Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

Wandering Monsters

Earlier today I was reading the Angry GM’s most recent article about traps. It was an excellent article, as usual, and I agree with pretty much everything in it. However, also as usual, it got me thinking of a lot about issues related to encounter design.

There is a point in the article that, in order to discourage pixel-bitching, there needs to be a consequence to taking the step of looking for traps. And before he even said it, I was already thinking about wandering monsters. Because how and when to use wandering monsters has been very much on my mind lately.

In the old days, pretty much every dungeon included a table for wandering monsters, and the DM would check periodically (generally every turn, or 10 minutes) for the appearance of a random creature which may or may not have some relationship with the dungeon ecology (or lack thereof).

It was time-based mechanic, and because it was a time-based mechanic, it does not work well in the 4e system without adaptation, because 4e treats time very differently than 1e did.

Everything in AD&D took a lot longer. In general, exploration (travel) took about 10 times longer (in-game), and exploration (searching) took 30-40 times longer (also in-game). Combat is about the same, but only if you include 4e’s short (5 minute) rest as part of the combat duration. (Read the AD&D DMG and the 4e Rules Compendium if you want details; summarizing in this way allowed me to cut six long paragraphs of analysis that I doubt anyone wanted to read.)

The long and the short of it is, both because of changes in the system and changes in the way I want to structure my games, time is no longer an appropriate mechanic for organizing random encounters. What I want to do instead is link random encounters to the choices that players make. That is, I want the chance of a resource wasting encounter to be the consequence of players choosing to take an action rather than forego it.

Take searching for traps. In game, this slows down character movement through the dungeon and increases the likelihood of some creature stumbling upon the party before they get to the next room. Out of game, it breaks the narrative. Both as a DM and as a player, you only want the party to be looking for traps when there is a reasonable chance that traps might be present; you don’t want them checking for pits every 5 feet, for example.

So, if the party checks for traps, perhaps you should check for a wandering monster. This makes the decision to look for traps a wise one if the party has reason to believe that there might be a trap present, and a foolish one if there is no indication that a trap might be present. A corollary of this is that the presence of traps should be telegraphed in some way; look at Angry’s article if you want clever ideas as to how to do this.

The same logic applies to searching for secret doors, so let’s turn instead to opening locks. Opening locks is a bit different because it can be perceived as not being a real choice; however, this is only true if (a) there are no other options available for exploration in the dungeon (you have explored every open or unlocked room on this side of the door); and (b) the door is too strong to force.

If the door is not too strong to force, then you have the option of attempting to force it. If you fail on the first attempt, you have made a bunch of noise and alerted any creatures on the other side of the door. If you succeed, you surprise any monsters on the other side, but you still make a bunch of noise and may alert other monsters in the area.

If you attempt to pick the lock instead, you have a much reduced risk of alerting whatever is on the other side in the event of a failure. This means that if there are no other options for exploration on this side of the door, choosing to pick the lock rather than force the door becomes the default choice unless there are also consequences associated with the choice to pick the lock.

This is where wandering monster checks come into play, because when the PC chooses to pick a lock, there is a risk of a random encounter. Moreover, if they fail to pick the lock, and have to try again, they run that risk a second time.

Random encounter checks are therefore linked to the decision to take an action rather than the time it takes to complete that action. This is not as much of a departure as you might think, since time in D&D was always an abstraction, and since most of the significant out-of-combat actions in AD&D took ten minutes anyway (for example, a cursory search of a 20’ x 20’ room, or searching a 10’ x 10’ area for the trigger to open a secret door), which was generally enough to trigger a random encounter check.

Now let’s look at short (5 minute) rests. A short rest is the default action to take after a combat, in order to recharge encounter powers and regain lost hit points. As they are generally used, there are no meaningful choices associated with the decision to take a short rest. Even if one introduced a random encounter mechanic, the risk of proceeding without regaining hit points or encounter powers would far outweigh the relatively small chance of a random encounter.

But what about the decision to take a second short rest? Suppose the party healer is a sixth level bard. If she uses her song of rest, then for each healing surge a party member expends, he gains additional hit points equal to the bard’s charisma. But if the bard instead takes a short rest and uses Majestic Word, for each healing surge spent the party member gains additional hit points equal to the bard’s charisma plus 1d6 hit points. Without some sort of time pressure, the optimal choice to make is to take several short rests in a row, and spam Majestic Words.

