This article originally appeared in Valkyrie #23
Librarian's Love-Child in World Domination Horror
Conspiracies and Paranoid Delusions in GURPS Discworld
by Phil Masters
Note: This article first appeared, in very slightly different form, in issue 23 of Valkyrie magazine.
It's pretty much a cliché to say that anything that is believed to happen on our world probably happens somewhere on the Discworld. One way to explain this is to say that the Discworld stories are parodies and satires of things and ideas in the real world, and so their targets have to be fitted into the Disc somewhere. Another is to say that the Disc is literally shaped by perceptions and beliefs, and its inhabitants tend to think like human beings anywhere else, so what people we know believe, they can be painfully sure is real.
Well, up to a point, anyway. Not only do many Discworlders believe things that are diametrically opposite to what other Discworlders believe, but most of them, being human, believe several things that directly contradict each other. The Disc and its obligingly flexible region of local reality do their best to make all of these things true at oncei, but there are limits. Sometimes, Discworlders manage to believe things which are in fact complete rubbish (and which remain complete rubbish for quite a long time).
Anyway, Discworlders are as credulous and paranoid as human beings in any other universe, so of course they believe in conspiracies. The more ambitious among them even try to start their own conspiracies, or at least to track down the better existing ones and sign up. As someone once observed in our world, the real point about conspiracy theories isn't that the theorists want to expose and destroy the conspiracy; it's that they want to join them.
In fact, just like anywhere else, there really are some quite straightforward conspiracies on the Disc. That's in the sense that, when a bunch of people with a certain amount of power get together, they are often shrewd enough to realise that, if they pool that power, it makes even more power, and gives them a better chance of stopping anybody else from taking it away from them. Of course, the snag with people like this is that they can't always resist double- crossing and back-stabbing and trying to keep something just for themselves, but the shrewder of them can keep things going for a good few years.
Several examples of this can be found in the novels, although many of them hit the snag that there are people around who are better at this politics stuff than them, and the really dedicated passwords-and- secret-doors conspiracies are mostly run by people who are too hung up on the style to get the substance right. Guards! Guards! covers this ground in some detail, and you can't find a much more hopeless bunch of conspirators anywhere than the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night (though, as the book shows, even hopeless conspirators have their uses, up to a point). More viable Ankh-Morporkian conspiracies appear in Feet of Clay and The Truth, and the often- conspiratorial court politics of the Agatean Empire are depicted in Interesting Times.
Away from the complexities of the big city, conspiracies have less need to remain under cover, and might be described more as "movements"; the vampires of Carpe Jugulum and the werewolves of The Fifth Elephant are, functionally speaking, conspiracies, and they have their secrets, but (aside from what the werewolves get up to in relation to some of their neighbours) they don't have the full conspiratorial tendency to lurk in dark shadows plotting against the powers-that-be.
One other sort of "realistic" conspiracy is organised crime, which certainly happens on the Disc -- at least in good-sized cities like Ankh-Morpork. However, thanks to the Patrician, Ankh-Morpork's Thieves' Guild is now too public, too organised, and much too complacent to conspire properly about anything, while the Assassins' Guild is far too busy earning lots of money and preserving the proprieties to plot very much. The situation in other cities is unclear, but most have a tendency to follow Ankh-Morpork's lead whenever possible. There are hints that the nearest thing to a properly sinister underworld conspiracy is the Brecciaii, but trolls, while pretty good at keeping secrets, are less talented when it comes to complicated plotting.
Curiously enough, there is a little, much-denied evidence that one of the most effective truly international conspiracies -- or at least, sneaky secret organisations -- on the Disc is the infamous but seemingly innocuous Fool's Guild. Admittedly, this mostly consists of a bunch of depressive clowns who spend their time memorising tired old comic routines, but there are suspicions that those members who get jobs as court jesters may act as spies in their employers' courts, reporting back to the guild-house in Ankh-Morpork. What the Guild does with this information would be another question.
