The World Of Synnibarr
The World Of Synnibarr
OK, first off, let me note I have a few weird psychological issues with the World of Synnibarr, because I bought my copy (the first edition of the game, with the lion man cover) at an SF con in the early 90s where I a)had a migraine, and b)had my girlfriend of the time decide to spend all her time traipsing around with other people. Yes, I still nurture my two-decade old psychological scars. I hold on to my trivial emotional traumas the way other people hold on to their grandmother’s good china. (If your china is made in New Jersey, why isn’t it new jersey? And how can you have eyeglasses made of plastic? Shouldn’t they be eyeplastics? And that airplane food…)
So. Synnibarr. I will attempt to put my personal issues behind me, and review this San-loss inducing book fairly. No, seriously. No matter what my weird cross-associations may be with things, this game is wonked. I’ve referred many times to things that teeter on the edge of awesome and awful… this doesn’t teeter. Hell, it didn’t even fall off. It never got out of the pit of Awful to begin with.
Or…. so it appears merely from flipping through it, then trying to reconcile what I’ve read with any notion of a sane and ordered universe, or at least, a universe which was not actively malign. I haven’t tried to make a character with it, yet. Let’s see how it goes. Who knows? It might be better than it seems. Odin knows, it couldn’t be worse.
But First, Some Madness
Let’s start with the introduction. Here’s the opening words of the introduction. I am not making this up.
Hi. What you now have in your hands is a monster, over two inches of unmitigated fun.
You know, Raven, dude… it may be true size doesn’t matter, but, that’s still probably not the best thing to say in a makeout session.
We begin with the origin of the setting. Let’s see if I can summarize this. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (yes, really… 800 million years ago, on an unnamed “small planet”), a wizard was born, who became the God of Hope and Command. He came to Earth and found people without a God, and became theirs. Then he turned himself into a magic statue, or left a copy of himself in a magic statue, or something. Then he went away because the gods were all at war, and he got his “Greetings” letter in god-mail. The gods trapped themselves and their enemies in the dimension of Shadarkeem, leaving running the universe to the interns and new hires, who screwed things up so that all the stars started going nova. Some scientists sent a warning message to Earth that they were all going to die, which got here five years after the magic god statue was found in the jungle. So the magic god statue decided to turn the planet Mars into a hollow world and teleported everyone into it and sent it going to another planet where they’d be safe. He made a new planet so that people wouldn’t fight wars anymore. No, I don’t understand the logic of that, either. Then he took a nap for three months. Then he teleported everyone to the new planet, and went to sleep for another 30,000 years. But before the new planet could start moving away from the deadly killer space nova storm, a super evil mutant child was born, became an adult in a few minutes, and tried to destroy the space drive, but before it was completely ruined, another super powered mutant stopped her, but now the trip would take 40,000 years, and, oh, everyone but 1500 people were killed, so for all the good it did, the magic god statue might as well have just been a statue. Stupid magic god statue! Anyway, while the world-ship (called Synnibarr) was traveling, there were a whole bunch of wars, and someone invented the 72-headed chameleon hydra (I am not making this up!), and then there was a virus that made everyone stupid, but that was a thousand years ago, and everyone’s all better now except no one knows about the world’s past except maybe the dwarfs, but who listens to them?
I wish to repeat myself: I am not making this up. This is what Scientologist… er Synnibarists… really believe.
I have often said I am a firm fan of gaming materials aimed at the fourteen year old in all of us. Synnibarr… or at least the incoherent babble that forms the setting background… is aimed at the four year old in all of us. It’s the result of an endless stream of ideas tumbling out without any kind of editing or self control, a constant gurgle of “and then… and then… and then…” without rhyme, reason, or other cliches. Somewhere in the depths of all this muddle there might be the seed of a decent enough idea for a high-power, kitchen-sink, game, but it hardly seems worth the effort to extract it.
(Some of the game’s art, by the way, is by Mike Grell, who is one of the defining artists of my formative childhood years, as he worked on Legion of Superheroes at just the right time for me to become hooked on it. He must have been at the nadir of his life when he accepted this contract, or maybe Raven had incriminating photos of him, or something. Let’s just say it’s not his best work, and he’s done much, much, better work before and since, so, please, don’t judge the man. )
(You can see his superior work if you click on the link over there. Also, it will pay for 1/10th of a cup of coffee. Maybe.)
