Dystopian settings are gritty, grim, and have a heavy focus on decay and loss. Considering the mechanical aspects of a dystopian world can help you build the right themes into your story.
Many things can cause societal stagnation or collapse, and each one will influence a story or campaign in different ways.
War is an easy and simple choice. It affects a lot of people and has remained pretty constant throughout history, meaning people can easily relate to it. Prolonged conflict is expensive and can lead to economic troubles, famine, riots, or even population decline. Given the right circumstances, it can weaken or destroy governments, opening the door for hostile takeovers. Stories that feature war tend to be brutal and filled with overt conflict.
Nuclear warfare is an even more terrifying proposition with cataclysmic implications. Mutually assured destruction has completely changed foreign policy for many nations, but that only works if everyone plays nice. The scale of loss in a nuclear attack would be staggering, even if only one missile was launched
Mankind has always battled diseases; only in the last century did we start to come out ahead. Hardly a year goes by without a new illness getting everyone worked up. Given that some of the worst die-offs in our history were caused by an enemy we couldn’t even see, this fear is understandable. Hell, less than a hundred years ago the flu wiped out somewhere between three and five percent of the world’s humans. It’s not a huge stretch that the right plague could decimate the population again. Since it’s so hard to fight, disease is particularly good at dispelling hope.
Floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all things humanity contends with regularly. Up the scale a bit, and you move from calamity to complete economic collapse and loss of life on a colossal scale. Natural disasters can highlight two things: helplessness and fault. People can’t fight a tornado;* at most they can hide. With the right twist, a storyteller can throw a bit of blame on mankind. Global warming is a major concern, and humanity’s mere existence affects the environment. Deforestation, overfishing, pollution, and improper use of pesticides* are man-made problems with potentially serious repercussions.
Governments are prone to screw-ups, and they have the power to enact misery on a major scale. Poor financial decisions, unrest, stagnation and destructive tendencies can afflict nations with poor leadership. Desperate regimes might resort to secret police, martial law, brutal prisons, or other draconian measures. Internment camps are a relatively minor example; genocide is sadly a relevant extreme. More severe measures have higher chances of pervasive and serious side-effects for everyone.
Given humanity’s long standing history of awful leaders, it’s unsurprising that people rebel on occasion. A relatable uprising contrasts a horrible government, whereas a terrible one highlights how awful mankind can be. Whether or not insurgents could win will also determine how dark the story is. Regardless of the victor, instability generally follows. Civil wars are incredibly destructive, and various pieces of infrastructure could be damaged or destroyed in the conflict. It also takes different skills to win a war than to run a successful government. The new regime could be incompetent, or even repeat past sins.
Every cause I’ve listed so far has common threads with humanity and are exaggerations of existing issues. However, stories also feature fictional threats. Monsters, zombies, and aliens* all threaten mankind. The big difference between this type of cause and previous ones is how it portrays humanity. When humanity causes its own problems, dystopian settings tend to highlight that we’re flawed, whereas external threats unite people. They are the storytelling equivalent of fist-pumping.*
Dystopian worlds have a wide range. On one end, you have apocalyptic scenarios where the world is in immediate threat of complete and utter destruction. On the other end of the scale, we have societies that are still technically together but have started rotting internally. The scale and types of challenges survivors face will dictate much about the story.
Separate from whatever caused the whole breakdown in the first place, new threats will arise in the aftermath. Bandits, a lack of penicillin, and starvation can all be hurdles. Determining the type and scale of threats is critical because it will define the conflicts the survivors face.
Dangerous threats will make a story darker and more prone to end in tragedy. The worse things are, the more likely there will be multiple threats. If the dystopian society features an oppressive government, people may fear secret police, but they probably have enough food. On the other hand, if zombies overrun everything, there may not be centralized food production.
When society undergoes major negative shift, they’ll lose things that made life the way it was. Loss is an important concept to dystopian settings, but the scale and type can differ greatly.
Before the question of ongoing threat, there’s the initial die-off. With an epidemic, many people may die in a short period as the disease tears through dense, urban areas. After that, populations will be more dispersed and less susceptible to infection. The scale of loss will affect survivors’ goals and the story’s atmosphere.
