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Close to the Edit

Gaming the Bard

by Salvatore T. Falco
Jun 28,2004


This month, while the foundations of GAMA are being shaken by the election of a new board of directors, I decided to take a detour. As an aside I wish the new directors the best of luck and all the success in the world.

While examining the 36 basic plots and discussing last month's column with Sam Falco he mentioned that he too had come to the conclusion that yes, there were no original ideas. You may recall that while actually writing that column I discovered that Sam's GURPS:Harn game (that I had enjoyed so much) was a retelling of Richard III.

I had no idea that Sam had written an article for just such an occasion. I thought it was so good, in fact, that it should be reprinted here. Without further ado, or at least with much ado about nothing, Here is "Gaming The Bard"

Gaming the Bard

By Salvatore T. Falco

"The game's afoot!"
--King Henry V

William Shakespeare's plays are among the finest pieces of literature ever produced in the English language. The themes and characters speak to all generation, transcending both culture and time. Shakespeare has been adapted for Broadway musicals (West Side Story), Japanese film (King Lear became Akira Kurasawa's brilliant Ran, and I've even seen The Tempest performed as a rock opera. Why shouldn't Shakespeare be adapted for roleplaying? Capturing Shakespearean drama's greatness is a matter of understanding what makes the plays great, and applying those ideas to your campaign. Whether you are starting a new campaign from the ground up, or just want to add spice to an ongoing campaign, using Shakespeare's plays as source material for roleplaying can result in incredibly memorable games. I'll show you how, using as an example a series of sessions I ran in a fantasy game a few years ago that used A Midsummer Night's Dream for its inspiration.

What Kind of Play?

"The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited"

Shakespeare's plays are usually categorized as Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. Academics often use a fourth category, the "Problem Play," or, "Tragicomedy," to describe the handful of plays in which the Bard mixed the comedy and tragedy genres. Each type of play has its merits and pitfalls for roleplaying, and the particulars of your gaming group will influence which play you choose. Let's take a look at the four categories of Shakespeare's plays, and the peculiarities of adapting each to a roleplaying game.


"No sooner, met, but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved"
--As You Like It

Comedies usually revolve around love and the misunderstandings that arise between lovers and their families, with a happy ending (which for Elizabethan audiences meant a lot of betrothals and weddings). Comedies include A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado About Nothing. In all three of these plays, the main plot has to do with hooking the right characters up in marriage. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, a quartet of lovers flees to the woods of Athens because Helena's father wants her to marry one man, but she loves another. Meanwhile, her best friend, Hermia, is in love with the man Helena is supposed to marry. The put-upon Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew is desperate to marry off his daughters, and proclaims that his sweet youngest daughter, Bianca, may not marry until someone weds the uncontrollable Katarina. Much Ado About Nothing focuses on two pairs of lovers: Hero and Claudio, and the constantly bickering Beatrice and Benedick, and the various obstacles that get in their way.

The comedies are perhaps the most flexible of the plays for adapting to roleplaying. Generally, tragedies and histories rely on the main characters performing certain actions in order to bring about the desired endings. Comedies are more flexible, and the action of NPCs can be as important in bringing about the ending as the main characters. Comedies also lend themselves well to use as subplots. For example, if one of the Player Characters has a lover, you can introduce any of the stumbling blocks Shakespeare uses in his plays--interference by parents, a love triangle, and class differences will all work. Or the Player Characters could themselves be the stumbling blocks set between the lovers--hired by the family of one to separate the two, or one of the PCs may be enchanted to fall in love with one of the young lovers.

Because their plots are so simple, comedies work best if your players tend to go for the obvious choice and give their actions little thought. Introspective PCs are likely to wonder why a pair of lovers should be kept apart, or stop to ask a strong-willed elder daughter what she wants to do. Such sentiments are noble, but can quickly derail your story.


"Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come"
--Julius Caesar

If you're less concerned with characters being central to the action and want a campaign with a more pulse-pounding pace, you might consider adapting a tragedy. Tragedy, in the Elizabethan sense, requires the death of at least the main character, and usually all of the principle characters. The only game I know of in which players expect their characters to die is Paranoia, so you'll probably want to sacrifice form for function. (Although running The Computer as King Lear might be a truly devious twist.) Just because Elizabethan audiences expected main characters to die in a tragedy doesn't mean that you have to inflict death and destruction on your players. There's always a way out in a roleplaying game.

