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The events depicted in this question happened many months ago and that campaign is now over. While there is no fixing what I did, I want to move forward and learn from what I am pretty sure is a mistake.

The party I was DMing was full of what I call murder hobos. All they wanted to do was kill everyone that didn't help them and kill every single enemy that ever crossed their path. This made trying to give them information they needed for quests difficult, because anyone who had information ALWAYS died. I actually mean this, they killed every enemy they ever fought without interrogating them.

After a while, I grew tired of this murder hobo gameplay style and I took the group aside and told them that some of enemies have information and so do the towns people, maybe they should talk to people or consider taking someone prisoner to try and get information.

One day, the party attacked some commoners. They killed 9 of them and left one with 6 health1. The paladin2 attacked the commoner and did 20 damage. Because they said non-lethal damage, they thought the NPC should not have died. My ruling was if you do double the health in damage they instantly die (just like a player character) even if you declare non-lethal damage (Massive Damage rule in the PHB).

My hope was that they would realize that they can't just fight everything that comes their way. I will also add that this "attack" wasn't using a sword or any weapon. The paladin trampled this man with his horse. My ruling was that because he did a MASSIVE amount of damage, this guy died instantly. I also argued that there was no possible way he could control the amount of force that his horse trampled that commoner with.

I have been asking myself a lot since this happened, was this a mistake on my part? I feel like I warned them many times that murder hoboing is not the answer and that it will not work, but at the same time that punishment (when I look back) may have been harsh.

Was this punishment too harsh or unfair? If so, what could I do in future to drive home the point that D&D is more than just killing without being unfair to the players.


1 No Experience was ever given when the party killed innocent people. We give out XP on an encounter bases, so at the end of the encounter they get all of the XP
2 The paladin is an Oathbreaker (per the DMG)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why is killing the commoner a punishment? Did the commoner have information they wanted? \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Sep 15 '17 at 12:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's a link to a related issue involving non lethal blows being struck versus the massive damage death rule I hope you find it useful. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 15 '17 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I would like to DM them again because we are all friends, and anytime we talked about it they said they didn't want to be murder hobos, but their actions did not follow that. and no, I have never seen that movie \$\endgroup\$ – SaggingRufus Sep 15 '17 at 13:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for random discussion. Comments not clarifying the question (and ones clarifying the question that have been addressed) have been deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 15 '17 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ What caused them to attack the commoners? Were the commoners acting as villains who just didn't have class levels to back up their villainy, or was it a random act of violence, or what? \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Sep 15 '17 at 23:40
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The paladin attacked the commoner?

It sounds to me like you and the players have a different idea of what the game should be. They are a gang of mass-murdering psychopathic outlaws now - the baddies. There's no point in continuing to try and give this group of characters "good" quests.

If I were you I'd discuss this with them. You can end up changing the tone of the game to fit how they are playing - now the law is after them, the posses are after them, the real heroes of the setting are after them. Even the other criminals, monsters and possibly even gods are after them for the reward money, or for the reputation of defeating the villains who are a scourge on the countryside.

This response as a DM isn't punishment

This is the DM applying consequences to the PC's actions.

In fact, right now, there is probably a party of high level NPCs being promised a lot of money to come after them and hunt them down. You could add some flavor to this by having them come across a few "Wanted, Dead of Alive" posters up in various public places, with descriptions of them on the posters.

You (the GM) would not punish them, but most certainly the authorities in the setting will. In game consequences for in game actions and decisions.

They may get jobs as mercenaries or assassins or something for someone who is either powerful, confident or stupid enough to think they can control the PCs (so they won't then turn on him), and evil enough himself not to have qualms with the evil they've committed.

It's hard alright, you probably spent a lot of time in coming up with your scenario, but you could point this out in the discussion - and you could always save it for another campaign.

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First step: make sure you are on the same page

It seems that you and your players have a different understanding of how the game should go. Either you wish to play in a different style or they are unsure of how to get the results you expect from them. You should have a discussion with them before starting another campaign to figure this out.

If they wish to play in a different style

On side has to give. You might persuade them to play a mystery campaign or similar, but this still has to be an agreement. Or you can just design a dungeon crawl for them if you are okay with running it.

If they are unsure about how to proceed

Make sure to go over all the relevant rules and how they come into play beforehand. Even during the game, communicate obvious consequences to them (like "your horse cannot deal nonlethal damage with trampling") and let them change their mind accordingly. They might think that they only get XP from things they kill and that they get XP for everything they kill. If you handle XP differently (and outside of a dungeon crawl you probably should) tell them what you base their progression on.

