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Better Pregen Characters

July 30, 2014

Here’s a secret about running a game with pregen characters:

Your pregen characters are an AD for your game.

This is true whether you’re a game publisher, or a GM trying to get your group into a new game.  The pregens are often going to be an example, if not actually the first experience many folks get with a game.

So the bar is actually a little higher for how you create these characters than each player making their own personalized character.

Protagonist Material

First off, the hardest part is actually designing characters who are “protagonist material”.  There’s a lot of game systems where you can put together, a bland, not particularly interesting character – you might have a full set of stats, even a lot of history… but nothing catchy.

The problem is, a lot of times when people try to avoid this, they go all the other way – where the hero is the center of the universe, the super special exception, and full of extra uber powers.  That’s also not the way.

The way is to find a good ideal or personality aspect the character can stand on.  It should be something they’re driven towards, and, they have to at least be somewhat likeable- a complete jerky antihero either becomes the character everyone passes over, or, the character someone plays as a jerky antihero that becomes a problem in the game.

The other challenge, of course, is that it has to be easy enough to grasp as a pregen character, catchy enough to get someone’s eye, and, naturally, fit with whatever your game is about.  If your game is about digging in dungeons, a character who is having problems with their brother converting religions is probably not going to tie well together.

Mostly, though what you have to ask yourself is, can you see this character’s story and conflict playing out in a movie?  (novels have much more room to explore, a movie is about the right level of narrative depth and time to aim for).

Tied to the Scenario

Since you’re either making the scenario or designing pregens with the scenario in mind, look to tie your pregen characters’ goals directly into the scenario.  This works well for giving people immediate, fun play.  You can align the characters’ goals if they’re supposed to be cooperative or working together, or put them at odds if it’s supposed to be in conflict.

Generally, you don’t want the scenario to require any specific characters, or, if it does, only one of them which you can tell the players up front is a necessary character.

Elevator Pitch

You want to have a nice, short, easy to reference description for each character.  The way that works best is a brief description, a short 3-4 sentence background and a 1-2 sentence strategy/play description for the players.  

This should be in as plain layman’s language as possible.  “Thundercast Glimmerblade” doesn’t mean jack to anyone not already deep into whatever arcane terminology your game uses.

Example:

Kolemi Kinata

A tricky old man

2nd Level Human Rogue

 

Kolemi led a revolt against the Minaluku royal house. They were overthrown, but much of their Clan still lives and holds influence, so Kolemi sold himself into the service of the Kinata as a “refugee” and earned his way into their family name. Here and there, he runs into people who recognizes him, though he tries to keep his identity and past hidden.

 

Kolemi works best by using his mobility to get around, teaming up on bad guys to use Sneak Attack, and using tricky stunts to overcome enemies. He has a lot of skills outside of combat which can be useful.

 

The point of this is to give a new gamer enough information both on what kind of character you’ve got, what their set up is, and finally, how to play them, without going into specifics about mechanics.

Cast as a Whole

Since you can put together all of the pregens at the same time, you should look to make the characters interesting TOGETHER.  Narrative stories focus on a cast of diverse characters and personalities, so it makes sense to build your characters in the same way.  

Simply having characters with different powers or abilities isn’t enough – “Gruff and Tough Mercenary Fire Guy” and “Gruff Mercenary Toughguy With Ice Powers” isn’t really that different. 

Find personalities that would be interesting and entertaining, as well as entertaining when contrasted with others.  Also consider including advice on how the characters feel about each other, especially if it’s a team or party-based scenario.

Entry Level/Advanced Characters

It’s important to include some entry level characters .  “Entry level” means easy for a completely new player to pick up – if the game has the option between simple and complex mechanics for different character types, this is the simple mechanics options.  You may even want all of your pregens to be simple.

Second, you also want to consider what character concepts are harder to play, or have more complex things going on, fictionally.  The warrior who wants to protect his brother (another PC) is pretty straight forward, compared to the Prince who debating whether he needs to rebel against his father, the King, who is turning into a tyrant…  

Between both of these, if you have characters which are easier/harder to play, it’s worth noting that, so that new players can go for the easier ones to start.

