Archive for the 'RPG' Category

DHSGiT: Race

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is set in America in the 1920s. This much is clear from the mentions of Prohibition, which becomes a prominent part of the plot at one point. But there are some apparent anachronisms. There’s an occasional bit of music that sounds out-of-place to me, too boogie-woogie for the period. But apparently, even though boogie didn’t hit its peak of popularity until the late 1930s, it existed as a distinct form as early as the 19th century. How likely you’d be to hear it in a well-to-do suburb is another question.

Which brings us to the matter of racial issues. “What racial issues?” you might ask, especially if you’ve played the game. To which I respond: Exactly. The people of Brigiton, blinkered and hypocritical though they are in many respects, are remarkably enlightened when it comes to race. The high school itself is integrated; there are at least two black playable characters, and they’re simply accepted as dangerous high school girls, no different from the rest. One of the teachers is black — a woman, in fact, who teaches science and math. Not only that, she has a romance subplot with a white man, and, while there’s quite a lot of worry and hesitation on both sides there, there’s no suggestion that this would in itself be scandalous.

Of course, this isn’t a realistic game. It’s comically distorted — I’d call it cartoonish, but the style makes it more reminiscent of a slapstick silent film. This game is to the real 1920s as the more usual CRPG setting is to medieval Europe. It takes the setting as a flavor, not as a binding contract.

DHSGiT: School on the Bus

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble turns out to be an excellent game to play on a laptop on the bus — much moreso than the last game I tried playing that way. There’s nothing realtime about it, and nothing requiring precision. The necessary context is minimal, in terms of both gameplay and plot — like in Chrono Trigger, the story all happens in the moment, and builds in unpredictable directions rather than bending toward an inevitable climax. And somehow, the game just makes the bus ride go faster. I settle in to play a few mini games, and all of the sudden I’m home.

It seems like the main complaint about the game in other reviews was that it got monotonous after a while. The mini-games don’t provide a lot of variety — far less than a typical modern combat-based RPG, because those are always full of special-case monsters that require you to vary your tactics (until you become powerful enough to just brute-force your way through them, anyway). This is something that would be good to address in any future game inspired by DHSGiT‘s mechanics. But even here, it’s really only an issue if you’re trying to play it in long sessions, like you would a normal CRPG. My first two sessions, back in January, were like that. Playing on the bus means shorter sessions, and that seems to be the way to play this game for maximal enjoyment — as well as being just plain healthier than obsessive marathon play.

It all makes me think that this game, or some development of it, would be a good match for cell phones. The UI seems pretty touchscreen-friendly already. I wonder if the developers have even considered this possibility? I wouldn’t be surprised if they had already given up on the idea of getting it into the iTunes App Store, considering their experiences with Big Fish, which removed the game from their catalog on the basis of “some strong sexual content towards the end of the game”. I haven’t got that far yet — I still only have access to three of the game’s four gameboards — but fans of the game insist that it’s PG-13 at most. Still, I can imagine Apple looking askance just on the basis of precedent. There’s always Android, but is it a big enough market to justify the effort of porting by itself? I don’t know.

DHSGiT: Time and Opportunity

So, I’m getting back into Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble a little bit. Like most modern CRPGs, it keeps track of your current goals and has a handy recap feature, so it didn’t take long for me to remember where I was in the ongoing story of Brigiton School for Girls and environs. The latest scandal: pogo sticks. The mayor has banned them, but his reasons are specious, and seem to be mainly an excuse to send a gang of toughs around to look for contraband pogo sticks and intimidate people. Meanwhile, the thrill of the illicit has brought pogoing to a clandestine new popularity. Most of the story is at this level of silliness, and this level of lightly-veiled sociopolitical commentary.

In fact, the one thing I dislike about the story the most is the fear of missing bits of it. To some extent, this is inevitable — the game features multiple endings, and I’ve already been through some scenes that can come to multiple conclusions, where failure to meet a particular goal doesn’t impede the plot. But you can also cut yourself off from opportunities — implicitly including opportunities for character advancement through mini-games — by concluding sections of the plot before you intend to. I’ve done a certain amount of backtracking to older saves just to check out what I’ve missed. Arguably this is the wrong way to play the game, and one is better served by playing it through straight multiple times.

