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Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games

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Exposing a subculture often dismissed as “geeky” by mainstream America, Leaving Mundania is the story of live action role-playing (LARP). A hybrid of games—such as Dungeons & Dragons, historical reenactment, fandom, and good old-fashioned pretend—larp is thriving, and this book explores its multifaceted communities and related phenomena, including the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval reenactment group that boasts more than 32,000 members. Author Lizzie Stark looks at the hobby from a variety of angles, from its history in the pageantry of Tudor England to its present use as a training tool for the US military. Along the way, she duels foes with foam-padded weapons, lets the great elder god Cthulhu destroy her parents’ beach house, and endures an existential awakening in the high-art larp scene of Scandinavia.

258 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Lizzie Stark

8 books40 followers
Lizzie Stark is a participation designer and the author of three nonfiction books, Egg: A Dozen Ovatures , Pandora’s DNA and Leaving Mundania. Her writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, i09, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. She lives in Massachusetts.

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5 stars
56 (29%)
4 stars
83 (43%)
3 stars
44 (23%)
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6 (3%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 40 reviews
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,261 followers
July 12, 2012
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

Of all the "NPR-worthy" books I read these days (or that is, nonfiction titles with an academic's dedication to precision but with a popular hook to its theme, and thus perfect for a six-minute feature on "Fresh Aire"), Lizzie Stark's Leaving Mundania is perhaps one of the most personally satisfying; because its subject is the decidedly nerdy activity of live-action roleplaying games, or LARP (or "larp," or "larping," depending on which indignant practitioner you're talking to). And indeed, Stark doesn't even begin to hide from the geeky stereotypes that are associated with this popular "Lord Of The Rings Come To Life" weekend hobby, instead showing how it can be a place of brotherhood and spiritual refuge precisely for the biggest misfits of society out there, those with behavioral problems or a lack of normal social skills or physical handicaps or ongoing family issues; and by her as a non-gamer writing a huge chunk of this book by literally becoming active for a year in one of the nation's largest LARP groups, she does a masterful job at showing how one can be hesitant and self-conscious at first but eventually come to be profoundly moved by the proceedings, exactly as has been the case with so many full-time LARPers. And in the meanwhile, Stark goes into a fanboy's level of detail about all the various small differences between one particular group and another (some create their surroundings mostly by describing them out loud, while others physically create every detail; some settle battles with D&D-style dice-rolling, while others literally fight it out SCA-style), the history of live-action roleplaying (which can actually be traced back to Elizabethan times, believe it or not), and the ways that LARPing can be of benefit in the real world, including looks at entire fake towns that are maintained by military and police groups for "total immersion" disaster training. Funny, insightful and well-written, this is perfect for people like me who love learning all about some random new subject every now and again, simply for the sake of learning about it. It comes recommended in that spirit.

Out of 10: 9.4
Profile Image for Grace.
230 reviews7 followers
May 8, 2012
Author: Lizzie Stark
Title: Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Description: Lizzie Stark immerses herself in the world of live action roleplaying (LARP), a subculture that few people know even exists.
Source: netgalley
Writing style: Really engaging. Stark not only describes the LARP scene and interviews players, but actually plays many games herself and relates her own experiences.
Audience: Gamers, geeks, nerds, fans, and anyone interested in any of the above.
Major ideas: Stark does a great job of describing the games in a way that make them seem fun and exciting, but more than that, she thoughtfully discusses the social role of such games.
Wrap-up: I really enjoyed this book. Now, I am part of the core audience; I’ve played and enjoyed LARPs at conventions myself. Stark keeps the book moving with a good balance of first-person experiences and exposition. 5/5*
17 reviews1 follower
April 26, 2012
Stark, Lizzie. Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012. Paperback. +272 pages. $16.95. Release Date: 1 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Leaving Mundania was one of the more interesting books I've read in a while. Being a geek myself, I'm familiar with live action role-playing games. Many of my friends in college played, and while I never made it to an actual LARP event, I knew the basics of how to play, had my own boffer sword (think a homemade Nerf sword--a pool noodle carefully duct-taped around a PVC pipe), and enjoyed practicing beating the crap out of my friends with it.