So perhaps the first short rest is free, but additional ones trigger a random encounter check.

I would like to play with that a little. But first, let’s talk about one of the things I do with encounter design. When I have a number of rooms, not too far apart, with allied creatures, and the PCs encounter the creatures in one of them, I assume that team monster will send for reinforcements as soon as they realize they are in trouble (generally partway through round 2). If the PCs fail to prevent monsters from escaping and summoning reinforcements, they could find themselves fighting a series of encounters with no short rest in between.

As a result, I tend to design connected areas as though they were a single encounter, fought in waves, and I set the difficulty for the entire area at the extreme edge of what the PCs can handle – usually double the XP budget for an at-level encounter. Now, they only face this if they fail to shut down the call for reinforcements, so if they play their cards right, they could instead be facing a series of easy encounters, and take very little damage from each of them.

As it stands, despite easily overpowering the easy encounters and taking little damage, there is little incentive to skip the short rest and press on to the next encounter. And on the one hand, good for them if they have managed the encounters well.

But on the other hand, from a narrative perspective it makes sense if allied creatures check in on each other from time to time. And maybe the party should make decisions about setting up defences while it is resting. And maybe there should be a real choice between pressing on with surprise, or risking discovery during a rest. So maybe there should be a chance of random encounters – or rather, a random chance of an encounter, since the creatures involved in the encounter are likely to be the allies of the creatures that were just killed. So maybe the first short rest shouldn’t be a freebie.

I still am not sure what I am going to do with this. For now, I think I will consider employing it on a case by case basis.

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The Koln Campaign

I thought I would talk a bit about the Koln campaign.

Back in the 80s, my friend Caius ran a campaign on his homebrew world that included a significant NPC by the name of William von Koln. (This was, by the way, the campaign in which I ran my favourite character, the name of which eventually became my internet alias).

Koln arrived on the scene on the very first session, and stayed with the party more or less throughout the run of the campaign. There was a period when Caius and one of the other people in our group were switching off as DM from time to time, so from time to time Koln was run as a PC, but he never really lost that NPC feel, and most of the significant events for Koln occurred off-screen.

Koln was a half-orc fighter who could pass for human. He had been dispossessed of his birthright, and his major motivation was a desire to reclaim it. I can’t remember exactly what his birthright was, if I ever knew, but I think he overshot the mark to an degree, because he ended up conquering the entire of alternate-universe Germany.

The campaign was a long time ago, and I have forgotten most of it, but we must have played White Plume Mountain at some point, because Koln ended up with the soul-sucking sword Blackrazor. This was a big point of contention between Koln and my character, Beoric, because Beoric objected to the use of the weapon for that purpose, and where and when Koln used the sword drove a lot of the interaction between the characters. Koln and Beoric were friends and allies, and Beoric often struggled with Koln’s amorality.

Koln always wore green plate and a horned helm, and had an aspect of the wild hunt about him. When he was a PC, the other DM gave him the ability to shapeshift into a wolf, for what reason I have never been clear.

I think Beoric started out as a houseruled ranger/thief. The thief component was added because in those days (the campaign started around 1984) it was the only way your woodsy ranger could stalk prey or climb a tree. He was a half-elf because only non-humans could multiclass. What I really wanted was to make him a gish, and Caius eventually made a houserule for adding classes which worked reasonably well, so I added magic-user (that’s “wizard” to you young ’uns) to the class mix.

We travelled with Donovan, a duelist who eventually multi-classed to duelist/assassin; Richard Kaylen, a fairly combat focussed cleric; and Raymond, an irascible old magic-user. There may also have been a paladin or paramandir called Edmund Radon, and a crazy cleric named Baltor, in the party; I can’t remember if they were from that campaign or another.

Anyway, after Caius had played a few sessions as Gaius Cannith, and started to get used to the fourth edition system, he asked if we could reboot Koln, in Eberron, as a full PC. Oh, and could he please have a dragonmark. I agreed, because I thought it would be fun to run a campaign where I already knew the PC very well and could easily predict his choices (and therefore avoid a lot of wasted prep).

