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Dynamic movement and tactical dept in post-D&D4 design.

I've started a conversation with Ron in the comments of a Seminary post and he suggested to bring the subject to its own post. 

A small foreword: Ron suggested I use this chance to talk about a game I'm working on (and as, he correctly points out, I can't seem to stop talking about it) but I wanted to start from an example of actual play (from a 2015 D&D4 game) that encapsulates very well a few of the things we touched upon in that discussion.

The second (necessary, I feel) thing I need to say before starting is a brief explanation of why all this is important to me and my design. The game we're working on (if we want to talk about purpose at the table) is strongly oriented towards a Step On Up sensitivity. It's a game about killing monsters, and how to do so in a way that combines the strong tactical elements of a game like D&D4 with the technologies and techniques that we learned to love in the more narrative oriented games that populate the indie scene. We had our ideas on what we wanted to implement into that kind of game in terms of narrative authorities, IIEE, structure and I guess seeing how the new edition of D&D went in pretty much the exactly opposite direction (in making the experience absolutely about the DM's vision of how the game should flow) gave us even more motivation. 

There was a short list of things that were important to us, in terms of design: we decided we wanted to do something about the decidely turn based structure games of this kind tend to have, because we wanted people to act more often and taking a shorter time; we wanted what I think Vincent Baker called an "IIEE with teeth", because we wanted a game that combined the wargame elements we liked with a strong sense of narration; we wanted a system whose rules were clearly accessible to all players, were both the characters and the narrator directly interacted with them and had to abide to their prescriptions, because we wanted a game that once conflict started was played in the spirit of each side actively trying to kill the other.

And here is were the conversation in Ron's original post about movement and grid become relevant.
I'll move on with our actual play of 4E and then make my observations on what we learned from that game and what we're trying to bring over or perfect.

In this scenario we had 3 players (a Hexblade Warlock, a Weaponmaster Fighter, an Executioner Assassin) with me acting as the DM. As this will be long and probably meandering, I'll put the relevant observations on game mechanics and how they influenced my design in bold.

The premise is that one NPC that is very important to the players (a childhood friend of the Fighter who acts as the Healer of the group) got knidnapped by a group of sellswords hired by one of the antagonists. Their plan is not particularly sofisticated: lure the heroes into an isolated place with the perspective of collecting ransom, and overwhelm them with numbers and knowledge of the battlefield.

The location they picked was an isolated shrine devoted to the Raven Queen, a circular structure with a single entrance, aside from a large impluvium that opened in the roof. Something not far from this:

I had to improvise a lot as the events that led to this transpired in the same session, so I created an arena with a single entrance - a set of double doors the sellswords left open - and plenty of shadows and hiding places for the ambush to take place in. Due to the way that game was run and the narrative that led to the event, I also staged the fight in a way that was overwhelmingly in favour of the sellswords, going well over the XP budget for the encounter (and communicating that to the players through information they had gathered).
They knew they'd be walking into a trap, the Assassin got wind of the size and strength of the mercenary force through some contacts in the black market. They were aware they would probably be obliterated.

As usual I left the players decide the course of action without trying to influence them, but I assumed that based on that info they'd be trying a diplomatic solution or play out the moral conflict of abandoning their friends. 
What happened was that they devised a plan, and the interesting thing is that they did so by using the game's mechanics and their tactical applications. 

 

  • the Assassin had the easiest time figuring out his approach. He possessed an At Will ability (Ghost of the Rooftops) that turned his movement speed into a Climb speed, as long as the last square of the movement ended up being a stable platform. He also possessed an ability (from his Paragon path, I think) that allowed him once a day to teleport inside a shadow within 30 ft.
    Now, what I foundt englightening in how he strategized over those abilities can be broken up in 3 points. First, he never had to negotiate with me about what was possible and what was not. If the abilities he was going to use had been of a more traditional nature (a bonus to Climb or Hide checks, for example) we would have probably engaged in a long discussion about bonuses and patrols and the details of the structure. Instead he was able to ask for a description of the shrine and devise the plan on his own. Second, the absence of an element of uncertainity in the use of the abilities allowed for long term planning, and shifted the focus from "can this work?" to "how can I use this?". This is threaded ground in many fields of modern game design, but I've not seen it frequently used in tactical themed games. The third, perhaps surprising, aspect was that very strong movement mechanics encouraged the narrative. By knowing that what he was going to do was going to work (at least in terms of getting where he wanted) without needing to compromise with dice, the player felt encouraged to narrate the way he infiltrated the structure (by climbing on the back for the shrine, reaching the hole in the wall and teleporting in the shadows behind the snipers) in a very flavourful way, without needing to wait to see if he was going to make a fool of himself.
     
  • the Warlock's plan was similar and again it used game mechanics on a strategic and tactical level. 
    He possessed a daily ability that turned him into a cloud of nasty insects (a reskin from an ability that turned you into a blob, but I digress) that gave him phasing during movement. You move through enemies, damage them, return solid.
    He inquired about the presence of windows (there were none) but the shrine was in a strong state of disrepair, so you had cracks and holes. He "wastes" the attack to turn into insects and swarm inside the shrine, and he reforms in the shadow.
    Here, a modicum of negotiation with the DM happened, but still we can see what is a "tactical ability" used in a strategic way. If anything, my impression is that if the authority over the efficiency of a movement ability rests in the hands of the player (rather than the dice or the DM's approval) it's very easy to use tactical abilities to form long term strategies.

 

So we have the assassin and warlock entering from the back, in the shadows. The Fighter hired a few mercenaries on his own and planned to provide a distraction by approaching the front door and negotiating while the two stealthy guys weeded out the opposition. Which again would work rather well and without needing my direct intervention (the Assassin had an ability, Garrote Strangle, that silences the target as long as you hit).
Now this is one example, but my takeaway from that experience was that:
 

  • player-facing rules are instrumental in creating the kind of tactical engagement we were looking for; the ability to devise strategy and tactics in a way that was so "objective"  was something we felt was entertaining for both sides of the table. The DM could present the situation without having to constantly map every pixel because the players were empowered enough.
  • the fact that those abilities were designed with the kind of detail that fundamentally implies the usuage of a fixed size grid surprisingly didn't hinder speculation and creativity in their usage; I'm not sure if this a perk of my group (because I've heard many lamentations on how presenting player abilities in well defined terms apparently makes them harder to use outside of straight combat encounters) but again I feel that having very clear, understandable and well stated effects in the abilities provides the right amount of accountability to the ruleset that allows the DM/GM to be freed from the burden of having to be impartial, as long as he follows the rules.

