Unlike a great many of the SHTF scenarios I’m listing as potential game settings, this one has hit in living memory as the Great Depression. Currently, we’re used to unemployment rates of < 5%, minimal inflation, and obesity being the primary dietary health problem amongst the poorest Americans. Real hunger, as in “Haven’t eaten in days, and not sure when I’ll eat again” as opposed to “I skipped lunch & the vending machine didn’t have my favorite brand of chips”, is almost unknown. Folks would be screaming bloody murder if the economy went back to what it was in the 1970s with > 10% unemployment and double-digit inflation. In the US during the Great Depression, those were more along the lines of 25% or more unemployment. As bad as that was, in Weimar Germany the unemployment rate was 20% combined with inflation that was such that it made the late 1980s Mexican Peso or the post-Soviet Ruble look good by comparison. This can be considered the wimpiest of the Whimper scenarios as it’s unlikely to cause ETOTWAWKI. It’s a SHTF scenario which leaves the forces of law & order more or less intact. Corrupt and extraordinarily brutal, but intact. Loyalty to the powers which be is what keeps their children fed, after all, and shifty vagrants and other ne’er do wells (aka the PCs) threaten that. Take the “Haven’t eaten in days” example of hunger & apply it to your kids, then consider what you’d be willing to do under color of authority to prevent that from happening…
Gonna take my .32-20, boy, an’ cut her half in two. – Robert Johnson, “.32-20 Blues”
Gamers tend to be gun nerds. They have a habit of equipping their characters with flashy (.50 Desert Eagle) or rare (Medusa multi-caliber revolver) guns, or ones that provide special bonuses (FN Five-seveN with armor piercing ammo). Here’s the chance to watch your gun-bunny players squirm as they try to scrape up enough cash to arm their characters with a High Point 9mm and a milsurp SKS. (About $350 for the combo at current prices) The .32-20 round mentioned in the song quote is marginal at best for deer hunting, but was widely used for that purpose in the Depression-era South because it was cheap, available, and could also be used in pistols. The PCs can be forced into using sub-optimal or even inadequate guns because that’s all they can find. Think of “Neuromancer” where the main character arms himself with a Vietnamese made knock-off of a Walther PPK clone in .22 Long Rifle because he’s being tailed.
Since society hasn’t utterly collapsed in this setting, the suggested skill-set for the PCs is a bit different. Stuff is still being made in factories, after all, it’s just that you can’t afford it. Maintenance and Scrounging become more important than being able to make the tools to make the tools. Less re-inventing the wheel than patching the existing wheel up to get a few more hundred miles out of it to reach California.
One nifty thing about this scenario is that you can transplant it to any setting with a stock market. The original 1930s. Modern day. Pre-terraforming Martian colonies. The Third Imperium. Any of these can be turned into “interesting times” by having prices shooting up like a Saturn V at the same time as your characters are thrown out of work. It also works as recent back-history, say in a lower-tech version of a Cyberpunk 2020 Nomads type game.