NGOs for a somewhat "Traveller"-like setting

In my somewhat Traveller-like setting Flat Black players have tended to play characters who are working for the Empire in some capacity or another, to a greater extent than I had in mind when I designed it. The Empire in Flat Black is supposed to be undermanned and politically constrained, with supremacy in space but strictly limited power on inhabited worlds, and the whole idea of the setting is supposed to be that there is a lot that needs fixing on various planets that PCs have to cope with or fix themselves, because there is a lot of important stuff that the Empire is not doing. This being the case I would like to create a range of non-government organisations for the setting, particularly ones that might be inclined to meddle. Ones that PCs might work for will be good. Ones that will serve as recurring antagonists and plot-driving schemers will also be good. I’d welcome your suggestions.

So far, I already have the following, some of which could do with touching up a little. For example, some could do with better names.

Amnesty Interstellar

Amnesty Interstellar is a non-government civil liberties organisation that is concerned with the plight of prisoners of conscience. It runs publicity campaigns on liberal worlds to collect money and raise awareness, it attempts to bring public pressure to bear from interstellar and local publics against governments that hold and abuse prisoners on account of their beliefs and political views. It lobbies against the creation and continuation of laws that permit governments to make people political prisoners. Where this is possible it provides legal counsel and advocacy to prisoners of conscience. Its extremist members are rumoured secretly to send effectives or hire mercenaries to effect the gaolbreak of prisoners who are either high-profile or in imminent danger of execution or mindwipe.

Democracy Unlimited

Democracy Unlimited is a movement dedicated to protecting the principle of democracy in colonial governments. The organisation monitors elections and plebiscites, provides training and organisational support to electoral officials. It campaigns in favour of democracy and against what it perceives as autocratic, oligarchic, and technocratic trends, or anti-democratic features in mixed constitutions, and aginsts corrupt, and dodgy electoral laws and procedures. It campaigns both openly in flawed democracies and clandestinely in hybrid regimes, and is accused of subversion and terrorism in autocratic, technocratic regimes. Democracy Unlimited is widely believed to be partly funded, supported, manipulated, and used by the governments of colonies in the “Fed” faction in Imperial politics and their clandestine services.

For Democracy Unlimited the big business is to promote the formation of democratic governments on newly-settled worlds, and to promote their eventual progress to the status of First Class Colony, so that they will appoint senators who favour democracy and drive on eventually to a democratic takeover of the Empire and the extension of democracy to currently autocratic, oligarchic, and technocratic colonies.


GreenWar is an organisation dedicated to protecting living environments. One wing is more concerned with protecting the ecologies &c. of inhabited worlds (which are mostly the artificial results of past terraforming) to keep them beautiful and highly habitable. Another wing is highly incensed by the destruction of autochthonous biospheres on planets that are being terraformed for continued human settlement. The latter campaigns against terraforming projects and in favour of human population control. Access to planets that are being terraformed for the purpose of blockades sabotage etc. is restricted and difficult, so extremists are sometimes moved instead to attacks, including terrorist attacks, against the Eichberger Realty Company and other terraformation enterprises, emigrants, newly-settled terraformed worlds, and facilities associated with to symbolic of human population growth.

The Historical Institute

The Humanity League

The Humanity League is the largest and most widespread humanitarian organisation, analogous to the Red Cross/Crescent/Symbol. Adopting a strict and highly-respected policy of neutrality, it attempts to organise practical relief efforts for victims of epidemic, famine, disaster, displacement, and war. The Humanity League is sometimes criticised for not doing enough to denounce and punish perpetrators, war criminals, tyrants and the like, whose activities cause more suffering than the league is able to prevent.

The Journalists’ Guild

The Journalists’ Guild is a professional association that certifies and protects reporters, travel writers, bloggers, vloggers and so forth who adhere to high professional and ethical standards. It campaigns against restrictions on the freedom of the press (broadly defined). It provides accreditation to ethical journalists, quasi-consular services to its more highly-qualified members when they are working on planets other than their homes, tries to supply a network of contacts to members, acts as an escrow institution for confidential information, provides legal counsel and representation at need to dues-paying members, engages in a certain amount of political activism in favour of a free and diverse press (favouring “reporters” over “publishers”), and has been rumoured to send effectives or hire mercenaries to rescue highly-credentialed members from various plights such as imprisonment.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Autochthones

The SPCA exists to protect and to promote the interests of sapient aliens, especially those who live on worlds that have been settled by humans and grossly harmed by past terraforming. It also agitates to ensure that no more planets with autochthonous sophonts are terraformed in future.

