One of the problems with contemporary games is that they tend to be static. Unless you’re venturing into the realm of alternate history, everybody realizes that SuperDuperVillain’s Satellite Death Ray isn’t going to wipe Boston off the map, nor is a botched spy mission in Hong Kong going to lead to World War III. Amazing Grace may develop a practical electric automobile, but she isn’t going to impact the fall line-up of new cars.
These issues can often be mitigated with a little winking. If the superheroes are protecting a fictional city, then maybe the Satellite Death Ray will succeed in destroying it. A botched spy mission in a fictional country could lead to a brief brush fire war while world leaders posture. Maybe the Amazing Auto does make it into production, but limited infrastructure keeps it from dominating the road.
Sometimes, however, you may want to keep things grounded in the real world. Maybe you want to deal with a particular real world crisis. Maybe your spy game would just get cluttered and confusing if you had to create opposing superpowers and client states. Maybe you just want to use the map and neighborhoods of Philadelphia and it just seems silly to call it ‘Quaker City’ for the sake of a fictional name. This brings us back to the original issue of static campaigns.
A solution that I’ve found works great in this situation is setting the campaign “five minutes into the future.”
Borrowing and paraphrasing from Max Headroom, “five minutes into the future” merely means setting the campaign just beyond when you’d expect it to end. I’ve found that most of my modern campaigns rarely last longer than a year, so if my group is getting together in 2013, then setting the campaign in 2016 should mean that we won’t catch up.
So why set a campaign five minutes into the future?
It’s still familiar. Sure, there will be changes, some of them likely big ones, but your players aren’t going to expect you to make the world of 2017 all that different from 2014. You can get away with running contemporary games without modification.
But you can still change things up. 2016 is a presidential election year in America and President Obama can’t run for re-election. For a GM running an American game, this frees her up to place anyone she wants in the presidential seat without much trouble, subtly changing the nation’s course in the process. You can have a civil war spark in a distant country that threatens to boil over into the region or even the world.
Players have real consequences to their actions. If the PCs fail to foil a sinister plot, then it’s entirely possible that a public figure could die without harming the “integrity” of the world, since we’re in the realm of speculative history rather than alternate history. And, not only did the players fail, but now they get to discover what the replacement’s plans are.
You can edge towards “twenty minutes into the future.” Most near-future worlds take the present world and speculate what happens when trends continue, which is why many futuristic worlds created in the 1980s saw a bleak future of corporate control dominated by the Japanese, a widened gap between rich and poor, and everybody plugging electronics into their bodies. While you can certainly do this in “five minutes into the future,” it’s more in keeping with the theme to hint at darker times.
Perhaps the new American President, with the help of a friendly Congress, starts passing legislation that is favorable to corporations or, in the interests of national security, starts chipping away at traditional liberties. Perhaps private security firms start taking over cash-strapped municipalities or they are granted police powers to hunt down “super vigilantes.” Organized protests are becoming more common (and perhaps being more aggressively halted).
Or perhaps environmental warnings start taking effect. Snow-less winters are becoming more common in areas with traditionally cold winters and summers are getting so hot that many shore communities start warning sun-bathers. Maybe it’s raining all the time. In any event, changes in weather would affect crops, causing food prices to rise and the occasional food riot.
What all of these speculations have in common is that they add color to the background and provide plot elements for your campaign, while keeping the unpredictability of outcomes.
You can have Big Events. Want an earthquake, hurricane, or out of control fire to hit your campaign city? What about a terrorist attack, plague outbreak, or alien invasion? All of these things will have a significant impact on the campaign world, but since it’s five minutes into the future it won’t disturb real world history in time. You could even have the Big Event be the catalyst for the changes to your world.
It’ll be worth a chuckle several years from now when you see what you got hilariously wrong or uncannily correct. Back in 2005 I set a campaign in 2025. While 20 years into the future is a bit further than I’m proposing here, I basically played it like a “five minutes” campaign. One of my ‘revolutionary’ thoughts was that everyone would be carrying cellphone/PDA combos in the future that provided full wireless internet access and basically replaced laptops. I think I was off by about 15 years or so…
Enough from me; how about you? Have you ever run a “five minutes into the future” campaign? How well did it go? Is there anything you’d do differently? Looking back, do any of your predictions amuse you now?
