown. I think that, again, if the GM is working the game directly off springboard ideas in the world book or the world is very specifically wrapped around themes to the point where the GM could tell you important things about the action in the game by knowing which ideas came up then I think that's a case for Yes. If the game was just set in a nation near the "badlands" then probably not so much.

-Marco
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Sean
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« Reply #8 on: February 09, 2005, 07:13:53 PM »

I'm still operating at knee-jerk level here, but:

Ralph is right that 'contribute', as it stands, is unacceptably vague.

If you think that the game-as-played is a social phenomenon created by the players, it follows trivially that only the players at the table (or present e.g. over speakerphone, as I was when I got grounded by my parents during my high school D&D game) are contributing to the game-as-played in that sense.

It's in this sense that I think Doug is clearly contributing (he is evaluating play and making input into the SiS on the basis of his evaluations - he's a full-on member of the group, if one with an unusual set of duties relative to normal RPG experience) and Will is more or less clearly not contributing. Will's not there.

On the other hand, let's say a boyfriend of one of the players drops into the game, watches for a while, and then maybe drops a few minis on the battleboard, or makes an astute observation about what the party ought to do that is followed. He 'made a contribution' to the game-as-played by making a contribution to the SiS at that particular session.

If you want to think of an SiS getting established over an entire 'campaign', then there might be a point to that, and then Will pokes his head in the back door again. That's why I think Will has more title to be involved in the game than whoever wrote it and the various supplements. If I had to decide I'd leave him out, focusing on the particular session; but if something about the session referred back to the reality of the whole long-term game than Will might get back in. This is the same problem about whether a painting of a haystack by Monet is part of a larger art object (the series of paintings as a whole, which all relate to one another) or a single art object. In that case I think so much of the interest comes from the whole series that I'm more likely to look at the whole series as the art object. But in the case of an RPG session, well, it depends on the structure of the session I guess. But at least I've given rough criteria for when Will's in and when Will's out.
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #9 on: February 09, 2005, 07:57:02 PM »

Marco,

We need to draw a distinction between "contributing something to the play experience" and "contributing something to play itself".  I wouldn't say that the audience is part of a basketball game, but I would never dream of saying that they had no impact on it.

I'm going to stick with my definition of "contribution" until someone comes up with something better, feel free to comment on it.  Specifically: "Contribution is what actually goes into the Shared Imagined Space."

This includes my assertation that nothing can enter the SIS without negotiation, and thus you can't "contribute" if you are not in a position to be engaged in negotiation.  You write the book and leave?  No.  You write the book and then play by mail?  Sure.  In one you are able to actively negotiate, in the other you are not.

Remember, we're distinguishing from the general term "contribution" and trying to define a specific piece of jargon: "Contribution".

Looking at Sean's examples: Someone buddy stops by and makes some comments?  Sure he can contribute, because he can be engaged in negotiation.  You look through a splat of some sort?  You can contribute elements from that splat, but the splat (and by proxy, its author) can't contribute because they aren't there to be negotiated with.

Thomas
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Paganini
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« Reply #10 on: February 09, 2005, 08:01:30 PM »

Joh, to put it in the terms of my articles, Will has not contribute to the game; contribution is what happens there during play - that is, contribution includes both the mental generation and the communication of it to the other players. What has happened to Will's material is that it has been preloaded, as per my second article. (The explanation I gave of preloaded is that the group is treating stuff that actually hasn't been contributed as thought it had been.)

As far as Doug goes, exactly what Xenopulse said. Doug is not contributing, because he's not generating any imaginary content. Doug is a mechanic. :)
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #11 on: February 09, 2005, 09:48:40 PM »

Quote from: John Kim
But if the players accept Will's material, isn't he contributing?

Ralph's right. I am not sure that "contributing" has any specific meaning used in isolation like that. "Contributing to the shared imagined space" has a very narrowly defined meaning. It is functionally nearly equivalent to "playing the game", so anyone and especially anything that is not "playing the game" is not itself "contributing to the shared imagined space". However, there is no clear definition of "contributing to the game", nor indeed of "contributing" outside that specific application.

In this sense, Will is not "contributing to the shared imagined space" because he never actually does this. What he is doing is providing materials from which his friends can pick and choose in creating their own contributions to the shared imagined space. He is the equivalent of Tolkien in a game in which the players play known Middle Earth characters in an adventure set in Middle Earth. He has provided a wealth of material from which the players select much to contribute to the shared imagined space; he contributes nothing to that space himself, but merely makes recommendations to them as to what sorts of things he thinks they should contribute.

Doug the Dice Guy, surprisingly, is contributing to the shared imagined space, as he is presented here. In a sense, he has become the system, the vehicle for determining whether certain kinds of statements are credible or not. It appears to be a complex relationship at this point, because he doesn't make that determination completely on his own. From what appears, it seems that Paul the Player describes how he swings his great axe in a hyperbolic arc that intersects with his opponent's neck (O.K., so I wouldn't be particularly good in a game in which description of an attack was important), and Doug the Dice Guy says, "That's pretty good; I'm going to give that a credibility rating of 14." Then Graham the GM says, "14 is good, but it's not good enough; he needs a 15 to hit."

