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I'm starting a new campaign. All fresh players.

In the first session I gave them a very shoddy, small barge, which I planned to have them trade for a ox-drawn carriage, as the ship itself didn't have much life in it. The NPC that was going to trade this to them lowballed and offered 5 platinum pieces (50gp). The players, instead of objecting to this price, accepted. This, of course set them up to fail in the travelling aspect. I do feel bad punishing them for something they did not know of, but I don't want to give them a sweet 16 and have a carriage magically appear.

How do I resolve a situation where players' decisions prevent me from moving forward? How do I prevent situations like this happening in the future?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What's so terrible about them travelling at a slower pace? \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jul 11 '17 at 14:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about the nature of the game being played at this table has been moved to chat after flagging. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jul 11 '17 at 18:18

12 Answers 12

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In the short term, there are many ways to resolve this - have the person selling them the carriage inform them that they've been taken advantage of and advise them to shake down the buyer for a bit more, have them take pity and offer the carriage for a lower price, give the PC's a chance to do a small adventure and earn the money, etc.

But there's a bigger issue at stake here: you're not offering the players agency. A reasonable definition of player agency is "the ability to make informed choices that affect what happens." That informed is key - "choose the left passage or the right passage", where the left passage leads to almost-certain death and the right to fabulous treasure, does not count as agency. It also doesn't count if you make whichever passage they pick be the one that leads to danger (the "quantum ogre" effect.) To be clear, either of these "choices" (where either it's essentially random or you're controlling the outcome) can be part of a good game. However, if you offer the players information (the skeletal remains of previous adventurers crowding the left passage, for instance) then they can make a real choice about how much risk they want to take, because there are some foreseeable consequences, and players generally prefer that.

So how does this apply to your situation? In an unfamiliar world where the players have no idea how much money is worth, they had no reason to believe that 5pp wasn't a fair price for the barge - and no particular reason to care even if they knew, if all they wanted was to be rid of the thing. So now it turns out it was important for them to do something differently, but they had no way of knowing that at the time, which can be pretty frustrating. If your intent was to have them sell the barge so they could afford a carriage, you should have set the situation up this way:

  1. Provide some reason they would want a carriage. Most adventurers don't have one; why would they need one in this instance?
  2. If they then seek out a carriage, offer them the chance to purchase one for more than they have.

Now your players have enough information to make a real choice - try to talk down the price of the carriage? Steal it? Earn the money somehow? Sell the barge for enough to make up the difference, like you planned? Sell the barge, keep the money, and walk? Ignore your plan completely and take the barge down the river? Each of these has some more or less foreseeable consequences, letting them decide what direction to take the story. Even if your overall story is on rails, you want to let your players fill in some details with their own style; otherwise, it's just a novel, not an RPG.

One other thing worth noting: there's a distinction to be made between player skill and character skill. Unless the characters are completely naive, it would have been totally reasonable to say "By the way, Fergus, it occurs to you that even for a boat in poor condition, that's a pretty low price. Still want to take it?" In games with a lot of newbies, I usually try to set things up to emphasize character skill, so it doesn't feel like I'm punishing people for not knowing the system well yet. An easy way to do this in 5e is the "passive skills" mechanic - anyone with sufficient Insight or Perception or whatever should be able to notice certain things even if not paying special attention.

Player skill can also affect how you provide information to support player agency. Experienced players, you might say, know full well that it's risky to run in a dungeon, and therefore if they're doing that anyway, it counts as an informed decision. New players who aren't as familiar with the mechanics, tropes, and expectations might not realize that cautiously checking for traps and enemies is a possible and prudent thing to do, so you may want to tell them rumors about the deadly machinery in the tomb, or ask them out of character if they're checking for traps. Same goes for expecting your players to remember names and info and take notes vs. reminding them if they seem to have forgotten. Ultimately, the details are a matter of style, but the important thing is that players feel like they know what they're getting into.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for reminding on the importance of agency. What's common knowledge in the world is only common knowledge to the DM unless he tells the players that it's common knowledge or provides a reasonable avenue for them to attain that information for themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Jul 11 '17 at 19:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, I couldn't have given you more if I wanted to; I don't have it. I hope you're not going to take the barge back; I need it to go upriver to collect some money owed me by some rough folks. Come to think of it, a few adventurers would make that go a lot easier. \$\endgroup\$ – Harper Jul 11 '17 at 23:40
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A short-term fix can be to hire a carriage, with the petty money obtained from trading the barge, to the city they are planning to go to next.