Anyway… there’s a lot of really bad stuff about game mechanics, and a transcript of a sample game that’s so bad it makes me want to leave the hobby forever, but that’s not relevant to this post. Let’s make a character! I have a spork ready to scoop out my eyeballs in an emergency.
Character Creation, Or, Why Am I Doing This Again?
I mean, my BH in SWTOR is level 46. I could be racing towards 50 even now. But, no, I’m writing this for my mostly imaginary readership. I hope all you imaginary people appreciate this great sacrifice.
There are six attributes. If you figured six of them were identical to the D&D attributes, you’d be wrong. Only five are! Hah! Smell the originality! No, wait, that’s my cat checking out the litter box. (Seriously, as I am writing this, someone, probably Toaster, did something foul. These are exercises in extemporanea, remember? Coherence, you want? Go read something that’s been edited!)
The six attributes are: Constitution, Wisdom, Strength, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Wisdom. And Ego, which is Intelligence and Wisdom. Seven! Seven attributes! And Aura, which is basically alignment. Eight! Eight attributes! And a fanatical devotion to the pope.
Roll a 20 sided dice seven times, rerolling any less than eight, then drop the two lowest and replace them with one new roll, which must be higher than the two lowest rolls you dropped and… would it be easier to roll eight times and pick the six highest? Well, whatever, I’m playing by their rules now, may all the dark gods have mercy on my soul.
Rolling… 16,12,20,5(reroll)15,6(reroll)12, 2 (reroll) 16,9… drop the 9 and 12…8, reroll,15.
So my final 6 numbers are 16,12,20,15,16,15.
Now I pick my character class. Wait, did I say “pick”? I roll three times on Table 1, and pick one of the three classes I rolled for, and if my attribute scores don’t meet the minimum listed, I reroll.
4: Archer (any scores allowed)
8: Giant (19, 19, 18…. nope…) 7: Dwarf (any scores allowed)
5: Bio Syntha Cyborg (20, 20, 20). Yeah, right. 20: Winged Warrior (any scores allowed)
Archer, Dwarf, or Winged Warrior. Hmm.
Smeg it. Archer.
(The rules advise looking at the chart on the next table to see the bonuses to scores granted by a class, so you can “see which class gets the highest bonuses or whatever.” That is a verbatim quote.)
Archers get +3 Agility, +5 Dex, and +1 Wisdom.
I decide to check the Archer section in the book to see if I get any bonuses for specific attributes, and, nope. I do learn that archers are quiet and withdrawn, that they use a bow, they have “earthpower” arrows, they they love to gamble and one once bet 10 million dollars on a wrestling match between two giants, and that they love art and have created the greatest art museum in the world which is located on the coast in a small village called Arrowville (yes, really!), and it takes four days to tour it.
So, lets place those attributes! We’re working with: 16,12,20,15,16,15.
There’s a chance that I will mutate at puberty, growing body hair in new places, with my voice deepening, and strange feelings when I look at girls… kidding! Because of the small blue and yellow suns (don’t ask), there is a 5% chance I will mutate: 45. No mutations. But I may have random psionics! With an Intelligence of 12, it’s a 5% chance:73. Nope.
With an Agility of 18, I have a +1 Adv bonus (whatever that is) and 2 attacks/turn, which means my Active Segments are 6 and 11.
With a Dexterity of 25, I have a +11 Shot Bonus, a +2 1/2 Adv bonus, a +17 Dodge bonus, and a -15 Surprise Adjustment.
Hey, he has no name. His name is Bob. Bob the Archer. Why? Why not?
Oh, my Dodge is my Agility x 2, plus the bonus listed above, so that makes it 52. But my beam dodge bonus, against “laser beams and arrows”, is 75% of that, which is… uhm… carry the pi…. sigma six… eleventeen… 39! (I’m not sure if I should parse the beam dodge bonus as “laser beams, and arrows” or “laser (beams and arrows)”. Laser arrows sound… kind of cool, actually. A lot cooler than “earthpower”. What is this, Captain Hollowed Out Planet?
