Tox Fantasy Setting: Isladja

A map of the fantasy country, Isladja.

Isladja is a forgotten country in the shadow of a dark age. Sheltered by mountains north and south, desert in the west and sea in the east, Isladja appears to be a refuge in chaotic times. Nothing can protect it, however, from the ghosts of an empire buried in Isladja’s own soil.

Isladja is a fantasy setting for Tox RPG, loosely inspired by a country dear to my heart: Romania. Like Romania, it was the outer reaches of a vast empire that collapsed, leaving it without the skilled labor and resources to maintain the country it once was. Isladja is also a fusion of cultures, blending histories, languages, and magics from two great empires as well as smaller neighbors to the south.

Magic in the world of Isladja is called the Wyrd. The Wyrd and its side-effects are revolve around themes of personal identity. How the wielder’s identity influences the world through magic depends on the the culture and personality of the individual. Some align their identity with an ideal until that ideal begins to change them and their environment. Others are touched by spirits, becoming an avatar of that spirit and taking on aspects of its nature—whether willing or not. Some alter their identity temporarily with masks to become more powerful. A few, reviled sorcerers steal the bones of powerful individuals to assume their traits and powers.

The following post contains Isladja’s history, magic, and geography.

A Dark Age

Isladja was once the border between two large empires. Most of Isladja was the western-most holding of an island empire called Ilid, bordering on a desert empire named Zaraloft that stretched to Irqar. The island empire collapsed, and in its wake, chaos reigned for a time. Isladjans refer to this time as the Calamities. Cities and roads fell apart without money or trained craftsman from Ilid. Strange plagues ravaged the larger towns. An earthquake reshaped the center of the country. The earthquake sunk the middle of the country, splitting one of Isladja’s largest rivers and creating a swamp.

During the Calamities, the Zaraloft withdrew into the desert, leaving Irqar behind.

Rebuilding

Slowly people rebuilt a portion of the county. Where they could, they left the old cities behind to crumble and created new villages. Harvest Moon, Merchant’s Rest, Haven Cove, all have ‘shadows’: ruined cities nearby that their ancestors abandoned.  These cities lack the elaborate stone and concrete architecture and infrastructure of the Ilid empire, mostly built with wooden huts and thatched roofs, although Merchant’s Rest & Haven cove do have a simple stone keep. Mossy Shores appears to be a new town as well, and everyone seems to remember that there was an Ilid city nearby… but no one knows where the ruins are.

Mills and Fair Winds are the only Ilid cities still populated. They have been renamed, because the old names are considered ill omens. However, neither shed it’s name entirely. The superstitious whisper Fair Winds original, Ilid name: Darasiv. More skeptical residents of Fair Winds itself may eschew superstition and boldly refer to their town as Darasiv, and themselves as Darasivians. In contrast, the pragmatic Millers have more uniformly adopted their “new” name… although their new name is simply the Isladjan translation of the Ilid name for the town.

Irqar retains is Zaraloftian name, much of its culture, and its demographics. Loss of Zaraloft resources and personnel was the only Calamity it suffered.

Isladja Now

Generations and generations have past. The oldest elders vaguely remember stories they heard as toddlers from their great, great grandfathers who actually lived through the calamities. Such stories are now highly exagerated and distorted. Information is precious, as books are rare and most of the population are illiterate farmers or trademen.  The histories, philosophies, sciences, and arcane texts left behind by Ilid are moldering in ruins or in the hands of rich collectors, as are the occassional imported Zaraloftian tome. Much of Isladjan culture is shaped by oral tradition and folk superstitution.

The language of Isladja itself is a fusion. Ilid was the official language for a long time, stamping out the native dialect. However, Isladjans borrowed many Zaraloftian words and concepts. After the collapse, a few almost-extinct native Isladjan words and grammar patterns crept into the language as well.

Striking cultural differences divide the rich of Isladja and the rest. The rich communicate with other countries, occassionally traveling themselves. Many of the wealthy or educated classes are, in fact, foreigners and not native Isladjans themselves. They have access to some knowledge from greater epochs, and they view the mysteries of the past as a secret for personal gain, protection from invading countries, or a means of founding a new empire. They sometimes employ treasure hunters or adventures to raid the ruins of Ilid and other Wyrd sites.

