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Backup Bluff

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Max: At the moment, seven Coast Guard cutters are converging on us. Would you believe it? Seven.
Villain: I find that hard to believe.
Max: Would you believe six?
Villain: I don't think so.
Max: How about two cops in a rowboat?

Frequently characters, especially Hero Protagonists, find themselves going up against an opponent which outnumbers them or otherwise has a tactical advantage. Whether the character is a badass or completely incapable, they know that in this instance, they don't have enough of a chance in a straight-up fight, so they try to gain an advantage by tricking their opponent.

One thing heroes may attempt is to convince the enemy that they are the ones who are outnumbered or surrounded, by pretending to have unseen backup or reinforcements where there are actually none. The most basic way to do this is to contact the enemy with a false threat and issue an ultimatum. For example, the hero might say "I have snipers in the building across, with shots lined up on all of you! Drop your weapons and give yourselves up!" when they have no snipers or anything of the sort.

More indirectly, the hero might shout or radio false commands to non-existent groups in such a way that the enemy will overhear. For example, a two man team might loudly call out commands like "First platoon, cover my flank!" Even more sophisticated methods might involve creating a simulation of backup through decoys or illusions. If the hero is under siege, he might use these methods to convince the besiegers that they have reinforcements on the way to break the siege, thus scaring them into retreat.

If the enemy buys the bluff and actually surrenders or retreats, they're bound to feel enraged and humiliated when they find out they've been tricked. By the same token, the bluffer ends up looking pretty pathetic if the enemy calls his bluff and nothing happens.

One of The Oldest Tricks in the Book. Overlaps with Gideon Ploy. Compare Brandishment Bluff, for when a weapon, rather than backup, is used.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Case Closed:
    • In the episode "A Jewel Thief Caught Red Handed", Inspector Takagi is off duty and at a jewelry store to look at a brooch he is considering buying. While he is there, a thief comes in and holds up the store. Inspector Takagi shows his badge and falsely claims that there are other detectives around. It doesn't work.
    • In the Live-Action Adaptation Kudo Shinichi Returns! Showdown with the Black Organization, Kudo tells his opponents that twenty helicopters from the special police force are on their way with fifty armored police officers. In truth, his backup was only a single police helicopter with a single plain clothes police inspector and one injured (and not particularly competent) Private Detective.
  • Death Note: L tried to intimidate Kira by making a fake announcement of 1,500 investigators being sent to Japan to look for him. Kira immediately sees through it, and, knowing that L is already spying on him with bugs, says within L's earshot that Kira would not fall for this trick and that announcing it publicly rather than keeping it a secret is just an obvious intimidation technique.
  • Frieren: Beyond Journey's End features an Inversion during the exam arc. After being separated from their respective allies, Fern defeats Ehre, then finds Übel struggling against Wirbel and falsely tells the latter that she killed his teammate. This convinces him to retreat, as Ehre's death would mean they'd already failed the exam.
  • Gunslinger Girl: During the assault on the Turin Nuclear Plant which has been seized by terrorists, a female terrorist guarding the control room says she has ten men with her. Sandro tells her not to bother, as the weather has been awful during the entire battle and there's only one set of muddy footprints leading up the stairs to where she is.
  • Usopp from One Piece does this all the time, but since it's usually Blatant Lies, half the time they see right through him.
  • Subverted in Rebuild World. When Akira makes Sheryl the new boss of a slum gang whose leader he killed in self-defense, the remaining gang members confront her and try to oust her. Sheryl taunts them and flashes the necklace Akira got her as proof that she's Akira's favorite, using the gang's knowledge that Akira single-handedly wiped out a large portion of the gang and the previous boss single-handedly to threaten them into backing off. She also purposefully spent half a day walking aimlessly around the market with him in order to sell the bluff. The gang members initially leave, but are ready to charge back in to call her bluff when it turns out that Akira is in fact tailing her. He kills several of them to make them back off, leaving rest alive to spread the word and make them think twice about doing it again.
  • In episode 20 Sword Art Online, Kirito does one of these towards the commander of the Salamander army, stating that he's a Spriggan-Undine ambassador, and that attacking him and the Cait-Sith and Slyph meeting would cause the four races to declare war on the Salamander. The commander doesn't buy it, but challenges Kirito to a duel anyway. After Kirito defeats him, one of his men tells the commander that he saw Kirito the other day with an Undine. Said man was the guy Kirito spared after he saved Leafa during their first encounter in episode 17 (no Undine was present). The Salamander army then leaves peacefully.

