Scope and format of entries in "Forty Exotic Worlds"

I have started work on the first Flat Black gazetteer, under the working title Forty Exotic Worlds. Perhaps it will end up useful to GMs running other settings.

So far, I have a draft entry for one world, Tau Ceti. It’s 1,128 words including a column of standard data at the beginning, and it fits into two pages of Roger’s magical compromise pages, in double columns of generously readable 12-point Times New Roman. I think I’d be content to reduce the text size to 11-point if I needed to get more information across. I’m a bit more reluctant to advance to a third page.

I should like to get some feedback on the scope and format of this example entry. Is anything important missing? Is anything superfluous included? Is it succinct enough to read at the beginning of an adventure? Is it explicit and complete enough that you think a player who had a taste for this sort of thing would feel able to play a stranger visiting Tau Ceti and who had looked the place up in the Lonely Universe Tourist Guide? Would this be too much for you? Would this be really not enough for you? Do you think that the addition of material like what I wrote for the “Attractions” post in the thread about Tau Ceti a while ago would be valuable enough to justify extending to a third page?

There will eventually be a key to the tabulated data in the first column.

Looking just at the semi-tabular statistics to start out:

  • The word “size” is ambiguous. It appears to mean “diameter,” but I had to think about it.
  • Does the word “tides” mean, specifically, the mean height of the tides in deep oceans far from continental shores? If so, how will that work on a planet whose oceans are all shallow? Or are there no such planets?
  • Temperature ought to be given as “5°C.” Celsius, unlike kelvin, is not a physical unit; in the scientific journals I copy edit, you can say “278 K” but not “5 C.”
  • Is illumination taking into account the lumens/watts ratio for Tau Ceti’s spectral type? Or is it purely radiometric? Having a figure in L (and a percentage of Earth) would make this unambiguous.
  • How do you get a single number for “low orbit”? It seems to me that for Earth, for example, low orbit might refer to any altitude inside the geosynchronous orbital radius. Have you defined a standard altitude for “low orbit” somewhere?
  • For population density, I usually use “inh” rather than “pop.” I suppose if you want to do purely physical units you could give it as “km^-2” . . .
  • How does a political system operate without a head of state?
1 Like

Looking at the cultural description, and especially at the modal personalities for the eight colonies, readily makes it clear to me that the whole planet would be a nightmare that I would either escape, or spend my life resenting and enduring. That’s not a criticism of the design; it could be a good basis for creating a character who was FROM Tau Ceti.

Didn’t you refer somewhere to elderly Tau Cetians having the possibility of exhausting their retirement funds if they live too long? I’m not sure why Tau Ceti wouldn’t have annuities good for a person’s whole life, with the rate of return calculated to break even for statistical life expectancy.

Though if you wanted to be weird you could always have a class of sadhus/sadhvis who have outlived their funds and are culturally dead, wandering about with a loincloth and a begging bowl, dependent on charity. Though it would be something of an exercise in pilpul to reconcile this with the bureaucratically planned governmental systems.

As for the fundamental question of length, I think the overall length is reasonable; I wouldn’t mind a little more, but a full third page might be too much. However, I think the stat block is too large a fraction of the length; it starts turning into noise partway down. I could do without “period of low orbit” (see previous comment) and everything from households through economy, as well as the parenthetical comment under “government” and the legal quirks; all the cultural stuff would work better being incorporated into the text, or maybe provided as a short list at the end (two short lists are less daunting than one long list).

1 Like

The year is stated in “days”, but you have to do metal arithmetic to be sure that these are local days. A notation for local units, just as you use astronomical symbols to signify earth units, would be helpful.

The length is fine.

This seems like a nightmare place to come from, specifically because of the social conformity pressures. It seems like a place that would have a significant number of young people who find conformity difficult either moving to a different octant, or cracking up if they can’t find somewhere that they can be happy.

I’m guessing that “low orbit” is really quite low, the kind of level where you need to boost a little every few weeks, or see noticeable decay?