The Sons of Patrick Henry

The Sons of Patrick Henry is an interstellar civil rights organisation promoting individual liberty, but not sharing Democracy Unlimited’s concern with individual participation in government. That is, the SoPH is okay with technocratic and aristocratic governments if they work well and aren’t otherwise oppressive. Its main efforts are exerted against slavery and serfdom including the slave-like condition of AIs and artificial organisms that are made so as not to object to exploitation. It also objects to mass detentions and deportations e.g. of racial, political, and economic groups. The SoPH is much more respectable than Democracy Unlimited: it is not known for agitprop training freedom fighters, etc. It runs political and publicity campaigns, mostly, and is also known to have organised, supported, and operated a number of underground railroads for refugees and runaway slaves. However, “rogue effectives” of the SoPH have sometimes perpetrated “surgical” interventions in political affairs and industrial operations that individuals favouring slavery and concentration camps have denounced as “terrorism”.

(Yes, they are really more John Brown than Patrick Henry: no-one said that they were great students of pre-spaceflight history.)

The Planned Progress League

The Planned Progress League is ostensibly an interstellar advocacy organisation for the rights, just treatment, and acceptance of AIs, uplifts, “androids” (synthetic people) and in some places the beneficiaries and products of genetic engineering, gene selection, biomodification, augmentation, and high-tech surgery. It engages in publicity, propaganda, lobbying, and advocacy, provides information and organisational resources, legal counsel and representation and so forth, both to people with “advanced features” and to the professionals and enterprises that supply e.g. gene-fixing and gene selection services, biomodifications, android production, and who experiment with uploading. The PPL sometimes sends teams of effectives (not all of whom are genetically-engineer cyborg super-spies) to perform clandestine operations and rescues on planets where advanced features are illegal or threatened with legislative persecution.

The PPL is assisted and partly sponsored by the government of Simanta (a very highly-developed planet occupied by parahumans in a functioning organic state), and is rumoured also to engage in clandestine actions that promote technocratic constitutions in opposition to Democracy Unlimited, to further the interests of the “Public Safety” faction in the Imperial Senate (the “Jackals”).

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Could be worse, could be the sons of John Henry, insisting on the rights of humanity to perform manual labour.

Some sort of “push evolution forward” pro-AI group? (I don’t know whether your setting has uploads, but even without that: “Every death is a tragedy, let’s have a new sort of humanity that can at least be backed up.”)

An ecological group that also wishes to preserve non-living environments. Yes, there are lots of asteroids, but each one is unique – and while space-based industry doesn’t pollute planets, it does still emphasise the stuff-based mode of living.

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No religions?

Or religion-like-entities? Spiritual disciplines? You’d expect at least the equivalent of Krishna Consciousness groups hanging around spaceports.

And there shouldn’t just be reflections of modern politics from Earth. There should be political groups based on Confucian principles, Mo-ist and Legalist too. And political groups from non-human cultures with their own One True Way that they want to promote. (The Institute for The Six Supreme Principles. The Temple Searching For The Reincarnate God-King. The way of Custard.)

Perhaps there ought to be more religions. I tend not to do them very well because I lack sympathy for religious belief, besides which in designing the setting I was aiming at a Vancean tone: in the works of Jack Vance that I sought to emulate the cosmopolitan characters never mention nor act on religious belief, while religion is depicted as a quirk (or worse) of parochial wearers of planetary hats. Several of my players are more religious than I and only one less so, so I find it most politic not to mention religion much.

