Derro Tactics


A long while back, a reader asked me to look at the derro, a creature featured in Out of the Abyss. I didn’t have Out of the Abyss (and still don’t), so I had to table the request. But since Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes includes the derro, I can finally—belatedly—fulfill it.

Derro are small humanoids native to the Underdark. “Equal parts fearful and vicious,” Mordenkainen’s says, “[they] prey on those weaker than themselves, while giving simpering obeisance to any creatures they deem more powerful.” No doubt they want to make the Underdark great again.

With high Dexterity and above-average Constitution but merely average Strength, derro are skirmishers, but not especially mobile ones. Their Intelligence is average, but their Wisdom, for some reason, is in the cellar. This is unusual; the reverse is far more common, especially since Wisdom supports the Perception skill. Not only are they easy to get the drop on, they also have an underdeveloped survival instinct, making them more likely to fight to the death. They are, however, proficient in Stealth, predisposing them toward an ambush strategy.

They have excellent darkvision and Sunlight Sensitivity, so they’ll rarely venture aboveground for any reason, and absolutely never during the day. This, plus their innate paranoia, combine to suggest an intense territoriality—which is to say, not only will they defend their turf viciously, they’ll hardly ever leave it at all, except to try to conquer an adjoining sliver of new territory.

Derro have two weapon attacks, hooked spear and light crossbow. One option with the spear is to knock an enemy prone (presumably by hooking and tripping him or her), which would give an adjacent melee attacker advantage on a follow-up attack. However, a ranged attacker has disadvantage against a prone target, so this doesn’t help the crossbow-wielding derro at all. Even worse: It turns out, if you run the numbers, that even if the first derro in a group successfully hooks and trips an enemy, its allies nearly always do less expected damage, despite having advantage on their to-hit rolls, than the group would do if all of them simply attacked to do damage.

This holds true for any group of two five derro. It takes six or more derro attacking a single opponent in melee for the advantage from hooking and tripping to produce an increase in overall damage, and at that threshold, it only works against unarmored, lightly armored or moderately armored opponents.

Reflecting on this, I think you should consider the hook-and-trip to be an “advanced” derro tactic. Derro have a challenge rating of only 1/4, so you can throw them against even level 1 player characters. Against these PCs, they won’t appear in great enough numbers to do anything but stab. But once your PCs are up around level 5 and higher, they’re going to be fighting hordes of derro, not just patrols and platoons, and in that instance, the first in each group of attackers will hook and trip to try to give the rest advantage. (For the sanity of your players and yourself, use the “Handling Mobs” rule on page 250 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and assume that advantage gives +4 to hit.) Assuming they all share the same initiative count, derro wielding crossbows will all shoot first, before any of their enemies fall prone; then the derro with spears will attack.

Alternatively, if you’re more interested in flavor than in optimization, always have the first derro in a group of three or more wielding spears attack to hook and trip. The average difference in damage is less than 1 point, and your players probably won’t do the math on the fly and realize that being flat on their prats doesn’t put them in any more danger than they were in standing up.

After all that, it seems almost anticlimactic to point out that the light crossbow does significantly more damage than the spear—86 percent more, on average. So rather than divide up a derro unit between crossbowmen and spearmen, assume that every derro carries both a crossbow and a spear; that they prefer to use their crossbows over their spears; but that when an enemy rushes them, they switch, and so do their immediate neighbors. Also, if at all possible, they launch their first crossbow volley from hiding, to gain unseen attacker advantage.

Derro paranoia and low Wisdom mean they don’t flee when seriously wounded but rather keep on fighting until they’re down to 1 or 2 hp. At that point, the gravely wounded derro will run, baiting out opportunity attacks—and their erstwhile allies will seize that opportunity to retreat out of melee range themselves and go back to attacking with their higher-damage crossbows. If combat drags on beyond three rounds, all derro will flee the scene, Dashing away. But this is simply a strategic retreat. They‘ll gather some more allies, stalk their opponents and ambush again as soon as they get the chance.

Derro savants are derro with sorcerous ability. Aside from having high Charisma and slightly below-average Strength, they have exactly the same ability contour as a regular derro. Because that below-average Strength makes them even less effective in melee, however, they’ll always attack from range, and other derro will run interference for them in case an enemy tries to close to melee distance.

