Late Review – The Complete Paladin’s Handbook

So… we had a good time last time when looking at The Complete Priest’s Handbook. I had heard it was a difficult text, and through a grueling review process I had verified that fact.

Today, we’ll be looking at The Complete Paladin’s Handbook. It has some similarities, but isn’t nearly as bad. As far as game mechanics go, it’s solidly average with a minor tilt towards “why are all these character archetypes jerks” as is usual for the paladin class.

But it also has a lot to say about real world history. And that… that is where the pain begins.

Without further ado, let’s begin!

 

Publication Details

Like many of my other Late Reviews, The Complete Paladin’s Handbook is one of a series of rulebooks released by TSR in the 90s, each focusing on a different class, race, character concept or class kit (as with The Complete Sha’ir Handbook which I still haven’t found).

I’m almost curious to start tracking when these various handbooks came out in relation to The Complete Priest’s Handbook, but I’m also unsure that I want to risk opening that dread volume once more under the light of day. So I think we’ll skip that.

One thing I’ll mention, however, is that this is the second time I’ve reviewed a “Complete Handbook” for a class which isn’t a “base class” in AD&D 2e. Both the druid and the paladin are technically subclasses of the priest and fighter respectively. The fact that they have enough content to justify a full handbook of their own sort of makes the point of why they were upgraded to full classes in later editions.

 

Now, there is one final thing to talk about before we begin. In reality, this post is two reviews for the price of one. The first is about the game mechanics for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition that this book introduces. The second is about the historical information about the real Medieval European period which this book mentions. The two reviews will have very different conclusions.

But let’s begin with game mechanics, shall we? The historical inaccuracies can come later.

 

The AD&D 2E Paladin

Let’s introduce the basic 2e paladin first. It’s a subclass of the fighter (kinda?) which has greatly expanded powers compared to almost any other class. Their innate powers are almost quaint by modern standards, but at the time the paladin had far more “innate abilities” from their class than any other character.

Many of these abilities remain in modern tabletop RPGs – Lay on Hands, Turn Undead, various auras, etc. There are also some that dropped away, such as Detect Evil, and thank god for that. We’ll discuss some issues with those sorts of abilities in just a little bit.

However, the first main takeaway here is the paladin is very strong. It has good hit dice and AC, very strong resistances to multiple things (disease being the most notable), access to strong melee weapons, innate abilities which replicate spellcasting, and actual literal spellcasting at later levels.

The book, being aware of this, proceeds to suggest that the paladin’s high stat requirements are a check against this power – a suggestion that, in my mind, makes very little sense.

 

The concept here is simple. Paladins have stat requirements for Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. I don’t think any other character has requirements in so many stats. Several of these aren’t high requirements (CON and INT require only a 9), but the Charisma requirement in particular is very high at 17.

If you’re rolling your stats randomly using d6s, getting all these stats would be very difficult. The book implies this acts to limit the number of paladins, reflecting their great power. Personally, I have literally never seen someone roll their stats before choosing a class. And I played multiple games of 2e using the roll-for-stats method instead of point-buy or a general array.

So to me, these stat requirements do nothing to limit the number of paladins. If someone wants to play a paladin, they will – it’ll just take longer to roll out the stats. If you’re using point-buy, the stat requirements do limit you a little by making it difficult to have high stats outside your main stats (likely Strength, Constitution and, above all else, Charisma).

But that leads to a secondary problem. We’ve already established that paladins are very strong… so by requiring high stats, wouldn’t that just make them even more powerful? A fighter will put their highest roll into Strength, second highest into Constitution, and third highest into Dexterity – everything else will be personal preference and could end up being quite low. Paladins literally cannot have a “dump stat” below 9 in any stat except Dexterity. Every other stat has to be mediocre at worst, with Strength and Wisdom locked to “slightly above average” and Charisma required to the highest possible roll under the “roll for stats” method.

That seems… counterintuitive.

 

51 Flavors of Antisocial Jerks

Alright, let’s move onto the kits. There are 14 in total (plus one kit that’s basically just “paladin, like from AD&D 2e”). Out of that number, eight are antisocial loners with no clearly established reason to be in a D&D party – the basic format of all tabletop RPGs. Additionally, four are specifically noted to be unlikable with grating character traits I normally flat-out ban from my games.