The thing that’s really upsetting is when I’m cut out of a plot branch by nothing more than bad timing. This is essentially a turn-based game: time in the gameworld goes in discrete lumps of at least an hour, and sometimes more. The school buildings are only open at certain times of day, as are the buildings in town. There was one sub-plot where I encouraged two shy lovebirds to go to the town library at the same time. Rushing over there afterward to help things along, I was dismayed to discover that I had done this too late in the afternoon, and the library was now closed. This sort of restriction strikes me as a weakness in the game, liable to engender frustration.

On the other hand, the two of them were still in the library when I stopped by the next day. Really important plot events wait for you. But then, isn’t this just another kind of weakness in a timekeeping system?

WoW: Battleground

I’ve just spent some time pursuing exploration and (mostly low-level) quests in the Eastern Kingdoms, where the story is dominated by the undead. I’ve thoroughly conquered the Hillsbrad Foothills, Arathi Highlands, and Western Plaguelands zones — territories I had already explored to various degrees, but now they’re not just explored but exhausted. In the process, I discovered the entrance to the Scholomance, a dungeon I had explored via the Dungeon Finder some time previously. That keeps happening: I do a dungeon, and only some time later do I receive the dungeon’s context. Sometimes there’s even a quest to enter the dungeon and talk to the questgiver immediately inside, who would then give me quests if I hadn’t already done them.

Quests to enter dungeons are of course a way that the game tries to get you to try out all of the game modes. In Arathi Highlands, I encountered another such for the first time: a quest involving a PvP “battleground” zone, where Horde players clash with Alliance players in an attempt to capture strategic points. To do the quest, you have to register for a battle on the Arathi Basin map and “assault” four specific capture points (each of which corresponds to an important building: a stable, farmhouse, etc). What does “assault” mean? Well, each capture point has a flag indicating which side controls it; click an enemy flag and stand still for several seconds — long enough to give any enemies still present a chance to kill you — and you start a one-minute countdown, at the end of which the point becomes yours. The character who performs this action is reported to the world as assaulting the point. However, I only did this once during my time in the Basin, and somehow managed to get quest credit for assaulting all four points, so there’s clearly more to it than that. Perhaps just standing near the flag while someone else assaults it counts. Similarly, the scoreboard at the end of my first battle credited me with a number of “honorable kills” despite not having actually killed anyone.

Battlegrounds, like dungeons, are instanced zones — areas cut off from the rest of the world, existing independently for each set of players using the zone at once. The only way to enter them is by queueing up through an interface similar to the Dungeon Finder. For historical reasons, you can access this interface by talking to an NPC who stands next to the gate that used to lead into a battleground (but which is now impassible), but you can also access it via an icon on the action bar, right next to the Dungeon Finder icon. This strikes me as a very good change: if I understand correctly, it used to be that entering a battleground involved going to a specific location and then waiting there for enough people to queue up to fill an instance. Being able to hop on the queue anywhere means that I can spend that time exploring instead of sitting around bored. It makes me think of the complaints leveled against “virtual world” interfaces like Playstation Home, about how they needlessly impose the limitations and inconveniences of the real world. I suppose it’s a tough call to make in a MMO, where the sense of your avatar’s physical presence in the shared gameworld is a big part of the game’s appeal, but I’m glad that people are figuring out when sticking to the virtual model does and doesn’t enhance the player experience and making adjustments accordingly.

Only five players at a time can enter a dungeon instance. Battlegrounds support — indeed, require — larger teams than that. Consequently, the interface for showing your team is different: denser, more abstract, less intuitive. It’s a grid of green blocks, showing everyone’s health bars. It took me a little while to realize that characters who were in range of my healing spells were displayed in a brighter shade of green; once I noticed this, I was much more effective as a healer. The most satisfying moments were the times I managed to charge in to the rescue, coming into a skirmish in progress and quickly filling up the emptying life bars, then plopping down some totems to give my team an extra edge. I mean, okay, a Restoration shaman isn’t the best team member for a battleground, and I should really learn how to use my second specialization if I decide to pursue this side of the game further. But at least I managed to be useful sometimes.

