Sunday, May 8, 2022

Tolkien-Style Maps

Warren at I Cast Light said this and got my brain going this weekend:

"Related: I would love to see the OD&D Outdoor Survival map become more a defacto map that everyone iterates on. Outdoor Survival map provides that richer environment. Also easier to provide your own spin on a recipe when the base is worked out like a chocolate chip cookie recipe."

So I sat down and I made this version of the Outdoor Survival map for a Secret Project I am working on:

Click for full sized version.

If you're unfamiliar with the Outdoor Survival map, here's a quick history from a blogpost I wrote for the (now sadly defunct) OSR Elfgame website:

"The origins of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) lie in medieval wargaming. When Gygax and Arneson were building out the earliest RPG paradigms, they used whatever they could get their hands on to represent their fantastic medieval dioramas. When it came time for their fighters and armies to move across the wild landscape, they reached for a board game that was already on their shelf: Outdoor Survival, published by Avalon Hill. The game was about orienteering hikers and featured (you guessed it) a hex map of a wild expanse. A copy of this board game was actually required to play original D&D (it’s listed as a requisite on page 5 of the “Men and Magic” book, alongside polyhedral dice and a “patient Referee”)."

I had never made a map in this style and am tentatively pleased with the initial results. Here is how I did it:

1. I started with Chris Taylor's scalable bitmap version of the Middle-earth map  (many thanks for this yeoman's work!)

2. I created Photoshop brushes and stamps using the assets

3. I used the original Outdoor Survival map as the base layer in Photoshop and set my drawing layer at a 75% opacity over it

4. I traced over the map with my brushes and stamps

I bundled the asset pack I used into this ZIP file, free to download. If you want to make your own Tolkien style map, you can use these as brushes and stamps to do so. 

If you make something using these assets, please show it to me! I'd love to see what you create!


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Non-licensed not!Tolkien games

A small story

When I was 12, I was introduced to RPGs. I said "Oh I will make one for Lord of the Rings." I went home and wrote it in a notebook. 

It was terrible. 

For the last 20 years, I have been chasing this white whale. Here is what I have learned:

There is no one, perfect game. There is only the perfect game for the campaign you want to run (some assembly required). 

If you want to run a Tolkien game, there are a lot of resources to help you assemble the right game for you, both licensed and unlicensed. 

What's this post about?

Given this story and this blog I suspect no one is surprised that I have Opinions (TM) about Lord of the Rings games. 

Here is a blog post about licensed Tolkien games. 

What follows is a blog post about games that feel "Tolkienesque" but are not licensed

This is different from a Tolkien RPG fan project (of which there are many). These are games that have scratched off the serial numbers. They beg the ever-more-litigious Tolkien Enterprises to not sue them.

The unfortunately named "bobbit" from Ultima I, 1980

Here are some games that have a Tolkienique aesthetic to me:

  • There and Back Again by Ray Otus
  • Pipedream by Role Over Play Dead
  • Against the Darkmaster by Open Ended Games
  • Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games
  • The Hero’s Journey by James M. Spahn
  • Wayfarer’s Song by Christopher Johnstone
  • Out of the Ashes by Paul Mitchener
  • Midnight by Fantasy Flight
  • Back Again from a Broken Land by Cloven Pine Games
  • Under Hill, By Water by me

I've written a summary of each of these below.

There and Back Again by Ray Otus


There and Back Again is a free two page game by Ray Otus based on my own blogpost "1937 Hobbit as Setting". As might be expected from a game of this size, it's quite rules light: the preview images on the Itch page give you the whole game. Even so, it provides a solid structure for handling a range of characters and genre play through a simple resolution system and GM adjudication. Admirably, there are many translations of this game, with Polish, French, German, Spanish, and two Italian translations. 

What I like about this game: Well, first, having a game based on a my own post is enormously flattering. But beyond that, I love how design in the OSR space is often translatory. That is, one writer creates an idea, two authors iterate on it, a fourth author unifies the disparate iterations, etc. I find that fascinating. My post was a response to another blog post, and Ray Otus carries the torch even further than I did. Wonderful.

Pipedream by Role Over Play Dead


Pipedream is a hack of Cthulhu Dark about halfling detectives - members of the "Lodge of Wisefellows" - who experiment with magical pipeweed to solve mysteries around their idyllic-but-mysterious home of Irisfields. 

Translating the paradigm of "humans vs unknowable, undefeatable evils" to "halflings vs everything else" is super, super smart. For example, halflings automatically are defeated in any physical challenge by...well, everything. If your Wisefellow needs to challenge someone bigger, they need to rely on trickery, smart planning, or *magic*. 