 

The situation of course evolved further; as the assassin started taking out a few stragglers I decided the sellsword leader became impatient with the fighter's chatting, and he dragged the cleric in the middle of the room, and started raising his crossbow at her. 
What happened then was one of the best scenes we had in, well, I dare to say our entire roleplaying life. The players can't communicate so initiative is rolled and they all have to take action. The Warlock was the quickest, and he decided to cast a spell that allowed him to basically take control of the shadows and attack anything moving closer to him by shaping it into tendrils. At this point the bandits were still focused on the fighter so I rolled a Perception check and it turned out they didn't really spot the odd movements in the shadows around them. The Assassin had a surprisingly terrible roll, and a few sellsword actually went before the rest of the heroes, shooting their crossbows at the fighter.
Now the fighter comes up, right before the bandit leader. He moves up to him and uses a move that pushes him away from the hostage.  Then he blows an action point and uses the infamous Come and Get It.

Now, Come and Get It is a move that triggers a lot of reactions among D&D fans. I won't go over the endless debates, but it's one of the most "meta" abilities in D&D4. It offends fans of simulation because it uses Strength for what is basically a taunt. It offends DMs because it allows players to move monsters. 
To me, it's a delightful little thing that never fails to create amazing situations. Here, in particular, we got the fighter pushing away the sellsword leader with a shoulder ram, then putting his two handed sword over his shoulders and giving a brief, mocking taunt to the room, followed by what was basically a recreation of the "people taking turns at trying to kill the hero and getting blown to pieces" trope. Half a dozen goons charged the guy and met an horrible demise (I was using a lot of minions). 
Now, cool scene or not the actually interesting element was how this ability made movement dynamic and interactive. Monsters who are moved by compulsory effects don't trigger opportunity attacks, but they do trigger traps and effects that don't rely on OA mechanics. The Warlock's spell in fact was one such effect, which led to the sellsword leader (who was hit by Come and Get It and rushed in to get his revenge) to be pulled away by shadow tendrils. A minion set up a snare placed by the assassin. 

Now in all honest I don't have a very strong explanation for how and why this worked so well. I guess there's a psychological element tied to all this happening during a player's turn that gave the players a sense of control and authority, and in turn it led to stronger narration. 

What I can say is that my impression is that when designing tactically oriented mechanics:
 

  • compulsory movements are good
  • players moving monsters definitely brings up the meta "problem" but at the same time can lead to strong narrative moments (think of how many times the DM gets to vividly describe how the troll lifts the poor dwarf off the ground and throws him into the pile of rubble)
  • if you implement a strong component of gameplay that is based around setting up reactions and using action currency to counter or interrupt someone else's actions, you create a more dynamic experience

 

In conclusion:

Now, briefly touching on how all that influenced my game:
 

I suggested in the original comments that seeing movement simply as "getting from here to there" is only part of what makes combat dynamic. What I'm experimenting with is the idea of making movement not just about positioning but also a "state", something that is in good part compulsory. The irony of games whose action economy rewards you for being static by having you perform more attacks is that attacking while standing still is almost impossible. Movement is a crucial part of combat, so my idea was that taking 4E's approach to out-of-turn movement possibilities and making it an integral part of play. For example, attack modes can imply the necessity for some movement (if you are Pressing someone with your attack, you get to move him - and follow, of course - a few hexes as part of your action; or maybe taking a defensive approach may force you to retreat some hexes). Dodging a dragon's breath would require you to place yourself out of the area of effect as part of the reaction, and so on.

Now all this shuffling around risks being merely smoke and mirrors (you're moving around, but does it matter?) if you don't have interesting terrain to limit and enrich such displacements. If you use a map or fixed unit grid, you can follow the kind of "good practices" D&D4 and other games suggest, I think. Now, if you don't (but even if you do) and you don't want to make this a completely one sided process that hinges on some creative effort by the Narrator/DM/whoever, you can introduce mechanics that allow the scenery to become more interesting and Ron itself made a point about how Bounce could be the right dynamic to do so. It's something I want to explore because I think there's a lot of potential there. I would touch on how I wanted to introduce something like this but didn't really know how, and how tests and conflict work, but this is already a way too big post and I would make it even less focused.

Another element of interest in making movement meaningful (and again there's a lot of this in D&D4) is area of effects, terrain effects and auras. The lovecraftian horror you're fighting has tendrils on its belly that flail around and hit anyone who stands too close. There's lava slowly (or not, lava is actually terrifyingly fast) moving across the room. The lich has created a desecrated patch where skeleton arms emerge from the ground and grab your ankles. The cleric has summoned an healing spring. Place new effects on the ground and let players avoid or seek them, creating the necessity for movement. 

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that led us to take an hex based approach - compulsory movement works better, in my opinion, if you can be flexible about it. 

Ok, this has been a lot long that it probably should have, but the topic is so... vast. 
I think the underlying questions here are: what makes movement fun, and what makes it tactical? Can the two things go hand in hand? Throw anything at me, your favourite solutions in game you play, your ideas, any opinions.

Again, sorry for the post's size.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

Great post! If you don't mind my characteristic crude humor, I'll observe that the phrase "a Hexblade Warlock, a Weaponmaster Fighter, an Executioner Assassin" ranks high in the hierarchy of D&D erections.

OK, on to the topic. But not immediately - we should focus just a little bit, and it seems to me the right point is compulsory movement that is associated with doing something specific. I'll include in "compulsory" both being moved wholly as someone else says or must say (Push/Pull/Slide in 4E terms) and moving when given the opportunity that you otherwise don't get, like the many times you can Shift when someone else within a certain range does something using a power that has that secondary effect. The latter doesn't say where you shift, that's up to you. And by "doing something specific," I think it makes most sense to think of that as the main action, with the movement being subordinate in rules terms, despite its being a rather big deal in fictional terms.

There are about four things in your post that make me want to reply tangentially to this point, and I've decided that, no, we need to focus. So stay with me on it and we'll nitpick/riff on the other stuff some other time.

