Leadtown RPG: A game design diary for an Old West story game

Last fall I drafted up my first proper story game. This is the first game I have built where the story was central and the mechanics are present to determine the results of the entire current conflict in a scene, rather than the results of individual actions…

So far I have gotten very useful feedback from @DeReel and @Radmad. I have created this topic so that I can get more observations of how the rules are organized, ideas from the community, and perhaps even some playtest feedback.

In the meantime, I will post my current thinking and updates here so that it is clear to everyone (especially me) what I was thinking when I decided to change or delete or add Rule X weeks later as a sort of design journal.

Thanks to everyone who reads and / or comments on this project. I appreciate your time and thoughts.

Leadtown playtest version

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The link doesn’t seem to trigger the download of the document.

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@Alun_R, Thanks for letting me know. I fixed this

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Stats or No Stats, that is the question -

In my game design, I have 3 stats for characters and a couple of in-game currencies. The stats are:

  • Sand - The ability to stay cool under pressure, courageous, and endure the hard times. Bluffing and brawling requires Sand.

  • Sharp - The ability to read the cards, people, situations, and catch cheats, cons, and read bluffs. This is also the ability to cheat, persuade, or con through skilled means.

  • Gunfightin’ - Finesse and initiative in a gunfight. This score adds directly onto each of a character’s shoot-out target. This is also a sort of simple armor class that only takes into account reflexes- shoot-out scores less than the Gunfightin’ score are a miss.

I like the Sand and Sharp in the way that players get an idea about the character based on these numbers. The little mini game used to add Attribute points to the character is also short and fun. Mechanically, though, they are dull. The range for these stats is between 0 - 3 (3 is best) and the ability to gain a +1 if the character is following their motto in the scene.

The problem with Sand and Sharp is that the outcomes are relatively easy to guess most of the time. For example, If you have a 0, you will have an auto-fail unless you follow your motto. If you manage to get your stat up to a 4, it is an auto-success. None of this adds any tension to a scene.
In the one playtest I have done, the players did not even remember to use them most of the time because they did not add much tension or the story. Their sole purpose currently is to create a success with complication (like the 7-9 roll in PbtA games). The game worked okay anyway though.

Now that said, the Gunfightin’ is interesting and impacts game play significantly. For this stat, I am a little concerned that if I take away the other two, then Gunfightin’ will become the central focus of the game though.

So, should I:

  • Rework Sand & Sharp attributes
  • Replace Sand and Sharp with minor talents

0 voters

If I drop them, I would replace them somehow. Perhaps, with something like minor versions of the Unusual Talents (which are basically feats that work as cheats in the card game that alter the card draw or bet when triggered by the narrative and card hand.)

If I rework them, I am thinking they will represent some sort of mechanical limit to how many times or in what situations the players can manipulate the Faro bets or deck to change their PCs fate.

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Have been delayed but craving to give you my feedback on Leadville.

First, I like that bets are mostly about getting your hands in and on the city affairs. It could be made clearer, with it as a primary goal and the motive as a secondary goal.

The mini-game of getting your role in town looks delicious !