So this is what I had to work with. I knew Koln was a half-orc, and that he had been dispossessed of his birthright. He needed a dragonmark, which was by default the mark of finding, which meant he was connected to House Tharashk. Oh, before I go on…

CAUTION: Spoiler warning! Use your mouse and click and drag over the block of gray to reveal the spoiler.

As a member of House Tharashk, the easiest way for Koln to be dispossessed is for him, or his parent, to be excoriated from the House. But that did not fit with a big part of Koln’s story, which is that he reclaimed his birthright by force of arms. So I conceived of a backstory to allow for that.

Koln’s mother fell in love with a member of the Karrnathi aristocracy. Under the Korth edicts, she had to give up her membership in the House in order to marry him. Koln was conceived during the engagement, but his father broke off the engagement before Koln was born. As a result, Koln was dispossessed of two birthrights, his noble title and as an heir of House Tharashk. Since he can’t have both, he will eventually have to choose between them.

This fits with my general approach to running a campaign for Koln. Koln’s alignment was neutral, but he tended to move back and forth between good acts (he was loyal and trustworthy) and evil acts (like using Blackrazor). Since as an NPC he didn’t have to face a lot of tough choices, as a PC I want to really stress the tension between the differing aspects of Koln’s personality, and his conflicting desires.

For example, there is a conflict between Koln’s desire to be a leader of men (which he can pursue if he chooses his aristocratic heritage), and his affinity with nature and the hunt (which is strongly associated with House Tharashk). Likewise, I have given him two weapons, one of which is a soul-sucking equivalent to Blackrazor, the other of which is the opposite.

I also wanted Koln to have to face the sorts of choices that he did not previously face, either because (a) he was an NPC, or (b) we were playing this in our teens. More than 30 years later, I want the reboot to have a level of nuance and sophistication that we were not capable of back then.

So I gave Koln a family. Moreover, I spent considerable effort in characterizing his family members, and gave them a big role in his life. I mean, the bulk of his motivation is related to his birthright, so shouldn’t family be important?

Nor are they just McGuffins; most of them have a significant role to play in many of the encounters. I have really enjoyed the interaction between Koln and his little sister, as well as Koln and his mother. The scene where Koln’s mother’s secret was finally revealed to him was particularly poignant.

Assuming Koln ever makes it to Karrnath, I am really looking forward to him meeting his father. Whom he will eventually learn is now a vampire, with no intention of ever giving up his title to Koln.

I have had to make significant changes to Beoric, now that he is not a protagonist. Previously, Beoric’s defining characteristic was leadership, and I can hardly having him drawing up battle plans for Koln, or directing him in combat. The result is that he is a lot less earnest than the original incarnation, since he needs to be fairly relaxed about letting Koln take command. In terms of class, it is much easier to get what I want in 4e than is was in 1e, as a result of which he is now a Cunning Bard, on his way to becoming a Resourceful Magician.

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Descriptive Text: Deconstruction

I was thinking about the post I wrote yesterday about descriptive text, and I thought I might post an example using Alexis Smolensk’s descriptive text as a starting point.

I should start by saying, I don’t actually think that Smolensk runs his narratives like the example on his blog. In the single, short video I have seen of him running a game, he did not. I know he doesn’t use the first person “we” in his narratives, because I asked him. He said the intention was to write the narrative as though the player was thinking it.

The blog is a written medium, and he obviously enjoys written language and is good at it. In fact, if he had written the description in effective oral language, it might have undermined the overall point of the article.

However, I see examples of this sort of descriptive text all the time, from GMs with influence, and I suspect it leads to the impression this this is appropriate to oral narration in your game. I would like to defray that impression.

I think the important information Smolensk is trying to convey is this:

  • It is night.
  • You need to find somewhere to rest.
  • It is raining, which makes you cold, wet, and miserable, and you do not want to sleep in the open.
  • The shantytown outside of the city walls does not have any obvious inns.
  • There is a gate to the inner city ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis, but it is guarded.
  • There are people travelling ahead of you, who take a turn immediately before they get to the gate. (Note he does not say what direction they turn, which, given the position of the gallery, may be important. He should probably also make it clear whether those people are the same as the people who are travelling in the gallery. I think not, but I could see players being confused.)
  • The guards have noticed the party

In addition, he is trying to convey the following additional information, which may or may not be important:

  • There is a gallery to the left of you. He did not say it was raised, so I am assuming it is at or near street level, like it is in the accompanying picture.
  • There are some people travelling along the gallery in the same direction as you.
  • The guards are carrying a yellowish-green light.

