Oddly hot on the heels of my previous post regarding TTRPGs and my thin veneer of disappointment that I was neither playing them nor creating for them, I received an email from Modiphius, creators of the Star Trek Adventures RPG (henceforth known as “STA”). In another startling coincidence, this email featured a new entry in the STA family, “Captain’s Log – Solo Roleplaying Game” (or “CL”). It was as if the stars had aligned, or that marketing companies were monitoring my blog.
Although the hardcover isn’t to be released for another few months (with either TOS, STG, DS9, or DISCO covers), purchasing now provides a PDF version of the game, and I have been giving it the once-over (as in “more or less skimming to get to the good parts”).
What is a “Solo Roleplaying Game”?
Ah, COVID. I’d like to think that you’re once again to blame for a shift in focus, but I think that’s really giving you more credit than you deserve. Even still, for every new and exhausting “live play” that pops up on YouTube every five minutes, there are tons more people out there who cannot — either because of time or other, more personal reasons — find a game to join in person or online, or who cannot corral enough people in person or online to play a TTRPG.
I guess by their traditional nature TTRPGs are social constructs. They also present an overt divide between the haves of the GM and the have-nots of the players; the GM knows (or can concoct) what’s going to happen next, while the players enjoy the anticipation of experiencing the consequences of their own actions. This all-knowing/completely unknown dichotomy is one of the things that make TTRPGs so compelling, but which can also make them anxiety inducing (as my previous post may have alluded to).
Whether it’s because of COVID or because of very real difficulties in getting together with others, in person or online, the solo roleplaying game is, I am told, something that’s catching on. I have seen a few people talk about them, but I have never sought them out myself until now. The reason for now: Star Trek, of course.
The gist is that the player — you, and ideally, only you — create a character according to the rules, and then run through a story created by some static but interactive means. You roll the dice as if you were playing with other people and abide by the outcome. Quite unlike the “big boy” TTRPGs, solo RPGs require the player to be both narrator and participant, meaning that each setting, each encounter, and each circumstance is driven by the roll of the dice, but envisioned entirely by the player.
Difference between Captain’s Log and Star Trek Adventures
The good news is that if you’re an old hand with STA, then CL is going to be like reading a cheat sheet of the game system. The better news is that if you’re new to Modiphius’ take on the franchise, you’ll have a lot easier time with these rules than you would with the STA rules, which can be a bit confusing and sometimes overwrought, in my opinion.
I can’t enumerate all of the differences because A) some are subtle, B) some won’t make sense if you don’t know either STA or CL, and C) I don’t even know all of the rules to either and can’t actually tell if a rule is different or not. I can say that as a solo game, there aren’t as many things to keep track of. There’s actually no concept of equipment in CL because from a purely narrative standpoint, worrying about Starfleet requisition budgets is not conducive to telling an interesting story. In another case, momentum, a mechanic which allows a player to enhance their success or success chance, is limited to one point in CL, whereas in STA the player(s) can accumulate up to 6 points at a time. On the GM side, threat, which is used to Make Bad Things Happen, is managed by the solo player in CL, and is also limited to one point at a time.
The character sheet combines both the character and the character’s starship into one form. There are also sheets for tracking missions, log entries — yes, it’s not just called “Captain’s Log” because it’s a staple of the franchise — and a “quick reference” sheet that provides page numbers for the different matrices, the “probability matrix” itself, and a handy “game loop” flowchart.
How Does It Work?
The first step is to create a character. There’s two ways to do this: the lifepath method, and the creation in play method. The lifepath method has you creating your character from start to finish in one setting. Most of this is assigning points, but it’s also about choosing things like your species, your values, and focus selections. Creation in play is a more abridged method designed to allow players to “get to know” their character through action. In this mode only a few items are assigned or selected, with the remainder being decided upon based on how the character reacts to elements of their ongoing narrative.
One shared aspect between STA and CL is the idea that a character’s values can be challenged and changed. A value in STA/CL is an attitude, belief, or conviction that defines the character. As the story progresses, characters can challenge these values, crossing out their old value and entering in a new, frequently opposite but related value. When this happens, the character reaches a milestone which is like leveling up in other TTRPGs and involves altering stats and other attributes.
