Roll-Playing Versus Roleplaying

Started by InkMeister, August 26, 2010, 07:44:03 AM

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I was playing Runequest with my group.  We, the PC's, are guarding a caravan.  The caravan gets attacked by a vampire cult.  After we defend the caravan, the caravan leader remarks that we, the PC's, are drawing enemies to the caravan with our mere presence, consequently putting women and children needlessly at risk.  I retort that the women and children were the very reason the caravan was attacked, and that if it were not for we PC's defending the caravan, many people would have been lost to the vampire cult.  If anything, we should receive extra pay for risking our own hides protecting the caravan.   The GM pauses, a little surprised (I think the story's rails required us to simply disembark from the caravan at this point, so we could go do something else in the game), and, out of character, says "good point..."  Then, "roll a negotiation check."   

I was a little disappointed.  I just acted out my negotiation in character - why do I have to roll?  Why can't the GM act out the caravan leader's part, and come to a conclusion?  I rolled, and succeeded, but I was still disappointed.  I would rather have just roleplayed the whole thing, even if it was just a few sentences of dialogue, and NOT succeeded, than roll and leave all to chance. 

Similarly, in both D&D groups I've participated in over the last year (playing 3.5, and now 4th edition), it seems like dice are filling in constantly for what could easily be roleplayed.   You go to jump on a horse - roll a ride check.   Perception checks are a constant - "so I'm in the room - what do I see?"  "Roll a perception check."   Negotiation checks...  Gather information checks... Find/disable traps checks...   And generally I fail to see the point, unless it is somehow an issue of pacing or story flow; "make a roll so we don't have to act out a boring scene."   Even if it is an issue of speeding things along, if something is so pointless that it should be passed over, why roll dice at all?   Why not just make something up, if it is important to do so, and move on?

I am usually disappointed, as a player, when I have some idea of what I want to do, and how to do it, and I have to instead roll dice and leave it to probability.   It feels disempowering.  It also feels less like I'm interacting with SIS, and more like I'm interacting with abstract dice mechanics (and this in spite of the fact that I am fascinated by dice mechanics).   I want to engage my environment; poke the floor with a 10 foot pole rather than roll a detect traps check.   I'm not much for the thespian aspect of roleplaying, but I want to argue with various NPC's, not roll negotation checks (unless, again, it's a pacing issue, but then again, I don't want to roll dice to decide unimportant tasks either).   

I really dislike having to keep looking up numbers on my character sheet to decide every little challenge in the game.   Still, as I said, all the groups I have played with insist on rolling for all kinds of things.

The thing is, in a lot of games (ones I've seen anyway), you have skills for a lot of this stuff.  Negotiation, Gather information, Perception, Notice, Detect Traps, Etiquette, Intimidation, Taunt, etc...  So that, in itself, raises the question: when should you use these skills (which means rolling dice and checking the outcome), and when should you roleplay?  If you roleplay and ignore the mechanic, are you cheating?  Are you not playing "the way you're supposed to?"   The book says XYZ... so why are we ignoring that?   Or why do we only selectively utilize the skill system?   I think a lot of players/GM's feel a sort of guilt if they don't use the mechanics.   Hell, maybe a lot of people have never even played an RPG that didn't have such mechanics, and so they don't know there's an alternative (just roleplaying your way through things). 

Some reasons I can think of for having such mechanics in a game:

1) People want to know what their characters can do, and not just this, but also how their characters improve over time.  Perhaps there is some kind of dopamine release at each level up (or skill raise, whatever), when the number on the sheet goes up a point or two (I think this speaks to the addictive potential of games like Diablo and WoW).  Also, people do often seem to want player/character separation.  This is bogus to me, though, since unless you come up with some kind of mechanical algorithm to control your character's thought processes, YOU are still in your character, influencing your character with your own real-world traits (and, IMO, this is what makes RPGing fun).   There is the convincing and understandable argument that a shy person may want to play a true social master, but still, I personally don't see the need for any kind of grand thespian display in roleplaying - you can talk third person about your character, describing what he/she is trying to do, for example,  and still be roleplaying. 