The majority of the population lives season to season, in the same small villages that bore their parents and grandparents. They are distrustful of the Wyrd in general (although they sometimes encourage low-level supernatural ‘knacks’ that they falsely view as separate from the Wyrd). They are even more distrustful of anything Ilid or Zaraloftian. Only the most desperate, adventurous, or ambitious of this class will explore Ilid ruins or seek out by themselves or accept pay from wealthy patrons to do so. Such are typically viewed as suspect.

The farmers and tradesman attached to larger towns labeld in the map above may be slightly less superstitious or xenophobic, but they have much more in common with villagers in terms of education, wealth, culture, and sympathy than they have with the wealthy that live among them.

Magic of Isladja: They Wyrd

The Wyrd is a word borrowed from Isladja’s neighbors to the south, and originally referred specifically to their own brand of magic “The Way.” Isladjan’s more frequently use the Wyrd to refer to any path of magic.  Regardless of culture, there are a few commonalities between the branches of magic.

  1. All magic stems from a sense of identity. That identity may be one’s own personality refined, or it may be an external identity adopted or thrust upon an individual. The strength and integrity of that identity is what alters to the wielder of magic and the world around them.
  2. No human personality is perfect. The flaws in an identity used to channel magic transform the weilder of magic as much as the identity’s strengths do. Even spirits that manifest in the human world cause strange side effects, as their pure identity ripples through our muddy fabric of reality and warps.

Elivid: The Righteous Path

The Righteous Path (Elivid) is both the official religion of the Ilid empire and a brand of magic. The core belief of Elivid is that the universe works by the power of certain principles or virtues. When someone aligns themselves with  a virtue, the virtuous principle is able to change the practicioner… and through the practicioner, the world. Someone aligns themselves with their virtue (or Righteous Path) by embodying the virtue in thought, word, and deed, as well as by removing from their thoughts, words, and deeds any items that contradict said principle.

The most purest, most powerful virutes in the Righteous Path are thought to be Discipline, Honor, Judgement, Passion, and Genius. However, not all people are able to embody such lofty virtues as these, however, and people are allowed to choose other virtuous ideals that are viewed as lesser or mixed versions of those five, pure ideals. Most practioners, however, do not succeed in embodying any principle enough to acheive magic results.

Priests of the Righteous Path vehemently deny it, but one does not need to embody a virtue to win power. Even ambiguous or negative traits can be lived so thoroughly that the leave their mark on the practicioner or the world.

No props or items are necessary in the use of the Righteous Path, although individuals sometimes adopt a symbol or reminder of their principle that can become a channel for their power (or a crutch for their abilities).

The magic of The Righteous Path tends to focus on augmenting the practicioner herself: enhanced senses, physical prowess, insight, combat ability, etc. Powers directly affecting others, and powers involving deception, and powers involving transformations are rare. Once a practicioner is so bonded to a virtue that they can gain power from it, they tend to lose power if they contradict the principle. The integrity of their bodies or minds weakens along with the integrity of their character, causing them to weaken, lose access to their powers, or even to take bodily injury.

Elivid is the most widespread form of magic in Isladja, but it is especially strong in Fair Winds and Mills.

Il Athwah: The Seeming

Il Athwah is the primary form of magic among Zaraloftians. Unlike Elivid in Ilid, it does not enjoy any official or centralized support. The core principle of Il Athwah is that the world responds not to your innerself (which is inaccessible to the world), but to your seeming: the you that you project. There is a relationship between the inner self and seeming: aspects of your inner-self you may not be aware of or in control of escape into your seeming. However, you have some conscious control over your seeming, allowing you to alter it. The more control you have over your seeming (either by aligning it with your inner self, or by cleverly manipulating it in opposition to your inner self), the more likely you are to work magic. The face and the eyes are viewed as the primary vehicles of one’s seeming.

Almost all practicioners of Il Athwah use a mask when attempting forms of magic, and sometimes during non-magical practices like meditation. Rumors exist of powerful sorcerors with so much control over their own face, their face can become a mask—they can completely change their seeming at will. Some groups belief that special concoctions can alter ones seemings, the way alchohol can alter one’s personality, but these can have dangerous side effects.

