IFAQ: Whaling in Eberron

As time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. Questions like…

Where and how do you see whaling playing a part in Eberron?

The immediate question is are there whales in Eberron, because there’s no particular reason to assume that any random thing that exists in our world does exist in Eberron. As it turns out, whales have been mentioned; Exploring Eberron has this to say.

When dealing with the Thunder Sea, remember that it’s just as civilized as the Five Nations. It does have wilderness regions with feral beasts roaming at will, and you might find wild plesiosaurs, a scheming sea hag, or a hungry scrag. But in the areas above and around sahuagin city-states, such beasts have been tamed or destroyed. All cultures of the Thunder Sea farm fish like the people of the land farm sheep or cattle; a pod of whales may be carefully managed and cultivated, and their farmers will be quite angry with dryskins who poach their ichthyic livestock. 

So first of all, I don’t see whaling as being a common practice in the Thunder Sea, because blundering out and killing a random whale is a great way to get your ship sunk by an angry Karakala stormcaller. We’ve called out that agreements between the Five Nations and the powers of the Thunder Sea do allow fishing in close coastal waters, so you have Brelish fishing villages on the southern coast, but I wouldn’t make them whalers.

So, where and how do I see whaling playing a part in Eberron? I see it as being focused on the Lhazaar Principalities, but the twist is that it’s not whaling. In our world, whales are the largest and most dramatic denizens of the sea, but this isn’t our world. In the Lhazaar Sea, the mighty creatures bold sailors hunt are dragon turtles. They aren’t the SAME dragon turtles described in the Monster Manual; they’re slightly smaller and weaker (commonly huge, though they can reach gargantuan size), they’re omnivorous, and they’re less intelligent, notably not speaking Draconic; we can call them drake turtles or softshell dragon turtles. But they are still built on the model of the dragon turtle. Building on this, I’d say that drake hunting is a major part of the Lhazaar economy. Drake (turtle) blood is a crucial component in industrial alchemy, part of what allows Jorasco and Cannith to produce mass quantities of healing and other potions. Drakebone could be used in everything from corsets to weaponry. In the Principalities, most medium armor makes use of drake turtle scales and heavy armor is typically made not from metal, but from drake turtle shells. Essentially, this not only creates an industry that parallels whaling, it also creates a unique flavor for Lhazaar fashion and tools and introduces the disturbing idea that many mass-produced potions use components drawn from a deeply questionable source. Because I’ve said that these are as intelligent as the standard dragon turtles of the Monster Manual… but less intelligent doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. They don’t perform magic. They don’t speak Common or Draconic. But they sing… and anyone who knows the language (which very few land-dwellers do) will realize that they are singing in Aquan.

Part of the point of Eberron is that stories don’t always end well and that good people can do bad things. A druid adventurer may realize a drake turtle is singing in Aquan. But even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do—even if it is clear to the ADVENTURER that the turtles are intelligent, it may not be a simple matter to prove it. And there could always be the chance that while the turtles appear to sing in Aquan, they aren’t actually intelligent by the typical measures. Even if adventurers can prove it, the response of the common Lhazaar sailor will be “Who cares if drake turtles sing in Aquan? They’re MONSTERS. I need to feed my family. The healing potions Jorasco will make using that drake’s blood will save countless HUMAN lives. I chose my family and my species over the well-being of alien sea monsters.” Personally, I like the idea of placing player characters at the very forefront of this issue—making it THEIR discovery, because it’s their story—but you could also say that it’s something that’s been known for decades and is being actively debated. Druid activists could be blocking drake hunting boats. Principalities could be split, with some princes forbidding drake hunting, while other principalities are deeply dependent on the drake-hunting economy. It could be that ending dragon-hunting would be a major blow to industrial alchemy, unless Cannith and Jorasco can be pushed to find new methods of production. Ultimately, it’s a more dramatic and bloodier version of the ethical questions of elemental binding… and it could be that fighting over this issue could force people to reevaluate Zil binding as well.

So, going back to the original question, I’d place whaling in the Lhazaar Principalities and I’d make it an industry that has great impact within the region but also to the greater economy of Khorvaire, but I’d also make the creatures hunted an variant form of dragon turtles as opposed to whales. Not with that said, there’s nothing wrong with saying that there’s also traditional whaling in the northern Lhazaar Principalities. But personally, I’m more interesting in adding something that’s unique to the world—and in doing so, being able to add a unique twist to the economic impact of that creature. But if you want a story focus on traditional whaling, tell that story!