2) There is perhaps the idea that having a mechanic for all sorts of skills and challenges will force a GM to be honest.   It's supposed to empower players.  You, as GM, may not want to reveal some piece of information to me, but by golly I rolled a 20 on my gather information check - you gotta let me know somethin!   Except... it's still the GM's decision (in traditional games at least) as to how to interpret the result.  So why not just skip the mechanical step?   In practice, what I notice is that GM's consistently scale target numbers so that actions will always be challenging or impossible when they desire that.   You're level 1: target number for your perception check is X.  You're level 20; your target number for the perception check is X+20!   So again, in this case, what's the point?  The fox is still guarding the henhouse, but now we've added a bunch of dice formulas to try to disguise the fact.

Of course, it's not a simplistic or cut and dried issue.  I don't want to roleplay combat free-form; I like the randomness of it, and I like that there are rules to help decide it (but I'm not that big on combat in general... hmmm...).   I'm not sure you'd handle something like a computer-hacking situation without rules unless players involved are very knowledgeable on computers, so I can see the value of rules/skills/mechanics for those situations.   I also am not sure I'm comfortable with free-forming magic situations.   Rules can help structure magic in such a way that you can have, for example, magic using characters that don't break the game or make other types of characters - warriors, for example - inferior.   But at what point do the mechanics go too far?  How do you know?  How do you decide?  How do you use skill mechanics in games like RuneQuest, D&D 3.5, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Fate, etc?   Do you always roll for negotiations (for example)?  Sometimes?  Never?  When?  Why?

When is it good to roll-play versus roleplay?  Why?  Does roll-playing enhance or somehow supplement roleplaying, and vice versa?  Do you prefer rolling?  Do you prefer straight up roleplaying?   I'm genuinely interested in people's thoughts on this issue.  Personally, at this point, as much as I am fascinated with game mechanics and like the idea of characters growing and differentiating themselves in a quantifiable fashion, I have to say that I tend to be happiest when I am roleplaying through most situations, and leaving mechanics aside for the most part.   How about you?



The main reason I like the fact that rules are used to decide the outcome of a social engagement is that it allows players who aren't socially adept to succeed based on their characters merits as opposed to the merits of the player. A second, but important, reason is that it gives the GM benchmarks of fairness. In a lot of systems, its not just the roll but the roll and the interaction that determine the outcome, so the GM can assign a weight to the performance, but not so much weight that it overrides the numbers on the sheet. This is important to some players, because lets say I'm socially inept, but I imagine that my character is suave, so I put a lot points into Smooth Talking or whatever the statistic is. Then, another player in my group, who happens to be socially able and good with words, but who has a character with 0 points in Smooth Talking, manages to talk his way past all the baddies. The sociable player may not even mean to do this. It would take a very deft hand by the GM to deal with how the character/player skill discrepancy affect the fiction without the use of some kind of concrete mechanic.

In my current project (a Fantasy RPG called Shadows) I handle this by allowing the players to choose when they want to invoke the system, but the GM has a strong indicating mechanic to tell him how aggressively he should deal with the players socially.


Thanks for the reply, Nolan!

Your two main points, as I understand them: 1) mechanics, specifically social mechanics, provide a degree of niche protection, and allow shy players to excel socially as PC's.  2) Social mechanics give the GM guidelines in the interest of fairness.

Speaking to 1): I'm all in favor of niche protection.  Why do you need to roll dice and consult some formula to have it?  What is to stop you, for example, from having characters assign their characters qualities, perhaps based mostly on character background, and having the GM simply take those into consideration in game?  Say I'm tracking some baddies through the woods.  The GM knows my character was raised by druids and I grew up in the wilderness.   There should be no doubt that I'm better at tracking than the urban raised thief character, even if neither of us utilizes anything like an actual tracking skill.   Why can't that same thief character put something like "suave" on his character sheet, and have that be taken into account by the GM during social interactions, even if no dice are rolled for "suaveness"?   