Are you familiar with Knockback in the various versions of Champions? My commitment to the game is primarily toward its earliest versions, 1980-1985, in which punches and blasts hurled characters all over the place. It often provided damage and significant other effects (landing prone or not, breaking what you hit, taking more damage, getting submerged in or entangled in things), but most importantly, the character goes in the direction you struck them in - so although the precise distance was ungovernable, this was arguably the most important basic tactic a fighting-team could use to control the overall confrontation. It also depended on the damage delivered, not how much the target absorbed after defenses, so even if you couldn't hurt the guy directly, you can sure put him at or toward where the group needs him to be.

I'm sure you can see my point. This is very much what we're talking about albeit at a much more in-fiction, less-meta fashion than a Leader in 4E who can do sparkly double damage to an opponent + his or her allies get a free Shift. Therefore I want to stress that this is not about in-fiction vs. meta, it's the same thing in terms of technique, i.e., our direct experience of play.

So how does Bounce come into it? It's certainly in the Champions example because you don't know how far they'll be Knocked Back, and there's a chance they won't be at all. Where they actually end up, after this punch, is bounded by the possible outcomes but not predictable inside them. And some of those outcomes are significantly more or significantly less "bad for our side," or perhaps even more significantly, either very good or very bad for you personally.

LorenzoC's picture

That observation is on point. I mean, it's ludicrous how every adjective is perfectly redundant but hey, that's the nature of 4E's "we need a version of the class for every playstyle" ethos.

Sadly I'm not very familiar with Champions, as I never actually played it. I remember reading it one summer (it was a ballot between playing Champions, Sembieda's Robotech and Rifts. Robotech won) but I guess it's another game I should have paid attention to. But hey, I've also very recently discovered Circle of Hands exists and what I'm seeing in the actual play videos makes me regret not discovering it sooner, as it seems to do so many things I like. There are so many games, and so many good ones. And I'm making another, talk about redundancy. But let's focus.

Anyways, yes I see your point about how Champions implements the kind of mechanic we're talking about. And even more importantly, the point about Bounce is still what interests me the most.

Perhaps it's time I explain a little about how things work in my system, because as you'll see those things we're discussing are there but they're very, let's say, predictable and controllable and so I'm back to the point of asking myself "Do I need Bounce here?" and if yes, how?

I'll keep it short for once. In our game narrative authority flips during the IIEE process. The acting character rolls a few dices and adds 3 of them together (of his choice among however many he rolled), and they represent how well you did something - standard stuff.
When it comes to combat, you subtract the opponent's Defense value (reprenting armor, thick hide, basically anything that would reduce the impact if the attack were to land) and you get a Success rating. It's a single roll for accuracy and damage, and it follows a principle that's pervasive in the entire game: characters are generally competent and succeed at what they do. Defense values tend to be pretty small numbers, so having some sort of success is the default state of the game. And how big your success is (measured in steps of 3 points) determines what you get to do, and it's generally very nasty stuff.

So the acting character declares he's swinging his big axe, and then rolls for his attack, getting a certain Success rating. And the target would get chopped to pieces but - here's were we flip narrative authority.

Characters have a resource called Energy that is basically... Hit Points. We dislike Hit Points in terms of consistency, for their abstract but inflexible nature, for how they should be a way to enrich the fiction but end up being contradictory implemented and lead you to stop asking what is actually happening within the fiction. I won't digress on this because I'm sure you read it way too many times.
But we do like hit points as a mechanic, expecially a pacing mechanic. Hit Points are a reliable resource that ensures combat won't be too swingy and that solid combat mechanics can be built upon. When you want your game to feature a lot of combat and you want to make combat an entertaining process, hit points just work.

So what we did here was (in an attempt to make sure everything did actually make sense in-fiction, including recovery but more importantly understanding how and why hit points worked when attacks land) flipping the concept from an ablative shield that gets eroded no matter what before you're knocked out to a resource you actively spend on your own.
So what happens is that the guy with axe describes his attack, and rolls, and communicates his success rating, and at this point the defending character describes how he's going to defend himself, and then spends however many hit points (pardon, Energy) he wants to reduce that success. If he brings it to zero, the attack is fully avoided; my description of how I survive ends the action. If instead the attacker still has some success left, he gets to apply whatever effect he can afford (and narrative power returns to him).
Now what's important to know (and this is why I say it's "IIEE with teeth", hopefully) is that your defence must be consistent with what is trying to kill you. You can't parry a dragon's breath. You can't block the tree a giant is swinging like a club. So the attacker has to describe the attack because that allows you to describe your defence. Your description, if it makes sense, acts as a trigger (a la PbtA) for the type of defence you'll be using, and this in turn may trigger class abilities and so (Warriors are really good at parrying, or blocking with a shield may boost your counterattack and so on).

Dodge almost always work, but it's expensive (as your encumbrance and armor force you to offset an initial cost before you get to spend Energy on reducing the incoming attack). But as it needs to make sense, Dodge includes a component of movement you get to do to actually get out of the way. So when you Dodge, you'll be moving around. There's other defence forms - for example, the dragon is breathing fire and you declare you duck behind a pillar, you spend your energy and actually move behind the pillar, if you can afford it. You can do pretty much anything, as long as it makes sense in the fiction. And you of course get the usual unique effects on top of it - an agile Rogue may dodge "through" the attack, flipping over the attacker and landing behind him and so on and so forth.

Ok, this wasn't short. But I hope it was clear at least. It's a framework that allows us to create so many different effects, both active and reactive (sometimes it feels even overwhelming - in design, not in actual play, where so far I've seen it flow beautifully) but it's very, well... it lacks Bounce, I guess. It lacks something that brings interesting, unforseen complications in the equation. I like the sense of control (I want players to feel like they're in charge of their characters) but I want the system to provide play with exciting and unforeseen scenarios.

Ron Edwards's picture

Slightly brutally ... I used to give people the choice of “the cestus or the cuddle,” but I kind of wore out on that and it’s just wham now.

OK, first, the energy spending you describe is not functional for closing resolution. Mini-bidding wars never work for that, although they may be great as subroutines (“push forward two dice” in Dogs in the Vineyard) and associated variables (physical reserves and limits in Circle of Hands). The reason they don’t work is that the outcome is effectively fore-ordained simply by looking at the available pools; this problem applies, naming three games off the cuff, to Nobilis, FATE, and DC Heroes. That only way one can say “that’s not a problem” is to acknowledge that the GM is effectively front-loading outcomes to control the story, which bluntly is the case for all three of those, and removes them from consideration for your purposes.

