The Zone is a digital ttrpg of doomed journeys into magical mutational horror—think Annihilation & Stalker—custom built to be played in the browser with absolutely zero-prep and no GM.
It’s out now, free at TheZoneRpg.com, with a physical edition Kickstarting in late 2021.
Press / Business Contactraph@laughingkaiju.com
ReleasedJul 21, 2021
Apr 19 (Early Access)
Where to get itwww.TheZoneRpg.com
Key info🧍 2-5 players (can also be played solo) ⏱ About 3 hours
PlatformsWeb (all major browsers)
EngineCustom built (Vue.js + Firebase)
A custom built digital rpg built from the ground up by a professional UX designer. This is what happens when after 2 years of development you’re planning that physical Kickstarter… for March 2020.
Ridiculously easy to get started. Just like starting a Jackbox room: go to the link and begin, without anyone having to read any rules beforehand. The game teaches everyone everything as you go, and facilitates itself.
Collaborative storytelling. Instead of a GM, there are a few carefully chosen moves designed to spread the load, rich prompt cards, and rotating roles that let a story emerge organically.
That 🔥 campfire feeling on your computer monitor. Players become glowing cursors, with emotes and atmospheric lighting. (Would it be too cheesy to call them Virtual Glowsticks™️)
Play to lose mutational horror, where players have the agency to fully explore their fears and obsessions. Everyone will mutate and self-destruct, and only one character will make it to the center, where the dead players ultimately decide their fate. Designed around the principle that there is nothing scarier than what’s already in your own head.
A tight one-shot, but endlessly replayable. The whole game lasts about the length of a movie (2-3 hours), but it’s endlessly replayable through randomly generated locations, scenes, and “Not So Easy” mutation cards, with many content packs to come later in the year.
Perfect for people who like stories like Annihilation, Stalker, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games, and the SCP Foundation. Features irresponsible choices, mutational body-horror, and obsessions that don’t end well. More reference points here
The 14th Expedition into The Zone
The Zone is a magical realist journey into a place full of beauty and horror where each player’s death is predetermined at the start.
You’ll create doomed characters obsessed with getting to the Center because they believe it’s the only place able to grant their deepest obsessions. They will experience anomalies, monsters, general weirdness, interpersonal challenges, and dramatically escalating mutations, all created collaboratively by the players.
Only one player will make it to the center. How will the dead players, now part of The Zone, judge them? Will this journey deliver this survivor from their obsessions, or push them deeper into them? And more importantly: will they still be the person they were when they entered The Zone?
EXPEDITION 14 BRIEFING, EXCERPT
It all started with the anomalies. Locals calling in to talk radio or visiting their doctors with weird sightings, odd disappearances, strange bodily changes. The Federal Bureau of Coherence began its special procedures and tests. Then the Boundary appeared, isolating everyone and everything trapped within. Since then, not a single expedition has returned, and all lose contact minutes after leaving visual range.
We don’t know what The Zone wants—or if it wants. It seems to be a mirror, manifesting whatever Phobias, Obsessions, and Memories you bring into it. Rumor has it that it has the power to grant your deepest Wish if it deems you worthy. Sensor readings show something incredibly powerful at its Center. Perhaps it’s testing us.
You are Expedition 14X (how many previous 14th Expeditions there have been is classified). You will almost certainly not return. The Federal Bureau of Coherence, without admitting liability, thanks you for accepting this mission.
History of the game
The first version of The Zone happened in a flurry of prototyping after a week that included Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Annihilation” (for the third time), Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, and a blood-soaked game of marvelous Viking play-to-lose blood opera Love in the Time of Seið.
Raph became obsessed with how Seið’s freeform system (based on Archipelago) could fit the New Weird of stories like Annihilation while also allowing players to engage in true collaborative storytelling without a GM to keep order, logic, and continuity. In a beautiful, horrible zone where anything can happen, where reality is constantly bending, and where your characters must mutate and die by the end, it doesn’t matter if things get a little bit inconsistent.
“The thing I LOVE about play-to-lose is that while these games might initially feel intimidating (‘Wait—my character’s going to die?’) the second you accept that fate you’re freed to make story choices that typically feel way too dangerous in a setting where you’re trying to survive. Touch the pulsating thing! Go into the creepy room! Mutate with abandon!”
“It’s that Kurt Vonnegut writing advice ‘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.’”
“Play-to-lose gives even new storytellers the permission to get really, really weird. It’s incredibly fun to watch.” —Raph
Accessibility and guidance from the start
Raph spent the next two years playtesting, bringing The Zone to conventions like Big Bad Con and Metatopia, and getting ready for a Kickstarter in March 2020. As a professional UX designer, he followed a iterative process of playtesting with the goal of creating an experience that would guide players from the moment they opened the game to the end.
“It was my job—not the players’—to study and observe the pitfalls of people learning the game, and to create materials that tried to account for as much of that end-to-end experience as possible. The way you introduce something in the first 10 mins can make all the difference two hours later!”
That March 2020 Kickstarter… well, we all know what happened. It suddenly felt wrong to pitch an experience that required physical gathering, and in-person playtesting was off the table. When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, Raph started looking for ways to release it digitally but none of the platforms (Roll20, Tabletopia, Tabletop Simulator, etc…) felt right.
“Even before it was digital I wanted The Zone to be a truly pick-up-and-play experience. When the pandemic hit, I tried to find motivation to continue development by porting to Roll20 and Tabletopia, but it felt like they only let me replicate the fiddliest parts of running a ttrpg! That’s how I decided to build something new from scratch.
“I came up with three design goals in making The Zone digital: atmosphere, accessibility, and guidance. I love how video games teach players and spend most of my day job as a designer trying to make UIs self-explanatory. Why not ttrpgs? People should be able to just click a button and start storytelling without anyone having to do homework beforehand! In the end, it took 3 years of playtesting with over 100 people to figure out what that crucial first 30 mins needed to do.”
The Zone launched to early access April 2021, with a full release in July 2021
In July 2020, Raph started coding a digital version from scratch. A year and a heck of a lot of playtesting later, The Zone is now an online multiplayer storytelling experience that doesn’t just give you a virtual tabletop: it walks players through safety tools, teaches the rules, makes all the moves accessible, takes care of the atmosphere, and guides everything from start to end.
Raph opened the game to early access on April 17, 2021, and has been actively improving the game since, with major updates in May and June to add new art and address early access feedback. The Zone left Early Access in July 2021, and is now freely available!
He is planning a Kickstarter for the physical edition in the Fall, and much more before then:
- Content packs and themed experiences (e.g. arctic base with weird flesh monster)
- Letting players easily mod in their own content
- More interactive fiction elements (for example in character creation)
- More weird mutations, and ways to come up with mutations
“I think this has become a pretty interesting hybrid of a video game and a ttrpg. I’m hoping for many more self-contained digital ttrpg experiences like this, that really guide you from start to finish”
“The best part about making a digital RPG is that I can keep improving it out in the open, talk directly with my players in the Discord community and make changes that everyone immediately gets access to. And iterating digitally will all feed back into the physical edition. After this it’ll be hard to have to hit ‘print’ and not be able to change it after it ships!”
“Also, hello! You read this far! Thank you! I’ve got some more materials for you below.” —Raph
Some neat Twitter Threads
- Data Analysis of The Zone
- Update 0.2.21 - Upgraded Endgame
- Update 0.2.20 - New Art
- Review thread by Aaron Reed (Archives of The Sky, Skycrawl)
- Post Launch Update
- Launch Tweet
- Pre-launch, thread of Zone inspiration