1 Like

Thank you both. There will eventually be a key to the stat blocks, which will explain among other things that the figure given for “period of low orbit” is the period of the lowest practical orbit, a limiting figure, that “tides” is the range of the deep-water equilibrium tide, etc… I’ll fix up the straightforward errors and problems you mentioned, but others (such as specifying local days) might have to be dealt with in the key, for brevity.

I wince a little at the idea of moving information from the stat block to running text; the table entries are more compact, and make it easier to skip over the bits you aren’t interested in while you are familiarising, but find the vital facts quickly when you need them. I run a few more exotic examples past you and check what you think when the bottom half of the column is a bit more exciting, before I make a decision about what to do.

I’m very pleased with your reactions to Tau Ceti: that you both think it sounds like a terrible, stultifying place to live, and that you can easily imagine it as a place that wandering PCs have come from.

How about having a second block of short entries at the end of the writeup, providing the things that are less hard fact and more local color?

1 Like

I find the formatting find and do not view it as terribly stultifying, but perhaps I am reading too much personal choice of preferred subculture into it.

Extrapolation - there are probably a lot of folks who deliberately live on the border between two areas because they like both schticks. There is probably a name for this.

1 Like

As a sop to @whswhs’ curiosity on specifics of content that came up:

  • “Tides” is the total range (not amplitude) of the equilibrium tides in deep water, a theoretic parameter. The figure for Earth is 1.08 m. It’s just meant as an indicator, but anyway the GURPS Space star system generation sequence has given Flat Black no worlds that have both tidal ranges and less than 50% ocean cover.

  • The “illumination” figure is based on the visual luminosity of the star including the bolometric correction. The bolometric illuminance (including IR and UV) goes with the planet’s albedo and the greenhouse forcing factor of the atmosphere to determine the surface temperature. This figure is the visible-light illumination (which determines photosynthetic activity and whether you need sunglasses).

  • The period of low orbit is inversely proportional to the square root of the planet’s density. That is a limiting figure, indicating the lowest and shortest-period possible orbit.

  • Switzerland manages without a head of state. It has a council of I think eight people with a rotating chair that acts as its head of government, and simply doesn’t do a lot of the head-of-state stuff.
    Tau Ceti refuses to admit that it is a state, co-ordination between its eight octants being conducted by a web of obscure inter-government committees. The octants themselves have separate heads of state, their offices being implicit in the government structures listed: Alcuin, Avalon, Hell, New Sunrise, and Ys are parliamentary republics and so presumably have non-executive presidents; Gogmagog and Zinfandel are presidential republics so presumably have executive presidents who are head of state and government, San Pietro is run by an independent bureaucracy and has a “patriarch” as head of state and government. I have actually designed all the corroborative details, and I have to struggle against the urge to show my working.

  • I don’t recall having described elderly Tau Cetians outliving their money. If I did it was as a mistake, because the annuities-for-life that you suggest are more likely compulsory than forbidden. I hope the current text does not imply their absence. The rules for superannuation on Tau Ceti are doubtless complicated, with all sort of commercial funds, mutual funds, self-managed funds, with rules about maximum and minimum lump sum pay-outs, roll-overs into annuities, and withdrawal rates. And they don’t belong in this briefing.

Would you find it helpful if I put horizontal rules between “period of low orbit” and “population”, between “Taboos” and “Economy”, and between “currency” and “Government”?

What’s your source for the visual luminosity? That would be useful to have in figuring out things like light levels.

I forget. I think I either calculated it from the V magnitude in the astronomical catalogue I used, or else estimated a bolometric correction for the star’s spectral type by interpolating between known values and converted it to a visual-illumination factor.

I don’t think that would make enough difference. If you insert horizontal rules it just looks like a single table with visual clutter. (I regularly strip internal horizontal rules out of tables in submitted articles, so I reflexively see them as superfluous.)

Okay, so you’re using the square root of (3π / G rho), where rho is density? And that’s for a notional body orbiting an infinitesimal distance above the surface of the planet?

On one hand, that’s kind of a neat relationship. But on the other, I’m not sure what use it could be in actual play. Are PCs ever going to have occasion to launch satellites into low orbit? I’m thinking maybe you could cut that line.

