Content of the article: "Stranger than Fiction IV: What Even Are Cults"
I have been taking you through quite the tour in this series, starting with Taiping Rebellion’s lessons for Villains, the Real Secret Societies, and the Anti-Capital Nature of Magic. I am enjoying these quite a lot because I am learning some new things and I do not have to meticulously cite my sources, which is great since most of this has been stuff I know and am pretty familiar with and I don’t care to remember where I heard it from. But, I’ve been leaning on my prior knowledge, mostly.
This one is a bit different. I have put some time and effort into researching this one because two of the three stories I will tell were somewhat unfamiliar to me. The whole field of sociology and religious studies is one I have only shaken hands with occasionally. In fact, the idea of researching ‘Cults’ is incredibly fraught in academia because of the negative connotations of the word, the massive scope of what is or is not a cult, the tendency to get really political and moralizing in researching them, and, in some cases, the very real danger that by researching a dangerous organization you become one of their targets. So, while I assure you that I have done some work and tried to come to some reasonable arguments, the conclusions I make are only for your D&D game. Do not assume that this is in any way indicative of the various fields of study that work on these groups.
So let’s talk about real cults. I bet there isn’t a DM out there who hasn’t used cults in their games at some point, because they are such a staple of the genre. My goal is to identify some characteristics of real cults so that we can add them to the ones in our games and provide some depth and character to them. Real cults have an undeniable power over people, and there are reasons for it that I think are lost in the fantasy genre.
I identify five characteristics of cults and then will go through three examples to show these characteristics in action in history. The five characteristics are: a godlike leader, flexible beliefs, reinvention of the self, isolation of believers, and elite membership. The three stories I will tell are three wildly different manifestations of cults: Heaven’s Gate, Aleph, and the personality cult of Mao Zedong. There is a lot of space to cover, and a lot of repetition in showing how each story exhibits each of the five characteristics.
This is a long one, I am pushing the word limit. So, I give you permission to skip the whole body and get to the conclusion; that will, in what is a long enough post by itself, summarize how to build a cult and some questions to think about when doing so for your D&D game. There's also a TL:DR right below if you're really in a hurry. No judgment at all, this is a long one.
TL:DR; five characteristics of cults are godlike leader, flexible beliefs, reinvention of the believer, isolation, and elite membership. That’s a useful framework to build reasons why cults can recruit people in your world. Specific lessons from the stories are that people crave the feeling of a chosen community, will defend it by resorting to extremism when that community is threatened, and tend to trust their leader entirely when it comes to deciding what it means to build and defend their community.
39 people, including the founder and leader, of the Heaven’s Gate cult died in a mass suicide in 1997. For those of you that are old like me, you may remember looking up to the skies in 1997 to see the stunning sight of the Hale-Bopp comet. Those in Heaven’s Gate believed that there was an alien ship hiding in the comet’s tail, and that it was going to take them away from their mortal coil and transport their consciousness to a greater plane of understanding and evolution. They committed ritual suicide to beam themselves up.
This is a good starting point for our stories about cults because it is really about the cultists, their leader, and their beliefs. They didn’t commit any massive acts of violence, except against themselves, which makes it easier to pry at what drove them to believe something that seems so nonsensical on its face. It shows how a few simple characteristics can create such a strong bond between people and their faith, regardless of any setbacks that seem like it should have shaken them out of this state.
God-like Leader – Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were the founders and leaders of Heaven’s Gate. They mixed sci-fi, the bible, and the occult into this belief that the Christian God was real, and he was an alien, which directly led to the creation of the History Channel (this claim is disputed). In all seriousness, Ancient Aliens might not have been their invention, but they took it to a religious level and spread the word as prophets, people destined to tell the fate of the world as foretold in The Book of Revelations, but with their alien spin. Both Applewhite and Nettles even later claimed that they were gods; they argued that Jesus and God were incorporeal aliens that could take over bodies, and that Applewhite was the same alien spirit that had once taken Jesus for a ride, and Nettles was the spirit of God. So the leadership of Heaven’s Gate quite literally made themselves out to be Gods.