I think it’s time to note that the degree of differentiation among points in the attributes varies by attribute. By this I mean, there’s no difference between an Agility of 10 and an Agility of 16 on the chart; it’s just a range, 10-16. At the same time, each point of Strength has a different damage adjustment and weight limit, at least until you get past Str 100, when it starts going in leaps of 20. Speaking of Strength, my Strength of 16 gives me a +8 damage adjustment and a weight limit of 150. Oh, and I can leap 16 feet horizontally, and 8 feet vertically. Going on the assumption that 10 is some kind of human average, the average Synnibarrian can jump 5 feet straight up, meaning basketball games must be pretty darn awesome.
(Did anyone notice Synnibarr sounds like one of those drugs they advertise on TV, where the list of side effects makes you wonder what you could possibly have that could be worse than what the pill does? “Synnibarr may not be for you. Possible side effects include putrefaction of your internal organs, violent sociopathy, and death. If you die from Synnibarr, stop taking it immediately, until you can meet with your doctor.”)
With a Wisdom of 16, I can Locate Traps 32% of the time. With a Wisdom of 8-14, I could have located them 30% of the time, 31% of the time with a Wisdom of 15, and 33% of the time with a wisdom of 19. Yes, the chart brackets for locate traps — each of which adds 1% — are 8-14,15,16-18,19, and then individual numbers up to 25, followed by 26-30,31-40, and 41-50. Each step on the chart is 1%. The values, you will recall, are rolled linearly. There is no possible mathematical sense to this chart; it is a series of arbitrary brackets that provide very minimal benefit, relative to the difference in the stats. It’s baffling; it’s like the author saw charts in books that had brackets, and bonuses, and decided, in a kind of RPG Cargo Cult, to imitate what he saw without any understanding of how to design a chart that made the slightest bit of sense. “We have number ranges here, and bonuses here“, says the author. “We just make them up, right?”
Spell traps (magical traps) are detected at a percentage equal to your Ego, plus 1% per level. Your ego. Which is equal to your Wisdom plus your Intelligence. Most of the time, this sum will be higher than the flat bonus you get from the Wisdom chart, due to how it scales. So, in other words, you are probably innately better (my character isn’t, as it turns out, but just barely) at detecting invisible, magical, traps than mundane, physical ones, and you keep getting better, while you’re seemingly stuck with your base score for physical traps, unless you have a class bonus, or something.
My head hurts.
Here’s a picture of a raccoon with a bazooka.
Would it surprise you (by the way, there’s six “Surprise Classes” in the game) to learn that there’s a System Shock roll on the Constitution table? If it would, you haven’t been paying attention very well.
My Constitution of 15 (Say, did anyone else notice that the charts detailing the attribute bonuses and effects aren’t in the same order as the Attributes are listed elsewhere in the game, or alphabetical order, or any kind of order whatsoever? Someone did? Well, Raven didn’t! Hah!) gives +150 Life Points, and a 6% “Fate Roll” (saving throw) against Mag, Psi, and “EP”, and a 10% roll against Alchemy, Chi, and Mutations. Against disease, poison, and chemicals, I get Constitution+10=25%, and this doesn’t increase as I rise in level, while the other things do, though it doesn’t say how, here. I assume it’s part of your class progression.
It seems to me that an arch-villain in Synnibarr would line his lair with purely mundane traps coated with standard poisons, since these have higher chances of success against high-level characters. (At 20th level, my archer will have a 48% chance to detect spell traps and a 32% chance to detect normal traps.)
That’s some mighty fine game design work there, Lou. I mean, Raven.
Now I have to roll for “Ego Flux”. I usually just take Prilosec, but, whatever. I reread the paragraph describing this mechanic about ten times, and I just keep going back to the picture of the raccoon with the bazooka, because it makes more sense. That picture is kind of my island of sanity in the sea of madness that is Synnibarr. I just rock back and forth, chanting “raccoon with bazooka”… “raccoon with bazooka” over and over again. (Granted, it could be worse. I could be reading the forums on MMORPG.net. Any of them.) So I roll a 62, which means my personality is “Good”. (The other options, by the way, are “Super”, “Bad”, and “Super Bad”. Seriously. I am not making this up.) “Good” allows me to “Add the number from the Ego Table”. This turns out to be “+1”. I also get a +2 Fate bonus vs. Mag/Psi/EP. I’m still not sure what EP means. And do I need to mention the bracketing on the Ego chart makes no sense? I didn’t think so.
