The Complete Thief's Handbook: Book Review

Product number 2111, also known as PHBR2, or The Complete Thief’s Handbook, was the second player’s reference to be released, its goal was to expand the thief’s class, and this one had its work cut out for it. It was written by the trio of John Nephew, Carl Sargent, and Douglas Niles, and was released the first year of the 2nd Edition.

The thief class came with some baggage. The name itself suggests that one pick pockets and steals from his fellow players, instantly brings the status of a party down as they are protecting a criminal, and that the thief engages in behavior that is anti-productive to the cooperative gameplay which one needs to be a successful party. Indeed, one can play a thief this way, but it isn’t suggested. Playing this way tends to bring all of the attention to yourself, which isn’t fair to the other players. So, what the PHBR2 set out to do was change this, and suggest methods of play which proved productive to cooperative play. 

CHAPTER 1: Role-Playing Thieves

Today, just like in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, a chapter dedicated to role-playing sounds silly, but (especially with this class), this chapter represents the first step on the journey to making a thief character playable in a modern sense. Back in the day, it wasn’t rare for players to play as evil PCs;  2e wanted to get away from that and transform the game into a more heroic theme in which the players represent the good guys. The most glaring issue with this “heroic adventure play” is the thief. He need not be re-written, but he did need to be rethought. This section said that we can break the mold, and have a richer experience with the character than just playing it one-dimensionally.

I really got a lot of out this chapter. One can learn the mechanics from the core books, but Role-Playing was kind of a foreign subject, and many tables thought that Role-playing was some kind of acting, which it isn’t. A quick chapter on Role-play was helpful; however, this chapter specifically, can still be felt at the gaming table today, whenever one decides to roll up a thief and still play a good guy.

CHAPTER 2: Proficiencies

This chapter marked a huge change for the game! In the PHB, proficiencies were listed as supplemental, in The Fighter’s Handbook they were considered to be Core rules and were better defined, but in the Complete Thief’s Handbook, we get brand new ones! Now, the PHB and DMG said that you could make your own NWP as the need arose, but this was the first time that it suggested new ones. Of course, they weren’t considered to be Core, so you had to ask your Dungeon Master is he would allow them. For the most part, they were all setting neutral, and all of them were functional and didn’t allow the player to replace role-playing with the dice . . . well, there was fast-talking, but that is still a very specific thing and can be used to enhance a roll that would be made anyway, unlike some of the 3e skills which replace role-playing entirely.

Some of the added NWP can be added to the general list, and can be taken by any class for no extra cost; and thief’s are now granted unrestricted access to some NWP that were formally restricted from them, however these are all logical additions to a thief’s skill set and made no sense that they couldn’t take them in the first place.

This chapter alone is worth the price of admission! Most players who own the book consider this Core and almost a form of Errata.

CHAPTER 3: Thief Kits

I’m not a big fan of the term: Kit. While I like unique characters, I think that Kits started the trend of changing the language of D&D, instead of being a thief; players insisted that they were other things, when they really are just thieves, but that is just a gripe of mine. It did teach us that we could play characters in different ways, and for this class, which is highly customable to begin with, it does provide a new player with some sort of structure that he can follow, and depend on to keep from becoming a character that you don’t really want to play.

Many of the kits aren’t really for PCs at all, but for DMs who want to write a descent thief NPC, specialists like fences, spies, and assassins are listed here, but their playability is rather limited. There are also a few kits that don’t really belong in the book, such as a recopy of the Swashbuckler from The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, which depended upon a high THAC0 to function properly, or the Thug, which would be more appropriately placed in the Fighter’s Handbook as well, but didn’t make it. Come to think of it, many of the kits in this book would be better suited to the Fighter Class, but instead, they are here.

The kit section isn’t totally worthless, when it comes to true thief kits, this book excels! This section shatters the mold of the “typical” thief completely, and details kits that help the character maximize their potential for improving a party in a completely productive way. The thief requires that min/maxing mentality, but it is the nature of this class. Why beef up your Pick Pocket skill if you’ll be focusing more on Move Silently instead? This book teaches you how to min/max without losing that element of role-playing.

It also reintroduces classes cut from the PHB; while many complain that they are under-powered compared to their 1e counter-parts, the DM can always allow the player to use the 1e version, and it translates well. You won’t level up as fast as normal 2e characters, but that actually, in my opinion, is what balances those classic character sub-classes out, but that really has nothing to do with this book.