Flexible Beliefs – Nettles and Applewhite had been running this thing since the early 70s and had led their cult around the US. They begged on streets, avoided anybody who might recognize them, and focused on reaching a higher evolutionary level on their own. They were a vaguely public group, a wandering community of believers that preached around the country. They picked up some ex-hippie, truth-seeker believers as you imagine with 1970s cults, but they also recruited scientists and even a serious major party candidate for the Colorado State House.
Nettles died of cancer in 1985. I bring this up, because it radically altered the group’s trajectory. She was supposed to be divine, how could she die before her time? Rather than fracturing the group, they changed their beliefs to one where bodies were vehicles. While they claimed to be alien spirits in human bodies, they believed up until Nettles’ death that they would be taken corporeally by alien spacecraft to their immortality and evolution. After her death, they changed their beliefs to focus on the spirit being taken rather than the body. When confronted with challenges to their doctrine, the beliefs changed.
Reinvention of the Self – Heaven’s Gate asked its membership to completely change themselves in order to attain the evolutionary level above human. There were two levels of this; first, in their life on earth they had to rid themselves of all the pitiful human traits they could, such as gender, personality, possessions, and more. Second, when the time came they would literally be taken by aliens to ascend to the next level. Cults offer both a promise and an action, in this way. There is a reward at the end, a great achievement that will change the individual and even mankind, but to deserve it they needed to reinvent themselves in the here and now.
Isolation of Believers – Like many cults, Heaven’s Gate asked its believers to leave everything behind to follow the leaders. In their early years, they were nomadic as people gave away everything to follow them around the US. After 1985, they began to become even more reclusive, primarily contacting the outside world through their website (which is still active and maintained by two, anonymous, remaining members). About a year before the mass suicide, they began renting a compound for everyone to live in, shut out from the outside world.
Elite Membership – Here is, I think, where Heaven’s Gate really stands out as a story, because while all the cults we’re looking at exhibit this characteristic, Heaven’s Gate personifies it best. Membership in Heaven’s Gate was not easy; not only did one have to give up everything and lead an ascetic life, they really had to prove themselves as a cut above normal people. Not everyone was ready for the evolutionary level above human, so the entire life of membership was a test that people were expected to fail. To gain and maintain membership in Heaven’s Gate meant that you were special and different, more advanced than most humans. And as the noted reinvention of the self, the cult promised that this cream of the crop would be rewarded by ascending to a higher level of consciousness in which all would finally be revealed. Heaven’s Gate attracted smart, capable people because it told them sure you’re smart and capable, but that’s just the start.
People like feeling not just smart, but like they are holders of secret knowledge. There’s something about knowing the world’s secrets better than the common man that is enticing and seductive. A cult plays into this by giving that feeling to them; more importantly, it makes them work for it. A religion puts its beliefs up front (generally) for people to see, but a cult gates that knowledge off and releases it slowly to believers to make them feel special, different, chosen.
This is the lesson I want to draw from for our D&D, that cult membership isn’t entirely illogical. I mean, it is, but it works by preying on some common psychological exploits. Faceless, fanatical cultists are faceless by choice, not because you need a villainous mob. They gave up their faces and individuality in service of a greater power because it knows they are special, because it gives them secret knowledge, and because they are an elite and chosen group who has worked for and deserves the rewards that will come in the promised end. That’s something to remember when making a cult in your game.
Better known as Aum Shinrikyo or just Aum (Aleph is how they’ve rebranded), this group was responsible for the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack that killed 13 and injured thousands more. This was only their highest profile attack, as there were a few other sarin uses before 1995 and the 1989 assassination of a lawyer, and his family, who was involved in a case against Aum.
With this story, I want to get at what made them violent like this and understand how a yoga study group became terrorists. I will go through a lot of their history and doctrine only on the surface because I want to focus on what pushes cults to go extreme. Also, what they believe in is really hard to pin down, and I don’t really want piles of Aum sites in my browser history lest I end up on some watch list.
God-like Leader – Shoko Ashara (not his given name) started preaching in the early 1980s; by the 90s, he was a popular guru lecturing and publishing books about spirituality. On the one hand, he claimed that his teachings were meant to identify and preach to a more pure, original form of Buddhism by referring back to Buddha’s secret teachings; on the other, he also incorporated ideas from Christianity by claiming that he alone could take on the sins of the world to redeem people. He even claimed to be Christ in 1992 (this is a common theme in my series, it seems).