One might think that you’re trading off on future outcomes, if you deplete your reserve, but that doesn’t turn out to be a problem in those games because recovery is so easy. In case you’re wondering, I do think 4E is way too generous about recovering HP.

One useful system to practice is now obsolete, meaning, out of print, hard to find, and hard to find people to play it with – the original Action Point mechanic in the Extended Contests of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest). It was a really nice abstract technique that was rooted in comparative competence, then helped to play one's character's attention, effort, and luck in a fog-of-war environment composed of dice rolls, including sudden drops and windfalls, and then determined the outcome in terms of injury without itself having represented meat and blood along the way. Furthermore, you didn’t walk around with a bank of points; your starting value was determined by the primary ability you leaped into the combat with, and “existed” only for that situation.

Second, you’ve run right into the usual attempt to compensate for that problem by inserting blah blah blah blah all day, as in, “carry on about what you’re trying to do because that is Fun(TM).”

Now, I will cop to my own responsibility regarding that alleged badge of indie-ness. I did indeed include bonus dice in Sorcerer based on describing what you do. For those who don’t know where it comes from (which is apparently everyone), that rule dates back to early-80s Champions, the same texts I mentioned above. In them, and thus in Sorerer, it was born out of the fact that people spontaneously say fun stuff and everyone goes “spoo” because they like it, and when that happens, why not throw in an extra +1 or damage die out of sheer fun. I did not know, in the late 90s, that this whole concept had disappeared from Good Gaming Inc, so now, people interpreted it as whoring for more dice with blah blah blah blah. It took me years to figure out what on earth they were talking about.

To be technical, what you’re describing is not IIEE with teeth. That term means that we can’t roll or use the numbers without the narration, not that we simply mandate narration in there when we could well just do it with numbers alone.

What do I mean with “can’t” and “without?” The three non-grid examples that come to mind immediately are Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard (which is strongly influenced by Sorcerer), and an older game, Legendary Lives. I’ve gone into this topic a number of times in my posts about the latter game, which I’ve played a lot this past year, so for the moment, take my word for it. You always know where the characters are in the midst of combat, what their current posture is, and even their sense of balance and orientation – this information incontrovertibly emerges from the outcomes of rolls, and it’s necessary to know in order to state what you do next. Also, in Sorcerer especially, there are clear distinctions among launching the action, actually getting to it, canceling it instead before you get there if you must, and having done the action (or canceled it), so at any given moment, you know every character’s situation in those terms.

Let’s not go down the PbtA rabbit hole about this. Briefly, the rule in Apocalypse World is sensible and completely in tradition with the majority of role-playing games, but evidently, very few devotees of PbtA have read it or employed it as written, and what they do is often some melange produced by a game of Telephone. I don’t regard it as worth the time to discuss.

I like the sense of control (I want players to feel like they're in charge of their characters) but I want the system to provide play with exciting and unforeseen scenarios.

Yeah, well, I want a fuckin’ pony.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. I think you’ll get exactly what you want by starting with a slight shift in phrasing, specifically, get rid of “control” entirely, perhaps then saying, “I want players to have agency in what their characters do, but I want that agency to participate in determining what happens, not to over-determine it.”

Here’s a thought. You roll how much Energy is lost with your defense, per unit in some way. I don’t know the scale of your game, but you know the functional units, like 5 points or 1 point or whatever. So for every unit, I guess, you could roll 1d6. I want to put 3 units into defense to stop that axe? I gotta roll 3d6 and that’s how much Energy I lose. Again, adjust my dice and numbers to taste.

This is the technique employed in the original Marvel Super Heroes that prevented spending Karma from overwhelming the dice, the way spending Hero Points in DC Heroes unfortunately does.

Try it. I’m not suggesting it as the actual fix or technique to use eventually, but as a device for seeing how these things work. You may discover it’s not in the right “place” for your game, but in checking it out, you’ll find out what kind of device of this sort is better for it, and where it belongs.

[sorry for the slight edits over the past day; I mixed up a little between between the two parts and had to figure out how to separate them; should be OK now]

LorenzoC's picture

Slightly brutally ... I used to give people the choice of “the cestus or the cuddle,” but I kind of wore out on that and it’s just wham now.

Much appreciated. I'll take blunt but effective over courteous any day of the week, and if I thought my design was flawless I wouldn't be here discussing it and asking for advice. Heck I don't even think it can be perfect, or that it should be.

My first concern is that this is starting to sound like something that should belong to the Consulting tab, or am I wrong? I don't want to abuse your hospitality, so to say.  

I need to ask a few questions and make a few observations to make sure I'm understanding your points right, however. I'll bullet point them for the sake of brevity (God knows I use way too many words when writing in english):
 

  • I get where you're coming from when you say 4E is too generous, and I also get the point on how systems that function on the erosion of a bank of resources tend to give disproportionate power to the GM in steering the story in a certain direction; but I do feel that 4E's generosity was a consequence of the "encounter balanced instead of work day balanced" design goals and it's something I strongly appreciated in that game; in fact, I think fundamentally resetting the clock on short-term risks (which is what HP in D&D manage) at all fights is a preferrable approach to asking the DM to somehow funnel the players through an exact number of encounters. It wasn't perfect, because healing surges were often way too generous and there wasn't a system that would handle long term consequences, but I appreciated how it worked.
  • Moving from this, you mentioned Hero Wars, and I've not played that in a very long time but if I recall correctly your AP pool was replenished at each conflict and didn't carry over (which is something you also mention, if I got that reference right). And that's how things work in my game too: Energy doesn't represent "hit points" or durability, and as such you get to use all your energy at every fight. I don't say this loudly because people around me still throw tantrums about the notion of anything that is overly meta, but it's fundamentally narrative currency. Long term effects can impact your energy pool, but it's rather minor. I went this way because I feel this is something the players need to be able to rely upon and pace on their own, regardless of the frequency at which the Narrator may or may not throw stuff at them.
  • Of the games you mentioned, I've only really played FATE and read Nobilis, never even seen DC Heroes (it's bizzarre how superhero games are kind of a black hole for me and most people I play with). But that helps me understand what you mean here and yes, giving the GM the power to wear out players to inform how they should behave is a huge no-no for me. Which is why energy replenishes at all fights (but is also a much more limited and less scaling resource than in D&D).
  • Now with that specific side of the discussion clarified on my part (if it was necessary, but feel free to hit me with anything I'm not getting), I'm slightly confused about the reference to bidding. I'm fairly familiar with Hero Wars (at least, I remember it) and Dogs, and I think those games have a very mature and authentical bidding mechanic. My game is much more dry and one sided (and it's meant to resolve much faster), and unless my gaming jargon literacy fails me (which wouldn't surprise me much), I've never thought of it as "bidding". Dude attacks me with an axe, he gets a 16, my defence is 3, so he has a success of 13, which is a whopping 3 increments. So how many points to do I spend on that? How much hurt am I willing to take? But it's very one sided. The guy rolls, then it's up to me. I decide how many points to spend - in D&D I'd just lose that many hit points, with no choice, because hit points are meant to represent how you've been missed after you've been hit (or some such), while here you have just one roll, and the player decide how and how well he wants to avoid it. If he doesn't, some hurt is coming his way (which is where the wound system, which is a shameless riff on the latest fad of clock thingies, kicks in). Again, I'm trying to make myself clearer because I'm feeling like I'm missing something, so feel free to correct me.