The magic of Il Athwah is very flexible. Some branches of Il Athwah, like the Righteous Path, focus on augmenting the magic user. However, other branches focus on affecting the world around the user by altering ones seeming. Unlike Elivid, Il Athwah is especially good at deceptive or transformative magics. The limitations of Il Athwah tend to be a dependance on external items (masks), and the psychological disconnect between one’s seeming and one’s inner self. This disconnect can cause madness, and some people believe that if one deceives the world by altering one’s seeming, the world will retaliate and turn against the magic user. Such beliefs are nebulous, but they have their strong devotees.

Il Athwah is most prevalent in Irqar, but practicioners of it stretch across the southern trade route to Fair Winds and beyond.

Zani-Atins: The Spirit Touched

Zani-Atins means “spirit touched” in native Isladjan. It refers not to a practice of a magic, but to a class of people who have become magical through contact with Zani, Isladjan spirits. The nature of these spirits varies widely, but they all have a few things in common. None of them have ever been witnessed to attempt any form of human communication. Some are silent, some shout unintelligible sounds. All seem to embody some theme from the natural world. There are stories about a bird Zani who flies, can see distant places, and can change the weather. Other stories involve a Zani of sleep who either heals the sick or sends them on to eternal rest. Lastly, there are no “good Zani” or “bad Zani.” All can inflict hurt or harm, and it can be difficult to decipher which they are about to do at any given moment.

There is no set pantheon of Zani only a collection of oral tradition that grows stronger the closer one is to The Veil. Some claim there are thousands of Zani. Others claim that there are only a few, but they appear in many different forms.

Those who are touched by a Zani (and survive) are said to imbued with spirit power. A portion of the Zani’s spirit inhabits them, and they gain both personality traits and powers related to the Zani that touched them. The nature of the powers varies widely, and depends on the nature of the Zani involved. These powers also come with weaknesses related to the Zani. A fire Zani-Atins, for example may become impervious to fire but then be weakened or harmed by water.

There is no concensus on when or why Zani choose their targets. Half the time, the person already seems closely aligned with the nature of the Zani… but the other half the time the choice makes no sense at all. Some claim (perhaps inspired by Il Athwah) that Zani choose those whose inner self most reflects the Zani, regardless of how the Zani Atins had appeared to others.

Zani stories are most common close to The Veil (in the villages surrounding Harvest Moon). Zani sightings are rare in Fair Winds, although a few immigrants tell the Zani stories of their native lands.

The Wyrd (Proper)

The Wyrd (proper) is the distinct form of magical practice from Ustovija to the sound of Isladja. Is relatively rare, but not unknown in Irqad or Merchant’s rest. Wyrd practicioners believe there is a way, pattern, or destiny to the natural world, including human history. One brings only misery (in the long run) by attempting to control or change fate, as Elivid or Il Athwah practicioners do. Instead of emphasizing ones identity to assert control over the world, one attempts to release one’s personality or ego. What remains is perfectly in harmony with the Wyrd and able to effortless take actions that seem impossible for those that struggle against the Wyrd.

Of course, few jump straight to complete enlightenment at once. Most learn to accept apportion of the weird, releasing those aspects of their personality that fight against it. The portions of the weird that one accepts determine ones capabilities. One who accepts the Wyrd of time may learn to slow or speed it up. One who accepts the Wyrd of the human body may strengthen it, heal it, or even harm others.  The accepts of the Wyrd that one struggles with define the side effect of Wyrd magic. One who attempts to control others (failing to accept the Wyrd of choice) will find themselves causing people to make the worst possible choices.

Mana: Bone Magic

Mana is a form of magic officially banned in Ilid. Practicioners of Mana believe that the residue of a powerful person’s identity remains in a persons bones after death. Manans, therefore, seek to collect bones so that they can channel this residue for their own purposes. The more powerful the person and the more complete the skeleton the hold, the more of that person’s identity they are able to channel.

The practice of mana is view by most as unforgivably disrepectful at best, at worst violating the spirits of ancestors and causing them torment in the afterlife.

Mana is rare anywhere, but most likely to be found in the strongholds of the old Ilid empire: Fair Winds and Mills. However, the Barrows form an irresistible temptation for Manans, so they can be encountered as far as Harvest Moon.