Note this is quite a bit of information for players to absorb all at once, particularly if it is conveyed orally. I would probably break it into chunks. Start with the need for shelter, and the ramshackle outer city; when they are having trouble finding an inn, then have them stumble on the gate.

If any of the information above is a red herring, I would leave it out. It is hard enough for players to catch all of the relevant information a GM is providing, without also providing irrelevant information. Irrelevant information is a barrier to communication.

Another thing I want to suggest, is that every object or feature, or group of objects or features, should have its own sentence. The pause that follows a period (and make sure you do pause) gives the players an opportunity to absorb the information and fix the feature in their mental map of the area.

If I was to set the scene that Smolensk is describing, and I had the time to plan it prior to the game, it might look something like this:

Step 1: Setting the Mood

At this stage you can effectively ignore everything I have said so far, because here you are conveying mood and need, as opposed to locating objects in space. So, to start, I would plagiarise Smolensk in part:

  • Night has fallen, and you are tired. It’s been raining for the last two hours, and that has put a hard finish on the day. It would have been hard enough to travel in the dark without the rain, but now the clouds have blotted out the stars and heavy mud clings to your boots. You do not want to sleep in this.
Step 2: Describe the Outer City

Now we start describing the physical space:

  • The road you have been travelling on becomes a dark lane in a strange city.

Note this is still really mood setting.

Also note that if your players are like mine, they might object to you immediately placing them in the city, paranoid creatures that they are (I am still trying to cure them of the paranoia taught to them by past GMs, but that is another story). They might not want to take the main road, and instead scout through the shantytown, or stay out of the city entirely and try to find a farmhouse. I am less likely to invoke their paranoia if I let them know when the buildings first become visible, and avoid triggering their fear of being railroaded into an unwinnable situation.

So if you choose to skip ahead like this, be prepared to back up and let them make another choice.

Now let’s transition between mood and physical space:

  • The buildings are cluttered and ill-kempt.
  • From what you can see the side streets are narrow, twisted and dark.

The last point was added so the players know a bit about the environment if they choose to get off the main road. It could be left for player questions, but if you make something look unpalatable after they ask, it can look like there are rails even where there are not.

Note those two statements would probably count as a single sentence using the Angry GM’s method.

Now we underline the need:

  • You see no signs of an inn.
  • But there must be some in a city this size.
  • You think you may have better luck if you go deeper into the city.

Now, pause, and let your players decide to go deeper into the city. Or not, as the case may be. If they do follow the road, go on to describe a new scene.

Step 3: Describe the Gate

Start general, and move to more specific or urgent elements. Let’s start with a reminder of the darkness and the rain, because they are related to mood, and because they have an impact on visibility, and combat conditions if it comes to that.

  • It is still raining.

Then move on to the most prominent feature, the gate:

  • You see a gate ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis.
  • Three guards stand in front of it.
  • Each guard carries a yellow-greenish light.

Again, this would count as two Angry sentences. Note that while “before” is more elegant than “in front of”, I chose the latter as being easier to process.

Then move to the gallery:

  • To your left, there is a gallery, running parallel to the street
  • You can see several figures travelling along the gallery, in the same direction as you

Many players will assume the figures are malevolent. Placing them early in the description lessens their importance from likely assassins to likely witnesses.

Now move to the possible alternative entrance:

  • A pair of figures are walking on the road between you and the gate.
  • They turn [left/right] before they get to the gate and disappear.

Since these figures appear later in the description, they take on a greater importance. Note I added a direction that they are turning, because if they turn towards the gallery, the players will assume they are interacting with the people in the gallery. I would probably not comment that there is another way in: I leave it to the players to come to that conclusion, or not. For the same reason, I would not include the comment that they “might be citizens”. .

Finally, the most urgent issue:

  • The guards spot you, and wait for you to approach.