CHAPTER 4: Thieves’ Guild

This is another one of those chapters that makes this book valuable to a DM. The PHB mentions guilds, but it gives no real details other than stating that a player can start one at higher levels. A few modules also feature thieves’ guilds, but the DM may not have one of them, and even if he did, he wouldn’t let the player see it, so a player is kind of left naive about how the power structure within the guild that he’s supposed to be a part of works. Well, this chapter fixes that, and it is, to this day, the comprehensive guide to 2e Thieves’ Guilds. While much of the Complete Handbook series was later reworked and reprinted into updated formats, this chapter never was, and it is 39 pages of gold! They did such a good job here, that I am really surprised that they didn’t cut it out and print a Complete Guild’s Handbook for DMs, which was a known TSR marketing tactic that irritated us players to no ends.

Finally, a definitive guide to guilds, how a DM can flesh them out, how he can DM a Guildmaster PC, how a guild can interact with each other as well as the cities they exist in, and even how the standard non-thief guilds function.

CHAPTER 5: Tools of the Trade

This chapter answers a lot of questions, as its primary goal is to define what each skill is and what it is not. Just because it is titled Hide in Shadows doesn’t mean that the user can just disappear in the dark, but he can conceal himself from detection almost anywhere as well. Picking Pockets isn’t just picking pockets, but is sleight of hand.

Besides properly defining Thief Skills, it includes equipment for modifying the skills, making them easier to perform at lower levels, or ways to modify ones existing equipment to improve it for the class itself, such as weapon black for shiny swords. Also included here are new magical items designed especially for the thief class.

Each new item of equipment is fully detailed, and has a new table for everything on the list, which is helpful. Most of this stuff isn’t something that a normal character really needs,  and some will have the reader scratching their heads as many of these items provides a really, really advanced level of play that one may not ever really incorporate, but it still makes one think.

CHAPTER 6: The Arts of Deception: Classic Cons

This really short chapter, if it can be called that, suggests some classic ways that a guild makes money from illegal activity, though some adult themed ways are clearly missing, but those are easy for the DM to add to their games all by themselves, and it keeps mom happy, because with a name like The Complete Thief’s Handbook, you know mom is going to go through that thing with a fine-toothed comb! This also helps keep the book setting neutral, as it has no idea what time-period or setting that you are using actually is, which, to me, works in its favor.

CHAPTER 7: New Rules for Thieves

Neither the PHB nor the DMG were very helpful in regards to judging thief skills, so this chapter fixes that! It shows the player and the DM how to modify checks by granting bonuses or handicaps depending upon the quality of a lock or the nature of a trap. It also adds some cool extras to help us modify our actions further; say, you want to train a ferret or a monkey to be a thief, well, now you can!

There is also a rule that players are not allowed access to the DMG during play, if they want to argue a call, they must use the PHB to find their evidence, as well as these Complete Handbooks, and this is where it was decided to put some more information about poisons and their uses into the players hands, it isn’t much information! But it is enough to give the players the ability to know a little bit about them.

It also details how armor can interact with skills, as well as introducing a non-lethal backstab option called Mugging.

CHAPTER 8: The Thief Campaign

This section is for DMs and provides info on how to better run a campaign if a thief is present, or even have a completely thief party! Some of this book is written in a way that turns the thief into a focal character, and is, in itself, counterproductive to cooperative play. A thief may want to leave the party and go burglarize an enemies house, this can be done really quickly, or that player may come in and you can run a 1-on-1 mini adventure, but who wants to do that? (Well, I always did).

This chapter is full of ideas, not all of them useful to your campaign, but it is still nice to have them.

At the back of the book, all tables are reprinted; other than a Kit Creation Sheet, it doesn’t have any photo copy stuff, such as character sheets or a guild creation template, which goes against it. In my opinion, the one thing that TSR never gave us was a decent Thief Class Player Sheet, which would have been handy!


The book itself is of the same quality as the rest of the Complete Handbooks; it can put up with normal wear and tear without falling apart, but it is paperbound. I still own and use my original copy which I had bought used back in the mid-90’s, the back label has shown signs of wear from sliding it in and out of the bookshelf, but the binding has held and it can sit flat on the table and hold your page, which I believe had to be worn into it; If I remember correctly, when I first got it, the thing wanted to close up on me all the time.