Another way to adapt a tragedy is to have your Player Characters involved as minor characters. This keeps them involved only slightly with the main action, but gives them the opportunity to have a significant impact on the flow of the story. For example, the PCs could be the equivalent of Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, duped by the King to arrange the assassination of the Prince. When the Prince finds out about the assassination plans and sets the PCs up to be killed, they must rescue themselves. Perhaps they can figure out what happened and try to prevent the tragedy. Or perhaps they will complicate the plot by swearing revenge on the double-crossing Prince. Another example might have the PCs wander into a town where two important families have been feuding for generations, just as the youngest children of both families elope. Players will probably recognize the situation, but can they do anything about it?

Tragicomedy/Problem Play

"Very tragical mirth."
-- A Midsummer Night's Dream

In four of his plays, Shakespeare violated one of the cardinal dramatic rules of his day: never mix tragedy and comedy. Scholars generally refer to these plays as "Tragicomedies" or "Problem Plays." One example is The Winter's Tale, which starts off with a plot very similar to Othello: King Leontes is provoked into a jealous rage, certain that his wife has betrayed him. The situation is resolved peacefully, however, and there is the familiar parade of couples to the altar that marks the end of most of Shakespeare's comedies. The tragicomedies combine the elements of tragedy and high dramatic action with the possibility for reconciliation and a positive outcome, and don't require dozens of dead characters littering the scene at the end of the story. The suggestions I've given above for Tragedies and Comedies all apply equally well to the Tragicomedies.


"There is a history in all men's lives"
--King Henry IV, Part II

In addition to drawing on literary sources for his work, Shakespeare used England's history as inspiration for several plays, often using historical events to illustrate contemporary political changes. These plays make a good choice for use as milieu. Let the PCs be soldiers in the army of your version of Henry IV, marching in glorious conquest that doesn't seem so glorious to them. Histories can also be used for main plots that directly involve the player characters. Perhaps the PCs are nobles trying to choose the appropriate side in the conflict between Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke.

An Example

"The day shall not be up so soon as I,
To try the fair adventure of tomorrow."
--King John

I'll illustrate my methods using a campaign I ran several years ago. My players' characters were very impulsive, often taking risks without a thought, frequently getting themselves into trouble as a result. I decided that a comedy was perfect, and chose A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'd recently written a paper on it, so I was intimately familiar with it, and I knew my players wouldn't be able to resist meddling in the affairs of two mixed up romantic couples.

Since I'd recently read (and re-read) the play, I didn't need to read it again. If you don't have the desire to read an entire play, there are several sources you can turn to. Even if you do read the play itself, an outside source may provide additional information. Masterplots, in the reference section of most libraries, has brief summaries of major literary works. Don't forget that old high school and college standby, Cliff's Notes, which always include background information in addition to their detailed summaries.

Once you have a detailed summary, you're ready to work. As you create yours, or if you take one from another source, focus only on the elements you need or want. There will often be subplots and sets of characters that you find wholly inappropriate for your campaign. Ignore them. The summary of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I used appears below.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Dramatis Personae:

Hermia (daughter of Egeus, in love with Lysander)
Lysander (in love with Hermia)
Demetrius (in love with Hermia and approved of by Egeus)
Helena (in love with Demetrius)
Oberon (King of the Fairies)
Titania (Queen of the Fairies)
Puck (Wily servant of Oberon)

Act I Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius bring a complaint to the Duke. Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Theseus tells Hermia that Athenian law says that she must obey her father and marry Demetrius. Her only other options are to go into a cloister or be put to death. When everyone else has left, Hermia and Lysander decide to flee Athens. When Helena arrives, the lovers tell her what they plan to do, then leave. In a soliloquay, Helena tells us that Demetrius once loved her, but recently started pursuing Hermia. Helena decides to tell Demetrius what the two lovers plan to do, in hopes that he will give up his pursuit of Hermia.

Act II
Scene 1

Titania and Oberon argue, and Titania exits. Oberon decides to humiliate Titania, and commands Puck to obtain a magical flower that can make a sleeping person fall in love with the first thing he or she sees upon awakening. Puck leaves.

Enter Demetrius, with Helena right behind him. Helena repeatedly expresses her love for Demetrius, who repeatedly tells her to scram. They leave. Oberon, having witnessed the conversation, decides to intervene. When Puck returns with the flower, Oberon takes some of it to use on Titania, and gives some to Puck to use on Demetrius.

