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?