Ought I to change the name "Flat Black"?

What should I call my SF setting?

  • Flat Black
  • The Human Reach
  • The Orphan Worlds
  • Scatterlings

0 voters

Continuing the discussion from Cover illustration for "Flat Black"?:

and from "Flat Black" in ten pages of tiny type :

It was called “Flat Black” because I wrote it in 1987 when I was young and cynical, and when I was reacting against something that is now utterly obscure. It is still called “Flat Black” now because it always has been, and that’s what the people who have heard of it know it as. Those aren’t particularly good reasons; they aren’t reasons that are easy to explain in a cover illustration; they aren’t things that a player finds it essential or even useful to know about.

Do I really need to give a hint about the origin of the title? Or would it be better to come up with a significant title, even at the cost of briefly puzzling the dozens of people who have been used to the name “Flat Black” for thirty years?

Bearing in mind I haven’t played in any of your games, I believe that if it were an utterly unrelieved dystopia it would be no fun at all to play in, and that therefore it isn’t.

PCs get to do stuff, and sometimes if they do it right they make things better, at least by their viewpoints. No?

Sure. Well, at least they get to make things better for themselves &c. while kicking evil &c. in the shins, and sometimes do more than that. Few (but not none) sometimes (but not often) get to improve something for people at large, a bit (but not much).

There are even places to have come from that are no worse than Earth c. 2020, now.

In general things are no more universally rotten than they have ever been. There are puddles of peace and prosperity here and there. The human universe in 606 ATD is no worse than Earth was in 1968. There is just more of it.

I just have a much less rosy view of 1968 than most people have.


I wrote the first version of Flat Black in 1987. That was a time when we still felt the daily apprehension of internecine nuclear war. It was before the pandemic of violent crime that started in 1968 had peaked and began its astonishing decline. It was before I became aware of what had been happening to world health and poverty since the Green Revolution. It’s before I learned about the cohort of miracles Steven Pinker reported in Better Angels of Our Nature. There was an AIDS pandemic.

“Business as usual for Human nature” seemed a lot grimmer back then.

It’s curious how a creative spark can come from “I want to do something different from that!” When I started working on the setting for Tapestry, one of my stronger impulses was not wanting to do the Tolkienian thing of having Good races (like the elves and ents) and Evil races (like the orcs, trolls, and wargs). I wanted every humanoid race to be capable of “good” and “evil” in its own ways. I got there partly by differentiating them by favored habitat, but also partly by taking r-selection and K-selection as morally neutral, whereas in Tolkien r-selection tends to be Evil and K-selection tends to be Good.


It’s easy to see it that way from the child’s point of view!

The obvious way would to have an r species where sapience is achieved only after the die-off, but playing it straight could be interesting too. Especially in an SF game where the outsiders’ choice is to let it continue or drown the galaxy in a population explosion.

The obvious way would be to have an r species where sapience is achieved only after the die-off, but playing it straight could be interesting too. Especially in an SF game where the outsiders’ choice is to let it continue or drown the galaxy in a population explosion.

Having been mulling the thread topic for a few days, I think that what itches about the “dystopia” idea is not how good or bad the world is, but that the PCs are making it better.

Paranoia, played straight, is a dystopia. You can’t effect any meaningful change, or get out to where things are different; the best you can hope for is to survive for a while and carve out your little bit of happiness, and you probably won’t get that much.

Call of Cthulhu can be, depending on the play style. But it seems to me that the root adventure could be summed up as “we pushed back the bad stuff a little bit”; yes, you can’t “win” overall, but you can keep the world a bit safer for a while at the cost of your own health and sanity.

And I think Flat Black is closer to Call of Cthulhu than to Paranoia. PCs go into a bad situation and make it, by their lights, better. Especially if they are working for (please excuse my failure to remember names) something like the Interstellar Red Cross, rather than McDonald’s.

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Yes, that’s about right. The idea of Flat Black is that the PCs ought to be able to make a difference, but only at a personal scale. This should not look like much compared to the poverty and misery and horrors afflicting a trillion people, or even a billion.

Upon mature reflection I am prepared to suppose that things are slowly but steadily improving on an astronomical scale, so that in 606 someone could come along and make a presentation like Hans Rosling’s first TED talk. But I want a retiring Public Health Service worker to look back on a career of ninety years and say “I built three teaching hospitals, and they are all still running properly. One of them is now the core of a continental medical education system that has transformed the lives of a hundred million people. I got a knighthood and I deserved it. I have done well and I am content.” What I don’t want is for players to expect that they will ever mend the planet of the week as Captain Kirk was expected to do.

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On the other hand, in Call of Cthulhu it is the premise that the PCs are trying to do good, to protect the world from the Mythos even if only because it is where they keep their stuff. In Flat Black it need not be. One of the early campaigns (“Thirty-Something”) involved PCs who were rich Tau Cetians drifting around the universe trying to have an interesting time. I tried one later in which the PCs were unscrupulous acquisition agents “arbitraging” art and antiquities from places where they weren’t properly appreciated to high-paying collectors and museums in the Core. I think that would have worked if the medium and scheduling had worked better.