Then I suggest : a caption “a game of Faro (date, place, author)” on the first page. Justifying text blocks. No AKAs proliferation : gamblers, players / player character, GC / class, playbook, template > Punters / PC / PC sheet ; dealer >Banker
err : page 4 - the setting “that due (…) water that it”
page 5 line 2 " any(thing) could"
page 7 - Rules for Faro par. 3 : “place a (token) on”
page 9 - Greenhorn “is naive (and) (”)does the right thing" "
page 12 Sand and Sharp 3 : “and it is the second 2” > (and there is one other such card. The difficulty is 2 (for the two of clubs) + 1 (because there is one other such card) = 3 </ or maybe I didn’t get it/>
page 14 PC death : “is out of money” (>is washed out). You can play with someone who is broke, but if they lose their “game” money during the game their PC is down. But I wouldn’t use “game money” not to create confusion with a PC fictional money.
page 15 Penultimate par. : “Gunfightin’ attribute.” You lost me here. It’s not clear at all what the attribute and score are doing different. Especially, when a character is hurt, it looks like their score is dropping, but in fact it’s their whole attribute durably dropped (page 17). So why do I need to make a difference ? And if they are different, consider giving them really different names.
page 16 : Shoot Out example : I need to know who these guys are, why they are shooting out, in what circumstances. Also, you may want to reconsider the all white male cast of both the table and the story.
page 16 penultimate par. : copy+paste stutter
page 17, first two paragraphs : Gunfightin’ score / attribute, Shootout score, Gunfightin’ total (vs bonus ?). On the first reading, I would have said that John had a Shootout score of 3, the injury dropping his score, not his attribute. And I thought it was fair enough. See : the saddle stiff is our Sentenza here. He’s a threat everybody has mechanical interest in shooting at. So the (durable) attribute used in defense evened things a bit in my mind. Or to phrase it as a question : why wouldn’t all of the other players aim at the Saddle stiff ? What can the poor fellow do against it ?
page 18 - The epilogue : “head of(f)”
And I suggest a success tracking diagram on the census sheet to check the epilogue rewards.

Pfew ! That was a wall of text. Tell me when I can delete it.

Using a counterpoint game is great. Faro brings the Push your luck element, but also the “read your adversary’s moves” if they are a great shot and you’re a quick shooter.

I’d say you need to add a layer of “cloud to dice” meshing to teach the game. I would lazily go with the general purpose Baker formula : “When you (cloud), do (dice)”.

I worry that the strategical thinking of playing Faro can compete for bandwidth with storytelling, operating on a close-by channel. I believe that in Djenga, while the focus is extreme, it doesn’t drain the same juices that storytelling does. It’s only a belief though, and thought for the Gamefeel topic.

Also, have you checked Law’s out by Jacob Randolph and it’s betting system ? In my (very own) game system, I do shootouts with blind bets. Bets systems don’t seem to be very popular though. It’s a pity : there’s a lot of depth in them and they require only a resource of some kind, and they lend themselves to many refinements (dutch auctions, fair division methods, etc.)

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Wow! This is excellent feedback! Down to the line edits for cleaning up inconsistencies is SO helpful.

Here are some clarifications ahead of a rewrite:

*The bets are about getting involved in city affairs to reach your goals and/ or taking down establishment targets that you have a conflict with due to your goal.
*Thank you for the kind words!

  • @Radmad was also confused by the Gunfightin’ and Shoot-out so I will look to clarify that section

  • Mixed gendered example is a good idea. @Radmad also suggested I try to find a mix of female pictures for the character sheets as well.

  • The When you do X (narratively), do Y (Faro bet or card cheat) language would make the Unusual Talents more approachable.

  • A couple of comments on the Faro mechanics with the storytelling-
    1. Faro does not ordinarily use much cognitive ability to play. This is why I
    think beyond the motif that it is a good game to pair with storytelling.

     2. A player can simply play this game as a straight betting game with 
        virtually flat odds.  Without any manipulation the typical player on 
        average will lose about $1 -2 starting with $100 so a player can engage 
        in the game without considering the meta-game and do just fine.   I will 
         be increasing the # of chips / checks to 50 minimum bets rather than 20 
         minimum bets for players start with so that there is more flexibility to bet 
        all over the board and have more fun betting.  
    
     3. At the moment, the Unusual Talents can usually only be played once so
         the cognitive load right now is pretty much reduced to deciding when to 
        use your Unusual Talents and the Gunfightin'.  Counting cards should 
        be unnecessary.  The Banker should keep track of this for you.  I need 
        to clarify this point in the game.
    
  • Last point, I love the idea of a blind bid for Gunfightin’. I might rework this piece to fit this into the game.

This clarifies a lot as it was not clear to me what a round of Faro narratively implies; is it a single confrontation or a montage of actions that lead to a result?

Perhaps to lean on the "push your luck"ness maybe allow for players to make multiple bets per round? That way if you really want to win something you can sacrifice more money to increase your odds. Still not sure how betting resolves narratively as it seems like a lot of round will end with players who neither win nor lose their bet (if I’m understanding the rules correctly)

My feedback is regularly blunt, having a strong negativity bias. All the kind words you can find in it are well deserved !