I don’t know, with the exception of the “plugging electronics into their bodies” they weren’t that far off.
Thanks for reminding me that I left out the Japanese influence, which keeps things a bit more “80s.” 🙂
I’ve amended that to the article.
I was thinking of Twilight:2000 the entire time I was reading this article. 🙂
I may have a follow-up, if you don’t mind.
Not at all!
In my notes for a near-future campaign with a extremely reactionary world government, the area of Africa between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn was under quarantine for two decades on the misguided belief that a travel blockade would stop the spread of super viruses and genocidal warfare (or at least let the world government ignore those and other problems, such as starvation). The campaign was to begin just as the first exploratory patrols were to be allowed back in (because the world government remembered there were precious resources that needed exploiting). It was to be a high-adventure game, layered with themes of global responsibility, the high cost of neglect and uplifting the rich cultures and traditions of African peoples.
Maybe I’m the odd man out here, but I don’t really see the point. Well, I see some of the point – if you want the landscape to be subtly different; New president of the US, minor technological changes, etc.
I don’t see the necessity of setting “five minutes into the future” to make, say, the threat of a supervillian destroying Boston with a death ray plausible. I mean, it’s a game. Fiction. Boston being destroyed by a deathray in 2012 is just as credible (or incredible) as it being destroyed in 2016. The difference between “speculative history” and “alternate history” seems like a trivial and nitpicky one.
Did our ability to suspend disbelief while watching Pacific Rim go out the window when August 10th, 2013 came and went without San Francisco being destroyed? Nitpicking over the date seems pointless to me.
You make a good point. I think it might be one of those things that I can only explain as a DC/Marvel split. DC needs its characters to operate in a universe with fictional cities, so we don’t confuse it with the real world; but Marvel uses NYC for most everything, and it doesn’t matter to them if NYC is attacked by costumes baddies even if you are reading the comic while resting in Central Park. So, some people need to operate in a fictional universe, others are OK with the real world. It’s a matter of taste, really.
As a non-consumer of comics, I think that’s an interesting comparison, but it makes me wonder. How thoroughly does DC “sanitize” its reality? Is there a Statue of Liberty in the DC Universe? If not, that seems like something of a loss. Eliminating everything that identifies a real location causes a sense of…well, blandness to me. You can make up some giant statue for Lex Luthor to boobytrap or something, but it gets kindof absurd after a while. Where does it stop? Is there a Great Wall of China? Are there pyramids? Hollywood? Kansas?
OTOH, if there IS a Statue of Liberty, what’s the point in saying it’s in “Metropolis” and not New York?
You raise a point about DC’s universe. In DC, both metropolis and New York exist as separate cities. I believe Metropolis is in New Jersey. The Teen Titans of the 1980s operated out of New York.
When they did the avengers/JLA crossover a few years ago, the Vision commented that the DC Earth was bigger, which accounted for Star City, Coast City, Gotham, and others.
Hope that helps explain the city oddities.
Not to get all nerdy, but I don’t think there is an official DC map for the cities.
I’ve generally used Mayfair’s Atlas of the DC Universe (1990) for DC Heroes, which put Metropolis in Delaware and Gotham City in New Jersey (which makes Batman a Jersey boy like me!). Smallville insinuated that Metropolis was in Kansas.
The difference between Boston getting destroyed in your campaign and San Francisco getting destroyed in a movie is that the group doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of a movie.
If you’ve pitched a game as taking place alongside real world events, it’s going to be difficult to maintain that premise if major cities are destroyed and millions of people killed. You’re in alternate history at that point and I’ve seen that shift kill campaigns.
Now, obviously if your campaign doesn’t concern itself with the issues of the world then it’s less of a problem (unless, of course, it was your campaign city that got destroyed) and if you let the players know up front that your world can make the occasional left turn then you’re correct, it isn’t really an issue.