Do drake turtles have blowholes?

No, they don’t. However, they do have steam breath—though it’s weaker than that of a dragon turtle and takes longer to recharge. They need to vent this occasionally, and common drake hunter practice is to wait for such an exhalation before attacking, to strike while the breath is discharged. So you can still have a “Thar she blows!” moment.

Does Riedra have any interest in drake turtles?

Certainly! I think that drake’s blood is a useful basic alchemical component and that the shell, scales, bones, and teeth all have their uses. I definitely think fishing rights in the Lhazaar Sea is an lingering point of tension; it’s even possible there’s been an open conflict—similar to the Cod Wars—between Rhiavaar and one of the Principalities at some point in the past.

If drake turtles sing in Aquan, how can there be any doubt they’re intelligent? Why don’t people just use the Tongues spell or similar magic to talk to them?

A parrot can recite a poem in English; does that mean it possesses human intelligence? The drake hunters argue the same thing of drake turtles; it’s exotic behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re PEOPLE. Which comes to a key point in my description: Even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do. My point is that if you know Aquan, when you hear the drake’s song you’ll recognize it as, for example, “Bluuuue sorrow delving deeeeep.” But if you row up to the drake turtle and say “Hi! My name’s Keith! What’s yours?” in Aquan (or using tongues) it will ignore you. Perhaps it doesn’t recognize the tiny non-turtle as a creature. Perhaps it doesn’t respond to simply spoken words; you need to SING your statement at a particular pitch for the drake to recognize it as an attempt at communication. Or perhaps it’s a parrot—it produces words it’s picked up from passing elementals but it doesn’t actually understand their meaning.

D&D has a tendency to treat any creature with a language as communicating exactly as humans do. I like to explore the idea that alien creatures may communicate in very different ways, something I’ve discussed in articles relating to elementals and lizardfolk. The point is that your Aquan speaker/tongues caster can understand the words the drake turtle is singing; but that doesn’t mean that you understand the meaning or how to effectively communicate back. The point of all this is because I’m interested in exploring the question of drake turtle intelligence as a STORY. Consider the movie Arrival; it wouldn’t have been much fun if the protagonist just walked in, cast tongues, and it was all over. I like the idea that people KNOW the drake turtles sing in Aquan, but because no one’s ever managed to have an effective conversation with one, the hunters can dismiss them as parrots. If the player characters get involved, their challenge is to figure out how the turtles communicate, beyond simply the words that they’re using. In OUR world there’s considerable debate about cetacean intelligence; my point is that I want it to be a possible story that adventurers can be a part of, because player characters are remarkable. If drake turtles are fully sentient, I want your character to be the protagonist of Arrival or Spock mind-melding with a whale; I want YOU to be the one who solves a mystery others have abandoned or dismissed. But if that’s not a mystery you want to explore, you can definitely resolve it one way or the other using NPCs or have it have been clearly established in the past.

That’s all for now! Thanks again to my Patreon supporters for making these articles possible!

43 thoughts on “IFAQ: Whaling in Eberron

  1. The image of an albino gargantuan dragon turtle rampaging across the Lhazaar Sea paints a fun spin on a classic narrative.

    • Before the boat had hit the water
      The rough shell came up and caught her
      All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
      When she dived down low (huh)
      Soon may the Turtleman come
      To bring us sugar and tea and rum
      One day, when the tonguing is done
      We’ll take our leave and go

      *wink wink*

      • Also the “Wellerman” was a supply ship from a whaling station run by the Weller Brothers, which brings fresh supplies (the sugar and rum) as well as helping bring in the kill for “tonguing”, the stripping of the flesh and parts from the kill.

        Seems like it would be Ghallanda filling that position in Eberron, or perhaps a small Ghallanda related outfit in Lhazaar.

        Done lots of casual research on whaling in my time. I’ve got a horrible phobia of the things, and an “Archer”-style need to therefore know all I can.