    Fan Works 
  • A Dragon in Shining Armour: Grani, a Sapient Steed, pulls this off on Dorbickmon, successfully convincing him to retreat despite his Hot-Blooded nature.
  • To Love the Moon: When Lighthoof and Star are assigned to patrol a large area by themselves, they take advantage of how uniform the royal guards' armor is by varying their flight paths, making it appear as though there are far more of them active.
  • The Open Door: When Chaos demon Lars is accidentally transported to a plane full of devils, he uses their fear of his kind to convince them to strike a deal: don't attack him, and Chaos won't invade their homes. After the deal is finalized, he admits to them that he honestly has no idea how they ended up on their plane in the first place and has no way of contacting his people.
  • Saruman of Many Devices features a villainous example after the Easterling's forces are repelled during the Battle of the Ford. Their leader convinces the garrison at Dorwinion that they actually won the battle, showing off his personal collection of treasures and several "captured" banners. This bluff succeeds so well that the city surrenders without a fight.
  • Against Lord Slug in Savior of Demons, Frieza suddenly appears to dress the villain down and warn him to get off Frieza's planet. It's actually Shapeshifter Puar in disguise, trying to buy time. Made more amazing by the fact that Oolong had just tried (and failed miserably) at this exact same tactic.
  • In the crossover fic The Serpent’s Vow, Seto attempts to convince Seth that the crew of SG-1 are part of an army that he's been secretly building up over the past five thousand years.
  • In Tale of the Sky Maiden, Doranbolt uses his status as a former member of the Magic Council to convince the Robin Hoodlums that the Council will come after them if they don't back down.

    Film - Live-Action 
  • In Angels with Dirty Faces, Rocky tricks Mac Keefer into thinking he has another gunmen holding Frazier hostage by calling a random restaurant up on the phone and talking as if he's giving a guy instructions to kill Frazier if he doesn't give some coded message to him within a certain timeframe. The restaurant's owner even hangs up on Rocky halfway through the call, but that doesn't stop him from talking on and on to sell the bluff.
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania: Scott tries to intimidate Kang the Conqueror by claiming that the other Avengers will soon be coming to break him out of Kang's prison. Unfortunately, Kang reveals that he's killed many versions of the Avengers, often enough that he only ever remembers Thor, but not even by name.
  • In Deewaar, Ravi finds out that smuggled goods have arrived at a godown, but he has no gun on him and reinforcements are too far way to get there before the smugglers leave with the goods. What does he do? He walks into the godown with his hands in his pockets and tells the smugglers that he has the place surrounded, and that they should surrender so nobody has to die. When one of them tells another to check if he's bluffing, Ravi chews him out for risking someone else's life instead of his own. They surrender.
  • Fletch Lives. Fletch confronts the Big Bad with evidence of his Evil Plan, saying that his Love Interest is ready to hand over everything he knows to the media if something happens to him.
    Villain: You're bluffing, Fletch.
    Fletch: No, I'm not.
    Villain: You think you're not... but you are. (The Dragon drags in Fletch's girlfriend at gunpoint)
  • In homage to the Live Action TV example below, the film version of Get Smart gives us this exchange:
    Maxwell Smart: I think it's only fair to warn you, this facility is surrounded by a highly trained team of 130 Black Op Snipers.
    Siegfried: Really? I don't believe you.
    Maxwell Smart: Would you believe two dozen Delta Force Commandos?
    Siegfried: No.
    Maxwell Smart: How about Chuck Norris with a BB gun?
  • The Hateful Eight: During the climax, Daisy tries to convince Mannix to kill Warren and let her by warning that her brother's gang has 15 hired killers waiting to kill her captors and wipe out Red Rock if she's not freed. Mannix calls her bluff, figuring that following the shootout in the haberdashery, the gang has been wiped out, and that Daisy is making up the 15 backup members to try and scare him.
  • In Ladyhawke, Philippe the Mouse (Matthew Broderick) is hearing noises in the woods. He tries to fool his potential attackers by talking to two imaginary friends, saying things like, "You'd better draw your sword, Pierre!" and, "Ah, Louis, you brought your crossbow!" He also uses different voices to make it sound like they are there.
  • Maverick: When Maverick confronts the fake Indian bandits, he tells them they're surrounded. He does have some backup hiding nearby in the persons of Marshall Cooper and Annabelle Bransford, and calls for them to whistle (and then clap, when both turn out to be unable to whistle) to prove that his claim of having the bandits surrounded isn't a bluff, but matters quickly degenerate into a shootout anyhow.
  • Solo: When Han Solo is confronted by a band of marauders, he tries to bluff them by saying there are thirty armed men aboard the Falcon who will come running at his call. The Falcon promptly takes off.
  • The Substitute 2: School's Out: Thomasson and one of his mercenary friends intimidate a gang by walking right up to them and rigging a device to point multiple Laser Sights at their chests, claiming them to be a whole group of snipers.
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when Eddie Valiant confronts R.K. Maroon in his office at night, Maroon tells Eddie he's got guts for coming alone. Eddie coolly pours himself a drink and says, "Who says I'm alone?". While Eddie is technically not alone, his only backup is Roger, whose only instructions if things go south is to alert Eddie with the car horn, and has already been knocked senseless as soon as Eddie was out of sight (turning Eddie's aforementioned line into a Gilligan Cut).