In Flat Black I generally take the position that frank religiosity continued to decline on Earth through the 21st, and 22nd centuries, partly through the continued influence of multiculturalism, partly because progress in cosmology and understanding of biology undermined the hypothesis of the creator, and largely because progress in neuroscience and AI undermined the concept of the soul. Of course people still have the psycho-social needs and cravings that religion served — need for a belief in purpose, need to a feeling of belonging, reassurance, need to gather for a common purpose and act in unison (sing, dance, chant etc.) etc. But those tend now to to be provided separately by hobbies, fandoms, sports, ostensibly non-religious personal-improvement programs, political ideologies, educational ideologies etc. In a way, I suppose, you could construe the Empire itself as a religious cause.

Still. The government of San Pietro is officially a patriarchate of the Catholic Church. Versions of Islam are powerfully influential on Hijra and Zajiwah, Anglico-Orthodoxy on Oikoskyriou, wildly divergent varieties of Protestant Christianity on Emmaus and Pentecost, Catholicism on New Rome, Mahayana on Maitreya, Confucianism on Xindalu… And that’s without considering political faiths to be religions. On Navabharata the peasants worship their landlords and eat them if the crops fail.

Should I do interstellar religions? Semi-religions like belief in mind-uploading or positions for and againsT psychotechnics? Forms of yoga and psychological improvement? Soccer? Cricket? (Rugby is already the national religion of the Imperial Marines.) Bear in mind that I’m mostly interested in NGOs that PCs might work for or against, or that might recur as third parties of interest in PCs’ adventures.

I’m a little bit disappointed that you recognise the PPL, SoPH, Democracy Unlimited etc. as reflections of contemporary politics. I must work harder on that.

Michael is the expert here, but I have similar problems with empathising about religiosity (possibly because my banding/community/tribe-seeking instinct is largely undeveloped).

When thinking about religions in optimistic future settings, I start from the basis that belief in explicit supernaturalism is dead. What a religion offers (assuming it’s not in a dominant social position; e.g. there are lots of other religions, and/or lots of non-religious people) is a package of tribalism and morality. “This is Our Group, and we do things This Way because it’s the right way.” It’s not so much “act correctly and you’ll go to heaven”, much more “act correctly and this world will be a better place”.

What does the core society fail to do? There will be a religion saying it should do it.

My main religious entity in Wives and Sweethearts hasn’t come up much in play because I’m still working out the details, but broadly it’s a secularised Islam after its equivalent of a Reformation. The Rightly Guided Caliphates are a minor but significant spacefaring power, with a distinctly different way of doing things from the broad hybrid of capitalism and social safety-nets (this is GURPS TL11, there’s a fair bit of Stuff for everyone) that the other powers tend to manifest.

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I’ve always found the continuation of religion ‘by other means’ in DUNE to be more convincing than the idea that it just dies away which I find on a level with Russian belief that of course aliens advanced enough for interstellar flight would be Communists!

I don’t know what form it would take any more than I can come up with a convincing and workable new form of politics: the CULTURE books just cheat by using magical cybernetic minds to declare politics a solved problem.

And that’s what the problem is with futurist SF: we can only answer the questions we can imagine now and the centuries to come won’t still be interested in all of those. So it’s inevitable that your interstellar NGOs are dealing with at most extensions of political questions we ask now. All I could ask is that you look at the past for inspiration for things that aren’t entirely based on modern, pre-interstellar flight Earth.

Tell you what! How about a genetic engineering institute that will design a royal family for you? Tailored to suit your particular society and warranted mentally and genetically stable for minimum of five generations or your money back!

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With the proviso that the design of pedagogies and formative curriculums is a larger part than the genetics, that’s a major element of the setting — the Imperial Family/Imperial Council that runs the Empire is essentially such an artificial dynasty. Large-scale political struggle is essentially between

  1. The democratic-republican colonies and support for liberal democracy (the “Responsible Government” or “Federation” faction in the Senate), sometimes acting through Democracy Unlimited

  2. A bunch of advanced and wealthy colonies such as Simanta that tend to be in the ballpark of the World State in Brave New World, Plato’s Republic etc, (the “Public Safety” or “Jackals” faction in the Senate), sometimes acting through the Planned Progress League

  3. A defensive alliance of unreformed autocracies and oligarchies (the “Colonies’ Rights” or “League of Repressive Autocracies” faction in the Senate).

