domingo, 16 de diciembre de 2018

King of Dragon Pass: the first video game set in Glorantha

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Pen-and-paper roleplaying games and video games have held a tight alliance since the beginning of these two forms of entertainment, or sometimes, even, art. The official licenses bring video games an extra audience who already knows the roleplaying game. So, for example, Dungeons & Dragons has video games using its system and set both in the Forgotten Realms as in other D&D settings such as Dark Sun or Planescape. There are, among many others, Warhammer video games, Call of Cthulhu video games, Traveller, Shadowrun, World of Darkness and even Paranoia video games! Unfortunately, there aren't any RuneQuest video games yet. Fortunately though, there are video games set in Glorantha.

Below I'm going to talk about one of them: King of Dragon Pass, designed by David Dunham and his software company A Sharp. It's a hell of a good video game, and also the best possible introduction to the world of Glorantha. I'm going to go through the game's story, and then what it's about, how it's played, some advice and finally my opinion to wrap it up.

>>>También puedes leer este artículo en español aquí<<<

How it came to be and how it came back

In the 90s, during the absence of publications for RuneQuest and Glorantha in general, David Dunham was a fan of this game and this fantasy world by Greg Stafford. In those days, Dunham ran a long-term campaign in Glorantha with a variant of the Pendragon RPG rules he called "PenDragon Pass". The title of this adaptation was appropriate because the campaign was located in Dragon Pass, but not in the "present" that was described in the supplements on Glorantha (such as Genertela), but centuries earlier, in 1300 ST. The campaign was about the recolonization of Dragon Pass by an Orlanthi clan exiled from Heortland. He later played a similar campaign run by Jeff Richard (now Creative Director for Chaosium) This group of role players was jokingly called "The Seattle Farmers Collective" because those who saw them play criticized the fact that the games were more focused on managing the farms and cows of the Orlanthi settlers than the typical epic exploits of roleplaying games set in fantasy worlds.

Now, David Dunham ran a small software company. And apparently he enjoyed so much those "PenDragon Pass" campaigns that one day he decided to create a video game set in Glorantha, dealing (no surprise here) with the human resettlement of Dragon Pass. He was helped in this by Greg Stafford himself and Robin Laws, among many other people. Just before the end of 1999, his company A Sharp released the video game King of Dragon Pass. And so it was that the first video game set in the fantastic world of Glorantha was born. Interestingly, it went on sale even before the publication of the game Hero Wars (later known as HeroQuest). On March 21st next year, it won the "Best Visual Art" award from the Independent Games Festival. However, although the video game became very popular among fans of RuneQuest and Glorantha, Dunham's company was small and unable to afford a good distribution, so the game never reached a wider audience. But that was eventually going to change...

With the widespread access to Internet, the appearance of online video game selling platforms and video games for cell phones, suddenly it was much easier to reach a wider audience. In 2011, King of Dragon Pass reappeared on Apple's App Store. This was not exactly a new version, only a reedition of the same game with some improvements, available for Mac... and best of all: more than 40 new interactive scenes! Soon after that, the original game appeared on, a website specialized in selling the best video games of the past. That same year, the game was ported to iPhone and iPad. Finally, in 2014 HeroCraft ported the game for Android and since 2015 the game is also available on Steam. Oh, and there's even a port for Windows Phone.

This is how version 2.0 of King of Dragon Pass looks on my iPad.

What is it about?

Most fans of Glorantha (like me) expected it to be the usual RPG video game. You know, you create a character, you explore dungeons, kill monsters, take their stuff. Or at least something in that vein. But no, David Dunham did something much more original. In fact, he created a kind of video game that no one had ever done before, since it combines 3 different genres: resource management or "empire-building", interactive story games (aka "Choose your own adventure") and roleplaying games.

First of all, in King of Dragon Pass your mission is managing a clan of Orlanthi barbarians (think of fantasy Celts or Vikings without ships) that has just settled in new lands in the magical area known as Dragon Pass, a place populated by trolls, dragons, gods, spirits and other Orlanthi clans. What this means is that you'll be managing the resources of the clan and sending people off in different missions to get more resources or improve your reputation.