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About trampling with a horse: you can't just declare that you're doing nonlethal damage when trampling someone. It might, theoretically, be possible to take a horse aside and teach it what nonlethal damage is, and then train it to deal nonlethal trample damage on command. But that's not what your player did. Your player said "I trample that guy for nonlethal damage", and it's 100% correct to rule that that doesn't work.

About misunderstanding the rules: when you notice that someone is trying to do something that's impossible, it's almost always correct to pause the action and tell them the thing is impossible.

Player: I trample the guy with my horse for nonlethal damage!
DM: Hey, that's not possible.
DM: You're pretty sure that trampling that guy with your horse will deal lethal damage and kill him, whether you're trying to do nonlethal damage or not.
DM: Are you sure you want to trample this guy with your horse?

So in that sense what you did was pretty harsh.

About punishments in general: we really try to guide people away from a "punishments" mindset. There's one school of thought that goes: "If someone tries to do something I don't like, then I'll let them do it but then I'll make it turn out so they don't have fun. And then I'll say: "it's your fault that this game isn't fun, because you did something I didn't want you to do!"

Rather than that school of thought, I recommend an approach I call "Just Say No":

Player: Okay, we attack the commoners!
DM: No, you can't do that in this game.
DM: This is a heroic game, and I'm not interested in playing a scene with you where you murder a bunch of commoners.
DM: Please think of a different way to have fun.

Obviously doing this is less fun for the players than letting them do whatever they want. But it's more fun for the players than letting them do things and then punishing them for it afterward. Use this sparingly, but do use it when you need to.

About avoiding bad situations: An even better trick to use is to not give the players an opportunity to do the thing that's going to annoy you. If you notice they're trying to murder any civilian NPC they meet, then don't let them meet any civilian NPCs. A lot of this is just good worldbuilding: once NPCs figure out there's a group of murder hobos marauding the countryside, everyone's going to stay as far away as possible, up to and including evacuating villages when they get close. But, either way, you as DM control what sorts of encounters the group gets, and you can just choose not to let them have the ones that annoy you.

About the Same Page Tool: Others have mentioned this, and it's important to mention it here as well: in an ideal situation, as you're collecting players for your game, you should have a little "about this game" document. The document should say things like: "This is not a game about murdering civilians. If you really want to murder civilians, you are probably not a good fit for this game and you should join a different one."

Here's a link to an "about this campaign" document I wrote recently, as an example.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I try not to punish people, it wasn't so much a "you're not doing what I want to too, so here is something you don't it" I was to show them that all of their action have consequence, some positive, some negative. It wasn't until later I realised that I may have actually punished them. \$\endgroup\$ – SaggingRufus Sep 15 '17 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ 5E removed nonlethal iirc. You have the option when you drop them to zero to knock them out now though. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Sep 15 '17 at 20:06
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I laughed inside my head when I read the part about the non-lethal horse trampling. Congratulations, you made my day.

I only have three solutions to offer for your case, assuming that you want to handle the situation in a way that make the campaign playable. I will present them as steps to follow, moving to the next step as the previous fails to provide acceptable results. A combination of the first two would for example be better than the third.

  1. Try to make them voluntarily change the way they play.

Instead of breaking the meta-wall and explicitly raise your concern - which is a valid option, just a fairly blunt one - you can try to make them realize how the way they handle the campaign is flawed in your setting. This particularly applies to beginners, who may not know better.

You can engineer a situation where they will end up in big trouble if they miss information that would have been given by a NPC.

  • A villager in a farm they would pass by
  • An enemy that would have tried to surrender and leak intelligence
  • A group of bandits whose chief would carry something likely to launch a subquest - treasure map, order from a higher up, whatever - but who would give information about its dangers, or that it is a trap, if shaken a little bit.

If your players end up in trouble because they slit the only throat that could have saved them, they may be more encline to be subtler the next time.

It may fail because although they know they can question people the way they want to play to have fun currently stands on slaughtering things. That's a perfectly valid reason to do it, and it's therefore your duty to give them that as a DM.

  1. Change the way you handle you set the campaign

If your players want to play a particular way, you should go with it. If your players' idea of fun is currently butchering what stands before them, so be it. You should set your adventures so that it's fun, not so that it fits your initial intents.

I hope that all the informations and clues that the players can get aren't only obtainable by questioning NPC. I would assume that there are other kinds, like in written form in NPC's pockets, eavedropped conversations, public edits, rumors, whatever. I would also assume that not all informations can be obtained by only one source, which would be weird.

