"Flat Black" in ten pages of tiny type

Setting up the Flat Black videoconference game that I mentioned in an earlier thread is proving to require more spadework than I thought. Extensive discussions are going to be required about what exactly the PCs are expected to do, and those must be postponed a while because of health and scheduling constraints. In the mean time I’m back at my keyboard.

Two of the future players have been playing in my Flat Black games since 1988 and 1996. The third has indicated that he does not want to start cold with a skeletal briefing and learn the setting from indirect and piecemeal exposition, but would like a substantial introduction. I have to write one anyway, so that’s no problem. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m writing an introduction to Flat Black with a very specific audience in mind.

The Audience indicated that he would prefer a brief consisting of about 5–10 pages. I hope he means to suggest pages of GURPS layout and typesetting, which come to about 840 words to the page of text, because that gives me a budget of 8,400 words, and I’m one of those writers who feels that anything worth saying takes five thousand words. Back in the day when I had excellent close vision and a very tight printing budget I used to circulate material to my RP gaming mates in closely-set 9.6-point, 8.4-point, and even 7.2-point type. I’ve got a handout here from 1991 that runs to 63 pages at 1,116 worlds per page*. My habit nowadays is to use 12-point Times on a 16-point leading, in two columns ragged right without hyphenation. With 19-mm margins left, right and bottom, and 25 mm for top margin and header, I get about 590 words to the page, and an 8,400-word limit will lay out as fourteen pages. If the Audience comes the ugly I will re-set in 10-point Times on a 14-point leading and turn on automatic hyphenation. 810 worlds to the page! Read them and weep!

So my word-count budget (aiming for twelve pages of 12-point Times) is as follows:

  • Page 1
    • Genre, a scant half-column
    • Astrography, an ample half-column
    • History, one column
  • Pp. 2–3
    • Two pages on Technology
  • Pp. 4–5
    • Two pages on The Colonies
  • Pp. 6–7
    • One column on interstellar travel.
    • Three columns on the Empire
  • Page 8
    • One column on Other Interstellar Organisations
    • One column on miscellaneous minutiae—money, languages, religions….
  • Pp. 9–14
    • Thumbnail sketches of 24 colonies at four per page.


* I wrote most of it in four days during a bout of hypomania.

Righto! I have a draft in 14 pages of 12-point type. That’s 8,852 words, and it would pack down to about ten-and-a-half pages if Steve Jackson Games were to lay it out for GURPS. I could probably get it to ten pages with 11-point type and by switching on hyphenation,

I’d like someone to read over it and let me know

  1. Whether it covers everything it needs to cover
  2. What if anything it contains that ought to be cut
  3. Whether there is any point where it doesn’t make sense
  4. Whether there is any point where it is just too boring for words.

Download the Intro to ‘Flat Black’, a 228k PDF, from Dropbox.

The final structure ended up being as follows:

  • Genre (a scant half-column)
  • Astrography (an ample half-column)
  • History (one column)
  • Technology (two pages)
  • Interstellar travel (one column)
  • The Colonies (five columns)
  • Colonies You’ve Heard Of (five pages)
    • Aeneas (mad fans)
    • Arcolais (visual arts obsession)
    • Beleriand (tragically multiracial)
    • Goldendawn (bleeding Kansas)
    • Haudenosaunee (Tibet & Siberia on drugs)
    • Khemet (pyramids and thugee)
    • Ladon (post-labour anomie)
    • Lowrie (a corrupt revolution)
    • Maldives (prison colony)
    • Margulis (matrilocal patriarchy)
    • Nahal (genderqueer gunslinger anarchy)
    • Navabharata (the god gambit taken root)
    • New Fujian (metamorphosis and line marriages)
    • Paradise V (homoromantic sports nuts)
    • Seeonee (syndicalist scouting)
    • Sehausie (landladies and lekking dandies)
    • Simanta (the Brave New World)
    • Tau Ceti (Old Europe with extra Janteloven)
    • Todos Santos (palimpsest personalities)
    • Toutatis (Quo Warranto with 8,159-hour days)
  • The Empire (two pages)
    • Purpose & constitution (1 column)
    • Cliques in the Senate (⅓ column)
    • Branches of the Imperial Service (1+ column)
    • Imperial Servants (½ column)
    • Imperial Direct Jurisdiction (½ column)
    • The Imperial Family (½ column)
  • Interstellar Non-Profit Organisations (one page)
    • The Alliance for Independent Development
    • Amnesty
    • The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Persons
    • The College of Archivists
    • Democracy Unlimited
    • The Ethnographic Society
    • GreenWar
    • Human Heritage
    • The Humanity League
    • The Institute
    • The Planned Progress League
    • The Reporters’ Guild
    • The Sons of Patrick Henry