The leagues and their members do try to subvert or convert one another; they also contend over the types of governments established on new worlds and the admission of new colonies’ senators into the Senate.

The LRA has some sort of joint venture called the “Organisation for Co-operation and Mutual Development” that tries to act as a counterpoise to Imperial development assistance spending to attach poor and underdeveloped colonies’ autocratic rulers to LRA interests. I guess that ought to be listed with the interstellar NGOs even though its not as non-government as the rest.

But anyway, designing and creating a ruling family or a ruling class for a society, government, or corporation is something that I have always depicted as the work of commercial services. You get ontogenic engineers from Simanta to design you genefix or your parahuman ruling caste, then you get social engineers from Todos Santos to design their character and the curriculum that with produce it. I suppose I should think more about the Social Engineering Advisory Service (of the Colonial Office of the Empire) providing such services on a subsidy, and about an NGO other than the PPL that might work like Plato in Syracuse to improve the professionalism, ethics, and genetics of hereditary rulers.

I take the opposite view, perhaps because my own materialist atheism seems perfectly plausible to me. Also, I do not suppose that in Flat Black religious belief has died away from some mysterious process of historical development. Rather, I say that in this fictional setting developments in cognitive science, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence have deprived the idea of an immaterial soul of all intellectual credibility. Cartesian dualism is down for the count, and 85% of people (more on developed planets with good education systems) would disavow any belief in souls or other immaterial spirits. This has combined with the existing factors driving the current decline in religious belief to continue a trend that is already evident in the world around us. In such a case I suppose that something else will step in to fill the role of religion, and in some cases different things will step in to fulfil different parts of the role. Politics, schools of psychotherapy and self-help, fandoms, ….

In any case, the task of an SF RPG settings is not to be an accurate nor even a particularly likely projection of the future. It is to support adventures in a particular mode, to constitute a setting where X who are Y do Z. I am aiming for Jack Vance, not Frank Herbert.

How about a splinter faction of GreenWar, called Whole Earth or True Nature or something similar? They want all those terraformed worlds to have their biosphere ‘repaired’ to make it more biologically accurate. Basically to put back in all the icky and inconvenient stuff the original terraformers deliberately left out. For example, terraformers will have built a biosphere which contains grass and sheep. They probably didn’t include wolves, canine distemper, mange, sheep ticks and the liver flukes which use both sheep and wolves as part of their life cycle. The Whole Earthers want these back, along with the Anopheles mosquito, malaria, bird flu, bovine TB and the like. Because it is not a proper ecosystem without all these things to drive natural selection!

There’s bound to be some NGO which frets about declining educational standards across space and sends out fact finders to assess educational styles in different cultures. They are sort of half anthropologists, half Ofsted Inspectors in Spaaace! UK Gov site on Ofsted

The Arts Council in Space. They don’t care that you are oppressing your populace. They do care if your oppression includes stopping your citizens writing poetry, making movies, holding fashion shows or expressing their political discontent through the medium of interpretational dance. Plenty of chances for them to cock things up utterly by not understanding a Vancean culture where the colour of your hat is not a fashion statement or a status symbol, but something uniquely local.

The Society for the Prevention of Sex Tourism. World A prevents or does not have some human cultural/gender/anatomical variant. World B permits it or has plenty. People from World A travel to World B to get laid with the person of their personal preference. Inspiration is Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man where everywhere except one planet agrees there are 5 genders, except the backward planet which insists there are only 2. Sex tourists go there, because shagging gender #4 might be forbidden at home, but here all the #4s are classed as men, which is legal. The NGO will be running about trying to stamp out exploitation and/or trafficking. Or just being a bunch of prudes.

Have you ever looked at the Sufficiently Advanced RPG? It is filled with weird post-human cultures. The Patent Office variant of that has the PCs as agents who receive messages from the future telling them to suppress or disseminate new inventions, in order to avoid the fall of civilisation.

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Thanks, DrBob. I particularly like the Arts Council in Space. It will go well if I ever run another campaign in which the PCs are unscrupulous artefact acquisition agents.