I never went to a LARP event, because when you got right down to it, it meant camping and tromping through the woods, and well, I didn't want to go. I've always been much more of a table-top gaming girl myself (which I loved doing with these same friends). In the intervening years, the LARP that I knew has gone under, unfortunately, so my husband and his brother don't spend weekends "playing whoop-ass" (as my mother-in-law likes to refer to it).

This is the LARP I knew--going out, dressing up in funny costumes, and beating the crap out of your best buds with a Nerf sword while traipsing through the woods after "treasure." It meant many weekends making swords and sewing costumes (We learned how to make spider legs out of pantyhose) and a lot of fun. While I never went, I knew exactly what was going on, whose characters had done what, and what the plot was.

What I didn't realize until reading Leaving Mundania, is that is only one kind of LARP.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have realized that. After all, I've played more than one table-top RPG and they all come together different. Star Wars and Star Trek play on two different systems (d20 and d6, respectively), while Dungeons and Dragons takes a different approach, and anything involving Cthulhu is completely different. Stark moves through several different kinds of LARP, from the boffer weapon LARP, to one that exists in a Nexus and allows people to play any kind of character they want, to the Society for Creative Anachronism, Cthulhu, and the more intense and strange Scandinavian LARPs.

First of all, Stark gets credit for being a nerd herself, though she obviously didn't start out as a LARPing nerd (few of us do, after all). She recognizes someone playing Susan from Terry Pratchett's Discworld, she cracks Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and one of her chapters is titled "Cthulhu fhtagn!" So what I really liked about this book was that Stark went into it with respect. She even devotes an entire chapter to the misconceptions people have about LARPs, Dungeons and Dragons, and even Magic, after the 1980s and 1990s when parents were all told that these kinds of games were converting their children to devil worship, not realizing that a D&D game looks more like the 8-Bit re-enactment than something out of a bad Johnny Depp movie.

Despite her respect, there are a couple of problems--she highlights the polyamorous relationship of three players, which has very little to do with the actual game and is something that people who might be uncomfortable with LARPing to begin with could then use an an excuse not to get involved, if they were just exploring it based on Stark's book. But I am assuming that the people in this relationship said it was okay to use their full names, as Stark respects the wishes of those she interviews and withholds their names, as they don't want to be outed as LARPers. In the United States, she notes, LARPers can be outcasts even in the geek community.

What's of more interest to me was Stark's journey through LARP in history, which points out that entertainments put on for queens and kings of Britain mimicked LARPs. She also spends some time with the military and the exercises they use to immerse soldiers as much in a real world combat simulation as possible. And then she goes to Scandinavia to take part in more artistic LARPs that focus much more on emotional character development than anything else.

For all the time that Stark spends playing in LARPs and her conclusion, I'm still not sure that she would consider herself a LARPer, though. This still feels very much like the tale of an outsider, carefully trying to negotiate her way through a strange, new society. While granted, this may be true, I think I was hoping for an ending where she hadn't just gotten more comfortable with herself because she'd been around all these weirdos who had no problem dressing up, but an ending where she actually still felt like LARP would be part of her life. For all the tales of acceptance and fun of the LARP community, it still sounds like she's not entirely comfortable with it.

And granted, that's okay. LARP isn't for everyone. And overall, this book really does open LARP up to more people. If you're interested in learning about the different forms of LARP and LARPing, this is a great book to get you started.

Leaving Mundania - B+
June 22, 2012
Wickedly Bookish Reviews
http://wickedlybookish.blogspot.com/

Leaving Mundania is a non-fiction, in-depth look into the world of live action role playing and the people who have made it a lifestyle.