However, while you are busy doing that, you will be regularly interrupted by events shaped as very diverse scenes where you need to read a brief text describing a situation, with several possible decisions to choose from. They are usually difficult decisions, the kind that make you think. And all of them have consequences, for good or bad. Sometimes there's even no good decision to make, only degrees of bad! So you need to be careful, because a chain of bad decisions will lead your clan to ruin. On the other hand, if you choose wisely, you'll see your clan prosper and its resources, morale and fame will increase. And this entire decision tree that you navigate, event after event, together with the resource management of your clan, produces the complete saga of your clan. In other words, your decisions in the game create a story. It's like reading a good interactive book.

On top of that, the roleplaying element permeates the whole game and is visible in different ways. To begin with, you don't control the fate of a single character, or even a small group, but the fate of a whole clan. A clan is defined as a group of extended families who usually have a common ancestor, which sum up a total of men, women and children comprising about 800 people. And as in every RPG, the first thing you do is to create your character, in this case, your clan. This process is a design masterpiece, because it immerses you completely in the background of the setting: Glorantha, of course, but more specifically the Orlanthi culture. Instead of creating your «character» by allocating points on different skills and capabilities as usual, the video game takes you to your clan's remote past, to the time before even time existed, when your ancestors walked among deities. From that point on, it tells you about your clan's mythical origins while you respond to some questions with multiple choices, and in so doing you establish your clan's basic configuration. For example, by the time this nice brief mix of introduction and questionnaire ends, you will already have decided how your ancestors prepared for the wedding of Ernalda, goddess of the Earth, and Orlanth, god of Wind and Storm, you'll have decided who the ancestral enemy of your clan or in what great legendary deed your clan participated. Finally, you get to decide if your clan is focused on war, peace or a balance between those extremes. All these decisions have game effects (choosing the level of difficulty is the most evident one), but most of them aren't obvious at all. Therefore, the process is somewhat opaque... and that's great, because it forces the player to focus on the storytelling and the background, and less on «winning the game». At the end of the day, this game is about telling a story: your clan's.

Who's your clan's ancestral enemy? If you fight boldly against his descendants, your ancestors will reward you.

But don't be afraid. Luckily you are never alone when making decisions. In order to help you choose well, you have the clan ring, seven clan elders or wise men and women. You see their portraits at the bottom of the screen, and by clicking on them you can read their advice. You can consult them both when managing the clan resources and when making decisions during events. This creates the cool feeling that you are gathered with your council of wise men and women whom you ask for advice in turn. After listening to all of them, it's you who will have to decide what to do; you make the choice. So by playing King of Dragon Pass you play the part of the leader of the clan. But the most wonderful thing is that each of these seven wise men or women has a unique personality you can get to know by consulting them every time. It's even possible to end up liking some and despising others. Some might fear the undead, others might be obsessed with some minor detail and others may even make you laugh with their comments! It really is one of the best made aspects of the game in my opinion, and the one that makes the video game feel more "real". On top of that, these characters grow in age and experience. As years go by, you can see them mature, grow old and die, and then the next generation takes their place. You even feel the loss of some of them when they pass away! Their game stats also improve as they grow old. These stats are simple, only 7 skill or knowledge categories and they usually stand out on at least one of them, be it Plants, Animals, Bargaining, Law, Magic, Combat or Leadership. These are defined by degrees: Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Renowned and Heroic.

The girls in my clan are very warrior-like, that's why Brenna advises me to kill these southern foreigners.

Finally, the decisions you make won't always be good or bad according to a modern person's way of thinking. Often, the best choice is the one that best fits with the Orlanthi way of thinking, with their legends, with their traditions. That's why some reviewers out there claim King of Dragon Pass is a game about a culture: the Orlanthi one. They are not wrong, because if you roleplay well that culture, as in pen-and-paper RPGs you are supposed to roleplay your character according to her beliefs, the game rewards you with better chances of successfully getting to the end.

What end is that? The final goal of the game is, first, to unify a group of clans under your leadership and form a tribe. If you choose to do so, you can play the shorter version of the game, which ends when you achieve that. On the other hand, the normal version involves going on to unify all the Orlanthi tribes under your leadership as King or Queen of Dragon Pass.

How is it played?