The educational standards outfit would be wracked, perhaps even divided into two opposed NGOs, over the question of whether children ought to be raised in “natural” (i.e. uncontrolled) environments and subject to random formative experiences, or in environments and subject to courses of formative experiences that have been designed by the engineers of developmental psychology.

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By the way, Flat Black originally wasn’t and notionally still isn’t meant to be an optimistic setting. I thought of it originally as pessimistic, in that (a) every colony had a society that was horribly screwed up in some way or other, and (b) the interstellar power was a scary bunch of high-handed and hard-nose fanatics who would do anything to save lives and nothing in the cause of virtue, ease, pleasure, or beauty. I guess it says something sad, probably about my aging, that I now longer describe it as “pessimistic” or “dystopian”.

Quite. That makes for a lot of things that insist that they are political causes and strenuously deny that they are religion, but that are religions.

I really aim not to have a core society. The Empire is a dominant power in interstellar affairs, but it’s a cipher culturally and socially.

  • The Empire is not democratic itself, and doesn’t promote democracy in autocratic societies, at least it does so rarely, secretly and not for the sake of democracy itself. Democracy Unlimited says it ought to and denies that it is a religion.
  • The Empire does little, and nothing consistently, to extend, improve, or defend civil liberties. The Sons of patrick Henry says it ought to and denies that it is a religion.
  • The Empire clears ten life-bearing planets per year of their autochthonous biospheres and replaces those with artificially-engineered Terran-based biospheres for human settlement. GreenWar is apoplectic and freaking, and denies that it is a religion.
  • The Empire never so much as lifts a finger to preserve, let alone promote, art, music, performing art, literature, architecture, cuisine, couture, antiques, historical sites, customs, or languages. It seems to behave as though everything of value in that line was destroyed along with Earth. DrBob’s suggested Interstellar Council of the Arts says it ought and denies that it is a religion.
  • The Empire does nothing to promote the formation of rationally-designed technocratic constitutions and organismic societies in which specialised people are bred and trained for different roles. The Planned Progress League says it ought to and denies that it is a religion.
  • The Empire does nothing much to promote the design and use of education systems in which children are exposed to a scientifically-designed course of formative experiences in well-designed environments to make them happy and resilient adults. One version of DrBob’s suggested Ofsted Inspectors in Spaaace would be intent that it ought to, and yet deny that it was a religion.
  • Landlords exploit tenants, capitalists exploit workers, basic-income recipients exploit capitalists; but Marxism denies it is a religion.

By “optimistic” I think I mean “there is still a working society, with some overall degree of social and technological progress”. Or possibly “it’s a world I might choose to live in, even if I had to inhabit a completely random person there rather than getting to choose one of the ruling class”.

I see an ongoing decay of supernatural belief as a pretty much inevitable concomitant of scientific progress, which leaves less room for the “god of the gaps”… Lots of things will deny that they’re religions – there’s a long history of that, certainly including Communism in some times and places – but if they do the job of a religion then they can fill a similar cultural role, and the labels don’t necessarily matter.

Actually, even if you’re talking about explicitly supernaturalist religions, in a setting this huge even a tiny fraction of True Believers is enough to get together and set up a planet where things are done the Right Way. “Oh, we know that we can’t expect God to make miracles on demand, but that’s no reason to throw out all the good that Second Reformation Dobbsianism has to offer.” They may not have much influence on the interstellar scale, but…

And for that matter the Society of Friends (Quakers) are ahead of the game here – it’s basically impossible to pin them down on what they think God is like, because that’s a matter for the individual, but if you get one as your ambulance driver you can be sure he’s going to be really good at it because he’s doing it to the glory of God and if he were lousy he’d have found some other way to glorify God instead.

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Yeah. Our standards aren’t as high as they were in our early twenties.

That depends necessarily on the alternatives!

I like the quip “[a]n optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds; a pessimist fears that this might be true”. In Flat Black mankind has all the wherewithal needed to effect a utopia, but almost everyone is miserable.

And I. Furthermore I think that progress in neuroscience, cognitive science, and AI is going to resolve the mysteries that provide space for the “soul of the gaps”. Even more important is this — even if you and I are wrong about that in fact, Flat Black is a fictional setting in which by premise it did turn out that way. My more religious players can take atheon and anatman in the same way that they suspend their disbelief in magic and fictive pantheons for a typical fantasy setting.