 

Second, you’ve run right into the usual attempt to compensate for that problem by inserting blah blah blah blah all day, as in, “carry on about what you’re trying to do because that is Fun(TM).”

Ok, now this is something I can take issue with! I kid, but I probably communicated really poorly this point. If I can be blunt, I really really really dislike games that "reward" you for being colorful or narrating well or doing something that garner applause at the table. It's not my thing, it's immaterial, subjective and plenty of other probably unearned expletives. I'm not a fan of Inspirations and those kinds of mechanics.
Now if you want to be flavourful and use some epic prose to describe what you do... feel free to do so, but it does nothing in game. You can actually do that in D&D if you want, or so I'm told.
Narration plays a part in our IIEE process just to convey information. I need to tell you what's coming your way because you need to do something that makes sense to survive. But it's not meant to be some grand descriptive prose. I can just tell you "The corridor is pretty narrow, so the minotaur lifts his axe over his head and brings it down on your head" and you can just tell me "I raise my shield to block it". The roll has told us how good the attack was, your description tells us it's a Block, your Energy expenditure (or in this case, the shield's durability) will tell us how well did that work for you. Everyone else knows that there's a minotaur in the middle of the corridor with his axe planted in your shield, and can move from there. Now you could tell me "all the narrative is useless, I could just tell you that I attack and you tell me that you block", and in this case it probably would, but again it's about information and picking a defense that works (monster attacks specificy what works and what doesn't, and the Narrator is tasked to communicate clearly on this) and moving the narrative somewhere. There's a catch here that's hard to communicate without actual play (isn't that always the problem?) and that's the system started from the question "How does an idiot with a few millimeters of metal for protection and a glorified stick kill a dragon?", ignoring the sensible "He doesn't" answer, and working from there. All this is meant to create action scenes that have an internal logic and are fun to explore in a tactical way, without ending up having to say "I've just been hit by the giant swinging 700 kg of sharpened metal for 36 damage, I'm fine". But it's nowhere near even attempting to have narrative depth and richness comparable to some of the games we're discussing.
As a consequence, I take no issue at your mention that my IIEE is actually defanged - because I do feel the narrative is necessary for the game to work, but the dice roll that starts it all doesn't, or at least not in a significant way. I'll confess that that kinda sucks, but fair is fair.

I kind of hate the comment on Legendary Lives because I didn't know it and it sounds damn interesting, and now I have to read it. And I'll never get to play it.

 

Yeah, well, I want a fuckin’ pony.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. I think you’ll get exactly what you want by starting with a slight shift in phrasing, specifically, get rid of “control” entirely, perhaps then saying, “I want players to have agency in what their characters do, but I want that agency to participate in determining what happens, not to over-determine it.”

Speaking of things I had coming... yeah.

I like your rewording a lot, it encapsulates my goals, except perhaps that I'm more concerned about dice over-determining things, which I feel is often what happens in D&D and other games I ultimately like.
It's one of the reasons we make people roll dice pools and add up results - it creates more stable and predictable results, and it makes outliers rarer. But the swinginess can be devastating. If the goblins roll 3d6, and my defence is, say, 8, I can expect to spend very little energy on most attacks, but if the guy rolls a 16, that's a pretty big thing. Adding a further layer of randomness in the "defence roll" feels excessive, in the mathematical model I have in mind, and yet your suggestion does precisely nail that feeling that I have that I need some unpredictability in that process. I have this very oiled machine and I probably need to throw a wrench in it.

Thanks for the answer, as usual.

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes, good call: we should switch to Consulting if we are to dive directly into designing this game as a topic, especially regarding the Energy mechanic. I have some notes to address these points:

  • 4E’s hit points as resource-and-refresh system
  • The consequences of contests in Hero Wars
  • The definition of bidding
  • Your important phrasing about the well-oiled machine and the monkey wrench

The red button at the top right of the Consulting section provides a form to send if you’d like. I’d like to close out all discussion of that here as of now.

Instead, for this post, let’s focus on the movement and mapping issue in a different reply stream, especially in reference to what 4E provided in your description of play.

From my experience with FATE, I have to say that systems that let you alleviate the outcome of a dice roll feel like they lack teeth. In play what I saw was that players were generally willing to spend as much  as was necessary for full success to fully avoid consequences. Rarely did anyone say "I want to save this FATE point, so I will accept that consequence."  In FATE there's the added drawback that both side of a conflict can escalate point spending, thus changing the focus from an unpredictable outcome to how much of a resource someone is willing to spend. The bounce generated by a dice roll is drastically reduced. Granted you lose your FATE points, but they are easy to refresh.

Ron Edwards's picture

Agreed on all counts. I played a fair amount of FUDGE during the early 1990s and found myself gravitating to less controllable systems, against the current accepted wisdom that players are happier when they get what they "want" to happen. I think the breakthrough for me at the time, finally to reject that entirely, was playing the hell out of Sorcery!, the subset publications for the Fighting Fantasy line associated with the Crown of Kings adventures.

Much later, playing FATE, I understood my dissatisfaction with FUDGE much better, as all the features you've listed were increased in presence and magnitude.