Hello, RadMad ! I see Faro as a sort of roulette with Spades as the wheel. So I thought you could bet on multiple cards. Ab absurdo : else it’s a game of sheer luck. Wait… is it ?

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@DeReel, that is a very apt description of Faro. In fact, I might consider adding that description to the game. You absolutely want multiple bets per player per round. In order to enforce this, I will add to the rules that the first round would require more bets AND that these bets are automatically parlayed. Parlayed bets are bets that cannot be moved through the game. For each win on a parlayed bet, the bet must double. This means there will automatically be an increase in stakes.

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Actually, I should clarify further. The game is about reaching your goal by working through the establishment (e.g. Become Mayor), taking down someone in the establishment (Take down the corrupt Marshal), working through the anti-establishment scene (Helping outlaws to take over town), or taking down anti-establishment types (Arresting the outlaws).

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Hey, this is working! that’s something like a list of motives and targets to combine.
The mayor / dancer / outlaw X revenge / greed / fame etc.
PCs are here to change this town. They have impact.

So the game starts in medias res. Would it support mystery a la High plains drifter ? probably not. It’s more 3:10.

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Definitely more 3:10 to Yuma. That would be awesome if I could get this to really support 3:10 to Yuma

To me it seems lasers and feelings basic mechanic can be used here. That’s if you can rework Sharp to include gunfighting and Sand to include being resilent enough to survive a bullet or two. Then it’s up to the players to decide if their character is more the type to shoot or withstand being shot. Though for 3:10 to Yuma maybe having Bonds and other reasons to live (that you can get only by roleplaying and being social) is what makes your character more resilent. I’m trying to implement something similar in my game and I’m wondering if it has been done before and how good or bad it does the work.

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I have very much considered this but I don’t think I like it for this game. I don’t currently see Sharp as opposite of Sand. However, I think you did clarify something for me in your post.

I realized don’t need Gunfightin’ as a separate stat. If I revise Sharp to mean quick thinking AND quick reflexes, and Sand continues to mean nerves of steel, then the player can apply both to a Shoot-out. In a Shoot-out, Sharp would help determine initiative. Maybe, Sharp + Quickdraw = Initiative with highest going first. In a Shoot-out, Sand would pretty much stay the same. This is currently the ability to stay calm and keep moving, giving the opponent a harder to hit target.

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Been meaning to ask, with your use of “sand” do you mean to say “grit”? That’s always struck me as the more Westerny sounding word but just interested in the naming choice.

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Same thing. Sand was more western slang. Grit was and is more universal. My game uses a bunch of western slang. Maybe too much. but I also like the alliteration for the now two attributes.

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I posted months ago that I thought every game without a fully realized setting should include questions to clarify the tone and some impactful details of the setting. But, Leadtown, didn’t have any of these. So, I came up with a few. Do you feel like these clarify the setting, tone, and expectations while allowing them to be open-ended?

  1. How did Leadtown come by the name?
    O - Bullets fly so often here that if you look closely most buildings have either a bullet hole or a bullet lodged inside it. Most people keep their heads down to avoid “lead poisoning” by the feuding posses and outlaws.
    O - The heavy black sand that impeded gold recovery turned out to have very high silver content and started a the current mining rush. The rush has made everything expensive but there are still incredible silver lodes to be discovered
    O - This is the first western town with outdoor plumbing. The issues are much more sophisticated and political than the dudes to the East understand.
    O - This town was once just a series of nearby ranches which brand their steers with hot iron. Much of the money and power still lies with the local ranchers.

  2. Who lived here before the First Silver Rush?
    O - Virtually no one. This town was only a few sporadic ranches. Since the rush,
    it has grown 20 fold.
    O - Native First Nation tribes. They are mostly gone now but the place is haunted on the
    edge by the spirits of these tribes.
    O - Gold miners 20 years before, nearly all of which have died or left for home

  3. What is the Transportation Like?
    O - There is still only a mountain road best crossed by mules when dragging a wagon.
    O - Travel by camel is the latest fad after the South disbanded the U.S. Camel Corps after the Civil War.
    O - The railroad companies are literally fighting over the rights to run tracks through town and
    build a station.
    O - The railroad station is completed. Travel by rail is how all the celebrities visit.