That’s my answer to Michael’s query “No religions?”, then.

Absolutely! I have planets such as Covenant, Al Hijra, New Rome, Emmaus, Zajiwah, Oikoskyriou, Pentecost, Maitreya, and Xindalu on which 22nd-Century versions of current religions took refuge from modernity. Besides that there are failed religious utopias founded by new revelations of the 222nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries, some of which have become very backward because of their economic failures after the Destruction of Earth. And then you have societies and individuals who use sciencey terminology to describe their theistic or animistic understanding of the world. Good science eduction is far from universal.

Buddhism, especially the Theravada, has some of the same ju-ju, as its doctrines include a statement that any gods which might exist are irrelevant, and a teaching that there is no such thing as a soul.

I’m happy for these things to be available, but I don’t want to make them prominent features of the setting for thematic reasons. I want the players in a rational, not a faith-based confrontation with the Empire’s brutal calculus of saving lives, I want PCs racked by doubt, not buoyed by faith.

I am enjoying this discussion and finding it valuable, even when specific suggestions aren’t what I need and I explain why. If I am coming across as defensive and argumentative please accept my apology.

Don’t worry - it’s an interesting conversation. (I’m even using it as displacement activity to avoid hoovering!)

Have you ever read any of Sheri Tepper’s books? Two of her common themes which crop up a lot are (1) the Big Lie at the heart of every society, and (2) religion as a controlling force in people’s lives.

The Big Lie (possibly better phrased as Big Contradiction) is not a hidden conspiracy or dirty secret (though her books have those too), but rather something everyone knows about, and everyone ignores, even if they sometimes have to jump through hoops to do so. So, to give a real world example - if you are a Mafia guy, then the contradictory things are:
a) You must prove your machismo by sleeping with as many women as possible;
b) If anyone sleeps with your girlfriend, mother or sister, it is a terrible slur on your honour and you must kill them.

Tepper’s ones tend to be more science fictional. Sometimes they are in your face (“Definitely no aliens on this planet, no sirree! Nope, that over there’s just a figment of your imagination.”) and other times there is sort of an unreliable narrator going on. For instance if you visited the world of The Gate to Women’s Country, you’d instantly notice the odd thing and ask “Say, why is your town XYZ?”, but the protagonist thinks XYZ is completely normal so doesn’t notice until it is pointed out to her in the final section of the book.

In The Companions, she had an organisation called In God’s Image: Humans First & Only who were dedicated to the destruction of all animals, since they take up valuable space and resources which could be used by humans. You could dial them up to 11 and have them wanting to destroy all alien animals as well as Earthly ones.

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How does the Empire dominate? Or do you hand wave that?

Hmm. So the Empire is empire-forming planets with life on them? (Presumably non-sapient life.)

I can see an NGO dedicated to recording as much as it can about that life. They might be allied with GreenWar, or at least prepared to talk to each other, but they’re not trying to prevent the destruction - humanity needs planets! But there might be something interesting in terms of weird chemosynthesis or strange presapient societal patterns or whatever, so they do a massive data gathering exercise, and later it can be gone over and maybe learned from.

Or maybe the data crystal will sit on a shelf for fifty years until someone’s looking for an M.Sc. planetology thesis topic.

There’s a certain Time Team vibe: learn all you can before the bulldozers come in next week. Probably some of them hope that they’ll learn something Really Amazing and stop the clearance, but they don’t really have time to check the data; that would get in the way of gathering.

I like this. Possibly this NGO might be also dedicated to running continuing simulations of what they recorded pre-destruction. These simulations could themselves be the subject of argument because a faction might want to derive actual useful information and another might want simulations that always inevitably collapse early to offset some present value calculation made to address the long-term impact of the destruction. All of the fun of the matrix and calculating the underfunded portion of a defined benefit pension plan at the same time.