Lightning bolt is the big gun in the derro savant’s arsenal, but it has the drawback of affecting only a narrow, straight line. Invisibility, however, gives the derro savant the freedom to position itself where it can cast a lightning bolt that nails three or more enemies, if they’re properly lined up. It’s most likely to get this chance if the battle has a well-defined front line. In a more all-over-the-place battle, though, there may never be a good opportunity to cast lightning bolt.

Normally, I’d say, the derro savant should use its 3rd-level spell slots for lightning bolt and nothing else. But I’d also say that because of the length of its area of effect, it’s practically wasted if cast against just one or two enemies. So what about, say, boosting chromatic orb with a 3rd-level spell slot? That would make it do 5d8 damage (22 points, on average) against a single enemy with a ranged spell attack roll, vs. 8d6 damage (28 points, on average) against one or two enemies, with the burden on them to make a Dexterity saving throw, and half damage done even if they succeed. There’s no comparing the two. Chromatic orb falls far short.

Burning hands? At least that one requires a Dex save, does half damage on a success and can affect a second target, but even when boosted to 3rd level, the base damage is only 5d6 (17 points, on average). This one’s a self-defense measure for when the derro savant gets sacked, nothing more. And sleep just doesn’t scale well. So save those 3rd-level spell slots, even if the opportunity to cast lightning bolt doesn’t seem to present itself. The derro savant holds out hope that the moment will eventually come, and when it does, it will be ready.

As for cantrips, the derro savant has two that do damage: acid splash and ray of frost. Ray of frost is better, but neither is that great. The derro savant will use up its lightning bolts and chromatic orbs before resorting to cantrips. Spider climb is useful for escaping in a high-verticality environment, and not much else—and since the derro savant is as unlikely to flee as any other derro, this spell won’t get much use. Ditto sleep, once the PCs are past level 4 or so.

Next: star spawn. No, really, I mean it this time.

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35 responses to “Derro Tactics”

  1. Aelion Avatar

    This isn’t the way I wanted to leave my first ever comment in your blog. I love what you’re doing here, and your tactical insights have proven invaluable to my campaigns. Regardless, here we are:

    The opening you used for this article (the second paragraph) is unnecessarily mean-spirited. It’s an underhanded potshot at a group of people for having political beliefs different than your own. I was under the impression that D&D is a safe space where we can welcome and play together with people from different races, classes, and backgrounds. Branding all Trump supporters (because every American and probably most of Europe understands who you’re talking about) like this is a betrayal of that inclusiveness.

    Please, I implore you: cut that hateful line out. Don’t do that edit where you cross it out, because we can all still see that. Repost the article without it. Eradicate that hatefulness. Be the example of fellowship that is supposed to be the core of this game.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      I appreciate your point of view. I do believe, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1, that we “should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” And I could keep my blog a place upon which politics never, ever intrude. But a lot of people don’t get to enjoy the privilege of having any place free from the intrusion of politics. Politics intrudes on their lives every single day, threatening their liberty, their security and their dignity. Their existence is a political question, up for debate. Ultimately, my sympathies are with them, not with those whose politics are the very thing that threatens them.

      Taking children out of the arms of their parents, giving the parents no indication that they’ll ever see their children again, and putting those children in cagesthis is unnecessarily mean-spirited. To put it very, very mildly.

      I don’t consider myself obliged to provide a safe space for people who sneer at safe spaces, to include people who belittle efforts at inclusion, to embrace in fellowship those who neither feel nor show any fellowship toward my neighbors, or to maintain gentle neutrality toward those who codify hatefulness in public policy. I believe every man, woman and child deserves to be safe from danger, to be happy, to be healthy and to live with ease. But if people are perpetrating harm and injustice, or voting for others who perpetrate harm and injustice, or cheering for those who are perpetrating harm and injustice, I want them to be able to live with ease only after having realized how wrong their choices were and having made concrete amends for them. Until then, their minds should be troubled.

      This is personal for me. My father was born in a right-wing authoritarian country. So help me, my child will not be.

      1. Jay B. Avatar
        Jay B.

        “My father was born in a right-wing authoritarian country.”