Surprise! (Class AA. Or Maybe B. Could be E. I Dunno.)
This game has six surprise classes, none of which seem to be buttsecks. (I’d make some snide comment here about how the designer probably never got any sex, surprise or not, but he’s currently running a soft porn site (I am not making this up), and I presume one of the fundamental benefits of running a porn site is getting to boink the actresses. It’s probably a law or something.) It’s worth noting that while there’s a detailed chart showing the surprise adjustments by surprise class, none of the surprise classes are actually defined here. I can look them up later, I suppose. I also have my surprise adjustment from my Dexterity, -15%. Except they can’t go below 20%.
D: 30-15=20% (capped)
E: 20-15=20% (capped)
Looking at the character classes, it seems most of these drop 1 or 2 percent per level; I’m not going to bother applying my level 1 bonuses now.
Now we get to roll for our “vital statistics”. Presumably, you can pick, but the rules don’t actually call out this option, so, roll it is! And despite everything so far being D20 or D%, suddenly, I need D8s, D6s, and so on.
Racial Type: Mix, roll two types. I roll White and Black. (The types, for those interested in the detailed ethnographic studies of Mr. McCracken, are Black, Oriental, White, Indian, and Spanish, each with a 1-in-6 chance. I’m going to guess “Indian” means “People Who Own Casinos”, so I have to wonder which group Indians-from-India fall into. “Oriental”? Raccoon. Raccoon with Bazooka.
My hair color is red, my eye color is also red (I have Sith Corruption!),my height is 71″, and my weight is between 151 and 250 lbs. Does that mean pick a weight, or roll 150+1d100, or what? Screw it, 200 lbs. My physical appearance is “Average”; the table ranges from “Extra Good Looking” to “Give It Up And Wear A Mask”. I am not making this up.
My age is 23 (no roll. Archers all start at 23), and I have a lifespan of 100 years. My wealth is “Normal” and I start with 400 dollars.
Now I determine my Aura. I get to choose this. I am also told not to write it on my character sheet where other people can read it, but write it down secretly. I think it says a lot about the kind of people Raven played with — and for whom this game is, presumably, written — that the idea of segregating player and character knowledge was foreign to them, and that they’d cheat if they could. Anyway, the Auras are Golden, Silver, Blue, Green, Violet, Amber, Grey, Red, and Scarlet. I could transcribe all of them, I suppose, but that would vaguely resemble work. Let’s just say they make the D&D alignments look like a masterpiece of ethical philosophy and leave it at that. I’ll go with “Green”, “A person with good tendencies but with a mischievous streak that will allow them complete freedom.” Did I say “Green”? Oh noes! I has revealed my auras! I meant…. “Neerg”. You will never crack my secret aura code!
I guess it’s time to look at my class abilities.
As an Archer, I get 100-600 life points/level. I rolled a 3, so I guess that’s 300, +15o for my Constitution, or 450 life points. This may sound like a lot, but most attacks do hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of points. Armor in this game is rated in “Tenths”. Each “Tenth” (wait for it) divides damage by 10. However, you have a maximum of 4 tenths, total. This means that, in essence, there’s four “armor classes” in the game… the game that supposed to encompass everything imaginable (it says so on the back cover) has four possible armor types. (I have been working with GURPS lately, where you can have “finely crafted bronze armor greaves with leather padding”, and they even have a supplement published to work out all the combination of low-tech armor materials for you in advance, so you don’t have to .)
Anyway, I also get a bunch of really, really, trivial adjustments: +1 attack per turn every 8 levels, +1% shot bonus per level, etc. The game goes to 50th level, so you can see it takes a long time to see any meaningful change. (Let’s compare to D&D 3.x, where each level for a fighter-type gives a +1 attack bonus on a 1-20 scale, or +5% per level.) Oh, my “advantage” is +1/2 every 5 levels. Why not +1 every 10 levels? Raccoon with bazooka. Raccoon with bazooka.
(I do have a flat +25% shot bonus with a bow, for a +36% Shot Bonus.)