Although I always think a lack of something vital, such as reliable transportation, is a perfect base for a side-story, or side-quest if you will. Some suggestions may be:

  • Your PCs are roaming around town and they overhear a gossiping NPC talking about how a local trader scammed a poor group of adventurer's for their barge. This gives your PCs incentive to go back to the trader to do something about it. Adding in what the barge was actually worth can also teach them about negotiating and what the prices of things actually are, if they are a newer group.
  • Even easier, a relative to the trader may feel bad about the deal and give your PCs what the barge was actually worth (or closer to what it was worth). Simple solution, and they can use the money to buy what they needed in the first place.
  • If you want to leave the trader be, your group may stumble upon another trader who is late in delivering some goods that were to be taken to the city your group is heading to anyway, but is too busy to do it him or herself. The trader will let you keep his horse and wagon if you do him this favor.

All in all, you can remedy a situation by extending the plot to have the group obtain what is needed for the original plot to continue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ #3 is interesting. You could make it even more intriguing by having the second trader be so distressed that he can't get his shipment to the local lord on time (maybe it's some vital foodstuffs that were ordered for a banquet the lord is holding for a visiting regent?) that he openly admits he's willing to give them the carriage and let them keep the payment from the lord, just to stay in the lord's good graces. Now they have additional incentive to take the carriage, and perhaps will be reimbursed at least some of what they lost on the sale of the barge. \$\endgroup\$ – Doktor J Jul 12 '17 at 20:28
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Making the problem go away:

If you want to just make the problem go away, I suggest just adding a small bump of gold into various enemies' pockets along the way as the PCs progress until they've caught up on gold.

Is this really a problem?

One of the big things about DnD, from my perspective, is the ability to fail. I naturally object to the idea that PCs won't face negative consequences for the choices they make. To me, this feels very disempowering. But mine is not the only way to game, so I put it out there as a question: Is this really a problem? Do you really need to have them "moving forward at a decent pace"? Or can they slow down a half-session or so recovering from their gaff?

If its not a problem, I suggest just making it obvious to the PCs that they were low-balled on the ship's price, IC. Have them catch the Merchant bragging about the sale, or have it be a massive rumor in that town that that ship was bought on the cheap and that the PCs are easy marks. A few titles to the goldengate bridge should teach them to better examine the things they are told.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Failing is not a problem - setting up your players to Fail because you haven't given them information to succeed (or try to succeed) is a problem. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 11 '17 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch, I don't believe in giving my players information. I'll sometimes prompt them to make checks, when I think its perfectly reasonable for me to do so, but on the whole, I put the information they "need" into the setting somewhere and they either find that information, or not. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Jul 11 '17 at 15:45
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Fix the problem

There are a variety of fixes you can use. Each of which has its benefits and drawbacks.

  • Ret-Con the whole exchange. You can basically "re-play" the bartering exchange. Isolate that encounter from the rest of the game; just focus on replaying the barter process. If this is what you choose, focus on first providing a bit of meta-game coaching. It sounds like your Players don't realize that bartering is a thing and/or they are missing the details needed for Agency as mentioned by SirTechSpec. At the end of the ret-con, they should have more cash.
  • Let them know they've been ripped off. This can be metagame, or via another NPC. Either way, they learn a valuable lesson and then have to find a path forward. Seek retribution/more cash? Seek a side-adventure to get more gold? This will delay the main story arc. It may also frustrate your Players, because this can slow the game down for something that they see as not their fault.
  • Guilty buyer. Others have suggested the buyer could come back feeling guilty for ripping the PCs off. Before doing this, ask yourself if the buyer would really do that. Or if they'd just be glad they pulled one over on the PCs and laugh all the way down the river.
  • Karmic payback. Perhaps the PCs learn that the raft sank or the buyer fell off the barge and cannot swim. If this happens immediately after the sale ("You hear cries for help from the river as you walk away"...), then they can rescue the buyer, who then has a change of heart / a reason to feel guilty for the rip-off. They can then pay the PCs for the rescue.

Personally as the GM, I would ret-con the exchange after a short meta-game discussion of what went wrong (the players didn't know to haggle. The GM didn't suggest they do so). It breaks continuity, but it fixes the problem as if it never happened, and gets things back on track with the least impact to time and story line.