On the other hand, and speaking to your 2nd point, you have something like a "gather information" skill (D&D 3.x).   You use the skill, roll a die, and the GM tells you what happens.   Behind the scenes, the GM has picked some target number (ostensibly anyway), and decided what to give you based on your roll.   This is in line with the rules, but is it really any less arbitrary than what I'm suggesting above?  The GM still picks the target number (or just decides what is going to happen, regardless of the die roll), and also chooses what the die roll will mean.   The book can give guidelines, but if the GM is set on not giving you a piece of information, he/she is not going to give it to you - and how would you know whether you didn't get the info because you failed the die roll, or because the NPC you interrogated didn't have the info, or because the GM simply didn't want you to have the info, even though you did roll high enough and the NPC did have the info you wanted?.   And this is part of my frustration.  I have played with a GM that likes players to be level 20 D&D superheroes.  I also have a very, very strong suspicion that he simply scaled target numbers to be just as hard to reach as they would be for a level 1 newbie PC (effectively nullifying the meaning of being level 20 with regard to certain skills).   IS that how it's supposed to work?   No.  But what's to stop it?   I'd rather cut the pretense and just roleplay it out, regardless of the outcome. 

Just my humble thoughts - I have the utmost respect for differing opinions.   Not just respect, but a genuine curiosity and interest regarding this topic.  Love to hear more opposing viewpoints, or any thoughts on the topic in general. 



Quite a few years ago I was mastering an old school game. One of the players (kind of powergamer) used to focus his character in combat stats and get over charisma/negotiating stats with roleplaying.

Even though I could give him a bonus for a good point in a negotiation (or a flirting), he had to roll. Always. He didn't like it, of course, and was claiming quite often: 'hey, man, I can negotiate well, why I have to roll?'

One day his character was attacking other PC, and was at an advantage. I gave the other PC quite a good bonus. He got a bit mad about it and stared at me like 'WTF?'. I looked him back, and answered 'hey, man, he plays martial arts and can fight quite well. You don't. But, if you don't believe me, I have no problem about leaving you both roleplay the fight'

Adam Dray

I think there are a couple things that are universally messed up in these games you're playing, but also a few things that are a matter of taste (and you seem to think they're universal).

Messed up: The GM making the player roll and then making up whatever result suits him.
Messed up: Rolling constantly for stuff that doesn't matter.
Messed up: The GM feeding you information a bit at a time, on his own schedule, to control "the story."

D&D 3.5 and D&D 4e handle these things differently, so I'd be careful about generalizing.

In 3.5, there's a lot of DM fiat around what happens when a player succeeds on a skill check. Consider setting stakes explicitly with your DM before you roll. "If I succeed at this Perception check, I see whatever is here, right?" "Sure." "What do I need to roll to succeed." "Uh, say DC 18." That can mitigate the "damage" caused by the DM just doing whatever he wanted to do, regardless of your roll. Yes, you're still counting on the DM to be honest about "whatever is here" but if you have talked about this with your DM and he's agreed to be honest, then it comes down to basic human trust. Don't play with people you don't trust.

In 4e, most of the rules surrounding skill checks are pretty explicitly defined, complete with target DCs and consequences. In all of the 4e examples, even the "knowledge check" (e.g., an Arcana roll to see if you know anything about a type of magic) is generally set up with a DC and a block of information that the PC learns on success.

These factors do not address your belief that these tasks shouldn't be rolled at all. Reading between the lines, I gather that you don't object to interaction with the system (I don't see you complaining about rolling during combat, for example), but rather you object to rolling for dumb shit that just doesn't matter. Perhaps you've heard the phrase "say yes or roll the dice," paraphrased from a rule Vincent Baker wrote in Dogs in the Vineyard (a game with a lot of excellent dice rolling that matters). The phrase sums up the idea that the GM often just lets the players do whatever because it doesn't matter. When it matters, when there's more at stake than that silly little task, then that's when you reach for the dice.

In general, a GM can control the flow of information to the players to control "the story." I put it in scare quotes because it generally means that the players on a railroad and have little influence over what is going to happen on any kind of meaningful level. Some players do just play to be entertained for a few hours, but it's pretty clear that you want to have significant "steering power" over the course of events in the game. And you should, in my opinion. So a lot of this comes down to not wanting to be railroaded via information feeding, dice fudging, extraneous obstacles like unnecessary skill checks, and so on.

Not messed up: Rolling for stuff in general and not "just role-play[ing] it out."
Not messed up: Scaling difficulties for characters levels in D&D.

A lot of this stuff comes down to preference. If you're playing D&D 3.5 or 4e, you're playing a game with skills and skill checks. You will be asked at some point to make a Diplomacy check. Can the DM handwave the check for good role-playing? I suppose, but why have Diplomacy on your character sheet if you're going to ignore it when it matters? If you think the game is flawed or not suited to your tastes, try a different game.