I don’t understand the prevalence of jerk characters (or, rather, how people who play them get invited back session after session), but I do get the “antisocial loner” thing – it’s a misunderstanding of the Aragorn character from Lord of the Rings. He’s presented as this grizzled wanderer, a dark and mysterious stranger, and people want that because he’s cool (and Viggo Mortensen is very handsome). This is missing the fact that Aragorn is as close to a Final Fantasy style “power of friendship” character you’ll find in Middle Earth. Literally can’t go anywhere without running into at least two people who consider Aragorn a close personal friend.

Anyway, let’s look at these kits. Mechanically, they can be divided into “narrative-only” kits and “actual game mechanics” kits – much like the kits from most of these handbooks, actually.

 

We’ll cover the narrative-only kits first, since they’re simple to discuss. These are the Chevalier, the Envoy, the Errant, the Expatriate, the Militarist and the Squire. Three of them – the Errant, Expatriate, and Squire – are defined mostly by how much of the typical paladin narrative package they get to avoid. A plus in my book, but odd to see in an official rulebook. The others – the Chevalier, Militarist and Envoy – get minor bonuses in exchange for additional tedious narrative requirements.

Do you like the idea of getting to order around minor NPCs later in your career after a dozen levels of being ordered around yourself? Play the Chevalier! Do you like having diplomatic immunity and minor social benefits? Play the Envoy! Do you wish you had just chosen to play a religious fighter? Play the Militarist! Do you want to be a modern paladin, sans all the annoying narrative? Play the Errant or Expatriate! Do you want to play an Errant or Expatriate while also getting no respect for your accomplishments? Why? (But play the Squire, it’ll do.)

Oh, and the Chevalier is a “jerk” kit, the Militarist is an antisocial loner, and the Expatriate is both. Fun times.

 

Next up, the “actual game mechanics” kits. Let’s look at these a bit more individually.

First up is the Divinate. Your primary benefit here is an additional Sphere of Access when you get cleric spells. This is nice, though I’m a bit baffled at why this Sphere is limited to Charm, Sun, or Guardian. What about a paladin of Thor? Your penalty, meanwhile, is harsher tithes. The hidden drawback here is that the penalty, doubled tithes, applies from 1st level while your benefit, additional cleric spell access, doesn’t kick in until 9th.

Next up is the Equerry – this is an “antisocial loner” option. Despite how difficult mounted combat is in AD&D 2e’s system, the Equerry does a phenomenal job of making a mount usable… albeit at a major cost of reduced experience gain (you have to funnel a certain portion to your mount whenever you gain some). Plus, this kit is “reluctant to enter underground passages” in Dungeons & Dragons. Bit counterintuitive.

Then we have a “antisocial loner” and “jerk” kit, the Ghosthunter. You fight undead. That’s the premise. You get a better Turn Undead, immunity to paralysis, the ability to remove paralysis from others, and the power to dispel evil effects. In return, you lose access to Lay on Hands (ouch!) and your disease immunity. This second part seems odd – undead have a strong connection to disease. Wouldn’t an undead-hunting paladin have more use for immunity to disease?

Next is the Inquisitor – another antisocial loner kit. This is very much a magic-focused kit, since you get detect (evil) magic and dispel (evil) magic, plus higher resistances to illusions, mind control, and possession. In return, you can’t Lay on Hands, Turn Undead, cure disease (though you are still immune), or cast spells. That last one may seem odd for a magic-focused kit, but the Inquisitor is a bit “anti-spellcaster,” thus explaining that drawback.

Then we have the Medician. You get bonuses to healing people as well as proficiencies in medical treatment skills – complete with divinely-enforced continuing education requirements! You also get fewer weapon proficiencies, but can still take the battle axe. And I have to say… what is with medics/healers in RPGs using battle axes specifically? Clubs and maces I get, there’s a weak (and mostly wrong) historical connection there. But battle axes?

And now we get to the first actually interesting kit, the Skyrider (which is also unfortunately an antisocial loner kit). Your benefit is a flying mount at 1st level. Your only drawback is a period of intense depression if your flying mount dies – given you’d be on that mount during combat, you’re going to fall to your death before the depression sets in. At first I thought this kit was amazingly strong, but it suffers from the same drawback as the Equerry when it comes to dungeons, while dragons, a flying apex predator, are just as big of an issue.