The value that this book offers is really good! Like I said, the new NWP are awesome to incorporate into the game, and the section on Thieves’ Guilds is stuff that you are going to want to have. It wasn’t really an idiot’s guide to playing the thief class; it offered a true reference book that players & DMs alike will be using time and time again. Some of this stuff has been updated into the Player’s Option series, but, in cases where it was, the original out does it by leaps and bounds, making this the very first Player’s Reference Book that was actually worth having as it is functional on all levels of play, from beginner all the way up to the truly advanced.

My original rating for this book, when I picked it up and first started using it, is an A. My favorite class to play has always been the thief, and it was this book which taught me how to really embrace the class and use it to its fullest potential. It changed my perception of what a thief was, and as a DM I still use this book once in a while. It didn’t introduce us to role-playing; The Complete Fighter’s Handbook did that; but it did show us how to modify a PC class into something that is special and unique no matter how many times you play it.

Today, for modern users, since much of this material wasn’t reprinted, and is still extremely functional, I keep my original rating for it as an A. If it came with more photo copy sheets, it would have gotten an A+.

Game Day Session 3: Prep, prep, prep = Success

Our last game had fallen apart, I had just set up a couple of underpowered encounters that didn’t work. I think that the natural reaction to the DM falling flat on his face is to over-prepare, but looking back at things, I don’t think that I did. We had talked about what we wanted to do, and I got permission to advance my orc time-line. For myself, since I had failed, I decided to take the game back to its very roots and run a hex-crawl. I created maps that I thought that I would need, and of course transferred data from our main TSR map to a blown up hex grid map. This is actually the first time that I have done this! A full color overland map? Yes, we were entering the fabulous world of 1e . . . well, not really, this is exactly what the 2e DMG says to do. I am used to playing at low to mid level games, and travel is rather limited, but at high levels this is no longer the case.

The goal that the players have set for themselves is to find the Orc Mine and shut it down so that the enemy can no longer create arms and armor. I had ran a mine in the past that wasn’t fully explored, that mine was simply a nightmare scenario that used the mine more as a back drop or setting, an in and out kind of deal with horrible creatures that could not be, haunting the halls; so I had a basic map already done, I just needed to make this mine functional. I am glad that I had kept my rough draft of the mine, it was drawn in pencil, so I could erase sections and redraw it in a more functional manner.

The mine map is a bit strange, I have always found those giant poster maps to be impractical, so I always keep them on 1 page that can be covered by my screen, else a piece of paper. If I had drawn the place to scale, it would had gone off the paper, so I tend to draw abstract. Most rooms are to scale, however the halls and super large rooms are not, I can either write how long a hall really is on the map itself, and I always put the exact dimensions in the key. Some places, I really don’t want to map at all! Such as the mine work area itself, it is massive but it isn’t necessarily something that you want to  actually draw in, first of all, it takes to long, and the second reason is that running an exact maze is boring on game day. For those areas, I do draw how special rooms interact with the rest of the map, but I create the fine details in the key.

It is always a decision if one really needs a map or not. Many encounters can be ran better and more easily without one, but sometimes space is important. I decided that I needed one more map; the main entrance for the Orcs, this place should feature really tight security so I drew up a fort, and keyed that as well.

I wanted the mine to stretch for miles and miles, with multiple entrances which I added to my over-world map.  I also had to beef up my orcs, so I created classed orcs of different levels. Spells are my current issue, so I knew that I needed orc spell casters, to simulate different spell lists I created some random tables of detailed spell lists that I can quickly roll up as they are encountered. I have all enemy spell casters the same level, and I can have up to 4 mages and 2 clerics, this list isn’t as done as I wanted it to be, but I had so much to do that I just let it go at that.  I placed major big baddies where they would normally hang out, and what they might be doing on my key, and set up the normal security for the place, which is really high because of all of the slaves toiling away down there. The population is way to big to list everything, so I created a random encounter list specifically for the mine.