Cities

Fair Winds

Fair Winds is largest, most prosperous city in Isladja, and has been the capital since the beginning of Ilid occupation. Fair winds imports goods in exchange for raw lumber or ore from Mills, Zaraloftian goods from Irqar, and durable foods from the northern grasslands.

All cultures flow through Fair Winds, although Ilid culture is strongest here. Value the infrastructure and knowledge imported from Ilid during the occupation, bemoan its decline, and are heavily skeptical of stories about the curse the felled the Ilid empire. Residents assume the Calamities were either exaggerated, several different events conflated into one, or simply a coincidence. The only tragedy was the departure of Ilid resources (and the opportunity for political advancement on a much larger scale). Fair Windsors, above any others, are most likely to fund expeditions to study (rob) Ilid ruins around the country.

However, old Darasiv has its own shadows and mysteries. Collapsed or forgotten basements hold tomes of lost knowledge… or even magical items. Not every Ilid sorcerer followed the Righteous Path. Manans and stranger things still lurk in this old Ilid city.

Mills

Millers have a chip on their shoulders. They are the miners, lumberjacks, and carpenters that provide the raw materials which form the backbone of Fair Winds’ exports. Yet Fair Winds, they feel, takes the lion’s share of the profits. They are a pragmatic group of people, and not particular endearing to the rest of the country. Shortly after the collapse, when most abandoned their cursed Ilid cities and started new villages with new names, Mills remained where it was and simply translated its Ilid name back into Isladjan.

Like Fair Winds, they have ghosts from Ilid occupation left over. While they don’t ignore them, as the Fair Windsors attempt to do, they feel like the real dangers are being flattened by a tree your felling or the collapsing ceiling of a mine. There may be some curses left over in Mills from the collapse, things rising in the Bones of Astremar not far north… but the mines take men every day. And usually, it’s the falling rocks or the mine dust that takes them. Not the mine lurkers.

Sorcerers in Mills are most likely to choose whatever branch of the Wyrd suits their fancy, and adapt it as they see fit. They are more likely to use their powers in practical ways, like ensuring the safety of their goods and maneuvering Fair Winds into better trade agreements. For most Millers, adventuring in remote locations on the chance of finding treasure is too fanciful. Of course, since they never abandoned their Ilid roots, they don’t have to go far to mind abandoned mines, tunnels, and temples.

Irqar

Irqar thrives as the last watering hole before a long stretch of desert on the trade route to Zaraloft. Irqar also receives trade from southern Kingdoms. Although Merchant’s Rest is technically closer to the southern pass, travel over the grasslands to Irqar is faster and safer.

Like the rest of the country (except Fair Winds), Irqar often lacks the skilled artisans to maintain the more elaborate architecture. Older structures either crumble or are awkwardly patched. Much of the populace is illiterate, although the merchant and upper classes are educated and retain quite a bit of their original Zaraloft influence. The upper class will speak Zaraloftian in general, although they also speak Isladjan in order to communicate with the rest of the country. Most of the lower classes speak only Zaraloftian or only Isladjan, relying on the overlaps between the languages to communicate basic ideas to each other. A few are Ustovijans, although they face a fair amount of prejudice.

As the gateway to Zaraloft, Irqar has many Zaraloftian treasures, oddities, and mysteries… and of course is more influenced by than any other Isladjan town.

Merchant’s Rest

Merchant’s Rest tries its best to cultivate a reputation for fantastic hospitality, despite its location in what much of the country agrees is a haunted forest. It always struggled with rumors of the Iretree and malevolent spirits or beasts attracted to it. After the Ilid empire collapsed, Merchant’s Rest rebuilt the farther than any other town to avoid being associate with a second curse.

However, travelers to Zaraloft, or those headed south to Ustovija that can’t afford passage on a ship, have few options for stops on the way to Irqar. Merchants Rest is by far the safest. If anyone is crazy enough to want to explore the Irewood, the Cursed Lake, or the Bones of Astremar, typically Merchant’s Rest is their last stop. The innkeepers and merchants are happy to charge them a pretty penny and make their last night a fine one.

Culturally, the permanent residents of Merchants Rest are Isladjan, but the there are a high proportion of travelers in the town from many countries. Many languages are spoken, and several types of magic and be seen. It does boast the most practitioners of the Wyrd (proper), but that is disputed by both Irqar and Mills… and isn’t very many in any case.