In a game where you have no Diplomacy skill, how do you resolve a scene that requires diplomacy? I know you say, "just role-play it," but more than anything else that leaves it to GM fiat. No matter how diplomatically you role-play, the GM can say, "I'm not convinced" or "I'm convinced" and then move the story the way he wanted anyway. So first, if the diplomacy doesn't matter to you or the GM, no one should bother rolling. If it matters to either of you, then it needs a roll (or some other contact with the system). You roll or whatever, and the dice decide what happens.

What if you role-played well but rolled shitty? How do you handle that? A couple solutions:

1. Don't assume a bad roll means poor PC performance. It could mean interference from an external force, or hidden information the PC doesn't have. The PC could have been the most suave diplomat ever but didn't know that the NPC hates elves.

2. Roll before role-playing too much. If you roll shitty, have a blast role-playing a fumbled diplomacy attempt. Failure is a blast to play out.

Every recent version of D&D encourages DMs to scale encounters to the party's level. If you want a different kind of play, you'll need to work that out with your DM.

You will probably love Matthew Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. It singles out four "zen moments" that hearken back to a supposedly older style of gaming: 1. rulings not rules, 2. players skill, not character abilities, 3. heroic, not superhero, and 4. forget "game balance." I think these will speak to your heart.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777


Quote from: InkMeister on August 26, 2010, 07:44:03 AMI was a little disappointed.  I just acted out my negotiation in character - why do I have to roll?  Why can't the GM act out the caravan leader's part, and come to a conclusion?

That's actually a loaded question.

Either methods are equally valid (and, I contend, there are other methods as well, some of them more valid, but well...).

The problem, here, is the disagreement about which method to use.

Since the kind of ruleset Runequest (which one, by the way?) is doesn't explicitly rule on such matter, it all comes down to "play style". You need to speak to your fellow players, including of course the one player who is game-mastering, and sort out whatever problems you have, until you develop a play-style which is satisfactory for everyone. This is going to be an entirely social thing: clarifying the currently blurry social contract of your ongoing game, basically.
Note that, this being a real-life negotiation, you'd be better advised not to come at it with a prejudice that one play-style or the other be inherently superior. It may well be that you are the only dissatisfied one, while everybody else likes how they're playing the game a lot.


As for the game design angle, those of you who are designing their own games should rather, in my opinion, avoid this issue entirely by disregarding Fortune-at-the-end Task Resolution in favor of more current techniques... like the sort of Fortune-in-the-middle Conflict Resolution you get in an overwhelming number of modern classics such as Primetime Adventures or The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System, just to drop a few big names. Also, and maybe more importantly, clearly explain in your text how you expect players to play your game -- using extensive play examples and explicit play-style tips as well as integrating the desired "style" right into your mechanics. Finally, if something can be done more than one way, say so.
Raffaele Manzo, or "Rafu" for short. From (and in) Italy. Here's where I blog about games (English posts). Here's where I micro-blog about everything.


Quote from: InkMeister on August 26, 2010, 07:44:03 AM
I was a little disappointed.  I just acted out my negotiation in character - why do I have to roll?  Why can't the GM act out the caravan leader's part, and come to a conclusion?  I rolled, and succeeded, but I was still disappointed.  I would rather have just roleplayed the whole thing, even if it was just a few sentences of dialogue, and NOT succeeded, than roll and leave all to chance. 

I could be way off on this and turning the discussion on it's ear but here is my take on the situation, feel free to take it as wild rambling of a mad man if it doesnt really relate.

I think the dice rolling is a minor issue and the real problem here is the story rails and the GM's treating the Caravan leader NPC as a tool to advance the story and not a character with actual motivations and goals.  That's why he had you roll the dice he didnt know or wasnt prepared to take on the role of the caravan leader so he left it up to a skill check.  The game didnt feel real because he ignored the fictional situation and turned to some dice to see what happened.  This is a problem in many games with or without dice.  I had problems with AD&D back in the day especially at high level because of all the hit points and the need to whittle them down which made describing combats incredibly boring.