  2. Vicious circle if some portion of Lyrandar’s elemental ship construction is critically dependent on some part of a Lhazaar dragon. More ships means less dragons could easily become no more ships because zero dragons.

    That might be more of a bottleneck than Aerenal soarwood. I can just see the resource hunters combing manifest zones for something, anything to substitue for, ‘draco-gris’.

  3. This seems to be an unintentional parallel of certain stories involving hunting mermaids to eat their flesh for immortality: the hunting of sophont marine life towards some utilitarian end.

    What exactly do you have in mind for their level of intelligence? Is it human-level, or below-human, more akin to an ogre?

    Do the merfolk and/or krakens of the Lhazaar Sea also hunt these lesser dragon turtles? If not, how do the merfolk and/or krakens of the Lhazaar Sea treat these lesser dragon turtles?

    • What exactly do you have in mind for their level of intelligence? Is it human-level, or below-human, more akin to an ogre?
      Honestly, I don’t want to say, because finding the answer to that question should be a significant point of the campaign. They appear to be using a language, which suggests ogre-level intelligence. But what if it is just a bizarre instinct or form of mimicry? Or what if they are more intelligent, but they just have a very alien outlook that makes it difficult to recognize? Essentially, I’d prefer to leave it like the question of cetacean intelligence in our world. Once I say “They have a 6 Intelligence” we no longer have a mystery. My point is to say that with a STANDARD dragon turtle your sorcerer can just have a conversation in Draconic, and that doesn’t work here. So as an adventurer, how do you determine whether they’re intelligent and if so how intelligent they are?

      Do the merfolk and/or krakens of the Lhazaar Sea also hunt these lesser dragon turtles?
      That would need to be the subject of a larger article that delves into merfolk culture in the Lhazaar Sea, since it’s quite different from that of the Thunder Sea. I don’t see merfolk having a friendly relationship with these turtles like their cousins in the Thunder Sea; if they didn’t they’d interfere with the whaling industry. A kraken would certainly eat them, though.

      • Would a Detect Thoughts spell not suffice for determining whether or not a lesser dragon turtle is of very low Intelligence?

        • Sure! Using Detect Thoughts would let you know that a creature has an intelligence over 3, and it would be a good way to establish that they have a language as opposed to that they are “making a sound that seems like singing.” But Detect Thoughts has a range of 30 feet, and Lhazaar isn’t known for its mind-reading diviners. So my point is that this is a great tool, but that it’s quite possible NO ONE HAS TRIED IT YET — that it’s more interesting for a PLAYER CHARACTER to be the one who says “If we get close enough, I can try to detect its thoughts” than to have it be something that happened a while ago, or at least that there’s an Aundairian environmentalist who’s just confirmed this and needs the adventurers to help her promote her findings. Of course drake hunters likely don’t care if the turtles have an intelligence of 3 or 6; they’re people who would happily kill ogres as “savage beasts”, too, and the idea that their prey might be as intelligent as an ongoing won’t make much of a difference to them.

  4. My friend and I were discussing whaling in the Thunder Sea the other day (and why it’s a bad idea) and I stumbled on the idea that you could have something similar to the Essex (Moby Dick’s inspiration) where a Lammanian megafauna or a Karakala stormcaller hunting a Brelish “whaler of opportunity” ship starts stalking and attacking the ship.

    The PCs could be on the ship as hapless passengers, could be crew, could have to rescue stranded sailors in the aftermath and avoid the vengeance that’s coming for the remaining crew, the list goes on.

    Hopefully with less cannibalism this time than what happened historically

    • Yes, a Lammanian megafauna whale is definitely a fun idea. That certainly falls into the category of the beast who can be mistaken for an island.

  5. Worth noting that Fizban’s is confirmed to have smaller variations of Dragon Turtles, so people can have stat blocks come October.

    Actual question: 3.5’s MM2 establishes Ocean Striders as gargantuan fey that protect whales – would you do a translated version that’s concerned with Dragon Turtles?

    • Actual question: 3.5’s MM2 establishes Ocean Striders as gargantuan fey that protect whales – would you do a translated version that’s concerned with Dragon Turtles?
      Absolutely! Though I’d likely limit it to a manifest zone. Part of the idea of there being a turtling industry hinges on it being possible to harvest them without being destroyed by giant fey. But the idea that we need to turn back, cap’n, the turtle’s enterin’ those cursed waters! is a great hook.