Prevent future, similar, problems

The bigger task before you, though, is to reduce the occurrence of this kind of failure in the future. SirTechSpec mentioned Agency, where the players have enough information to make logical decisions about their PCs. In addition to that, you as GM have to fill the gaps between what the PCs know and what the Players know.

The PCs, having grown up in your world, probably know how to haggle. They may not be great at it, but they understand the idea that the 1st price is never the real price. They wouldn't accept the initial offer unless there was a reason to. Both the seller and the buyer know this, so even the buyer would be suspicious if they didn't offer a counter price.

As a player, you want the GM to perform this role, to act as the filter between what I know and what my PC knows. As a GM, I want to provide that filter. This gives the players agency, and prevents silly mistakes that are illogical. Or at least gives the players a chance to avoid them, if they so choose.

So as GM, when they said, "Ok. 50GP sounds good," you should have immediately said something like, "Typically, the first price is the entry point to haggling. You should counter with something higher but not too much higher, then the two of you will settle on something in the middle." This lets them revise their actions without penalty. This is your world's equivalent to how American buyers know that sales tax is added to the price on the box/sticker/whatever and is rarely included. Or like how Americans "just know" to tip their wait staff roughly 20% at a restaurant. It is a known social rule.

That same kind of metagame exchange should occur any time the PCs are about to do something they should know not to do. Unless you know from previous gaming sessions with the same players that the players DO know better and are choosing to make the "wrong" choice.

As mentioned in the comments, your players may want to "hand-wave" the haggling. If Players don't want to mess with haggling and similar kinds of roleplaying, then this pushes the burden back to you to provide an abstraction between detailed haggling and the actual, final, price. This could be some kind of Charisma roll, or it could just be a "here's what you pay..." Just like very few GMs force PCs to detail how and when they maintain their weapons and armor, there's nothing wrong with this approach.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The GM may also add extra clues or hints as to going on while he or she is telling the story. Simply telling the players beforehand that the trader look "a little shifty" should throw red flags while being discreet about the intentions of what the GM is trying to accomplish (in this scenario, attempting to scam the players). This may also prevent unnecessary metagaming. \$\endgroup\$ – A.B. Jul 11 '17 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree that the GM should need to tell them to haggle. I think that's the wrong level of analysis. They walked into a strange town, and took the first price someone offered them for a boat. Unless they're <15 years old (possible) the players wouldn't do that in real life. They'd check what a reasonable price WAS first. This is a lack of immersion, not a PC vs Player discrepancy. \$\endgroup\$ – Byrel Mitchell Jul 11 '17 at 16:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Several role-players in my circle hate haggling in games. It's not unreasonable for the Players to not find that aspect of RL enticing... \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Jul 11 '17 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aslum (Count me among those who hate haggling. In games and real life—whether GM, player, buyer, or seller—I always walk away after haggling feeling as if I got a bad deal and someone somewhere is laughing at me. In a campaign where the GM told me my PC must haggle else be thought rude or a fool, I'd opt to play a rude fool.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 11 '17 at 18:44
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So far as preventing this from happening in the future, be familiar with the skills and backstories of the characters. When encountering a situation where they are about to make a bad decision based on not understanding expectations within the setting, try rolling a meaningless die behind the screen and having 2 or 3 of the 5 party members realize that their experience with boats/moving stone/herding cattle/etc shows them this is a bad idea.

In game this can add great flavor:

DM: The harbormaster says I can only give you 5 platinum for this tub.

Out of game players decide it seems reasonable

DM: The harbormaster licks his lips and says there are splinters here on the gunwales and you can see through the sail it's so thin.

rolling of dice behind screen

DM: Bardly the bard, from your hundreds of hours spent gambling you sense that he thinks he's pulling a big one over on you. Hulk of Eagle clan, your family caravan carried brand new sail cloth over the plains every year and you know that this cloth is in reasonable condition. How do you proceed?

This lets you provide knowledge about the world they are navigating and improves the flavor and depth of the story you are exploring together.

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It really depends on what kind of a game you are running.

I tend to run mine fast and loose and narrative-driven - I have no problem with my ogres being quantum, so long as the player won't notice it. If they go down the wrong corridor first, I'm happy to flip my map so that the encounter that needs to be first, is first. But if they make informed decisions (if, to paraphrase @SirTechSpec's excellent answer, they avoid the corridor littered with bones and go down the one littered with flowers) then I can't teleport the ogre, and I'm gonna have to make sure the flower-fairies work as a first encounter, instead.