The setting of Irisfields is really evocative. It has that right "Tolkienesque" feeling - meaningfully different from the source material but tonally reminiscent. The setting is packed full of interesting details - things like highland goblins, spring elves, siege goats, and murder oaks.

What I like about this game: There are two magic systems in Pipedream: words of power and elder weed. Using magic can raise your Dream score. The higher your Dream score, the more potent your magic tends to be. However, if it ever reaches 6, you lose yourself completely to the Dream and your character retires a burnout. This is a really clever, really elegant way to handle magic in a Tolkien-ish setting. 

Against the Darkmaster by Open Ended Games


Against the Darkmaster is a retroclone of MERP. As I said in my review of the licensed Tolkien games, I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for MERP (though the game itself gives me a headache). 

Like other modern retroclones, Against the Darkmaster brings modern layout, thoughtful cross-referencing, and pleasing visual design to a classic game. The game is obviously made by fans for fans, and I love that. You will note that the cover is a direct visual nod to MERP's first edition cover. 

If you want to utilize MERP's backlog of 100s of modules but avoid the headache-inducing pages of cramped text, Against the Darkmaster is a great choice that requires minimum rules fiddling on your part.

What I like about this game: First, the game comes with its own soundtrack and I love it when games have soundtracks. Second, I really like the way the game separates race ("kins") and culture. It is easy to differentiate your wood elves and deep elves because they both are "elves" but one uses the Woodland culture and one uses the Underground culture. This is a nice way to make a generic-but-evocative game that can model the genre tropes you want.

Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games


Beyond the Wall is an OSR game "inspired Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander." Thus it is not really fair to say that this is just a Tolkien game with the serial numbers filed off. But there is a feeling of folklore and old world mythology embedded into this game that I can't help but feel is familiar of The Hobbit (if not the subsequent trilogy).

Beyond the Wall is my favorite OSR game and my go-to response whenever someone wants to branch out and try a new game. It combines the simplicity of the OSR ethos - rulings over rules, avoiding character "builds," open-ended challenge-based play - with a unified game design and modern resolution system. 

What I like about this game: Beyond the Wall is designed with adults in mind. It understands that players have kids, families, work responsibilities, and lives. The time you have to get together and play is short and sweet. It facilitates play by making character and scenario creation a minigame. As the players discover their characters through evocative playbooks ("Reformed Bully," "Witch's Prentice," "Would-Be Knight"), they are also generating relationships between each other ("The person on my right rescued me from the barrow wight when I uncovered the spellbook in the ancient tomb") and filling out their home village ("The blacksmith taught me everything he knew"). At the same time, the GM is filling out their scenario workbook to create the adventure that the players are going to run through that night. It's the perfect game for one shots and has several excellent (and inexpensive!) supplements about building out the game for campaign play. 

The Hero’s Journey by James M. Spahn


The Hero's Journey is an OSR game that utilizes the White Box rule set. The first edition is - by the author's admission - an attempt to create the "perfect" Tolkien game. The second edition advances this paradigm a little, wherein James M Spahn allows himself the freedom to wander farther afield from the source material.

Note: Several of the games in this list use Jon Hodgson art to good effect. He seems the go-to RPG illustrator if you want to invoke a Tolkienesque aesthetic.

What I like about this game: The book is full of little references for a Tolkien fan. Everything from the original publisher ("Barrel Rider Games") to spell names ("Breathed in Silver" - an illusion spell that references the C.S. Lewis quote that myths were "lies breathed through silver"). If you're a Tolkien enthusiast, these little gems contribute aesthetically to the overall tone of the text. 

Wayfarer’s Song by Christopher Johnstone


Wayfarer's Song is a free RPG heavily inspired by Norse mythology. Because The Lord of the Rings is also heavily inspired by Norse mythology, I've included it on this list. 

Like the WoD games or Burning Wheel, the game is split up between different character types - Men, Aelfan, Duegar, and Ettin - with the basic expectation that campaigns will focus on groups of one particular type.

As an indie game from the early 2000s, it definitely feels like a trad game of its time. But no matter your preferences for rules, there's so much creativity here that you will undeniably be inspired. Wayfarer's Song just oozes aesthetic. The linguistic choices are beautiful. You can be an elf from the Throne of Willows-Writhen. You can be a valraven warrioress. You can forge magical items with the bindrune of alarum. 

What I like about this game: In a lot of licensed games, you never get to have the stuff that the main characters from the inspiring media have. For instance, you won't get the Phial of Galadriel because that item is unique. But Wayfarer's Song gives you rules for creating light-filled phials. And that rules! 

Midnight by Fantasy Flight


Midnight is a game published under the 3.0 OGL. There were probably one million of these d20 games in the early 2000s and this one is my favorite.