Next up is the Votary, another combined jerk-and-loner kit. Your benefit is getting spells at 6th level instead of 9th. Your drawback is that you’re incredibly, incredibly obnoxious to be around. You get a negative reaction adjustment for it. You also have to tithe fifty percent of your income. Oh, and you do get a version of the ranger’s “Favored Enemy” ability, just against a religion instead of a race. So you aren’t a racist, but you are still a bigot. Lovely.

 

The last kit is the Wyrmslayer, and I have a few things to say about this one. For starters, it’s yet another antisocial loner – there are enough loners in this book to make up a full adventuring party, except for, y’know, the fact that they hate being with other people. But the Wyrmslayer has bigger problems.

You begin your life as a Wyrmslayer by declaring your intent at 1st level. The gods then grant you a vision of a quest you must accomplish, typically within one to two years, to become a Wyrmslayer. You get no benefits or drawbacks until after that quest is completed. Potential quests include…

  • Steal a dragon’s egg!
  • Find and destroy a dragon’s lair!
  • Singlehandedly defend a settlement from a dragon attack!

Alright, alright, just… how powerful do you think a 1st level paladin is!? Stealing a dragon’s egg could be reasonable, I could see a way to work with that. But destroying a dragon’s lair? Good luck with that in a party of 1st level characters! Or you could always defend a settlement from a dragon by yourself – not only is that functionally impossible, but it also has the secondary benefit of leaving the rest of the party twiddling their thumbs! This is a group activity!

I just don’t get it. Plus, literally any other kit would have a better chance at accomplishing these tasks, since they actually have benefits at 1st level. A Skyrider could actually ride up in the air to attack a dragon (before getting swallowed whole since they’re 1st level). The Wyrmslayer gives you no benefits until you complete your impossible quest.

But if you actually do it, you get rewards beyond imagining. Seriously, clearly they felt fine giving this kit the most ridiculous benefits since it’s literally impossible to actually take the kit. A magic shield that gives you Evasion with dragon breath attacks, land grants, permanent magical boons, an extra Sphere of Access, or even a silver dragon as a personal bonded mount!

Man, good thing it’s impossible to take this kit! Otherwise it’d be unbalanced as hell.

 

As you can see, the kits are a mixed bag. Only the Skyrider adds anything interesting, and “flight at 1st level” is unfortunately an unworkable proposition given how adventures are designed these days. What gets me the most, though, is how borderline unusable a lot of these are.

Over half of the kits are antisocial loners who have no reason to be affiliated with an adventuring party. A few others are such annoying characters that you’d get kicked from the real-life group before the third session. The Wyrmslayer is impossible to choose successfully and brokenly overpowered if you do manage it. It’s a mess.

 

Demihumans as Demipaladins

First off, I just love that section name. It’s literally what the section is called in the book. “Demihumans as Demipaladins.” It sounds so utterly absurd. Anyway, there’s a few things about this section that I want to discuss.

Firstly, the term “demihumans” is awkward now and was awkward at the time. “Demi-” has many meanings, but is primarily for things that are “partially” part of something else – hence “demigods” are entities which are partially gods. I also always thought of “demi-” being indicative of implied inferiority. “Demigods” are lesser divine figures. A “demilich” is a weaker vestige of a lich (depending on what rules version you use). Or look at Elden Ring‘s “demihumans” – small, monkey-like creatures frequently stated to have low intelligence and crude culture.

The fact that AD&D blanket defines all non-human humanoids as “demihumans” is just… difficult. This stopped being much of an issue when 2e’s “vague human perspective” was dropped. Older books are always written as though from the perspective of a human, or from a non-human writing to be understood by humans. Modern TTRPGs ditch that style, much to their benefit.

 

Anyway, onto more “game mechanic” related issues.

I’ve never liked how 2e handles non-human races. Elves, half-elves, dwarves, halflings… they’re all better than humans. They have abilities humans can’t get, like the elven resistance to sleep or paralysis, or dwarven stonecunning. They live longer than humans too. And they’re more interesting – players get to be humans every single day. It’s only on D&D night that they can be literally anything else.