Battleground mode is definitely the part of the game that plays the most like what you’d expect from WoW‘s basic premise: that it’s Warcraft played from the inside. But it reminds me even more of Team Fortress 2. There’s a similar flow, a similar seesawing of power, of people rushing around from point to point in small groups. Except, of course, that at the lowest level, it’s much more elaborate than TF2. You get the full range of WoW‘s myriad special abilities in play here, and as baroque as TF2 is becoming, WoW has a two-year head start on it. I’m impressed anew with what Blizzard is attempting here. Battleground mode plays so utterly differently from quests or dungeons (where your only opponents are computer-controlled sacrifical lambs, built for beating) that the idea of building such a complex system, and periodically extending it, while keeping it balanced in both of these contexts seems impossibly difficult. And I’m sure that a more experienced player could tell me all about how they failed in the attempt — certainly the general chatter within the game is full of fannish complaints about design decisions. But regardless, I admire the attempt.

WoW: Glyphs

Reopening World of Warcraft after two weeks of inactivity, the first order of the day was to get some glyphs.

Glyphs are a way to enhance your spells and special abilities. There’s a special interface, a tab under the Talents menu, containing three banks of glyph slots, each accepting one prime, one major, and one minor glyph. (This prime/major/minor distinction is apparently a recent alteration to the system.) The interface also has a lengthy scrolling list of all the glyphs available to your character class, with tooltip descriptions of their effects. Each glyph applies to one spell, and the effects are varied. Most glyphs simply increase the effect, range, casting frequency, or duration of their spell. Others are more miscellaneous: the glyph for Healing Wave, for example, causes it to heal the caster for 20% of the amount it heals the target, and the glyph for the Grounding Totem, a summoned object that absorbs one attack spell cast at you, makes it instead reflect the spell back at the caster. There are even vanity glyphs: one minor glyph for the Shaman just alters the appearance of your Ghost Wolf form to look like an arctic wolf.

None of this is available from the beginning. The first bank of glyph slots (and the entire glyph interface) becomes available at level 25, the second bank unlocks at level 50, and the third at level 75. Furthermore, in order to assign a glyph to a slot, you first need to learn the glyph. And this was a sticking point for me, because the game doesn’t explain how you learn them. I’ve spoken in praise of WoW‘s tutorial system before, but the glyph interface is one place where it really let me down. It guides you to the point of looking at the glyphs interface when it initially unlocks, but you can’t do anything with it at that point, because you haven’t learned any glyphs yet, and it doesn’t give you a clear notion of what to do about that. When Oleari turned 25, I just figured that I’d find some glyphs somewhere eventually, and then I forgot about it, until she hit level 50, and the second bank opened, and I realized that I needed to research this a little.

It turns out that glyphs are created by player characters using the Inscription profession. This means that if you and your friends have opted for professions other than Inscription, and you’re not willing to change, the simplest way to obtain glyphs is from an eBay-like in-game auction. Auctions are an area of the game I hadn’t delved into before, figuring I wasn’t advanced enough to take advantage of it. I mean, I’m still finding better equipment on my own on a frequent basis without having to buy it. But I should probably be taking advantage of it more, to sell all my surplus herbs and the like. It’s definitely a big part of the game for the experienced players — possibly the biggest. The auction house in Orgrimmar is always the busiest place there.

And, having participated in some auctions now, I can report profound sticker shock. Trying to pick up glyphs when the interface opened at level 25 would have been pointless, as I would not have been able to afford them. My total wealth right now tends to hover around 100 gold; some of the minor glyphs can’t be had for that much. I have to wonder if the auction prices really reflect the market here, or if most glyphs are going unsold. You’d think that there would be a low demand for glyphs, seeing how each player character can only usefully learn nine of the things, and high supply, as scribes create them for practice. But then, gold isn’t really as valuable for most players as it is for a noob like me. (Strange that I can play for nearly two months and be more than halfway to the level cap and still be a noob, but there it is.)

WoW: Ganked!

So, I’m thinking it’s time to stop for a while again. I’ve hit a natural breakpoint in several respects: the lover’s festival just ended (taking its time-limited content and Achievements with it), and I just hit level 50, and I’ve just completed the lingering quests in a couple of zones I was interested in completing. Zones in this game are like chapters: each tells a story (or a set of connected stories) through its quests, and only touches the stories in the other zones lightly. It’s an interesting way to organize a game. I suppose it’s more or less how most single-player CRPGs work, but the immense size of WoW makes it clear how distinctly the different sections are authored, and the apparent seamlessness of the terrain makes the actual divisions all the more striking. Also, seeing this structure makes clear something I hadn’t really understood before I started to play: the nature of the expansions. Each expansion brings new territories into the game, and consequently new storylines, because story and territory are so tightly coupled.