Consolidated suggestions

It has been suggested that:

  • the heading “Genre” on the first section ought to be stricken out, leaving a cold open on “Flat Black”.

  • the section “History” ought to be put before the section “Astrography”

  • in the section “The Colonies” ¶7 the parenthetical explanation “(in which people participate in social life)” ought to be removed from after the technicalism “social unit”.

  • there ought to be more example colonies. Four more would add a page to the print, eight would add a leaf.

  • there ought to be more NGOs.

  • I ought to add some interstellar corporations.

  • I ought to abandon PDF for a format that will read better on a small device.

  • in the thumbnail sketches of colonies, the identifying the stars is not worthwhile

    • spectral class might be better
    • distance from Sol might be better.

I don’t know about “abandon”. Producing multiple output formats off the same source document is the ideal. If I had a free choice I’d make PDF, HTML and ePUB.

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Producing PDF from my source document in Pages is trivial.

Pages will export to EPUB, but is annoying about it: it inserts a page break before every paragraph of “chapter heading” style.

The document is short enough to mark up to HTML by hand, but maintenance becomes an issue that way.

FWIW ePub is basically a zip file of HTML, which means some programming may solve both your problems.

I must learn to do that,

  • I ought to describe the division of the Empire into Sectors and what there is at an SHQ.

The latest tranche of suggestions is that I should

  • Number the pages
  • Make the chapters more distinct to the reader
  • Make the chapter headings easier to read
  • Make the logical structure more obvious
  • Switch from left-aligned to justified text
  • Insert pictures to break up the walls of text
  • Give an idea of what to do with the setting
  • Explain what genre Flat Black is designed for, what stories it supports, and what stories won’t work.
  • Address typical tropes, describe a clichéd Flat Black adventure, set some common expectations.
  • Compare the setting to some movies or reference TV Tropes.
  • Explain whether the setting is rules-agnostic or intended for use with GURPS.

I’m a little bit puzzled by some of those.

Okey-dokey then. New draft. It’s 9,400 words and I really ought to stop, though technically it does fit into ten pages of ten-point type.

Edited to remove obsolete links. The current files can be downloaded from the On Line Texts page of the otherwise-defunct Flat Black wiki at Wikidot.

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I am perhaps inordinately pleased to have finished that introduction. It’s not very big at 9,300 words, but it is the first thing that I have managed actually to finish in several years, and I did it working through mild to moderate depression.

If anyone read it and was struck by a thought of what I ought to write next, do please tell!

(I need something better than Dropbox hosting.)

That is pretty good. It raised plenty of questions for me, but answered all of them within a couple of paragraphs of their appearance. The question I have left over is why you call the setting Flat Black?

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Back in 1986 I played in Tonio Loewald’s playtest campaign for ForeSight, which was set in his setting ForeScene: the Flawed Utopia. I loved ForeSight, but I very much did not like ForeScene, which was a preachy utopia. Not only did I think that most of Tonio’s utopian ideas were unworkable, but one result of it being a utopia was that there wasn’t enough for player characters to do in the volume of space actually described by the setting document. There was too little conflict, and too often the authorities stepped in to deal with what there was. Tonio took to running adventures &c in the Beyond—which is the area not described in 96 pages of tiny type. (Seriously! There are tables and illustrations and whitespace and so on, but there are about 1,500 words on each full page of text!)