I learn the Gnome spell “Create Matter”, which I can cast 1/day/level, to make new arrows, replace lost or damaged bows, and “any other use the archer can dream up with the exception of making money”. I guess the Gnomes are Marxists. If my Wisdom was 20, then, at 15th level, I’d start learning other Gnome spells. So, we have a bow-using class that learns magic when it hits higher levels. Hmmmmm…. why is that so familiar?
I also learn Earthpower Arrow, which has a range of 1000 feet, and does 100-1000 points of damage, and if used without an arrow (whatever), it can “entangle victims without burning”, and hold one ton of pressure (huh?) plus one ton per level, and encircle a ten foot diameter and all of these words are English but they don’t make sense and raccoon with bazooka. Raccoon with bazooka. I can also use a Grappling Arrow, and I get two types of special arrow at first level, rolled randomly, of course, which are hunter arrow and stunning arrow. (No boxing glove arrow? No fire extinguisher arrow? No boomerang arrow?) The hunter arrow follows people if they dodge, and the stun arrow stuns people, and, following the obscure rule in AD&D 1e regarding Monk attacks, stunning is limited by weight, 300 lbs+100lb per level. In a rare fit of something resembling the hint of a shadow of “someone actually tried to think about this”, a quick flip through the monster section of the book reveals that most of the monsters actually have a listed weight. Doubleplusgood! (I also saw you have 4% chance of encountering a Fur Drake in space. That’s good to know.)
Aaaannnnnd… that’s it for character creation. Bob is good to go! No skills, no feats, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury… basically, my choices during chargen were “Pick one of three classes you randomly qualify for” and “Pick a name”.
Random Synnibarr Facts
- The God Of Lies is called Li’eel.
- There is a God named Ringzazerakrazad. He is a 50th level God.
- There is a God named Joe Null. He is a 1st level God. He looks like a surfer. I am not making this up.
- The Wolverine, Black Titanium, weighs 1-2 tons, and their teeth and claws are organic midnight sunstone that cuts through three tenths.
- Midnight Sunstone Stallions can run for 72 hours at 100 MPH.
- Archers have a +5% chance to be heard in the jungle. Alchemists have a +20% chance to be heard in the jungle.
- Class ‘C’ Surprise is used when someone tries to sucker-punch you from behind.
- Winged Warriors have 2/10ths damage protection. My archer feels cheated.
- Of course, my Archer can just wear Sunstone Grizzly Skin, which gives 2 tenths protection, too.
- Midnight Sunstone has a melting point of 195,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and sells for 15,000,000 dollars per ounce.
- The most powerful force in the universe is Venderant Nalaberong.
- In the great city of Terra, criminals are forced to confess because the police use a Venderant Nalaberong Honesty Spell.
- I am not making this up.
Synnibarr actually has a second edition, and, believe it or not, a supplement.
Coming up next… whenever… I don’t know. I’ve been looking at the Imagine Roleplaying System, which has a potent “Our AD&D House Rules Turned Up To 11” Fantasy Heartbreak Vibe, but which has, at least least, a good number of cool looking ideas buried in the late-70s game design ethos (game was published in mid-90s). For example, there’s a druid spell to create an evil forest of doom. I like spells that create evil forests of doom. Don’t you? My other thought is Chi-Chian, which is something vaguely gothy with giant communist cockroaches in a future New York, which makes it sound very Futurama-ish. Also, I actually met the creator at DragonCon once (by this I mean, I wandered by his booth and said “Hi”, not that he actually knows me or anything), and he was surrounded by hot goth chicks, so if I’m uncharacteristically nice in my review, maybe he’ll loan me one, who will probably spend all her time with my wife discussing their crochet patterns.
Thanks again for going to that dark place so we don’t have to 🙂
I probably shouldn’t ask, but what’s with the midnight sunstone obsession? What is midnight sunstone anyway?
The best thing about the racoon is how he’s checking his watch – like he has some important place to be with that rocket launcher or something.
I really like the watch; it’s somehow oddly… realistic? I dunno. It’s so mundane in the midst of all this madness.
Since you asked, I looked up “Midnight Sunstone” in the index. Synnibarr actually has three indexes, which is surprisingly professional. So, +1 for index, +1 for listing monster weights when you have weight-dependent mechanics, -googol (correct spelling!) for everything else.
“These gems are used to create weapons of pure psionics with organic electronics. The energy they emit is called midnight sunstone energy and it is nearly unstoppable. Created by midnight sunstone drakes and hydras and psisheen mushrooms, this is the hardest substance known.”