But also, I’m kind of reaching a dismaying point of the game: the point where other players are killing me. For no reason. Or, well, for “honor points”, I suppose, but if you ask me, there isn’t much honor in how it’s happening. I’m venturing into “contested” zones, because after a while that’s where the quests lead you. Because I’m still mostly questing at well below my level, I tend to feel safe, when all of the sudden some Alliance player just up and attacks me, usually killing me with one shot before I’m even aware of their presence. And suddenly this seems to be happening a lot; I don’t know why it didn’t before. In one case, I was pursuing a special Fishing quest, one of the few quests I’ve seen that touches multiple zones: you have to catch specific fish in four specific locations around the world. So I’m standing there peaceably on the shore with a fishing rod in my hand when all of the sudden BAM. My first urge was to say something like “WHAT THE HELL MAN”, but then I realized that anything I said wouldn’t be understood: the game has Alliance and Horde characters speaking different languages, and anything said by people on the opposite team shows up as gibberish.

By means of this communication barrier, and the fact that players on different sides generally only see each other in contested zones, the game fosters the illusion that the opposite side is composed entirely of irrational jerks who can’t be reasoned with. Which, okay, accurately describes a sizable fraction of the players anyway, as my dungeoneering experiences show. But on the opposite side, that’s all you see. And there’s probably a lesson in that.

I suppose that if I don’t like it, I should go to another server — random PvP in contested zones is only possible on servers that permit it, and servers that don’t permit it are apparently considered “normal” by Blizzard. (Normal servers have special PvP areas, apparently.) I think back to my Everquest days. I didn’t like PvP then either, but I deliberately chose to play on a PvP server, because I didn’t want to think that the only reason people refrained from attacking me was that they couldn’t. And it actually worked out pretty well: even playing as an ogre in human territory, I quickly got a local reputation as the friendly ogre who goes around casting healing spells on people in peril. But that wouldn’t fly in Azeroth. The story of WoW is a story about war, and Blizzard has gone to some lengths to reward people for acting in accordance with that story, and to place obstacles in the way of ignoring or subverting it.

WoW: Staring at UI

When you’re adventuring with a party in WoW, there’s a lot going on at once. Spell-sparks fly around so thick thick and rapid, and the state of the battle changes so swiftly, that it’s basically impossible for a newbie like me to follow the action. Like the robot fights in the Transformers movie, it’s just a big wodge of undifferentiated violence. The tendency of pick-up groups to just keep charging forward without plan or explanation just makes things worse.

So what you do is, you don’t pay attention to the battle. You pay attention to the user interface. In particular, playing the role of Healer, the graphical representation of the world is almost irrelevant: the information that needs your attention is in your teammates’ health bars, and, more significantly, not in the world at all. If you turned off the UI layer, you’d have no idea what to do.

This effect isn’t even exclusive to multi-player play. When you take on a quest that involves singling out particular types of creature, there might be other, similar creatures in the area that don’t count. How do you distinguish a Dying Kodo from a mere Aged Kodo? There are probably differences in the model or texture maps, but the game doesn’t rely on the player noticing anything so subtle. No, the ones that are relevant to the quest have their name floating above them. (Any creature gets its name above it when you target it, but quest goals have their name above them simply because you should target them.) The words are usually easier to spot than the creatures, too.

Or consider the act of gathering herbs. How do you distinguish a pickable herb from random noninteractive foliage? Often the herbs have coloration that makes them stand out, but that’s far from reliable. No, you spot them through the cursor rollover: the action cursor for herb-picking is an icon of a little cluster of flowers. Stop to think about that for a moment. In your view of the gameworld, there is graphical representation of a plant, but in order to understand it, you need to see another graphical representation of a plant, at the UI level.

The point is that you just can’t rely on the 3D world to give you the information you need, so you spend most of your time looking at UI instead. Which is a bit of a shame, because the gameworld is really beautiful.