      • Love the ocean strider, love tying in with sailor lore and with Lhazaar’s culture!

        Would they have also existed in Rhiavaar’s Thelanis manifest zone-riddled waters? And Corvaruga for that matter? Or are they more suited to Lhazaar specifically?

        • Would they have also existed in Rhiavaar’s Thelanis manifest zone-riddled waters? And Corvaruga for that matter? Or are they more suited to Lhazaar specifically?

          I think it makes sense to have one in Rhiavaar’s waters. But I wouldn’t have too many, and I wouldn’t say that everywhere you have aquatic Thelanis zones you have ocean striders; I like the idea that there are a few special places where they dwell that are, consequently, the subject of many stories.

    • Absolutely! I definitely think that Rhiavaar should have its own drake hunting fleet, and fishing rights could definitely be an ongoing point of contention in the Lhazaar Sea.

  6. Interesting conflict for druids, if we’re using the “no metal armor” rule: Lhazaar-style dragon turtle shells are probably the cheapest source of heavy armor druids can wear.

  7. This is such a great reminder for me that just because one of the core books has your name on it doesn’t mean it represents your Eberron. I take it you did not write the following part of the Player’s Guide to Eberron from page 133:

    “Whales make their homes in the Lhazaar Sea, which means whaling is a profitable industry in the area. However, large orcas sometimes attack ships, and the huge fey known as ocean striders (detailed in Monster Manual II) seem to view themselves as protectors of the whales in the area.”

    • I take it you did not write the following part of the Player’s Guide to Eberron from page 133…
      That’s correct, that wasn’t me and I didn’t know about it until now! Which ties to my point at the end of this article—I have no objection to there being mundane whaling, it’s simply that I personally would like to both add a twist that makes it unique to Eberron AND I’d like to emphasize WHY it’s a profitable industry — hence, the idea of drake’s blood being a key alchemical component.

    • In the adventure path Eyes of the Lich Queen one part of the adventure opens with an attack by an intelligent zombie orca of unusual size, off the coast of Trebaz Sinara. Needless to say, always lets me channel my cetaphobia at my players . . .

      But now that I think of it, might replace it with a dragon turtle.

  8. Would it be fair to assume the NARRATIVE difference between Thunder and Lhazzar is one is for exploring underwater culture and the other is for pirate adventure? Or have you just not gotten around to talking about the aqua culture of Lhazzar?

    • All of the above. It is certainly the case that the Lhazaar Sea doesn’t have aquatic cultures that are as widespread or powerful as those of the Thunder Sea, because if those were present they would have a dramatic impact on the Lhazaar Principalities that has never been called out (while we’ve called out interactions with the sahuagin of the Thunder Sea in sourcebooks and novels). There are intelligent aquatic creatures in the Lhazaar Sea and I’d like to talk about their cultures at some point — but keep in mind that it took 15 years to be able to write about the Thunder Sea. 😛

    • I’m working on a supplement for this with a friend… The main reason InOurEberron that the Lhazaar Sea inhabitants don’t deal with the Lhazaar pirates is that the surfacers are clearly barbaric, who hurt and sink each other for no apparent reason. And it’s not like they didn’t notice all the warships over the past century…

  9. I assume that a decent number of Lorghallen Gnomes would speak each of the elemental languages, Aquan included. Given they have a good level of interaction with Lhazaar, they would probably know that the drake turtles sing in Aquan (and given how inquisitive gnomes are, they’d have probably figured out if they are intelligent).

    Imo it’d be more interesting having them sing in something WEIRDER like Celestial. Far fewer people would speak Celestial in that region, it would make one wonder WHY they sing in Celestial (perhaps their ties are not to dragons but to couatl) and you’d get a hook for Lorrister who might be the first significant person in the Principalities who listened to drakesong and understood it, driving change against not just the bloodthirsty pirates but also against drake hunters.

    • But the Lorghalen gnomes don’t participate in the turtle hunting and are generally removed from Lhazaar politics and society so perhaps they’ve kept to themselves, haven’t noticed, or as Keith said, the song is simply not a sentence or speech, and the creature is lower in intelligence.