For the over-world, I created even more Random Encounters lists! Two standard lists based upon similar land detailed in my Grayhawk boxset, but I did modify it some, I wanted creatures that really would be there, and wouldn’t give the players any unintentional red herrings. This list turned out to be really great! The random scenarios worked smooth and it felt like the world was really alive. A third Random Encounter list which was only checked in areas under Orc control was my most advanced list; this one contained details, and sub-lists to roll which would make the encounter unique each time. Instead of just having Orc, it had a sub list of scenarios and activities that they are doing at the time.

A fourth list was just filler. Keywords that weren’t all combat related, but just something that I could quickly roll against to provide details about what the party stumbles across while exploring an undetailed hex space. Typically I make this stuff up, and I still do, but I found that the little bit of effort that went into typing it up made running the game so much easier!

I had created a key to places on the overworld map, many of them didn’t require any real map, I’d just make it up if the players went there. I had no idea of where they would go, so I just prepped a huge area so that they could go anywhere and I was ready.
I did modify the village of Halfhap, making it a Halfling community, with a few productive gnomes mixed in who would trek out in the foothills and mountains looking for gems. I added a lost gnome village that was only filled in via the key, I didn’t need a map for it, even though it was an important place. I didn’t know if the players would find it or not!

In short, I did not create any set piece encounters. No events . . . oh wait, I did do that. I wanted to know where the major orc forces would be, so I created a timeline so that I could track their general movements and activities in case the players stumbled into them.   This was extremely helpful for obvious reasons.


Play was, for the most part, one of those nice leisurely games that are productive. I had enough done so I didn’t feel over-whelmed, and it allowed me to get my confidence back! The party healed up in Halfhap, and followed cryptic leads to the lost gnome village of Mallowhep. They are currently exploring the deep underground passages of the old founder, a powerful gnome illusionist, whose spells are still active even after he has long expired.

We did have one exciting happening! I have beefed up my encounters, and I got to try one. During the night, a couple of trolls sniffed the party out, and the Ranger (who was on watch) decided to only wake up the Myrmidon who started the game all beat up from his escape from the mine which took place in backstory only. I had lied and told the ranger that he only saw 2 really big orcs, so when the two attacked them, they got the shock of their lives! The other players rolled to see if they woke up, but everyone failed, so it was 2 trolls vs. 1 full strength ranger and a myrmidon with low hp. The myrmidon was dishing out some heavy damage, but he was also taking it as well, he ended up falling. I didn’t kill him because he had started the game in an unfair disadvantage and we had only been playing for 5 or 10 minutes before this happened, so I fudged a couple of dice rolls and judged him unconscious and a prisoner of one of the trolls who picked him up and carried him.  

I had also beat the hell out of the Ranger, who wasn’t dishing out much damage, he was rolling terribly and I was rolling awesome. Once it was just him vs. 2 very beat up trolls, I covered my map and took down my screen so everybody could see my rolls. He was able to kill one troll and get the other to drop his buddy, this troll had 6hp left, and the ranger was down to 3hp. If he failed, the party was looking at a TPK, and it all hinged on him winning initiative, and scoring a better than normal attack, because on its next attack the troll was going to kill him. He ended up just barely winning initiative, and then rolled a 20. His first damage dice was just a 1, but his second, which had to be at least a 5 was successful as well.

Afterwards we discussed if I had gone too far, but the player who played the Ranger said that the encounter was perfect. Even if he had lost, it was because of his own errors. He thought that I handled it fairly, granting unconsciousness to the myrmidon, and pointed out that the encounter would had been a different story if he would had woken everybody up like he should had.

And, one more technical note, before closing. I didn’t want to waste time rolling up monster hp, so instead I decided low, med, or high and just used averages. This kept the game flow going and saved a ton of time! We all had fun.

Monster Compendiums Vol. 1 & 2 Review

Product 2102 and 2103 were the original Monstrous Compendiums. The most interesting thing about them was the way that they were bound.  Original AD&D had accrued 3 books of monsters: Monster Manuals I & II, and the Fiend Folio; and, since the original point behind 2e was to cut down on the books needed to play the game, and because TSR was adding new ones all the time, the Monsters presented a problem! There has always been a big demand for new monsters, so it was decided that instead of a typical book, TSR would sell a binder, and all of the monsters would be printed on loose-leaf paper. This way, one could build their own Monster collection, and each time you bought a module or additional compendiums, you could keep the monster in the binder. It sounds like a great idea! I’m not sure why this system was replaced, perhaps because users lost entries, or because the binders fell apart, I honestly don’t know as I have never owned this specific product. However, I have bought loose leaf, setting specific products such as the Ravenloft Compendium I & II which I simply put into a cheap folder-binder and keep it in book form.

