Game Design: Knowing When a Game Feature is Done

Game Design Patent

Game design, like many creative pursuits, is challenging because you start with nothing and have little structure or constraints to guide you on how to build. The field is wide open, which can make it harder to narrow down your choices. I’ve written before about choices we made early on the in the RPG design process (starting with generic or genre-specific). With the Tox Kickstarter, and the game in a more mature phase, it’s a great time to reflect on when we know that a particular game feature is done.

For me, there are really two different standards for each feature that have emerged: a standard for central game features, and a standard for non-central features.

How You Know When a Central Game Feature Is Done

The are features of the game that are central to the game you’re designing. They’re crucial to the idea of the game. If you remove them, the game doesn’t make sense. These features should also be the ones that set it apart from other games. When you’re discussing the selling points of the game, these are at the top of a short list. For Tox RPG, these are:

  1. Designing your own custom powers for you character or game world.
  2. Designing a custom side-effect that triggers sometime after you use your powers,
  3. Streamlined character creation and play (easy to set up, quick to play).
  4.  Adaptability of the rules to many genres or worlds.

For this post, I’ll focus on #2… the feature that gives Tox it’s name. Tox, the side effects of your characters’ unique abilities, is the most central feature of the game. Tox creates the most interesting strategic decision in the game: when to use powers and risk a side effect. The tox system shapes the story, creating a system where players and hosts collaborate in creating the obstacles a character faces. So what do we look for in determining whether we found the right system? The feature should be:

  1. Fun. People have play tested the feature and enjoy it.
  2. Fitting. It meets meets design goals and works with the rest of the game.
  3. Intuitive. People get the basic idea quickly.
  4. Generative. The feature creates unexpected insights and positive gaming experiences.

Analyzing a Central Feature for Completeness

Good game design does not necessarily require every feature to measure up to each criteria above. But the more central features do meet those requirements, the better the game. For us the Tox system scores pretty well.

#1: Fun. Play testers have really enjoyed both designing their own side effects and facing down those side effects in game play.  Gamers design their tox stats with anticipation and a building of suspense. They get to pick their side effect, but they don’t know exactly when it will hit (beyond that it can’t happen before they use their powers), or exactly when it will look like.

#2: Fitting. Tox works well with powers to create the central choice of the game. Will you use your powers to overcome one obstacle, knowing that your tox will create another one later? Tox scales with powers: the more powerful the gift you use, the more powerful the side effect.  Since there are only 5 levels of tox, there’s not much calculating or record keeping to slow down the game, so it’s also a pretty fast mechanic.

#3: Intuitive. Play testers (and other interesting individuals from Pacificon 2016) pick up on the main idea pretty quickly.

#4: Generative. Tox has been very generative for both Meg and me. At Pacificon, I realized that tox effects aren’t just a rule to raise the stakes of using powers, they’re a story telling tool. As a GM, the players are giving me obstacles and plot points that I can plan into adventures or use on the fly. Meg mentioned the other day finding parallels between her actual life and Tox… how you can over exert yourself for a period of time, but there’s an inevitable crash afterwards. You don’t know what exactly it will be or exactly when it will hit… but it will!

However, on this last point, I don’t feel like we’ve gone as far as we’d like. We don’t want the tox system to be generative just for us, or in our own play tests, we want to release it into the wild and hear the fun ways that you use the system! So ultimately, I’d give the Tox system around a 3.5/4 for completeness. It might be a 4, but we won’t know for sure until we more feedback from people who use it that have never even met us. Download the the demo on our Kickstarter page, and tell us what you think of our game design!

The Completeness of Non-Central Features

Cliffhanger! In our next post, we’ll discuss our approach to non-central features, and ways that we have streamlined Tox RPG over the years of game design and testing.


Tox RPG: How Flaws and Side-effects Improve Your Story and Your Game


There are shining, flawless heroes, who show only strength and never weakness. Tox RPG isn’t about them. Perfect heroes get boring really quickly. Instead, Tox picks up on common thread that runs through mythology, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi: heroes with great powers also need great weaknesses. Complex heroes with both powers and flaws make for better stories (and better games)!

Below, I outline some ways below that having characters with flaws and side-effects can improve your storytelling and game play. If you want an RPG that has a built-in system of side-effects to help you take advantage of flawed or complex characters, order your copy of Tox RPG from our Kickstarter page! You can also visit our Kickstarter to download the demo rules and try it yourself

The Story-Telling Benefits of Weaknesses

Having a hero with a weakness is a huge boost to building suspense, creating satisfying character development, and creating a plot that build naturally.

