Very brief summary for the new players' brief

Some years ago my friend David Bofinger wrote a very brief introduction to Flat Black, which I have shamelessly plagiarised, edited, and updated, and am using now as stand-in text for a one-page executive summary. This is what a player in several campaigns thought was need-to-know about Flat Black, but I’m not sure. I think it contains too much history and too much about the Empire. What do you think?

Executive summary

Mankind spread out into the galaxy as far as about 145 light-years from Earth, using one-way ships that travelled at the speed of light. About 640 colonies were planted, often after terraforming the planets. Aliens have been found, but they are all primitives.

In 2353, Earth was destroyed by what might have been either a “catalytic” thermonuclear weapon or an accident in an FTL lab. The colonies, cut off from Earth’s high-tech supplies, had a hard time of it. Some pulled through okay, some collapsed to barbarism, a few died out entirely.

In 2695, a man named Eichberger, from a colony called Mayflower, invented a two-way faster-than-light spacecraft drive and became very rich. But others copied his drive, and some used it for piracy, war, etc… Eichberger built a fleet of warships and tried to stop the abuses, but in 2784 one of the pirates destroyed Mayflower and killed Eichberger. Eichberger’s fleet survived, and its leaders decided that only they could be trusted with spacecraft or weapons of mass destruction; they fought wars to take them away from everyone else.

The wars ended in 2848 with a compromise called the “Treaty of Luna”. The descendants of Eichberger’s fleet, now called “the Empire”, own FTL travel and deep space. Colonies mostly run their own affairs, as long as they don’t build weapons of mass destruction or interstellar spacecraft, or kill people in large numbers. The colonies also elect an Imperial Senate. It doesn’t have much power, but the Empire needs its permission before it interferes in colonial affairs.

Terraformation and settlement of new colonies resumed in 2910. Now, in 2959, there are a thousand worlds inhabited by humans, and the oldest of the new worlds are getting ready for self-government.
Colonies vary widely: rich or poor, crowded or desolate, high-tech or backward; they have every sort of government; some have very weird societies. Some planets have many small colonial governments on them; most have just one government for the whole planet. No colonial government covers more than one planet. Almost everyone speaks Standard, a language descended from International Standard Business English.

Imperials mostly live in space habitats, not on planets. They are indoctrinated from birth that the most important thing in the world is the Imperial mission: saving lives from war, disease, etc… They’re fanatics, but they are few and seldom met, and they behave politely — so most colonials don’t realise.

Control of interstellar shipping and colonisation has made the Empire very rich, but there are colonies that are richer. The Empire is very short of people and is restrained by the Senate. Some important parts of the Empire are:

  • the Navy (fighting and exploring in space),
  • the Marines (commando and peacekeeping operations),
  • the Home Office (routine stuff within the Empire’s own habitats),
  • the Colonial Office (relations with colonies, humanitarian assistance to colonies),
  • the Eichberger Foundation (spacecraft construction and orbital industry)
  • Spaceways (the monopoly interstellar spaceline),
  • the Eichberger Realty Corporation (terraforming new worlds to make real estate).

An Independent Commission for Justice investigates and prosecutes certain types of criminals; it is monitored by the Senate, and judges are appointed by colonies.

Please rate this on a scale of 0 to 10, where

  • 0 = “This is a waste of a page; it tells me nothing useful. I couldn’t even play a pre-gen character in Flat Black on the basis of so little information”
  • 10 = “Pass me GURPS Characters and tell me what the campaign frame is; I’m ready to start generating a character”.
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0 voters

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The thing that’s missing, from what I know about Flat Black is that the Eichberger Drive is a weapon of mass destruction. That’s important to the Empire’s mission, but I don’t know how widely it is known in the setting.

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It’s a good starting point but there’s very little about who people are, or even what their organisations are like. Does a typical Colonial Office person at the level which is going to be going out to planets need Office Politics, Backstabbing and Ruthlessness, or Administration and Loyalty? That might get too long for a brief introduction of course.

It doesn’t say who the PCs are and what they do.
Is a party all Imperials? Colonials? Mixture of both?
Do they work for one of the named organisations? Are they freelancers?

Yeah. This is the executive summary of the setting description, the TL;DR version. It only just squeaks into one A4 page of 12-point Times, and there is no room to add a thing.

David Bofinger wrote the original as a super-condensed summary of a 24-page players’ brief that was rapidly sprouting reams of additional material in response to players’ inquiries. He meant it to be handed out along with a pre-generated character to a new player in a scratch game, or to be read before skimming and consulting a much longer setting description, to orient the reader and quickly establish a context.

I have re-written and polished this version to be one page in a much longer players’ brief — in particular, the verso of the Introduction. I mean it to be the executive summary of a much longer and more detailed setting description, written and placed to be effective in a “just read the first two pages and then your character sheet” role, and as a sketch of the forest for readers who will soon be wandering among trees of text.