If you are a regular on my blog, then you know I am nerdy and proud. Now although I'm an avid gamer, I can't say that I've delved much into the world of LARP. I mean, I have cosplayed at anime conventions, but I don't really consider that to be the same thing. I did play table top RPGs with my high school buddies a couple times, but it just wasn't something I got into. Now years later in my adulthood I have found a sudden interest in this subject. While I don't expect to go jumping into a LARP convention anytime soon, I do see the experience in a whole new light. I picked up this book out of curiosity and came out intrigued and endeared thanks to the wonderful compilation of stories and information that Stark has put together.

I love that this book doesn't just seek to dump information into your lap about a subject you probably know little about. Stark informs her reader through the telling of her actual personal experiences and the often heartwarming and comical stories of LARPers she has interviewed. I didn't feel like I was being talked down to by some self-important expert on the subject. I felt like I was being led, hand-in-hand, through the entire process of starting up to becoming a part of the community. I think people interested in the subject will find Leaving Mundania a lot of fun.

Another thing that I found interesting while reading this book was that LARP may very well be a great device for authors. How you may ask? Well, as explained in this book, LARPers explore the characters they have created during each session of gaming. One of the most important things an author needs to do before they even put pen to paper is to get to know their characters. What better way than to actually put themselves into their characters' shoes and see how they would react in a plethora of improvised situations? I could see this process truly immersing an author into the characters they wish to write about and allowing them to reach an entirely new level of development. I could just be nuts, but it's at least something to ponder I think.

The Final Verdict
Leaving Mundania is a fun and informative read that will satisfy your curiosity and quench your thirst for nerd culture.

FTC Disclosure
I was provided a review copy of this book by Netgalley and Chicago Review Press in exchange for an honest review. I received no compensation for my review. All opinions are my own.
Profile Image for James Swenson.
477 reviews31 followers
August 11, 2012
The author's sympathetic and appealing account of her initiation to larping (live-action role-playing). Early chapters describe her impressions of the American sword-and-sorcery fantasy worlds that are most likely to be suggested by the word larp, with insightful anecdotes on "bleed" (emotional carry-over between fantasy and reality). I also enjoyed, for example, the commentary on economic inflation in game worlds.

The author takes it as given that (even) other gamers look down on larpers. She introduces us to enough larpers to humanize them as a class, but still suggests (p. 15-16) that many of the players she met seemed to be seeking a welcoming gaming community partially to compensate for "complicated family relationships."

Later, the author describes less familiar larp contexts, from military simulations of Afghan villages at one extreme to rules for roleplaying sexual encounters -- allowing characters to have relationships that feel intimate to the players, without the players themselves actually having sex with strangers.

[OK, I shouldn't leave it there. Summary: pet each other's arms.]

The author's conclusion: larp is not so much a hobby as a medium.

3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Lauren.
25 reviews8 followers
September 20, 2012
Leaving Mundania presents a very thorough, well-written and eye-opening portrayal of a subculture that has been maligned and made fun of for years, without being judgmental or preachy. I thought it was a bit dry at times, what with all the descriptions of various rules and the allocation of points and what not, but that just goes to show you just how in depth this book is. My favorite part was the chapter in which the author describes her experiences running a game for the first time. Lizzie Stark, in the highly unlikely event that you are actually reading this, I would definitely appreciate it if you wrote a novel based on the characters and storyline of your Cthulu roleplay! :-)
Profile Image for Christian Romer.
2 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2014
I rated the bookly so highly not because it is without flaws, but because it is the best history of LARP we have to date. It is hopelessly parochial with a major focus on US LARP that totally fails to mention the huge UK Fest Larps with thousands of participants or the crucial developments in Freeform in the Australian, Far East, Irish and UK scene though it does cover some strands of Nordic LARP very well.

At times Stark's outsider position (since relinquished) in the book jars but overall a bold and useful introduction for larper and non-larper alike. I give it four stars but was left thinking we need better in English.
Profile Image for Reverenddave.
311 reviews12 followers
July 4, 2012
This book suffered from a few of the issues I had with Man of War (notably the need to do something over the top towards the end purely for the sake of having the book to build to something) but it still offered some interesting insights into an interesting subculture.

