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I'm deciding on my next campaign offering, and I'm dealing with this dilemma: although I prefer, and am best at, running games set in the near-present, one of my players has a mild antipathy toward modern settings. When pressed, she was able to narrow it down to "cars and phones" — the availability of commonplace instant communication and spontaneous long-distance travel. She's okay with having those things available to the rich or well-connected, or as public utilities — the telephone in the hotel lobby, or in your home, but not a pay phone on every corner.

For my own comfort and hers, I'm looking to see how late I can push a 20th Century setting and still have the absence of ubiquitous telephony and automobile access be "realistic." (Or versmilitudinous, but that's a heck of a word.) My initial guess is that it's somewhere after the 1920s but before the 1950s; car culture and the interstate highway system come into effect after that. Moreover, I'd appreciate resources that show the transitions in these technologies — how did people cope with the introduction of these resources — so I can more accurately depict the way that traditional adventuring difficulties like isolation and long travel times diminish and disappear.

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According to this site, fewer than one-third of homes in the U.S. had telephone service in 1933. So that's a hint. arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/08/… –  Jadasc Nov 12 '10 at 14:06
Link to the related meta discussion: Campaign Research Questions –  SevenSidedDie Nov 12 '10 at 19:01
If you would consider a catastrophic event, such as a world-wide EMP (such as caused by solar flares), you could have your campaign in any time frame, even with widespread availability of cars and phones. They just wouldn't work (save for cars that have no major electrical components, e.g. perhaps old-timers). –  Marc Dingena Apr 8 at 11:17
@MarcDingena What an interesting idea! I hadn't given much thought to post-catastrophe gaming; maybe something like Apocalypse World or Numenera would be interesting. –  Jadasc Apr 8 at 11:20
This question appears to be off-topic as described in this policy change two years after the one which this question sparked. –  BESW Oct 17 at 0:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Telephones began arriving at the start of the century. At first, they were strikingly modern, available to the rich and well-connected. For example, in Connecticut in 1901, a hotel advertised "a telephone in every room" as a luxury.

(That "telephone in every room" is a nice marker. A hotel in London was advertising something similar around 1920.)

For cars, have a look at photographs of the era. In 1920, for example, photographs show the streets of New York packed with cars. Elsewhere, the streets weren't packed, but cars were on the roads. Before that, you see horse-drawn carriages sharing the roads with cars.

Be careful of the condition of the roads, though. Road building programmes began after automobiles became common. Judging from Wikipedia, road building didn't start in earnest until the 1920s. Certainly, there were no Interstates. So long-distance travel wasn't quite as spontaneous (or quick) as it appears.

Nevertheless, if you're only concerned about the rich and well-connected, any time from 1910 onwards would do fine for cars.

By the way: for spontaneous long-distance communication, don't forget telegrams, and for spontaneous long-distance travel, don't forget the train. Around 1920, the musicians of New Orleans (who weren't exactly rich) would receive telegrams to travel to Chicago at short notice. (Louis Armstrong did exactly this in 1922). To do so, they would just get on the train.

More generally, then spontaneous communication and long-distance travel started about the 19th Century and just kept on going.

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@Graham Thanks! The consensus about things like telegrams or trains is that they're acceptable because you have to go to a particular location to take advantage of them — the telegraph office or the train station — and they don't reach everywhere. Contrast that with an automobile, which can be taken with you and goes anywhere the road is paved, or the kind of telephony you get in the 1960s and later. –  Jadasc Nov 12 '10 at 14:54
Fair enough. That reminds me! Be careful of the condition of the roads. Although cars came in early, road building didn't start until later. I'll edit that in. –  Graham Nov 12 '10 at 15:04
I think this is a very good answer. The only thing I would add is that the period 1900-1914 is if anything even more neglected than the 1920s, so you're likely to find it tough going on the research front, unless the US is markedly different from the UK in this respect. I don't even know what Americans call this period in their history! –  Dave Hallett Nov 15 '10 at 21:36
@Dave: The era across the globe was called The Belle Epoque. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_%C3%89poque –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 16 '10 at 0:29
Cars were also very hard to start. –  Adam Dray Nov 16 '10 at 1:21

I think it may be more a question of location rather than time. Up until the 1940s, neither cars nor telephones were common in rural southern areas of the United States (particularly Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and the Southwest). My mother grew up in 1940's Louisiana and phones were not common in the area she lived, not even party lines. Also, while most of the nearby families had tractors, they did not have more than one car (if that) per household (she grew up outside Baton Rouge and Morgan City). Even in the 1960s these were not available everywhere...my wife grew up in rural Missouri and they only had party lines and not every family had an automobile.

If you wanted to play up such factors, I would set the action in the rural southern US. I think you could set it post WWII in such locales and still not have telephones, cars and other technologies be as ubiquitous as they were in other areas of the US. And don't forget the conditions of roads (if they were even there) is pretty touch and go in most rural areas, as well as the quality of phone service, you could play up that aspect occasionally.

When my mother and her mom would drive into town from the boonies on the weekends to shop, the truck they drove had a top speed of 35 mph (I don't recall if that was because of the limitations of the car, or the conditions of the dirt roads back then)! We also often forget that even though cars were present from the 20's on, they certainly didn't go very fast, and were not necessarily that reliable.