You could go decrease the amount of intel that can be gathered from questioning NPC and/or increasing the informations obtainable from unkillable sources. That would allow them to not miss the clues around them without restraining from having fun, which is the main purpose of playing in the first place.

  1. Not associate a DM and players with radically different goals

If you find out that neither of you is willing to change the way they play, perhaps it would be best to stop the campaign since it's obvious in this case that your objectives are mutually exclusive.

If you can't or won't design a campaign that don't rely extensively on questioning people, you simply can't play with people who can't or won't play without killing whoever they meet. Both ways are valid, but they remain incompatible.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 15 '17 at 19:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ For your suggestion #1, how will the PCs and/or players ever realize a specific victim might have told them something useful? The question suggests they had already missed a number of opportunities exactly like that. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Sep 15 '17 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aschepler Maybe they havn't knowingly paid it. And the first step mostly apply to players who try to play the campaign as intended but fail - usually beginners. That doesn't look like the OP's party, but that answer should also apply to the users who might ask themselves the same question, so a standardized answer seemed preferable to me. \$\endgroup\$ – ksjohn Sep 18 '17 at 8:04
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Reading your entire question I see some possible mistakes from you. I infer them from your question so they may not really have happened, but it looks like you did them.

Tell your players about what you want from them.

It can be very straightforward and be a simple discussion with your player about what the campaign should be about, including its tone and what frowned upon (see the Same Page Tool). For example one rule of your campaign can be "you are playing nice guys, if your character turns evil you will have to reroll" or anything you agree with your players.

It can also be done with examples through the game, like a NPC who ask them to kill the bandits but no matter what not kill their leader since he is the only one who know where the McGuffin is, or to spy in the bandit camp but don't confront them directly, they are very powerful and they would kill you. You have plenty of different type of quests and killing someone is rarely the ultimate goal. This is different from building a scenario where at some point the PCs have to spare an opponent to get a precious piece of information since in the examples I provided the PCs are explicitly told about the reason why they should play subtle.

Have consistent and predictable rules

Rules never reflect reality perfectly. They have flaws and everyone around the table should be aware of that. For example in D&D a normal human can carry ten kilos of cotton in his backpack. Does that make sense? No. Is it a problem? Not really, since nobody wants to track the volume of each piece of inventory. "The volume doesn't matter" is a trope in many RPGs and thus PCs won't take volume into consideration when preparing their backpacks, or they will do it but during ellipsis and players will never talk about that. It is completely ok if one of the common tropes of the game you are playing doesn't suit you to rule it out. You can if you want write a houserule to take volume encumbrance into consideration, tell your players about that, and play with it. The problem is that is has to actually be a rule, don't just expect your players to assume the trope is flexible and that when they will have to enter a tight cave they will have to remove their backpack.

I once played a campaign of Teocali (FYK in Teocali killing anyone is always seen as a serious spiritual crime and causes bad stuff, like if in D&D you would take -4 to all your mental rolls until you atone) and in the beginning the GM told me that my bludgeoning mace wouldn't kill anyone (dealing the equivalent of nonlethal damage) unless I specifically ask for it. We played like that for months, and I got used to the habit of taking all the bonus possible when hitting bad guys, until at some point after a particularly powerful blow he told me I just killed my opponent. Of course, it made sense that as my PC was really strong such a heavy blow would kill the NPC, but as until there we always tacitly kept the previous rule of "bludgeoning damage is nonlethal" I was still expecting it to work that way. Hopefully the drama it created was nice to play, but it could also just have rendered my PC unplayable.

For your case you should have told the Paladin before he performed his trample that he couldn't choose to do nonlethal damage, and let him change his action accordingly. If you don't he will probably assume that the rules work the way they worked until now and not necessarily that this attack is different from the previous others.

Don't punish

Punishing is for people who do bad things. Your players are playing a game: this is not a bad thing. You may want to change the way they play it but don't see it as a punishment.

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Setting Expectations

Like other people have said, the first thing you want to do in a situation like this is sit down with your players and make sure everyone is on the same page. Do they murder everyone because they think they have to, or just because they think it is fun? Do they care about a complex overarching narrative or will they just be happy murdering their way across the countryside? Figure out what game they want to play, what game you want to run, and where those two games overlap.

There may be cases where there is little to no overlap between the games you want to play. If they just want to kill people and you really want the game to be about diplomatic intrigue at a court, you may have an issue. But more likely is that there is a way to slot their antics into your world and work your story into the narrative of them slaughtering commoners.