WoW: Achievements

The Valentine’s Day event in World of Warcraft is almost over for the year. It was originally scheduled to last two weeks, but got extended a couple of days. The time-limited nature of the special holiday content has been my inspiration for playing so much lately — in particular, the Achievements. There’s a whole section of the game’s extensive and multi-tiered Achievements menu for ones associated with special events, and just this one festival has fifteen of them. I’m determined to get as many as I can at the moment, which isn’t all of them — one essentially requires a level 80 character, and a handful of others make you go to places that are only accessible with the expansions. (They just can’t pass up an opportunity to make it clear that basic WoW isn’t the full game, can they?)

Achievements get a bad rap, in my opinion. People object that they’re pointless, things that you’re encouraged to do without any real reward, but if you ask me, that describes most entire games. But assuming that you want to play a game, you probably don’t want to be distracted from it, and Achievements sometimes do just that. I think the problem here is that the Achievement system most familiar to people is that of the Xbox 1The very word “Achievement” is an Xboxism. Games predating Xbox Live that had their own Achievement systems used other terms, such as the “Skill Points” in Ratchet & Clank. , which handles them badly in a number of ways. For one thing, Achievements are a mandatory part of Xbox titles, regardless of whether or not the game is suited to them. Consequently, developers who don’t want Achievements in their games grudgingly jam in rewards for pointless and arbitrary actions at the last minute. Compounding this effect is the Gamerscore, a global sum of things that aren’t really comparable, let alone summable. It all seems like whoever came up with the system had a limited notion of what games could be.

But when a game is amenable to Achievements, they can enhance the player experience by adding another layer of intent. And a CRPG like WoW seems like the perfect place for such a thing. The player’s actions, in most cases, are fairly simple and uniform: you fight, you loot, you move on. The thing that keeps the player’s interest is the multiple things they’re working towards in the process. On the simplest and most direct level, you’re usually trying to physically move to some location, and monsters are getting in your way. The reason you’re trying to move there is to satisfy some quest or other — a goal that puts your immediate actions into a context. On top of that (and orthogonal to it), you’re also trying to level up, and to collect cash for upgrades. You may also be hunting for specific items, ingredients or components that will help you to practice one of your professions. Achievements are just one more optional thing for you to work towards in parallel.

Or rather, not just one more thing. Multiple things. WoW‘s Achievements are broad enough to contain consistent categories, things that you could imagine another game working into its basic mechanics instead of folding into the “miscellaneous” bin of Achievements. For every zone on the map, there’s an “exploration” Achievement for visiting all of its sub-regions, and also an achievement for completing a certain number of quests there. Every dungeon has an achievement for completing it — which provides another constraint for such as me, because dungeons disappear from the Dungeon Finder as you level up, robbing you of opportunities to Achieve. These are things that are rewarded anyway, with experience and treasure and opportunities, but Achievements prod you to do them thoroughly. And how can a completist like myself object to that?

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1. The very word “Achievement” is an Xboxism. Games predating Xbox Live that had their own Achievement systems used other terms, such as the “Skill Points” in Ratchet & Clank.

WoW and Loathing

If there’s one thing that starting to play World of Warcraft has given me so far, it’s a greater appreciation of its influences in other games. In particular, several aspects of Kingdom of Loathing that I had taken to be simply drawn from CRPGs in general turn out to be direct imitations (or satires) of things in WoW. Which is a little strange, because KoL was in fact released first. But both games have changed substantially since launch.

For example, one of the more noticeable additions to KoL from about three years ago was an optional alternate combat interface. Before this, combat was done with a simple HTML menu with a couple of drop-down lists. The new interface used DHTML to present a row of numbered boxes, into which you could drag icons representing skills or combat-usable inventory items, which you could activate by either clicking on them or by hitting the corresponding number key on your keyboard. It also supported multiple banks of such icons, with buttons for paging up and down between banks. In short, it was an awful lot like the WoW action bar, except for the fact that it only applies to combat. In WoW, it’s the main way you perform any action in the game.

One of the more useful icons you can put on the KoL action bar represents the command “repeat last thing” — either repeat the last action when in combat, or, afterward, adventure again in the same location. The icon for this is the number 1 in parentheses — “(1)” — which is sort of a joke on the notation used throughout the game to warn players that an action will cost an adventure. The zones on the maps are all marked with strings like “The Spooky Forest (1)”, but this icon obviously doesn’t know what zone you’re adventuring in, so all it can display is the “(1)”. Anyway, now it seems to me like it’s also poking fun at WoW‘s “!” icon in its action bar, the icon for accessing the quest log. It similarly takes a piece of UI typography and elevates it to the status of symbol.