  • Weaknesses generate suspense. The success of the hero is less certain because we can see how they might fail. We worry about them. We root for them when they are clearly the underdog.  Perfect heroes don’t invite worry or build suspense. It’s also harder to make them a genuine underdog in a conflict.
  • Weaknesses allow for character development. Watching a character you care about overcome a weakness or a personal obstacle is a hugely satisfying experience. We rejoice for our fictional friend. We feel inspired that we can do the same with our own weaknesses. With a perfect hero, however, we miss out on this emotional investment.
  • Weaknesses help weave a coherent plot. New obstacles and challenge arise naturally as consequences of the characters’ personality and choices. For perfect heroes, life is a string of villains and other external obstacles that pop into their life. After a few of these purely external enemies or challenges, the plot starts to look a lot more like a series of rolls on a random monster table than a story.

The Game-Playing Benefits of Weaknesses

Not only do weaknesses make a good story, they make for better game play. Characters’ weaknesses create strategic choices, encourage collaboration, and keep the game’s focus on player characters.

  • Weaknesses increase the risk involved in certain decisions in the game. The risk invites players to weight their choices more thoughtfully.
  • Weaknesses encourage players to rely on each other. Characters not only have to add unique skills to the party, they also have to be ready to cover for each other when facing the side effects of their powers.
  • Weaknesses keep the spotlight on the players’ characters. When characters battle with enemies, the enemies tend to steal the players’ focus. When characters battle their inner demons, the focus of the game is 100% on the player’s characters.

In Tox, GMs and Players Design Side Effects Together

Tox RPG bakes these story-telling and game-playing benefits into the system by having characters design a unique side-effect for their characters powers. Tox allows you to design your own powers, called gifts. It gives you the same freedom to customize your side effects, called tox. With custom side-effects, you can make sure that your character’s challenges make sense for them and the story. Here’s how you customize your side effects:

  • Players choose the game rules for their side-effect. Does it give them penalties on skill rolls or damage? Change the way they role play their character? Introduce a new plot obstacle?
  • Players also add an open ended theme to their tox. The theme describes how and when tox effects happen in the story.
  • Throughout the game, a character’s tox level rises when they use their powers. Tox level measures the risk and potential size of the side effect.
  • Whenever a player has a tox level above 0, the game master can trade in the player’s tox levels to create a tox effect. The more tox levels traded in, the nastier the tox effect!

How Tox Effects Improve Your Story and Your Game

Tox characters are complex individuals that set you up for an exciting story. Because characters are created with a unique weakness that reflects their struggles, Tox characters have all the story advantages of suspense and potential for character development. The tox stats designed at character creation also provide the game master with side-effects that will enrich the plot with character-based obstacles and twists.

Tox effects also increase players’ participation and involvement in creating the story. Because players design their characters’ own weaknesses, players are more invested in the challenges and obstacles they face in the story.  Players also choose when to use gifts that leave a character vulnerable to side-effects, so they also have an impact on the pacing of obstacles.

Lastly, the tox system helps GM set the right balance and pacing for both the story and the game.  Game masters have control over when to trade a character’s tox levels for a side-effect and how to interpret characters’ Tox theme. This control lets them introduce side-effects when they fit best in the story and the game. Is the story slowing down? Add a tox effect to pick up the pace or raise the stakes. Is one player spamming powers or dominating the game? Trigger a tox effect and encourage the players to rely on each other.


Goats n’ Zombies: Play Testing Tox RPG at Pacificon


The Pacificon gaming convention has a fun little room for play testers to drop by and try out some games that are currently being designed. Perfect for TOX Rpg! Here’s some of the great feedback.

The Feedback from Players

Players gave feedback on scales from 1-5 on length of play, easy of learning, game decisions, player down time, interactivity, originality, and fun/enjoyable. So far, we’re rated 5 on game decisions, player downtime, interactivity, and fun! Also, the feedback was 4.5 on ease of learning. So we’re hitting our design goals on speed of play, ease of learning, and most importantly, fun, interactive play!

Some good constructive feedback: more support for game masters. By design, Tox RPG has a lot of flexible narrative elements like open-ended themes and game master choice of when to spring Tox Effects (negative side effects from powers) on players. This is all content we plan to put in our finished, kickstarted processes.

Favorite quote from the feedback:

“Goats n’ zombies! Super fun!”

Designer Observations

Running a custom game in 1 hour with completely different characters on the spot its hard. Maybe come up with some kind of quick-story designer?

Proudest moment of the game: one player came to a point where it might make sense to leave the story. She’d been paid for her job and had no character-based motivation for exploring the creepy old temple. I was racking my brain to improvise a reason for her to continue (aside from just being kind to the GM), when I noticed another character’s power to animate zombies uncontrollably. Also, the character’s side effect was losing control of zombies. So I uncontrollably triggered zombie animation, which raised the characters tox level. The zombie began to chase the characters into the temple!