Actions Have Consequences

Be up front with your players and tell them that their characters do not exist in a vacuum and that the things they do will have effects in the world of the game. They murder a group of people and leave a sole survivor to tell the tale? That guy doesn't just go about his day afterwards. He is going to go to the local sheriff/militia/whoever and tell them about this gang of murderous bandits that killed his friends and stole their stuff. Do that often enough and eventually it will merit a response. Now the party has a bounty on their heads and can't step foot inside of a town without everyone running away or trying to kill them.

Note that this also doesn't need to break your own narrative. Just because the party doesn't investigate or interrogate prisoners doesn't mean you can't shove some plot down their throats. Have them find a note from the Big Bad to one of his minions in the loot that they get off of someone's corpse. Have someone they fight talk about how they don't know who they are messing with before or during combat. Introduce the conflict and the different sides and whatever else you need to tell your story, and then think about how this group of murderous adventurers would affect that conflict.

Being the Hero of Your Story Doesn't Mean You're Heroic

There is also nothing that says your PCs have to be heroes. They clearly are playing fast and loose with morality, and if that is what they want to do them you can absolutely play it up. Have them get in fights with the local police force because of all of the murder. After they win, have the Big Bad try to recruit them. If done well you will actually give your players the chance to decide what kind of game they want to play through narrative actions.

If the local sheriff comes by and demands they surrender, and then lists out all of their crimes, they might realize just how bad their actions look to the general public. They can then get forcefully recruited by the sheriff to clean up the area or fight the Big Bad. Now your story is back on track and your party are the good(ish) guys again.

If they decide that getting arrested is for the birds they can fight the sheriff and then be officially on the wrong side of the law. Then the Big Bad comes in, talks about how much he approves of what they are doing, and offers them a position in his organization or whatever. The party gets a second example of how their actions look to other people and another chance to change their ways. And if that doesn't work and they decide to join up, then you know what kind of game they are looking for and can start telling that story.

You Really Shouldn't Punish Players, But...

I don't advocate for "punishing" players by reactively making the game less fun after they do something you don't like.

That said, you can give them fair warning ahead of time that something they are planning on doing could have a negative result. Remember, Actions Have Consequences.

  • If the party starts killing commoners, they are going to not be welcomed in any town or village. This could go all the way to having the town gates closed and guarded if people think the party is making their way there.
  • If the party start killing guards, they are going to have bigger and stronger patrols come after them. Eventually they are going to get overwhelmed.

  • Depending on the god/ideal that the paladin follows, he may start having problems after killing an innocent commoner in cold blood. I wouldn't jump straight into stripping him of his powers but you could certainly give him disadvantage on rolls or something similar.

The really important thing to remember here is that you do not spring these results on the players after the fact. Have them describe an action, you tell them that there are potential negative consequences and what they might be, and then let them decide if they still want to do that action. Don't take away their agency or punish them for not doing what you want. But also don't just let them get away with literal murder without any consequences.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ From a comment under the question, the paladin in question is an oathbreaker. (See DMG for that class archetype). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 15 '17 at 15:15
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After reading the account of John FitzAlan, 1st Baron Arundel in Ian Mortimer's "The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England", I'm not so sure that high level (and especially, high ranking) PCs couldn't get away with some murder hobo behavior while remaining consistent with a fantasy/medieval setting. There were no police forces in medieval England and there would be very little stopping a party of powerful PCs committing mass murder.

A fair punishment would involve surviving commoners raising a hue and cry upon seeing the PC's behavior. Word would spread and before long the local lord would raise an armed contingent to hunt down and arrest the miscreants.

This could be a campaign in itself. After defeating a large armed force sent out by the lord, in desperation he puts out a warrant and hires . . . who else but another band of powerful high level adventurers (NPCs) to track down and kill the PCs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Iirc there were no police in England until the "peelers" in the later 1800s. \$\endgroup\$ – wizzwizz4 Sep 16 '17 at 17:32
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Well, it sounds like they're enjoying playing a gang of murder-hoboes, and you must be enjoying the game at least a little bit or you wouldn't be concerned about how to handle them next time, you'd just find a different group. As such, you probably don't need to worry about "punishing" them. Just make sure everybody knows that you're aiming toward realism, so they shouldn't expect to be able to just declare non-lethal damage on attacks that are too damaging or too imprecise to realistically guarantee that they won't kill the person.

That said, if you want to encourage them to give up their bloody lifestyle, again, all you need is a bit of realism. Who's more likely to hire a party of murder-hoboes? The good guys? Or the bad guys? They're running around assuming that because they take the occasional job to exterminate a nest of kobolds that makes them the good guys, despite the fact that they tend to wipe out the village that hired them as soon as the job is done. So when they get a job offer to go retrieve a dangerous artefact from a group of "evil monks" or whatever, they won't think twice about it, will they? And since they don't bother to ever question anyone, they'll never find out that their employer is the only one who considers the monks to be a problem...