I’m afraid I just don’t get it. How is dealing with the “consequences” of a destroyed Boston harder than dealing with the “consequences” of a destroyed FreedomTown? I mean, let’s say “Russia Nukes Boston!” vs “Russia Nukes A-City-in-Massachusetts-That-Looks-Suspiciously-Like-Boston-But-Isn’t.” How are the consequences different?
The concept of a game “taking place alongside real world events” immediately becomes meaningless if events in the game can’t influence the “real world events.” (Which aren’t really “real world events” anyway, because they are happening in a game.)
I just can’t wrap my head around this. The only possible headache I can think of is trying to keep straight “Did event X happen in this game?” – i.e. “If California fell into the ocean in 2008, would Obama have been re-elected?” but, frankly, I see that as half the fun of playing a game set in the “Real world”
Let’s not lose the forest for the trees here.
Setting a game 5 minutes into the future puts the players on notice that anything can happen because you aren’t worried about keeping pace with the contemporary world. You also lessen the chance of stepping on a player’s sensitivities.
I’ll admit that “blowing up a major city” is one of the weaker examples, especially if you plan on hand-waving the consequences beyond “there’s now a crater where a city used to be and the state is likely to lose a few seats in Congress when the next census rolls around.”
I did something similar but in a round about way. the game was actually set many centuries in the future, but after an “event” that had severely affected the world to the point that no one remembered much about what had happened before, and just tried to carry on as normal. So the world was very much our own, with just a different bit of history, and tech running at a slightly advanced pace.
It is a GAME! Of course the GM can blow up Boston without all the silliness mentioned in the article.
I covered that in the second sentence 😉
I set a Delta Green game 20 minutes in the future. The setting was 1987 and the players/agents had advanced tech that we would recognize in 2010, the actual year we were playing. We had a a lot of fun playing that up.
NPC: “What is that?”
Agent “Oh, this?…A portable razor.” But it was a cell phone.
Then why bother writing the article? Anything can change because it’s a game.
This article was written for a particular personality type that, when out of control, goes too far with detail. They forget that the purpose of the game is not to model the real world. GMing requires a certain amount of flexibility within the creative process. On-the-fly creativity is necessary because the players will inevitably derail the story. Time and again, I have seen such game masters fail to adapt to current conditions and the game died after a few sessions.
Tom – It’s difficult to respond because I’m not sure who you’re responding to (you posted as a general reply rather than part of a thread).
That said I agree with your entire paragraph except for “the purpose of the game.” I don’t think you intended it here, but as written it smacks of “The One True Way.”
Our greatest strength as co-authors of Gnome Stew is our diversity of playing styles. Not all articles are written for every GM. Some days you’ll find an article to be spot-on with your style, some days you’ll be diametrically opposed. Our hope is that most days you can mine something useful out of it.
My intent with this article was to showcase how a GM can run a “contemporary” campaign and not worry about how far that world diverges from reality while still having player buy-in. I hope that GMs that care about such things found it useful and, if nothing else, I’ve likely sparked a great article from Kurt!
You realize that you wrote an article that says “It’s fine to change the world”, don’t you?
I always thought that was obvious, but apparently some players (GM’s are players too) have difficulty with the concept.
Well, to be fair Tom, my personality type deserves to get GMing advice just as much as yours does.
i like to play games
I JUST got disc 1 of the Max Headroom TV series via netflix and saw the “20 minutes into the future…” line in the beginning and thought of you.
Must say, as cool as it must have been in it’s day it didn’t hold up all that well. And I wanted so much to like it. 🙁
Matt Frewer however was awesome, and it occurred to me that early Jim Carrey was really just Max Headroom.
An interesting article, but I’ve never really ran into the issue of changing things in contemporary campaigns based on how the heroes (or villains) plans effect the landscape of the world.
I’ve generally taken the comic book approach, that while the world may appear on first glance a mirror image of modern day, events can (and often will) drastically reshape the landscape. (Much like how the alien invasion of New York City in the Avengers movie completely wrecked a fair portion of it.)
I guess you could say I’m just a little surprised in games where super powers, bond style gadgetry and/or supernatural events are a regular occurrence, the destruction of a “real world” city would seem out of place.