Scene 2

Titania enters with her fairy entourage, and all of them go to sleep. Oberon anoints Titania's eyes with the flower, then departs.

Lysander and Hermia enter, then lay down to sleep. Puck, mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, anoints Lysander's eyes with the love flower, then exits. Demetrius arrives, with Helena in tow. Demetrius chastises Helena for chasing him, and exits. Helena spots Lysander and Hermia, and wakes Lysander up. He sees her and instantly falls in love. Helena assumes that he's playing a cruel joke on her and runs away. Lysander follows her. Hermia wakes up and goes looking for Lysander.

Scene 1
Rustic actors prepare to rehearse a play. Puck transforms one so that he has the head of an ass. Titania falls in love with the transformed actor.

Scene 2 Oberon and Puck are gloating about Titania's predicament when Demetrius and Hermia enter. Puck realizes his error and reveals it to Oberon. Hermia exits after she and Demetrius quarrel. Demetrius lays down to sleep, and Puck anoints his eyes with the love flower.

Lysander and Helena arrive, with Helena chastising Lysander for being unfaithful to Hermia. Their argument awakens Demetrius, who falls in love with Helena. Now both men are in love with Helena, and she assumes they are both playing a cruel joke on her. Hermia arrives, to discover that both men are now in love with Helena. She assumes that Helena and the boys are playing a cruel trick on her. The four of them nearly come to blows. Oberon orders Puck to separate the four lovers. He gives Puck the cure for the love flower, and tells him to apply it to Lysander. Puck separates the four lovers and they all sleep. Puck cures Lysander.

Act IV

Oberon and Titania make up, and he cures her of her love for the transformed clown. The Duke and Hermia's father enter, in search of the four young lovers. Hermia's father demands that Lysander be put to death for kidnapping Hermia. Demetrius intervenes, saying that he loves Helena and no longer wants to marry Hermia. The Duke says that the two couples will be married.

If you are familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream, you'll notice that I drastically expurgated it. Several scenes (and the entire Act V) have been left out. In the play, the events of the story are framed by the preparations for and the actual event of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. In my campaign world, the local lord was already married, and had no children for whom I could conveniently arrange a marriage. Since I didn't need their subplot, I didn't bother to mention Theseus and Hippolyta by name.

Titania and Oberon fare slightly better, appearing in the summary mostly to explain the sequence of events that relate to the four lovers. As a result of these two changes, the rustic actors didn't need to make much of an appearance. I mention them in passing only, and could probably have left them out entirely. The fifth act of the play ties up these three subplots, so I didn't even bother to write it up.

Basic Decisions

"I should but teach him how to tell my story"

Your first task is to decide how closely you want to follow the plot line of the play you are using. The answer will be determined in part by which play you are using, and how well-read your players are. Most people know the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet, for example, so you would have to make some drastic changes to the plot in order to give your player some surprises. Usually, though, you can get away with following Shakespeare's story line fairly closely if you choose a less frequently read play.

Don't feel obligated to stick closely to Shakespeare's original plots if you don't want to, though, even if your players won't be familiar with the source. Shakespeare certainly didn't stick to what his sources told him. For example, in the epic poem he used as a source for Romeo and Juliet, the action took place over the course of nine months, but Shakespeare's version takes place in less than a week. That's only one of the many changes Shakespeare made in bringing the poem to the stage. Add or delete characters, change their importance, expand or shrink the amount of time over which the action takes place, and change settings as needed. There will often be subplots and sets of character that you find wholly inappropriate for your campaign. Ignore or alter whatever you don't need, as I did above.

Regardless of how closely you follow Shakespeare's plot, a crucial consideration is whether or not the Player Characters will be the main focus of the events, if the events will simply happen in the background to provide a sense of milieu, or something in between. Which option you choose depends on which play you use, and to a certain extent, what type of play it is, as I discussed earlier.

Using the play as milieu allows more freedom for both the GM and the Player Characters than using the play as the main plot of the game. The GM is free to create his own plots that may coincide with, reflect, or have an impact on the milieu. The play serves as an overplot that provides adventure hooks. The players have more freedom because they are not funneled into specific roles. If the Player Characters aren't interested in the overplot, its events still happen without them, and may still affect what they can and can't do. If a war breaks out, for example, they might find travel plans disrupted. If the player characters suddenly get interested and involved in what's going on, you can let them have an impact on the overplot in proportion to their efforts.