I found myself particularly enjoying the discussion of the economic issues and inflation in the Knights Realm larp community as a result of the in-game currency not being pegged to anything. Made me want to try larping Alan Greenspan.
Profile Image for Benni.
477 reviews17 followers
March 23, 2015
Loved the insight into the LARPing community, but there was quite a bit of filler.
Profile Image for John Carter McKnight.
470 reviews74 followers
October 29, 2016
Leaving Mundania is a nice little participant-observer account of live-action roleplay as game and community. Stark immersed herself for three years in larp, from participating in a decades-long-running campaign to pick-up larp at conventions, to running her own game for non-larping friends. It's journalistic - with a bit of pretension to artsiness - rather than academic-ethnographic: sort of NPR-lite in tone and intended audience.

For a very short book, it's comprehensive, covering military and emergency-response training, and with two fascinating chapters on the rich Nordic Larp scene as well as presenting a range of genres and styles in American larp.

At first, Stark's writing was a bit annoying: she has a tendency to misuse big words. The later chapters are stronger, in part from Stark leveling up as a larper, and setting aside her own insecurity to write more authoritatively.

Stark addresses issues of racism and sexism in American larp: her half-chapter on a Black athlete and a White cop who are both closeted larpers was some of the book's strongest writing. By comparison, an anecdote about a woman whose in-game trial for seduction became mired in OOG slut-shaming felt like it pulled its punches.

There's a bit of Henry Jenkins' early work to Leaving Mundania: Stark is making a persuasive case for larp as not weird or dangerous, and in doing so is less critical and more fluffy than might be hoped. Still, as a result, the book is a good one to give to friends/family to explain a hobby, or to the resolutely mundane to explain geek culture more generally.
Profile Image for John Gastil.
Author 12 books7 followers
September 13, 2020
This is a great journalistic account of Live Action Role-Playing games, which is thick on detail and first-hand accounts. What I appreciate (but some reviewers clearly did not) is that the book's not just a loving rehash of all the things that are wonderful about LARPs. The author takes some critical perspectives on the activity, and my favorite is the section focused on gender/sexism (pp. 115-123). Looking at a handful of specific games and individuals, Stark recounts the challenges that female players face compared to male players. It closes with a wrenching scence where an in-game trial plays out an out-of-game quarrel. Afterward, Stark muses, "...the chief danger of larp" is "that life will imitate art too closely...Once the fiction is stretched to its breaking point, there is nowhere to hide." Ouch. The point isn't that LARPs are bad. It's just that they're tricky business. That sounds about right.
Profile Image for Tanja.
122 reviews66 followers
April 29, 2013
Wow. Before I came across this book on Netgalley, I had no idea what LARP was. I had never even heard of it before. But after reading Leaving Mundania, I want to try it myself. Preferably the kind with prewritten characters (I think I could be at least semi-good at that).

For those of you who don't know (heh, newbs):
LARP - Live Action Role-Play
mundanes, mundies, norms - people such as myself, non-gamers
Mundania - the real world

The writer did a great job researching LARP - she spent three years going to conventions, meeting gamers and participating in various games. I was surprised at how many different ways of larping exist. LARPs that use cards or dices to determine who wins a fight, LARPs where characters actually fight (but not with real weapons), short games that last a few hours, really long games that can last for years, tabletop games and many, many more. Lizzie Stark tries and writes about pretty much everything. After a couple of years of larping, she even runs a larp for her friends non-gamers (which seems like a nerve-wrecking job).

What I found most fascinating is the way gaming affects people's lives. There are some gamers who are open about their love for LARP, but there are others who keep it a secret from their friends and coworkers because they are scared of how it might change people's opinions of them. That fear is understandable, considering how many people judge gamers.

The book discuses positive and negative aspects of LARP. For example, people can use gaming to learn more about themselves, but becoming too invested in a game can be dangerous.
The book also (briefly) addresses homophobia, sexism and racism in larping.I would like to read more about these issues. They could probably fill a book of their own.

At the end of the book, there's a very useful glossary with acronyms and terms that are often used in gaming. I was familiar with some of them before (OOC, canon, cosplay, Joss Whedon), but most are new to me.

