’Ullo, ’ullo, ’ullo! What’s all this, then?

—Sir Robert Peel

A setting for science-fiction role-playing games

This is Flat Black, a science fiction (SF) setting for role-playing games. SF is a diverse genre, and Flat Black makes no attempt to encompass all of it. There are already perfectly good RPGs covering the most popular SF franchises, so Flat Black does not try to duplicate the appeal of Star Wars, Traveller, Star Trek, or Serenity. Rather, Flat Black is specially designed to support rationalised planetary romance: SF that focusses on its protagonists’ confrontation with an exotic planetary culture, usually on a personal scale.

I don’t claim any startling originality: Flat Black was certainly influenced by much of my favourite SF. I have borrowed, but my setting of the borrowings gives them a new significance. I hope that you will find that Flat Black offers a style and substance different from those of other SF RPGs, and that it takes a place beside your existing SF favourites. Flat Black does not try to outdo these 'rivals' at their own game: it plays a game of its own.

Rationalised planetary romance

Planetary romance is a sub-genre of science fiction or science fantasy in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more extra-terrestrial planets that have exotic physical or cultural environments. Thus it is distinguished from space opera, in which the bulk of the adventures take place in space or in travel between planets, and where the exotic environment of the planets is less important to the story. Both subgenres amount to the projection of Victorian adventure stories to the other worlds that were suggested by Science: space opera carries Westerns and sea-going stories into space; planetary romance carries tales of lost worlds, darkest Africa, South America and the exotic East to other planets. Both feature adventures in exotic settings, but space opera emphasises space travel, while planetary romances focus on alien worlds. Space opera's interstellar scope gives it a far wide canvas. It often features interstellar conflict between societies that occupy multiple planets, even inter-galactic conflict, and can tend to get rather grandiose.

Early examples of planetary romance scarcely bothered with Science: once it had pointed out the existence of other planets its job was done. The heroes, (who were usually contemporary people, not people of the far future) often didn't even use technological means to travel to the other planets: John Carter got to Mars by astral projection. When they got there they found conditions that were frankly designed to appeal to fantasy tastes: swordsmanship and magic, the magic not always even rationalised as psionic power.

Later writers such as Marion Bradley, Ursula Le Guin, H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance sketched futures in travel between worlds by spaceship was commonplace, then used this to bring heroes mainstream cultures into contact with exotic worlds. To a greater or lesser extent they bolstered this impression of rationality and realism by diminishing or eliminating the sword-play and magic, replacing them with technological tropes drawn from science fiction proper. So developed rationalised planetary romance, the genre which Flat Black strives to support.

Not space opera

There are many SF RPG settings available that were written to support space opera: it is the default genre of adventure SF. Flat Black makes no attempt to join them. Flat Black adventures are usually not set in Space, and they lack any operatic grandiosity. There are no titanic struggles between star-spanning civilisations. Humanity faces no alien menaces. Struggles within societies are far more prominent than struggles between societies. Space battles figure peripherally if at all, and player characters will never have their own spaceship.

Instead the setting is like that in Jack Vance’s Alastor Cluster and Gaean Reach novels, or John Barnes' Thousand Cultures. A disparate array of quirky, even bizarre, but predominantly human cultures occupy a multitude of worlds and localities through a broad swathe of space. Player characters come usually as outsiders, and find local quirks at first quaint and then troublesome, but learn to work with them and eventually turn them to advantage. Conflicts range from personal issues up to the fate of a single planetary culture. Adventures occur on planets and within social strictures, and they turn usually on individual mettle rather than the might of armies and fleets. If the player characters meet either with triumph or with disaster a single society may be radically transformed, perhaps even made too dismal or too idyllic to be suitable for further adventures. But if so there is always another planet or locality, another society, another set of grotesque quirks, another macabre conflict at the far end of a liner route.

Dark and cynical tone

Within the category of such kaleidoscopic settings, Flat Black is distinguished by its cynicism. There are no societies that are happy, just, and stable. Most are pretty dismal, and the rest clearly contain the seeds of their inevitable declines. The few that approach Utopia do so like Huxley’s Brave New World: by over-writing human nature to the point that their denizens seem hardly human; everyone in such societies may be happy, or at least content, but their conditions hardly seem attractive to outsiders. As for the bulk of Mankind, they are plagued by inequality, class conflict, religious and ethnic hatred, the tyranny of majorities or actual despots, feudalism, anarchy, banditry, corrupt and divisive politics, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies and courts, shortage of public services and infrastructure, burdensome and ruinous taxation, vacillating or over-rigid public policy, outdated or inconstant laws, harsh and repressive police, feuds, poverty, idleness, crowding, social decay, gang culture, endemic violence, monopolies, crony capitalism, peonage, slavery, and every other social, political, or economic ill that has beset any portion of Mankind on Earth. Some are even subject to plagues and chronic and endemic disease. In short, faster-than-light travel and the plenty of habitable planets have chiefly allowed Mankind to paint the tragedies of Earth on a larger canvas.

Pessimistic? Mankind isn't facing eschatological doom, supernatural malevolence, or even implacable alien foes. It's not that the order of things has been overset by an untoward event such as an irruption of Chaos. It's just that most people are miserable because it is inescapably ingrained in human nature to make each other miserable. ”An optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist fears that that might be true.”

Not hard science fiction

“Hard” science fiction is that sub-genre in which a scientific phenomenon or technological impact is the point of the story. Larry Niven’s Neutron Star is a hard SF story not because hyperdrive and General Products hull are scientifically accurate — they aren’t — but because it is about the phenomenon of tidal strain. Flat Black is not like that.