For my campaign, I couldn't use A Midsummer Night's Dream as milieu because the play gives little detail about setting. The play focuses on character interaction, and I wanted to keep that flavor. I also ruled out having the players take the places of the main characters, because trying to impose the main characters' roles on my players would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Instead, I elected to have the Player Characters be peripheral characters. They replaced the fairies from the play, with the priest of a love goddess serving as Puck (the only significant character to be respresented by a player character). I set up a love triangle in the Player Characters' home town exactly like the one Shakespeare describes in Act I. I decided that the love goddess had taken an interest in the situation, and ordered her priest to charm Demetrius into loving Helena.

The Theme's the Thing

"I loved the man [Shakespeare] and do honor his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any."
--Ben Johnson

Adapting Shakespeare to role playing (or to any format, for that matter) requires more than stealing the plot from your favorite play and winging it. What makes an adaptation successful is the attention to the thematic structures in the plays. West Side Story, for example, is a successful adaptation because the musical remains true to the basic themes of Romeo and Juliet, even though the setting and characters have all changed. When adapting Shakespeare to role playing games, you should keep in mind the basic themes of setting, plot, and character that are important to each play.

Plot Themes

"But let our plot go forward"
--The Merry Wives of Windsor

Plot themes often rely on opposites. Common ones are: light vs. darkness (Richard II); reason vs. superstition (Macbeth, Hamlet), and youth vs. old age (Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale). Order vs. Chaos is one of the Bard's most frequently used devices. In many of his plays, movement from order to chaos and back again is symbolized by change of location. A Midsummer Night's Dream begins in Athens, which represents stability, law, and order. When the setting changes to the forest, chaos erupts. Once the situation stabilizes, the characters return to Athens. A similar pattern can be found in other plays, including Othello, and As You Like It.

A similar structure can work well in a roleplaying game, if it is not overdone. As the player characters get involved in some sort of upheaval-personal or political- the campaign locale shifts to an exotic place. In a fantasy game, the Player Characters might find themselves in a higher or lower manna area. In a world-hopping science fiction campaign, the players ship might crash land on a planet with a poorly organized (or non-existant) government, where anarchy rules. Sending A Call of Cthulhu investigator with only a few sanity points remaining into the forest may completely unhinged her, at least temporarily.

This technique works especially well when a character has some sort of internal struggle--the Bloodlust disadvantage from GURPS, for example, or combinations of susceptibility to violence with other mental disadvantages. As the character travels farther away from civilization, the weakness crops up more often, or becomes steadily harder to resist.

Contemporary Issues

"Shakespeare was of us."
--Robert Browning

Some of Shakespeare's plot themes revolve around contemporary issues. New World colonialism appears as a theme in The Tempest, contemporary political issues permeate the histories, and gender roles are explored in As You Like It. Shakespeare handled these and other issues delicately and with a remarkable degree of impartiality. A clever GM might do the same thing when adapting Shakespeare for a roleplaying game. For example, one of the plot themes of Richard II is a debate over the proper characteristics of the ruler. A GM adapting this play might make his Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke behave like modern politicians.

In my example, I made good use of the setting theme which was already present in my source play. The world itself was a normal mana world, but the forest into which the players traveled had its mana level boosted by the love goddess to give the priest some extra power to do her bidding.

Character Themes
"There is a kind of character in thy life
That to th' observer doth thy history
Fully unfold."
--Measure for Measure


Character themes are probably more important than plot and setting themes, at least for a role playing game. Shakespearean characters are memorable because they serve more than one purpose. On the most obvious level, they are individuals with motivations and goals similar to our own. However, Shakespeare's characters are also types. The Elizabethan audience for whom Shakespeare wrote expected characters to stand for some principal. Falstaff, from the Henry IV plays, is a perfect example of one such type, the Vice.

The Vice figure is a leftover from Medieval Morality plays, and his purpose is to lead the hero or heroes away from the right choices. While Falstaff serves on one level as an individual to whom we can relate, he also is a Vice figure. Falstaff repeatedly encourages Prince Hal to pledge his loyalty to the corrupt Eastcheep Tavern gang, and after Hal breaks away and reconciles with his father, Falstaff still tries to corrupt the prince. A Vice character can be an NPC, designed to tempt a hero into betraying his own ideals. A player character can also make a good Vice character--the Vice need not be malevolent, merely indolent, wanting to stay "just a little longer" at a bar, thus causing the party to miss an important meeting.