Extinction can be a distinct possibility if the scale of loss is high enough, and of course this will be a central question for the population. Are they just trying to get by, or are they struggling for their very existence? This question can determine whether the story focuses on the scrappy survivability of mankind or how they’re destined to die horribly. Tis a fine line.
A high mortality rate will affect other areas of society. Medical care, transportation, food production, and policing may all change – if they don’t disappear entirely. All of these things will directly lead to hardship and further loss of life.
Culture is an important part of any society, but it requires time to develop. That time is lost when survival takes priority; it’s hard to spend time writing a novel if you’re focused on finding food. Problems with communication can make art harder to disseminate. Theaters will remain empty, and people aren’t likely to host dances.
Culture is unlikely to completely die off, but dramatic shifts are probable. Popular culture frequently reflects and comments on current events. If things go downhill rapidly, art and culture will change direction. It might be used to deliver important messages or become a form of protest by the oppressed, though they may have to hide their efforts.
Culture is more likely to reflect the society rather than directly influence it. Clever storytellers can use culture to send signals to their audience and give context. Culture sets the atmosphere and is needed to round out any world.
Any time society changes in major ways, shifts or losses in technology are certain to follow. If a plague wipes out most of mankind, hydroelectric dams may still function, but they’re going to be useless if everyone who knew how they worked is dead. Books only get you so far when trying to figure out how to make or fix an airplane engine. Expertise will go further, but experience will be rare. Specialized knowledge will be much more valuable if the internet or libraries were made obsolete.
People will adapt their tools to match current threats. If things are broken, fixing or jury-rigging a replacement can be a priority. Humanity reacts and changes, which is a major part of any dystopian setting. Consider what would happen if the internet went down tomorrow. Sure, a fair amount of the internet is leisure based, but it also changed communication and the economy. Even though the internet has been available for less than a couple decades, losing it would be devastating. Now, imagine if we lost oil production, electricity, hospitals, cellphones, or automated transportation. Losing any single one of these things would be bad, but losing all of them would be catastrophic. Tech and tools are two of humanity’s strong suits, but major disasters could erase that advantage.
What humans have access to will help dictate the type of conflicts that survivors face. Many dystopian settings feature advanced technology but are decaying in other ways.
Food and clean water are immediate and obvious concerns. Safety, purity, and quantity can all be at stake. People may need to find new sources and could even revert to hunting and gathering. The more time people have to spend on feeding themselves, the less time they have for other things. Additionally, the act itself can be dangerous or costly. Automation and tech not only made food production easier but also allowed us to create much more of it. Even making a basic farm could be a major goal.
Illicit or Rare Goods
If the government collapses, new economies may spring up in its absence. Such economies are likely to be trade based, as money requires backing. Value hinges on need and availability. Even in still-functioning economies, black markets may deal in illicit goods that are banned or controlled by the government. Whereas most goods will have practical uses, luxury items will also find a place. iPods will become much more valuable if you can’t make any more of them. Whenever there’s need and supply, a market will appear.
Machines require maintenance, power, and raw materials to manufacture goods. Fixing machines requires expertise that may be rare or non-existent after a large die-off. The requisite goods may have to travel far, and options could be limited if trains stop running. Protecting convoys will take resources and could require outside help or an alliance. If things are really bad, older crafts like shoemaking could make a comeback as handmade goods become the only available option.
Dystopian settings can be peaceful, but most include violence. The type and frequency will depend on the situation. Current weapons may be less useful against the new threats, but humanity has been pretty good at coming up with more effective and specialized methods for murder. Guns and bombs could create collateral damage and pollution that adds to the problem. The worse things become, the more demand there will be for weapons, creating a destructive cycle.
The gravity and nature of the situation will affect the resulting story. If the loss is staggering, then the tone will be darker and likely filled with lots of overt conflict. If losses are light, there will likely be more tension and the story can focus more on mankind’s positive qualities. Stagnant societies are still dark and focus on mankind’s flaws, but they can walk a line between the two extremes. In my next post, I’ll talk about common themes in dystopian settings.
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