That the players face a good level of challenge - dying rarely, permadeath almost never, but having the sensation of threat of TPK at least once every few sessions - is more important to me than whether they got the right price on something.


I'll explain this approach with an example.

So, sure, I'd have them get a cart by selling a barge, but ideally I'd handle that at a high level, just having the harbormaster offer a trade-in.

But since players never do what I expect, they sell it to the wrong guy and get ripped off. As others said, I'd have them find out they were shortchanged... but then have them hear that the trader is coming after them for his 5pp back and then some, with the town guard backing him up, because the thing sank in the harbor as soon as he loaded the cargo, and don't you know that selling a lemon's considered a very serious crime in these parts?

That news should give them the impetus they need to get the heck out of town and find a way to travel fast, at least until they've left the reach of the town guard.

But since players never do what I expect, they might passively let themselves end up in the cells. So the trader might be willing to cut them a deal. There's a package they could deliver for him that might just cover his losses... "Just take this package to the inn three towns over, and the recipient will make himself known. Yes, it's a coffin. Yes, there's a body in it. You're in a jail cell, I'm offering you a way out, and a cart to carry it on, will you really complain about the smell at this point? And if you're gonna do this, you need to get going. The day's hot, but Eddy the Embalmer's not, if you get the drift."

But since players never do what I expect, they push back, say they needed to travel at night to preserve the body, then send the thief to check if the sunken cargo was deliberately scuttled; so I'd have to decide on the fly whether it was or not. The players won't typically realize how deeply they've descended into a freeform adventure at this point, and will assume that it's all plotted out and railroaded for them, and I'll support that by dropping details for verisimilitude. "The watchman at the docks is Old Jack. A well-worn battleaxe on the wall over his head suggests he might actually have a couple levels, but he and his little terrier, Young Jack, both seem to be napping comfortably - they likely don't get a lot of traffic this time of day."

And since players never do what I expect, my goal once they go off the rails - which I encourage - is to give clues and cues to lure them to their destination, or at least a waypoint towards it. So I'd either have the cargo legitimately sunk, or have signs that it was deliberately sabotaged by Old Jack, at the behest of some guy two towns over in the direction they were going anyway, because of a deal that'll be going down soon...

And so the plot moves on. When in doubt, kill an NPC. "A crossbow bolt whistles out of the darkness and nails Young Jack to the boards. There's a note attached. Old Jack starts awake and looks around for what woke him - you have a couple seconds to act before he spots you: what do you do?"


TL;DR: Crank up the drama and intrigue and fighting, crank down the bookkeeping, and roll with the punches when they drift off track. I presume-but-verify that players honestly keep track of every copper, but I should rarely need to know how much cash they're carrying.

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The trader's wife/sister/father/rival surreptitiously or overtly gives them a better deal, while this character tells the player characters that the deal they got was quite poor. Perhaps the same character gives some advice on haggling as well. (They were babes in the wilderness, and the savior takes pity in some fashion)

If that's impossible, give the players a really good deal on a wagon rather than a carriage, as it's nearly as good and with a slight modification (covering it) can do the same job and more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the idea of letting them find a horse and wagon they can buy for 50 GP. Worn out plow horse, wagon that hasn't ever been painted and has a wobbly wheel -- but it'll get them where they need to go. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Jul 11 '17 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ZeissIkon The wagon costs 35, 2 mules is 16. They need only get a good deal (1gp) to be right on the money. The 'related' savior thing recalls the Miracle Max scene from Princess Bride to me. \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Jul 11 '17 at 14:28
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In this specific situation, you could also establish to the players how unfair the deal is through the introductory scene. Maybe have the buyer obviously rip someone off, show someone haggling with him, or raising their fist then he pleads in exchange for a fair offer. This may prime them to certain choices but also establish that their are caveats to the situation recognized in-world as well as ways for handling this situation. Like if you have a random hole in some wall, placing a skeleton who is missing an arm may give them some second thoughts.

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If you really want haggling to be part of the roleplaying experience there are several things you can to to effectuate this in your campaign.

Set Expectations

Before the first session talk with your players out of character and make sure haggling is something they are interested in. Many RPGs have no mechanics for haggling because many players don't enjoy it.

Since it's semi-to late for the most important advice two additional options abound:

Show don't tell

Show them examples of NPCs haggling... If it's expected then everyone does it... they'll overhear merchants and food vendors haggling with commoners and nobles alike.