  • Artemis Fowl does this to Minerva in The Time Paradox by hacking into the security cameras and simulating armed forces, including a tank.
  • In Beau Geste, the initial assault on a fort is beaten off, but after each new attack, there are fewer defenders. Markoff props up the corpses at their posts to make it look as if there are still plenty of soldiers left.
  • The Berenstain Bears Big Chapter Books: Subverted in The Berenstain Bears and the Showdown at Chainsaw Gap. Too-Tall is eager to punch Ferdy for saying that birds are not boring and stupid like Too-Tall thinks they are, but Ferdy calmly tells him that Vice-Principal Grizzmeyer is watching from his office window, and will gladly suspend Too-Tall for punching another student. Too-Tall thinks he's bluffing, even after Queenie backs Ferdy up, and when he looks to make sure, he doesn't see Mr. Grizzmeyer and prepares the blow... only to hear a whistle, turn around and see it wasn't a bluff: Mr. Grizzmeyer is watching, but from the school doorsteps rather than his window. Too-Tall immediately backs down.
  • In the last book of The Chronicles of Prydain, King Rhun takes advantage of the smoke and confusion that pervades a battle. He races his horse from one side of the battlefield to the other, shouting orders to regiments of cavalry that don't exist.
  • Discworld: In Interesting Times, Rincewind informs enemy soldiers that there are definitely no invisible blood-sucking ghosts, said ghosts have not been grown to twice their size by the Great Wizzard [sic], and there certainly aren't 2,300,009 of them... He's quite proud of the "9".
  • Keith Laumer's The Glory Game:
    • Most of the Terran space fleet has left Earth to check out a collection of Hukk ships in another area of space. Commodore Dalton figures out that the ships are a lure and the Hukk are planning a sneak attack to capture the Lunar fortifications. When the Hukk fleet appears near Earth, he bluffs its commander into surrendering by telling them that the rest of the Terran fleet is only minutes away.
    • Later on, when a single Hull ship lands on a frontier planet Dalton sets up energy rifles on hills surrounding the ship, After disabling the ship, he tricks the crew into surrendering by making them think they're surrounded by troops. Another character calls Dalton's ploy "the Fort Zinderneuf ploy".
  • In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Frank Bryce catches Voldemort and Wormtail in the old Riddle House, he threatens to call the police on them, adding that his wife knows where he is and will be looking for him soon. Unfortunately for him, Voldemort can easily read his mind and knows he doesn't have a wife.
  • Sending flag signals to non-existent ships is a tactic used several times by Horatio Hornblower and Captain Aubrey to convince opposing ships to either give up or maneuver to try to avoid the non-existent ships in such a way as to put them at a disadvantage.
  • When intercepting an ambush of overwhelming force of Holnists, Gordon realises straight-up fight will mean crushing defeat. Instead, he starts to shout orders to a non-existing back-up at top of his lungs. It works only partially - the Holnists still overrun the camp, but at least the Willamette forces managed to kill good chunk of the survivalists in the ensuing confusion. The charade is even brought back up later, when Gordon is recognised as the "mouthy fellow".
  • Several groups in various Redwall books use this trick, usually successfully. Of course, it helps that the bluffer is usually worth that many.
  • Used several times in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. For example: Zhuge Liang leaves the gates of a city wide open right in the face of an invading force, implying there's plenty of pain lying in ambush. being outnumbered 60 to 1, any ambush wouldn't have made a difference. The invading force retreated, partly based on Zhuge Liang's reputation as a strategist.
  • In the Tales of Dunk and Egg novella "The Mystery Knight", Dunk fears the worst when Egg is apparently kidnapped by Blackfyre conspirators plotting a rebellion. But it turns out that Egg went to the lord whose castle they were in, revealed his identity as Prince Aegon, and tricked the lord into abandoning the conspiracy by claiming that his father is on the way with a royal army to arrest the plotters. It later turns out that a royal force actually is on the way there, albeit led by Egg's uncle Brynden, who is The Spymaster for the realm and has been aware of the conspiracy for some time.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium: Turin Turambar of The Children of Húrin and The Silmarillion fame uses this bluff on a group of orcs attacking some helpless woodmen. Of course, the legend of Turin and his sword are enough to send the orcs fleeing in terror.
  • In the Lone Islands section of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian does this, ordering his crew to send signals "to all the other ships we haven't got but which it might be well that Gumpas thinks we have."

