More Mystery Adventure GMing Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0638

A Brief Word From Johnn

I did a terrible job recently of running a mystery adventure. I wish I had the tips in this issue to help me out – they cover pretty much and pretty well how I screwed up.

It was for a short-lived Pathfinder campaign I started after Riddleport. The PCs were en route to Chaos Keep and witnessed a murder in a rural inn. I fumbled a vital clue, and it was too big to retcon. Bleh, what an ugly feeling as a GM when that happens.

Ultimately, what I took away from that attempt was to not pixel bitch clues. As you’ll see in today’s tips, clues fuel mysteries. I failed to provide enough, meaning any mistake I made with my limited inventory of mystery drivers was magnified. I didn’t have enough other material to use to compensate when I got a detail about the primary clue – a vial of poison – wrong.

I also made clues too difficult to find and reliant on skill checks – a recipe for player frustration.

So learn from my mistakes, and take up the advice from your fellow RPT readers in today’s issue.

I hope your holidays are going great. Santa gave me purple dice. I hope they roll crits in 2015!


More Mystery Adventure GMing Tips

Last issue I featured a framework from Istrian for creating mystery adventures. This was based on a tip request I made, and several readers had additional tips plus comments on Istrian’s advice.

Mysteries are under-used in games. They are hard to design and GM. The interactive nature of RPGs adds a whole new level of risk to this type of story novelists and film makers don’t face. Sometimes it feels like we tread on glass, afraid to make the slightest mistake lest our mystery plot unravel.

When reading today’s tips, I ask you to consider something. If hesitant to GM a mystery, then try running a mystery encounter. Just one encounter where the players need to solve a puzzle.

Limiting scope this way means your campaign is safe in case things go awry. A single encounter is also easier to design than a whole mystery adventure. And you can test things out fast, to learn and improve. Because you can run a mystery encounter anytime and often to get better at it, until you feel comfortable crafting and running an entire adventure.

For example, it could be as simple as the PCs rounding a corner and seeing a body on the ground. Standing over the body are three NPCs, each with blood on their hands. A bloody knife sticks out the victim’s back. One of the NPCs is guilty – it’s up to the PCs to prove who did it and bring the murderer to justice. None of the NPCs will flee unless attacked, so the PCs can solve this all in one encounter with good roleplaying.

Ok, on with readers’ tips!

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Obscure Clue, Regular Clue, Obvious Clue

From Mark

My best tip for mysteries is the unmissable clue. You don’t roll to see IF you find it, you roll to see WHO finds it. Simple yet extremely effective.

The most important thing to remember with mysteries is, since you already know the answer, even the most obscure clues will seem obvious to you. So try to use multiple levels of subtlety: obscure clue, regular clue, obvious clue, and if needed, the 2×4 clue bat that spells it all out in flashing neon.

If they completely miss the subtle clue, you can reduce your level of subtlety further for the next regular clue.

The most important attitude for the GM with mysteries is you need to WANT the PCs to work it out. You need to want to show off your clever plot, your perfect crime, impress the players with the details. Show them you would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky PCs. With that attitude, the GM will work with the PCs to solve the crime. Without it, the GM can easily get stingy with the clues and tease out the crime too slowly, which is no fun for anyone.

And some comments on the article from RPT#637:

I love them. Witness NPCs are best way I’ve found for delivering loads and loads of leads upon the PCs, most of them usually unrelated or complete rubbish.

I have learned from bitter experience to be careful with information overload in mystery games. Unless your players are trained investigators, they haven’t been trained to sort through all that info to get the important bits. But their characters have. A good roll should allow the character to know what the useful bits are, which the GM is obliged to then tell the player.

Witnesses are a great chance for the GM to roleplay a lot of different characters in quick succession. They can be a lot of fun, but each NPC’s job, in a meta-game sense, is to further the story. The NPC may want to lie, to hide the truth, but that is not what they are FOR. What they are FOR, their “raison d’être”, is to further the story. If the PCs learn nothing (or worse get confused about stuff they already knew) then the GM has failed to use the NPC properly.