Flat Black does look a bit like moderately-hard science fiction in some ways. It features FTL travel, which is not scientifically plausible but which has an eminent antiquity as an enabling device for hard SF stories. Apart from that it is pretty technologically “hard”. There are no psionics or mystical powers, no immaterial souls, no force-fields or light-sabres, no teleportation, no artificial gravity or anti-gravity, no reactionless drives, no instantaneous interstellar communications, only disappointing nanotechnology, and a restricted role for artificial intelligence. You could even make a case that Flat Black is implausible because it has too little radically new stuff. Apart from two enabling devices (the Eichberger drive and the Catalytic Thermonuclear bomb) Flat Black might almost be called conservative hard SF. But it’s not hard SF because it’s not about science and technology: it’s about the adventures of people encountering exotic cultures.

Since Flat Black is not trying to be hard SF, why not have some force-fields and artificial-gravity? There are three reasons.

The first reason is that it takes a lot of effort to work out what marvellous technologies such as blasters and scanners do, to make sure that it doesn't have capabilities that will wreck adventure after adventure, and then to write that all down for the users of the setting. Then it takes players and GMs a lot of unnecessary effort to read and learn it all, and there is a danger that they will forget a lot of it. It is easier and safer to keep the technology realistic and limited. Flat Black is supposed to have a gritty feel, with difficult choices to make and actions having unintended consequences. It would be out of place for technology to perform neatly and without ramifications. But describing the operations, side effects, failure modes, and unwanted behaviours of a fantastical technology would take up both pages and time, and would make the setting harder to grasp and learn, without adding much.

The second reason is that super-technology (such as the transporters and replicators and holodecks in Star Trek) tends to be so powerful that it makes itself the point of the story. So many problems can be solved, so many challenges circumvented by teleportation etc. that each adventure is reduced to “how do we use the transporter?” or “what’s this week’s reason that we can't use the transporter?” Super-technology would encourage players to avois rather than confronting exotic cultures.

Finally, Flat Black is cynical rather than romantic, and it would not be in keeping with its tone to play up to romantic conventions. If it included personal spacecraft that behave like spitfires and DC-3s, weapons that behave like swords, or mystical powers that behave like magic that would feel happy-go-lucky and swashbuckly. Which Flat Black isn't.

Certainly not serious futurism

Flat Black is in no way intended as a projection of likely future developments. It’s not even meant as a likely “what-if” response to an admittedly-implausible event. Genre came first: rationalised planetary romance. Adventures in that genre consist of fathomable protagonists with personal-scale goals encountering the exotic human societies of semi-isolated planets. There had to be a profusion of habitable planets. These had to be occupied by bizarre human societies. Travel had to be common enough that PCs could visit these planets with less-than-world-shaking agendas. But it also had to be uncommon or expensive enough to keep the cultures semi-isolated. The languages spoken had to be close enough mutual comprehensibility that PCs could banter and spar with words with the locals, at least most places they went. Any interstellar institutions that might be sending PCs on adventures had to be under-staffed enough that it made sense to give PCs minimal supervision and wide latitude of action.

If the probable made problems, it had to be swept aside. Does the number of habitable planets in the universe of Flat Black stretch belief? Should more mainstream cultures and religions from Old Earth have survived? It it probable that more languages have survived on Earth until the age of colonisation, and would the languages on the colonies have more probably diverged into incomprehensibility in six hundred years? It is best not to think too hard about these things. The astrography and history of Flat Black are meant to be possible, not probable.


The colonies

People live on about one thousand planets within about 170 light-years of where Earth once was. Some of these colonies were purposely established to set up non-mainstream societies. They've all been developing independently for centuries: several centuries in total isolation, and for the last 200 years with only narrow channels of contact. And the societies have developed in diverse physical environments. The colonies are consequently very diverse. Yet the inhabitants of each society thinks that the ways of his or her people are natural and unremarkable, and that everyone else is strange.

The Empire

The one feature of Flat Black that pervades, or rather hangs over, all the disparate worlds is the so-called Empire. This is something distinctly less than a supreme government. On the other hand it is a great deal more than a space-travel monopoly. It developed out of a philanthropic trust that was established by the man who invented the FTL drive. But after a turbulent history it has ended up as a combination of the Nobel Estate or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (but with a navy), the United Nations (but with resolve and revenue), and a titanic mega-corporation. The Empire garners colossal revenues from a monopoly on interstellar transport, from developing new worlds as real estate, and from a range of other interests. It dedicates these revenues to two causes: restraining the ill effects of interstellar travel, and preventing anything that kills people in large numbers. The Empire spends trillions averting famine, pestilence, and war, and on promoting public health, public order, and education.

So far so good: but there is a dark side. First, the Empire is pretty much unconcerned about any sort of evil that doesn’t actually kill lots of people. It is prepared to condone, even to assist, a repressive world government or a stultifying social order if the alternative would be a bloody rebellion. Its officials, although more-or-less incorruptible and virtually untrammelled by bureaucracy, tend to be high-handed and uncompromising. They sweep aside ‘lesser’ concerns in their quests to save lives, and anyone who gets in the way of their work learns to appreciate corruption and bureaucracy. Worse, the Empire considers threats to its existence, revenues, and powers to be threats to all the lives it might save in future. The Empire is prepared to take drastic measures indeed to avert such threat.

The destruction of Earth

Three planets have been rendered instantly uninhabitable, and all the people on them killed, by catalytic thermonuclear weapons. The first was Earth, in AD 2385; the second Mayflower, 431 years later; the third Orinoco, two years after that. The fear of this happening again is a big part of what makes the Empire so fanatical.

Copyright 1988–2013 by Brett Evill. All rights reserved.