A Jobless-less Recession?

~500 words, ~ 3 min reading time

One of the strangest prospects we currently face: the jobless-less recession.

Q1 real GDP is supposed to be down – like literally down as opposed to “below trend”. (I say “supposed to be” because this is an “advance” estimate, which is going to be revised a couple of times.)
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate (those without jobs who are actively looking for work) is very low – under 4%. 2.4 million more people were employed in March 2022 vs. March 2021. (Of those, roughly half are people who weren’t even looking for work in March 2021.) Put another way – the “Great Resignation” doesn’t seem to be people leaving the workforce entirely (at least not at a macro level) – it’s people leaving one job to take another.

Even using the broadest measures, which add in those who want a job and looked for work in the past year even if they’re not actively looking for work recently, PLUS those who are working part time but want a full time job, that measure is almost as low as headline unemployment was a year ago.
Anyway, dropping production tied with rising employment suggests that labor productivity has dropped significantly. Why? Well, that’s an interesting question to which I don’t have a great answer. Some speculative thoughts:

(1) There’s been something of a “youngening” of the workforce over the past couple of years – with more 16-17 year olds working and fewer 45+ year olds working. Dropping productivity could reflect a loss of human capital (experience, training, etc.).

(2) Shortages for specific materials + labor hoarding. Example: there’s a chip shortage. While employers could lay workers off since they literally can’t produce at the moment (or at least can’t produce at typical levels), in this environment that’s a really dangerous choice since there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to hire people back. So, businesses are hoarding labor even if it’s not immediately productive so that they’ll have workers on hand when shortages resolve.

(3) The Great Resignation was, in part (perhaps mostly), people looking for jobs that had more flexibility rather than more pay. People are looking for a better “work/life balance” or better working conditions. These traits tend to decrease physical productivity (the kind GDP measures) even if they improve overall well-being (with which GDP is generally correlated – generally people with more stuff feel better off – but of which it is not a measure).

(4) Another part of the Great Resignation was people leaving a job for another with higher pay. However, it might be that these jobs “overpay” early in an employee’s career (relative to productivity) but underpay later. This is especially likely if the job requires significant employer-specific skills/knowledge which take some time to learn, and which don’t improve the employee’s likelihood of finding a higher paying job later after these skills/knowledge are acquired. So, productivity fell because people moved into jobs for which they don’t yet have the skills/knowledge needed to be very productive.

I may be missing something very important, since these are just quick first guesses. But, it is pretty fascinating to be in a world of rising employment, dropping GDP, and high inflation…

Missions of the USS Comstock (NCC-7204) (Star Trek Adventures Solo TTRPG Play) – Part I

~ 2100 words, ~11 min reading time

Background Information

Technical Matters

For this soloing experience, I decided to use Star Trek Adventures as my core ruleset and setting. I’m new to the ruleset, so I’m sure I made some mistakes. Also, while I enjoy Star Trek, I don’t know that I’d call myself a “Star Trek fan”/”Trekkie”, mostly because I know people who are way more in to Star Trek than I am. Example: I’ve not watched any of the latest Trek because I don’t want to pay for Paramount+ yet. This means I probably have (or will have) some inconsistencies between my game and the ST canon. I’m at peace with this, because I play for my own amusement, not to develop the ST canon. I am not, in fact, a screenwriter for Star Trek (even if Brannon Braga did take classes from the campus I teach at now), nor do I write Star Trek tie-in fiction (even if I did chat with Christopher Bennett pretty late into the night – 2am? – once). I’m the kind of fan who owns DVDs of the TOS, TNG, DS9, and VOY, as well as the TOS and TNG movies, but only the first of the JJ Abrams era movies, and has only ever been to one ST convention.

For GM Emulation, I’m using a combination of Tana Pigeon’s Mythic GM Emulator for oracle rolls and triggering interrupt scenes/random events. However, I’m using Pigeon’s Adventure Crafter for generating the opening scene and any interrupt scenes, as I like the structure it provides. If necessary, I’ll also use Pigeon’s Location Crafter for any locations that need that kind of development, though I don’t really anticipate that.

I’ve also decided that my write-ups are going to take the form of scripts. Probably more than in any other game I’ve played so far, this one is very much playing out as a video in my head, so a script feels like the appropriate way of communicating the story. Any metadata (rolls on oracle tables, scene setups, etc) will be put in italics if I bothered to make a note of them, as will some of my thinking. Plain font will be used for the scripts, with brackets for stage direction, background, etc.