KoL doesn’t have or need a quest symbol of this sort, because questing of the kind you do in WoW isn’t a very big part of the game. But there’s one thing that’s very much in the same vein: the Bounty Hunter Hunter. The BHH’s job is to find and hire adventurers willing to go after specific monster types for a reward. You can approach him once per day to start hunting something, with the choices available varying from day to day. In other words, it’s what WoW calls a “daily quest”, and like several of the WoW dailies, the reward is a special pseudo-monetary token that can only be spent at the same premises that awards it. But the biggest WoWism here is the way that questing for a particular creature makes it drop a special quest-redemption item that it never drops otherwise. I thought this was very strange when I first encountered it in KoL, but it turns out to be one of the fundamentals of WoW. It should be noted that before 2007, the Bounty Hunter Hunter worked completely differently: he just bought a daily assortment of ordinary monster-leavings for twice the usual price. But this didn’t encourage people to go out and hunt the day’s selected monsters; it just encouraged them to hoard their trash until it the BHH wanted it. So switching to the WoW model here was probably a good idea.

I don’t want to imply that KoL is just a WoW imitation. They’re very different games, and most of KoL‘s mechanics are either original or cribbed from other browser-based games. But they do occupy more or less the same niche in my mind, of a game that’s as much a social experience as a gaming one, and that gives you the feeling that you have to play every day to really keep up.

World of Warcraft is Decadent and Depraved

Oleari joined a guild a little while back, invited by my one known friend on that server, who is one of the guild’s co-founders. (Both guild and friend will remain nameless here.) Guilds in WoW are voluntary associations of players that get certain benefits — a permanent shared chat channel, a shared bank vault, some special mechanics to support raids. As of the Cataclysm expansion, Guilds can also level up, just like player characters, to provide special perks for the members, like experience bonuses or increased speed for your mounts. But the main thing I’m aware of when I play is the chat channel. It’s always there, spewing occasional banter, profanity, and tactics. It’s also pretty much my only contact with the guild; I have yet to do any adventuring with anyone in it. I don’t even often talk on the guild channel, because I don’t really feel like I have a place in the guild’s social dynamics.

But I feel like I have to at least give the guild thing a try for my WoW experience to be complete. It is, after all, one of the things that distinguishes it from the other sorts of games I play, and it seems silly not to take advantage of it. Meet people, without the pressure of actually meeting them! Alas, even that might be too much for a geek like me. People are still people, and anonymous strangers on the internet are moreso.

Just yesterday, I happened to be logged on at the same time as aforementioned friend, and we talked amiably for a bit on the guild channel. After she logged off, someone else addressed me: “Carl, you fuck,” he began. Not quite as amiable, but lacking context, I chose to imagine that he just likes to swear and that it wasn’t personal. He then asked if I wanted to “do” my friend the guildleader. I think I would have been stunned into silence by the impertinence even if I hadn’t been busy fighting off giant spiders at the time. He wasn’t really interested in waiting for my answer, though. He was just warming up to badmouthing her behind her back and accusing her, rather ironically to my mind, of being passive-aggressive.

I don’t know if this guy had some kind of bad history with her or if it was random Internet Misogyny or what. Regardless, I maintained an uncomfortable silence for the rest of the evening, fearing that if I spoke, he’d try to engage me in conversation again. And it was perhaps my silence that allowed me to witness the night’s next uncomfortable moment: two players — I kid you not — using the guild chat to arrange a drug deal.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this. Perhaps I’m just uptight, or “square” as the kids say. But this isn’t the sort of thing I expect to see while I’m playing a computer game. People are supposed to buy and sell drugs at clubs and parties and raves and similar situations that I can avoid. Computer games are a world apart, more apollonian than dionysian, a place for such as me. But not any more, I guess, or at least not exclusively. You don’t get eleven million subscribers without attracting all sorts. And in the context of the guild, I’m even more aware that I’m a guest in someone else’s house. Whether I’ll stay or not, I haven’t decided yet. It is kind of nice to have my horse run 10% faster.

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