Haven Cove

Haven Cove is the safest shelter in Isladja during inclement whether. Before the collapse and the abandonment of the Oridea Mine, it competed with Fair Winds as a trade center, attracting more cautious merchants with its safer harbor. While they have lost much of their trade and population, they are still able to sell the food of the Norther villages for other necessities. Haven Cove is a sleepy town, for the most part, without much magic, although it is the closest town to the ruined Ilid magical university now called The Vanity of Knowledge.

Like much of the north, it has much native Isladjan culture… although being coastal had more Ilid influence than Harvest Moon.

Mossy Shores

Mossy shores is a small village, mostly known for two things: good fishing and the mysterious lack of its shadow. It is clearly a rebuilt Isladjan town, without traces of Ilid architecture. The village elders agree that there was a nearby Ilid city, but no one can find the ruins.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon was the capital of Isladja before the Ilid occupation, and has regained some political status since the collapse. It is the strongest seat Isladjan culture, and even during the Ilid years, Isladjan nobles were brought out to the Barrows for traditional burial. After the collapse, Harvest Mooners were eager to shed their cursed Ilid city and start anew, rededicating themselves to their native culture.

There obsession with cultural purity however, breeds a certain amount of xenophobia and those of strong Ilid or Zaraloft descent are rarely shown a warm welcome. Those who openly practice foreign magic are told directly that they are not welcome. Harvest Mooners, however, regard the Zani-Atins with a combination of awe and pity. They feel sympathy for those set a part through no fault of their own, some jealousy for their power, and caution for the strange occurrences that haunt them. The do feel a certain special sense of pride, however, whenever the powers of a Zani-Atins put a practioner of Elivid or Il Athwah to shame.

Harvest Moon attracts Isladjans from all over the countries for native holy days, celebrated close to (but not too close to) the Barrows or The Vale. You could also access both the Irewood and the abandoned Oridea mine from Harvest Moon. Although, why you would want to is behind the earthy folks of Harvest Moon. In fact, they may give you bad directions, because your better off not arriving at your destination anyway.

Places of Interest

The Veil

The Veil is said to be an early gateway to the world of the Zani. It appears as a long, narrow corridor between tall mountains with a bright white light shining far in the distance. No one has ever actually seen a Zani coming from or going to The Veil, but those who claim to have seen a Zani say there is a distinct feeling or atmosphere to them that emanates from The Veil as well. The Veil was regarded as sacred long before the Ilid occupation, and is the reason Isladjan nobles until the collapse were buried in the Barrows.

The Barrows

The Barrows is the ancient burial ground of Isladjan nobles. It is a city of crypts and mausoleums, many built out during the Ilid occupatione.  It was said to have been blessed or protected by the Zani of sleep/death: those who attempted to rob graves would be struck with irresistible tiredness, finding themselves laying down in a freshly dug grave, never to awake. More recently, however, it seems cursed and people whisper of the barrow walkers and the dead that refuse to sleep. No one has been buried here for a long, long time.

The Iretree

The Iretree (and the Irewood named for it) is the third major supernatural site that predates the Ilid occupation. Stories disagree as to whether the Iretree is a Zani itself or if it is a tree that was cursed by a Zani. Stories agree though, that it looks like a claw, has no leaves, and attracts evil spirits and creatures. Every storyteller has a different reason for the ire of the ire tree.

Oridea Mine

Will the mines of Mills are largely coal, iron, and copper, Oridea was known for gold and precious metals. The mines were abandoned during the camp and the town of Oridea is a ghost town. No one knows what happened to it. However, most Isladjans agree that if there are mine lurkers in Mills, there’s worse in Oridea.

The Vanity of Knowledge

This Ilid university was devoted to the study of all magical arts (and why the Righteous Path is the superior one). It boasted a huge library and monasterial solitude that drew mystics from across the empire. However, in the collapse, Isladjans lost its name and refer to it as the Vanity of Knowledge. Many feel like if the Calamities were brought on by a curse, the Vanity of Knowledge was somehow involved.

Even if it weren’t haunted, the magical protections laid by its residents would be enough to prevent would-be pillagers. But by all accounts, it is haunted. Some say even the Zani fear to visit this place.

