January Update: so much to report!

January 29, 2022

So much to report! This is the year The Zone comes to the atomic world, so the last weeks have been about gearing everything up for the Kickstarter—a scary prospect in these logistically challenging times. The brain-exploder is that you’re only as on-time as the longest task, so I’ve been focusing on the shiny things like art (especially cover art!) and getting ahead of promo.

When will it launch? Sometime between the end of March and April.

With that in mind, I have a question for you: what are your favorite rpg podcasts, actual plays, newsletters (etc) that should feature The Zone during the campaign?

(Or if you are one of them—hi! 👋😃—want to feature The Zone sometime end of March / April?)

Let me know via Twitter or email!

Other than that, this time we’ve got:

  • 🤿 The Maelstrom! An acquatic mutation for The Zone
  • 📺 Streaming myself making most of the mod in under an hour
  • 🔀 Twists on The Zone
  • 🤖🎨 AI generated art experiments for the printed cards
  • ❤️ Story Synth grants + The Tiny Hexcrawl for First Dates

If you know someone else who might dig all this, feel free to forward this blog—as I get closer to crowdfunding I’ll need all your help to spread the word :)


🤿 The Maelstrom

The first Zone mod is now read for you to play!

MAELSTROM is a subaquatic twist where you explore a mysterious deep sea city that shouldn’t exist, your oxygen at the mercy of a strange force. It’s inspired by The Deep House and The Abyss, and let’s face it also by that one amazing scene from Waterworld (yes I KNOW)…

It’s also a stress test of the whole UX of authoring and distributing mods, which I want it to feel as easy as possible. Let me know what you think!

Check it out on itch!

📺 Livestream making of Maelstrom

This was really fun! I wanted to show how little time it takes to make a mod so I livestreamed myself customizing the basics, choosing the color theme, and tweaking the prompts.

It shouldn’t take dozens of hours to customize The Zone. It could be 20 mins before your session adding some in-jokes you know your group will love, or picking particular kinds of cards that will match a theme.

Collaborative storytelling isn’t just about the players at the table, it’s also a collaboration players and the game itself. Once it’s in your hands all that matters is what it sparks in your world, not what I intended. I want it to be as easy as possible for you to express those sparks back into the game.

Reminder that if you want to make your own mods all the instructions are here: guide.thezonerpg.com/guide/mods/quickstart.html

🔀 Two page twists on The Zone

One thing I’ve learned making Maelstrom is how little needs to change to completely transform the game. It makes sense—the mechanics are explicitly designed to grow a story like a fractal and the Location, Scene, and Not So Easy cards are specifically written to work with a wide range of topics.

When I first started making The Zone I wanted it to be about a specific feeling, not any particular story. The feeling of being dragged headlong by a current that’s as much the lighthouse of your obsessions as it is the pressure wave of your phobias. A lot of different narratives can fit into that structure.

That’s why the print game game will come with a gaggle of 6-10 twists in the back of the book, including MAELSTROM of course.

I expect these to be either 2 page spreads with just a new briefing and some guidance on how to change the decks, and probably also a few 4 page spreads to make space for a generator table (or two) and awesome art. These mostly won’t be written by me—I want to hire (paid of course) from the community to make these storyseeds as weird and diverse as possible.

If you’d be interested in being commissioned to write one, hit me up!

🤖🎨 Experiments with AI generated art

One of the toughest design challenges in The Zone is that I want the visuals to set a tone, but they shouldn’t be so specific that they cognitively railroad players into particular stories by accident. That’s why the current location cards only have abstract patterns, to focus on the words.

I want the book and box artwork to have stunning commissioned pieces from artists, but with that consideration the game materials themselves have so far been more of a raw graphic design conundrum. The Zone is supposed to be truly alien. Something that can’t be put into human words or concepts.

That’s why I’ve been experimenting with the weird world of AI guided art because it’s literally like talking with something from beyond the human world. It’s like guiding two aliens in conversation with each other. One (DIFFUSION) is an eldritch lovecraftian horror able to take literal noise and turn it into an image. After many steps, it starts to look like… something, depending on how it’s guided. The other alien (CLIP) is a weird creature whose entire understanding of the world is 400 million text/image pairs taken from across the entire internet. DIFFUSION makes the images, and CLIP guides it in alien teamwork, kinda-but-not-really-like a game of telephone pictionary.

Guiding these aliens towards the right kind of imagery feels different than any artistic process I’ve ever done, much fuzzier and less deterministic.

The results are incredibly variable but exactly the kind of thing I hope to evoke: non-human surrealism that somehow seems to mean three things at once (which is convenient because each card has 3 totally different prompts on it).

It seems to know certain styles more than others. For example, somewhere in the 400 million images CLIP learned from was probably some of the work of amazing Polish surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński. So I could ask it to use that as an influence. Here’s what I got by entering the text from the Location cards for “The Mall”, “The Hospital”, “The Military Base”, and “The Swamp”.

The results are interesting. There’s a lot of experimenting to do—getting a good image requires generating several hundred weird ones, which takes hours and even days. But I’m very excited about where this is going to go, and it’s a blast to dance with this weird alien process. In the next few weeks I’ll try for a test print with the holographic foil finish. Can’t wait to see what it will look like!

❤️ Story Synth grants + tiny games for first dates!

On a totally different note, I collaborated with Randy Lubin to redesign his amazing and completely free online play & playtesting platform Story Synth in time for the super-exciting announcement of $30,000 in grants for marginalized creators to make small storytelling games.

It’s such a cool project, and great to see another way for the community to get some support. Check it out here!

Finally, to celebrate I ported my tiny little booklet of storygames for first dates & small talk to Story Synth’s very very cute hexcrawl format (not a part of the grant). Everything you need to play it is in this thread on Twitter 🙌❤️

And that about wraps it up! If you made it to the end, congrats. If you want to follow the journey and you’re not on it already do join the mailing list!

What did you think of all this? What are you excited about? I love hearing what you think—hit me up on Twitter or via email.

I appreciate y’all very much.

—Raph


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