# Zone Principles

The Zone is an opinionated game system and is designed to create a very particular kind of play to lose experience.

# Key mechanics

Certain things are fixed and must be a part of your Zone:

Mechanics of a Zone

  • The Briefing
  • The structure of characters
  • The Location, Scene, and Not So Easy cards
  • The spiral
  • Certain key locations (although they can be renamed)
    • The Zone Observation Facility is always the 1st location
    • The Boundary is always the 2nd location
    • The Campfire is always the 5th location
  • Key Moves (Take Stock, Something's Not Right, Not So Easy)
  • Mutation
  • Fate cards, and having only one survivor
  • The Center and Wish

In the future I may make more of these elements customizable. Let me know if there's something you'd be excited to try and I'll see if I can build it for you!

# Theme

I wrote a blog post (opens new window) about THE ZONE's Annihilation/Stalker inspired Zone and its specific influences. The most important theme is self destruction. Every mechanic and thematic element is built around this, from the escalation of Take Stock to Something's Not Right and Not So Easy, to the Character sheets, and the Briefing.

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# A Zone is about self-destruction (play to lose)

In most RPGs you fight to overcome the system and make your character stronger along the way. In a Zone this is impossible. In fact, every interlocking game system is designed to work best if you and everyone else are actively trying to mutate and kill your own character.

That's because the goal is to give you as much room to create extreme flawed characters and push them to the heights of their obsessions and the depths of their fears. As Kurt Vonnegut said:

"Be a sadist (to your characters). No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of."

Key systems

  • Fate cards
  • Setting up broken characters with an outside world they "Cannot Go Back" to
  • Incentivizing you to get as many Not So Easy Cards as possible that mutate you

# A Zone is a one way mysterious journey

"Oh, you can't get out backwards. You've got to go forwards to go back, better press on"

—Willy Wonka

Past the boundary of a Zone, characters are trapped and must move ever forwards towards their own destruction. They've all been drawn there from all around the world, and are pulled irrevocably towards the Center. A Zone may "help" them push forward, but the point of a Zone is that this irresistible force usually comes from the character's own obsessions, fears and whatever they've done to make their life outside untenable.

Key systems

  • You literally cannot backtrack
  • Clear destination (The Center)

# A Zone obeys magical logic

It may feel like it doesn't make sense to go directly from a Nuclear Plant to a Mansion, but this ends up working in a Zone because it is by definition a strange place whose rules defy comprehension.

From a story perspective, juxtaposing two completely different things evokes strong emotions (this even has a name: "The Kuleshov Effect" (opens new window)), and just reinforces that in a Zone anything can happen. You may choose to make your Mod more grounded, but you don't have to.

Key systems

  • Randomized order of locations

# A Zone will kill you, just not all at once

That all but one player will die is baked into the structure of the game. A Zone has a gradient of danger, starting with anomalies and mutations and escalating until the players are killed off one by one. You cannot fight the Zone, and it will ultimately win.

One of the reasons you cannot die before the campfire and must die when you hit your Fate card is to reduce the cognitive load of tracking this. The goal isn't to simulate a deadly Zone, but to create the conditions for an interesting story about it.

Key systems

  • Mutation! Mutation! Mutation!
  • Safety until the Campfire, Fate cards after

# A Zone is seductive

What makes Zones so alluring is that even though they're incredibly dangerous, they are also strangely seductive. Like an angler fish, or H.R. Giger's Alien, a Zone mesmerizes you as it pulls you deeper. Of course, exactly how it does that depends on the theme you're going for, and what will be irresistible to the members of the expedition.

I expect some Zones will be quite beautiful, with characters peacefully finding their annihilation through self discovery and wonder. Others will be fleshy meatwastes that tear you apart like a Cenobyte.

Key Systems

  • Scene cards and Not So Easy cards contain encounters with both beautiful and horrible things
  • Locations are explicitly written to have variants that are more or less horrible/beautiful

Is it a Zone?

  • Non combat oriented but dangerous
  • Danger you cannot fight (disempowered)
  • Seductive (lure you in with rewards)
  • Boundary (possibly expanding / event horizon)
  • Gradient of danger
  • A center
  • Fascinating journey
  • One way / trapped
  • Ambiguous reward in the center
  • Mysterious cause
  • Ensemble cast picked off
  • Self destruction
  • Brute force makes it more dangerous

(Notes from an early brainstorm with @randylubin)