After the character has been created and a timeline within the Star Trek canon has been established, it’s time to start the story. The Captain’s Log rules focus a lot on what makes for a good (Star Trek) story, particularly in terms of pacing. An ideal CL story has three acts, with five scenes per act. There’s a tracker on the character sheet set which allows the player to indicate if a scene was completed successfully, or if it ended in some measure of failure. This structure can be sped up (fewer scenes per act) or slowed down (more scenes per act) or thrown out entirely (variable number of scenes and variable number of acts, or none at all).
The purpose of the act-scene drum-banging is to have the player focus on keeping the narrative moving. Unlike standard TTRPGs where parties can (and probably will) head away from the main plot at a moment’s notice, the stories in CL, because they’re designed and executed by a single player, don’t have the option for a lot of faffing around. As any Star Trek fan knows, a typical episode has the establishment act, the complication and culmination act, and the final resolution and fulfillment act; CL really wants players to consider this structure when creating their own stories.
The next step is to begin the show, almost literally, with your first Captain’s Log. As mentioned, this isn’t just lip service to the ubiquitous show-opener. The entire gist of the game is predicated on the story being chronicled through the logs. The first log is, as always, the point at which we first encounter the captain, maybe their crew, but certainly their initial circumstance. In order to determine this and where things go from there, we need to dive into the probability matrices.
The last several pages of the Captain’s Log rulebook are just…tables. Tons of tables. Each of these tables are dedicated to providing a random value concerned with some aspect of the overall “episode” you are playing.
It begins with a “mission type”. You can either select an option outright, roll a d20 and pick an option, or even skip the table and make up your own. Mission types include such prompts as “aid and relief”, “diplomacy”, “near space exploration”, and even interesting corner-cases like “spiritual” or “Starfleet JAG”. There’s a set of sub-tables related to each option from the main mission table that allows for a narrower focus on what’s coming up in the story, and each sub-table helps start the narrative. This comprises the general mission directive — what you think you’ll be doing. This also forms the basis for your first log entry.
Next comes the “incident-theme” selection. These are two tables that are combined in a “verb-noun” structure to provide unexpected events that show up in the first act, but which form the basis of the entire second act. Some combo examples include “investigate spatial rift”, “control marooned shuttlecraft”, or “transform sentient machine”. Yes, I rolled those, and yes, they don’t seem like they make a lot of sense, but they are without the greater context of a mission, and therein lies the point of Captain’s Log: its up to you and you alone to figure out how these elements fit together into a narrative that makes sense in an “episode of Star Trek” kind of way.
Of course, how you get from your original mission statement to the incident-theme is part of the game. You’d next roll a starting advantage or a starting complication, based on the even-odd outcome of a single d20. This selection will help or hinder the incident-theme as it gets started.
Every Star Trek adventure has some kind of conflict, even if it’s a low-level one, so we now get to roll on the “encounters” tables. These define the “where” and “who”, but not the “why”…that’s part of the game. Note that these tables don’t actually provide you with “a bunch of Romulans” or “those goddamn Cardassians again”. Instead, they provide just enough to get you thinking: “a city-ship is seen on a direct path toward Earth”, or “First Contact Day – only the Vulcan ship was destroyed by a Romulan ship, which took its place…”
Now you are ready to engage!
Playing The Game
Where is “the game” in all of this? It just sounds like a story generator, and it is! One really great feature of this system, whether it’s encapsulated within the Captain’s Log game, or the greater Star Trek Adventures game is that these tables can create some fantastic story hooks. With STA, the GM will provide the details for the players to respond to, but with CL, the lone player is expected to create the entire narrative based on the matrix selections.
Although this is expected to be done through the log entries, only a fool would squander this opportunity to bang out a complete “episode” in writing (*cough*) or, apparently, on video (as some people do with solo TTRPGs, I am informed). With the story beats on hand, the player must now dream up the character of their captain, any supporting NPCs both good and evil, and exactly how the circumstances from the matrices unfold.