AD&D’s solution to this was to create extremely artificial limits for the non-human playable races – namely level restrictions. Humans can reach 20th level in any class. No other race can do that. But this isn’t a good trade-off, ultimately. Many games never get to the later levels, meaning those level restrictions won’t even apply. Having characters of multiple levels is also annoying to balance for the DM. And it feels artificial – you’re telling me that no matter how long they learn, an elven wizard can never reach the same level as a human? They live for hundreds of years!

Another limitation is that the paladin, a very strong class, is restricted to humans only. But this book, The Complete Paladin’s Handbook, gives them a loophole – the demipaladin.

 

Non-human races can choose to become “demipaladins” by creating a multiclassed fighter/cleric (levels simultaneously in both classes by splitting experience between the two) that is Lawful Good. When they do, they get zero benefits immediately. But when they gain access to 2nd level cleric spells (which I believe would be their 3rd level of cleric), they can complete a quest to earn one of the paladin’s various innate abilities. They then receive further quests at each new spell level of cleric spells, slowly accumulating paladin abilities. They can never get all of them, but still.

So… here’s the issue. A paladin’s innate abilities are stand-ins for spellcasting since they get access to it so late. As a paladin, you can’t cure light wounds until 9th level – so you get the ability to Lay on Hands instead. It doesn’t take a spell slot and you get it right away. Many of the paladin’s other abilities are direct replacements for spells of various levels.

But the demipaladin is actually a multiclassed fighter/cleric. They get cleric spells from 1st level. A fighter/cleric doesn’t need Lay on Hands because they can just cast cure light wounds. Sure, it’s still different – cure light wounds takes a spell slot, Lay on Hands doesn’t. But the point is that these demipaladins already get access to the spells that the paladin abilities are meant to replace.

I’m not saying that demipaladins are better than paladins. For one, demipaladins have to earn each of these abilities one-by-one (and at the cost of completing a quest too, at least theoretically). The paladin gets them automatically. The fighter/cleric “demipaladin” also levels a lot slower than a normal paladin – they have to split all experience between two classes. Thus a 9th level paladin who just got cleric spellcasting would be equivalent to, say, a 5th level fighter/cleric.

But keep in mind – the paladin gets 1st level spells at 9th level. The equivalent roughly-5th-level fighter/cleric, meanwhile, has just gotten 3rd level spells.

It’s just an awkward system all around.

 

Historical Inaccuracy

And now we get to the second review – namely that of the book’s historical statements. To begin I just want to stress that The Complete Paladin’s Handbook is a roleplaying game rulebook, not a history textbook. I’m not expecting citations and academic rigor. What I do expect is for the things the book claims to be “historical” to be at least vaguely correct.

Because remember – this is a TTRPG rulebook. It doesn’t have to talk about history at all if it doesn’t want to. So by choosing to do so, I feel it should put in some effort to checking its statements.

Which it clearly didn’t do.

At all.

 

Knight or Vietnam Veteran – You Decide!

Let’s begin with ho the book talks about medieval knights.

In the real world, some knights were members of a landed aristocracy while others had no land but were supported in the household of a landed aristocrat. A few travelled, competed in tournaments, served as mercenaries, and so on. But still, these are warrior-elites, and for good reason. Knights fought from horseback. That is a very specific and very difficult skill that needs to be trained from a young age. Also, horses are expensive.

Paladins are knights, very clearly. No actual “paladins” existed, but that’s fine. Wizards aren’t real either and druids, while real, could not turn into bears (sadly). Much of the inspiration for paladins comes from chivalric legends and tales – stuff like the stories of King Arthur. This book acknowledges that inspiration, and that’s all it really needed to do.

 

Then it decided to try to talk about history.

"Few lived beyond age 30. Those who survived often spent their remaining years penniless and broken, depending on the charity of a society that had all but forgotten them." -The Complete Paladin's Handbook, page 4

Sound familiar? It does to me! As an analogy for Vietnam veterans.

Knights were members of the elite class. And some, I’m sure, died penniless and alone. After all, working as a knight was one of the few paths available to a second son left without lands or titles due to his father’s possessions going to his elder brother instead.

But to imply that this was frequent is just incorrect. A great many knights would either be granted lands taken in conquest by their masters, or would be maintained by their lord as part of his own household.

There was certainly a class of knights to whom this applies, if only vaguely. But it wasn’t the case for “knights” in abstract.