The game starts with a playable introduction that also works as the clan creation questionnaire I have mentioned above. You can also choose to start by playing the tutorial and get the feel of the game. Once you have created your clan, the story begins, and every year you do a number of different actions to help your clan prosper. Years are divided into 5 seasons (Sea, Fire, Earth, Darkness and Storm) plus Sacred Time. On every season you can undertake two actions, although at times one of them is taken over by a random event (see below). At the end of every year, during Sacred Time, a screen shows up where you can read all the omens for the coming new year and where you can assign magic points to several spheres in order to better your chances in them. For example, you start with 7 magic points and there are several boxes to fill with them. You can allocate 2 to "Crops" to ensure you'll reap all the Food you need for the year during Earth Season (when the fields are reaped), you my assign some points to "War" to have better chances of victory when you attack or defend from other clans, and so on. Once you have assigned all the points you wish, the new year starts with Sea Season (when the fields are sown).

The original version of the game allowed fertility magic (more Children), but it didn't have a big impact on the game.

The actions you can do are classified into several different screens, each of them focusing on one aspect of the clan's resources. On the Clan screen you can check out your people's morale, which mainly varies depending on the outcomes of your decisions. If morale is low, your people will bicker more often, so you can try to cheer them up by throwing a feast or even giving gifts. Here you can also recruit more professional warriors (called weaponthanes) and other professionals you might need, like hunters or farmers. Finally, you can reorganize your clan ring (your council of wise men and women) or change your clan's attitude, from war-like to balanced, for instance.

On the Farming screen you can assign more land to pastures or fields, and there's where your councilors will inform you how your all-important food reserve is faring. The original version from 1999 included more details to toggle, such as dividing your fields between barley and rye, or butchering your herds in times of need to feed your people, but these were eliminated in the new versions because they didn't actually bring much to the game.

You not only have to deal with agriculture, but also with politics. Therefore, on the Relations screen you can send emissaries to other clans to offer them gifts and soften them up enough to convince them to forge an alliance or to ask favors in case of need. You can also check which clans hate you the most and perhaps send a delegation to them in order to persuade them to hate you a bit less, or even to put an end to a feud. The politics of gifting is key to acquire a reputation in the area. Because, you know, Orlanthi value generosity a lot.

My clan in my current game with the iPad version. I'm nearing the end of the game as there are many tribes on the map.

After covering agriculture and politics, now it's the turn of economics. The Trade screen allows you to send trading caravans to other clans to exchange your surplus for what you need, or to convince them to establish a permanent trading route, which increases the profit of your seasonal market. On the way, your merchant may be assaulted by bandits, and then a pop-out screen appears with several reaction choices. On the Trade interface you can also see the magical treasures your clan owns, magic items you can find by exploring or trading which have small but very varied advantages. For example, Ernalda's Boots confer wisdom to certain members of the clan ring (most probably the women on your ring or to the followers of the Earth goddess).

On the War section you can do 3 different actions. You can do a cattle raid to steal cattle from other clans, trying to sneak into their lands without being seen, or launch a full raid with all your farmers armed with spears (the fyrd) and your weaponthanes. You can choose the specific goal of the raid. For example, usually you'll want to plunder your neighbor's goods and cows. But you can also choose to make prisoners to later ransom them or just burn steads. Of course, all very barbarian. Then you get to choose your strategy: just charge (the usual thing to do), maneuver to get a favorable position, skirmish and some others. Battles finish quickly; you just get a pop-up window where you can read if you won or lost, the plunder you got and the wounded and dead on each side. But then sometimes, in the middle of the fray a pop-up window shows up describing a situation someone on your side is in. If you choose wisely among the choices offered, the actions of that particular person can help you win. This brings tension and narrative excitement to an otherwise rather bland battle system. It feels like a small scene in a pen and paper roleplaying game, where the GM asks you: what do you do? Raids happen most often during Fire Season since your carls (farmers) have more spare time. Be careful though, because that's also the time when your neighbors, the animal nomads or the trolls usually choose to raid you. That's why building defenses for your clan is so helpful, such as a palisade.

We eluded the patrols of the Hiord clan, ha, ha! Chaaaaaarge!

The map section allows you to see where your clan is, and who your neighbors are. Since you just got to Dragon Pass, there are a lot of places you don't know and these areas stay unmapped. Here you can send exploring missions to find out the secrets of this magical land and perhaps bring back treasures, new knowledge or other resources. Sending explorers also helps to eliminate bandits from the region.