The next year I decided to run my own ForeSight campaign, for which I wrote my own setting. I devised it very much to be not a utopia. I wanted to provide the widest possible range of possibilities for adventures for small groups of PCs, and I wanted them to be in the area described by the setting document, not beyond it. There didn’t seem to be any reason to put any nice bits in at all. Besides, I was 22 and cynical.

So I devised a setting that was unrelieved dystopian: flat black, not even gloss.

I’ve mellowed since then, but there has never seemed to be a compelling alternative to or reason to change the name. Those few people who know of the setting, “Flat Black” is what they know it as.

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A reader who was busy until now being two professors got back to me yesterday. She recommends that the Players’ Introduction to Flat Black would benefit from the following:

  • An early explicit statement that Flat Black does not feature magic, psionics, spiritual phenomena, mind-brain dualism, or scientifically implausible technology.
  • An explicit statement of the role of AI, with a statement that it is almost always inhuman in its mentality.
  • An explicit statement that intelligent aliens exist, but that they
    • are seldom at all humanoid, and in general less like humans biologically than an oak tree is, so that human-alien romance and mixed families are out of the question,
    • have cognitive processes that are as good as human ones, but different, and that sometimes evolved for solving a quite different problems, and
    • are disadvantaged and not numerous.

Has anyone a comment or suggestion about that?

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I’m in favour of explicit author-to-GM statements of this kind, because as a GM they’re the sort of high-level thing I need to know when I’m making up details that aren’t in the book.

except for the FTL drives.

Yeah. But I was trying hard to stay within 8,500 words, and thought it best to write about things that exist in the setting rather than about things that don’t exist. I’m not Stanislaw Lem.

… and the thing that induces fusion in air at STP.

I take your point, but even so I’d class things as things that the prospective GM needs to know. I’d probably have them pretty much as you’ve written them, though I might expand on mind-brain dualism to say something like “(personality uploading, etc.)”.

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“Except for having FTL, Flat Black is a scientifically and technologically realistic setting based on early twenty-first century science.”

That would seem to cover the great majority of the points you mention. I suppose you might change “What aliens there are are severely disadvantaged” by adding “and not remotely humanoid,” to exclude the rubber-suit option; I don’t think you need to discuss the impossibility of cross-breeding, as that’s covered by “scientifically realistic.”

It seems to me that what you are trying to do is contemporary science fiction, with a lot of its characteristic tropes, and very few of the tropes of post-WWII science fiction that were so prevalent in Star Trek: no time travel, no parallel worlds, no humanoid aliens, no psionics, no mutant superbeings, perhaps no humanoid robots (or does the setting have social interface robots, caregivers, sexbots, and so on?). I don’t think it should be necessary to list a lot of older tropes and anathematize them. If a GM using Flat Black wants to put in a race of psionic humanoid aliens, I don’t think you can stop them and I don’t really think you need to—but I don’t see that the text invites this.

As for the personality uploading that Roger mentions, it looks to me as if you say explicitly that it’s technologically feasible but that there’s insufficient demand to support it. That’s a different case.


Incidentally, I note that you use the term “android,” and it appears to mean synthetic humans or other synthetic biological organisms. That’s the usage I’m accustomed to as well, having read a lot of 1950s and 1960s SF. But it seems to me that recently, perhaps growing out of George Lucas’s references to “droids,” the word has come to mean a human robot, or more generally a motile robot with sensor and effector systems. We have the really ugly portmanteau word “bioroid” for what you are referring to—with “android” cut down to “roid” and prefixed with “bio-”. I don’t really like to recommend such a ghastly coinage, but “android” may cause misunderstanding. Perhaps “A-life,” a term actually used in the scientific literature?

Of course, this kind of confusion of language is endemic in SF. The very term “robot” originally mean a synthetic living organism in human shape; it was Americans like Binder and Asimov who adopted it for “mechanical men.”

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