Character Background

In Star Trek Adventures, character creation takes a “life path” approach. Those who have read my Cepheus posts will realize that Cepheus/Traveller/similar systems use the same broad concept. Character creation is a process of starting with a basic character and then developing their backstory simultaneously with their stats. So, let me introduce Capt. Michael Watson of the USS Comstock, a Nova class Scientific/Survey ship.

Capt. Watson – human – grew up on Andoria, the son of artists who had come from Earth to learn about Andorian artistic culture. He is proud of this heritage, and considers himself, in some ways, to be a “son”of Andoria.

Two major life events played a big role in his time in Star Fleet so far.

(1) On an away mission that he was leading, his friend Uq’aath – an Andorian – was killed by an animal after he stayed behind the away team to complete some readings on his own.

(2) When Watson was on assignment on a previous survey vessel, the Captain of that ship fell ill when exposed to some kind of xenovirus. This forced Watson to take command. His handling of that situation played a key role in his assignment to the Comstock.

Scene 1 – Capt. Watson’s Quarters

Mythic: set Chaos Factor to 5 to start. Using Adventure Crafter, I rolled up these plot elements for my first “turning point”: Frenetic Activity (surrounding Capt. Watson), Character Returns (New Character – “Ugly Leader” connected to current plotline), Run Away! (Capt. Watson), and Character is Diminished (Capt. Watson). My first thought was that this might be an “in media res” scene resulting in Capt. Watson being demoted, given the high level of action. But this didn’t feel right. Here’s what did.

[Watson’s Quarters, lights off. Watson sleeping, but restlessly.]

[Cut to jungle scene. Dense underbrush, clearly daytime, but upper canopy provides significant shade, so only dappled sunlight gets through. The sound of someone running. Young Watson runs into the scene.]

Young Watson: Uq’aath! Uq’aath! Where are you? [Comes to clearing. Looks slightly down, stunned.]

[Sound of communication “ringing” coming through to console in quarters. Watson wakes up, groggily walks to desk. Sits, presses button. Unnamed Admiral appears on screen.]

Admiral: Captain, I hope I didn’t disturb you.

Watson [still obviously tired]: Not at all, sir. Do you have a new mission for us?

Admiral: Yes, I do. We have some anomalous readings coming from a sector not too far from Bajor. You mission is to investigate these readings and report back to us.

Watson: Excellent. We’ll be on our way shortly.

Admiral: And one more thing. This is to be a joint mission. Holem Latha of Bajor’s science community will be leading the scientific side of the mission. His knowledge of spatial phenomena and xenobiology should be quite useful whether this is a living thing or not.

Watson [clearly a bit taken aback, but holding it together]: Are you sure that’s a good idea? Sir?

Admiral: We are well aware of your history with Latha. We are also confident that you can set that all aside for the sake of ensuring that we maintain friendly relations between the Federation and Bajor.

Watson [nods, not happy, but putting on the right “face”]: Of course, sir.

Admiral: We look forward to your report. [Screen goes black.]

This turning point introduced the first plotline “Investigate Anomaly”.

Scene 2 – Bridge

Chaos factor 6, since Watson clearly was not in control in the previous scene. Plan was to arrive at the anomaly to start studying it. Latha got on board off-screen. But, I rolled under the chaos factor – so this is an altered or interrupt scene. Turning to the Adventure Crafter, I rolled for plotline. Got “Investigate Anomaly” – okay, so not a new plotline, so probably just an altered scene. Plot points: Catastrophe, Wanted by Law (New Character – Not in this plotline, “Rough Rogue”), Fall from power (New Character – connected to existing Character – Holem Latha – “Heroic Guardian”), Conclusion(?!), Catastrophe. Okay, so I know the investigate anomaly plotline is going to end in this scene, and there’s *definitely* some kind of catastrophe, since that came up twice.

[Bridge, everyone at stations, everything seems fine]

Helm: Captain, we’re coming out of warp.

Security/Tactical: Captain, there’s phaser fire here. Two Bajoran vessels – a scout seems to be firing on a shuttle craft.