On the Lore screen you can read two kinds of information: the history and culture of the Orlanthi barbarians. Yes, that's the background of these Gloranthan peoples, seen from their point of view, obviously. Although some people might disregard this, it's actually vital to know the best way to act. It also includes a list of the most important Orlanthi myths. Some of them don't even have any game effects, like the Lightbringers Quest, but they're cool anyway. On the other hand, you'll need to closely read others in order to succeed (see below).

The screen dealing with the magic of your clan is very important in a world such as Glorantha. Here is where you make sacrifices to the deities and spirits of the Orlanthi pantheon so you can receive their blessings. These magical blessings have permanent beneficial effects on diverse facets of your clan. For instance, the Lightning blessing you can get from Orlanth allows your warriors to actually cast magical bolts of lightning and so cause more wounds against enemy clans while raiding. In order for these blessings to be permanent though, you need to support them by building shrines, temples or big temples to the gods. Their size determines the number of blessings that can be active simultaneously. For example, you may know the four blessings from Ernalda, goddess of the Earth and crops, but if you only have built a shrine to this important deity, it will only be able to support one of them permanently. In this screen you can also perform the dangerous magical rituals called heroquests.

In the Anmangarn clan we already have a temple in honor to Elmal, our most important god.

These heroquests are one of the most exceptional aspects of Glorantha. Thanks to these rituals, one or more initiates of a cult are transported to the world of the gods, a magical dimension out of time, where they reenact the great mythical feats their god or goddess did during Godtime. If they act the closest to how their deity did in the myths, they'll bring back a magical boon to the mortal world that will benefit the whole clan. For example, if you successfully reenact the myth of how Humakt (god of war) found the Death Sword, the warriors in your clan may become stronger or may achieve more victories in battle or some other advantage. However, these magical quests are dangerous, so if you are unlucky or you don't prepare well, failure will entail some sort of disaster for the clan. In the case of the myth of Humakt, you may be the target of more attacks, or perhaps your warriors will be weaker for a couple years, or your best warrior may get lost forever in the realm of the gods (!).

In the game, heroquests are shaped like narrative scenes divided in several screens. In each of them, the character incarnating the god or goddess faces a decision with multiple choices and you must choose the one you consider best fits the legend of that deity (as found in the Lore section!). Therefore, it is recommended you read the myths carefully before embarking on a heroquest, because that way you'll find it easier to choose the best option every time. Nevertheless, some scenes have you make decisions that are slightly different to the version of the myth you know, or the most appropriate choice might suddenly not work as you expected, so sometimes you also need to trust your instinct. This is what makes these rituals more unpredictable and exciting, because you are gambling a lot in them.

The priestess of Ernalda is magically transported to the realm of the gods to reenact the deeds of her goddess.

Before the release of King of Dragon Pass, the concept of heroquests had only been very succinctly described in the RuneQuest supplements. Fortunately, King of Dragon Pass helped visualize much better what they are, how they develop and what they are used for. All this was even before the narrative roleplaying game HeroQuest was published.

Apart from all these actions to manage the clan, there are logically unforeseen events that you must face. They happen very often and they are of all kinds. There are more than 500, in fact. Most are small or big problems that affect the clan, but they can also be positive events. Some are not very important, but the good thing is that most have consequences. The result of your decisions may improve or worsen the moral of the clan, you can win or lose livestock, cows, warriors, magic... And some have even long-term consequences that lead to new events... and further headaches. For example, I remember the story of the guy kidnapped by the tusk riders. Or the ugly guy who asks you for help finding a wife. Or the story of Derik, a child who has sworn to take revenge on the Praxian nomads. They are stories within the history of the clan. There is also an event that allows you to use triceratops in combat (!), although I have never achieved that in my games.

If you do not know what decision to make, you can trust the expert of your council of wise men. When no option really convinces me, I usually rely on the opinion of the wise person with the best Leadership characteristic, although sometimes it is also worth following your own hunch. The good thing about these events is that you can't save the game before making your decision, you have to play it and face the consequences, whatever they may be. It teaches you how difficult it is to be a leader sometimes... And remember: you need to become king or queen!

A giant Chaos creature is devouring our herds! Do we attack it right now or should we recruit expert anti-Chaos warriors?

