Welcome to ‘Flat Black’

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What is this?

Flat Black is a science fiction setting, an imagined future almost a thousand years from now. It was designed as a setting for SF role-playing games, and in particular for adventures in the style of Jack Vance's Oikumene, Gaean Reach, and Alastor Cluster series of rationalised planetary romances. Which is to say that it is optimised for adventures in which the central characters come as outsiders to a world with one or more strange (even bizarre) but consistent human societies on it. At first the heroes find the societies' idiosyncrasies baffling, but eventually they learn to live with them and even to turn them to their advantage.

To support this style of adventure Flat Black is described with technology rather more limited than is fashionable in hard SF these days, though it is no feebler than is common in SF adventure stories. Progress in computing petered out. Nanotechnology turned out to be constrained by most of the same problems that limit biology, so that nanotech stuff has most of the shortcomings of biological products. Other dreams, such as true artificial sapience, genetically engineered parahuman races, and uploading human minds into machines turned out to be possible, but not really useful or desirable enough to be done on an industrial scale, and therefore they are very expensive and little seen. There is futuristic tech, but there has been no Vingean Singularity, and no Transhumanist Revolution.

Further to support serial planetary romances, Flat Black is set up so that the planets remain culturally isolated from one another, and so that interstellar issues do not derogate the personal adventures of player characters in confrontation with bizarre societies. This makes Flat Black rather different from a setting designed for space opera: space travel is pushed away from the centre of attention, and grandiose interstellar issues are left in the background. The focus is on personal issues, and action within planetary societies.

Flying overview


People live on about 1,000 planets strewn through the volume of space within 175 light-years of Sol. The colonies near the centre are up to 860 years old, and mostly populous and well-developed. Further out the colonies are younger, smaller, and generally less economically developed: beyond about 145 light-years they were not settled from Earth at all, but are real-estate developments of the last century, with immigrant societies. Earth itself is no longer inhabited. It was depopulated and ruined six hundred years ago, by a catalytic thermonuclear explosion. The same effect did the same to the colony Mayflower 431 years later, and to Orinoco two years after that. An obsession with preventing any more such events is an important motivation of the Empire that controls deep space.

Transport and communications

Interstellar spaceships travel at approximately three light-years per day, and there is no FTL signalling other than sending a courier. It takes almost five days on average to travel from any planet to its nearest inhabited neighbour, and over three months to travel from the periphery to the core and back (or to send a message and receive a reply). Interstellar travel is not particularly expensive, but long travel times deter people from making frequent trips. Long signal delays force the Empire to devolve a great deal of authority on its local representatives.

Social variety

The colonies were established by disparate groups of people, some of them by separatists or utopists who tried to build non-mainstream societies. They have had up to six hundred years to develop independently since immigration from Earth ended, and for four centuries of that they had no contact with each other at all. Their governments are various. Their effective technological levels are various. And slow travel means that social contact between them is slight. The colonies therefore have societies that are very disparate. They also tend to be very parochial. Most colonials very seldom think about the fact that people live on other worlds; the thought that their lives and customs might be very different almost never occurs.


The Empire

Deep space is ruled by the Empire, which controls interstellar transportation. The Empire is dedicated to preventing anything that might cause deaths on a massive scale, most particularly any repeat of the catalytic thermonuclear bombings that ruined Earth, Mayflower, and Orinoco and killed all the people who lived on them. Armed with high-tech psychology, the Empire recruits honest, dedicated officers, not inclined to inefficiency or corruption. These tend to be uncompromising and high-handed, and sometimes prepared to do dreadful things to save lives in the greater numbers.

The Imperial executive is in the hand of an Imperial Council that is self-perpetuating by co-optation. The Council restrained by an Imperial Senate, which has legislative authority, powers of oversight, and control of taxation. Each senator is appointed by the government of one colony to represent it, and is alert to protect the government that appointed him. Relations between the Imperial Council and the Senate are consequently poisonous: the Senate is so intent on restraining Imperial tyranny that it is slow to approve even such interventions as it agrees are necessary. The Senate has never authorised taxation of the colonies; the Empire is funded by the revenues of a trust that was established under the will of the inventor of the FTL drive.

Sovereign colonies

The Imperial constitution guarantees that each colony shall be sovereign in its own atmosphere. The colonies are jealous in preserving their independence even when they beg the Empire for aid. Colonial governments appoint senators to look after them in the Imperial Senate: they also appoint the Imperial district court judges who control the administration of Imperial law within their territories. There is therefore little that the Empire can do about bad government. The governments of the colonies are as varied, and as bizarre, as their societies.

Publication history

The first version of Flat Black was a 12-page setting brief circulated among the players of a ForeSight game at the Australian National University in August 1988. This is the third major revision, i.e. the fourth version.

Flat Black has made public outings in the forms of a freeform (LARP) called Uninvited Guests run at Sydcon in 1998 and of a conventional tabletop adventure called Après Moi, L'Enfer run at Phenomenon in 2005.

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Copyright © 2009 by Brett Evill