What I think matters here is that Doug is making a subjective assessment of the credibility of statements made into the shared imagined space, in essence rating them. It would be entirely different if Doug were the Dice Guy because he had a stopwatch he could check when called upon, or because he had memorized Pi to thirty-five digits and so could return the next one in sequence when asked to provide a pseudo-random result. Doug is giving the degree to which he would like to see a statement become part of the shared imagined space; he is thus participating in forming that shared imagined space directly. This is different from rattling off numbers which are interpreted by someone else to determine outcomes. It's an attempt to directly influence events through the contribution of that information.

Looked at a slightly different way, when Paul says that bit about the way he swings his axe, Doug chooses a number not by randomly tossing something out but by describing what he sees happening in the shared imagined space, albeit in a numerical way. He hears Paul's description, and he says, "That axe flies through the air with a speed and accuracy that win a 14." He then lets the referee decide whether that quality of attack is sufficient to hit. If it hits, everyone is imagining an attack that was sufficiently swift and accurate to hit the target; if it misses, everyone is imagining a similar attack which was swift and accurate but not quite sufficient. Note that had Doug rated the attack with a 5 instead, everyone would be imagining a much less capable attack--and if it happened that a 5 were to hit, they would be imagining a situation in which the poorly-executed blow still connected with the target. Thus Doug is contributing content to the shared imagined space. Paul says, "I attack"; Doug says "Paul's attack was this good." Graham says, "This good is good enough." It is because Doug is making a subjective assessment of the quality of the action that he contributes to the shared imagined space, where dice would not do so in the same circumstances.

As to the statement that "mechanics don't contribute", in the sense that they do not contribute to the shared imagined space, that is correct. Mechanics provide the basis for players to make contributions; they do not contribute in and of themselves. When Doug says the attack is rated at 14, he means (according to the description above) that he liked the description and rated it as worth a 14. When the dice roll 14, they don't "mean" anything but that a 14 has been generated as the next number in sequence. Paul's description has impact on the "roll" itself when Doug makes the decision; it means nothing to the roll when the dice are involved, but rather is spoken directly to Graham. It is up to Graham to decide how the description and the dice roll interact. When Doug intervenes, the description has already been incorporated into the value given.

I hope this is clear.

--M. J. Young
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Simon Kamber
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« Reply #12 on: February 10, 2005, 12:00:41 AM »

I'd say that material accepted directly into the game without any significant negotiation is actually contributed to the game, regardless of how it is contributed.

If Will sends a description of a character that reads "Joe is wears a large plate armor, uses a greataxe and has long red hair", and the group accepts this, entering a guy with a large plate armor, a greataxe and long red hair into their SiS, I'd call that a contribution.

In the case of Tolkien, he never added anything to the SiS. The keyword here is intention. Tolkien never intended for this specific aspect to be added to this specific SiS, so he never contributed to it. But Will submitted Joe to the SiS in much the same way a player sitting at the table would have done. If Joe is accepted into the SiS for which he is intended, I'd say it does not matter how he was submitted, he is still a contribution. And thus, Will contributed.
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Simon Kamber
contracycle
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« Reply #13 on: February 10, 2005, 12:39:59 AM »

Quote from: John Kim

Question: Has Will contributed anything to the game?  


Depends on the meaning of "game", I'm afraid, which is another word with a multitude of meanings.

Will has undoubtedly contributed the methodology of play which the group use.  He has structured the game they will play in the broad sense of any writer of things to be consumed by others.  But unless he is actually running the game by remote control, he is not contributing to the SIS of the actual live games-as-process being conducted by the players.

Doug the dice guy, on the other hand, seems to me to be directly involved with the game-as-process, and is nmakiung interventions directly into the SIS.  I actually see this as an odd but interesting variation on the GM's role.

So if we are referring to the live game as it is played, I would say that Will is not contributing, and Doug is.  But i dont think anyone would dispute Wills claim to authorship of the game as designed, structured activity.
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Ian Charvill
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« Reply #14 on: February 10, 2005, 02:08:37 AM »

First of all -- let's remind ourselves that "shared imagined space" is a metaphor: in other word's it's literally false; literally, there is, and never could be, a shared imagined space.  All there can be are more or less congruent individual narratives.

Too, note pace the Lumpley Principal, negotiation need not be negotiation qua negotiation -- it is simply the possibility of withholding assent, eg by leaving the game.

What "contributes to the shared imagined space" literally means is:

(assuming A and B are gaming together, X is a contribution)

1. A proposes X
2. B assents to forming a congruent individual narratives

-- or --

1. A proposes X
2.  B makes modifications to X that would be incongruent with the original (forming X1)
3.  A & B assent to form congruent individual narratives based on X1

-- or --

variations on the above

One way to specify "contribution" to exclude Will the Writer Guy is to require the second case to be possible: i.e. that the group modifies X and Will assents to it.  If Will has no feedback mechanism, he cannot assent to any changes.

If Will does have a feedback mechanism the game can become a hybrid tabletop game/play by mail game or something of that sort.

[It occurs to me that "contribute" here is an exact simile for "negotiate" in the sense of "contribute X into the shared imagined space" would have the  exact meaning of "negotiate X into the shared imagined space"]
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Ian Charvill
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