Have you played Dogs in the Vineyard?  It has a resolution system that could make your characters stand off with the caravan leader interesting and it uses dice to do it.  No skill system or negotiation checks but you roll dice based on appropriate traits like say the leader was cheap and is very stingy with his money he could have bonus dice for that, you dice off and if he wins you dont get any money out of him though you can escalate to physical action where you might win and he'll cave in.   This is a dice system that works well when you focus on the fiction and treat the characters as real beings.  It suffers a similar problem though if you dont respect the characters or the situation and instead focus on winning the situation and escalate no matter what ramifications it has on the fiction.


Inkmeister, he doesn't need to use dice, but I think making rulings based off a public guideline (when your D20 hits the table and everyone can see it shows an 18, everyone at the table has some expectation of what that means) is different from just making a ruling. I'm all for diceless roleplay, and I think it can work quite well, but very few games really give you a good framework for doing this (Amber is the only example of something that does, and even that very long book about diceless roleplaying fails to work 100% of the time).

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

I suggest great care in distinguishing between (i) a given technique on principle and (ii) a given technique as one person has experienced it to date. Adam's points are really important to keep this thread from becoming a mess of "well I think's" based on various different contexts.

I also suggest that the term "diceless" is so debased at this point as to mean practically anything, and that we'd do well to use a more specific term for the exact thing being discussed. For example, Nolan, the resolution techniques in Amber are highly quantified and therefore have a lot more in common with standard dice-based techniques than either do with the unconstructed, descriptive-term only techniques that Nick wants to discuss.

Best, Ron

Callan S.

Hello Nick

QuoteWhy can't the GM act out the caravan leader's part, and come to a conclusion?
Equally why can't it just result in a dice roll?

Why would your 'why can't it' come ahead of his 'why can't it'?

The game you've sat down to play textually says the GM makes this call. And if your not willing to adhere to the text that's supposed to co-ordinate how all participants do things during the activity (so they are doing the same thing), why would anyone adhere to your notion of the GM acting out the caravan leaders part, when it comes down to it?

Writing a new game system (or tacking house rules onto D&D) where the text that co-ordinates everyone says to act out the caravan leader, that makes practical sense to me. But sitting there arguing against the current co-ordination text - in practical terms that doesn't work out. Indeed, it just you being disruptive to people who are all trying to do the same thing the text describes.

And I totally disagree with Adam's overview - it makes the classic mistake, in my estimate, of shooting the messenger/the GM.

QuoteMessed up: The GM making the player roll and then making up whatever result suits him.
Messed up: Rolling constantly for stuff that doesn't matter.
Messed up: The GM feeding you information a bit at a time, on his own schedule, to control "the story."

The ruleset grants the GM power to do all this - so do we blame the ruleset when the GM, shock horror, actually uses the power granted to him by the rules you knew were there and still sat down to? No, we blame the GM, when he's just the messenger. And because people keep blaming the GM, they don't write systems that stop granting the GM all this power to begin with. You even have Adam calling the GM untrustworthy for just playing the (crappy) rules as they are. It's like calling someone untrustworthy for checking you in chess. Yes, the GM has unlimited resources in D&D, so it's much easier for him to do than check mating in chess is. So why are we writing games which keep repeating D&D's folly on handing him this much power?

One of the hardest things to do is when you think someone else is wrong, is to instead see one of your own practices as actually being wrong. And not wrong by someone elses preferences, but wrong by your own personal standards.

So none of it seems true, of course. But consider this - you can write a ruleset that gives the GM considerably less power/resources/currency/capacity to call for dice rolls. This is definately a true statement.

Jim D.

At risk of temporarily derailing the conversation:


Quote1. Don't assume a bad roll means poor PC performance. It could mean interference from an external force, or hidden information the PC doesn't have. The PC could have been the most suave diplomat ever but didn't know that the NPC hates elves.

I can get behind this.  I roleplayed a 3.5 D&D rogue with a renaissance pistol.  I was having crappy luck with a couple die rolls on to-hit, and I always rationalized it in character; the gun hang-fired, or the wind wasn't with me, or my target juked at the last second.  And the fighter turned to me and said, "do you ever just miss?"  I answered, "no", with full confidence.  The GM liked it.

I really enjoy the idea of not deprotagonizing your players by making them die horribly on ones, or telling them exactly how much they suck when they blow a skill roll.