It will certainly come to pass, either naturally by narrative condition, or because you, your own GM, wills it to be so, that dice will need to be rolled. Like STA, CL uses the attribute + discipline system for resolution. Your character has 6 attributes — control, daring, fitness, insight, and presence — and six disciplines — command, conn, engineering, security, science, and medicine. Depending on the situation, you pick one relevant attribute and one relevant discipline and combine them. In STA you would start by rolling 2d20 and could potentially “buy” additional d20 to ensure success; with CL, you only ever get 2d20. The more roles you have on each die that fall below the sum of your attribute and discipline, the more successes you have. In CL, you only need one success to be successful. Rolling two successes gains you 1 point of momentum which can be spent then to add an advantage or remove an immediate complication or saved for later to re-roll a failure. Rolling a 20 on any die generates 1 point of threat. In this case, threat is used to create a complication, or to increase the difficulty of a later roll, effectively requiring that both dice result in success in order to consider the entire task a success.
In order to keep everything on an even keel, for those times when a question can be answered with a “yes, no, or maybe”, there’s a matrix for that! “Does the Ambassador look ill after the conclusion of the banquet provided in her honor?” The dice roll says “yes”, which is a building block to work from. Of course, if the story would benefit from a “no” or even a “maybe”, that’s up to you.
The obvious question is: if you’re making up a story, when do the rolls happen? The answer, apparently, is “whenever the hell you want them to”. If you really only want to use the Captain’s Log to generate story prompts set in the Star Trek universe, then godspeed, Captain! It seems totally geared for that. If you’re looking for the Star Trek Adventures experience, though, there’s a level of honesty that needs to be applied here. If your captain finds herself squaring off with a Pakled for the last single-seat escape pod on a freighter crashing into a planet, there’s got to be some kind of a dice roll there, whether its combat related or (gawd help the Pakled) more social engineering-based.
The goal is to tell a story, so how you get around to doing that, how fast or how slow, how many rolls you make, and whether you “goosed” the story or not (the rules actually say “sure, go back and retcon a previous act if you feel it makes for a better story!”), Captain’s Log is designed to allow a single player to construct a Star Trek episode with an unlimited budget, an infinite amount of guest stars, and opportunity to boldly go where only you have never gone before.
But Wait! There’s Actually More!
Because Captain’s Log is designed for one player to be at the helm, then it stands to reason that reasonable people should be able to take turns piloting the ship, right?
Captain’s Log is also suitable for collaborative play. In this style, a group of players can opt to play different characters to ultimately provide different points of view on the same shared mission, but using the same stripped-down rules used by solo play. For a bolder option, the book also suggests that several players “share control” of the captain, using a “yes, and…” approach so that each player creates and tackles their own part of the story with the central character. Of course, in these situations more care needs to be taken to ensure that everyone is going to end up at least in the same book if not on the same page.
Finally, as with any TTRPG system, Captain’s Log can be used in a traditional GM/party game. Here, the GM does all of the rolling on the matrix tables and provides the prompts and potentially the encounters to keep the rest of the group on target. However, the GM doesn’t actually steer the story in any direction, as the matrices have already done this; this allows the GM to play also, or for each player in the group to take over weekly GM duties to keep things fresh.
All Good Things
When I learned about Captain’s Log, I couldn’t smash that BUY button fast enough; thankfully the PDF is immediately available.
I had been excited to find a Star Trek TTRPG was a thing, but I’ve been kind of on the fence about how STA actually plays; I don’t like the extended task mechanics, for example, which I think result in a more mechanical and less fun gameplay segment. I’m also not a huge fan of tactical starship combat. I tried it with Starfinder, and it’s not the most enjoyable aspect of a collaborative game.
That Captain’s Log provides a more refined, streamlined version of STA’s rules — most of which I like — is a good enough reason to pick it up if you have an interest in Modiphius’ stewardship of the franchise’s tabletop incarnation. That it’s squarely aimed at solo play not only makes the system and the setting accessible to a wider range of players, but it also serves as a primer for those who might eventually want to step up to the official “multiplayer” version in Star Trek Adventures.
My goal, then, is to generate a character, spin up the required beats via the matrices, and then carve out a section of this site dedicated to the adventure that unfolds. I’m going to throw this out as an actual “narrative drama” told through the captain’s logs with supporting act/scene narration. Where applicable, I’ll take a sidebar to explain task rolls and narrative decisions so readers can get a feel of what it’s like to go through a custom mission in Captain’s Log.