Optimization

My general rule is to aim for a character who is about 60-75% optimized, and the remaining 25-40% aimed for reasonable breadth from their core concept.  If you have a character who is too much hyper specialized, players have no room to feel things out, if you have a character that is too generalized, the player also won’t feel out how to strategize, and may just feel bad at everything.

Pictures

If you can, pictures make a world of difference.  You can use art you find online, you can draw your own, or whatever, but having character portraits to go with each character sheet goes a long way towards getting people excited about characters and establishing visually how the game works.

Who plays who?

Although this process is set up to help players pick their own and get the info for how to run the characters quickly and easily… the fact is you may want to take a stronger hand in guiding things.  

I suggest looking at the least experienced players and giving them the easier characters to consider first… after that, let the players who are more comfortable with the game, or roleplaying in general, choose between the remaining simple characters and the complex ones.

The two things you absolutely DO NOT want to happen is:

1) The new player gets the most mechanically complex pregen, causing them to be lost, ask questions constantly (above and beyond the questions they already would have had) and to use the character poorly, as far as the mechanics sit.

2) The new player gets the most thematically loaded pregen, and ultimately their choices affect everything… and they end up either not realizing there’s ramifications to their choices or feeling pressure anxiety.

I’ve seen all of that happen, and none of it is particularly fun or helpful to play.  

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The Oasis

July 29, 2014

The Oasis is a forum aimed at providing a community space for POC into designing or playing games – videogames, boardgames, cards, roleplaying games etc.  A place to trade information, get playtesters, ask for resources, signalboost and get ideas.  Also talk about ways to navigate some of the spaces we have to operate in.

The forum is aimed at doing a slow, but reasonable growth so we can have quality discussion and keep trolls out.  If you’re interested, please check out the application form.

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Platforms, Voice, and Toxicity

July 24, 2014

Modelview Culture has been putting out a ton of great articles on videogames and the tech scene.  Today’s article covers the issue of how platforms (programming languages, tools for building games, online organizing tools, etc.) end up being used by marginalized folks who end up promoting the platform, but at the end of the day, the same social circle that benefits the most can’t be bothered to open the door in return…

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Many of the POC, women, queer designers I personally know have had situations where they haven’t been paid, had the credit for the work they’ve done lifted in projects, or had people out and out plagiarize their work for profit.

Who is community?  Who gets to be human?

Although you’ll always run across cases of unethical exploitation, what is more problematic and worth talking about is the overall community that allows this kind of thing to thrive, and the fact that only some folks are targeted for that abuse.

What the article points to is the fact that these platforms, just like an RPG system, or a play style movement, or a social scene – all of these rely on a network of people to gain viability… and the question is how much does that serve the people who form the network.   Or rather, WHICH people get to be served in that network.

Ten years ago, I went to my first GenCon.  I remember someone said something to me that encapsulated the problem in full:  “Why should we care about people of color?”

The idea that, as a gamer, involved in the scene, that I had to prove myself UP to being worth considered equally as any other (white) gamer?  Oh, well, there’s the problem right there.   The disconnect was that “people of color” didn’t equal “people”.   “Prove to me that you are people” is the underlying assumption.

Questions we shouldn’t have to answer

Just as much as you have to navigate whether your money is going towards someone who wants you literally dead, the other parts you end up having to navigate as marginalized person are:

- Will working in this (rpg platform/community/etc) help me by creating outreach, or will it just promote people who will exploit then throw me away after the fact?

- Will participating and promoting this particular geek thing be fun, let me engage with other folks and “finally prove” to people we’re also part of the hobby?  Or will it just be promoting a scene that will shit on and harass me?

The balancing act between useful network and meaningful connections vs. harassment and exploitation is one each person has to navigate for themselves.   Much as I said before, the options often boil down to suffer in silence, suffer more for speaking up, or walk away.

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Challenge in your games

July 24, 2014

There’s a LOT of stuff that carries over well from videogames to tabletop roleplaying games.  The relevant stuff starts at about 2:05.

Telegraphing/Sufficient Information to make choices.

The part about telegraphing, and sufficient information towards making meaningful choice is a critical one.