Full-strength, world-spanning conspiracies, able to twist the fates of nations, keep entire populations in the dark for centuries, and employ really cool agents with snappy dress sense and the ability to wear dark glasses indoors without falling over the furniture, are rather harder. To begin with, the Disc is, broadly speaking, a low- tech society. While the best conspiracies on our world are sometimes supposed to go back thousands of years, the fact is that a conspiracy without radio, fast transport, and clever monitoring devices is a bit restricted. It has to limit its operations to a small region, or build a network of highly capable and trustworthy sympathisers -- and in the latter case, it still has the problem of communicating with them. When your messages are limited to the speed of a good horse or a fast sailing-ship, coordination is a real problemiii. And watching anyone who might threaten your conspiratorial plans, so you can give them an accident before they start making trouble, is also a challenge without modern technology.
Of course, there are a few groups on the Disc who can get round these sorts of problems. The first are the wizards, who have all sorts of scrying and telepathy spells, amongst other advantages. A properly- organised wizardly conspiracy could be a real menace. However, anyone reading that last sentence should grasp the problem with this idea; "wizards" doesn't really belong with "properly organised." Well, not much of the time, anyway. There are some hints that, on occasion, wizards have worked together to make life difficult for other people, but the odds are that, mostly, just when they were getting somewhere, the back-stabbing started. Anyway, these days, Unseen University exists as a sort of anti-conspiracy; an organisation which makes sure that any wizardly inclination to get organised is channelled into harmless academic politics.
Similar comments apply to the idea of witches running a conspiracy, but with less serious back-stabbing and more obsession with local concerns. Witches just aren't the conspiratorial type, at alliv. A solitary bad witch might try organising a small conspiracy with herself at the top, but that's about as far as it goes.
Or, lastly, there are the gods. They, too, have supernatural communications, and some of them also have omnisciencev, which makes tracking people who are against you that much easier. However, in general, the divine game-plan doesn't really work in terms of secret conspiracy; what gods need isn't a network of hidden followers, it's lots of serious, full-time worship. A really smart high priest might come up with the idea of a conspiracy to serve the religion's purposes, but getting the logic through the head of the irascible dim- bulb up on Dunmanifestin is probably going to be too much like hard work. Also, a religious conspiracy would probably have to be run by a single deity; gods are at least as bad as wizards when it comes to proper long-term cooperation. For that matter, if and when any rival deities twigged what was going on, they'd probably be all too quick to blow the secret wide open to their own worshippers. There may be a few conspiracies within some larger religions, and perhaps some secret organisations whose job is to carry particular religions into hostile territory, but that's as far as it's likely to go.
So Discworld conspiracies will have to make do with limited resources, in a world that doesn't necessarily feel right for their sort of operations.
Mysteries and Monsters
It would be tempting to bring the full paranoid paraphernalia of UFOs, numbered Warehouses and Areas, and all the other X-Files furniture into a Discworld game, but there are a few snags here, too. At least with the UFOs, anyway. The Disc is, when all's said and done, a fantasy setting, and dragging in SF/modern-day stuff like spacecraft tends to spoil the effect.
And no, people being abducted by flying carpets wouldn't be the same. Abductions by Krullians on board discs produced by Fresnel's Wonderful Concentrator (see The Colour of Magic, or p.DI144) might come closer -- the Krullians are just about weird enough to go in for something like that, if they have a reason. Still, it's all a bit too obvious. The best idea might be to go back to the genuine pre-modern version of alien abduction, and have Discworld characters being abducted by elves. That should worry your players quite significantly, if they've read Lords and Ladies and they've got any sense.
Other stuff is more feasible, but for the same reason, it may lack the necessary edge of weirdness. For example, yes, you can have cryptozoology -- weird creatures living on out-of-the-way bits of the Disc. But the trouble is, that's not going to surprise anyone. We know that the Disc has yeti, giant sea monsters, bat-winged demons, and miniature people living underground. They can be interesting to meet, but it's quite likely that the PCs have been there and done that. The same goes for signs from the gods -- though Discworld gods rarely bother with ambiguous calligraphy in root vegetables. When they really want to communicate with their worshippers, they come round and shout at themvi.
Which leaves the really silly and surreal stuff; rains of frogs, perhaps. Well, C.M.O.T. Dibbler could probably find a use for themvii, but you'll need a plot for them to connect to. The snag with a lot of Forteana is that it doesn't go anywhere.