  4. Who’s In Charge Here?
    O - The Mayor is in charge. No one challenges his authority (at least not directly)
    O - Outlaws and cartels are really in charge. The Mayor and the Marshal are just pawns but the town paper The Chronicle has reporters brave enough to tell the truth.
    O - The Marshal has cleaned up this town and expects it to stay this way. He meets trouble with hot lead.
    O - The Ranchers, Mine owners, and Railroad companies are fighting for control.
    O - The mine owners are in charge but they are at war with the unions.

  5. Is The Occult Real?
    O - Seances and card readings are common and at least occassionaly reliable
    O - Seances and card readings are viewed as witchcraft. There is retribution.
    O - Mystics are run straight out of town. This is a modern town run on facts.
    O - No only are seances held, many places are known to be haunted.

  6. Is this the Leadtown of Old West Media, Reality, or Weird West?
    Yes / No - Shoot-outs as spontaneous fights, rather than duels?
    Yes / No - Are supernatural forces are in play?
    Yes / No - Is there any steampunk elements?
    Yes / No - ________________________________________________________ (add your own question here)
    Yes / No - ________________________________________________________ (add your own question here)
    Yes / No -

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I really like the idea. Using long-forgotten card game for conflict resolution sounds great. And I’ve got to say that the overall impression after the first read is positive. There are things that could be improved though and I’ll focus on those. I’ll give your question about the stats some though when I go through the document for the second time, so what follows are just some general thoughts after my first read-through.

I have the same general problem I had with @Radmad’s game - you’re using language specific to card games without explaining it. I have a fairly decent grasp of English and neither tricks (Hesitation at the Gate) nor poker checks (Leadtown) were obvious upon reading. So even though I played bridge, none of the players were speaking English and “tricks” simply never entered my vocabulary. Same goes for poker checks. You mean chips, right? :wink:

I think that the obvious-o-meter should be based on a quick search for a term in Google in the incognito mode. This isn’t needed for the vocabulary you use in the prose, as this can be inferred from the context, but for terms that have mechanical relevance I feel like this is a must.

Leadtown cuts on explaining what an RPG is (probably a good idea) but goes further than that and doesn’t explain what scene is yet using it as early as in “The Banker” section. I’m not sure this is fair given that scene in various games has a slightly different duration and significance and knowing what designer intended may be instrumental in replicating the desired play feel. You’re also later talking about “scene resolution” in the context of ECs but as a reader I have no clear understanding of what scene is at that point. It’s explained in “The Grand Finale” that scene lasts for 5 minutes but it’s not clear if you’re talking about in-game time, wall clock time, or both.

This extends to talents available “once per game” (something you stress twice in a single paragraph) - what does “a game” mean in the context of Leadtown? In “The Grand Finale” you talk about session - is that a synonym for a game? There’s also a matter of using the term “tags” in the “Where ya in from?” section even though there is no mention of what tags are by that point.

I find your language around role and character types a little muddy. DeReel already mentioned “AKAs proliferation” which summarizes the problem well: you’ve got a number of terms that denote the same thing. But there’s also an information flow problem: I don’t think the distinction between players (humans) and characters is clear enough.

You should probably more vividly explain the two types of participants first and then all the types of characters in play. This should include Enemy Characters which, for whatever reason, are mentioned long after it seems like you’re done with the game specific lingo. I think it’s also important to, at the very least, foreshadow early on that “at different times Banker Characters will be played by Punters when
the Punter’s character is not in the scene” - if not spell it out right the moment you introduce the character types.

Only Banker-controlled characters have abbreviations (BC/EC) and PCs are not mentioned when characters are described. And then, out of nowhere, GCs are dropped elsewhere (and NGC too - what?) and I have no idea what they are (all characters or Punter-controlled ones only? are player controlled BCs GCs?)

