Cover illustration for "Flat Black"?

Continuing the discussion from Draft cover for a new players' brief:

Professional cover art isn’t cheap, but on the other hand (a) my finances have been pretty robust since I paid off my mortgage and called a halt to renovations, and (b) neither is the art that I occasionally buy to hang on my walls. I am thinking about indulging myself by commissioning a semi-pro Flat Black cover illustration (which I might also use as a desktop image etc.). Patrick Turner’s work is awesome but would cost more than I am prepared to spend on a personal indulgence; Kenn Yap’s quality seems acceptable and his ballpark quote is affordable. Vlad Voronchiukov’s work seems okay and is very reasonably priced.

If I go ahead with this, then whatever artist I commission is going to need a clear and explicit brief. So it behoves me to think carefully about what the cover art on Flat Black ought to show. It doesn’t need to be informative, on the other hand it does need

  1. to be recognisable and
  2. to attract the attention specifically of potential readers likely to be interested in a Flat Black campaign.

The images that I have been toying with in the last thread (dramatic landscapes photographed at night, with streaks of green light from meteoric fireballs) are pretty enough, and maybe distinctive, but I’m afraid that they issue a cheque that Flat Black’s bank of adventures will not cash. Flat Black is not about spaceships, orbital bombardments, meteoric drops of Imperial marines, hard men making hard decisions in futuristic heavy armour, or even man-vs-wild tales of survival on exotic planets. A cover that suggests that it is runs the risk of disappointing the reader that it does attract while failing to attract the reader who would like the content.

So I have to thrash out an idea for a a cover image that conveys an impression of the WEIRD meeting the bizarre on an alien planet, perhaps with an eclectic mix of speccy and basic technology. It has to give a clear impression of being SF and not fantasy or sci-fantasy.

My first idea was way too fussy:

The idea that I have in mind is a street scene on the planet Sehausie. There is a group of Imperial marines off duty, physically diverse but dressed alike in drab olive uniforms. One of them is trying to strike up a conversation with a passing local lady, elegantly dressed, who looks at him as though he were a bug. Behind her a little knot of local men stare at the scene: they are physically similar to each other and the lady, but no two of their gorgeous but stripperific outfits is in the least alike. The architecture is consistent with mediaeval technology (massive masonry for the a womens’ palace, maybe, or carved wood and shingles for a mens’ lodge) but should not look like mediaeval European designs.

Once that was reduced to 32 × 45 mm for a thumbnail it would be nothing but a blur of indistinguishable detail.

My second thought is a bit clichéd, and has the fault of putting the subjects at the edge of the composition instead of the middle:

At bottom left is a couple of people in drab trousers and tunics, with techy-looking equipment on their tool-belts. They are seen in rear semi-profile because we are taking their point of view. The man might be wearing a visor; he has his hands behind his back and is holding a drawn pistol while the woman leads the interaction. There is a bright camping-light on the ground in front of them, and beyond it (at the right of the composition and somewhat higher) a couple of gorgeously-accoutred colonials, the man dressed very differently from the woman, and with middling-tech gear such as an AK-47 or a lever-action shotgun. We see them in three-quarter face. The background is beyond the light of the lamp, and generally dark, but perhaps we are on a mountain overlooking a city or something.

A variation on that has the WEIRD figures as before, but they are facing a colonial dignitary on a throne with bodyguards, perhaps a Navabharatan god with green skin and ~Egyptian regalia, flanked by two bodyguards who are painted vermilion on one side and white on the other, wearing black torso armour and visors, and armed with AK-47s.

My third thought is getting a bit simpler

A person in drab trousers and shirt has been seriously injured, and an EMT in aqua scrubs is crouched over them. The EMT has a head and face that have been modified to look like a coyote, her scrubs have a bag at the back for her tail. A man armed with an AK-47 looks on: he is painted vermilion on one side and white on the other, and is wearing a helmet, black sandals, a black bullet-proof vest marked “POLICE”, and a black gun-belt with a shiny revolver. He has a pleated piece of gorgeously-printed cloth tucked through his gunbelt at the hip, in token of a breechclout.

We definitely aren’t in Kansas any more. But perhaps we’re looking like an emergency-services game?

“What do PCs do?”


“you are looters in a historical sort of world”

Less good but still accurate:

“you are vaguely military types who zoom around in spaceships”

One impression I’ve got is “PCs interact with formal social settings while trying not to break them too badly”.

How about high-tech people trying to get something out of a local technologically elevated dictator? They’re sleek and shiny, he’s not, but he has high-tech ornamentation while his flunkies don’t…

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It’s unfortunately easy to give people the idea that furries are a key part of a setting, which attracts and repels (different) parts of a potential audience. You also need to give at least a hint of why the title is Flat Black.

While not making space a big part of it, since it’s not a big part of the game.

Good point.

