Omitting distracting detail, notably history and features of the Empire

Flat Black is intended for adventures and campaigns which involve the PCs coming as [often cosmopolitan] outsiders to a [series of] exotic planets with peculiar and parochial human societies, there striving to cope with the bizarre social and political oddities as they pursue some goal. The whole interstellar framework of history, institutions, and FTL travel is designed to justify the the existence and continued peculiarity of a sufficient variety of societies, while allowing groups of PCs to travel between them with a variety of goals and missions that are not rendered either impossible or redundant by powerful and well-staffed institutions.

The first version of a hand-out for players, distributed as a slim sheaf of photocopied pages in 1987, relied on the star system and society generators in ForeSight to imply the variety of planets, and concentrated on setting universals. Only about 760 of its 9,900 words were devoted to general remarks about the colonies. Perhaps it was fateful that the first campaign was a considerable success and involved the PCs working as Imperial servants — that led to a good deal of attention falling on the environment and society of Imperial habitats and the organisation of and conditions of service with the Empire. The second campaign was for PCs who were colonials, but was less influential.

Then there have been a lot of discussions of Flat Black over the decades, with players and with other readers, which have driven me to revise weaknesses and to commit to specific justifications for setting features. These have for one reason or another concentrated overwhelmingly on setting universals and the history that justifies them. The result is that I have written an awful lot of detail about the globalisation of society and culture on Earth in the next 350 years, the technical limitations of the just-as-fast-as-light technology by which the primary colonies were founded, the motivations of colonists in the Age of Colonisation, the economics of emigration, the economics of immigration, the effects of the destruction of Earth on the colonies in the Age of Isolation, collapse, recovery, and economic growth, the economics of the invention of the Eichberer drive, the behaviour of the pirates in the Age of Piracy, the ethics of the Fleet’s conduct in the Formation Wars, the plausibility of those wars ending in a stalemate, the negotiations at the Lunar Conference and the details and plausibility of the failure of the Treaty of Luna, Imperial revenues, Imperial budget expenditures, political factions in the Senate, the demography of Imperial Direct Jurisdiction, the pay and pensions of Imperial servants, promotion rates in the Imperial Service, Imperial security, childhood and schools in IDJ, the numbers and age structure of the Imperial Council, the names and reigns of the presidents of the Imperial Council, the organisation of Imperial Marines units, marines training, promotion, and after-care, the proportion of time that marines spend in different kinds of operations, Imperial decorations and honours….

I suppose that sounds like a complaint. But I have enjoyed the process, and I am grateful for the care and effort that my interlocutors have lavished on this pet of mine. And I am pleased with, perhaps inordinately proud of, what I have created through this process.

On the other hand, it doesn’t all belong in a description of the setting for actual players. Not only is there way too much of it, it is the wrong sort of stuff. Detail draws attention, and nearly all this detail is in the interstellar framework, whereas I want the players’ attention focussed on the colonies. I want players who read their guide to get the impression that Flat Black consists of a trillion people living on a thousand worlds, not of fifty million people staffing an interstellar regime.

So my resolution for the new version I am working on is to say a lot more about the colonies, and include actual examples, and to say a lot less about history, the Empire, and interstellar affairs. The killing floor will be knee-deep in darlings. I comfort myself with the thought that there may one day be a Flat Black: player’s guide to Imperial service in which some of them are restored to life in new, perfect bodies.

As I said in the thread about the new text, the plan of the work is starting to look like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Abstract
  3. Technology
  4. Interstellar transportation
    • Cargo
    • Passengers
    • The Demi-Monde
  5. The Colonies
    • Astrography
    • Diverse origins
    • Habitable planets & moons
      • Size, density, & gravity
      • The colour & brightness of sunlight
      • Surface temperature
      • Atmospheric composition & pressure
      • Oceans
      • Daylength
    • Human population
    • Economy
      • Level of economic development
      • Mode of production
      • Prosperity, wealth, & inequality
      • Participation in interstellar trade
      • Spaceport facilities
    • Settlement structure
    • Social structure
      • Families & households
      • Firms & workplaces
      • Social groups & third places
      • Stratification & social mobility
    • Manners, customs, & culture
    • Government & legislation
    • Law enforcement, penalties, & the judiciary
    • Orbital habitats & the limits of colonial sovereignty
  6. The Empire
  7. Interstellar firms & NGOs
  8. Intelligent Aliens
  9. Campaigns, adventures, & player characters

My own feeling about such introductory documents is that it’s best to get to player characters early on. A page or so of “you are Xs from Y who do Z” is okay, but a lot of people will be looking at your document mainly to get a start on creating characters; the more pages they have to read before they get to do that, the stronger the incentive to give up or start skimming.