Also you should probably pick what’s the primary name for whatever and stick to representing this name Capitalized or bold and figure out what exactly these terms represent. In “The Punters” section you’re introducing the concept of Census Sheet dropping “archetype” in the brackets and later explaining that it’s a character sheet. But then you’re closing this section by using the word archetype again. So now I don’t know if this is a block of stats or a template of a character to play. Or both. It may seem petty and nit-picky but this really affects the clarity of your writing.

I do a lot of technical writing and the mechanism I use to get the consistency I want boils down to writing stylistic rules down first and then religiously following them. So for example I’d decide on domain specific terms to always be capitalized plus the first time they are introduced they’d also be in bold. So if you’re introducing some term and use previously unmentioned terms to describe it, you know have to reorganize your document (the rule should be: single bold term per paragraph, that way you know you’re not creating lingo soup).

This will sting at first and you’ll be tempted to break your own rules here and there, but don’t. Reword and reorder your text to never break the rules. It will be much easier to follow for anyone who isn’t intimate with your game (which is the target of your writing after all).

The “Sand and Sharp” and “Scene resolution table” sections are impenetrable upon first reading. I had to go through them several times to grasp the basics of conflict resolution. Gunfights seem complicated but I think I could follow the description and understand the basics (the example provided helps too). They seem visceral and lethal as they should. The only thing that perhaps could be better is if gunfights were resolved real-time, i.e. as players draw the cards. But it would be hard to do given the skill disparity between characters so this seems like the next best thing and I like it a lot. :slight_smile:

And lastly: I’m not sure this game enforces the stated premise. I mean, whether it’s about “accruing power, wealth, and justice” (BTW: can you accumulate justice?) or “reaching your goal by working through the establishment…” I don’t see how rules support this. Rules don’t contradict this, sure, but there seems to be very little emphasis on the theme beyond some archetypes having goals alluding to it. There is no social currency in the game that would affect character’s road towards their goals. In other words: game doesn’t feel as tight as it could be.

I guess chips could be a stand-in for fame/infamy but this strikes me as a missed opportunity for embedding social themes into core game mechanics. Bonds probably immediately come to mind as a social mechanic to use but I don’t think they fit the theme that well. There’s probably something else that could be employed here. I mean, even EC rules hint at relationships being fragile, so perhaps some sort of IOU mechanic/currency would spice things up? I don’t really know what the solution here is but I’ll try and focus on this when I read through this again, trying to respond to your stated question about the stats.

Some other random thoughts and nits:

  • How is adversary (page 9) different from EC?
  • There is no inherently Black archetype, which is a shame.
  • Tags are never explained.
  • The word “trait” is mentioned exactly once in the document. I think it should be something else.
  • Scene setting table goes from 1 to 11 - shouldn’t it go up to 12? Also: what about jokers? :wink:
  • You’re talking about “How do I Create a Punter Character?” section in “The Punters” but the section is actually called “How to build a Punter character”.
  • When describing hometown, you code “wanderers” as jokers; later on in the character creation steps you switch jokers from wanderers to immigrants - I’d cut the mention of suits+joker in the hometown explanation and keep a single source of truth in the document
  • A compressed timeline of important events and visitors in Leadtown would be nice. Real or fictional, doesn’t matter that much as this would mostly serve as a reference for what sort fo changes were happening in the town.
  • I’ve said it before when going through “Hesitation…” but I’ll say it again - you should keep your text, the master copy of it, unformatted. If you publish this on Google Docs enabling comments from people who have link to it (make a copy of it first, just in case!), you’ll be able to gather feedback much easier. There’s a bunch of typos and style problems that are easily marked inline but are sort of a hassle to point out here (even though e.g. DeReel did - kudos!) When asking for feedback, make it as simple as possible for others to provide. Even if this means you’ll have to build a throw-away, formatted version for your playtesters, chances are it’s worth it. :slight_smile:
  • Some scene setting suggestions: railway station/railway construction site (pre-1880), hospital, mill, burro racing/gun show location (not sure if carnies existed already), cave/abandoned mine, abandoned shack in the woods.
  • Mention early on that Faro is used not only for conflict resolution but also for character creation. I’d sell it as “this way you’ll familiarize yourself with mechanics before they become critical in-game”. Right now I sort of feel like “why isn’t this just a simple card draw or a dice roll?” - which isn’t ideal frame of mind.
  • I’d consider ordering character creation so that pure Faro rules are used first (w/o any additional limitations or corrections for what you’re generating) so that players don’t get confused with that’s the real Faro game flow like. Ideally I’d mold the rules so that there are no exceptions and there is a single “type” of Faro played at all times, but I don’t know if this is doable. I’m not sure if reordering is a good idea though (it could break other things), it’s just something I’d test on new players.
  • The “Player Character Death” section contradicts earlier statements WRT luck-for-chips price (3L => $5) indicating that death can be prevented by spending 5L. I’m also dubious about the cause of death table as this seems like something that should be directly tied to the scene type, no?
  • “The Epilogue” talks about the secondary goals but these aren’t mentioned anywhere previously (just that characters have goals). This should be expanded upon in the character creation section.
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SO many good comments! The feedback back is a little overwhelming but all so valid! The tip to waiting on reformatting is so obvious when I thought about it. I have spent WAY too much time reformatting after every few minor revisions.