At this moment, I validated one of my biggest goals with the Tox system: create dramatic, in-game story twists that make it easier for the game master to tell a fun story. If I were on my own, I would have been hard pressed keep the characters together. However, the gifts and tox system allowed me to improvise a story twist based on the characters. The system helped me be a better storyteller.



Launching Tox RPG Kickstarter, Slaying Dragons

Banner for the Tox RPG Kickstarter

The Tox RPG Kickstarter is LIVE at! We’re super excited, and not just because someone gave us money before we could even write the blog post! On our Kickstarter page, you can find the link to our 30-page Tox Demo Rules. Go to the page, download the rules, and tell us what you think.

Also, if you haven’t liked the new Tox Facebook page, do that! There will be contests for Tox Kickstarter T-shirts. Just saying.

Why You Should Back Tox RPG

  • Tox RPG allows you to quickly custom design powers that fit your character like a glove.
  • Tox RPG makes it easy to craft challenging obstacles, new story arcs, and character development. Using your powers unlocks a unique, harmful side-effect that creates new twists in your story.
  • Tox RPG is quick to learn, teach, and play. We made creating your own unique powers quick, we made everything else even quicker. Simple stats, simple equipment, and you can resolve any challenge with just a few types of rolls.
  • Tox RPG allows you to recreate your favorite genres and worlds, or cook up your own! Instead of handing you rigid, preset classes and powers, we designed themes and templates that allow you to easily make up your own classes and powers.

Why You Should Share the Kickstarter Page with Friends

  • So you have people to play Tox RPG with!
  • The more funding the book gets, the more character options, example settings, and illustrations there will be. So once you back the project, share it with your friends to level up the book you’ll be receiving.

The Dragons of Last Minute Catastrophe

It’s taken a lot of work to get here (most recently, writing a 30-page book), but our launch day has been ridiculous. Today alone, Varza email broke, the site went down, and the printer at the Office Max broke, too, before we could get our fliers printed.  If you’ve ever tried do something both creative and visible to a large audience, you know that things always break in the most spectacular fashion right before your deadline or opening night. You’re never ready (enough), there’s always something not working as planned, and there’s always a hundred-other things clamoring for your attention. Here’s how we deal with at Varza Games:

  • We freak out, but only for moment.
  • We break things down into lists. Problems are a lot heavier when you carry them all in your head.
  • We take breaks to help other, if only for a few minutes. Stepping away from the computer and getting some distance helps us see the bigger picture and options we hadn’t considered before.
  • We make sure we express some gratitude along with problem-solving discussions or venting frustration.
  • We focus on our purpose: bringing friends together and unlocking their creativity.
  • We think about how awesome the book we’re making is going to be.

We know this Kickstarter month is going to be crazy and challenging, but it will also be creative, fulfilling, exciting, and full of help from family, friends, and fans. Thanks for all your support!



Togo Logo

We’ve been pretty silent on the blog front because we’ve been very busy working on the product and getting ready for our RPG Kickstarter, which will start next week (8/30 or 8/31). What’s new, you ask?

Legendary RPG is now Tox RPG

Legendary was a wonderful working title, but it was a little too generic for our final project. It reflected the epic, larger-than-life type of characters you can build with your super powers and super weaknesses. However, our working title didn’t express the heart of what sets our game apart: the way game masters can trigger a personalized weakness or side effect after a character uses their unique superpowers. That connection between powers (called “gifts”) and side effects (call “tox”) is the heart of the game, so we decided that Tox RPG would be the final name of our product.

Glad we got that settled a week before the Kickstarter!

The name change has triggered a number of other changes for us:

  • The old has been moved to
  • Our legendary Facebook page (, with almost 5K followers, couldn’t be changed to Tox… so now we have a new page: To the 23 of you who have already moved, thank you! To the rest: like the new page for contests, up-to-date news, and free stuff!
  • Sweet, sweet new TOX RPG logo from our artist, Randy Hagmann!
  • Lastly, since we have a new website, we have a new Varza Games logo by yours truly. If you’re curious where the green shape (and what our name means), type ‘varza’ into a Romanian-English translator.

Varza Games Logo

Stay Tuned for Free Demo Rules, Kickstarter + More

You have a lot to look forward to in the next week! We’re in the final stages of editing our Tox Demo Rules, which we will post online for free. We’ll be announcing our Kickstarter campaign. And in just over a week, we’ll be at Pacificon play testing the game, handing out some T-shirts and copies of the Demo Rules.

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