This is still longer than the certified Angry Gm™ method would suggest it ought to be. I don’t know that I would actually have all of that going on at once; I might break it up by giving the players an opportunity to react before the figures disappear around a corner, or the guards notice them. But if I did it all at once, it becomes even more important to convey it in short, easy to digest pieces.

So let’s try this instead:

  • It is still raining.
  • You see a gate ahead of you.
  • The gate is open, with a raised portcullis.
  • Three guards stand in front of it.
  • Each guard carries a yellow-greenish light.
  • To your left, there is a gallery, running parallel to the street
  • You can see several figures travelling along the gallery, in the same direction as you
  • A pair of figures are walking on the road in front of you, heading in the direction of the gate.

Which is plenty of information. Maybe too much; I’m tempted to leave out the reminder about the weather, but I feel weather is ignored all too often. Pause for player action, if any (Smolensk’s players apparently stop their horses), then:

  • The figures in the gallery continue to move in the direction of the gate.
  • The figures ahead of you turn to the right and disappear before they reach the gate.
  • The guards turn and spot you.
  • They wait for you to approach.

You have ended with the most immediate potential obstacle (the guards’ attention), while giving a rough sketch of what is going on around the characters. The description may not be beautiful, but hopefully it is at least clear, providing the players with enough information to make decisions, or at least ask relevant questions. If you can pull that off, you have done your job in setting the scene.

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Descriptive Text

I was reading a recent post by Alexis Smolensk of the Tao of D&D, which was talking about describing scenes.

It begins with a description which is really quite elegant, and then proceeds to discuss how it is difficult to know how the players are reacting to the description, and not to get upset if you can’t see their reactions. If it sounds trite, it is because I am not doing it justice; I am paraphrasing in the most general way, because that is not, in fact, what I took from the article, and it is not the issue that I would like to discuss.

What occurred to me when reading the descriptive passage was, first of all, how good the choice of language was at setting the mood, and second, how poor the choice of language was for describing a space, or the physical actions taking place within it.

I think this is a common mistake GMs make. We tend to have a bit of a literary bent, and we often love language. We want our descriptions to be pretty. But the problem is that, by and large, the techniques for accurately conveying the physical are quite different from the techniques for conveying the emotional, or the abstract, and the better you convey one, the more poorly you are likely to convey the other. Put another way, the mood obscures the action.

The problem is exacerbated because western culture is, at this stage in out history, a written culture, and descriptions in D&D are delivered orally. GMs, I suspect, usually prepare their descriptions using written language, and effective written language differs from effective oral language. Moreover, players are used to absorbing information either through the written word, or through video, which is only partially oral. Absorbing information from oral language is its own skill, and one that has atrophied in western culture.

The Angry GM has an excellent article called How to Talk to Players: The Art of Narration, which creates a nice template for descriptive text, as well as explaining why less can be more when it comes to adjectives. He breaks these rules in examples elsewhere in his website, but then, the website is a written medium, so the same rules don’t apply, do they?

This is the addition I would make to Angry’s article (and if you do any GMing, you really should read it). When you prepare your description, always keep in mind that it will be spoken, not read. If you have developed the skill to speak from bullet points, use those instead of writing it out. If you have difficulty speaking from bulleted points, write out the text, but make sure you write it as though it is to be spoken. Read it out loud to be sure you have it right. It is, in a sense, the dialogue of the narrator.

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A bit about my gaming "group"

Sometimes I labour under the delusion that someone might actually read this stuff, and that it is not, effectively, as private as a locked diary that I keep in a safety deposit box.

So for that person, in order to make sense of some of what I do an say on this site, it might be useful to know a bit about my gaming “group”. I place “group” in quotation marks because it can only loosely be called such.

You see, I live in a centre that, as near as I have been able to tell over the last 30-odd years, does not have much of a gaming community. This is a city of over a million people which, so far as I am aware, has only one FLGS. It has a successful comic convention every year, big enough that a few years ago they got the entire bridge crew of the Enterprise “D” on stage at the same time; but the one time I attended, I was not able to find a single gaming table. If they were there, they were no doubt shoved in a tiny room somewhere with between half a dozen and a dozen people playing at any one time.