      I don’t think “I can understand them” is the bar Lorghalen gnomes would have to clear to come down on the side of the druids in protecting them.

      Also going by Keith’s language rules (http://keith-baker.com/lightning-round-2-26-18-languages-elementals-and-pirates/), Primordial would be a more esoteric language like Gnomish or Dwarven, and the rules for dialects in 5e say that knowing one of the elemental dialects is enough to converse with any speaker of Auran, Aquan, Ignan or Terran under the umbrella of Primordial. Meanwhile Draconic IS Celestial Common, meaning every priest, wizard and lizardfolk would recognize the sound as much as merfolk versed in Aquan

      • But the Lorghalen gnomes don’t participate in the turtle hunting and are generally removed from Lhazaar politics and society so perhaps they’ve kept to themselves, haven’t noticed, or as Keith said, the song is simply not a sentence or speech, and the creature is lower in intelligence.

        This is the key point. The Lorghalen gnomes may have known that drake turtles sing for centuries and simply not care. As noted in a previous comment, a lot of the people of the Five Nations would have no qualms about killing an ogre, and not only are ogres intelligent creatures that speak a language, they’re humanoids who use tools and have a recognizable culture. Lorghalen gnomes may think the practice of drake hunting is barbaric; that doesn’t mean they’d DO anything about it.

        As for the language, a further alternative would be that they speak “Drake Turtle”, a language known only to Drake Turtles. Essentially, they sing; many people think it sounds like a language; and in fact, if you use divination magic you can confirm that it is a language, but barring magic, NO ONE speaks it.

        Another weird option would be for them to speak DRUIDIC. Which would still leave there being some Lorghalen who speak it, but it would be an exotic choice for sure.

      • I always think on a 3.5 mindset (were tbh on my practically entirely homebrewed version of it) that I just miss the 5E nuances like this. (for instance while clerics could learn Celestial in 3.5, only good ones who would depend on celestial summons would and it had nothing to do with draconic back then)
        Btw I never said I saidthe gnomes would DO something to stop people from hunting the turtles, I just said that they would have probably be interested enough (being gnomes) to figure out their level of intellect and that knowledge would have spread.

        I also don’t understand how a song can be part of a language and not include words or at least some equivalent that carries meaning.

        • (I’ve added this to the end of the main article, but sharing it here as well.)

          A parrot can recite a poem in English; does that mean it possesses human intelligence? The drake hunters argue the same thing of drake turtles; it’s exotic behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re PEOPLE. Which comes to a key point in my description: Even if the character speaks Aquan, the drake turtles may not think or communicate the same way humans do. My point is that if you know Aquan, when you hear the drake’s song you’ll recognize it as, for example, “Bluuuue sorrow delving deeeeep.” But if you row up to the drake turtle and say “Hi! My name’s Keith! What’s yours?” in Aquan (or using tongues) it will ignore you. Perhaps it doesn’t recognize the tiny non-turtle as a creature. Perhaps it doesn’t respond to simply spoken words; you need to SING your statement at a particular pitch for the drake to recognize it as an attempt at communication. Or perhaps it’s a parrot — it produces words it’s picked up from passing elementals but it doesn’t actually understand them.

          D&D has a tendency to treat any creature with a language as communicating exactly as humans do. I like to explore the idea that alien creatures may communicate in very different ways, something I’ve discussed in articles relating to elementals and lizardfolk. The point is that your Aquan speaker/tongues caster can understand the words the drake turtle is singing; but that doesn’t mean that you understand the meaning or how to effectively communicate back. The point of all this is because I am interested in exploring the question of drake turtle intelligence as a STORY. Consider the movie Arrival; it wouldn’t have been much fun if the protagonist just walked in, cast tongues, and it was all over. I like the idea that people KNOW the drake turtles sing in Aquan, but because no one’s ever managed to have an effective conversation with one, the hunters can dismiss them as parrots; if the player characters get involved, their challenge is to figure out how the turtles communicate, beyond simply the words that they’re using. In OUR world there’s considerable debate about cetacean intelligence; my point is that I want it to be a possible story that adventurers can be a part of, because player characters are remarkable. If drake turtles are fully sentient, I want your character to be the protagonist of Arrival or Spock mind-melding with a whale; I want YOU to be the one who solves a mystery others have abandoned or dismissed. But if that’s not a mystery you want to explore, you can definitely have it resolved by NPCs or established in the past.

