Worst Year Ever

Trigger Warning: This page gets a little dark, even if its main message is one of hope and progress.

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Basic Information

I know it really felt like 2020, with it's pandemic, riots and political unrest, and economic catastrophe was the worst year ever, but it objectively wasn't, at least if you weren't living in one of the worlds few actual war zones. (War is hell, after all, and my sympathies to anyone touched by it.) Here's a short list of disasters and years in the general running for the title of worst ever:

1918 had its own Spanish flu pandemic, and the last legs of trench warfare from the final days of World War I, so that's no doubt a lot worse than most of us had it in 2020. (The flu was still going around in the year after that, and fighting continued into 1919. What's more, there was a ton of revolution and unrest in that year, probably more than you know. It's not just Russia that had a communist uprising in the final days or immediate aftermath of the Great War. Quite a few other countries almost "went Red" in the various 1919 revolutions. In the US, the First Red Scare and Palmer Raids saw 10,000 Americans arrested in a 3-month period on suspicion of communist or anarchist involvement.)1

Other deadly disease years include 1347/1348/1349/1350/1351, when the Black Death killed hundreds of millions, including by some estimates the plague killed more than half of the population of Europe. (And if you're looking for somewhat-morbid silver linings, all that depopulation did sort of eventually lead to the birth of the middle class and the Guild system. Craftsmen being in higher demand than supply resulted in workers having more power for a least a few generations.)

At least in 2020 we could put on a mask, and go stand outside and bask in the sunlight by ourselves on a nice summer day. In 536 they didn't have that, as clouds of ash and an eerie fog choked out the sun all day every day for over a year, dropped snow in the wrong months, and the miniature ice age caused world-wide famine. (Shortly after, 541 saw the start of the Plague of Justinian - the first plague epidemic which dealt another of the death blows to the Roman Empire.)

Something coldly similar to that also happened in 1816, known for a generation as the year "Eighteen-Hundred-And-Froze-To-Death". But even that memorably cold summer was nothing compared to "the coldest winter in memory", the "Great Freeze" of 1709.

So remember, as bad as it's been of late, it could always be worse…and, more importantly, it's likely that the course of history will continue to be one of progress and improvement over the long scale. Hold on to hope for things to get better, because they usually do.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Happy New Year! Let's hope 2021 is a damn spot better than the last! Stay safe out there!
  • Games set in 2020 are probably not going to be super-fun for while, at least until we get some distance on the tragedy and things start improving. Films and books and games set twenty minutes into the future or in an unspecified "the present" may be weird for a while as well, as you have to do some mental gymnastics and figure out if they're set in the pre-pandemic world or an alternate history where Covid 19 never happened.
    • You don't want to traumatize your audience, as many of us have lost friends and family. So you might want to reconsider your setting if you know that one or more of your players lost someone important to them.
  • On the other hand, gaming is a very personal artform, and you may find it useful to exorcise some personal demons and traumas by means of that art. Again, know your audience, and make sure you've got a decent idea of what would ruin the fun for people so you can avoid such pitfalls.
    • If you do want to make use of how we now all feel like experts on disease and unrest, it might be useful to have a list of other really bad years to set your game or fiction in, so it doesn't seem so close and personal. We've called out a few of the worst of them above.
  • Things will get better, and when they do, folks may choose not to talk or think about it much. That will have societal impact. Think about how little most people in 2019 knew about the 1918 pandemic, or how little most people today know about all the revolutions of 1919 or the Palmer Raids. So you might create a setting where there's been a great recovery from whatever disaster or tumult had threatened life. You could craft a hopeful uplifting narrative out of the recovery efforts and building a "new normal", or a cynical narrative of people burying their heads in the sand failing to learn from the mistakes of the past. Both will probably be appealing storylines for certain audiences (and worldviews) once we've all got a little distance on the problems of our current era.
    • What happens during the crisis may also be interesting - the Plague of Cyprian2 (249 - 262) coincided with the imposition of a series of persecutory restrictions on the growing religion of Christianity. Despite this, the behaviour of Christian communities during the plague, where they provided help to as many of the sick as they could, regardless of religion and were typically the only people to provide any help at all, won them a great deal of respect from the community at large and went a long way towards de-legitimizing anti-Christian prejudice. This was possibly helped by the fact that whatever the plague was, it seems to have been quite survivable if the patient received even basic nursing care and so a lot of people left for dead by pagan relatives survived and recovered as a result of the assistance of Christian strangers.
  • A veteran chrononaut is likely to have committed to memory a list of the worst years so as to avoid them, or take proper precautions. A less skilled time-traveler is likely to bumble into bad years blindly, or need to carry along and reference some sort of history book that they might accidentally leave somewhere unfortunate (like the Grays Sports Almanac of the Back to the Future sequels).
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