Since I have never owned the product itself, I have no idea what specifically is in there, so I won’t comment on that; however, I will say that monster presentation was done a lot better for the 2e publishing. Each monster got its own page or pages with very few exceptions. Each monster got a black and white image of the basic creature, if a modified version of the creature was created, then this was listed as well.

For the most part, stats were kept the same with very little changes. One could easily still use their 1e monsters as is, or could modify them to 2e specifically, by comparing them to the other monsters with very little difficulty.

What was improved in 2e, were that the descriptions of the creatures were dramatically expanded. Since each creature had its very own page, they used the space wisely by listing how a creature attacks, and defends its self, what it looks like, where it came from, and how it lives.  This stuff, despite being just a gaming manual, was fun to read all on its own!  Humanoid societies were cleanly listed so that one can quickly create tribes and unique NPCs, and the DM gets to do all of the fun stuff! Each entry is like brain candy, and it contained all of the monsters that made D&D unique from its competitors. It wasn’t just what modern players call “Crunch”, it contained a lot of “Fluff”, which us 2e’s LOVE, but fluff was also something that was severely needed at the time. The monster listings were written in such a way that it was more helpful to the DM than it was bossy; it told you a creature’s general INT, but it left the stats open for interpretation unless they were specific, such as the strength given to Giants. What this did was give the DM the ability to take quick notes down, and be able to run the entire adventure session just from those quick stat blocks.

If one read the entries, it gave clues about what you can do to run the scenario, but it didn’t enforce them. Modifying all of the monsters wouldn’t affect the system, and creating your own monsters was simple to master!

This product was ultimately replaced 3 years later by the hardbound Monstrous Manual which was a sampling of entries found in all of the Compendiums printed before it; I had always assumed that it did contain all of the entries in Monster Compendium I & II, as these are the basic monsters which all others that came later were based upon, but since I don’t own the actual product, I can’t tell you if that is an accurate statement or not; maybe one of the collectors out there could be so kind as to confirm or correct this statement?

Overall, I wish that they would have kept this method. The monster products published between 1989 and 1992 used this loose leaf method, and the products themselves were more affordable because of it. Once the Hardbound MM was released, the updates were all put into softbound volumes of very poor quality that were difficult to reference; the idea that you could add the updated monsters right into your existing binder is a much better idea, particularly since I think that it is faster to just create a monster rather than spending all day looking through a stack of monstrous compendium books for a monster that may or may not even be there!

To a collector, this is a great product, it is odd and I honestly haven’t seen many of them. While the system was superior to the books published later, the 1992 version of the MM is still the most usable product. I have gone all of these years without it, but I’d still like to own it just for the oddity that it is. Would I use it instead of my MM? I honestly don’t think so.

At the time of its release, this product was indispensable! It gets an A, however today, since its usefulness is so limited, I’d give it a C. Some users, no doubt, swear by it! You don’t need a large collection of monsters; you just need enough examples so that you can create your own if you really need to.

Thoughts about 2nd Edition Players Handbook

Product 2101, The Player’s Handbook! Again, like the DMG, it is a large book filled with so much information that it is impossible to break down into sections to really talk about the basic parts in one sitting, this blog has been doing just that for years!

Originally, Gary Gygax wanted to write this book, however that didn’t happen because of inner turmoil at the TSR office; as a result, Dave Cook took over the project and the goal was, as mentioned in earlier posts, to gather up all information into three books, which proved to be impossible. Cuts were made, some for reasons of space, some for political reasons. Mom was cool with violence, but she don’t want us looking at pictures of boobs, today TSR probably would had been charged with providing porn to minors, else the books would be kept behind the counter in paper bags, but we all know how messed up the US is in regards to bodies and that wasn’t the only thing that got cut. In 2e it encouraged players to be of Good alignments, which I feel makes the game better. Nothing sucks worse than to have players murdering shop keepers just to save a gold piece or two. I think that the alignment system itself was what saw the most improvement; one has a hard time playing a cooperative game with someone who plays Chaotic Evil. One of the dumbest 1e rules, I feel, was that rogues had to be evil alignment; thankfully they fixed that in this book.
They also made None Weapon Proficiencies more enticing, you didn’t have to use them if you didn’t want to! But, check these guys out! Yes, they were awesome. Most tables included their use right away.