What is important here is that the cult centered on the reverence of this one guy because of his special, spiritual qualities. Whatever he was, belief in and service to him was portrayed as the only path to spiritual enlightenment. In fact, the point of the cult was to convert people into clones of Ashara, sometimes even using specially made brainwave devices to transmit Ashara’s thoughts and personhood into other people. He also sold his bathwater, so really a trendmaker in that sense. He was executed in2018 for his role in the 1995 sarin attack.
Flexible Beliefs – Again, I am having difficulty pinning down their beliefs, but I think that is the point I want to make. Throughout its history, Aleph has predicted various kinds of doomsdays; the passing of one for-sure date of the end of the world just meant that they recalculated to find the next date. The execution of the leader hasn’t quite killed off the cult. Like with Heaven’s Gate, while there is a sort of core belief, the real power of the group is in the rituals and foundation of a community, and the beliefs will change whenever necessary if they are ever challenged by the interruptions of reality.
Reinvention of the Self – Aleph members, like Heaven’s Gate, are told to give all of their belongings to the cult and give up their lives to join. As noted, one of the goals of the cult is to literally clone the leader by making all the cult members into versions of him, whether through indoctrination, brainwashing, or the brainwave devices. Once again there are also two layers to this; by giving up all the things that made them individuals and taking on the persona of Ashara, they are advancing to a new level of consciousness. Ashara draws from Buddhism here in that the goal of consciousness is to realized the truths of the world. Ashara argued that he knew them, so by becoming Ashara, they can make steps towards attaining this perfect nirvana where they have become enlightened beings outside of the bounds of the mundane world, outside of the physical universe.
Elite Membership – Changing up the layout here to leave the most important for the end, but this is a crucial component of the story. Taking on this new self and stepping outside the bounds of the mundane world had a purpose; it was how they were going to save the world. Or at least live through the end of it. Ashara argued that the world was going to end, probably in a nuclear winter caused by the third world war. Only through their belief in Ashara could believers be saved, and with enough believers, the fate of the world could be reversed.
I’ll take a quick detour here to explain that, as best as I can. Karma is a familiar enough concept, but we generally get it wrong. I’ll relate a personal experience. In my philosophy course we were learning about karma, and the basics are that if you do bad deeds, you’ll eventually have to pay off that karmic debt by having bad done to you. I asked my philosophy teacher who was explaining this, “what about some kid in the back seat of a car hit by a drunk driver, what did they do?” The answer was, “well, to a Buddhist, probably something awful in a previous life, as did the drivers of both cars, the families impacted, and everyone hurt by that event.” Karma is not direct, it’s a universal system of waves that we are creating, reverberating throughout infinite time and reincarnations. Everyone is connected, every event is just the waves of karma shifting our fate and balancing the karmic debt from thousands of lifetimes of ripples.
That might help explain what Aleph and its believers thought, because they seemed to think that their devoted group could change the world through the power of their karma. By following their leader, living lives of good karma, and serving this one shining light that promised to fix the infinite pattern controlling all fate, they could suck away all the bad in the world and prevent these karmic waves from destroying everything. I’m going on hunches here, but that’s the connection I see.
So people in Aleph were an elite group of the best of mankind united in a mission to save the world from itself. Not just that, but Aleph specifically targeted certain people for recruitment, offering university graduates and high skill people a relief from their workaday lives and a belief in something bigger. For a 90s, cutthroat capitalist, 60+ hour workweek Japan, the idea that they could do something really meaningful with their lives and transcend the mundane was attractive. Shit, I barely do 40 in a job that isn’t that bad and I can feel it.
Isolation of Believers – I saved this for last because this is where it gets violent. One of the ways that cults overcome the doubts when beliefs are reinvented, one of the ways that it makes people believe they are elite and unique, is by isolating its members from outside influences. They get put into a bubble where only the desired behaviors are reinforced by new secret knowledge and access to the leader, and any contradictory information is screened out. Heaven’s Gate did it, Aleph did it, and so, as we will cover, did Mao.