It might also be interesting to bring in a few True Believers or Mystery Investigators. Many Discworlders are gullible enough to believe anything, and it's been proved countless times that any strange or dramatic events in inhabited areas of the Disc rapidly bring in hordes of rubberneckers and trigger a mass of rumours, many of them with as much as 5% truth content. This sort of lunacy can provide a nicely comic element for a Discworld scenario, and sorting out which rumours are near enough to true to be worth following up, or saving idiotic bystanders from being abducted, trodden on, incinerated, hypnotised, turned into zombies, or terminally immersed in frogs, could keep PCs happy for hours.
Most full-time believers are likely to be rather nerdish and clueless, making them a minor nuisance at best and a menace to themselves and others if they ever get close to anything really important. There might be some fun in bringing on one who's got more clues than most, a degree of social and physical competence, and even decent looks and dress sense; in short, a Discworld Fox Mulder. Again, taking this concept too close to the original would probably be too much of an anachronism to work, but bold GMs might give it a go. Working out how to get the scenery right would be a lot of the problem; do Discworld lanterns produce a bright, focussed enough beam to cut through the mandatory darkness in the crucial search scenes? And could he find enough people who didn't believe in his theories, so that he could feel nice and persecuted?
One thing that the Disc has acquired recently is newspapers; see The Truth and "Freedom of the Press: Journalism in GURPS Discworld." Among them are some full-strength loopy tabloids. Of course, the universal fact about these sorts of tabloids is that the things they talk about are deranged and unlikely -- which means that, on the Disc, their stories have to be very, very eccentric indeed. The novel shows something of the history of the first such tabloid, which had its own peculiarities, but GMs might want to assume that the idea is just too interesting not to be repeated or to spread.
After all, a tabloid doesn't have to employ reporters who actually get out of the office; it just has to find someone who's good at making stuff up. That, however, isn't as easy as it sounds, especially if the paper wants to last for more than a couple of weeks; even tabloid readers may notice and get a bit bored if the paper starts repeating itself too obviously. In fact, in the end, it may be easier to send people out looking for real stories, and maybe polishing them up a little bit -- especially on the Disc.
This raises two possibilities from the game point of view; PCs can use the tabloids as information sources, or they can work for them. The former is a gag that's been used before (including in the movie Men in Black), but it's still basically sound. PCs who go to this source first when they have a mystery to solve would probably be over-optimistic, and would certainly have to wade through a lot of rubbish to find the useful nuggets, but tabloid reports or the reporters might provide some handy indirect clues, and GMs wanting to drop some huge and convenient plot short-circuitviii can always say that the PC with the lowest Status has just picked up his favourite newspaper, and there on the front page is the answer to the current mysteryix.
PCs working as field reporters for a Discworld tabloid could have a distinctly interesting time of it. Remember, they don't have to find out the truth, or show any sense of responsibility to the public interest -- but they do have to keep their readers and editor happy. If some of them have some kind of latent conscience, they may sometimes see about solving problems and preventing the things they investigate from destroying the world; also, any particularly literal-minded trolls or dwarfs in the group may take their editor's instructions literally, which could cause trouble. They could also pursue certain venerable journalistic traditionsx with as much enthusiasm as any (more) respectable reporter. This could certainly make a change from more traditional modes of fantasy adventure. Or, if the headline turns out to be Dragon Found in 10' by 10' Room, maybe not.
It should also be said, especially if tabloid reporter PCs resort to making things up, that the Discworld is an informal sort of place, without much in the way of libel laws. This is fine so long as no-one makes the mistake of picking on someone their own size, or bigger -- but if you annoy somebody who is capable of getting their own back, it is expected and normal for them to do so. Hint: running the headline I'm the Love-Child of the Unseen University Librarian, while good for a couple of thousand extra sales, would certainly be bad for your health. Even if he is the nearest thing you can find to bigfoot without straining your expenses budget.
Ankh-Morpork and Lancre
The major venues of the many Discworld novels can serve as locations for conspiratorial plots, but GMs will have to deal with the legacy left by numerous novel plots.
Ankh-Morpork is, in fact, a boiling cauldron of conspiracies, but not many of them are very impressive. There are a whole mass of cults and secret societies, many of them aiming to bring down the Patrician and take over the city (and perhaps the world). The snag is, most of them are made up of the sort of embittered inadequates who indulge in fantasies like that, and quite a few are monitored more or less directly by the Patrician at any given time. He tolerates them as a harmless channel for some people's dangerous ideas. In any case, he's far too smart to try persecuting them; that would just mean that the members would have their paranoia confirmed, and it would teach the slightly smarter ones to hide and scheme rather better.