You can see a lot of old school dungeons where “gotcha” traps basically take people out without any sort of reasonable forewarning (which, may be a realistically great way to set up traps, it’s a shitty design for game play, though).  On the flip side, one of the principles in Apocalypse World that works really well is the Countdown Clocks and the difference between Soft and Hard Moves.  Effectively, these rules force the GM to start telegraphing problems before slamming players with the consequences.  Other games like Trollbabe and Poison’d also do this with injuries/harm to the character.

Iteration Time

This is one of the huge hurdles for tabletop rpgs, particularly ones where players can find themselves left out of play when a character dies.   High challenge works well for videogames because you can simply go back to a save, restart, or otherwise get back into play without much problem.  For tabletop games, you have to start with the fact that making a character might be a half hour, or much longer, making the “restart time” pretty punishing – and that also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to bring their new character into play.

Both of these ideas are important whether you’re making a roleplaying game, or trying to run a game based on Gamist Challenge.

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Dungeons Part Seven: Flow and Area Encounter Design

July 23, 2014

A much more indepth look at the ideas I spoke on in Running the Dungeon.

Flow

So remember when I said that dungeon design is like videogame level design IS game design?  In part one I linked a bunch of things from analyzing good dungeon set ups in a macro sense, or Metroidvania style game design.  Here we come full circle, except this time I’m looking at the flow of individual rooms, or areas, as they pertain to making a good combat encounter.  Here’s where mostly it comes down to the logic in stuff like MOBA or FPS game design.

Unlike those games, you’re not going to have playtesters run through it thousands of times, nor will you get to reuse most of your areas many times, which makes it a lot harder to come up with good, novel areas on a consistent basis.  Oh well! You don’t need perfection, you just need good fun.

Positioning as a choice

Boardgames and war games rely on positioning as a key point of strategy in play.  Tabletop roleplaying games… well, sometimes.  The problem is that many include maps or grids but ultimately don’t do a lot with positioning.   If the ideal form of play is to simply run up and hit each other without much movement during the actual battle, it’s functionally no different than a JRPG console game where the teams line up and hit each other until one side drops.

Tabletop games have attempted to add some of it with flanking rules or spell area effects, but it often only results in minor back and forth shifts during play and not a lot of heavy movement.  Because so few games give good support in the core mechanics, it falls upon the GM to set up areas where movement is encouraged.

The Crashpoint

What’s the goal in a combat game?  To beat the enemy.  So what’s the best place to be, tactically?  The place where you can dish out damage the quickest and receive the least damage.

In an empty room or area, with no features and no tactical factors whatsoever, the “best place to be” is the place where you can do damage to the enemy the quickest – which often ends up being the midway point where the two groups meet – the Crashpoint.

The Crashpoint is like the center square in Tic-Tac-Toe – it’s where all the interesting stuff of play happens, and, if you know where it is, you can build areas and rooms that are tactically interesting by putting stuff there to make it hard to get there, or to make other places more tactically valuable to be – and thereby, move or split the Crashpoint.

Remember, fun tactics sits in fun choices.  If there’s only one place that’s the tactically best place to be, what choice is there?  You want to make a few tactically interesting options, so players have to start thinking about what’s going to be best.

Movement Tax

So consider this – anytime characters or monsters might want to move somewhere else than a direct line to do damage, they’re paying a “movement tax”  (actually, it’s a time tax, as they’re losing actions doing something other than direct damage… but since we’re talking about moving a map and how to set up areas to affect this, we’ll stick with Movement Tax).

If you want folks to go somewhere other than the Crash Point, you have to either put enough hazards/dangers in the way, and/or advantageous positions in other locations to make the Movement Tax worth paying.   In other words, this sets up choice – players can try to go straight for it, or try to avoid danger, or try to get something that should be worth more than doing straight damage.

Area Encounter Design

Blockers and Funnels

Blockers and funnels are obstacles, walls, debris, rocks, trees, crates, whatever you want that basically stop movement and funnel movement into particular areas.  This changes where combats happen and change where the Crashpoints are.  These also tend to set up some fun tactics about ranged attacks and chokepoints for melee fighting.

