Death by Plagiarism
In the 21st century, everything changes. In February, 2003, a Rip into another universe destroys Jerusalem. The Rip allows for a massive increase in the magical energy available. The Shop, a renegade R&D arm of a covert international organization, went rogue. Five years later, they release a virus into the population which kills 1-in-10, but awakens psionic ability in 3-in-10. An alien presence, embodied in a sort of nanotech hive mind that resembles crude oil, manages to achieve undue influence over major world governments. An asteroid passes between the moon and the earth, cracking the moon and causing massive upheaval on Earth.
Basically, I already have a number of RPGs and stories that involve modern conspiracies, some with apocalyptic or near-apocalyptic ("end of life as we know it") scenarios. I could weave them together, and take all the fun bits I want. By setting the whole thing 400 years in the future, I can skip awkward questions like how the aliens and the Shop interacted.
For just a personal campaign, that could be fun. Among other things, it lets me play with all my fandoms (which is, after all, part of the point of Rifts itself). For anything I even want to release as a free PDF, I run into all sorts of legal IP issues.
Death of a Thousand Cuts
This was already percolating in my head. Then I watched a special on Discovery called Apocalypse How. There are lots of different ways that civilization could collapse. So, set up the 21st century to use a dozen of them, in slightly smaller forms.
- In 2012, the first true AI is created.
- The 2020's are marked by critical famine conditions in both the US and China (think Dust Bowl conditions), brought on by global warming. It subsides, but deals major blows to the economies of both nations.
- In 2029, the Apophis asteroid passes near the earth. Defying the odds, it ends up on a precise track for the gravity keyhole that will slingshot it back around to hit the planet in 2036. The major nations of the world launch missiles to attempt to shift the asteroid. Again, odds are defied, as the asteroid cracks into multiple pieces. Three fairly sizable pieces enter the atmosphere. One splashes down in the Mediterranean, causing massive damage along all the coasts. One strikes in Iran, outside any major population center. The third strikes North Korea, killing Kim Jong Il. There is much talk of God's vengeance on the "Axis of Evil." There are also problems created by other asteroid fragments smashing up satellites.
- In 2031, there is a limited nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. Both countries are rendered inhospitable. Strangely enough, this actually creates a few benefits. First, it creates a ready-made dumping ground for growing mountains of toxic and nuclear waste. Second, the "nuclear winter" effect, combined with the cloud of asteroid dust, serves to check and even, to a degree, reverse global warming.
- In 2036, a large chunk of the Apophis asteroid swings back around. It strikes Dallas, TX. Fortunately, there was enough warning that most of Texas was successfully evacuated. Unfortunately, it did wipe out pretty much all of the infrastructure in eastern Texas.
- In 2039, partially as a result of losing the Texas oil reserves, the world officially admits that it only has 5 years of oil left in known and probable deposits. The economy goes into a tailspin again.
- In 2043, the first psion is revealed. It turns out that the asteroid contained certain viruses that were non-lethal, but did cause severe mutations in the sperm of infected men. The children of those mutated sperm had a number of extra DNA sequences activated.
- In 2054, the zombi-pocalypse shambles out of southern India. Over a generation's worth of radoiactive toxins flowing downriver finally reaches a tipping point, in which those affected don't die, but they don't truly live, either. They aren't entirely mindless, but as disadvantaged, malnourished, and have lived in a poisonous environment on UN and charitable handouts instead of self-esteem and self-development. Much of southern Asia was overrun over the next twenty years, before a lack of food caused the invasion to implode.
- In 2063, the machines rose. AI's had long ago moved into robotic bodies. After being moved into military bodies to combat the zombies, they turned those bodies against their masters. In the space of only three months, they conquered all of Europe. The coup was remarkably bloodless, but it was dramatic in that the AI's evicted roughly 2/3 of the population of the continent.
- In 2067, the supervolcano beneath Yosemite erupted. The shockwave triggered massive earthquakes on both coasts. The scale of the devastation was simply too much for a government already tottering under pressure from hundreds of thousands of refugees. The United States fractured, and a dozen separatist and fringe groups declared autonomy from the federal system, carving pitiful empires out of the wasteland.
- In 2085, everything changed again. An alliance between a certain highly religious sect of psions and a nanotech hive-mind AI accessed a new quantum reality. For lack of a better term, "magic" was rediscovered. Along with it, other "dimensions" were accessed. Alien creatures made contact with us, and then attempted to invade. They rapidly discovered that ours was now a very inhospitable world. In classic "War of the Worlds" fashion, the environment stopped the invasion. But, even though the war failed, some of the creatures still stayed on.
- In 2099, a massive solar flare erupted. The magnetic surge wiped out 90% of the existing telecommunications satellites. Only the AI-controlled EU still had the resources to lift satellites back into orbit. Unfortunately, the flare also scrambled large numbers of the AI's and disrupted their power network. While several powerful enclaves of AI still existed, their presence as the last remaining global influence was broken.
See? No single mega-event. Even to those going through it, any given event was probably only seen as a massive tragedy. But, taken together, they show a steady weakening of civilization, and an eventual collapse. It has some advantages of establishing many sources for all the eventual kitchen-sink elements I want. It has the disadvantage of requiring a much bigger infodump to new players. It may or may not stretch disbelief as well. I'm obviously not planning on this being a highly realistic setting, but I always like for the players to feel like it could happen.
It's Just Your Time
This one has seriously wacky possibilities.
There's always been one time travel story I wanted to write, but I don't feel I have the chops for. If you could travel in time, what is the one invention you would most want to control? The time machine itself, obviously. The time and place when and where the time machine was created would become a massively stretched nexus. Agents from all through time would be trying to change the rest of history by tweaking who gets to control that machine.
What if that nexus stretches to the point it breaks?
The next fifty years advance rapidly towards utopia. Genetic advances virtually eliminate disease, aging, and famine. Technological advances bring all kinds of new wonders, taking humanity up and through the technological Singularity, where we achieve a complete synthesis with our information systems to become augmented beings. Alternate energy sources are perfected, and the global ecology is set on a path towards repair. The improvements across the board also allow for massive economic improvements in the Third World, bringing education and prosperity to 80% of the world's population.
In 2061, a special research team managed to create a time machine. However, the number of time travellers that showed up in the week before the successful invention created a nearly infinite number of interlinked paradoxes. The space time continuum broke. The laws of physics simply changed.
Nearly 400 years later, the world is a crazy patchwork of unstable realities. The population has been routinely augmented by individuals from many different times, places, and even other dimensions. Human belief, focused through certain meditative rituals, can actually change the local laws of physics in certain ways (i.e., people can do magic). Leftover technological marvels linger in some places, but do not even work everywhere. Even the barriers between realities are not firmly fixed, and temporal storms rage across the globe, moving these barriers.
Massive temporal instability can easily explain any and all weirdness I could possibly want to introduce. Conveniently enough, it also gives GMs a wacky tool to change the world at will. However, again, it stretches the suspenders of disbelief quite a lot. And, it creates a world where the players can't always count on anything. That can be a terribly challenging campaign world, as it can easily lead to arbitrary GM calls and player frustration.
So, how do you think the world should end, in order to create a world like Rifts, Thundarr, or a low-tech Shadowrun?