The Bones of Astremar

Astremar was one of the biggest cities in the late Ilid occupation, as it lay on a route between Fair Winds and Oridea Mine. In the Calamities, an earthquake struck and collapse huge underground caverns and collapse this portion of the country. The Galit river forked, and filled the area around Astremar with water, creating the cursed lake and turning even the very streets of Astremar into a swampy mire. Little is known about it, although people seem to recall some sort of connection between it and the Vanity of Knowledge.

The Lonely Road

There are Isladjan stories about a lonely road that never appears in the same place twice. If you walk it for a little bit, you might find what you’re looking for. If you walk it for a while, you may never be seen again.

 

 

 

 

Tox Worlds: Free RPG Settings, Characters and Stories

Free RPG resources for the Tox universe

We discovered during our Kickstarter that people wanted a lot more ready-made material for Tox RPG. So, over the next few months, we’ll release new, FREE RPG resources. These resources will include general setting information, ready-made characters, and a story. Because we want to give you a taste of how flexible the Tox is, we’ll release materials for a new setting each month.

A New Setting Each Month

We’ve organized our setting-a-month plan around our 3 favorite genres: fantasy, horror, and sci-fi.

  • November: Fantasy
  • December: Horror (Modern Era)
  • January: Science-fiction

A New Piece of the Story Each Thursday

We’ll release a new, free RPG resource each Thursday of the month:

  • Week 1: Intro to the larger word or setting and it’s unique power system.
  • Week 2: Release PC characters, with notes on creating a character in Tox
  • Week 3: (Spoilers! for GM): Release NPC characters
  • Week 4: (Spoilers! for GM): Release story.

Tomorrow, we’ll release setting information about our new fantasy setting Isladja. Isladja is an abandoned country in a dark-age fantasy world where magical powers are closely linked to personal identity.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned! We’ll update this blog page with links to the new posts.

Non-Kickstarter: Going Back to the Drawing Board

Person at Drawing Board

We’re back online after a respite from the intensity of Kickstarter (and the whole family getting sick in the middle of it). The Kickstarter didn’t go very far, but I was warned by fellow game designers that if the Kickstarter doesn’t go well in the first few days, it is hard to get it back on track. The Kickstarter wasn’t a bad experience: I learned more about marketing Tox in a month than I would have in half a year (or more), as well as generating a lot of great materials, including:

So it’s been a very productive time, even if it didn’t result in funding professional illustration for a full-length RPG book.

What Didn’t Work

Going into the Kickstarter, we had two major assets: 5,000 Facebook likes and a local gaming convention at the start of the Kickstart. We had hoped that, between a large audience interested in Tox and the opportunity to do lots of local word of mouth, we’d get enough early momentum. As it turns out, there’s a pretty big gulf between someone liking your product and getting them to take the next step… and it was a much slower year for roleplayers at the Pacificon, so that momentum didn’t materialize.

Feedback for Round 2

Most of our backers didn’t actually come from the Google+ communities that we participate in or Facebook followers… they browsed into the RPG site via Kickstarter. So it turns out that focusing on the Kickstarter content would have been more successful than our many efforts to drive large volumes of people to the page. Specifically, the advice I received was:

  • Have a high-quality intro video before launch.
  • Don’t worry about the details so much. Most people want the general impression of the game more than specific rules or examples around how it works.
  • Replace copy with images or diagrams. Again, people just don’t want to read a lot.

The Future of Tox

The playtesting feedback for Tox has been very positive so far: it has a unique take on powers, allows for very unique/customized characters, and makes easier for GMs and players alike to tell an exciting, character-driven story. We don’t believe the non-Kickstarter was a failure of the product, but it’s clear our marketing skills are lagging behind our product development skills. We plan on improving our marketing in both the short term and the long term.

Short-Term Plans

  • We’ve set up a schedule for high-quality content: releasing settings, storylines, and characters for Tox.
  • Be more conscientious about how we build connections within the RPG community. We have FB groups, we belong to several Google communities, but we need to think more strategically about how to make Tox more visible.