That’s fair. This description does not include a campaign frame, and any player would need either a pre-gen character or a campaign specification as well as this.

This text is a version of a document that one of my players wrote because he felt that the briefing document that I supplied to players at that time was too long and contained too much unimportant detail (particularly about history). I am thinking of including it in a new players’ brief, as a one-page executive summary in between the introduction and the beginning of a description that I expect will run to at least 48 pages. Do you think that that is a good use of word-count? Or a waste of a page? I am afraid that in its desperation to state all the essentially as briefly as possible it has become disjointed and uninspiring.

As for the actual answers to your rhetorical questions, I have run campaigns and adventures in this setting in which the PCs have been each of the following:

  • Criminal investigators working for the Independent Commission for Justice,
  • Idle rich dilettantes wandering the Galaxy,
  • Social and planetary scientists working in an exploration ship,
  • A mixture of scientists, diplomats, naval officers, and Imperial marines in an exploration ship,
  • Mercenary cadre,
  • “Effectives” (clandestine operators) for interstellar NGOs such as Human Heritage and the Journalists’ Guild,
  • Unscrupulous “artefact acquisition agents” (art thieves and con-men),
  • A sheriff and his deputies in a self-administrating county on a new world in the fringe,
  • Secret agents, plausibly deniable assets working secretly and illegally for a mysterious but well-resourced employer, and even
  • Honest-to-God Imperial intelligence officers and clandestine operators.

In some campaigns the PCs are colonials, in some they are Imperials. In some the are all working for the Empire, but most are recruits from a colonial background and not full-on “mink”.

So there will be different campaign specifications for different campaigns. What I’m working on now is the setting description that will serve all of them.

A one page TL;DR player brief is definitely a good idea.

Fitting it into one A4 page… reduce the margin size! :slight_smile:


When I was in my twenties and we all had good close vision, the trick was to use tiny type. Using ruler reduction and one of the Laserwriters in the university library, I used to print out material for my games in 9.6-point, 8.4-point, and even 7.2-point Times.

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Yes 8 point Tahoma was my font of choice before I got old…

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@davidbofinger, have you seen this? It’s based on your Very Brief Summary.

The history is necessary, but has a few side treks that re not. (It is not important that some worlds were terraformed, or to list different kinds of ‘had a hard time of it.’)

The non-historical bits on Mink focus on how they are organized, which isn’t surprising, and elides the fact that they are an honest (if inhuman) bureaucracy, which is.

As others have noted, there is very little about your desired campaign frame or the people who engage in it. From reading it I would assume the game was about ICJ operatives.

I’d forgotten I wrote this, though it’s just the sort of thing I’d do. Twice.

I’m bothered by the incorrect use of a semi-colon in the last sentence.

There should be descriptions of colony world categories: the Suite, happy rich places with Brave New World problems, poor places with continent-wide slums, primitive, etc.

I suspect my description of the setting focused on the empire because it was the only campaign-wide feature. All other setting information tends to be local. And in a planetary romance game local means ephemeral.

The reason for that is that I have always meant the setting to support multiple different campaign types. Back in the Eighties it seemed like an extravagance of effort to create a whole setting for only one campaign. (The fashion now is for tightly controlled experiences of play in settings of slap-dash construction, and I am a terrible old dinosaur.) Since 1988 Flat Black has accommodated campaigns and adventures for

  • ICfJ investigators (then called “JD agents”)
  • Wealthy dilettantes with no day job
  • Social and planetary scientists on an early Imperial Survey of the Periphery
  • Mercenary cadre bringing military know-how to backward worlds
  • Imperial diplomats & naval officers, rival factions of colonial politicians, and intelligent alien freedom fighters negotiating a colony’s accession to the Empire.
  • Clandestine operators for the Colonial Office, for the Secret Service, and once for an organisation operating under such secrecy that the players didn’t know for sure whether it was Imperial or not.
  • Assorted offworlders struggling to reach the spaceport on a colony in civil war
  • Art thieves
  • Effectives for the Reporters’ Guild investigating the disappearance of an insured journalist
  • Effectives for Human Heritage investigating the loss of an immensely valuable painting.

I would prefer to keep all those options open, besides others that I have never yet tried:

  • The sole NPC is amnesiac searching out his homeworld, his identity, and the enemy who mindwiped him.
  • A group of retired Imperial servants from the same homeworld returning home to find the world in need of fixing.
  • A group of retired Imperial servants with large savings, long memories, and a list of bad guys they couldn’t touch while they were subject to Imperial restraint.

A one-page brief ought to accompany a campaign proposal or a pre-gen character, and ought to be good for multiple campaign frames.

There’s probably a reason for that. @davidbofinger wrote that brief, and the more successful Flat Black campaign that he played in, one of my best-regarded campaigns ever, was about ICfJ (then, JD) investigators.