Latha [a Bajoran man, scars across his face, and with graying hair, sitting next to the Captain]: The scout is probably planetary security. That’s what we’ve been using those ships for recently.

Science: Sir, we’ve detected the anomaly. It seems to be some kind of dark energy – the phaser fire seems to be destabilizing whatever it is.

Watson: Hail the Scout.

[View screen shows a Bajoran man – middle aged – dressed in Bajoran military garb.]

Watson: I am Captain Michael Watson of the Federation ship Comstock. We have been sent to study a dark energy phenomenon.

Latha [cutting him off]: Which your phasers are in the midst of destabilizing, Ko.

Watson [annoyed]: Yes. So, if you wouldn’t mind calling of your attack, we would be much obliged.

Ko [on screen, very stoic demeanor]: Of course, Captain. However, the occupant of this shuttle is a terrorist that we will be taking back to Bajor to answer for his crimes. If I am correct, your ship should be equipped with a tractor beam. Perhaps you could assist us in apprehending this criminal.

Watson [looks at Latha next to him]: Would the tractor beam cause any problems with this phenomenon?

Latha: It’s impossible to say for sure, but I suspect we’ll be fine.

Watson: Very well. Tractor beam on the shuttle. Bring it into shuttle bay 1.

Ko: Thank you, Captain. I will see you shortly. [view screen switches to image of shuttle being tractored in]

Science: Sir, the anomaly seems to be destabilizing further.

[Quick shot to outside – explosion of black/purple energy hits the Comstock, and seems to deflect off of the Bajoran scout’s shields.]

[Back to the Bridge – people clearly shaken, lights mildly flickering]

Watson: Damage report!

Tactical: Hull breaches on Decks 2 and 7. Emergency forcefields are holding, and damage control crews are on their way. Significant structural damage, but we should be able to repair it.

Engineering station: A brief interruption to power supply, but it has mostly stabilized, sir. No ongoing concerns.

Science: Sir, the anomaly is gone. Space appears normal here.

Watson: And the shuttle?

Tactical: Safely in shuttle bay 1, sir.

Captain: Then I’m going to see what this is all about. [Walks to turbolift, doors open, he enters, and doors close behind him]

Scene 3 – Conference Room

Chaos factor up to 7. Previous scene was also clearly out of control. Getting ready for scene set up, roll against Chaos Factor – another interrupt or altered scene. No current plotlines, since “Investigate Anomaly” closed. So, we’ll use Adventure Crafter to roll up scene elements and figure out the plot from there. Plot points: Framed (Jelah Rin – shuttle pilot – framed by Ko Ret), Character attacked in lethal way (Ko Ret), Resource runs out (Capt. Watson), Character Upgrade (Ko Ret) – note: this plot points is a “meta” point. It means that Ko Ret gets added to the character list a couple more times, so his name is likely to show up involved with plot points. So, he’s moved over to become a more major character – Rural setting. I didn’t do much with “rural setting” except saying “We’re in the middle of nowhere in space. That counts.”

[Watson is sitting at the head of a small conference table. On one side is a Bajoran man we’ve not seen before. Clearly a bit worn down, clothes in bad shape, ex. Two security guards stand behind him.]

Watson: Care to tell me your story?

Rin: Ah, yes. I am Jelah Rin, and I have been framed for a crime I did not commit. I don’t know how much you pay attention to Bajor, Captain, but there has been a number of bombings recently. I was accused of being involved in these bombings, but I am innocent, Captain. I think Ko Ret just wants to hunt me down so people will think better of him again.

Watson: Better of him?

Rin: Oh, yes. Ret was a significant player in the Resistance during the Cardassian occupation. However, he has fallen out of favor with the current government for reasons I really don’t know. What I do know is that I am innocent, but that Rin is willing to take me in anyway. He’s in a position to really benefit from these bombings if he can slow them down or stop them.

[A couple more security walk in with Ko Ret, who is offered a seat opposite Rin. As Ret is sitting down, Jelah Rin pulls out a dagger and lunges across the table at Ret, managing to cut his arm.]

Watson: Not on my ship! [Rin is clearly intimidated by this, drops the dagger.] Take him to the brig. [Security escorts a defeated looking Rin out.] I apologize for that Mr. Ret. I’ll accompany you to sick bay.

Ret: Thank you, Captain. It’s no more than a flesh wound. I’ve had worse, but I certainly won’t refuse. I just hope that you now see the kind of man you have in your brig.