Medium-Term Plans

  • We’re going to pair-down the Demo (currently, we’re offering most of our Gifts + Tox types, with all 5 levels). The future demo will be smaller, with few Gifts and Tox types, and only include descriptions of powers up to level 3.
  • Simultaneously, we’ll go ahead and create a version 1 of Tox RPG. Since the Kickstarter didn’t get funded, art will be limited to the 9 characters already commissioned and the volume will be slimmer. The first edition will be light on examples, equipment, pre-made stories/settings, GM advice, alternate rules, and guidelines for how to create custom settings… however, it will have all the stats & rules needed to play the game and enough examples to get you started. You’ll be able to check the blog for example characters, settings, and resources.

Long-Term Plans

  • At some point, when we go for an illustrated 2nd edition, we will run another Kickstarter campaign. We’ll wait until we see a lot more engagement on our blog or communities, and we’ll do a lot more video planning. We’ll also do a lot more visual planning of the page itself: fewer words, more pictures.
  • As a backup or alternative, we might look into other ways to fund the art for the Kickstarter. Because the art is by far the most expensive piece of creating an RPG book, and because we have a lot of the writing, layout, and copy-editing skills in-house, finding another method to acquire or commission art would allow us to skip the Kickstarter completely. However, the Kickstarter was such a helpful learning experience that I see Varza kickstarting games in the future.

Onwards and upwards!

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

tox_horror_characters

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

pacificon-playtest

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 http://bit.ly/varzatox! 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!

 

News: New RPG Title, New Logo, NEW KICKSTARTER IN A WEEK!

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 legendaryrpg.net has been moved to varza.net
  • Our legendary Facebook page (facebook.com/legendaryrpg), with almost 5K followers, couldn’t be changed to Tox… so now we have a new page: facebook.com/ToxRPG. 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 varza.net 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.

2500 Likes! Sneak peak of Kickstarter Art!

Wizard character concepts

We’re very excited at Varza Games to be getting our 2500th like on Facebook.  People are really interested the concept of our core Legendary RPG concept: characters with highly customizable powers that trigger equally customizable weaknesses.  We’re right on track for launching a Kickstarter this summer for a lusciously illustrated Legendary RPG core book.  As a reward for our many supporters, we thought we would give you a sneak peak on the Kickstarter art we’re commissioning!

We’ve been working with illustrator Randy Hagmann, and it’s been a wonderful collaboration.  Legendary is a game that can create all types of characters in all types of genres, so we’re working hard to convey the widest variety we can on our our art budget.  We’ve commissioned 3 sets of characters: 1 fantasy set, 1 modern set, and 1 sci-fi set.

Goals for Legendary RPG Art

Our goals for the art have been:

  1. The characters are larger-than-life heroes as befits a game called Legendary RPG.
  2. The character art tells a story about a character’s personality, powers, and weaknesses.
  3. Be as diverse as possible: different character types, personalities, genders, races, ages, etc.  This is a game for any character and any player!

The Artistic Process

Meg started us off.  Since she’s a fan of logic problems, she worked out how we might get the most diversity our of 3 sets of 3 characters.  She considered things like how to maximize diversity in gender, race, character mood, and character role/class across all 9 individual characters, in addition to trying to balance each set of 3.  Then Alec worked with Randy to come up with loose character concepts, for example.  Here’s an example some of the initial thoughts Alec sent.

Left: black male wizard.  Strong physique.  Arcane lightning wrapped around one hand, ready to throw it… but also covered in scorch marks (possibly standing on a large scorch mark).

Middle: white female, elf paladin.  Attractive, dressed for battle (something more practical than chain mail bikini please!), tired and sore, but heroically defiant/determined. A few different options for her: an arrow sticking out of an Achilles heal, some kind of imp nipping at her heals, or maybe she’s lofting a torch that’s casting ominous shadows.

Right: gypsy dwarf (or Satyr?) female. Very curvy but very confident.  Throwing a pair of (enchanted?) dice with a smirk, oblivious to an ominous black cat crosser her path.

Notice a lot of room for interpretation, or different options for characters?  This is were Randy brought in quite a bit of artist license and visual story telling to flesh out the characters with his own creative flair.  You can see this in his initial sketches:

Wizard character concepts Paladin character concepts. Fortune maker character concepts

Having to choose only one version was really hard.  For example, the shamanic version A of the wizard has a very different look and personality than the sorcerous, levitating version B, but both make excellent legendary characters!  We also really liked the Ursula-esque gypsy B, but we thought that the playful, roguish satyr A added an important contrast in mood from the wizard and paladin.  The Paladin was easier for Meg and I to choose; we loved all of them, but there was just something extra epic about the over-sized stag gardbrace/ornament on Paladin C that we couldn’t stop looking aware.