Occasionally, a conspiracy gets lucky -- or very unlucky -- and acquires something that enables it to threaten the status quo; see Guards! Guards! for an example. At other times, one arises which has the brains, resources, and luck to represent a serious threat to the Patrician; Jingo shows the city's leading figures operating as an informal conspiracy to this end, while Feet of Clay and The Truth have small, secretive groups which come up with fairly smart plans. The only snag is, even if such conspiracies can neutralise the Patrician, they have to deal with the increasingly competent City Watch and various other groups who the Patrician has ensured don't want too much change -- at least, not on someone else's terms.
PCs who get mixed up in conspiratorial plots in the city should probably either seek to work against the conspirators, or hope that the Patrician classes them as an amusing diversion or a useful tool. Still, it's just possible that some groups in the city are working at right angles to the Patrician's concerns, perhaps manipulating events elsewhere on the Disc, or focussing on magic or religion -- areas in which Lord Vetinari does not seek to intervene much. For that matter, Vetinari himself may use a few semi-competent conspiracies to handle non-urgent matters that don't affect the city too directly. In Illuminati terms, he could be on good terms with the Disc's equivalent of the Gnomes of Zurich; it's the local counterparts of the Servants of Cthulhu who'll be in trouble if he notices them.
Lancre, the other recurrent setting for the novels, is really too small a place for proper conspiracies, and anyway, Granny Weatherwax wouldn't approve. Still, it might be fun to run a few threads of conspiracy theory through that part of the world. Who knows what the dwarfs on Copperhead Mountain get up to on the quiet? After all, they've been making money (and not spending it much) for centuries. King Verence seems rather unwisely determined not to ignore the subject of international politics, which may mean a few secret negotiations and treaties, some day. (Perhaps he could lend use of the castle to someone trying to conduct secret negotiations "in a good cause.") And with all the Ogg and Weatherwax family members who've gone off from this place to make their fortunes over the years, anything might have come back here and ended up in a cupboard somewhere. (Perhaps one of the crumbling towers of the oversized Lancre Castle is actually the Disc's nearest approximation to Warehouse 23?)
Also, if anyone is interested in Discworld cryptozoology, Lancre would be as good a place as most to start looking. The high forests and valleys have their share of rare species, some of which slipped over the Ramtops after things got a little rough in Uberwald recentlyxi, and almost anything could slip in through the caves beneath the castle, or through the Dancers (the local standing-stone circle) if people are really unlucky. There don't seem to have been reports of giant hairy humanoids, long-necked lake monsters, or more than the occasional two- headed calf, but perhaps it's just that no-one has askedxii.
GURPS Discworld Also Locations
Part of the objective with chapter 5 of GURPS Discworld Also was to provide a set of locations on the Disc that could be used for some plausibly Discworld-style stories, but without the baggage of the novels' usual settings. Some of them have some potential for conspiratorial or general-weirdness plots.
In fact, Wadi El-Rukl is actually run (secretly) by a conspiracy, and its geopolitical situation makes it a natural location for plots of intrigue, espionage, and triple-crossing -- all with that old Arabian Nights flavour, of course. The problem for PCs here might be to survive long enough to get the hang of what's going on, especially as the local version of cryptozoology would mostly relate to genies, which, while not usually malicious, have unhealthy amounts of power. Still, players can at least be assured that the conspirators trying to kill them will be immensely polite and subtle about it.
By contrast, The Brown Islands have plenty of scope for weird cryptozoology -- every island can have something different in the way of unexpected wildlife, from were-sharks to giant apes with a taste for blondes -- but rather less for proper conspiracies. The urban communities are all quite new, and are highly disorganized and prone to excessive amounts of quaffing and swashbuckling. Still, there could be scope for building new conspiracies here, working from the ground up; there are fewer established power-groups likely to interfere.
New Smarlhanger is most likely to import its conspiracies, however unknowingly. It's another new community -- or rather, a large community newly built on the basis of something older and smaller -- but it's a natural focus of attention for groups such as Uberwaldian vampires or werewolves, Sto Plains merchants, and the Semaphore Company. All would want agents in place there, watching the growing economy, keeping an eye on the semaphore system, and listening for rumours from any and all directions. PCs could be employed as such agents (but not necessarily told all the details, or indeed who they are working for), or could get caught up in the intrigues and secret wars of the different groups as they begin to collide.