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Some will even lie outright for their own reasons while not being bad people themselves.

Keep in mind when the GM has an NPC lie, the players can’t tell. You are already lying by pretending to be the NPC. You need to get PCs to roll detect lies (or whatever) every time they talk to an NPC.

Remember, every time an NPC lies the PCs should find out about it sooner or later. If they never expose the lie, then it was a waste of their time. In dramatic terms, it is like an unfulfilled Chekhov’s gun. Each lie not revealed at some point is a GM fail.

When you do lie as an NPC, ham up the body language of lies. Cover your mouth, avoid eye contact, lower your voice, fumble words, contradict yourself. But if the players miss your cues, you still need to give the character a chance to roll to notice the lie via the game mechanics.

Remember, however much the NPC wants to get away with it, you as GM want the players to catch you lying.

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However, with the knowledge of the events that transpired to lead to the mystery – and some subtle fact manipulation – you can create a link between whatever the PCs are doing and the truth.

Thin ice warning. Manipulating the facts and adjusting the truth behind the mystery can REALLY piss of some players. I have had a GM who ran mysteries by throwing out pretty much random clues, and whoever the PCs decided was the murderer, they became the murderer and he retconned the back story to make it fit. It is a valid way to play, but I hated those games.

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In this case, I believe the most important part is the Briefing. This may take any shape or form, but it is simply the hook that contains a significant amount of information, with only half of it relevant, and less than 10% as actual truth.

I would not do this. Red herrings can kill a mystery more quickly and effectively than dungeon dressing can derail an adventure game. I never use red herrings. Experience says the PCs will create more than enough of their own. Having 10% truth means 90% false. That’s a lot of crap to wade through. How is that fun?

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Whenever the PCs talk to someone new or are about to find something significant (by virtue of rolling high on their “Find Stuff” roll), I roll a d10 and refer to this table (this one is geared towards murder mysteries but can easily be adapted)

Again, I would never use this. The given table is adversarial and slanted against the PCs. Having “no clue” as an option when they have already succeeding in their find stuff roll just negates their good roll, and is, in my opinion, bad form. Many of the other results on the table actively hinder the PCs. This looks more like an investigation botch table, not a successful one.

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Four Steps To A Good Mystery

From David Wokke

One of your readers asked how to construct a mystery. To construct a mystery I would use the following steps.

First, know what is going on. For example, the mayor’s daughter is kidnapped by a group of mages to be sacrificed.

Second, come up with steps how the PCs can figure it out.

For example:

  • The mayor asks the PCs find his daughter.
  • The PCs find out mages have kidnapped the daughter. This might be by finding evidence in the room, by someone telling they have seen figures in black, or by following a trail.
  • The mages find the house of one of the mages. This may be by finding notes or by encountering the mage that came home.
  • The PC find the location of the sacrificial circle and can save the daughter.
  • Make sure you have enough clues for the main plotline. Players may miss many points. In general PCs may need 3 clues to find the next step. If after receiving three clues they haven’t found out how to get to the next step and they seem bored, just give them the info out of character. This is better than letting your plot get stuck for a few hours.

Third, obscure the mystery with extra mysteries. These mysteries have as a goal to distract the players. However, you should know enough about the side-plots to give them answers if they are looking into them.

For example:

  • The mayor tells the players his political enemy has probably kidnapped the daughter. Does he believe this? If not, what is his motivation?
  • What does the ritual do? Is it beneficial in some way? Can you hide clues for this?
  • There might be something strange about the daughter. She might have a questionable boyfriend or she may have a strange disease. Who knows about this?
  • The mayor has killed the previous mayor to get the position of power. Who knows about this? What kind of politics did they employ?

The more side-mysteries you have, the longer the mystery will be and the more clues you can improvise better.

For example, with the above side-mysteries, an NPC may tell the players a young man climbed into the daughter’s room at 10 p.m. Further investigation leads to the boyfriend, who brought her some kind of alternative medicine. Currently improvising, you tell the medicine is made by an old witch in the forest. This witch now gives a clue that the date of the kidnap is a special day for a certain group of mages and points to a house where one of them lives. You are now again on the main plotline.