New plotline: Bombings on Bajor

Mini-scene – Captain’s Ready Room

I didn’t actually play out this scene. This was just resolved in a couple Fate Chart rolls about how Starfleet Command wanted the Comstock to respond to this plotline.

[Watson talking to Admiral on his console]

Watson: So, Admiral, the phenomenon is gone. My science officer says that there’s not even a sign that it was ever here. Scans all look normal. Would you like us to look into these bombings on Bajor?

Admiral: No. This is pretty clearly an internal matter for the Bajoran authorities to handle. However, given the claims that Mr. Rin made, you are not to hand him over to Ret. Rather, take him to Bajor yourself, and ensure that his claims are at least heard by the authorities. We’ll let Bajor take it from there.

I’m actually in an odd position now. With Ret’s character being upgraded, he’s very likely to show up again. Also, “Bombings on Bajor” is my only active plotline that I might randomly roll. So, despite these orders, Watson’s involvement in this plotline is clearly not over yet.

GM Emulation

~ 1600 words, ~ 8 min reading time

A question came up on Facebook about GM Emulation in the context of solo RPGs, so I thought it would be worth writing up an entry about this.

Traditional RPGs vs Solo RPGs vs Fiction Writing

To really understand solo RPGs, I think it best to think of what solo RPGs fall “between”.

On the one hand are traditional RPGs. Think: Dungeons and Dragons. The basic format of a traditional RPG is that you have three major roles collaborating. The “players” each control a single major character, while the Gamemaster (GM, or, in D&D, Dungeon Master or “DM”) controls the rest of the world – from the weather to villains, etc. However, there is a third role: the “system” – that is the set of rules & randomness that neither player nor GM controls. When putting this all together, you end up with a balance of logic and surprise, with players, GM, and rules & randomness all playing a part in providing both.

Contrast this with fiction writing. In fiction writing, you have a single author that controls everything about the world – the heroes, villains, weather, and so on. While anyone who has written fiction will tell you that sometimes there is some surprise in the process (characters seem to develop “minds of their own” at times!), it’s certainly not the same as having a different person controlling part of what’s happening, nor is it the same as total randomness introducing surprise elements.

Solo RPGs fall in between these two. There’s a combination of a human author/player with random elements provided by the game system. Because solo RPGs fall between traditional RPGs and fiction writing, there’s a wide spectrum that any soloist could choose. Closer to the fiction writing end, you have the soloist that simply divides their mind between player and GM, and uses the game system to resolve challenges. Experientially, this approach leans toward the “creative writing” side, but with some random elements tossed in, since the dice determine success or failure.

Many soloists, though, want to spend less time in “GM mode”, and more time in “player mode”. Basically, we want to increase the proportion of “surprise” vs. logic. This is where GM emulators come in. That is, we want to be surprised not just by the outcomes of challenges, but also by the kinds of challenges that present themselves. So, we need to have a system outside of our own heads that plays a big role in developing the world.

Enter GM Emulators

GM emulators are designed for those players who want to be surprised by the RPG world itself.

The “heart” of a GM Emulation system is the “Oracle”. Generally, the oracle is a randomized system for answering yes/no questions which players can use to build the world in which their characters are acting. A very simple oracle might be a simple coin flip. Heads means yes, tails means no.

Example: Suppose my character, Jim Stephenson, town marshal, walks into the saloon in downtown Pike Springs. I want to know if the saloon is busy this evening. So, I ask the oracle “Is the saloon busy?” *flips coin* *tails, no*. So, now I know that the saloon isn’t busy – the crowd is pretty sparse, though the place probably isn’t completely empty. I walk up to the barkeeper. I wonder if they’re in a bad mood. Are they in a bad mood? *flips coin* *heads, so yes* Makes sense – they’re probably annoyed at how little business they’re getting… and so on.

In effect, the coin flip is acting as a GM Emulator. As a player, the questions that I ask the oracle are questions that I’d normally ask a GM. Thinking of it this way narrows the kinds of questions I might ask. It would be silly to ask something like “Does this saloon serve alcohol?” (unless I suspect teetotalers are in charge of the town!) since the answer is obviously yes. And, given a Western setting, I probably wouldn’t ask “Is there a wizard riding a dragon flying around inside the saloon?” The answer is obviously no. I also wouldn’t ask either of these questions of a GM because it would be stupid to. Context is enough.