 

There’s also something to be said about the lethality of medieval warfare. For one, it was definitely lethal. Absolutely. But I’m not sure that “age 30” is the right cutoff for a knight. After all, aristocrats were often ransomed for extra money by whoever captured them – the taking of captives was an important part of warfare.

Regardless, this whole paragraph reads like someone desperately trying to connect the experiences of medieval knights with that of modern soldiers. And that isn’t entirely a futile effort. Examining whether or not medieval warriors could have had something like PTSD is a common effort nowadays, though I haven’t looked into it enough to say if it’s accurate or not.

 

(Actual) Historical Role of Women

Next up is the book’s treatment of the idea of female paladins.

To establish up front – this is a fantasy game. There is absolutely no reason for strict historical realism here, especially given that our understanding of the place of women in history is severely limited by the fact that our overwhelmingly male sources do not care one bit about the lives of women. We know some about how it was to be a woman in history. And in a fantasy game meant to be fun to modern audiences of men and women, there’s no reason to adhere to those things.

Also remember the statement at the very start – the book does not have to cover history. It chose to do this, and it didn’t do a good job of it.

 

Okay. For one, this book seemingly can’t even cite itself correctly. On page 85 in the “Women as Paladins” section, it says “Even in the historical feudal era, women fulfilled some of the knight’s military functions (see p. 86).”

If you go to page 86, in the “Historical Role of Women” section, it says no such thing. It doesn’t even mention anything related to military duties at all.

We’ll come back to that second section, but first I want to address another issue with the “Women as Paladins” section. Most of the book’s statements about history are found in sidebars, set apart from the rest of the text by a border and a different background color. This section doesn’t have that, but still opens with “even in the historical feudal era.”

This is confusing, because it then goes on to say things that definitely weren’t true in the historical period. It says “women often donned armor and wielded swords” (emphasis mine), and that’s definitely questionable. I’m sure it happened, but to say it “often” happened is simply incorrect. It then ends by saying “[f]emale paladins may be uncommon, but they’re not unknown.”

This implies that the previous sentences were talking about in-narrative figures who “often donned armor and wielded swords.” But the passage still starts with “in the historical feudal era” and so… I don’t know. If they’re talking about the world being constructed for this book, that’s perfectly fine. If they’re talking about history, though, then they’re off.

 

Speaking of being historically inaccurate… the “Historical Role of Women” section spends a great deal of time talking about how “[c]ustom demanded that married women remain submissive to their husbands, with their responsibilities confined to household supervision and raising children.”

A common perception, but not a very accurate one. This statement obscures a lot by its use of the phrase “household supervision.” In the modern day, “household supervision” evokes images of the classic 1950s stereotypical family. The father works all day while the mother stays at home cooking, cleaning the house, and washing the laundry.

In Medieval Europe, “household supervision” for an aristocratic family was more like running a small business. The wife of a landed aristocrat had many responsibilities. She didn’t cook or clean, she directed a large team of household servants to cook and clean a house far larger than your typical American suburban home. She also frequently managed the estate’s finances. And she might also direct defensive preparations if the castle comes under siege while her husband is away.

The way this passage is written, the huge importance and difficulty of these tasks is downplayed to the extreme. And it really, really shouldn’t be.

 

There’s one last bit about women in history which I want to address, and it relates to how the book discusses marriage and childbirth.

"Most women, regardless of class or status, married in their early teens. They had children as soon and as often as possible, irrespective of the considerable risk associated with childbirth. Women were often grandmothers by age 30." -The Complete Paladin's Handbook, page 86

I’ve added emphasis to the most egregious sections. I actually did a double-take at that last sentence. Let’s break things down.

Marriage age is something that varies by culture. Some marry younger, some older. There’s also different degrees of age differences. Compared to modern society, many historical cultures had women marry at a younger age and also featured large age differences much more frequently.

Nevertheless, the idea that “most” women in Medieval Europe married in their early teens is not really correct. Legally speaking, the absolute minimum age could be quite young – but this was a floor, not an average. This is the same in the present day, really – you have to be 18 to marry (or as young as 16 with parent/court approval), but if you see someone getting married at age 18, your first thought is likely “wow, that’s young!” So just because it was the limit doesn’t mean it was the norm.