Lastly, there's the "Cart Wars" community of Fourecks. Okay, this isn't really conspiratorial territory, but no worries. Perhaps a conspiracy from somewhere else on the Disc could move to the Last Continent, and try to set up a secret base in the Outback. It'd be a bloody stupid thing to do, but they might not know that; battles between low-tech Men In Black and irritated cart warriors could certainly get fairly weird.
Blood Will Tell
In that age, it is written, the Great God Om did manifest on the Disc in the guise of a brazen bull. Or perhaps it was an eagle with feathers of silver and gold. Something like that, anyway. And as he passed through the lands of the heathen, he did find one Righteous Man among them, who he did lift up, saying, You Help Me And I'll Help You . . .
Once, centuries ago, the city of Quirm (see p.DI22) was the capital of a mighty kingdom, and its kings were famed for their wisdom and justice. Well, that's one version of the story, anyway. Another says that it was a small kingdom, and most of the kings weren't complete idiotsxiii. But whatever the case, there are, as usual, people who would rather live in the past than fix the present, and who dream of that lost age of glory.
The funny thing is, in this case, most of them aren't even based in Quirm. The legend of the Palaeoquirmian Dynasty seems to have a strange appeal far beyond the borders of the old kingdom -- whose inhabitants are, in fact, mostly rather too laid-back, or too obsessed with cheese manufacture, to take much interest in the idea of pursuing lost glories. It seems to be mostly people in other places who would like to see the Palaeoquirmian Kings restored; one possibility is that they're just smart enough to realise that the Old Days where they live were pretty bad, but they can still delude themselves that the Old Days somewhere else were great.
To add to the complications, this legend has somehow become entangled with the spreading religion of the Great God Om. It is said, among certain rather heretical Omnians, that Om travelled to Quirm during one of his visits to the material world, centuries ago, and that he founded the Palaeoquirmian Dynasty, or blessed its founder, or something. Now, some of those same Omnians have formed a secret society, dedicated to finding the Lost Palaeoquirmian Heir, and restoring him to his rightful glory. That have fanatic zeal, access to some of the resources of the Church of Om, and a few sympathisers in or around Quirm who wouldn't mind cushy jobs in a new government.
This is a bit like those odd people who think that Captain Carrot is the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, despite his efforts to make sure that no-one can prove it. However, the differences are (a) There's religion involved here (and some of the people involved would quite like to take the Church back to its fine traditions of setting fire to other people), and (b) No-one knows who the Lost Palaeoquirmian Heir might be -- though a few people think that they have some idea.
PCs could get mixed up in this plot as witting or unwitting agents of the conspiracy, of the government of Quirm (who are just beginning to find out enough to get worried), or the Church of Om (Orthodox Reformed Division), who know that heretics are at large, up to something, and purloining money from Church funds. (But how high up does the corruption run?) If the GM is feeling really malicious towards one PC, or a PC has some unexplained stuff on his character sheet that fits, the conspiracy could "identify" that PC as the Lost Heir. After all, PCs are forever suffering minor strange events (wild coincidences, rains of fish, surviving battles with mighty wizards) which could, in another light, be taken as Signs and Portentsxiv.
One Stone on Top of Another
Conspiracies love pyramids. It's something to do with the symbolism; all that mass of stone, looking wonderfully solid but actually riddled with secret passages and ancient secretsxv. This makes places like Djelibeybi and Tsort favourite subjects of conspiratorial myths -- although there aren't necessarily more actual conspiracies there than anywhere else.
That raises the possibility of PCs being hired to run, or at least guard, expeditions to those places to investigate the crucial dimensions of a pyramid or two. Read up on some of the stranger things believed about the Great Pyramid in our world if you need some really silly ideas.
Alternatively, the amazingly incompetent architect "Bloody Stupid" Johnson doubtless built a few pyramids around the Sto Plains, by way of decorative folliesxvi. While it's hard to imagine Johnson as a member of even the most third-rate conspiracy, his handiworks could have their uses; someone might have convinced themselves that they have some arcane significance. The PCs could be hired by a nobleman to investigate the bizarre people who keep sneaking round his garden with tape-measures and theodolites.