What’s that term for Toyota Hilux trucks with a jury-rigged pintle-mounted machine gun on them? “Technicals”?

Something to convey the bureaucracy but not make it absurd? Like the sleek folks need to shown to want something or be issuing a citation but not be begging or writing a Paranoia-esque traffic ticket for orbital weapon testing.

Another approach could be Top Secret SI, show the collected tools used in play and a form with a bold headline to give an idea of PC group goals when the thumbnail is expanded. Like datapad and pistol and quipus and planetary system readout and headdress and research drawing of native formal and recreational dance differences and body modification example photo.

There’s more tell than show and less dynamism to this approach I readily admit.

Hmm. Maybe some sort of ambassadors meet the emperor at court scene? Where the ambassadors are foregrounded to make it obvious that these are the PCs.

Some sort of ‘Cortez meets Montezuma’ or ‘East India Co officials meet the Mughal Emperor’ or ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’. But with high tech stuff and locals/courtiers looking snooty or giggling behind their hands/fans at the PCs?

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More than half of the Flat Black campaigns and adventures I have run, including most of the successful and popular ones, have been about PCs working for the Empire. And since most of the detail I generated to supply to players either supported the imminent needs of my adventures or answered the curiosity of players arising out of games, the great mass of material I have presented over the years consists embarrassingly much the of minutiae of working for the Empire, or at least for the Independent Commission for Justice. But that’s more or less an accident: the first campaign was a Justice Department one, it worked well, and it produced detail that attracted attention. It wasn’t meant to be that way, and one of the undesirable consequences is that many players and onlookers have the impression that Imperials are or are supposed to be the good guys.

I meant and would still prefer that Flat Black should be open to, and seen as presuming, a far wider range of possible PC group concepts, mostly lacking any sort of authority to exert and not concentrating on pursuits and concerns that are objectively more important than the colonials’ motives in being difficult. In this iteration of Flat Black briefing material I’m trying to derogate the idea of playing Imperial Servants a bit, and put forward the possibilities of playing “effectives” of the various NGOs, travel vloggers and other wanderers, and even scoundrels such as art thieves, as being at least equally suitable campaign ideas.

The Flat Black fanciers are still fond of the accumulated detail of Imperial service, and I do intend to collect and organise it for them. But my plan at the moment is to write and “publish” a book about being effective for your NGO before rationalising and reissuing the stuff about working for The Man.

All that being the case, I’d like to leave it unstated on the cover what the WEIRD PCs are doing in their meeting with the bizarre colonials. One idea I have is that they might be wearing the Red Symbol of the Humanity League, and arguing about a case marked “VACCINES — do not open”, but anomalously wearing sidearms.

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I like this image. This offers a lot of good questions.

Yup, although that covers a broader range of vehicles in the general style.

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I’m thinking of a “Flylux” air-pickup mounting a Gatling or Maxim gun, so the genericity doesn’t sting too much.

It might do the job, though. It has worked for a lot of mystery and thriller novels.

Let’s consider it.

  • A vademecum (high-tech successor to the smartphone) displaying the Popular Revised Handbook of Planets app
  • A double-barrelled, blued-steel, percussion-cap pistol with chequered ebony grips
  • A handful of fake IDs, including a Tau Ceti passport
  • A spaceliner ticket or boarding pass (ought to be recorded on the vademecum?)
  • A sheaf of Imperial banknote cash
  • A few scattered orange-yellow transparent gel capsules.

Are we in the ballpark?

I think so but it loses the culture as problem feature that seems important to convey.

Some thing or things to show the strange culture interactions ahead seems important. I said quipu earlier because it’s a distinct extinct branch of information technology. Outside of daily experience but intended at design to carry daily information. Not proscribing here but continuing the brainstorm example maybe a strange material? Like a weird feather or cat5 cable
tied into the knots?

It’s hard to think of something strange and distinctive and not already part of another culture.

Well, we can start with decorative motifs, I guess. The butt of the pistol carved into a stylised parrot’s head. A carved mother-of-pearl amulet of an astronaut? Carved ceremonial mask with mirror lenses?

The best way is to depict someone with bizarre clothes and grooming, and this approach doesn’t favour that.

I like the ceremonial mask idea.

An existing SF game, Fires of Amatsumara from the d6 Space line, took a similar design approach:


I think it runs into a potential problem in that you need to have identifiable yet futuristic and exotic items (You’re probably looking at that cover and thinking "Mini-Discs! How quaint!). Spy novels and thrillers can just use guns, knives and passports because everyone knows the world.

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Also “manual controls on a tablet, how quaint”. :slight_smile:

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I think that is promising, really.

But for a futuristic pistol:

And maybe a formica table-top.

How would that look with a laser sight on it? Or an accessory rail?

Alas, all the vendors of such things I can find on a quick image search want to make them look interesting so they display them at a 3/4 angle…