    Live-Action TV 
  • Battlestar Galactica: In the original series episode "Saga Of A Star World", Starbuck and Apollo bluff a Cylon Base Star into a severe tactical misstep by discussing over the radio whether or not they should bring all of their Viper squadrons with them to attack the ship (when in fact, they only have a single squadron at their disposal, and that squadron is already occupied providing cover to the evacuation of the Colonials from the surface of Carillon).
  • From the second season premiere of Chuck:
    My name is Charles Carmichael. I'm a CIA agent, and this is my trap. I don't think you gentlemen recognize the gravity of the predicament you're in. Your call to the Buy More? Yeah, we traced that. Your compound is currently surrounded by 23 infantry troopers, 16 snipers, seven heavy gunners, four demolitions experts and enough ammunition to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger. You're outmatched and you're outgunned. Those pea-shooters you're holding might as well be sharp sticks and strong language....Of course you don't see anyone. What do you think we are, the FBI? The only thing you're going to see is a muzzle flash and an e-ticket straight to hell.
    • To further sell this bluff, Chuck calls up Morgan and asks him about their Call of Duty map, where all of the figures in the quote come from, and gets Morgan to repeat all of those figures to the baddie of the week.
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show: In "Long Night's Journey into Day", Laura and Millie end up spending the night alone in the Petrie's house while their husbands and kids go on a fishing trip. After hearing a creepy creaking noise like an opening door, Laura pretends to call for her husband. She tells him that she thinks a burglar has come in and he should get the gun. Millie helps by playing "Rob" and saying she'll get the axe as well. Naturally, no one's there.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Eleventh Hour", the first time the Doctor meets Amy Pond as an adult, she sneaks up on him, hits him with a cricket bat, handcuffs him to a radiator, then pretends to be radioing for backup while dressed as a policewoman.
  • Get Smart: Maxwell Smart keeps trying this tactic, and failing.
  • After G is captured by a militia in NCIS: Los Angeles, the rest of the team use enough radio signals and gunfire to pretend like the entire militia is surrounded by a sizable military force. The militia leaders aren't quite buying it, until a couple of F-22's buzz the clearing (thanks to Hettie calling in a favor from the Air Force).
  • In an episode of Psych, "Truer Lies," Shawn and a pathological liar do this, magnanimously accepting the terms of two bad guys' surrender because the police were just around the corner. It turns out they were telling the truth.
  • The Sharpe series had a particularly cunning example. Faced with an overwhelming force of French infantry, Sharpe's only useful troops were his crack company of riflemen, and a small force of mounted artillery, who were only outfitted with rockets that were essentially useless against the typical line formation used by riflemen in that time period. Fortunately, Sharpe realized that while the artillerymen were useless in close combat, they could look like cavalry; they showed themselves on a nearby ridgetop, forcing the approaching French to swap to to much more vulnerable square formation, which was resistant against cavalry but much more vulnerable to rockets, even the relatively ineffective ones available. Faced with a terrifying bombardment of screaming rockets, highly-skilled rifle-fire, and the prospect of an ensuing cavalry charge, the French force quickly broke and ran from an enemy much smaller than themselves.
  • The Swamp Fox had Marion outsmart a squad of Redcoats this way, with Oscar using the pack horses on a wooden bridge to sound like backup. The effect was intensified by the Americans changing where they fired from after each shot.
  • There's an episode of Time Trax where Darien gets captured by the villain of the week, and Selma makes it sound like the house is surrounded by the police.
  • When Glenn from The Walking Dead is interrogated by Merle in season 3, he tells him that there are a lot more of them he thinks, and Glenn lists people that have died as well as those still alive in the group. This would have worked, had Glenn not mentioned Andrea...