        Oh? Which?

      2. Belrandir Avatar

        “I don’t consider myself obliged to provide a safe space for people who sneer at safe spaces, to include people who belittle efforts at inclusion, to embrace in fellowship those who neither feel nor show any fellowship toward my neighbors, or to maintain gentle neutrality toward those who codify hatefulness in public policy.”

        Wow- you really do have an insight into monsters. I’m amazed by how perfectly this sums up our current climate.

        I’d love to re-post this, with your permission of course.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          Whatever their faults, these aren’t monsters we’re talking about. These are human beings, and their failings are human failings. They do these things by choice, not by nature. They can make different choices if they wish to.

          I may take the occasional potshot, but I won’t engage in dehumanization.

          1. Belrandir Avatar

            You’re right, I went too far and spoke carelessly. While their opinions and actions may be monstrous, they are human and their failings aren’t so different from my own.

            That said, that’s one of the things I don’t like about alignment in D&D- one’s actions and choices should determine their alignment, not the other way around. That’s true even for monsters.
            If you continually choose to do evil, it doesn’t matter if your character sheet says ‘neutral.’ Or ‘human.’

      3. Aelion Avatar

        You’re honest about your bias. Most people who engage in this behavior pretend to elevate themselves above the rest of humanity, acting as if they are pure and objective as they spit on others. You at least acknowledge that you will not treat D&D as neutral ground and that you will pass judgment on others as you see fit. That shows integrity, if in an exotic fashion. For that, I salute you.

        However, if you’re going to express you views, express them. Don’t speak highly about not dehumanizing people and then take jabs. Cheap shots like this lack the integrity that you seem so eager to show. Claiming to believe in human rights and providing links to documents written by other people doesn’t change that. True expression requires courage and sacrifice. ‘Jabs’ require neither. Either express yourself in every article, at every opportunity, or else keep these judgments to yourself.

        I feel I should clarify why I speak out against you. It’s not just because cheap shots are a pet peeve of mine. It’s because my right-wing blood relations do the exact same thing you’re doing now. Judging by the personal motivation you wield, I don’t think you could handle just how horrifying that parallel is.

        These past few years – Trump’s ascension, and the resulting frenzy – have been enlightening and amusing in an Orwellian fashion. I’ve watched farmers and pigs (Animal Farm reference, in case anyone’s worried that I’m actually assigning those monikers to specific groups) whip themselves into a greater and greater froth as they blame each other for the problems in the United States. Each side has a few righteous lights for which they fight, and each is ultimately crippled by depravities and hypocrisies. To take either side and damn the other is to damn oneself.

        The long and short of it is, what you’re doing here scares me. Your judgmental remark, and the resulting comparison of your fellow humans to fantasy villains, is a perfect fit for authoritarian propaganda. Your intellectual defense and emotional zeal … Do you really think ‘they’ lack those things? Do you really think that the members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party lacked intellect, passion, or suffering?

        Everyone has something good they’re fighting for. Everyone has suffering that they hold high as a torch, and everyone is willing to put down ‘others’ to get there. They never sin/betray the state/dehumanize/hate/preach/subjugate/judge. They simply do what ‘must be done’ to defeat The Evil Ones. They simply hurt the ‘other’ until they break, and then reward them for compliance. Every crusade, ever persecution, every revolutiom of the people, and every tyrant has done this, just with different paint jobs. What you are doing here is nothing special.

        I’d like us to start something new. You want to build a better nation for your child? Then fight for a cause. Protect those who need protecting. Speak of love, speak of acceptance, vote for what is right, and stand in the line of fire.

        But don’t sink to this level. Don’t be a dark reflection of the people you damn. Don’t foster hatred. What you’re doing ensures that the evil you despise will survive. Worse, it sets an example for your child to bring forward to the next generation.

        But at the end of the day, I don’t need to convince you. I never had any hope of doing so. “I can only lead you to the truth. I can’t make you believe it.” (Reddington, “The Blacklist”). And having brought you here, there is nothing more that I can say.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          Answering narrowly: Of course the Nazis didn’t lack intellect, passion or suffering. What they lacked was empathy—the recognition that their victims were human beings, their equals in dignity and rights—and consciences capable of confronting the reality of the harm and injustice they were perpetrating. This is also a failing of our own authoritarian right wing, and it has been for a long time, as we can see in the rhetoric of supporters of slavery in the 19th century, supporters of segregation in the 20th, and xenophobes today.