But in the case of Aleph, their isolation was not just from the rest of the world around them, their isolation was viewed as a fortress to protect them. Going back to the karma, these people saw themselves as the last hope for mankind, the calm center of the storm trying to spread that calmness against the encroaching waves. Part of what made them a cohesive community and made them commit was because they thought the world would push back on them. They had to fight against bad karma. And remember, karma is not individual, it is a universal pattern that links every person together, not a direct action/reaction dyad. The people that resisted Aleph did so as part of this universal system of bad karma shaking the pattern. Aleph’s little pocket of good was under attack by the system, almost like Agents taking over individuals in the Matrix. And Aleph was under attack. They were sued for fraud and kidnapping by parents whose kids joined the cult and faced numerous legal battles about all sorts of other, very legitimate, complaints of illegality.
So how does a yoga, self-help group become terrorists with biological weapons? Because they saw themselves as an isolated bastion trying to save the system from itself, they viewed their attackers not as people but as expressions of that system, and because the fate of the universe hung on them and them alone. It might have seemed like just some lawsuits to outsiders and the resulting attacks as absolutely inordinate retaliation, but on the inside this was a defensive war for the future of the world.
So there’s the D&D lesson from Aleph; to protect their community and their ideals and their mission, a cult can very quickly become violent, extremely so. But they won’t see this as retribution and violence, but as a necessary evil taken only in defense against those already attacking the group. Even the end of the world, as cults are prone to seek in D&D, might be justified to believers as a defense against something worse.
When you think of the Cult of Mao, you probably see images of the posters from the Cultural Revolution. You think of the million teenagers cramming into Tiananmen Square, all waving their little red books, just losing their shit at seeing Mao as if he were one of the Beatles in their first American tour. This is definitely the biggest incarnation of a cult that we’ll look at, but Mao started small and the Cultural Revolution was as much an attempt to recapture the magic of his first cult as it was a totally new expression of his cult.
Mao is an interesting case of a cult leader because he is the only one without any trappings of a deity, and yet he is probably the most deified of them all. He shows that when you add charisma and mythical heroism to the cult leader, the cult can feel like a special and embattled minority even when it is the clear, dominant, and oppressive majority.
Flexible Beliefs – I’ll cover Mao, the person, last. I don’t want to get into the arcana of dialectical materialism here to show how Maoism changed, but rather I’ll focus on people as a stand-in for flexible beliefs. Because one of the big hallmarks of Maoism, as it played out in China, was how replaceable every believer was, and how once deposed their entire history of support for Mao and Maoism became a sham. I’ll give a quick biography to demonstrate the point.
Peng Dehuai was one of Mao’s closest associates from the very beginning in 1927 and a superb military mind. While Mao wrote about guerilla warfare and led politics, Peng led the troops in doing it. Peng supported Mao when he was just an upstart in the Communist Party, he supported Mao when he eventually became leader, and he supported Mao in the Korean War after taking over China, he was there every step of the way without question. But in 1959, he wrote a letter arguing that Mao had gone a little overboard with this whole Great Leap Forward thing and that it looked like the movement (which led to a massive, unquantifiably deadly famine) might have had some adverse consequences. The entire party turned against him, his entire history was purged, and he was routinely publicly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution and accused of being a deep-capitalist plant the entire time.
Peng is not an isolated incident. Mao’s second in command, Liu Shaoqi, suffered similarly and he was killed during the Cultural Revolution for being a traitor and spy despite having given his life to the Communist Party and 20 years to Mao. Lin Biao, who took over behind both Peng and Liu as head of the military and Mao’s #2, went harder on the Mao cool-aid than anyone, but in a mysterious set of circumstances his plane crashed while he was fleeing the country and everything he’d ever done was portrayed as a great deception and betrayal of Mao.
Reinvention of the Self – Mao got his start as a cult leader in Yan’an during the Rectification Movement. The Party, he argued, suffered from a lack of unity; everybody had their own readings of Marxism and therefore the group lacked cohesion. Rectification was an intense movement of reeducation where everybody grouped up into small groups, read the works of Mao and other approved texts, commented, and then criticized themselves and their own failings in front of this group. Failure to be sufficiently sincere in your self-criticism meant you had to do it again. And again. And again. At the end of this, people had been reinvented into a cohesive force, a group capable of saving China.
This first movement was something almost mythical. The people that went through it went on to rule China for 40 years (Deng Xiaoping was the last living leader from Yan’an). But Mao decided that the first 20 years had made that group soft, so he got the Cultural Revolution off to replace them with a new group. And that blueprint, of groups forming to study, to criticize, and to reenact the wars of the revolution by fighting now against the entrenched state bureaucracy, was a quite deliberate attempt to recreate Yan’an on a national scale.