Becoming "King of Dragon Pass"

A good part of the fun of this game is actually figuring out your own way to get to the end and become King... or Queen of Dragon Pass. Therefore, I recommend reading the following advice only if you have failed at least once in your goal. Otherwise it's always more fun and rewarding to make it on your own, even if you have to go through trial and error. On the other hand, if you are already fed up seeing your clan suffering in spite of your best efforts, below you can read my advice:

- Right at the start, reorganize the clan ring. Choose as leader the initiate of your main god with the best score in Leadership. Then choose the best people in every field of expertise trying not to repeat any deity.
- This is self-evident, but it is worth mentioning anyway: when allocating your clan magic points at the start of every year, leave one or two in reserve in case you need them along the year for difficult battles or rituals.
- Always keep an eye on the number of cows. If an advisor tells you that you have few, ask your neighbors who owe you a favor, steal them from those clans you hate or just raid them to take them by force. Cattle are crucial in this game, because it feeds your people even when the crops are bad.
- Invest on temples and blessings. Focus on your main deity, none of the other temples ought to be bigger than that of your main deity. All the gods have useful blessings to offer, but some have a higher priority than others. For example, feeding your people is primordial, so you'd better get Ernalda's blessings. In order to have many healthy cows, you'd better get Uralda's blessings. You know: cows are crucial. On the other hand, having the blessings of warrior gods such as Orlanth or Elmal will help you to defend your clan against attacks or to get more cows by stealing them from another clan, he, he!
- Always keep an eye on the maintenance cost of your temples. Look at how many goods you produce every year by listening to your advisors, and how many of those goods are used to maintain the temples. Then you'll know how many of them you have left available every year to improve your defenses or to make offerings to your gods in exchange for more blessings.
- Early on, build a temple to Issaries, god of commerce. Focus on the blessings that increase your production of goods. Your second best resource are goods!
- Explore your tula (your clan lands), three or four times. Mines or sources of raw materials you find will help you produce more goods and establish trade routes.
- Establish as many trade routes as you can. When you reach the maximum number, try to enlarge your temple to Issaries.
- It's better to forge alliances with neighboring clans and feud against far away clans. There's always going to be a clan who hates you, so if you are a peace clan, you want those clans to be far from your lands. On the other hand, if you are a war or balanced clan, you'll want to have an enemy clan a bit closer to you so it can be more easily raided.
- When you make sacrifices to the gods, offer at least 7 cows or goods, or a combination of both, such as 6 goods and 1 cow. Sacrifice more goods than cows, since cows are more valuable (jewels and pottery aren't edible!). Some gods only want offerings made of goods, like Chalana Arroy.
- Build defenses beginning with the watchtower, and the others little by little, only when you are sure you can afford them.
- Never infuriate the Elder races (trolls, beastmen, dwarves, elves, dragonewts).

I told you: "never infuriate dragonewts", but you didn't listen and kept going your own sweet way... Now look what happened!

- If a trickster becomes available on your clan ring candidates, include him or her on your ring. Sometimes she will cause you trouble and you'll want to kill him, but in general it's a good thing because it gives you better chances of being successful when performing heroquests. Moreover, if you can trust her wacky plans from time to time, you will be surprised.
- Heroquesting can bring great benefits, but it's risky, so take notes when reading the myths on the Lore screen before embarking on a heroquest. Choose the best candidate (see below), have two or three unused clan magic points and previously allocate the maximum points on Quests at the beginning of the year. Sometimes though, you may have done everything well and still fail, so don't give up. However, if a failed heroquest entails a big disaster, go back to your last saved game!
- Among the candidates for going on heroquests, choose initiates of the god that matches the myth you are going to reenact, preferably veterans in their area of expertise and better yet if they have a decent Magic score. Failing that, choose the candidate of the god or goddess that best resembles the god of the heroquest. For example, you can choose a Vingan initiate to perform an Orlanth heroquest. If you don't have a good candidate, choose another quest or wait.
- On the second half of the game, allocate points on Fate and Heroism at the start of the year and try to successfully perform all seven heroquests. Leave two or three years between heroquests.
- Activate blessings on your temples on the most appropriate moment. For example, let's say you have access to the two blessings from Vinga, but your shrine can only maintain active one of them. Activate the blessing of warrior women so you can defend and attack better, especially during Fire Season. However, before you send an exploring mission away, deactivate the warrior women blessing and activate the exploring blessing instead.
- Before the end of the game, you should have explored the four limits of the map as well as the main named places (like Tarsh and Kero Fin).
- Finally, never use the button for advancing onto the next season. There's always something other you can do so time advances on its own, and in this way you'll make the most of all your turns. For example: send diplomatic missions, trading missions or exploring missions during Sea Season, raid during Fire Season, build or sacrifice during Earth and Darkness Season, and a bit of everything during Storm Season.