It has the monopoly of armed and interstellar transport. It maintains this by keeping armed spacecraft in orbit around every world with the industrial capacity to make spacecraft, and destroying anything that leaves the atmosphere without having first passed inspection. In the case of spacecraft constructed in orbit, it inspects throughout construction. It licenses and monitors spacecraft crews. It conducts periodic and random inspections of operating spacecraft and space habitats, and it spies on research and industry that could potentially produce an FTL drive or secretly build a spacecraft.

If any world resisted to the extent of attacking its ships in orbit e…g. by using ground-based weapons it would concentrate massive force in eight weeks or less and using orbital weapons systematically to destroy the industrial base of the planet, destroying all important transport and communications hubs and links, orbital assets, significant power stations and manufacturing facilities, warehouses, stockpiles of raw and semi-finished materials, large or military vehicles, military bases, groundports, and partridges in pear-trees. It never threatens to kill everyone on the planet and render it permanently uninhabitable by using one of its CT weapons, but everyone knows that it could and that it reckons one planet and its entire population an acceptable price to pay to prevent a renewal of the state of war that existed before it took over.

In short, it dominates by naval and commercial supremacy in space, force, the threat of force, and terror.

The colonies tolerate this — rather than strangling the Empire with an economic embargo, for instance — partly because resistance would be costly and hard to organise, partly because the Senate (consisting of their appointees) is nominally in charge and does exercise some restraint, and partly because the Empire is constrained against meddling and meddles little in their internal affairs.

From a Doylist perspective the Empire is set up this way

  • to keep the multitude of colonies culturally and socially isolated, so that they remain quirky,
  • to allow colonial societies to remain variously horrible, so that PCs will have plenty to struggle against, and
  • to make players not keen to hand issues over to the Proper Authorities, besides
  • preventing player characters from owning and operating private interstellar ships.

The Empire and its situation in Flat Black are if anything over-developed. I didn’t originally mean it for a setting for playing Imperial servants in, but it has turned out that way — perhaps because I didn’t put in enough early work on other interstellar organisations.

Yes. The main reason that the Imperial executive turned out more independent than the people planned for who negotiated the Treaty of Luna (which is to say, the constitution), and that the Empire turned out more powerful than they expected, is that the monopoly of interstellar travel gave the Empire lucrative control of access to new worlds for real estate development. There is some political argy-bargy about their interim government, the types of governments that they will get, and the admission of their senators into the Senate, but that has all been running rumbling along for about 35 years on terms that are not bad enough for anyone to make them pull the plug. The Empire needs an Establishment Act for each new world, and with the help of grease from the aid budget to colonies in the “Levellers” faction and a balance of the interests of the LRA, Feds, and Jackals factions (over what governments they will have, and the likely impact on the balance of power in the Senate in fifty years) they pass in batches of about ten per year.

Now, there are plenty of planets and some moons that are suitable for life but that have no autochthonous life on them. But they have no oxygen to breathe and highly reduced chemical environments that will take a lot of oxidising before oxygen can start accumulating. The Empire and its predecessors have inoculated a vast number of such planets and moons with organisms that will make them habitable to aerobes. But that is going to take at least about ten thousand years.

There are also multitudes of planets that have simple, anaerobic biologies on them including nothing more sophisticated than a stromatolite. But those haven’t yet produced a breatheable atmospheres. The Empire and earlier interstellar travellers have dropped biome bombs on them, too. But it will take at least a couple of thousand years, and probably a succession of further inoculations, to produce a breathable atmosphere.

To meet the immediate needs of the growing human population for living space and of the Empire for revenue, it is necessary to terraform planets that will be habitable to paying settlers in only a few decades. That means terraforming planets (and moons) that already have pp(O₂) of at least 10 kPa at the surface. Ideally, it means terraforming planets that already have soil. And practically that means at least devastating and often exterminating the biospheres that produced said oxygen and soil. These often — usually — include multi-cellular organisms and some that exhibit behaviour. GreenWar is furious.

The Empire is in fact very careful not to terraform any worlds with sapient autochthones, and has set a lot of worlds aside under interdict because they have species on them that are sapient or might be nearly so. But it is just not the sort of organisation that would allow observers to come along on its preliminary investigations unless the Senate insisted, partly because GreenWar is violently opposed to the terraformation even of worlds with nothing living on them but anaerobic slime.