Fourth, have enough non-mystery in it. Some players might expect combat, so you can include a few combats (that make sense) to satisfy the players. As a bonus, if the PCs figure out the plot sooner than expected, you still have material.

Be ready to change the plot if players have better ideas. For example: a player says, “I think the mayor is a mage” and it fits. Therefore, you can change your plotline.

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Have Multiple Options Ready

From John Whyte

One of the best tips I have for mysteries is: always have several possible answers to the mystery prepared and several different options and hooks.

A mystery is not the game clue. It’s boring for everyone if the PCs have to follow the story and it is always going to be Colonel Mustard. Instead, you should have a couple of different outcomes or solutions, make the first couple of investigation options dead ends, and then have whatever the party does next lead them to a solution.

For example, say you have an assassination of a duke mystery. You should have four options:

  • A jealous wife (because of an affair)
  • A jilted lover (because he wouldn’t leave his wife)
  • The baron who doesn’t want the trade deal with Transylvania
  • The aristocrat who will make a fortune if it does

Each option should have some notes for if it is true or if it is false.

It doesn’t matter what the PCs investigate first, the initial two or three leads should be false dead ends.

The next lead should be more interesting, and the final investigation successful.

This creates engagement with the players and avoids the trap of “oh they missed that clue and now they’re stuck.

I also recommend having many red herrings and lots of information. If there are witnesses there should be multiple different stories. Lots of unusual things and many suspects.

Determine what is a clue, and what is red herring based on if this option is true or if it is false. That way the party is never stuck and bored.

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Throw Down A Severed Head And They Will Not Search For The Clues In The Hair

From Bill C.

First, I can suggest two e-resources:

The first book has all the darned useful down-to-earth Who What Where When Why stuff involved in a gaming mystery. The second book opened my eyes to the idea that you want players to find clues! Really you do.

Now, on to the few scraps of advice that I may suggest.

  • To craft a mystery, assemble the elements of the puzzle. Consider that when you throw them down, your players will gaze upon a jumble.
  • It’s an advantage to have a friend, confidante, neighbor, or grumbly gamer to run the initial scenario past. Encourage them to poke holes. Grin as they ask, “What in heck does this mean?” or “Why doesn’t the idiot police detective notice this obvious clue?
  • “A severed head is more than just a plot point.” Yes, it’s true. If you have a guy on horseback throw down a severed head in front of players, they will not search for the clues in the hair. They will try to take down the guy on horseback.
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Start With THe Villain

From William Mitchell

I have a lot of experience writing mysteries for both fiction and campaigns. You have to start with the villain. You have to know him upside down and inside out. You have to know and plot out his evil plan of evil or the poor guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time or whatever.

By knowing the villain and the sequence of events inside and out you can have all the information you need, including red herrings, at your finger tips. That way, no matter what direction the investigation takes you can relate the information needed as the players collect information.

It is a different player experience from combat. All the players discuss and hash out the clues and try and figure out where to go and who to ask. It’s a lot of fun to watch them.

Be sure to schedule extra time to allow the players to puzzle and discuss.

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The Onion

From John Sheppard

Mystery is one of my favorite themes. I use a method I call the Onion.

At the center of the onion is the central conflict or the “Whodunit.

From there I add a layer of three details (for simplicity’s sake, I like to think in threes). These details can relate to the immediate why and how of the center (especially if the aim is a one-shot murder mystery or something).

If the idea is conspiratorial, these details would serve well as a branch or facet of the central conflict.

Each layer of the onion adds 2-3 details to each of the underlying details, getting smaller and more remote from the original conflict. How detailed or deep the mystery will be depends on how many layers you add.

Avoid the when’s and where’s as much as possible. That way it’s detailed enough to be useful yet vague enough to be useful anywhere.