Now, while a coin flip can get us pretty far, it’s probably not quite enough. What if the odds aren’t 50/50? What if the event is “possible but not likely” or “likely but not certain”?

Or what if we need some other kind of inspiration for a more complex random event? Building a true “random event” from “yes” and “no” questions feels a bit clumsy. GM Emulators are often designed to include these other forms of inspiration as well. So, let’s get to a few specific ones.

Examples of GM Emulators

In recent years, there has been a rise in solo RPGs – Scarlet Heroes and Ironsworn leading the way. These games include GM Emulators for their specific contexts, so I’m not going to talk about them except to say that they take very different approaches to game design, though the emulators bear a striking similarity in many ways. Here, though, I’m going to focus on a few “generic” GM Emulators.

Mythic GM Emulator – this is probably one of the oldest and best known. The system can be summed up in 4 tables: the “Fate chart” – which provides Extreme Yes/Yes/No/Extreme No answers based on likelihood + a random roll + the “chaos factor” (a measure of how out of control things are), the “Event Focus Table” which tells you broadly what a random event is about (example: NPC action or PC positive), and two “Event Meaning Tables” – a verb table and a noun table. Add to these tables two lists that you create for your specific game: an NPC list and a “thread” (that is, plotline) list. When using Mythic, you start with your “scene setup” – figure out what your character is *trying* to do and where. Then, you roll to see if the scene sets up like expected or if there’s some kind of interruption (a random event!) or alteration (ex. turns out the villain wasn’t at home like you expected). Then, play it out, asking yes/no questions when needed. Tana Pigeon, author of Mythic, has also put together a few Variations on Mythic as well as a “Crafter” series – Adventure Crafter, Location Crafter, and Creature Crafter. All of these are designed to combine logic with randomness. You can get these for under $10 each from DriveThruRPG.com. There are also decks of cards that can replace the die rolls, and several issues of Mythic Magazine for those who are interested.

CRGE – A system very similar to Mythic in many ways, except that the Yes/No answers can contain surprises within them, as there is a “Yes, but unexpectedly….” option with “unexpectedly” tables. The odds of unexpected events depend on where you are in the story – as you move from heading “To Knowledge” (where lots of unexpected stuff happens) to “To Endings” (where unexpectedlys are rare) – and also how long it’s been since something unexpected has happened. Zach Best, author of CRGE, has also created several other supplements: UNE (for emulating NPCs), BOLD (for creating storylines and backstories). These are pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG.com

MUNE – Another Mythic-like system, but significantly simpler. Roll a d6. Answers are “No, and”/”No”/”No, but”/”Yes, but”/”Yes”/”Yes, and”. If the event is “likely” roll 2d6 and use the higher roll. Unlikely, use the lower roll. There’s also a system designed for providing surprise complications as well. Available for free online.

One page solo engine – This system is pretty cool, and fits on one page (front and back). It uses a combination of standard playing cards and 6-sided dice to answer questions. However, the maker suggests you should only use it if you’re already familiar with the basic concepts of GM Emulation. Free on DriveThruRPG.com.

Now, there are certainly others out there. These are just a few that I have on hand. There are significant similarities and differences between them.

Using a GM Emulator

One thing that takes some getting used to is figuring out *when* to appeal to a GM emulator and when to just let logic dictate what happens. This is very much a matter of taste, and I don’t think there’s any clear guideline I can give. The best guideline is probably this: ask yourself if the game is dragging. If the answer is “yes”, then change what you’re doing. If you’ve asked a bunch of oracular questions and feel like things are dragging, then you should probably just let logic take over for a bit. On the other hand, if you feel like the game has become overly predictable, then ask more questions.

Similarly the *style* of question is something that you can only really figure out by experience and experimentation. In any particular moment, do you want a sweeping “cutting” question that can have big impacts on the entire storyline? Or would a much smaller “chipping” question make more sense? Trial and error is the best way to learn how to balance these elements.

In any case, if you’d like to know more about solo RPGing, I highly recommend two Youtube channels. Geek gamers is one of my favorites, and has lots of material about solo GMing. The other – which is a more recent discovery – is Me, Myself, and Die where Trevor Devall plays through a few solo games.