          Our media and political speech are full of false equivalencies, and it’s a false equivalency to equate a rhetorical dig, which nearly everyone indulges in from time to time, with an active campaign of injustice and gratuitous cruelty.

          By the by, dehumanization is the act of redefining human beings as less than human—comparing them to brutes, vermin or disease—either intentionally or unintentionally breaking down one’s inhibitions against abusing, torturing and killing them. I call this out whenever and wherever I see it, on the left or on the right. But that’s not what’s going on here. The description of the derro as “equal parts fearful and vicious . . . prey[ing] on those weaker than themselves, while giving simpering obeisance to any creatures they deem more powerful,” struck me as a precise description of the attitudes and behaviors of those who support Donald Trump and his agenda: fearful of Others en masse; vicious toward them as individuals; abusive and exploitative toward those they perceive as having lower status; loyal and deferential toward those they perceive as higher-status, to the point of rejecting observable and measurable reality in favor of whatever hokum their authorities make up off the cuff. That’s a far cry from saying, “They’re not even people,” or, “They’re animals.” Rather the opposite, since describing the derro in this way ascribes human traits to them in a way that, applied to an actual animal, would be anthropomorphizing it.

          I don’t condemn these folks for what they are. What they are is human. I condemn what they do. What they do is inhumane. Most of all, I condemn their disregard and contempt for the rights of other human beings, which invariably results in the commission of atrocities.

          1. Ath Avatar

            Beautifully put Keith, have to say I’m more then glad to see your a damn cool one.

      4. Whiysper Avatar

        Good on you for not folding. Hateful behavior can and should be called out!

        On the actual tactica, I would say that the only good reason I could see for the trip would be to allow safe backing off – not actually sure if it helps against Opportunity Attacks in 5e, but trip, back off, and let them get back up into another hail of crossbow fire would probably hurt a lot more than ganging up.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          It helps a little bit. A prone enemy can still make an opportunity attack, but he or she does so with disadvantage.

      5. Mark Durham Avatar
        Mark Durham

        Great reply, and if the 2 years since you wrote hasn’t convinced anybody about what’s going on then they’ve been spiking the koolaid.

        It’s not any published material, but wouldn’t Derro have beasts to even the odds ? Looking for something to make an encounter interesting in an underdark ruin.

  2. Sligo Avatar

    I, too, was put off by the political reference. Seems it has already gotten a bit of attention! I firmly believe that you have the right to voice your opinion, even though I may agree or disagree with it. I KINDLY ask, however, that you refrain from expressing it within the context of this blog.

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve referenced your blog many times on Facebook, and I would like to continue to do so. Your thoughts and insights are extremely valuable and useful. I’ve always felt safe in directing people here because the content here has always been exactly what is advertised. Until today.

    You’re right that it is impossible to avoid political opinions in today’s world. Just like it was pointed out to me recently from a gay man that when I reference “my wife,” it creates a barrier because I’m stating clearly that I am heterosexual – even though I have no intent to be offensive or judgmental. Unfortunately, such things are pervasive in our culture and it can never be totally avoided.

    All I’m asking is that where it can (or should) be avoided, please do so.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      On that tangential subject, although I can see when I get hits from Facebook, I can’t ever see what posts those hits are coming from; same with Twitter. I can’t even see what Google search terms are bringing readers to this blog. The only site that allows me to track my blog traffic back to specific posts that I can read is Reddit.

      I have a lot to thank Reddit for.

    2. slitherrr Avatar

      “I KINDLY ask, however, that you [control your speech in a specific, status-quo-affirming way because I am afraid that people who find flimsy euphemisms for treating other humans as subhumans might have their feelings hurt].”


  3. Ken Avatar

    I for one thought it was amusing. I wholeheartedly agree with Keith here, and am somewhat disturbed to see that there aren’t that many who just do, apparently…

    Sooo with that out of the way, I love your blog! Can we talk about the derro now? Just wanted to mention that the ones in Out of The Abyss had an additional feature called insanity, which gave them advantage on saves against being charmed or frightened, if you ever feel like adding it as a footnote or something. It’s not really a gamechanger but it’s so in character for the derro that it’s kind of a shame they didn’t have it in MToF. Also, why the discontinuity?