Anyway, let’s return to our sheep. Ought I to change the name Flat Black?

On one hand, it’s no longer particularly apt, if indeed it ever was. When I am called on to explain it the explanation comes out as something that doesn’t matter at all to anyone except a few of my friends from thirty years ago, and it refers to things such as Tonio Loewald’s ForeScene that are obscure to most readers.

On the other hand there is perhaps a tiny modicum of brand recognition. Re-branding is usually a mistake.

If I were to change it, what might I change it to? There was some talk once that it might be ForeScene: the Thousand-year Raj. But that would provoke argument, and though I could defend it I don’t want to have to. Besides, I think the title ought to draw attention to the colonies rather than the Empire. Let’s try to think of a title that either describes the setting (a thousand planets of mankind) or the adventures (rationalised planetary romances).

Anything about there being a thousand worlds, planets, suns, or cultures clashes with something or other and fail to distinguish.

“Diaspora” is taken. How about “Fragments of Earth” or “Smithereens of Earth”? Do they place too much emphasis on Earth, which is not a surviving feature of the setting? “The Orphan Worlds” might be good. But does it suggest something more like the Age of Isolation and fail to suit the era in which such a sense of abandonment or loss has faded?

“Scatterlings” might be suitable. It denotes the typically peripatetic and homeless characters who might be PCs, while suggesting the colonies scattered in space.

The SF RPG setting
for rationalised planetary romance

The setting is not a whole cluster or arm, besides that suggesting more emphasis on spacey concerns than I want. So the only way to resonate with one of the Vance settings would be to evoke the Gaean Reach. “The Terran Reach”? “The Tellurian Reach”? Too direct, I think. But “Reach” is an excellent word, seeming to be a cognate of “Reich” and “raj”.

The Human Reach
SF RPG setting
for rationalised planetary romances

I have added a poll to the opening post.

Before you said what it was about, I had assumed “flat black” was a reference to space: pretty astronomical features are so far apart that you might as well treat it all as black. If it needs to be explained, it probably doesn’t work.

I like “The Human Reach” but for me, at the moment, “rationalised” would be a warning sign that this author is one of those “everybody else has done it wrong, but I’ve got it right” people. That may be a result of the particular people I’ve met rather than a general problem, though.

When I see “Scatterlings” I have no idea what it is supposed to mean. It doesn’t even particularly make me think of science fiction. So that would be my last choice. The Orphan Worlds is clearer, but it would work better for the time between the destruction of Earth and the founding of the empire. After that the worlds have, in effect, foster care and a foster home, or perhaps have actually been adopted; the empire is in loco parentis. I think The Human Reach is the clearest of your three proposals. The use of the word “human” does somewhat telegraph this being a science fiction setting; on the other hand, it does also invite speculation that there will be nonhumans in the setting, whereas in fact everything is designed to minimize their role—there are no scheming Merseians just over the border.

Hmmm. What would you think about “Wave Front”? It has sort of a science fictional tone. It does literally describe what’s going on: There’s a wave of colonization spreading out through the stars.

The association I make with “The Human Reach” is that it should exceed its grasp…

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I have to say that “rationalized” does not convey such a thing to me. Etymologically, I think of “rationalizing” less as making something work more efficiently and arguably better, and more as making up apparent reasoned arguments for conclusions that you have reached already on entirely different and largely emotional grounds; so I don’t axiomatically think that describing something as “rationalized” amounts to saying that it’s “better” or “new! improved!” But in literary terms—and “rationalized planetary romance” seems to be a literary term—I think of it more as a shift between Frye’s literary modes, from Romantic to Low Mimetic.

I’d also say that when I say “my proposed campaign has this quality” I’m not necessarily saying that campaign without that quality are bad or wrong or inferior. I’m just making it clear what’s in the package. I’ve said more than once that part of the driving force for Tapestry was a desire to avoid Tolkienian good races and evil races; that doesn’t mean I dislike Tolkien!

FYI, I asked C her opinion, and she went for “The Orphan Worlds” because “It sounds so classically science-fictional.”

There is something in what C says. Besides, “The Orphan Worlds” desirably emphasises the individual worlds rather than the overall realm.

Robert Browning? Andreas del Sarto is not a poem that I know.

I want to indicate that the setting is designed for adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds, but if I use the term “planetary romance” without qualification a reader might very reasonably take that as indicating that such possibilities as flying carpets, astral projection, levitating rays, telepathic martians, sorcerous alien queens, radium pistols blasters, personal force fields, force-swords etc.

It is as a service to the reader that I want to indicate that the setting does not offer such attractions as unlimited superscience, pseudoscience, sorcery, beings of pure energy, ascension to higher planes, or sex with aliens. In doing so I don’t want to lay a false claim to offering hard SF. Hard SF is a different genre.

Can you suggest a form of words?