Strike them hard, Orlanth!

My opinion

Honestly, it's difficult for me to be objective with this video game, because I've been a fan of Glorantha and RuneQuest from way back. Even so, I can say King of Dragon Pass is a very innovative game that inspired many later successful games made by indie game companies, such as The Banner Saga or Fallen London. Above all, it proves you don't need great graphics for a game to be tremendously addictive, only all its pieces to work together to make you want to know what happens next. It's a game you can easily get hooked on, thinking «just one more turn to see what happens» and in the blink of an eye it's already 4 hours later! Finally, it makes the world of Glorantha come alive on your computer, smartphone or tablet. Before 1999, the fantasy world of Glorantha had always lacked the striking visual presentation it deserved in order to highlight its unique elements in an appealing way (with some exceptions). However, in order to create the game, David Dunham had over 400 pieces of art made and had to establish aspects of the Orlanthi from Dragon Pass that no one had ever considered necessary to depict so far. For example, how do the initiates of Vinga dress? Or how different do the Orlanthi from Tarsh look? All this work would have been in vain without the art provided by Stefano Gaudiano, Mike Raabe, Damon Brown and later Jan Pospísil, because it perfectly complements the game itself. So, summing up:

You will love this game if...

- You usually like original concepts by indie companies.
- You like at least two of the genres it combines: resource managing, choose your own adventure and RPG.
- You have played in the Glorantha setting or you like it.
- You want to start discovering the world of Glorantha in a very fun way (all you need to know is included in the video game).
- You want to steal lots of ideas to run a role-playing campaign in Dragon Pass.
- You enjoy games that immerse you in a different but credible world, both deep and fun.

You'd better not even try it if...

- You don't like reading.
- You prefer action video games, or simpler ones, or those with excellent 3D-graphics.

The King of Dragon Pass trailer on Steam

Game data:

Platforms: Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone.
Hours of play: short mode: 12 hours; normal: about 40 hours.
Replayability: medium-high. After playing through the game in normal difficulty, you can try replaying it in another difficulty, or with another type of clan or with a leader of the opposite sex! The achievements in the new version are also helpful in this regard. At any rate, you'll find a bunch of scenes that are completely new.
Price: between 10€ and 12€ according to version and platform, with good offers on Steam.
Website: A Sharp
- When you purchase the newest version with 40 new scenes at (for a total of 575!), you also get the original version from 1999. In general, the new version is better, but the old one is good if you miss some aesthetic details like the screen where you can see all the buildings and lands at the beginning of each year, as well as the standing stone with all the active blessings.
- The clan ring includes portraits of the creators of the game, like David Dunham himself, his wife and Greg Stafford.
- The actions of your clan are based on the feats undertaken by Sartar, the Orlanthi hero who unified the tribes of Dragon Pass and was made king of the area.
- In one of the narrative scenes some weird-looking foreigners visit your clan and they stand for the usual group of adventurers of the pen-and-paper RPG RuneQuest, more specifically those kinds of groups made of a weird combination of playable races (a morocanth, a dragonewt, etc.).
- The clan creation questionnaire at the start of the game was used as a method to create the Orlanthi clan of your player characters in the campaign book Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes.

Although it didn't have any practical use, it was cool to see a picture of your clan lands in the original version of the game.

Other Gloranthan video-games?

To finish off, David Dunham and his company A Sharp have released a new video game set in Glorantha (!). It's similar to King of Dragon Pass, but you play with a different culture: Six Ages: Ride like the Wind. Watch the trailer here. You can read my first adventures with Six Ages or an interview with its creator, David Dunham.

Have you played King of Dragon Pass already? I'd be delighted to read your opinion of the game.

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