I feel like I am just repeating myself, so I’ll stop! The book is made in the exact same specs of the DMG, which is tough and very usable. I have seen some of these things beat up to the point where they had to be replaced, but I have no idea how those players did that. I’ve used the same book for over 20 years and it is still glossy and beautiful.

Instead of talking about the PHB, about the changes that were made, which is information that one can find elsewhere, let’s talk about the book itself and how people have used it, or, more specifically, how they don’t use it. As a Dungeon Master, I have read this book, cover to cover, more times than I care to admit to. When I say that players weren’t allowed to read the DMG back in the day, people scoff, but here is the deal! Players don’t read the PHB either. It is a rare player who will actually go out and buy his own copy of the book, as a DM I keep several copies and I buy more as I find them. One can’t have too many copies of the PHB! The fathers of this game would not like the fact that I do this. According to them, there is a price of admission and that price is purchasing a Players Handbook! I get it, if it was a perfect world, then that is exactly what would happen! I tell my players all the time, if they see a copy cheap, pick it up! But what separates players from Dungeon Masters is the fact that to most players, the only time that they put any thought at all into the game is when they are sitting at the table and are playing.

So, you haven’t read the Players Handbook, I get it! It is full of too much information. I myself have missed stuff, even though I have read it so often; it just disappeared because I was thinking of something else when I was reading it; maybe I was pondering a rule just before it, or I was thinking about making a sandwich, who knows? One can always pick up this book and find new things. Then you have the players, the only thing that most of them have read in any detail are the tables, and only then because they are using them all the time.

Now I can say that this is a modern happening, but I would be wrong. Before playing the game, I purchased my books, and I read them! I didn’t retain much information the first read, as much of this information is best learned through practical use, but the point is that I read them. I got a quick education in the game, and learned what I can do as a player, and I was already ahead of most of the players at the table because I had sat down and read the book. Folks who had played the game for years didn’t even know that you could make bombs out of lantern oil, or that you can improve your AC by giving up an attack to parry. Obviously, the Dungeon Master Guide holds secrets, but when players don’t read the PHB, we can say that there are secrets in there too.

Is this a good thing? Well, as a DM, it kind of is. It can be said that the best way to become a great player is by trying new things, and just learning on your own. If the players read too much, then that can put our jobs as Dedicated DM in peril. We DMs would probably prefer an uneducated player over one who goes out and looks for information, that researches the web (the HORROR), that knows more about the interworking’s of the game than the DM. This is a power struggle, isn’t it? I recognize that as a player, I totally suck! I know too much about the game and how it works, and I get irritated with other DMs, and it isn’t right, and it is a personal failure, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t do it.

Does one need to read the PHB to play the game and become an expert player? No! Does it help if one reads the book? Of course it does. The book has options and tactics that can give you an edge during all levels of play, not that the DM has to use all of the rules, but it does help if the players are aware of them.

How would I rate this book? It is a perfect 10. It contains more spells than you will ever need, the art in this version is superior to the black reprinting, and I personally feel that it is easier to find what you want from memory alone, but that is just because I’ve used it for so many years. There are some facts that they got wrong, and errata that need to be hand written into it, but those things are minor in comparison. I own the last printing of 2101, and it says that it is newly revised, expanded, and updated; but I also own other printings and to be totally honest, I have never figured out if there is any difference in subsequent printings. There are many in the Black PHB, it has a totally different layout and no longer matches the index that one finds in the 2100 DMG, which is irritating. I suppose that the Black Book has superior content, but I don’t care, I always stick with this version of the book, as it is the perfect companion to my DMG.

Should all players purchase this book? In the perfect world, yes they should. It would be nice if everybody owned their own copy, but since the book is out of print, and even at one table you’ve got two different copies in use at the same time, players may not know which one to buy, or even be able to find it. DMs are bigger nerds then they are! We hunt the web looking for this stuff, and enjoy talking about it more than is probably healthy, but we are what we are and we can’t expect miracles. As long as the players show up and they are in the mindset to play, I think that we are all doing well!   


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