It’s also worth noting what’s a Blocker or Funnel for one type of creature or character may not be for another – a half ruined wall might be a big obstacle for a normal character, but the giant spider just climbs up the side of it like nothing.    This is worth considering if you want to load the map to favor one group or another.

Also consider that blockers and funnels may be destructible depending on what’s going on.  A monster might knock them out of the way, an earthquake spell knocks down the trees, the bridges everyone is fighting on start collapsing.. etc.  When you put Blockers and Funnels in the way of the Crashpoints, you move where they go, just like how water flows around things.

Alternating Wide and Tight Areas

Generally, you’re not going to go wrong by playing around with alternating more open areas with only one or two hazards or obstacles, and tight areas.  Usually my rule of defining “wide” vs. “tight” is whether the party can all stand side-by-side and fight without having to do tricky maneuvering around each other (for grid based games, don’t forget this includes diagonal positioning).  Tight areas should often include alternate paths to flank each other.  You can take a big area and set up enough Blockers, Funnels, and Hazards until it’s effectively a tight area.

The big effect this has on play is a matter of things like how well groups can focus fire on a single target, how well players can quickly distribute healing, retreat at short notice, surround an enemy or use area effect spells.  It also strongly impacts the advantages of having good movement abilities, whether raw speed or skills to jump over small gaps, climb over things, fly, etc.

Hazards

Hazards are a negative incentive- everyone generally avoids them, if they have a choice.  That said, putting Hazards next to Crashpoints or near places with advantages will cause players to have to start weighing their odds.  Be careful if the Hazard can move around, because it might completely change the set up of the encounter area.

Single Use Stunts / “Power ups”

Things that can be used to an advantage on a short term are positive incentives.  This could be a pile of logs to knock over on enemies below, a catapult to be shot, a lever to close a gate, etc.  If you can only reasonably use it once in a combat, it’s a “single use” advantage, and so, it needs to have a good amount of effect to be worth the Movement Tax.

Alternatively, you can make it a thing which can be reused at the cost of time – a catapult might be reloaded to be used again and again, but then the cost turns into time spent.  Again, consider what the benefit is compared to the amount of time the players could have been just using direct damage to the enemies.

Sandbox Encounter Considerations

Unlike an FPS map or a videogame encounter zone, combats can flow across areas, or move into spaces you didn’t expect.   This means your initial guesses on crashpoints or hazards might be completely off – the party isn’t going to care about the fiery pit in the middle of the room if they’re stuck in the hall when they’re getting attacked.   Again, this is the reason you don’t want a lot of empty rooms and halls without anything tactically interesting in them – the more the dungeon as a whole has interesting stuff in it, the more likely you are to have that intersect with your encounters for entertaining results.

Work vs. Payoff?

“Wow, this all seems like a LOT of work, to consider all these game design factors in making a dungeon!”

*Tired voice* “….yes, yes it is.”

I generally don’t do a lot of dungeon crawls for this reason – I set up short dungeons, maybe 12 areas/rooms or less, with more emphasis on Logistics and Tactical play, and not so much on Exploration.

Unless you plan on publishing a dungeon or having several groups run through it, you’re probably not going to get enough payoff for thinking this hard about it.  Of course, if you’re the kind of person who actually cares enough to want better dungeon design for your games, and you read this massive amount of words and thoughts I’ve thrown at it, you probably WILL use some of this to whatever level fits your needs.

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GM-less RPGs Comparison Podcast

July 22, 2014

My friends Jono and Sushu podcast about GM-less RPGs and how they work differently.

This was after a Universalis game we played months ago, comparing it to other games like Primetime Adventures (which does have a GM) compared to Capes.

One thing I really love about their podcasts is they manage to make it very accessible.

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Dungeons Part Six: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

July 22, 2014

Fun Fights

What’s not fun vs. What is

First, I will tell you what is not fun: repetition and no choices.  Doing the same thing over and over, without any meaningful way to affect anything.   This is why the card game “War” is not fun once you’re not a child anymore- you just flip cards and hope for the best – there’s no choices to make, no strategy, just luck.  Long, drawn out, luck.