(I think mushrooms were heavily involved in the creation of this game, if you get my drift.)
So now you know. And knowing is half the battle. GI JOOOEEEE!!!!
…I’d heard of this game but I never knew just how bad it was. Do we know how old Raven McCracken was when he wrote this? Because it seriously sounds like the Axe Cop of RPGS.
He’s 52 now (2014). I’ll do the math: He was 31 when it was first published in 1993.
I have Synnibar 2nd edition and it’s companion. It’s not as horrible as people make it out to be. It’s got a gonzo setting (which does not automatically mean evil, folks), and it could have used an editing pass purely devoted to organization and readability (stuff like renaming the surprise classes for when they’re used, as opposed to that non-intuitive way things are now.) Mechanically it seems fairly sound (curse my lack of players) but it’s not a modern game with a laser focus on mechanic reuse and balance scaling. But that’s perfectly fine because it in no way claims to care about those things, and those aren’t the end all and be all of gaming. Some things about the system are prone to abuse but as long as you work out in advance with your players if they are going to go for the loopholes and try to powergame from the outset, or try to to only apply such things reasonably, then I don’t think it would be an issue.
Raven C. S. McCracken is a local guy here in WA, state. I still remember watching a local cable access show (circa 1991 or ’92 I think) about…something (pretty sure it was local heavy metal bands), and there was this advertisement type thing where someone who might have been Raven himself was inviting the viewers to “Come down and buy World of Synnibarr from (some local gaming store).”. I did not do so but I always remembered that because it seemed oddly stuck in between low budget ads featuring macho posing metal heads saying “Come down to the Metal Shop/Practice pads!” or some such crap.
I’m going to try and read the tea leaves of Raven C. S. McCraken here and look for meaning in the meaningless:
•”Synnabarr” is probably a homophone for “cinnabar,” which is a shade of red. That kind of makes sense if the planet is supposed to be future Mars.
•I guess the archer class specifically represents a culture of people collectively known as the Archers, rather than just any old dude with a bow.
•”Earthpower” is probably a reference to the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series of fantasy novels that are angsty and grim but also perhaps psychedelic enough to tickle McCracken’s mad fancy.
The “Cinnabar” ref. is confirmed in the text; the “Earthpower” might be correct, I could never get into that series despite several efforts. As for “archers”, well, “race=class” was a trope in very early D&D style games, perhaps it carried over.
I once owned the same copy of WoS, but it’s not the original (“1st”) edition that was sold in stores. That came in big, blue three-ring binders (hole-punched pages) with a stamp on the front cover of that “dragon-moth” logo (or whatever-it-is…I believe on the edition you have, the stamp can be found on the back cover). They used to sell this out of local game stores in Seattle, certainly out of the old Games & Gizmos in the University District (before the store became WotC’s flagship store and long before it closed its doors permanently).
I met Raven (I assume it was him…he introduced himself as the author) on a #7 bus going through the U-District, back in my high school days. This would have been some time circa 1990 or thereabouts. I was probably reading some RPG book, and he introduced himself and asked if I’d be interested in a REALLY AWESOME RPG that he’d just finished writing and was hoping to publish. I took a look but declined (politely)…he seemed VERY enthusiastic about his own product, and I certainly remembered it when I saw the binders for sale later. At the time, it was a little “too D&D” for my tastes, and I was in the midst of my Palladium/White Wolf obsession days…it was also a bit too un-polished compared to the color plates and Bradstreet artwork which was RPG “par” at the time.
When I saw the “upgraded” cover version (about a decade later) I picked it up; I only wish I’d held onto that copy as I haven’t been able to find it since.
Yeah, having some early pre-pro/local distribution copy of a game is a very rare thing. I’ve got one or two “three ring binder” distros of games that eventually came out in more professional form. Even if they’re mostly identical, it’s nice to have something that’s more unique.
I was on Raven’s Synnibar FB group for a while. He turned out to be a Trump-worshipping GOP-tragic with no desire to be willing to not be a loud arsehole.
I think we blocked each other in the same second.
Also: I asked about what he’s updating, and referred to some of the rules and other things I had issues with. His reply: “An editing pass, errata, and new art. Nothing else changes.”
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