  10. “The immediate question is are there whales in Eberron, because there’s no particular reason to assume that any random thing that exists in our world does exist in Eberron.”

    When reading this, my first thought was actually that 3E’s MM1 has stats for Baleen Whales, Cachalot Whales, and Orcas, so therefore they exist in D&D and therefore exist in Eberron.

    One potential reason to hunt whales in Eberron is to MAKE UNDEAD OUT OF THEM. They’re HD12 gargantuan creatures and (by advancement rules) HD19 colossal creatures, which is really low for their size. Under a Desecrate effect a caster can animate 4 times its CL in HD, meaning any Adept (let alone cleric/wizard) that can cast Animate Dead can make an undead whale easily. Karrnath’s navy could use them both as tug”boats”, and submarines (huge considering mechanical subs are only prototyped at the END of the Last War). Under this idea, the meat, oil, etc. would all just be (potentially useful, but not exciting) waste material that’s obtained as part of making skeletons out of them, rather than the objective of whaling itself.

    Also whale skeletons look really alien. Show players a picture of the three pronged skull on the “undead sea monster” and they’ll think it belongs to some kind of aberration.

    • Whaling makes plenty of sense because arctic summers are nutrient rich and provide a baseline industry for northern Lhazaar – same reason as IRL. I could definitely see the skeletons being sold off for necromantic purposes, but there’s no reason to waste the rest of the whale. (Also, I figure whale blubber has extra alchemical purposes – we know IRL it soaks up all sorts of stuff from the environment, so why not magic?)

      • I meant waste material in the sense it’s secondary and of little/no interest to the necromancer (who would sell it off), not discarded. Lhazaar might use whale oil (unless it’s given magical properties), but Karrnath would primarily want an undead monster.

      • This is definitely a valid approach! My thing is that when dealing with mundane “imports” from our world, I like to explore ways to make the import unique to Eberron. My approach here is to say let’s bring in fantastic creatures that don’t exist in our world, and incorporate them into the economy in the same way that whaling has been part of our economy. But what you’re suggesting is basically the other side of the same coin: rather than replacing the whale with a more fantastic creature, suggesting how whales of Eberron could be more fantastic because of the magic in the world.

        *I* like bringing in the drake turtles because I really like introducing drake-scale leather, drakebone, and drake shell as unique regional materials… and dragon’s blood is traditionally a mystically significant substance (even if these aren’t standard dragons). I’m very tempted to say that master Lhazaar artisans can craft lightweight heavy armors by using drake shell—which is to say that Lhazaar champions have what is functionally mithral armor, even though it’s not actually made from mithral. But I certainly appreciate your approach, and there’s no reason not to do both — with whales and whaling in the northern waters and drake turtles further south and east.

  11. I wonder if healing magic and stuff would allow for Catch and Release style whaling/drake turtling?

    catch the whale/drake turtle, knock it out, remove a non-life threatening bit, then heal the injury?
    Might take more than one healer, but depending on how much they need, it would probably work.

    if the Drake turtles are sapient, they might even be able to work out a deal…
    a few chunks of flesh (i wonder how much anesthetic is required for something that large?) in exchange for fancy food. shiny trinkets, and immediate healing?

    like a blood drive, but a lot meatier?

    • Certainly! My point is that this is the sort of solution I’d like to challenge player characters to work out — rather than just having it that some NPCs worked this all out long ago. One of the basic ideas of Eberron is that the world needs heroes. So what you’re describing is a good, peaceful solution; but I want some heroes to have to find a way to bridge the communication gap and find a way to negotiate with both the drake turtles and the hunters.

  12. Given the devourer is sometimes the form of a dragon turtle, could fishers see drake turtles as a vile sea monster spawned from the dark six?

    • Sure! At the very least, it could be a basic tenet drake hunters use to justify their actions: they’re cursed beasties and our faith in Balinor gives us the right and the duty to spill their blood. This would also help explain why drake hunters don’t give a damn whether drake turtles sing; demons can sing too, lad, but they’re still DEMONS. Some might even argue that trying to understand the speech of drake turtles is a dangerous road that will surely lead to corruption!

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