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Adam Cole motioned that he was bringing out the rest of The Undisputed Era to attack Johnny Gargano. This turned out to be a ruse to throw Gargano off his game. Minutes later, Cole defeated Gargano to win the NXT Championship.

    Religion and Mythology 
  • The Bible: Used by Gideon when going into battle against the Midianites. With only 300 men (God made Gideon send the rest home), they snuck up to the camp, then each of them broke a clay jar to reveal a torch, shouted, and blew horns to make the sleeping Midianites think they were only the torch-bearers of a much larger army. The Midianites got so freaked out they started killing each other as they tried to escape.

    Standup Comedy 
  • Swedish standup comedian Jan Bylund talks about how, even though he's an adult now, he's afraid of going down into the basement at his parents' house, because he's still convinced that there is a witch living under the stairs. He goes on to say that when he was younger and his mom asked him to go down there to get something, he used to talk in several different voices so that the witch would think he wasn't alone, and also pretend that they had a big, scary dog with them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. The DM is advised to have monsters have a few of of them out of sight shout and make noise as if there were many more coming, to hopefully scare the adventurers away.

    Video Games 
  • In Fallout, a sufficiently-crafty player character can pull one of these on a boss; even if it works, he suspects the ruse, but decides it isn't worth testing and lets you go.
  • In the middle of the final mission of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas after CJ kills Big Smoke at the latter's crack palace, Tenpenny gets the jump on CJ and forces him to empty the safe with the intent of killing CJ once he's done and escaping. Thinking fast with a gun pointed at his face, CJ shouts for his brother Sweet (he's actually outside in the car) and dives to safety, forcing Tenpenny to run with the money without taking care of CJ, giving him a chance to pursue.
  • We Happy Few features a variant. The Germans bluffed the UK with a bunch of paper-mache tanks to get people to hand over their children to be conscripted. Wellington Wells, where the game takes place, was the only city to not call their bluff.

    Visual Novels 
  • Havenfall Is for Lovers: In Mackenzie's season 3, she and the heroine meet with a representative from a coven of vampires who have arrived near Havenfall. The representative thinks the coven can get away with attacking the town, knowing that Mackenzie does not have a pack of her own. Just then, former enemy Annabelle steps in, her presence casting doubt on that information, and bluffs about howling to call the rest of the pack, which gets the vampire to back off.

    Web Original 
  • In the popular "crazy telemarketer lady" recording, a woman rants at a telemarketer for eight minutes. She claims to have "just called" her lawyer, and that "the police are listening" to the call. She then claims to be part of an organization dedicated to constantly harassing the families of telemarketers.