Then again, if Johnson really screwed up his sense of dimension and proportion during one of his building projects, the resulting building could find itself being used as a temple by a really deranged, depraved, Lovecraftian conspiratorial cult.
"They don't get more non-Euclidean than this . . ."
Anarchy in Ankh-Morpork!
Small gods are always good for Discworld game plots, and some of them may be tangled up with conspiracies. Unfortunately, they aren't always noted for their sanity.
This could give a GM an excuse to bring in a more Discordian, irrational sort of conspiracy. A group whose motivations are driven by the commandments of a god with a room-temperature IQ and unstable desires could act in a completely incomprehensible fashion. However, totally irrational opponents just feel boring, silly, and frustrating after a while, so eventually at least, such a group's actions should display an underlying theme.
"Destroying the universe" or "bringing down the established order" might be one option; after all, such a cult would attract members from among the disaffected and reflexively rebellious members of society, and small gods are always on the lookout for theological niches -- groups of worshippers not already claimed by bigger gods. Admittedly, those sorts of people are already catered for, to some extent, by the Disc's scattering of demon-worshipping cults, and maybe the odd mad group dedicated to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions. But wanting to be evil, or mindlessly nihilistic, is one thing; claiming the support of thinking nihilists and ideological anarchists is quite another.
Such a chaos cult would probably usually represent an adversary for PCs, especially if it went in for dangerous pranks or outright terrorism. On the other hand, faced with highly organised evil -- a tyrannical ruler, say, or a rival conspiracy dedicated to control -- it could make a tricky ally, or even a weird sort of patron. Either way, its biggest asset would probably be the direct assistance of its god, frantically determined to ensure that the cult survives to continue feeding it belief. But how reliable is the worship of a bunch of people who swear that they don't believe in anything?
* * *
i For a reasonably sensible value of "true."
ii The (supposed) trollish secret society run by the likes of the notorious extortionist and loan-shark Chrysoprase.
iii This, by the way, raises the question of what some people might be doing with the long-range semaphore system (described in The Fifth Elephant and later novels, and in GURPS Discworld Also). It's very new, and it has a limited data transmission rate, but still, it has possibilities.
iv Most of the time, anyway. Although some people might get the unpleasant sense that most of the witches in the world form some kind of loose conspiracy to an uncertain purpose.
v Up to a point, anyway.
vi Though some, it must be said, are barking enough to indulge in ambiguous and pointlessly indirect communications methods out of sheer divine perversity. If you can think of a plot involving messages from Offler the Crocodile God showing up in the chunks of turnip in an authentic Ankh-Morpork Klatchian curry, run with it. "Can't you see what this MEANS?!"
vii Inna Bun.
viii Perhaps by way of an intervention from The Lady, or someone almost as powerful and whimsical.
ix Unkind GMs can then have that answer be wrong. (Why the heck should anyone trust a tabloid?) But that would be very cruel. Especially if it, say, sent the PCs to Fourecks.
x Getting drunk and fiddling expenses. Passing off your bar tab as "Travel and Dry-Cleaning" is especially recommended.
xi They're not, for the most part, strictly speaking, endangered species. Some of them were at one stage, but after Mustrum Ridcully left this part of the world to train as a wizard in Ankh-Morpork, they breathed a collective sigh of relief and stopped having to worry quite so much about crossbow- bolts.
xii Or thought to offer the locals money for their stories. You can find out all sorts of things that way, very few of them true.
xiii Except for the last one. It's usually the way.
xiv If someone's been crazy enough to take the Disadvantage Weirdness Magnet (and the GM has let them get away with it), that could be a good excuse. Equally, if they've got a Secret Patron, this sort of conspiracy would be a good candidate. This may also be the place to mention the Advantage Illuminated, which can be very handy, but which would probably give a PC and the GM a lot of migraines in a Discworld game.
xv Well, that's one theory, anyway. Another would be that any builder who spends half his time with one trouser-leg rolled up, plotting world domination, is probably incapable of anything more interesting in the way of designs.
xvi Or perhaps some of them were meant to be used as boot-scrapers or speed-bumps on someone's drive, and he got the scale wrong, as usual.
Article publication date: April 9, 2004
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