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Dragon #240

From Martin Votruba

In response to your request for Mystery material, I wanted to bring to your attention Dragon Magazine #240 (October 1997), specifically the article “101 little Mysteries” on pages 82-87.

It has a short intro, followed by 101 1-5 sentence ideas for possible mysteries to throw into your game. Some can be short little side missions or similar one-shots, while others can be turned into long storylines.

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Backgrounds, Recaps, Redundancies

From Glenn Davis

Mystery RPGs are the most rewarding for players and GMs, but also the most challenging for a GM. You need players committed to playing a mystery campaign (or at least adventure) or you will find them nodding off, not paying attention to clues, and disengaged.

So my first piece of advice is: don’t do it unless you have full player buy-in. Otherwise, it’ll be a mess for you and your players. I know it can be tempting, but a mystery RPG without committed participants always falls flat, and it makes you look like a bad GM even if it wasn’t your fault at all.

Write A Lot

For the actual campaign: write a lot. You don’t need to compete with the prolific writer Johnn, but you will want to put the clues in writing for players. Different people remember things better in different ways and most of us are visual, not auditory learners.

If they can see your clues in text instead of just hear them, they are more likely to be processed and resonate with your players.

There are two different places you can make write-ups for your players without just coming out and telling them, “Hey, here’s a clue, pay attention!”:

a) Backgrounds

Give each character a write-up that includes clues (hidden or otherwise) in their background.

Part of the fun of a mystery can be the possibility of a mole or character with a hidden agenda. You can not only drop clues characters might already know, but that also add to the mystery of the setting by making players uncertain what others’ characters might be plotting.

You can drop clues in the character backgrounds that help get the campaign started, or even make them seem like pointless information until they get another piece of the puzzle.

When a player gets a clue 5-10 sessions into a campaign and puts it together with a piece of their character’s background, the player gets that “Eureka” moment and it adds a lot to the game for that player.

If you can give every Character 1 or 2 of those kind of clues no one else has, they go a long way. GURPS is good about this because you can make the clue a part of a character’s build. If you’ve ever done a Host a Mystery game you will have a good idea of how to do this.

b) Write A Recap After Each Session

ESPECIALLY important if you have sessions far apart from one another, like with one of my groups. Print it out and give it to your players as they show up to the new session.

Because you know what clues are important and what were just window dressing, you can make sure the points they may have missed last time are casually included again here to try and nudge them to the right answer.

Usually just 2-3 paragraphs to recap and drop essential clues is sufficient for players to refresh their memories. This is just good form even when it’s not a mystery campaign (I do this every session if I have time).

Clue Redundancy

Plan a lot of backup clue-dropping, and make sure the mystery never relies on 1, 2, or even just 3 clues to solve.

a) Gradients

Instead of making results a Pass-Fail, give a gradient of information based on how well someone does with their roll.

Roll a 15? They get one piece of information. Roll a 30? They get 4 pieces of information, or the information they get is 3 degrees more specific. This way, unless they roll 1s, they will always get at least SOMETHING to go on.

b) Back-Ups

Make sure if they do miss a clue or its meaning, that there will be another one available with minimal shoe-horning. Really, just part of a GM’s good prep for this kind of a campaign.

For example, have more than one faction guy know the clue(s) in case the earlier one(s) die (usually at the PCs’ hands – never assume the PCs will take prisoners!).

c) Proactive

Make the villain or faction or whomever is behind the problem proactive. This way, even if the PCs totally miss a slew of errors, when they are suddenly attacked in the night for even having the gall to investigate such events, the attack itself can leave clues or at least make following the clues easier.

d) Alternatives

Give the PCs an alternative source of information. This can mean an NPC that tags along with the group (I find this works well with newbs because then they can also learn how to run a PC by watching and learning the GM do it) or a contact or faction that feeds the PCs info periodically.

Just make sure the PCs sometimes get info in the midst of a search for clues. If they get clues from this source only after they run into a dead end it will feel more like a babysitter than a legitimate contact.