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of King of the Hill, Dale rescues Hank, Bill, Boomhauer, and himself from a deranged gun club member by a combination of outrageous bluffing and exploiting the other man's paranoia. Dale pretended to have CIA backup, but instead called for delivery florists. The bluff works because the target of his bluff is a paranoid Conspiracy Theorist, who much like Dale also believes that the CIA would actually send agents disguised as delivery florists. Fully convinced that the florists are hit teams, the hostage-taker abandons the situation entirely, but not before blowing up his cabin.
  • Looney Tunes: In Bugs and Thugs, Bugs Bunny is confronting Rocky and his stooge Mugsy, and fakes a police siren and the sound of cops calling out to each other. He did this similarly against a different Rocky (a caricature of Edward G. Robinson) in the earlier Racketeer Rabbit.
  • In The Real Ghostbusters episode "Don't Forget Motor City", after the gremlins tie up Winston, he tells them the other three about to run in to save him. Their response? "Yeah, right! Tell us another one!" Followed by laughter.
  • Watership Down. In "The Shadow of Efrafa", Bigwig and Kehaar stir up the bushes to back up Hazel's claim that he has a vast Owsla waiting to attack Efrafa on his command. One assumes the prevailing wind was blowing away from Efrafa, given that rabbits rely on scent and wouldn't have fallen for this otherwise.

    Real Life 
  • The Ghost Army used this trick for the Allies in World War II many times, with inflatable tanks, sound-effects records of warships and submarines played through loudspeakers, fake radio chatter referring to nonexistent troops, and having the same battalion march several times through town wearing the uniforms of different armies (pretending to be French, then American, then British soldiers) etc.
  • The Battle Off Samar pitted Taffy 3, a small flotilla of American escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, against Admiral Kurita's Central Force, which had the American force outmatched in numbers, firepower, and tonnage by a truly staggaring degree. (Yamato alone was bigger and more powerful than all of Taffy 3 combined.) In order to give the carriers a hope of escape , the destroyers and destroyer escorts charged headlong into battle. The Japanese assumed that the only logical reason for the Americans to choose this tactic was if they were buying time for Admiral Halsey to bring his main force into battle (and some actually thought they were fighting Halsey's main force), not knowing that Halsey's force was a considerable ways off. The Japanese retreated, giving the Americans one of the most unexpected victories of the war.
  • Confederate general John B. Magruder did this to McClellan at Yorktown in 1862. He had fewer than 15,000 men, McClellan had well over 100,000. He marched his men through and around the town for hours on end, causing McClellan to count them multiple times and to believe that the Confederates outnumbered him. Granted, it wasn't hard to fool McClellan, who consistently overestimated the forces against him even without such fakery.
  • Cracked has an article titled 5 Soldiers Who Beat Insane Odds (By Lying Their Ass Off), which lists events such as two soldiers pretending to have a concealed Spitfire preparing to attack, causing two German pilots to panic and shoot each other by accident, or one Scottish officer using Refuge in Audacity to convince 23,000 Germans that he had an army waiting for his orders.
  • Using fake cannons is such a common tactic that it actually has a name: a Quaker Gun, named for the famous pacifists. Painted logs, posts, and even broomsticks (to simulate tail guns on B-25 bombers) have been been documented as stand ins for real guns to confound the enemy since at least the American Revolution.
  • Canadian sniper Léo Major did this single-handed, convincing the German soldiers in the Dutch town of Zwolle that they were surrounded. He backed it up by running through the streets, firing his gun, setting off grenades, and burning down the local headquarters of the Gestapo. It worked.
  • This was done unintentionally by Rebel Leader Vespasian's troops at the Second Battle of Bedriacum against the forces of the sitting Emperor Vitellius. When the Sun rose on the second day of the battle, many of them turned east to salute it, a custom they had adopted while stationed in Syria. But Vittelius' forces didn't know this and thought they were greeting reinforcements, which caused them to lose heart and the battle. Not long after this defeat, Vitellius was executed and Vespasian took his place as Roman Emperor.
  • In the Jewish Revolts, rebel leader Josephus captured the town of Tiberias with a fleet of several hundred boats — each with only a few men on board.


Video Example(s):


Agent 86's Signature Ploy

Maxwell Smart demonstrates his most common response to capture.

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Example of:

Main / BackupBluff

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