In your encounters, if the best option for the players is to do the same thing over and over?  That’s not fun.  If the monsters and encounters are always in the same kind of environment, doing the same things?  That’s not fun.

Fun encounters are unique and memorable AND/OR tactically challenging with interesting choices to make.

The Tactical Dial and RPGs

Now, here’s an important thing to consider – most roleplaying games do not do high challenge tactical play very well.  Consider – most games which produce a high challenge make it easy to set up and play – you can usually be up and playing a game within a few minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes for the most complicated boardgames, if you know the rules.  Now consider how long it takes to make a character, in most games.

The sort of repeatable experiences that allow you to gain skills to play at high level tactics in other games, aren’t so easily put to play in RPGs.  Videogame RPGs either re-spawn characters, go to previous saves, or even in the most hardcore roguelike games – start you at the beginning with barely 3-4 choices to make a new character.

So with this in mind, be aware most roleplayers, even those interested in tactical play, aren’t usually interested in extreme challenges.  You often will do better with a lower challenge that has unique elements that make it seem worse than what it is.  Personally, I prefer to start with an under-powered set of challenges and turn it up a bit after I know the playgroup and how well they deal with challenges, otherwise you can simply overwhelm folks and they don’t really learn anything or get much from it.

Sandbox vs. Set Piece

So remember how I posted about Threat Structure?  This is an important consideration for how you design dungeons with your combats  in mind.

Set Piece Encounters

If the combats are going to be isolated locations, with monsters in one area not chasing players around the whole dungeon and helping out other monsters, you can build much simpler areas and you can control the combat encounter balance much better.  On the other hand, you have to come up with decent reasons why the monsters don’t chase the players if they retreat, and what happens if player characters run off the map area you prepared for a given encounter.   It often feels more “videogame-y” to do encounters this way, so you should be mindful to think of rationales to cover it up a bit, if you can.

Sandbox Encounters

If the combats can spill out and go anywhere, then you have a much different situation.  Monsters might snowball into a larger group than the party expects.  Players might lure monsters into an area more favorable to killing them.  Monsters might fight other monsters.  Etc.

This ends up mirroring some of the issues MMORPGs have seen in the last few years where players might lead a bunch of monsters, or an uber monster into an area that you don’t expect it to go.   Some of this naturally depends on running the monsters not as mindless AI bots, but even then there’s ways this can happen.  It also means players might inadvertently lead monsters to areas more favorable to the monsters, as well.  It’s more “realistic”, or at least, allows more options than videogames do, but it’s also more messy and you have to be willing to improvise and accept that things will be more swingy than what you’ve planned.

Monsters + Environment

So what makes a memorable encounter?  Something unique that happens.  Goblins are gobins.  Goblins attacking you by swooping down on hang gliders is another.  Goblins riding dinosaurs is yet another.  Goblins jumping down from trees onto the rickety raft you’re navigating with supplies down the river is yet another situation as well.  As you can see, the context makes a simple monster, into something much more interesting.

I once had a gelatinous cube chasing players in a library.  It’s slow, big and stupid.  Easy to outrun. Except when it started using it’s three tons of mass to knock down shelves upon shelves of books, trapping characters so it could devour them, slowly.  It wasn’t like it was thinking about this – it just took a straight line path towards food…

Towards the Monsters’ Advantage

It’s easy to think of many ways in which the environment might be in the monsters’ favor – defensible positions, darkness, water for swimming creatures, etc.

For any monster that has a form of movement the player characters do not – burrowing, climbing, wall walking, swimming, hovering, teleporting, etc., there’s an environment well suited for them.  Weird amorphous creatures, small swarms that can flood through tiny cracks, gaseous creatures and ethereal types are especially dangerous in this way.  Also don’t forget great size or strength is it’s own form of movement advantage – a monster that can casually push down trees like brushing through grass is strong enough that many obstacles… simply aren’t obstacles to it.

Consider whether the advantage is short term (an ambush, having the high ground, etc.) that can be easily lost, or if the advantage is lasting, like a swimming creature dragging you underwater, where the advantage is likely to impact every single round of combat.

Towards the Players’ Advantage

Environment favoring the players is something you have to think about a little differently than that favoring the monsters.