LorenzoC's picture

It's a really good observation and suffice to say some of my issues with FATE tend to stem from this precisely.
I'm not a fan of systems that let you use a resource that you could be using on something fun to save your life, and I'm really not a fan of systems that tell you "ok here you'd die, but want to spend one luck point to pretend nothing happened instead?". Pathfinder second edition is the most recent disappointement in this regard, as it features one of the worst examples of this ("you can spend points from this on this and that, or save them all to decide not to die"). It's a "this should happen, but instead nothing will" approach that I'm not fan of.

I will briefly point out that the dynamics here are different. Energy is, aestethic and consequences of gameplay aside, just like HPs in fuction. HPs are spent no matter what and you have no say in losing them; here things are structurally a bit different (there's just one roll for hitting and damage, which lead to different considerations in terms of designing how the IIEE process works) but Energy is meant to be spent on avoiding attacks. It's the default state, precisely like losing HP is the default state in D&D. You may want to risk taking some actual damage here and there, and you may not be able to avoid it, but those are the exceptions. For example, this approach fixes the "10 crossbowmen ready to shoot you, but you can easily eat those 5-6d8 that will actually hit you". What we care about in the game isn't really the IF but the HOW, if that makes any sense.

LorenzoC's picture

Forgot to say: now the discussion about the virtues and pifalls of controllable systems would be very interesting to discuss, but I feel we'd steer further away from the original topic.

A movement mechanic that I've found works well when one doesn't have everything laid out hex by hex on a map is the dice check to see if you get it done before something complicates things. In PBTa games, I've said "You want to charge up to the goblin archers without getting hit, roll Defy Danger." In Champions Now, I've had a player roll Dex against the Dex of a villain when they were both heading to the same location at roughly the same movement rate. The winner got there first -- and how much they made it by determined how much they could prepare before the other showed up.

LorenzoC's picture

It's very functional solution. The Champions Now example in particular is a beautiful little thing that ticks a lot of boxes for me (it's a very clean, transparent and logical way to handle it, and it also immediately builds a moment of excitement).

At the same time, it's very clear that it creates a dynamic that may be, for my tastes, a little over-determinated by dice. If the game has a rigidly enforced tactical structure it may become frustrating for the player to see a particular strategy fail because he rolled poorly. Movement in particular (and mind you, have nothing to base this on except experience and observations) seems to be something that you need to somehow be able to rely upon (maybe positioning, rather than movement, but the two things are strongly tied). It would be a long transmedial digression, but there's a long tradition of products with rich tactical dept in the videogame world that function without putting particular enfasis on randomness (if not almost completely eliminating it, to the point that when randomness emerges the player's perception becomes that the game is "cheating"). I'm thinking of games like Tactics Ogre or X-Com, for example. But you can have strong tactical gameplay even without grid movement in videogames too - see Darkest Dungeons. 

 

Ron Edwards's picture

Lorenzo, we'll talk more about this in the consult, but for now, I think you are stuck in a tapdance. "How can we get away from the static, overly-known aspects of unit-based, mapped movement" vs. "oh no, we're introducing unknowns and random factors." This is what I meant by the pony. Either the movement and locations are utterly deterministic (no unknowns, if I do this, I go there, and this is when I do it), or the planned, executed action has some chance to be overturned. This is your real conundrum, and even using maps vs. not using maps is only secondary to it.

It's easy to imagine some randomizing factor as devaluing the player's agency. But that's all it is, an imagined bugaboo, a monster of your invention, and it's definitely not a refutation or thinking response to another person's very helpful comment. You did it before to me - entirely reflexively, even describing it as a feeling - when I described randomizing the Energy expenditure. Now you're doing it to Alan. Your response (rejection) only makes sense if the application of this idea is a bad application. It's only a bad application if you imagine it to be.

This isn't game design, to go by imagined monsters and gut feelings. I said "Try it" for a reason, not because it's what I think is best for the game, but because I think you need to try randomizing or contingent effects like this in order get out of this tapdance. That applies as well to the roll-off for opposed actions in the same conceivable imagined moment.

LorenzoC's picture

It was absolutely reflexive (I think I describe it as a gut feeling earlier?) and none of my answers wanted to be dismissive of the possibility that my current concern is entirely based on the fact that I may indeed need more bounce and more random elements. And it would definitely be a trap to assume that introducing random elements limits player agency, because for every time my perfectly laid out plan made of knowable, reliable elements will let me control my destiny I will have a situation where the same objectively knowable outcomes will leave me completely out of options and opportunities to change the upcoming events. 

Now, if I have to give a thinking man's answer on the point, I think that how we handle these randomized elements (obviously also depending on where we place the fortune in the way actions are initiated and resolved) depends on understanding what we fundamentally are rolling for in the game. Which sort of falls back on purpose, because that's what determines how we look at the outcomes of those rolls. 

The question is: after I have randomized (all or in part) the outcome of a certain action (or part of it), is the result I've produced always useful? Some games threat only success as a useful result - you rolled poorly, nothing really happened, turn is over, better luck next time. Some games threat every result as useful - ok you failed, then this happens, or maybe you can still succeed, if you accept this and that.

Now, it is my belief (not feeling, in this case) that if I as a designer put enough randomness in the IIEE of a certain player's action that that randomization can frequently become the most determining factor in the usefulness (defined as the capability to produce an outcome that the player can do something with, which is of course not limited to success) of said action, I need to ensure that the system provides that usefulness.

I'll try to explain what I mean with an actual play example. Last night I was running a combat encounter in PF2. Players vs orcs and giant boars (and a burning house, but that's not really relevant). Two distinct moments caught my attention (also because of the useful conversations we've been having here): one player places his wizard in a position that allows him to finish off two orcs with his Electric Arc cantrip. It was the textbook example of precise, dry positioning: get them both within 6 squares, stay as far away from the chief orc as possible. In the process, the player inadvertitely places himself within range of another orc, who in fact moved in and attacked him. This broght a distinctive "a-ha" moment to the player and group: they were frustrated, but their takeaway was "we had it coming, you should have been more careful".