Culture of Haggling

If they PCs just accept the first price given, have the merchant be offended or conspiratorial ...

Merchant: "I'll give you the boat for 50 gold."

PCs: "Okay, sounds good."

M: "What, No no no... that's a terrible price, are you trying to ruin my reputation? You're supposed to haggle."

and so on...

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There a SirTechSpec's answer already gave a great response, but I did want to expand on the general idea of what information to give players. In general, it is a good idea to be a little generous with players when it comes to the value of items in the game. The way we get an idea of what is a good or bad decision in game is either 1) by experience playing the game (eg. "We fought goblins before at level 1 and it was a fair fight, now we are level 5, we probably don't need to run from these goblins") or 2) by comparing to the real world (eg. "I have some idea of how far people can jump and that ledge is 30ft up, I won't make it even with a high check"). Neither of these are generally available to players when it comes to anything but the most common items.

When it comes to the first strategy, players might get used to the prices of items that are used all the time (eg. healing potions, basic weapons and armor, cost of a night in an inn, etc.), but the list of all items is huge. Any player who actually has memorized the prices of items to the point that they know how much a barge is worth has spent a TON of time pouring over every page of the core books. We aren't just talking read them from cover to cover, we are talking studying them and quizzing themselves on even the most mundane details. You shouldn't expect that of your players.

The second strategy doesn't help much either. Most mundane items are inexpensive, so the high price point items they know in game are probably magical and can't serve as a reference for real world experience when approximating the value of an item. In real life a potion of healing would be infinitely valuable but in DnD they cost as much as a pack horse. Even for items that exist in the real world, they are uncommon enough in modern society that most people don't have a feel for their value. Do you know approximately how many days of trail rations a saddle is worth in real life? Neither do the makers of DnD because they said 20 when the answer is closer to 100.

In short, your players have no idea how much stuff is worth in DnD. If they do, there is a high probability they are looking stuff up at the table instead of listening to you. In the future when it comes to buying and selling, let your players roll to know the value of the items involved (with a pretty low check) or just straight up tell them.

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Not reminding them to haggle was fair

As a player, I think you handled the situation correctly. Your players already KNOW how markets and pricing works in RL. They won't buy a car without checking the bluebook value, and I bet every one of them has gone shopping on eBay or Amazon to try to find cheaper prices on books, electronics, etc. It's not a disconnect between player and character knowledge; it's a lack of immersion.

They already know that the price someone offers them may not be a fair price, but they aren't applying it to the in-game world. In that situation they should have asked around about a fair price. You didn't withhold agency, they declined to exercise it. And getting them to actually exercise their agency will increase the fidelity and engagement in the world.

The "Solution"

So I'd suggest rubbing their nose in it a bit so they remember. Have them be laughed at, or have some old-timer take pity on them and EXPLAIN to them that they were a bunch of gullible fools. Preferably in an unpleasant, Church of Git Gud-approved way.

And then solve their immediate problem with a wagon or a fun side quest where they can get gold. After all, you don't want to make this unfun. Just memorable. Ideally, this will be a story your players will be telling other tables two years from now.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless I've misread, you seem to be advocating that the GM emotionally abuse the players (by proxy of the game, but the same nevertheless) to make them feel like fools for making a decision they didn't know the scope of. Have you experienced this actually working well, or do you have experience of this working well that you can cite? Have you experienced player/GM trust remaining in place afterwards without inflicting abused gamer syndrome? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 11 '17 at 18:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ "They already know that the price someone offers them may not be a fair price" - This is a poor assumption to make. In Adventurer's League, everything you can buy is explicitly stated to have an upcharge/discount if there is one. And in every 5th edition game I've played in, prices given by the DM are law - simply to cut down on meaningless timewasting of players attempting to haggle with every single purchase. If there is to be story-driven haggling, it should be made very clear to players that haggling and/or getting ripped off is an option. \$\endgroup\$ – Speedkat Jul 11 '17 at 21:17
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We all need to take our P's and Q's from the Elder Scrolls and Telltale Games. They represent this problem VERY Well.

  1. Make absolute sure the player can VISUALLY see that this is a lowball.
  2. Give Players a way to get around this. This is what Oblivian does incredibly well with its "Haggling Mechanic"

  3. Make sure they are Rewarded for this behavior from time to time because if there is a reward there is a Dopamine Release in the brain, Causing smarter actions in the future and the ability to remember these actions well.

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