In response to Ron & Nick: When do you mean just role play do you mean unstructured free form role play or is there room for other things besides dice to act as guidelines towards the result. Otherwise, the why use dice thing breaks down into the same thing that most techniques do: Do the dice facilitate the fun? The only pitfall to thinking that way is that I think there's a need to balance between short term and long term: sometimes something that is tedious or distracting now is necessary over a longer period, to achieve a larger goal. I mean, every poster can do what I've done and give you reasons why using the dice might be a good thing, or why systems have done it historically, but ultimately its about your tastes. In the merchant caravan instance that you sight, it seems that the biggest problem with the dice is that they felt like they took away the power of the player to impact the story, is that correct? We could try and think of ways that dice could be used that might avoid this pitfall, or mechanics in place in other games to mitigate this (Hero Points, Stunt Dice, etc...)


Two points I wanted to make:

1) Character advancement on skill checks. When it comes to the whole seemingly arbitrary difficulties set by a GM, where things are X difficulty at level 1 and then X-20 difficulty at level 20, this is not something that either realistically or, in game terms, productively reflects character advancement. A skill level reflects how good a character is at a skill, and therefore the better they get the more handwaving (automatic success) should take place at the lower levels of difficulty, whereas simultaneously it's the GM's responsibility to come up with more difficult things to challenge the player's skill. This applies to social stuff the same way it applies to combat.
As an example, at level 1 the PC should have to roll negotiation just to haggle a better place on a room at the inn. The difficulty here is X. Now, at level 10, we can assume that this character can now succeed automatically when performing this same action, and no dice rolling is needed--but the GM may still call for a roll when trying to convince a reluctant but powerful wizard to assist the group, with the difficulty at X+10. At level 20, both of these actions require no roll, but by now the PCs may have to convince the King to lend them an army, and this difficulty is X+20.

2) Fortune in the Middle, Roleplaying at the End. Adam's point is well taken here. The issue here is if the guy who creates a combat monster by giving himself nothing to work with on the social side tries to roleplay his way past obstacles that the GM really wants to be in one's way, this is comparable to someone describing a fight scene in detail and claiming that this allows him to have defeated the monster without rolling. Why have stats at all in that case? The dice say how well you've done at a given action, but by roleplaying before rolling the dice you're investing more in your own success and therefore the dice feel superfluous. Therefore, roll first and then roleplay like Adam said, to show your success or failure. On the other side, if the GM in your particular example was going to call a roll to negotiate with the caravan leader, he should have informed you of this before he had the NPC engage your character in an argument.

Adam Dray


You've misinterpreted what I was saying.

First of all, I'm not blaming anyone. No one is being shot. I'm pointing out that a situation is messed up. If play is dysfunctional, regardless of why it is happening, that's messed up. I don't know why you assume I'm blaming the GM; you could have assumed I was blaming the game designer. In reality, I don't know who is to blame, so I didn't assign any.

Second, even if I grant that I'm "shooting the messenger" (and I am not), it doesn't change the fact that the situation is messed up. If those problems are occurring in the game, then the players have little agency to make decisions that matter, and that sucks. It doesn't matter if it's happening because the GM is just playing the rules-as-written, or if it's happening because the GM is ignoring the rule advice and being a choad. So why are you making this point?

Last, I didn't say anyone was untrustworthy. I talked about a fictional situation in which Nick might ask his GM to do something different in the future. In that fictional future, Nick's new solution works if the GM is trustworthy. If Nick's GM is not trustworthy, my solution still won't work, but I pointed out that there is NO fix for such things except not to play with such a person.

To sum: I'm not pointing fingers at people. I'm not blaming people I have never met. I'm analyzing a problem, pointing at what I believe are the root causes, and offering potential solutions--with caveats.

Please stop tilting at windmills.
Adam Dray /
Verge -- cyberpunk role-playing on the brink
FoundryMUSH - indie chat and play at 7777

Ron Edwards

This thread's hit a moderator stopping point.

There are some fundamentals which were resolved long ago in discussions here which need to be referenced and established as a baseline for further discussion. I haven't had the time and no one else has done it yet.

Please hold off on posting until I do some house-cleaning and clarification here.

Best, Ron