The second moment is when two other characters were fighting the giant boar. The characters are level 2 and they have about 20-24 hit points. The boar hits for 2d8+4. One player moves, convinced his 18 hp remaining are a good place to be, and the boar hits him for 19 a few moments later. The other character is on 16 hp, he decides (in a conflicted mood) to stay and fight, he gets hit for 9 damage, and eventually the boar goes down.
But the takeaway from that event is that the outcome was possibly less satisfactory than the previous failure, because they felt the previous failure was an effect of choice, while the excessive swinginess of the boar's damage output made two identical choices lead to opposed results. The question they asked themselves was "what we could have done to avoid this?" and the answer ("having more hit points than the maximum theorical damage the boar can output") is merely a way to remove the randomness at all. Or could they move out of the way, far enough to avoid attacks from the boar? First off, due to the rigid, knowable functioning of the action economy, in order to negate the boar's 3 actions they would have to forego all their 3 actions to move away. But in fact, due to the boar's superior movement speed, even this plan would not work. The deterministic nature of the on-map movement of Pathfinder 2 still left them with no real agency outside of gaming the dice and hoping the damage wasn't too high. 

Back to the pony, I guess, but my observation is that here the problem is produced by the uneven distribution of bounce: half the game is run on rigid, deterministic parameters, while the other half is incredibly swingy and randomized. The disharmony could invalidate the effectiveness of either aspect. The "problem" isn't randomness, it's what the randomness produces. It's "what are we rolling for?". If the dice don't give us something we can use, is it fair to let them handle outcomes in a binary way?

Going back to the Champions Now example, is the roll open? Do I as a player know I'm arriving late to the target, that I may be walking into a trap? Do I get to do something with that result, even if it's not immediately in my favour? Is the roll the first step in a process, or the last?

 

In the Champions Now example, I told the players what the opposed rolls would produce and they had no way to modify the outcome once it rolled. Had they proposed some clever addition to the contest, I would have worked out a way to have it influence the outcome. They did not, so we rolled and the final situation was determined by the roll. Who arrived first and how much time they had to prepare was not subject to change at that point. My players did not feel cheated. 

Lorenzo, I urge you to try some empirical experiments -- speculation and discussion will not get you the answers you want.

 

LorenzoC's picture

I wouldn't have felt cheated either - I don't think where you place the actual randomization is a dominant factor in determining agency. It could be at the beginning, and you could still have strong player agency if they get to do something with/about the outcome of the roll; or it can be at the end, like in this case, and their agency is manifested in how they get to the roll, how they get to influence it and set it up, and the choices that lead to it.
I don't really have a preference or even a particularly strong opinion on this. As I said, I really like how you handled things in Champions, it satisfies a lot of my priorities. If it can help, I'm also a big fan of the chase rules of Savage Worlds (which makes me a weird guy, I guess) and that's a lot of randomization that disregards almost completely any sort of actually accurate calculation about speed and position in favour of doing something fun and placing the player's agency (however little, probably) in the moment-to-moment decisions.

As a side note, I did some actual testing of what Ron suggested almost immediately after he did. It was a brief simulation of combat with one of my fellow writers, and while it's way too early to draw any conclusion, the impression I got is that it made the process more simmetrical, as both the acting and the defending character had to deal with randomization now, and it also sensibly changed the way combat felt. The most important aspect is that the language of the defensive operations changes from "I do" to "I try", because you can't know ahead of time how well a certain move will work. And on one hand I don't really like this because the feel of the game changes significantly, but on the other I really like it because it means you get to see more things happen as defense becomes much less reliable. 
There's a part of a video where Ron speaks about how Legendary Tales solves the issue of being unable to know anything about an attack you're performing until you actual get to the step of rolling damage (while LT's unified roll gives you all the info, including hit location in case you're the one being attacked). The way I've handled things in my experimentation basically brings this up again. If I want to implement it in the end, I need to do some work on how and when the randomization happens.

Ron Edwards's picture

Let's save the consulting for the consulting. I really don't want to talk about your game in design here. If we discuss something here that seems relevant to it, please save it for later. Call the above 15 replies finished and reboot.

There are two examples at hand. Drilling into the Pathfinder instance, it seems clear to me that you don't like dice to kill characters, or even "kill" in the softer way that characterizes modern D&D and its variants. That's a hard preference-limit I can accept for this conversation. But since the solution is so obvious - don't have dice kill characters - and so common nowadays, I'd like to set that entire issue aside and talk about movement instead, as a device of player agency.

In the D&D 4E example, in your opening post, you described reliable movement, especially special individual variants, as a key element of player empowerment in that game. I completely agree. Now let's take a very hard look at 4E in terms of what you called control. One of my favorite pieces of the design, as a DM, is the ease and fun of using their monster stat blocks. And one of the key features in any stat block is whether the critter can change player-characters' positions through their powers, just like many player-characters can do to their opponents.

As an aside, I do not see any issue with "meta" about any of these rules, whether it's the DM moving player-characters around or the players moving DM-characters around. The very fact that any fictional character moves because a real person has said something is "meta" if one wants to use that term at all. The issue at hand is authority, not aesthetics, and that is a neutral topic as long as no one at the table is confused about its rules for use.

So, to my point: you talked about compulsory movement being a big plus in this game, and I agree very strongly. But many fictional entities can do it. In other words, it's quite possible, even after a couple of rounds of combat, for every character in the fiction to be placed differently from where its player, including the DM, first moved it to. Push-Pull-Slide on everyone, as perpetrated by practically all of us, and most of it compulsory - i.e., not where I wanted "my guy" to be. And, as combat proceeds, for a similar effect to be repeated and ongoing.

Therefore I don't see the player's solidity (for lack of a better word) regarding movement.as a form of control. Quite the contrary in fact - the game includes an extensive family of rules which opens up and renders unpredictable all the movement-decisions of every single person playing. This Assassin's secure, controlled approach to the situation is fine and enjoyable to read about, as it must have been fun to do, but I submit that it would be just as fun for the relevant monster - if present, and if it were made possible by perception, initiative, range of effect, attack roll, et cetera - to have up-ended his black-clad, cape-swirling ass, "ruining" the plan entirely. In other words, the fun doesn't come from the player's surety about the tactic's outcome. It comes from being able to get that tactic into play in the first place.

Agency is one thing: you get to employ your relevant capabilities and not be stifled or shut down in their basic use. Control is another: it means you get to feel secure about the outcome of those capabilities' use.

I'd like to know something about that 4E game, especially with these exact three characters. When and how did they ever lose a fight? I'd like to know all about that situation and all about the rules that were used.