So, for example, the prospectus for Under the Shadow (Middle-Earth where Sauron got the One Ring and occupied everything from Minas Tirith to the Grey Havens) had this outline: General Themes, Character Creation, Interpreting Attributes, New Attributes, Magic, Racial Templates, Creatures, Equipment, Mechanics, and Source Material. Of course, my players already were familiar with Middle-Earth! I expect your players would need more of a guide to the setting. . . .

Quite. I have fairly rigid views about the separation of game mechanics from source material, and I expect to use different sets in different campaigns and with different groups. If I were to start a game on the Internet with the friends I made on the SJ Games forums I expect that the demand would be for a GURPS game, and I would have to start by writing a book of GURPS templates for character creation. But most (not all) of my face-to-face gaming friends would either decline to play if GURPS were offered or spend half an hour with the rules and then balk. I was very much struck when you kindly showed me the material for your fantasy setting Tapestry that you had written it in GURPSish. That’s not an approach that I would ever take, I think.

That suggests modular documentation of some sort. So you might start with a moderately detailed “X who do Y”, then lead in to the character generation notes for a particular system, then go on to additional background information not necessary to character creation.

Or even, dare I say it, a short scene or two illustrating the desired game mode.

I can almost always do that because I’ve decided what engine to use before I hand out the protocols, and my players have agreed to it. For example, when I ran Under the Shadow, we used Big Eyes Small Mouth (that might not seem an obvious choice, but the underlayer of animism was a very close fit to the way things worked in Middle-Earth); so there wasn’t a question of players balking—I had their agreement to the rules system ahead of time.

I’m not sure at what stage you’re thinking of handing out the information packet. If it’s at the prospectus stage, where you’re using it as a sales pitch or recruitment aid, my custom has been to keep descriptions much shorter, no more than half a page. At that stage I usually specify the intended engine. This might be a peculiarity of how my mind works, but I often have a strong aesthetic sense that a campaign with a particular premise and setting needs to be run in a particular game system—Zimiamvia in Amber Diceless, or the Middle-Earth campaign in Big Eyes Small Mouth, or my current archaeological/anthropological fantasy campaign in GURPS. That is, I don’t usually feel that any game system is a neutral medium that could suit any campaign, not even if it’s a “universal” system. Of course players who detest a particular system may turn down a campaign that I want to run in it.

I am afraid that putting “Campaigns, Adventures, & Player Characters” directly after “Abstract” would involve it making a lot of mentions of things that haven’t been defined or described yet.

Just so. Flat Black is a very rich setting, the fruit of thirty-two years of development. That is in some ways as much a curse as a blessing, but whichever—that is what Flat Black has to offer, and richly detailed settings are my stock in trade as a GM.

The way I do things seems to offer three moments for handing out the players’ guide.

  1. When I finish it, to my friends and usual players and the little cloud of people who have become interested over the years. I think they read it, file it, and dig it out for reference next time I invite them to a Flat Black game.
  2. After players have chosen to play in a Flat Black campaign, as a reference and guide to character generation and play.
  3. After a game at a con, to people who enjoyed the adventure they played and the pre-gen they played, and want to know more about the setting.

If you were to tell me that the best thing I could do to communicate the spirit of Flat Black would be to write a novel, a collection of short stories, or even a series of comics you would not be the first to do so. Not even in the first half-dozen.

Nope, I mean the sort of pre-chapter blurbs often seen in GURPS or other RPG source books, that attempt to set the mood and engage the readers’ interest. I think they are especially useful if the material is otherwise very dry, which is a worry in gazetteers and such.

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