Adapt the specific scenario to suit your style. The goal is that by the time they find out they're actually working for the world's resident megalomaniac it should be just short of too late to stop him...

Of course, that rather assumes that they do actually realise it, which the party you've described might not... In which case it gets even more fun. Collect their character sheets at the end of the campaign, and the next campaign just happens to be set ten years after the first and the story is about a new group of heroes freeing the world from a horrible tyrant. Of course, first they have to get rid of the tyrant's squad of enforcers... Hopefully you can see where this is going...

This will either encourage them to be more careful and actually ask questions next time, or they'll have so much fun wrecking the world that they'll want to do it more often. As long as you're all enjoying the game though, there's nothing wrong with that. Besides, when they go on an "evil streak" you need feel no compunction about having the actual good guys ruthlessly slaughter them.

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No, you were not wrong. You were perfectly reasonable. Your players are the ones being unreasonable. I can tell because you used the words 'attack' and 'commoners' in the same sentence to describe their actions.

It's clear they just want to wreck things and they're not taking the game seriously. Unfortunately, it's a lot of work for you to prepare and DM a game they just trample all over. Players like that don't change unless you make it worth their while to control themselves. Which means beating their characters to a pulp.

So here's some consequences:

  1. The ruler of the land calls out to all noble adventurers and offers great riches to anyone who will slaughter these psychotic murder hobos destroying the country. He hires mercenaries, he hires assassins, and then sends out a 20,000-strong army to run the murderers to ground. All the people of the land flee into the forests and mountains as soon as they see the murder hobos approaching and camp out for a couple weeks, denying the murder hobos goods and services while the army hunts them down. The ruler even notifies nearby kingdoms of the murder hobo threat and offers them the bounty if their armies kill the murder hobos.

  2. An immensely powerful evil villain hears of the exploits of the murder hobos and decides they would make a perfect addition to his army of magically controlled slaves. His elite warriors go out and capture them with poison darts, poisoned beer, wenches with poisoned fingernails, trained giant eagles with level-draining claws, giant homing anacondas with everything-proof skin, a semi-intelligent cloud of unbreathable gas, a million glue shooting beetles, magically exploding commoners, or a super high level bard team which can ensorcel them with magic tunes. After their capture, the murder hobos are forced to fight terrible wars in some hellish dimension by day and scrub floors like psychotic Cinderellas by night. If the wars don't kill them all off, you can have them escape battered and bloodied to be captured by the enraged families of all the commoners they've killed and then get burned at the stake.

  3. Run an adventure involving a high level cleric of a god. Some ruthless gang of commoners yells out to the murder hobos that the cleric is secretly evil and he has a temple full of gold and cool magic items for the evil army he is raising. As the murder hobos kill the commoners, they'll keep shouting the information what the murder hobos need to know to get capture the temple (like where it is, conveniently nearby). They'll kill the cleric and provoke the rage of the god, who will then level drain them or transform them into giant toads just in time for the evil army to get there with their evil cleric who was coming to attack the original cleric. The evil army then kills the murder hobos, or, if they somehow triumph, the evil god of the evil cleric is then mad at them and appears to level drain them and turn them into big fat hamsters with squeaky voices and no legs. Then, the good army that the original cleric was hiring with all that gold gets there and barbeques the murder hobos because they're just big fat legless mouthbreathing hamsters. The survivors from the gang of commoners who told them about the original cleric then get there slapping each other on the back and laughing about how they got those stupid murder hobos to kill an innocent cleric so they could rob the temple afterwards. The soldiers of the good army rip some barbequed ribs off the hamsters and graciously give them to the commoners, since people in the land have been starving since there's been a gang of murder hobos terrorizing the land.

  4. A powerful kaboodle of mindflayers combine their powers to control one of the murder hobos and they make him sneak attack the rest of them. He keeps attacking until he kills them all or they kill him. Then they start with the next one. By the way, they're all invisible.

The players should be sulking right now about how it's 'not fair' and 'stupid' and 'lame', that is, if they're mature enough not to get all mad and throw the dice across the room. That's when you say "You want to act like murder hobos? Then I'll treat you like murder hobos. And so will entire NPC nations and everyone else in the game. Now open the Player's Companion and make new characters. Level 1."

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the most entertaining list of consequences I've read so far ! Well done, you made my day ! ^^ \$\endgroup\$ – breversa Jan 4 at 13:18

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