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This is a great answer. I like the accounts from people who were actually there. –  Graham Nov 16 '10 at 0:15
I know, it's fun to talk to older folk about things we take for granted. –  Badmike Nov 16 '10 at 0:57
This is a great answer, but I'm going to quibble with the comment that cars back then "didn't go very fast". They certainly did. The 1928 Model J Duesenberg had a top speed of 119 mph, for example. Whether you could find anywhere to drive it safely at that speed is another question. I suspect that by modern standards it would be judged highly dangerous driven anywhere! –  Dave Hallett Dec 6 '10 at 22:28
Yeh that's a good catch Dave. I suspect though there were very few places in the US where a car would be able to hit anything over 50 mph, as primitive as the road conditions were, especially in rural America. I live in a fairly urban area and my street growing up in the 70's (in the country) was gravel, I suspect more rural areas where dirt at best. So perhaps a better answer would be while a car could conceivably go 100+ mph, in reality, pre-1960s, there were very few areas where this was attainable. –  Badmike Dec 7 '10 at 7:13

Telephones were common by 1905 in the United States (3 million or more handsets). Long distance calls began around 1915.

The Ford Model T was produced beginning in 1908 until 1927, and it was the quality of roads that hindered widespread adoption of "car culture" in America. The first successful cross-country automobile trip took 62 days, in 1919.

I think for your specific purposes, 1920 is probably a decent cutoff for the ubiquity of these two technologies.

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3 million phones for 50 million households and 5 million workplaces... very few people had phones until the 1940's, and only a few had private lines. –  aramis Nov 12 '10 at 21:59

There are two questions:

  1. the explicit one: Until when where telephones and automobiles not generally wide spread? This “when” is already discussed in other answers, but you should note that the “when” must also be connected with “where”. While the 1920s can be a good answer for New York City, this does not hold for e.g. the Amazon jungle, the heart of Africa, the Himalaya, the Australian Outback, the frozen expanse of the (Ant-)Arctic, the oceans,… - even today you would need a satellite phone there to have easy access. (And that does not help you when the person you want to contact does not also have a satellite phone but uses jungle drums or smoke signs.) We got our phone at home in the 1980s, and before then there was the one public phone in the village – but you needed to fix a date and time with the person you wanted to call, because they needed to go to the post office to get the call. (Well, yes, another thing of the past: Post office - according to the wiki article there even seem to be countries where there are still post offices.) Thus, depending on location, any time until today could be suitable. Now you stated explicitly “in the US”, but if this does not mean “east coast” but someplace in the Rocky Mountains, in northern Alaska, in the Everglades or the Nevada desert, I assume that the considerations hold true for those locations, too. And then there are places inhabited by e.g. Amish people or Native Americans, where cars and phones are known but not used. Well, I do not know whether Amish people use phones (probably no cell phones), and of course there is the Native American running a casino, making millions and constantly using the BlackBerry, but as you are running a RPG, you can just use a community of people who do not use those things (and at least frown upon other people using them).
  2. the implicit one: Your player dislikes to have cars/personalized long distance travel and personal phones to be available in the RPG. How to prevent it? Instead of your solution (they are not readily available due to the time of the setting) it would also be possible to have cars and phones, but they are useless. This depends on the setting again, of course. For example in the mentioned Amazon jungle, you can place a car there. Without a road but with lots of trees and rivers in the way, a car is practically useless. (And as GM you can place as many trees and rivers as you like!) A boat would be of much more usability. In the mentioned (Ant-)Arctic it would be a sledge, on the ocean a ship, and in the Himalaya mountains the only support might be a Sherpa. Now you stated explicitly “in the US”, but if this does not mean “east coast” but someplace in the Rocky Mountains, in northern Alaska, in the Everglades or the Nevada desert, I assume that the considerations hold true for those locations, too. In case that your setting is not in such a remote area, cars could still be useless. For example in the 1960s during the oil crisis here private use of cars was forbidden on weekends. Put some group on strike (e.g. fuel transportation), resulting in the gas stations to run out off fuel. Just instate some road-blocks: the village is snowed up, an important street got flooded or a bridge collapsed, maybe some authority closed off an area due to the crashed “weather balloon”, or the PCs are wanted by authorities and those have put up checkpoints. So much for using a car. (Depends on how long the campaign shall run. If it is planned for years, some of the given solutions cannot be applied. Well, maybe consecutively – bad luck for the PCs.) About the phones: Depending on how long you are planning for that play, you can easily shut done the telephones, too. A blizzard broke the overland lines (maybe also cutting the power lines – that sets back technology a good way further!), some adversary of the PCs cut the overland line, a blackout, a solar storm, a crashed UFO caused the phones to be dead. Or are the PCs wanted by some authority, which has placed a voice recognition programme inside the computer of the phone company? Or some adversary of the PCs hacked into the computer and did the same? (It is even sufficient when the players just fear that this may be the case.) Think of mobile phones being localised! (This would not prevent other people using a phone, of course.)

As further alternative also a post-apocalyptic or dystopian scenario comes to mind, where there are no longer phone companies and very few cars (and fuel is quite valuable). Think of e.g. Mad Max, Tank Girl or The Postman (the last one explicitly dealing in the US)!

„Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with dystopias.“ (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-apocalyptic)

And then there is the possibility of alternative history, for example Steampunk: That may be happening in the US and it may be happening today, but not in the US of today (so to speak).

[It has been discussed whether the question is a valid RPG-question. With not just giving one year as answer, on the one hand this might be a little too broad as answer, but on the other hand there is more RPG in it, thus I hope this compromise is OK.]

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+1 for suggesting a post-apocalyptic or steampunk game. –  Deidre Iannelli Dec 24 '11 at 15:58

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