Shakespeare also makes repeated use of another stock character, the Fool. The Fool's purpose is to highlight the foolishness of the main characters. He can either speak hidden truths, as does the Fool in King Lear, or mock the main character's weaknesses and character flaws, like Touchstone the Clown in As You Like It. This role is best suited to an NPC, and makes a good method for the GM to give subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) hints to the players. However, the Fool can work as a PC, if you have a player who is particularly adept at picking up on the absurdities of character behavior (and if your group won't immediately turn on and beat the living snot out of him.)

The ultimate character type, though, is the Tragic Hero. He (and this type is almost always male) is always someone whose decisions and actions affect the lives of those around him, or his nation. He must have a tragic flaw, called harmartia, which leads to his downfall. He must ultimately reach anagnorisis, a tragic awareness of his flaw. The awareness always comes too late, though, usually as the hero lays dying. Hamlet is the perfect example of the tragic figure. His decisions and actions affect everyone arround him: most of the principle characters die because of his failure to act promptly, which is his tragic flaw. He comes to realize his error only after he and Laertes have mortally wounded each other.

Role playing the tragic hero can be quite a challenge, and is particularly suited to games that use advantages and disadvantages. Most of GURPS Mental Disadvantages, taken to their ultimate extreme, could lead the character to do foolish things that destroy everyone around him and ultimately, himself. Jealousy destroys Othello. Indecision disables Hamlet. King Lear is stubborn, Romeo is impulsive, and both Macbeth and Julius Caesar are megalomaniacs. The challenge lies in playing a character who has such a fatal flaw, but does not realize how dangerous it is. The PC must never understand that it is his own behavior that is at the root of his problems, until most (if not all) of his friends lay dead at his feet, and he feels his life slipping away. Note that harmartia need not be a negative trait: an excessivley honest character can cause himself and his comrades just as much trouble as a greedy one.


"I'll be your foil, Laertes."

Even if you can't decide on a specific type to use for a character, you can take advantage of another character technique Shakespeare uses in many of his plays. Shakespearean characters often have foils--opposites against whom they can be compared. The foil will have the virtues or vices that his counterpart lacks. The foil makes his opposing character's vices and virtues seem more significant by comparison. For example, in Othello, Desdemona and Iago are foils. Iago is sneaky, cunning, and corrupt. Desdemona is straightforward, simple, and innocent. In role playing game terms, creating a foil is as simple as creating a mirror of the character for whom the foil is to be designed. If the character always tells the truth, the foil is a compulsive liar (or worse, a deliberate liar). If the character is a lecher, the foil is chaste, or devotedly faithful to his spouse.

Keep in mind, though, that the foil and counterpart don't have to be diametrically opposed. In Richard II, Hal and Hotspur are foils to one another, but neither is evil. In D&D, for instance, a Lawful Good Paladin might be the foil to a devil-may-care, Chaotic Good Ranger. Likewise, a stolid, True Neutral Druid might find her foil to be a Chaotic Neutral thief. Using foils can lead to some exciting roleplaying possibilities, especially if the foils are both player characters.

In my campaign, I used some of these character themes for my NPCs. I was also lucky enough to have had players who created character with traits that mirrored one another. The priest, for example, was young and impulsive, while the mage was older and more thoughtful. As for the NPCs, the lovers were modeled on the lovers from the play.

I replaced the rustic actors with a Fool who followed the PCs into the woods. He complicated the plot by ridiculing the efforts of the priest. When the priests hesitated to do his duty, at first unsure if he had the right young man, the Fool launched to a tirade about people who did not trust the gods. The priest got angry, said, "Oh yeah? Well I trust my god implicitly," and fired off his the wrong guy.

The result was very similar to the play. Because none of the players were acquainted with the principal characters, the priest initially got the wrong guy. The chase was on, and by the end of the story, we had gone through every possible permutation of young lovers, including a couple of minutes when Hermia accidentally fell in love with herself and became a raging egomaniac.

My players enjoyed the fast-paced adventure, and the complications which arose gave birth to several new adventures. I ended up not with a faithful replica of the play, but a stirring sequence of sessions inspired by it. By paying attention to the themes that make any particular play great, you too can achieve great success adapting Shakespeare for role playing games.

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