LorenzoC's picture

There are two examples at hand. Drilling into the Pathfinder instance, it seems clear to me that you don't like dice to kill characters, or even "kill" in the softer way that characterizes modern D&D and its variants. That's a hard preference-limit I can accept for this conversation. But since the solution is so obvious - don't have dice kill characters - and so common nowadays, I'd like to set that entire issue aside and talk about movement instead, as a device of player agency.

I'd be tempted to say "not exactly". I mean, ultimately it must be dice that kills the characters, if that's how the resolution in the game works. You will always find yourself in the situation where only lucky roll lets you get away with a certain strategy. In fact, the most exciting moments I can recall in D&D actual play happen when a certain degree of fortune is needed - the main focus is how much control you get on the way there. If the game is generally stable and you need luck (actively or passively) to achieve an extraordinary result, that works very well for me. If the default state of the game is "at every roll, it could be whatever", I find it less exciting - at least in this kind of game. It's also very much about the frequency of the rolls, and the density of the game itself (is it a game designed for one shorts/short campaigns? Because in that case I need as much drama as possible on any roll, etc). 

One of my favorite pieces of the design, as a DM, is the ease and fun of using their monster stat blocks. And one of the key features in any stat block is whether the critter can change player-characters' positions through their powers, just like many player-characters can do to their opponents.

100% agree.

As an aside, I do not see any issue with "meta" about any of these rules, whether it's the DM moving player-characters around or the players moving DM-characters around. The very fact that any fictional character moves because a real person has said something is "meta" if one wants to use that term at all. The issue at hand is authority, not aesthetics, and that is a neutral topic as long as no one at the table is confused about its rules for use.

200% agree. 

 

Therefore I don't see the player's solidity (for lack of a better word) regarding movement.as a form of control. Quite the contrary in fact - the game includes an extensive family of rules which opens up and renders unpredictable all the movement-decisions of every single person playing.

I agree here too, and if I can dare I think this is part of what makes people say D&D4 is "tactical" while traditional D&D is "strategical". In D&D4 very rarely you get to say "I sit on this hill and rain arrows on people and this will be all done before they get to me". It's about constantly having to reassess your situation because you'll move, and people will move, and people will move you. Probably the idea of having to "soft reset" your situation at every turn goes against the definition of control of most, but I think of D&D4 as a game where you're constantly making the best choice for that turn. I'm starting to think I may have overstated my preference for "control" - it's more about having choices that matter. D&D4's unpredictability is what forces you to constantly make similar choices, as opposed to say, 3.5 where once you got where you want to be, you have little to no reason to move because the best choice is to stand still and whack. Being moved around and seeing your target constantly escape unpunished is integral to that not happening in D&D4. 

but I submit that it would be just as fun for the relevant monster - if present, and if it were made possible by perception, initiative, range of effect, attack roll, et cetera - to have up-ended his black-clad, cape-swirling ass, "ruining" the plan entirely.

Yes! In fact, that did happen quite a few times (additionally: all that freedom of movement got him to outpace the rest of the group and ending up walking to danger alone more thna once). But removing the need to roll to see if he does get to climb to the window allows us to move the danger and uncertainity to the next step, so to say. In the first video you suggested about dice injection there's a part where you touch on how excessively uninfluential dice rolls ultimately seem to lose their quality of disruptors - so I guess my reasoning here is "if you expect this guy to do this almost all the time, why rolling? Why putting a disruptor right at the start of the scene?".

Agency is one thing: you get to employ your relevant capabilities and not be stifled or shut down in their basic use. Control is another: it means you get to feel secure about the outcome of those capabilities' use.

In this light, control definitely sounds like a joy-killer. Question: can you have both? Is it possible to build a combat-intensive game where outcomes are generally fairly predictable, but the extraordinary can still happen and you'll need to work your way on getting an exceptional, unpredictable result because the predictable one doesn't cut it? I can think of such cases in tactical videogames for example, such as X-Com - I can trade shots with that soldier there and I'm almost sure I'll land some damage, but he's not going to die for sure. Or I can move up there, exposing myself to those squishy mind controllers, and throw in a granade and finish them, but my odds are much worse. The first move is "controlled" and probably gets me killed in the long run. The second is risky but may let me win (or die in the short run). In this light I don't think control is necessarily adversarial to having fluid, fun situations, as long as it's just one option.

 

I'd like to know something about that 4E game, especially with these exact three characters. When and how did they ever lose a fight? I'd like to know all about that situation and all about the rules that were used.
 

It was a very long game (from level 1 to 27 over I think a little less than 4 years), so maybe I'm not recally every situation but... they lost a good number of fights, if we qualify "packing your bags and running because you realize you can't win the combat" as losing. I recall an egregious case when they engaged a group of deformed troglodite-like creatures in a U shaped corridor (where the turns were stairs). The warlock moves past the corner because the creatures in this part of the corridor are already engaged and he wants to unleash his aoe attack, the roll goes rather poorly and he ends up being swarmed. Few moments later the fighter is carrying him unconscious and they're running away, getting rather lucky and avoiding what looked like a TPK (the assassin used his abilities to slow down the chasers but that meant he got to soak up a lot of attacks and honestly I was just unlucky on attack rolls or they would have died in that corridor). There were several such situations.

As for situations where they lost-lost, I can think only of 2. Keep in mind that the players are really good at tactical wargames so I generally can go all out and they'll still find ways to screw up my plans, but one time they got captured after a fight with bandits (they probably underestimated the threat, even if they were rather low level) due to a fairly long stretch of poor choices (mostly falling into the usual trap of maximizing damage output instead of focus firing) and one time they were left for dead (and one crucial NPC died) fighting a particularly nasty solo boss (it was mostly dice, the fight was balanced as per rules previsions, but they got rather unlucky with rolls and the boss didn't). We settled for a huge setback in their operations because honestly we all wanted the story to go on, but a TPK would have been fair in that case.

I can remember a very egregious example of TPK in the same period (but this was a parallel game I was playing in) that was due to one of the Strikers (a rogue) not really coming to terms with the idea that the game assumed he would take some heat. He was adamant on staying hidden and avoiding damage, so the Leader go out of heals, my Avenger dropped and the Paladin did a few moments later. Him engaging a single one of the enemies would have allowed the Leader to keep up with the incoming damage, but no. It was a formative experience because in that case we were neither lucky or unlucky with dice - we could easily predict how things were going to end, we told him, he was stubborn, we died. It was a lot of fun, too. Plenty of dramatic death scenes.

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