In both cases, the reinvention of the self was a proxy for the reinvention, the revolution, of China. When the students of Yan’an were rectifying themselves to create Party unity, they imagined it as the prerequisite to finally saving the country from the imperialism of Japan and beyond. When the students of the Cultural Revolution memorized the little red book together in the office buildings of bureaucrats they had overthrown, they saw themselves as the only hope for global communism against the traitorous capitalist-roaders in China and in the USSR.
Isolation of Believers – Mao managed this by effectively taking over the country. Whereas many cults have to really work to get their people away from outside influences, when you can shut off the whole country to foreigners and you can totally control the media to say whatever you need it to say, isolation is pretty easy.
But there’s an extra step here. They still need to isolate within that isolation to feel unique and special, as I’ll cover later. In Yan’an, they managed it by being out in the boonies. Yan’an, though it is the heart of ancient China, is a backwaters in modern times. The mountainous terrain and muddy roads make it nearly inaccessible. Out here, away from Japan’s attacks, away from the Nationalist government in the South, the beleaguered Communist Party found a home having run away from all that. And more people came, similarly undergoing their own trials to arrive at this heart of resistance.
During the Cultural Revolution, the young Red Guards tried to recreate this by going on tours around the country to revisit these spaces, but more significantly, their isolation was psychological. Universally, they created their own groups and attacked the rest of society; anybody old was suspect, including teachers, government officials, and often their parents. They isolated themselves in the belief that the old revolution had failed, long live the next revolution.
Elite Membership – Everything about the Communist Party is an elite organization. Even though Mao warned them that they should keep close to the masses, the Communist Party recruits only a percentage of the population, picked based on merit (or connections) to become part of the ruling group. Each level is another layer of prestige, all the way to the top. But it takes a lot work to be there. During Yan’an, it meant undergoing rectification, and the same process continued throughout Mao’s tenure. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guard groups popped up styling themselves as the true believers, sometimes even fighting each other over who was the most correct and closest to Mao.
More importantly, in every case, these people believed that China was unique and elite in the world. Even when their goal was fighting against other Chinese, both in the revolution and in the Cultural Revolution, they felt like they were saving China and indeed the world. They were the forefront, the vanguard, of revolutionary change.
God-like Leader – Mao’s biggest departure from the cults we looked at earlier is that he made all of this happen to a population of a billion, not the forty of Heaven’s Gate or even the (alleged) tens of thousands once in Aleph. A billion. The most populous country in the world. And yet all the tactics that seemed to serve a small, dedicated group like a religious cult worked here. In a country they controlled, they still felt isolated. In an elite group of specially picked members, they still felt special and unique. In a place that had already been reinvented as a Communist nation once, they still had to do it again. And in a land of a billion, nobody was able to point out the absurdities in how beliefs changed so wildly.
A main reason for that is Mao himself. I said that the Cult of Mao kinda got its start in Yan’an, but that’s not quite true. By the time he reached Yan’an, he was already a sort of mythic figure. He’d escaped the white terror of 1927 (when the Nationalists hunted down all Communist Party members they could find in a sudden betrayal of their alliance), and in fact had totally called that it would happen years before. He built up a rebellion in the mountains, redistributed land, created a Communist state, before the Nationalists were able to bring a war to him. And he got away, walking with his handful of followers over 10,000 kilometers, crossing bridges under fire, constantly pursued, until finally reaching safety in Yan’an. He was the hero of this battle-scarred group and the nucleus of China’s revolution. His survival was a thing of legends, and it was all because he knew the path before he walked it, had been right at every turn.
This is, again, describing him in 1942. Not 1966 when the posters of him being the glorious sun shedding the light of revolution on his adoring followers sprung up, well after he had colossally screwed up as a leader multiple times in the intervening years.
