Zone is a game about scavengers, scientists, and soldiers exploring a once-ordinary landscape where the laws of physics no longer apply. It’s available as part of the full 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in a bundle on DriveThruRPG.
Maybe Into the Odd — an industrial-age fantasy treasure-hunting RPG — sounds out of place alongside two novels about part(s) of the Earth warped by seemingly alien influence. It was that game, though, that made me excited to design around this concept myself.
Deviating from many other D&D-inspired RPGs, characters in Into the Odd aren’t really defined by a “class” or career. They have some ability scores, sure, but the most interesting things on their character sheet are arcana — “magic items,” you might call them, but never just a “+1 sword.” This is the good stuff, the weird stuff, like a magnet that affects bones, or a censer that spews foul, green, missile-blocking smoke. Sometimes they have notes about specific rules interactions, but mostly, they focus on interesting effects that translate neatly to any system.
I’ve gushed about arcana at length in other posts, and made a couple more games heavily influenced by them. I can’t shut up about this. Arcana are more than just treasure, I think: Sufficiently interesting items actually inspire action and drive play. If I may be permitted to quote myself, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — but when all you’ve got is a briefcase that always opens to reveal a fresh plate of pasta, you will bend over backwards to find hilarious and clever uses for it.”
Roadside Picnic and Annihilation seemed like an ideal setup to further indulge my obsession. And so, when the Eclectic Bastion Jam presented an excuse to hack the Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland rules, I made QZ, a game about hunting for weird artifacts in an alien-warped quarantine zone.
But you know me — why do something once when I can do it repeatedly? I enjoy QZ, and it’s very lightweight, but sometimes I want something even more lightweight. I had a couple ideas I wanted to try out that I thought might not be as good a fit for QZ. Eclipse Phase‘s “Martian Quarantine Zone” convinced the premise would be easy enough to combine with other 2400 modules. And I really wanted an excuse to use that Creative-Commons-licensed image on the cover of a 2400 game.
So here we are. Welcome to the Zone.
Adaptation & alteration
QZ isn’t a big game, but at several dozen pages, it’s still big compared to a 2400 installment. It devotes two whole spreads (!) to basic character loadouts alone, before you even get to stuff like alterations and artifacts. Paring all that down into a 2400-sized package meant cutting out a lot — but I also wanted to add a bit so it wasn’t just a mini-version of another game you might have already paid for.
The most obvious departure from QZ is in character creation. Many 2400 installments build characters from an “origin” plus a “specialty,” akin to D&D ancestry and class archetypes. “Specialty” is easy enough to adapt from QZ — you’ve got soldiers, scientists, and scavengers (roughly paralleling the D&Dish triad of those trained to fight, those with special knowledge, and those who sneak around). “Origin” is not a concept in QZ, though. You can potentially start that game with alterations, an artifact, or extra contacts depending on how you build or roll up your character, but I thought it might be fun to codify these things in Zone in a short list of options. And so, you can be a local (who gets a contact who owes a favor), an out-of-towner (who came here to apply their useful skills), or a refugee (who starts with an alteration they “try to hide” — which tells you something very important about this setting).
Zone also approaches the creation of artifacts somewhat differently from QZ. While QZ does have some artifact-generation tables, they are a bit challenging to interpret; I personally rely more on the pre-written artifacts offered in the text. (Not surprisingly, that chapter is seeing significant revision in an upcoming version). But Zone doesn’t have space for enough pre-written artifacts to sustain an ongoing game, so I tried to produce tables that would lead to more easily-interpreted results, modeled more on the random spell tables in Maze Rats. I’m not sure what a “coppery, nauseating ball” or a “glowing, strengthening icosahedron” do, exactly, but I bet you could come up with something.
The GM prompts on the back page are similarly inspired by QZ, but (I think) have little overlap. The list of contacts is broken into the same factions as the contacts in QZ — the Guard, the Lab, and the Underground — but they’re all new names, with more generically-phrased needs to make the list more reusable. And the section on locations and anomalies has been completely rewritten since I first published Zone, as I was running this with my four-year-old and frustrated by the lack of variety; this version holds up a lot better over multiple sessions, I’ve found.
As I noted in the original Zone devlog, some content in here is adapted directly from QZ. I find writing interesting, system-neutral mutations (called “alterations” here and in QZ) both very fun and very challenging. After fitting my favorite d100 into QZ, I didn’t feel like I had many new ideas left for this that I felt deserved placement on a 36-item list for Zone, so you see some repeats. (And some of the ones from Zone may well replace entries I was less happy with in the upcoming revised edition of QZ.) I wish there were less overlap between these lists so that the games feel like they supplement each other rather than one just offering a glimpse of the other, though. Maybe Zone will see another version someday that addresses this (and fixes the error I just spotted in the artifact tables that allows you to make a “freezing, freezing” thingamajig).
Combining with other 2400 games
To run a series of unauthorized Zone expeditions, I recommend adapting the job-finding procedure from Inner System Blues or Resistors. Zone is very purposely vague about how to set up “adventures” — maybe a little too vague — to leave open the option to play as either authorized explorers or as unauthorized treasure hunters. In either case, you can just roll for a contact and a need, and away you go. But if you want to introduce some real pressure to make some credits and more options for players to choose between, those job-finding procedures introduce some methods to do that. Consider offering setting-specific hardships to deal with, like periodically needing to sink credits into hiding alterations so the Lab doesn’t come knocking at your door.
To expand character options, consider pulling in species traits from Xenolith and/or Legends, or talents and powers from Eos, Legends, and Project Ikaros. If you want to run this as more of a horror game, you might also pull in the stress rules from Orbital Decay.
And to expand the setting, ask yourself where the Zone is located, and how many there are. QZ is explicitly set on roughly modern-day Earth — but Zone doesn’t have to be. The Zone could be an entire planet that defies the laws of nature, or there could be multiple Zones scattered across seemingly unrelated systems, perhaps caused by the eponymous artifacts of Xenolith. I personally run Zone as a setting that defies explanation, but it would also work if presented as the greatest mystery in the galaxy — and an extremely pressing one to solve.
Featured image edited from an original image CC BY Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).