I recommend this to anyone with even a slightest interest in gaming.
Profile Image for Jeremy Preacher.
780 reviews39 followers
February 10, 2013
I was not at all interested in larping, reading about larping, or thinking about larping, but two references to this book within twelve hours made me go pick it up, and I'm glad I did. I wouldn't describe it as an evenhanded piece of reporting - Stark got herself firmly embedded in the larp scene for a couple of years while doing the research, and admits up front that she kind of lost her objectivity - but it's an in-depth look at the American larp scene, with a particularly fascinating additional chapter about some of the European avant-garde stuff that sounds more like a cross between improv theater and psychotherapy. I particularly liked the account of Stark running her own larp for the first time, and the chapter about American military training using many of the same techniques.

My only real complaint is that the negatives seem very much downplayed - the book mentions the American larp scene's pervasive sexism and homophobia, but doesn't actually discuss it much at all, and that makes it seem, to me, worse than a frank examination would have. It's pretty clear that many of the problems with gamer culture are reproduced or even intensified, and it seems like that could stand some analysis. But that would definitely undercut the overall thesis of the book, which is "Larping is much cooler than you thought it was!" Which, to be fair, I am now mostly convinced of.
Profile Image for Darcysmom.
1,425 reviews
August 7, 2012
Lizzie Stark wrote a fair and insightful account of her trip into the world of LARP. She embraced the quirkiness of the people around her and was not condescending - even when their actions would have been very easy to poke fun of.

I really enjoyed how willing Ms. Stark was to involve herself fully in the LARP experience. Being a player, not just an observer gave her a richer point of view. I particularly enjoyed her nordic experience - the idea of using LARP to transcend the ordinary was quite wonderful. The emotional weight of these more cerebral LARPs made me want to jump on a plane and play with these fascinating people.

I wish more of the theories of game play and academic works about gaming could have fit into the book. I was very pleased that she included an extensive reading list at the end of the book.

I enjoyed Leaving Mundania tremendously and would recommend it as reading for anyone who dismisses role play as insignificant.
Profile Image for Madara Bruģe.
185 reviews31 followers
November 17, 2014
Nu tad beidzot esmu tikusi galā :) Grāmata, vairāk kā rakstu krājums par LARP kultūru Amerikā, par cilvēciskām pieredzēm, par veidiem un lietām, kuras ikdienā var uzlabot ar nelielu spēles piesitienu. Un protams, Skandināvu LARP kultūra. Lasījās kādu brīdi, bet tas vairāk tāpēc, ka pēc katras nodaļas prasījās padomāt. Ko es uzzināju? Piemēram to, ka amerikāņu spēles var notikt katru nedēļas nogali teju 13 gadu garumā. Guvu ieskatu vienā no versijām par LARPu vēsturi. Par milzīgo toleranci un daudzajiem nerakstītajiem noteikumiem. Patiesībā, runāt varētu daudz un pamatīgi par visu šo, bet labākā daļa visā grāmatā bija autores personīgās pieredzes atstāsts pirmajā personā ar visiem tiem jokiem un paškritiku.
Profile Image for M.A. Brotherton.
Author 16 books21 followers
February 20, 2016
As a LARPer, I went into reading this book half expecting to find a mockary of the hobby. What I found suprised me. I've been out of the game for awhile, and Leaving Mundania reminded me of why I loved LARP.

Lizzie Stark is a journalist, and she covers LARP as a journalist, but she uncovered some wonderful things. The amount of information she shared is just awesome, considering how quickly I was able to read the book.

I reccomend Leaving Mundania for LARPers, especially those thinking about running or creating a game. Lizzie Stark covers some of the big issues that might not be apparent to players, even veteran players. I ran a game for close to a decade, and I still learned a ton from this book.