The cult leader has a lot of power over his people, in every case they are portrayed as not just god-like, but infallible and essential. Mao really embodied this. His every word was the truth, and his existence was the prerequisite for the success of the revolution, for the salvation of China. That’s why people could be so subservient, why they could kill themselves in a mass suicide at Applewhite’s command, or commit atrocities for Ashara, or denounce their parents and kill their teachers at Mao’s whims. God-like, in a cult, means that they must be followed and they must be revered because they are the keys to the belief structure and the final goals of the community. So when Mao’s followers attacked their elders, they saw themselves as the embattled few saving the world when they were, in fact, already in total control. They believed Mao when he told them otherwise, regardless of the evidence in front of their eyes.
So there’s our lesson from Mao for D&D, and I think this is why cults are so common in our settings; it is so easy to single out such a important, powerful, and chaotic leader. The nature of a cult, the way it is formed, necessitates that the leader is infallible and essential, that they must be followed to the ends of the earth. That is a very easy person to make a villain.
Whew, this has been a journey. Thanks for making it through it all. And if you skipped it, no judgment, that is a lot of words to provide a historical context for a few points I want to make about a game we all play for fun.
So I think our five characteristics are a useful way to start understanding cults. Historically speaking, they are present in our examples, and they are pretty key components of what makes a cult a cult as opposed to a religion or political party or canasta club. So I’ll repeat them here, summarize some basic lessons, and prompt a few questions to help you build a compelling and terrifyingly realistic cult.
God-like Leader – the leader of a cult is often a prophet or even portrayed as a manifestation of a god, quite literally being god-like. But even without the religious dimension, they are god-like in that they are infallible and essential. They might totally contradict themselves, they might be a prophet one day and an avatar the next, they might suffer all sorts of set backs, but to be god-like, they have to show that it was all part of their vision. They couldn’t reveal the truth until they were ready. They allowed misfortune to test their followers. They are never wrong and are the key piece to reaching the goals of the organization.
Some questions; do they do this cynically, fully aware of what they are doing and manipulating it, or do they believe in it themselves? What myth or legend has made their charisma? In the world of D&D, what powers towards deification can they actually gain or use for the purpose? How much does the cult serve only the leader, and if a lot how is this justified?
Flexible Beliefs – There is usually some core at the center of a cult, a basic secret about the reality of the world and humanity’s place in it, but everything around it can change, and cultists won’t see the dissidence. To put it simply, for a doomsday cult, doomsday can always be tomorrow even though each successive day proves them wrong. The most important thing is that the purpose of the cult is served.
Some questions; what is the core, unchangeable belief at the center of the cult? What actions can they take to get there? Why is it persuasive, what does it offer them? How can it adapt whenever proven wrong? What is the leader's role in redefining the cult's beliefs? Can it survive without the leader?
Reinvention of the Self – every cult asks its people to reinvent themselves. This is such a powerful tool, it’s used almost everywhere, from the military to business retreats. Because when you reinvent yourself alongside others who are going through the same process, you become a particularly tight-knit community. But what separates cults from common uses is that that transformation has to be powered by a belief that it is happening for a reason and that they are becoming a more advanced type of person for having gone through it.
Some questions; what are the rituals they use to reinvent themselves? What are they trying to attain? How do senior members initiate the new ones? Are there additional levels of reinvention beyond the first? What does a reinvented cultist look like or act like? Should they literally gain some powers?
Isolation of Believers – for all of this to work, especially the flexible beliefs and the reinvention of the self, people have to be isolated from the rest of the world. They might literally sequester themselves away, but for a villainous group, they instead take extreme measures to keep the world away even as they live and act within it.
Some questions; how does the cult keep information from outside from getting in? What are the punishments for letting information in? How do they interact with the world when they must be out in it? How does the cult isolate people from their friends and family?
Elite Membership – Cults don’t just gather the gullible, they appeal to even particularly smart and capable people because they appear to be a special group that not everyone can be part of. There are always requirements to join that not everyone can meet, and this makes the cultist feel like they are part of an elite group. That feeling reinforces all the rest of the characteristics. But that feeling of being different is complementary to the feeling that they will get elite rewards for their sacrifice. They are elite because they will be the first (or only) to gain something once the cult’s objectives are attained.
Some questions; why do cultists see themselves as unique and special when they are part of this organization? What prerequisites are there to membership? What do they have to do to prove that they deserve membership? How are various levels distinguished from each other within the cult? What do they gain, what secret knowledge is dispensed with membership, what boon is granted?
Thanks for reading! I have a podcast and a blog that you can find at www.marriednd.com or @marriednd.
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