Gamers are hard to come by. Gamers who play my system of choice (D&D 4e) are pretty much non-existent. And it has always been thus. Even in high school, our group consisted of five serious players and two less serious players, with no movement in or out. There just wasn’t anyone else available.

Since finding new players was a non-starter, we got in the habit of running a lot of games with just two players, or rather, a GM and one player. If you wanted to play, you took what you could get, you know? And the thing is, we didn’t see anything strange about this at the time. It is only now, where I read so many posts on blogs and forums, that I realize that some people find this unusual. Really, you can’t run a decent game with less than four players? You don’t say.

Now, with everybody’s careers, and spouses, and children, and health problems, it is even tougher than before. I would like to play once a month, and if I am lucky that is what I get to do. But in the last five years, I have had two players at my table twice, and three players at my table once. The rest of my games are one-on-one. I have two players who I play with regularly, and three others who often express an interest. All of my sessions allow on-line play. And yet getting more than me and one other person to the table at the same time seems nigh impossible.

Part of the problem is that my own schedule is unpredictable. I am a single parent with three kids, who works full time at a demanding job with unpredictable hours. My youngest kid is five, at the time I am writing this. I have to squeeze in my campaign prep into the evenings around making supper, and cleaning, and laundry, and helping kids with homework. And I want my sessions to be good, so I am not happy winging it once every couple of weeks. Plus I never know when I am going to have a break from my kids. So neither I nor my players know when I am going to be able to run a session.

This is why I have so many campaigns going at the same time, all of which seem to be in slow motion.

The Gaius Cannith campaign I started with my buddy, let’s call him “Caius”, as a way of introducing him to the 4e system. He hasn’t really shown much interest in the character since we started the Koln campaign, but I like the NPCs and story and may spin them into other campaigns. In any event, since I maintain a continuity among campaigns, those events happened in my Eberron, so they stay on the site (if I ever get around to writing them).

After that I started two other solo campaigns with Caius: the Koln campaign and the Larenth campaigns, post of which I will speak of in more detail in later posts.

The Erdan “Scarred Elf” campaign, for which this portion of the site is named, is the first campaign I started with Bruin, and I think he still enjoys the character, but I sort of did a cross-over with the Larenth campaign, and now I am stuck until I can get Bruin and Caius to play together at the same time to finish up that storyline, or until I give it up and retcon that storyline out of existence.

With Erdan stalled, I have been running the Dax solo campaign for Bruin. The Dax campaign with Bruin, and the Koln campaign with Caius, are my most active campaigns.

The Star campaign was an attempt to run a campaign with more people. We had exactly one session: everyone claims they are still interested, but good luck getting everyone together, and prepping is a bit of a lower priority than with the solo campaigns that I am relatively certain will happen sometime.

The Sharn campaign is something I am trying to get going in order to play more often with less prep. The plan is to run an open table online in the hopes that someone will be available to play when I am. It is being built in a fashion that will hopefully facilitate casual play.

Which is a long way of explaining why, after five years, all of my campaigns are still stuck in the Heroic tier.

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Less Adventure Log than Blog

I’ve been ignoring my Obsidian Portal site for a while, mainly because it hasn’t been very useful for disseminating information to players. I’m in pretty frequent contact with the people I play with regularly, and this is quite a bit less efficient than a phone call.

However, for some time I’ve been thinking about running an open (virtual) table, and I’m just about ready to start it. If (when) that happens, this will likely be a better way of disseminating information, particularly because I am expecting to have players of wildly different experience and commitment.

This site will allow me to give players the information they want, and only the information they want, according to their preference. It also grants access to the houserules for anyone who is thinking about joining but is concerned with how I might have corrupted DnD 4th edition.

I’m currently running several parallel campaigns, all of which are set in Eberron, and all of which share a continuity. Since NPCs, and even PCs, can cross-over between campaigns, I have found the wiki format to be more useful for tracking the story than is the Adventure Log. As a result, I am going to use the Adventure log more like a blog, for discussing my design choices and the purpose behind my houserules for those who care.

At some point, in my ample free time, I may take the time to figure out how to start an actual blog elsewhere. If so, I will likely re-post my entries there. I’m going to wait until I prove to myself that I am actually interested in posting regularly and maintaining the site.

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