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Not sure. Mordenkainen’s does have a sidebar titled “Derro Madness,” but it’s more a roleplaying guide than anything tactical. And advantage on saving throws against being charmed and frightened wouldn’t affect much since derro already have Magic Resistance; it would only add a small number of edge cases, like being resistant to a Berserker barbarian’s Intimidating Presence. I can’t see it having much of an impact.

      Really, the effect of Insanity is probably already encapsulated by the derro’s pitiful Wisdom score, which prevents them from exercising any strategic judgment beyond what’s instinctive to them (hit and run, hit and run, etc.).

  4. Dave Avatar

    First, thanks for this blog. It’s my favorite. Second, thanks for the jab. Well deserved. And third, thanks for standing up for what you believe and not apologizing for it.

  5. Particularist Avatar

    As a #MAGA type, I thought the jab was funny.

    For the record, I scanned our host’s Twitter history for hypocrisy and found none. Mr. Ammann is consistent in his views, which have always stressed compassion. However much I may disagree with him, I cannot question his honesty.

    If you are so inclined you may find his political views in detail on the Daily Kos.

  6. Rob Avatar

    Not here to write a diatribe but to say that statement made me chuckle. Wether I support a certain party or not I can find it funny. Keep it up. Do you. It’s your site, not a safe haven.

  7. Particularist Avatar

    As I had previously stated, our host is a man of honesty & integrity. I have no doubt that if I were to check his Twitter feed, I would find him ecstatic that the “right-wing authoritarian” policy of the past several administrations has at long last been over-turned by our infamous political outsider of a president, the man with a heart as big as his hands and his mind, Donald J. Trump.

    Given our host’s compassionate concern for these specific children, I am happy to say on behalf of all #MAGA types: You’re welcome!

    Life comes at you fast.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      These specific children are not about to be reunited with their families anytime soon. They remain in legal limbo, taken from their parents out of an arbitrary and capricious decision to begin prosecuting a civil misdemeanor, unlawful entry, as if it were a criminal felony—a practice neither mandated by any law nor practiced by any previous administration. No one gets credit for “solving” a problem they themselves created, denied existed, claimed wasn’t actually as bad as people made it out to be, blamed on previous Democratic administrations, said they couldn’t change, then somehow found a way to change—without actually changing it—in an attempt to save face.

      You’re a guest in my house. Trolling is not welcome here.

  8. Mark Lentini Avatar
    Mark Lentini

    I think with the cross bow being better than the hook, the Derro would use the hook mainly as a defensive weapon – knock down an opposing melee attacker and then step back a few paces and shoot.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      It couldn’t do that in a single turn. Hooking and tripping is an action; shooting is also an action.

      Plus, shooting at a prone target imposes disadvantage on the attack. If the derro is going to be using its crossbow, it wants its enemy standing up.

      The only thing hooking does for a derro trying to get out of melee is impose disadvantage on the opportunity attack. In which case, why not just Disengage? That’s a more reliable way to achieve the goal of moving away without being hit.

      1. slitherrr Avatar

        It could set up a situation where one derro trips, and their cohort all backs up and uses their action to set up a reaction to the target standing. I haven’t done the map to see if the higher damage from the crossbow will make up for the lack of advantage, but it seems likely, and forcing the target to use half its movement will make it more likely to still be in crossbow range the turn after.

        1. slitherrr Avatar


      2. braak Avatar

        so, I am not sure of this, but I *think* that the specifics of the prone condition mean that if you’re in melee range, you can actually shoot at a prone target normally (i.e., Prone says you have disadvantage if you’re attacking from more than 5ft away, but advantage if you’re within 5ft, and advantage from being within 5ft + disadvantage from using a ranged weapon in melee cancels out; this is intuitive to me, anyway, like it is hard to hit a guy lying on the ground at a distance, but relatively easy to hit him if you’re standing right on top of him).