If I’m interpreting the geometric relationships right, multiplying the “size” by π gives me the planetary circumference; dividing that by escape velocity gives me the time to “orbit” while traveling at escape velocity; and multiplying by sqrt(2) gives the time at circular speed. That comes out to 5309 seconds, which looks to be on the close order of your 89 minutes. So it looks as if the figure can be derived if it ever is needed.


On one hand, that’s kind of a neat relationship. But on the other, I’m not sure what use it could be in actual play. Are PCs ever going to have occasion to launch satellites into low orbit? I’m thinking maybe you could cut that line.

I have used it while GMing for guidance to the answers when players have asked such questions as “how long until the next shuttle to the up-port?”, “how long do we get between passes of their observation satellite?”, “how long until our backup arrives from orbit?”. But it doesn’t vary very much, and yours is not the first non-plussed response to its inclusion, so perhaps it ought to go.

If I’m interpreting the geometric relationships right, multiplying the “size” by π gives me the planetary circumference; dividing that by escape velocity gives me the time to “orbit” while traveling at escape velocity; and multiplying by sqrt(2) gives the time at circular speed. That comes out to 5309 seconds, which looks to be on the close order of your 89 minutes. So it looks as if the figure can be derived if it ever is needed.

Well, if I’m calculating it I can just use my knowledge that the figure is 84 minutes times SQRT (diameter/gravity) in Earth units. It’s listed because I don’t want to have to do a division and a square root to answer a player’s question.

Okay, so Tau Ceti is an amphictyony. That makes having a single entry for it inconvenient. Your format seems to assume the planet-state (rather than the nation-state or city-state) as the norm; in this case either a single entry for the whole planet or eight entries for the eight octants will create problems of data organization.

Checking the Wikipedia entry for Switzerland, I see that it says the seven-member Federal Council “serves as collective Head of State.”

Are there any ceremonial events which call for someone to speak for Tau Ceti as a whole? Switzerland apparently has a few of those, and the nominal position of President rotates through the Federal Council for this purpose. On the other hand, it might be that you could do away with the Head of State line and just describe the type of government.

That argues for having it in a GM’s description of the planet and/or the solar system, but not for having it in a player handout.

Good word! Wiktionary offers only a puzzlingly narrow sense, but my elderly Webster’s Collegiate says “broadly : an association of neighbouring states for their common interest”, and that will do for me.

Are there any ceremonial events which call for someone to speak for Tau Ceti as a whole?

No. It is precisely at ceremonial functions that Tau Ceti most vociferously insists on its pretence of being eight independent colonies, each of which is entitled to a senator in the Imperial Senate. In a quiet back room the inter-governmental committee on police co-ordination will delegate a single negotiator to thrash out the details of a standard extradition treaty (for example), but in the glare of publicity you are definitely going to have eight ceremonial signings of eight identical but separate treaties. The ambassador from Iter to Tau Ceti has to present eight separate sets of credentials to eight separate heads of state. There isn’t going to be any public evidence that Tau Ceti has a united government and ought to be entitled to only one senator. Even if maintaining the fiction entails inconvenience, Tau Ceti is motivated to maintain it.

My output is sufficiently small that there is no real prospect of my ever writing a separate collection of GMs’ descriptions of these worlds.

Presumably Tau would really like to have eight separate ambassadors from Iter, but doesn’t bother to send multiples itself because that gets expensive.

I’m not sure I see the problem. I believe you are already doing spreadsheets for the various solar systems that contain much more information than goes into the tabular part of the format we’re looking at here. It seems as if there would be room to add a line for ground-level orbital period, and if you have the spreadsheet open while you’re GMing, you’d just need to look it up. Is there a problem with this that I’m not perceiving?

@JGD, I remember that you said about the layout of the Players’ Introduction that the 12-point Times New Roman was amply readable on your desktop and tablet. One of the things that I might do to make these descriptions more detailed without going all the way to an extra page would be to reduce the text size to 11 points. That would allow me an extra 350–375 words on the two-page spread. Would it still be comfortable for you to read?

I might even stick with 12-point type on the less verbose entries and sneak down to 11 points on the entries for colonies where there is more to say. Woud that work okay, or would there be some sort of technical problem in some formats (such as EPUB).