"Flat Black" in ten pages of tiny type


My friend the double-barrelled professor is a fan of Star Trek and familiar with that fandom. She opines that unless the possibilities are clearly ruled out players will want to play half-aliens and Pinocchio-bots, and to have their characters fuck or marry aliens. She knows that that is ruled out by “scientifically realistic”. You know it, I know it, Roger knows it. Myriads, perhaps lakhs, of SF-fans know it. But millions of sci-fi fans whose main exposure is to Star Trek can’t be expected to. Such things happen in the sci-fi they are used to, and of course they don’t know what doesn’t happen in the SF they don’t read.

When my first paper¹ came back from the publishers Reviewer #2 had written some typically foolish comment about a certain passage not being clear. I complained to my supervisor that the passage was clear and that the problem was the Reviewer #2 is an idiot, but he told me something that I have treasured ever since: “If anyone says that your writing is not clear, then by definition it is not clear enough.” I re-wrote the passage.

Someone — I think it was @davidbofinger — commented once that Flat Black is not modern² science fiction, that it is essentially 70s SF with conservatively updated technology. I think that is essentially right. Perceptive chap, David.

¹ Evill, B. 1995 “Population, Urban Density, and Fuel Use: eliminating spurious correlation” in Urban Policy and Research Vol. 13 number 1, pp.29–36

² He made the comment about 1990 I think, certainly no later than 1995, but it remains true.


My use of “android technology” is a holdover from ForeSight (the RPG ruleset that I used to run most of my Flat Black campaigns) and its author’s published setting ForeScene: the Flawed Utopia. In those, “androids” were directly inspired by the replicants in Blade Runner. But Dick was long ago, and now our inspiration is in the Star Trek of a Soong. I ought to revise the reference.


It rather seems as if I have inspired you to clarify your position by offering a vigorous argument against it. I’m not sure I agree; I’ve long sympathized with William Blake’s maxim that “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” But you must judge your intended audience.

However—is this the only document players will read before they create characters? Or are you going to hand them a guide to character creation? I wonder if it might be more effective, if so, to say there that “characters can’t be aliens, because X; or half-alien hybrids, because they’re biologically impossible; or AIs/androids/robots/whatever you call them, because Y.” Put the advisory right in players faces when they start designing character, not in an overview that they may forget, or not read closely, perhaps skipping over the parts that they would rather not be limited by? You could even start the document I’m envisioning by saying, “Characters in Flat Black must be either human beings or members of genetically modified parahuman races.”


Many of my friends¹ are generous in providing that service. I have to resist the temptation to regard those clarifications as anything that anyone is actually interested in reading in setting material.

I’m not sure I agree; I’ve long sympathized with William Blake’s maxim that “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.” But you must judge your intended audience.

I think the difference between clarifying and simplifying is relevant here. I believe very much that anything worth saying has a certain real complexity, and that trying to explain it in terms simpler than that results in a statement that may be simple enough for an idiot but that is useless because it is wrong. Oversimplification results not in the idiot understanding, but in the idiot and all other readers and students being fooled by an irresponsible writer or teacher into confidently believing a misleading falsehood. But writing even more clearly than is necessary is no disservice to anyone. The reader of superior acumen, the one who might treasure unnecessary detail and who could puzzle out obscurity, might deplore simplification but will appreciate clarity as making the experience of reading easier and more pleasant.

However—is this the only document players will read before they create characters? Or are you going to hand them a guide to character creation?

My usual approach would be to offer this introduction in conjunction with a campaign prospectus, and then to hold “session zero” round-table discussions of the campaign specification, prototype adventure (“campaign ethos”), party template, and characters before allowing players to go on to character creation. But I might also make this introduction available with pre-generated characters.

I have run Flat Black games using several RPG systems such as ForeSight, HERO System, and GURPS, and I am contemplating Fudge. I suppose that in the unlikely event of anyone else wanting to run a Flat Black campaign they might want to use Traveller, Universe, Space Opera, Diaspora, modified Starblazers, Big Eyes, Small Mouth, modified Hollow Earth Expedition, their own home-brew, etc., so no guide to character generation could be as universal as this general introduction.

¹ We must comprehend this as “a large proportion of my friends”, to avoid being distracted by the question as to whether I have many friends.


That is true, but I have to say that were I planning to run a campaign of X in system Q rather than the intended system P, I would first read the character creation material for system P to get an idea of what I was trying to do in system Q.

And if the other GM does the equivalent of running Transhuman Space with FTL and alien invaders, or quantum thaumaturgy, or something else alien to the setting, well, it’s their campaign, n’est-ce pas?

Still, if you’re trying to help players decide whether an FB campaign is exactly the thing or not so much, it does make sense to tell them that this is not an oldstyle sci-fi campaign with a promiscuous mix of Astounding Science Fiction tropes.


All these perceptive things I say and forget until someone reminds me. I’m glad someone remembers.

If someone wants to play Spock in Flat Black they can: he’s a genetically modified colonist from a culture with unusual social features.

If they want to play a genuine alien, like the Horta, then I might allow it if they were keen but it seems a lot of work for GM and player.

If they want to play Data then I think they should be out of luck. Nothing in Flat Black is so bespoke, and IMO non-biological AI should not exist in the setting.


  1. Planets in Star Trek are always being destroyed, over time scales short with planetary formation. My theory is that the Star Trek universe is regularly trashed and reconstructed, in the manner of Pratchett’s Strata. Our fossil record is fiction. Our entire ecosystem’s age is measured in thousands of years, not billions.

  2. Matthew Doulgeris used to say that the Auronar in Blake’s Seven were descended from mutant or genetically engineered human colonists. In a parallel universe in which Terry Nation cared about anything in Blake’s Seven having internal consistency I think he’d be right.


Terry never really worked out the difference between a solar system and a galaxy.

@Agemegos, am I right in thinking that these documents assume no canonical game system? And that therefore the package delivered to the potential GM doesn’t really contain a character generation guide in the sense in which we’d normally understand it?


That’s right. I am a firm believer in the separation of background material from game systems.


You know, that’s an approach I thought of for an interstellar campaign. I was going to assume that a diaspora had taken place and produced colonists of human ancestry on a variety of worlds, along the lines of James Blish’s idea of “pantropy” (cheaper than terraforming, was Blish’s argument). Neal Stephenson did something along those lines in Seveneves, though I found the political allegory a bit heavy handed and the confinment to circum-Earth orbit too small a stage.


Ursula Leguin supposed that the Hainish had done something of the sort as the background of several novels including The Left Hand of Darkness.


It seems fairly common in older SF. Heinlein hints at it in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, and of course Larry Niven used it in Protector. I didn’t think it was plausible when Niven did it—the primates have too long an evolutionary history and fossil record, and their biochemistry is too similar to that of other mammals—and of course it really doesn’t work now that DNA sequencing is cheap. But that doesn’t prevent its being done in SF set in the future, after a human diaspora.

“We know we didn’t evolve on this planet because our genetic coding is too different” shows up in Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite, and could plausibly be used elsewhere.


It has been mentioned in recent Traveller material.


If I understand you correctly, “it” refers to “We know we didn’t evolve on this planet because our genetic coding is too different”?


That’s right. I remember suggesting in some discussion that it might make the Vilani susceptible to creationism.