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Use Modern Mystery-Solving Shows For Inspiration

Contemporary shows like NCIS, Law & Order, and Elementary make the mystery more of a journey than a “whodunit destination.

a) You Don’t Even Need Make An Ending

You don’t need to know who the villain or evil faction is ahead of time. Just make a few possible bad guys (or groups of bad guys) all of whom could have done it.

Implicate all of them, let the chips fall where they may, and allow the group the PCs accuse to be the correct choice (or not…).

b) Make The Mystery Unsolvable-ish

Again, on the contemporary TV mystery vibe, investigators go from possible suspect to possible suspect five times before they get the real culprit at the end of the episode. Make the rabbit hole even deeper.

This can be done by making the “evil” a giant conspiracy that just gets deeper every time the PCs peel off a layer of involvement. Every layer is another faction in a new location they are investigating.

You can do five layers on one continent for over a year’s worth of adventures before it goes extra-planar (at which point the possibilities are limitless). Note the extra-planar thing becomes critical later (see the last point below).

Last Resort: Flip The Mystery

Presumably, the bad guys are a faction (like the factions Johnn talks about all the time). If the PCs are having serious trouble, make the faction come to them and ask them to join.

Now, instead of a mystery, you’ve turned your game into a spy-thriller where (presumably) the PCs are all double agents. But it’s better than letting a whole campaign you had prepped end suddenly when the PCs can’t figure out what to do next.

It seems like fully one quarter of the mystery campaigns I’ve been involved in have turned into a spy thriller like this if only because the PCs ultimately think it’s a better way to bring down the faction causing all the mysterious problems.

This does not work with LG paladin-types, but it can be a great side-trek for cohorts – only for a few sessions if your overpowered PCs are finding things too easy or tedious.

Magic Wrench

In D&D type games, please note the mystery is not a legitimate campaign type after the party has casters that can cast 4th or 5th level spells. There are enough Divination spells at 4th and 5th level to crack almost anything, and anything they can’t crack the PCs feel like they’re being railroaded by.

One solution to this without making the PCs feel railroaded is to put the mystery in different planes of existence, especially those with different rules on how Divination spells work.

You just have to be careful not to nerf the one or two casters in the group. I would maybe reduce Divination spell strength, but make other spell types more powerful to provide balance to the casters.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Make Environments Interactive

From Mark

One of the powerful shapers of combat is interaction.

Imagine a chasm across the room. In the middle, on a central column, is a rotating bridge. One round it links both sides, the next it is at 90%, then it’s back lined up again.

Do PCs run across? Do they step on, wait, and step off? Do they try to control the bridge to their advantage? How do they interact with the bridge?

Fighting in a library? Knock down some bookcases mid-combat to make everyone think on their feet.

On a ship? Cut a rope to drop a sail on someone or open a hatch to create a pit trap.

Backstage in a theatre? Move curtains to cut foes off from each other or drop sandbags.

In a garage? Knock over a barrel of oil onto the floor to create a slippery surface, or drop a car on someone.

When you make your fights, keep interaction in mind too. A dynamic fighting environment PCs can interact with, something that responds to their actions, can really make a fight scene sing.

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Cheaper Graph Paper

From Tim Hunt

Here’s a Graph Paper Roll that is cheaper per foot (if you want a lot of it).

My group bought this so we could have larger battlemats than you can typically buy. We put a big sheet of plexiglass on top to make it dry erase and do maps on the fly (we play on two 6′ folding tables pushed together to create a large square, with paper/plexi in the center).

The rest of the roll is used for pre-drawn maps that can be slid under the plexi as well. The squares are slightly smaller than 1″, so if that’s a big deal to you, buy the “gamer” paper that is actually 1″. Otherwise, 200 feet of paper for $42 is a lot cheaper per foot than 12 feet for $10, if you want it in bulk and are willing to have 31/32″ squares.

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Inspiration For Magic Weapons

From Ian Toltz

I’ve found these lists from Wikipedia to be super helpful in coming up with ideas for interesting, unique magic weapons. +1 swords are boring!

These lists give you a ton of great ideas both for effects and names, and you can even adapt the weapon’s story into your own world to give it a background.

