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This is part of a series of posts looking at the nature of the cataclysmic events that shook and tumbled the world of my forthcoming post-apocalyptic survival game, Razed. This time out I muse about some ways that a post-apocalyptic world changes things… and people.

These features reference various popular media sources, especially movies, and shamelessly spoil them in the process. So: Beware of Spoilers Beyond This Point.

In a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, the nature of the apocalypse remains a mystery for the audience, either for a while or for the whole story. Often it’s enough for a story to gesture toward the apocalypse, implying simply that two great armies devastated the globe in some brutal and brutish war or that environmental problems got out of control and the whole world sank under water. The exact cause of the apocalypse remains a mystery — for the audience or the characters or both — which dwells behind the main action of the story, sometimes never really popping out of the subtext.

It doesn’t really matter what ultimately triggered the war that ruined Mad Max’s world, for example. (We’re told that it’s an energy shortage.) What matters is that the world is distraught now. What matters are the rules of the new landscape. Oil is scarce, or land is scarce, or zombies are everywhere, or machines are hunting down humankind, or apes rule the planet.

Everything is different, except for eerily familiar traces of the old world, like half-ruined landmarks and re-purposed tools and relics. Cars become battle-chassis, dogs become Terminator-detectors, rivers become ice, cities become seas. The familiar recast — horrifically, beautifully, both — is a primary theme in great post-apocalyptic tales.

The ordinary, especially that taken for granted, becomes terror or salvation. Think of the grocery store in 28 Days Later, which transforms from a routine trip to a playground, a place of refuge and hope. Think of zombies and Terminators, which recast your fellow man as killing machines. So many post-apocalyptic tales are horror stories that this sort of misappropriation of everyday things into monsters is to be expected, but in a post-apocalyptic tale it can swing both ways. Bottled water and batteries become precious resources, a mall becomes a sanctum, scrap metal becomes armor.

The new world, with its new rules, becomes a battleground (or, for Tank Girl and for storytellers, a playground) where new stories can be told using familiar tools.

This is what makes a post-apocalyptic world such a good fit for a collaborative storytelling game like an RPG: the base components of the world are familiar and easy to summon up in the imagination, but the normal rules about how they should be used do not apply.

Your character, a simple office worker before the apocalypse, may be recast as a lawman in the post-apocalyptic world just because he has a gun and a cause—or because he’s found a badge along the way. Whose to say he’s not a lawman here? Everyone and no one.

The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokaluptein, meaning to uncover, to reveal. One implication is that things after an apocalypse are more accurate or more truthful—as though civilization was a polite fiction—because the devastation has revealed what was really underneath it all.

Sometimes, that’s nothing at all; just ash and bones. Sometimes it’s the truth about who and how we are as people, whether we are merely fleeting animals to one day be ruled over by animals ourselves, or whether we are strong and hopeful souls with the power to defeat the machines that would rule us—whether we best our creations or are bested by them. Sometimes the truth that’s revealed is sad, showing us our inescapable flaws. Sometimes it’s full of promise, as in the case of the office worker who turns out to be a lawman.

So the world is changed, but it is made more honest in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Instead of pretending we do not want each other’s belongings, we take them. Instead of pretending we can live alone, we suffer and endure together. Some of us remain civil beings because we are genuinely civil. Some of us go wild, because the bars to our cages have been blown away. We are changed into what we would have been if not for the tailored shackles and the shiny coins.

When it all gets taken away, our real selves are revealed. We change into what we truly are.