Definitely worth the read.
Profile Image for Emmaj.
620 reviews7 followers
May 29, 2012
This was an interesting series of profiles. The author uses in depth stories of a specific player (how they got involved, what they do for work, what their relationships are like) to illustrate a point about larps.
I'm not sure this subject had enough meat to make a whole book. Mostly I'm left with the impression that the author is saying, "larps are fun. Give them a good try. The players are not weirdos. Someone just like you plays them already. "
Profile Image for Ron.
3,421 reviews9 followers
June 28, 2012
Lizzie Stark takes a couple of years to embrace her "geek" side and immerse herself in live-action role-playing (LARP) games such as Knights Realm, Deadlands, etc. She interviews players, GM's and provides her take on the games she played. Interestingly, she has a chapter on the military's use of role-playing in preparing soldiers for overseas deployments.
Profile Image for Katie.
462 reviews6 followers
July 11, 2012
I picked up this book because I think the idea of larping is really fascinating, but in no way could/would I participate in it. I admire people with such imagination and ability to keep a straight face. I found the political aspects of this most interesting. People aren't perfect, even while pretending, and I like the author's exploration of that.
Profile Image for Dave.
175 reviews19 followers
October 17, 2012
No book about Larp could be exhaustive, but Lizzie Stark does a fine job of giving us the whirlwind tour. She covers both American and Nordic traditions, and speaks to the "IRL" effects of Larping, and how "bleed" can work both ways. A refreshing look at the hobby that, for a change, does not paint gamers as degenerates, sociopaths, or basement dwelling outcasts.
5 reviews3 followers
September 9, 2012
Great book!! One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Lizzie Stark is a tremendous writer who explores a subject that many believe is only the refuge of nerds and geeks. She shines a light on LARP, and the role-playing hobby in general, with elegance, and possesses a keen sense of the psychological and emotional value that is a central part of the allure of RPGs.
Profile Image for Mrklingon.
430 reviews8 followers
January 4, 2016
An interesting world - not one I'm joining anytime soon.

Stark provides a wide range of anecdotes and accounts (as well as her own forays) into the world of live action role playing. While I'm clearly a SF fan, to the extent of making up tools for alien language... but so far, this isn't something that appeals to me.
Profile Image for Kate.
15 reviews
May 10, 2012

Written with great humor and a deft and sympathetic touch, this book is a marvelous and insightful look into a fragment of our culture that is rarely explored by those of us on the outside. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
18 reviews
July 13, 2012
As an American Larper myself, I wanted to read this and see her perspective and incite into the world of live action roleplay. And she did an excellent job! I will definitely share this book with my friends and relatives who don't quite understand why I do what I do.
Profile Image for Joe.
19 reviews3 followers
January 31, 2013
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I've always looked down on "larpers" but this book actually made it seem pretty interesting. There were a few slow parts talking about the origins of larp, but the first hand accounts the author had performing in the games were interesting to read.
Profile Image for Leila.
224 reviews3 followers
June 7, 2013
I had no idea about the extent of LARP (Live Action Role Playing Games). Very interesting, although I found it difficult to understand what actually happens in some of the games. I may have to find out in person!
Profile Image for Rachel.
14 reviews3 followers
March 29, 2015
My God, this book is in dire need of an editor's pen. I wanted to know more about gaming and role-playing as an outsider. What I got was a jumbled stream-of-consciousness trying to be a reporter's point of view but ending up sounding like a drunken toddler's backseat rant. I tried-- I really did.
Profile Image for Jessie B..
758 reviews3 followers
September 22, 2014
A very sympathetic look at the LARP scene in both the US and Scandinavia. This is an excellent introduction and explanation of LARP for non Larpers but despite having larpers for more than ten years, I learned a lot about the hobby from this book.
Profile Image for Geri Hoekzema.
85 reviews5 followers
October 10, 2014
I don't think I'll take up LARPing anytime soon (I already have too many expensive hobbies) but it was fascinating to read about this fast-growing subculture. From now on, I'll be on the lookout for covert elves & orcs.
Profile Image for Craig.
4 reviews2 followers
July 18, 2015
I liked this book SO much more than I thought I would! I larp semi-frequently, but it was amazing to see names of people that I know in this! So much fun for larpers, and so informative for the non-larpers in your life!! <3
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