        If that’s the case, then it seems like a tactic of:

        3 derro pop out of a tunnel next to you, one hooks your foot and knocks you down and runs, then the other two shoot and run

        they regroup somewhere else, trying to draw melee fighters away down the tunnels — if nobody follows, they just keep taking potshots

        if someone DOES follow and engages in melee, they try the hook, shoot, run procedure again, ideally continuing to draw the party apart and get them lost in tunnels or what have you

        If a group of two or three derro have a fighter in melee, then they’d *each* have to disengage and sacrifice their attack; this way, one takes the risk of an opportunity attack, sacrificing a small amount of potential damage for disadvantage on the opportunity attack *and* half the fighter’s movement on the next turn.

        1. Keith Ammann Avatar

          I think your take re: point-blank shots is correct.

  9. Vhiet Avatar

    Great post. I know individual monsters are your thing, but i’d love to know your thoughts on the Raiding Party composition tables (p83 of Mordenkainen’s).

    Regarding the comments here after the most gentle political ribbing imaginable.. Jesus wept, MAGA types are the worst kind of snowflake. God help you when you see what WotC are going to do with Xanathar in dragon heist.

    Xanathar is a megalomaniacal, paranoid xenophobe who is big, fat, and orange. If you don’t think he’s going to be complaining about “WITCH HUNTS!!” and boasting about his Very Stable Genius in 256 character screeds to his followers, then you’re beyond helping, dudes. Low Energy.

  10. Jeff Avatar

    This was an entertaining comment section! I hugely appreciate this blog. To those offended by the jab, the ability to laugh at one’s self is a great virtue and the act always preferable to laughing at another’s expense. This was the mildest of jabs imaginable.

    But that the Left not come through the discussion unscathed, I would like to remind us that unborn children are routinely killed in the name of comfort and freedom from responsibility. Before anyone says that these aren’t children or humans, these individuals (at all stages of development) need the same exact things for survival that we all need:
    1 the absence of disease
    2 adequate nutrition
    3 a suitable environment
    And please, say nothing to the effect that the mother’s standard of living is of such importance that the child’s life is an acceptable loss in order to maintain. Making value judgments about the worth other’s lives is what those foul racists and sexists do.

    The above said I could also point out the modern atrocities of the Right. For example, my close friend is working with a refugee who’s refugee status has been revoked despite outrageously credible evidence of multiple attempts on his life. Our government would send him out of the country to die.

    No matter your political leanings, our country is in the hands of ruthless killers, but so I don’t offend I’ll refrain from citing any similarities between those with political power in our country and the occupants of the MM.

    Dear Lord, help us.

    To end on a positive note, I’ll leave us with two quotes from someone we appreciate and respect:

    “Their existence is a political question, up for debate. Ultimately, my sympathies are with them, not with those whose politics are the very thing that threatens them.”

    “By the by, dehumanization is the act of redefining human beings as less than human—comparing them to brutes, vermin or disease—either intentionally or unintentionally breaking down one’s inhibitions against abusing, torturing and killing them.”

    I love DnD!

  11. The Ranting Savant Avatar

    Thanks for a very interesting analysis – I’m linking it to my Derropedia blog for brief reference as I can’t seem to work out how to reblog sorry. I’d sketched out a “Vs. Derro” article with advice for PCs a while back now and this is the perfect complementary piece from the DM’s perspective!

    Derro Madness is a sometimes difficult concept – the best advice I’ve seen comes from the Kobold’s Press supplement “Unlikely Heroes for 5E” but it’s more aimed at PC derro than from an NPC / encounter perspective.

    I’m going to avoid commenting on the political aspects (I’m Australian in any case) and just pass on more general praise – looking through the rest of the site, there are some great concepts here. The reasoning based on the premises seems sound, although I’d also be interested in variations of individual creatures eg exceptional leader types or champions with a single exceptional Ability score out of keeping with their lesser fellows eg Int or Wis for leaders, Dex or Str for champions maybe…

    1. Anonymous Avatar

      Probably run the same way. Just better at what they do

  12. […] I’m a big fan of Keith Ammar’s “The Monsters Know what They’re Doing” blog (and his subsequent book), particularly his rational approach to making monsters more interesting to fight. I’ve already commented on his derro article. […]

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