The stag ornament is the  a great example of Randy’s story telling.  At Varza, we deliberately pick weird mixtures of characters Elf-paladins in heavy armor, buff mages, fortune tellers both controlling the dice and cursed by ill-omens.  Despite our strange requests, intended to show case the customizability of Legendary RPG, Randy fuses these strange elements into a coherent character.  The elf may have forsaken the daintier elf stereotypes of archers, rogues, and wizards.  However, she keeps the memory of her forest elf heritage alive in her own way: an oversized metal stag head on her heavy armor.  There’s a back story crying out to be written, thanks to Randy’s artistry.

Anyway, after we’re done oogling at Randy’s rough illustrations for far too long, we pass along our choices and some small clarifications (if any!).  Randy gets back to us in record time with the beautiful, full color illustration.  For this first set we commissioned a couple different versions of the background, to figure out how to present present the characters on a Kickstarter page.

Fantasy Characters for Kickstarter, Final Illustration

Legendary fantasy character: wizard, paladin, rogue.

What’s next, you ask?

Marie, our social media guru, is helping Alec work on character backstories and world building for the fantasy characters, which may make their way into the core book as an example story setting.

Randy has drawn up the roughs of the sci-fi characters, and Alec and Meg are drooling over them.  Trying hard to select just one version of a character.

Alec is coding up the alpha version of The Deal, the ‘lite’ version of the Legendary RPG that can be played from character creation to story completion in one evening.

Gaming Goals for the New Year

People watching fireworks

Welcome to the New Year!

As a young business, we’re constantly making, evaluating, and updating our goals, and the New Year is as good a time as any to reflect on our goals and our methods.

2015 RPG Development Accomplishments

Last year was a great year for Varza.  Legendary RPG has been in the making for 3 years, but 2015 was the year we kicked into high gear:

  • We play tested Legendary extensively with friends and strangers, in homes and at conventions, with veteran RPG players and novices
  • We went through 3 major iterations of the rules covering pretty much all the stats
  • We went through 2 iterations of a character sheet that not only helps you keep track of points spent, but provides you with all of the stat descriptions inside the app itself
  • We started Varza games and built our website
  • Talking with artists and illustrators
  • Our Facebook community started growing by hundreds per week

2015 Learning

We’ve also met several of our goals for learning and improving.

  • Connecting with other RPG designers and publishers at conventions and on social media
  • Reading The Willpower Instinct – love this book on boosting productivity!  Some take aways: the power of starting small daily goals rather than starting big, the importance of key habits like getting sufficient sleep, exercise, and meditation, and the important distinctions between anticipating rewards and actually receiving them.
  • Reading Hamlet’s Hitpoints – a fascinating, scene based analysis of what keeps an audience engaged in 3 classic tales.  Take aways: some ideas for a story planning app for game masters!
  • Organizing our goals and tasks with Trello

2016 RPG Development Goals

We’ve got ambitious goals for the next year to keep up our momentum:

  • Release an app called ‘The Deal’ based on a Legendary-lite rules system.  The Deal is designed to be played from character creation to finish in a couple of hours, and make it easy for new roleplayers and game masters to try out roleplaying
  • Updating the Legendary RPG rules, including streamlining the customization of powers
  • Prepping for a Legendary RPG Kickstarter mid-year, and for publishing the Legendary RPG core book!

Just like a Kickstarter, we’ve got a few stretch goals, including more app development:

  • Improvements to the character app that make playing easier: better hints and guides for play, a stat-aware, in-app die roller, quick total armor and attack stats
  • App for play, allow the host (and optionally players) quick access to other player’s stats and status
  • App to help game masters plan compelling stories and manage game resources

2016 Learning Goals

We’re still forming our learning goals for the year! Here are a few ideas:

  • Interviews with RPG designers, publishers, and artists we admire
  • Perusing the usual suspects in the productivity book lists. Favorites, anyone?
  • Creating an combined RSS feed of our favorite RPG bloggers (like The Angry GM)