Furthermore, there’s an important distinction here between marriage and betrothal. The latter could happen at quite young ages, but the two are not synonyms. Betrothal is a promise to marry when the two individuals come of age – it’s a valuable political tool for the elite. Marriage, meanwhile, was defined largely by consummation (IE sexual intercourse). Betrothals didn’t have to be consummated (the two individuals don’t even need to have ever been in the same room together) while marriage, by definition, required physical contact.

And even then, betrothal wasn’t that common. Perhaps a 7-year-old daughter of a baron would be betrothed (often to another 7-year-old), but a girl in her early teens being married was much more bizarre for a variety of reasons. And that’s for upper-class individuals. Outside the upper class, the typical marriage age only increases.

 

There’s also childbirth to talk about. I almost feel ridiculous saying this, but the statement that “[w]omen were often grandmothers by age 30” is absolutely ridiculous.

For one, people in the past still knew that there was a preferable age range for having a baby. Too young and the birth might kill both the mother and child; too old and there might be a variety of dangerous complications. After all, the end goal of all of this is a healthy and living child.

Also just… in order to be a grandmother “by age 30,” that means a woman’s child must have had a child of their own before the woman’s 30th birthday. Let’s look at how you’d do that.

First, we’ll establish that this a female line. In all periods, men typically marry slightly older than women, so we have the best chance of this statement being true if the woman has a daughter. And since we’re dealing with averages (IE the situation that would “often” occur), we’ll say that both the mother and her daughter marry at the same age – the age women “often” get married at (in this hypothetical society).

We’ll set that marriage age at 14. It can’t be much later due to the 9 month gestation period. So the woman marries at age 14 and immediately conceives her first child. That child, a daughter, is born 9 months later when the mother is 14 years and 9 months old.

Let’s then say the daughter gets married on her own 14th birthday. This means that her mother will be 28 years and 9 months old at her daughter’s wedding. If the daughter then conceives her own first child that same day, the child will be born 9 months later – at which point the first woman, age 29 years and 3 months, will become a grandmother before her 30th birthday (by nine months).

And so, for the statement “[w]omen were often grandmothers by age 30” to be true, that must mean that “women often got married around their 14th birthday” must also be true. That second statement is false, thus the first is also false.

Though I would argue that, rather than “false,” the first statement is absurd.

 

Conclusions

Mechanically speaking, The Complete Paladin’s Handbook is mostly a wash. It’s forced to spend so much time explaining all of the 2e paladin’s convoluted abilities that it doesn’t have the proper time to develop its own ideas. The kits it presents are mostly unusable and have relatively little value as inspiration. The one interesting kit it has is the Skyrider, which is unfortunately made unusable by modern adventure design and the importance of flight as a progression gating mechanism.

Historically speaking, The Complete Paladin’s Handbook is a collection of common misconceptions presented as historical fact despite none of them being even remotely correct. The one time the book gets anything historical right is when it mentions the 10th century “Peace of God” and 11th century “Truce of God” movements – and even then, it manages to leave out that neither of these really accomplished what they set out to. Those two movements did definitely happen though, and during those centuries too.

 

I feel a little bad about saying that The Complete Paladin’s Handbook isn’t worth reading. Normally when that’s the verdict, it’s with something completely unusable like Lords of Darkness or The Complete Priest’s Handbook. It should rate as being on the same level as The Complete Thief’s Handbook or The Complete Druid’s Handbook – utterly bereft of useful game mechanics, but still worthwhile just for inspiration.

The problem there is that while those others present good in-universe inspiration for telling a fantasy world narrative, The Complete Paladin’s Handbook frequently falls back on history… and then gets that history completely wrong. The book also doesn’t add any interesting new items or spells, and it doesn’t have any advice for paladin-themed campaigns (either the mythical “all-paladin campaign crusade” or just a paladin-themed story that doesn’t need any PC paladins).

 

I’m a bit biased, but I suppose that bias is really the whole point of a review. I’m a history person by nature, and so its blatant disregard for history irks me. I’ve likely read other books that have just as many historical inaccuracies, only I didn’t notice because it wasn’t in an area or topic I’m familiar with.

But, then… that’s the other point of a review, isn’t it? To inform on things that the reader may not know.

 

Anyway, that’s it for today! Join us for the next Late Review for… something. Not sure what yet, but probably a book.

And, as always… let me know what you think!

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