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Gameplay Palette & Combat Board

From Dave Meyr

I wrote you some time back about the white board I use for melee and the artist’s palette I adapted for regular play. You asked me to send you some pictures so here they are.

I can often lose track of stuff during battles, especially initiative, so I came up with this board which seems to help everyone know who’s doing what and keeps things moving along.

638 Davidmeyr Image

I’ve got a portable aluminum tripod I lock it into when we play.

It’s probably obvious, but the white board is divided vertically into 10 rows representing rounds, with horizontal rows for everyone in order of initiative. I move the round magnet on top of the board ahead for each round. If we go past 10 rounds I just move it back to one and it becomes round 11.

On the left hand side, I cut up a few heavy sheet protectors and made some small envelopes with tape and attached thin flexible magnets from a business supply store to the inside corners, again with tape. Each PC has a yellow card with their name on it. I use blue cards for bosses and red for their minions.

I also write out NPC stats on 3×5 index cards that I slip into the envelopes before the game and have ready to use for reference whenever needed.

After we roll initiative, I place each person onto the left side of the board in order, first on top, and write various effects and their causes into the boxes on the rounds they occur with whiteboard markers, and then extend a line out through the rounds they will effect the character, adding and modifying as needed.

In the last vertical row, I have magnetic strips for each PC and NPC that stay in place when the initiative changes, in which case I rearrange the envelopes on the left hand side. That way we can keep track of the effects on each character.

I stand a lot when I DM, so I taped a 3 ring binder spine onto an artist’s palette, glued on two boxes for dice and attached stickies for writing down ideas or notes to give to players and such.

638 Davidmeyr Image – 1

The plastic boxes are large enough so I just shake the palette a few times when I need to roll.

I put felt on the sides and bottom for the times I want to roll without the players being aware. Sometimes it freaks them out when they hear a roll, so I make the dice hit the top. They also get tossed when I move my arm down to my side, so that’s another way to roll without being obvious.

I like miniatures and maps, but I also like the element of mystery that was more a part of the game in the beginning of D&D. So I have the ACs, saves, and perception check stats for each PC written down on a template in a sheet protector.

Before we get underway, I have each PC give me 10 rolls that I’ll use now and again when things occur they wouldn’t know about, as opposed to warning them that something’s up by having them roll. For instance, when I ask them to roll a fortitude save after a hit, they know it’s probably disease or poison when they really shouldn’t. Perception checks are another common use.

When things come up in game that effect a player’s stats, that they don’t know about, I write them on the sheet protector with a permanent fine tipped Sharpie and erase it later with nail polish remover. I also tell only those who make their perception checks what they are aware of. Players usually pass it on but not always. It becomes their choice and often comes into play when I include things tied into side stories each player has running that don’t necessarily involve other PCs.

I prefer it when players come to realize something’s up as opposed to me telling them. For example, instead of “You’ve lost 2 points of strength” I’ll tell them their weapon feels a bit heavy, or “that brisket ain’t sitting right” when they’ve contracted a disease or some such thing.

I also don’t tell them how many hit points they’ve lost after they take a hit or spell effect. I keep track instead and give them a more general idea of the severity of the damage and their condition, like they’d experience if it was really happening. I find that players not knowing exactly what’s going on raises the tension level. They aren’t completely in the dark, but combat isn’t reduced to a numbers game. I would love to hear if other people have the same thought and how they handle it.

There’s also always a chance, which decreases as they gain levels, that a spell can go wrong. I treat it like a weapon. If they roll a one and confirm a fumble, various effects can ensue from all that loose magical energy, but even if the spell goes off there’s a small chance it may go askew in some fashion that can be to the PC’s benefit, detriment, or neither. To me, magic is like nuclear power. You can learn to control it, but you’d better respect it and be aware it is inherently dangerous, sometimes catastrophically so. It’s too mysterious and powerful to simply be reduced to numbers and a pass/fail approach.

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents, and worth every penny. Thanks for all the work you do.