I am also relieved that most all of the comments I have received overlap with each other! Everyone saw the synonym proliferation and the write up of the Shoot-out confusing for example.

For the synonym and aka proliferation, I couldn’t decide in some cases which synonym was better so I plugged in different ones at different times while writing. Perhaps, a survey here would help me with this piece.

    • Punter Characters (PC) (Faro gamblers lingo)
  • Gambler Characters (GC)
  • Player Characters (PC)

0 voters

  • Checks (betting chips as known in Faro)
  • Bets (does not specify the object used to signify a bet)
  • Poker chips (the game and the meta-game are not Poker)
  • Chips (would it be clear these are betting chips?)

0 voters

  • Adversary Characters (ACs)
  • Enemy Characters (ECs)
  • Adversary Banker Characters (ABCs)
  • Enemy Banker Characters (EBCs)

0 voters

  • Allies
  • Ally Characters (ACs)
  • Ally Banker Characters (ABCs)

0 voters

  • Census Sheet
  • Census Data Sheet
  • Archetype Sheet
  • Playbook

0 voters

  • Tags
  • Traits
  • Debility / Ability (negative trait / positive trait)

0 voters

  • Card Rank
  • Card Value

0 voters

I have no strong feelings about some of these so I didn’t vote in all categories. I like flavorful RPGs so Banker/Punter works fine for me. This probably isn’t universal but very few things are, so it’s up to you to decide whether you want your game to be full of flavor or bland (and I don’t mean this in a judgmental way). If you go for flavor, however, it’s up to you to explain it in a way that’s easy to grok.

The structure I’d go for would roughly look like this:

  • briefly introduce theme, premise, and setting
  • mention that game is about conflicts leading to characters’ closure (or lack there of) and that conflicts are resolved using a card game of Faro
  • explain that there are participants and characters they control; introduce the concept of Banker and Punters, mention the differences
  • clarify all of the types of characters that exist, who controls them, and when
  • outline the concept of Census (I’d drop the word “sheet” altogether) and that this is a tabular representation of what characters represent; mention that characters adhere to certain archetypes which limit Census’ degrees of freedom; note that characters are also created through the game of Faro
  • either outline what sort of info can be found on census, or skip it for now and have everything explained in the character creation section
  • explain the game of Faro, starting with the words that have significance in your game’s mechanics (this includes things like “checks”, “hands”, and what not)
  • talk about the flow of the game (scene, session, etc.)

It’s very likely that flow has to go before the rules of Faro, it’s hard for me to guesstimate it in void. It’s also possible that some other points above aren’t in their optimal order but I think it would still be an improvement. Yeah, that’s a crap argument to make: I think my opinions are valid; what a surprise. But I hope this is of some help. :slight_smile:

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