First, it works best if it provides choices and things to do.  Putting a monster in an area where it is inherently disadvantaged isn’t that much fun.  Putting the monster in an area where the characters can do something fun like use the environment, lead it to a place where it can’t fight back as well… that’s fun.  These are “Stunt Zones” – areas where stunts are likely.

But for this to work, you have to have players who are willing to think outside the box and try to do these things – some players are used to any ideas they have that aren’t listed on the character sheet being shut down, they will not try them ever.  It helps with new groups or players to point out some options, usually based on what kind of character you’re dealing with.  A warrior would know that luring the monster into the tunnel would prevent it from flying around and make it easier to hit.  The rogue character might immediately see the cart full of salt and know it could get thrown into the creature’s eyes for a blinding effect.  Etc.

Second, it makes epic battles more reasonable.  You can fight a terrible monster if the situation limits it’s abilities and brings it down to a more manageable fight.  This might be injuries or simply better conditions.  If you fight a dragon in a (relatively small for it’s size) tunnel, it can’t fly, it can’t turn around as well, and you have a better chance to win.  But you still get the excitement of fighting a dragon.

Expected vs. Foreign Environments

Fighting Ice elementals in a tundra, fighting fire elementals in a volcano… pretty classic fantasy logic, right?  There’s an elemental version of most things, and they’re keyed to a particular environment.  That’s easy enough to fit a monster to an environment – it’s expected.

But what happens when you’re fighting a fire elemental on a frozen lake and it’s melting the ice you need to stand on?   What happens when you have a fire elemental in a library?  How about an ice elemental in the middle of a monsoon?  Or when your party is waist deep in water?   Think of putting those monsters in foreign environments and consider the effects!  You can make a lot of things a lot more memorable this way.

Collateral Damage

So remember how I suggested putting “Breakables” as a section in the notes of any dungeon room?  Collateral damage is fun.  Not just for the players, but also when the monsters do it, too.  Did the party manage to avoid getting hit by the giant?  Great.  But did it take out half the support pillars to the room, starting a cave in?  Uh oh.

Every time someone misses, ask yourself what got hit instead?

I don’t recommend tracking every little thing by points, as much as using common sense applied to the laws of your game world and a little forethought for your encounters.    If you absolutely need to make it a mechanical thing, consider strength rolls and similar set ups.

Hazards

The easiest way to spice up an encounter is to put a hazard in the area.  A key point for designing good hazards is that they have to have some clear indication that they are dangerous.   That is, an open pit is  clearly a hazard.  A rickety bridge “that looks pretty shaky and questionable” is also a hazard.  A pit of spikes with a magical illusion over it that looks perfectly safe isn’t a “fair hazard” as much as a “gotcha” style trap.

A hazard doesn’t have to favor one side or the other, although it can depending on the abilities of everyone involved (a pit doesn’t really faze flying creatures, for example).

Hazards can be something that causes damage, slows or stops movement, wrecks gear and supplies, and or sets up other long term problems.   An important consideration is if you foresee a hazard taking someone out of the combat – because even if it’s incapacitation, or being stuck spending the next 7 rounds trying to climb out of a hole, it’s effectively “out of the combat” just the same, and that’s a dangerous thing for your encounter planning – it can swing a combat one way or another very quickly.

Hazards should be placed either central to areas where players are likely to cross, or, at least, near things the players would likely want.  If you have a hazard in the corner where no one wants to go anyway, they’ll just avoid it and it becomes set decorations in the background and not actually anything interesting.

Chaotic Elements

A pit is a pit, and everyone knows not to go fall in the pit, right?  But a raging bull that is randomly moving about and goring or stomping people in the middle of the battle… that’s not so easy to avoid.

Some hazards are more fun if they’re chaotic – they can move around, grow/shrink, have changing effects.   That said, you have to be careful about these kinds of hazards.  Because they’re randomized, they might go really bad one way or another, and favor one side or another just by luck of the draw.Chaotic Hazards can have lesser effects, their randomness usually makes them memorable.  Be careful not to make them too mechanically complicated since you have to keep track of them.

Next: Flow and Encounter Area Design

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