The backstory of the game is this: The Dark Lord (Sauron Izrador) has tried to conquer the world several times and has always been thwarted...except this last time. The fellowship of heroes that rose against him was betrayed. The Shadow now stretches across the entire world: the Fourth Age has begun. 

A campaign setting with the premise of "Sauron wins actually lol" is great. Most d20 games feel shoehorned into the system, but somehow it works here. As a d20 game, it does have to bend over backwards to make the setting "low magic." It does this by moving using magic into a feat tree, with the Channeler base class getting the first magic feats for free, with real casting classes being locked into prestige classes taught by hidden forces that oppose the Dark Lord in secret enclaves. 

What I like about this game: The game includes "Heroic Paths" which grant additional feats. This additional power is meant to balance out the danger and the lack of magic (no clerics, healing potions, resurrection, etc.) in the setting. This lets you have incredible luck like Mat Cauthon or animal powers like Jon Snow in a way outside of your character class in a way that is very compelling.

Out of the Ashes by Paul Mitchener


Out of the Ashes is a game that ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2021 but has not yet been fulfilled. A playtest document was provided to backers, which is why I'm talking about it now.

The premise is similar-but-different to Midnight: the age has ended after a titanic war with the Dark Lord. The characters must come to terms with the old world passing away and rebuild their communities in a broken world. The game asks "What is Aragorn's post War of the Ring tax policy?" and means it in good faith. Very charming.

In the playtest document, the alternate name "After the Final War" is provided. I'm mildly disappointed that this wasn't the final game name since it feels less generic to me. Ah well. 

What I like about this game: Honestly any game that includes the option to play a not!elf who can do wire-fu and run across the tops of spears has me hook, line, and sinker. 

Back Again from a Broken Land by Cloven Pine Games


Back Again from a Broken Land is a PbtA game about characters returning home after the final war against evil - essentially playing out the Scouring of the Shire chapters. Like Out of the Ashes, it ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and is currently in pre-order for non-backers. I have ordered it but not read it, so I cannot speak more on this game except to say that I am excited to see it.

Under Hill, By Water by Me 


Under Hill, By Water is a game about halflings who don't want no adventures, thank you. It is obviously and earnestly an homage to the anachronistic little British nobility that live in a corner of Middle-earth, and an effort to create a cozy, slice of life game experience that you can pick up and play in off-weeks of your main game. Its supplement, Walking Holiday, is a long form essay on what makes travel in RPGs interesting and provides procedures for having interesting journey.

Conclusion

If you are trying to run a game that captures a Tolkienian aesthetic, I hope this post was somewhat helpful in finding the right game(s) for you. Please let me know how it goes! 

If there is another game that fits the bill that I have not included, please do leave a comment. I would love to read it.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

My Interview with Tony @ PlusOneExp

Tony Vasinda was kind enough to invite me on his RPG show PlusOneExp. I had a very fun time talking to him about:

  • Making travel fun
  • Alchemical subsystems
  • Dungeon Meshi
  • What IS the GLoG?
  • Enriching PDFs with digital tools
  • The current state of HIS MAJESTY THE WORM

Plus, I made this very handsome face. 

(Click The Handsome Face to hear our conversion.)

If you missed the live stream, click above to hear our conversation and check out the other cool work he's doing on his channel.

Tony is currently hosting a game jam on Itch called TogetherWeGo. There are some excellent designers participating and you should definitely check it out. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Hexcrawl Dashboards

[Voiceover] You're just a GM who wants to run a hexcrawl! But has THIS happened to YOU?!

...You have the module open!

...And the map!

...And the random encounter tables!

...And a virtual dice roller!

...And the monster manual!

...And your notes!

Soon, there's so many windows open that you don't know which is which! There's GOT to be a BETTER WAY!


Introducing! The...

Hexcrawl Dashboard

I've put together a proof of concept for something I've been calling the Hexcrawl Dashboard: a patchwork of iFramed tools cobbled together onto a single site for ease of GM access. The gimmick is that you have a single page for your map, your encounters, your random encounters, your dungeons, your monster's stats - anything you need to reference during play.

Click the image to check out the sample Hexcrawl Dashboard

For this example, I have created a map of the Trollshaws of Middle-earth. There are forty keyed hex sites. Some sites have links to One-Page Dungeons. There are hundreds of random encounters

This site is written in a system neutral format. 

The content is borrowed from many sources (see below) but has been curated by yours truly to provide that *chef's kiss* Tolkien experience. 

For my machine's resolution, the site is best viewed at like 200%. If I was a better designer or wanted to spend more time on this, I could probably tweak it - but I'd argue that speed and efficiency are more important to a GM prepping a campaign and this is pretty easy to set up.

How did you make this?

This sample site is made up of a few different tools:

  • The website is just a simple Google Site. Everything is just iFramed into it.
  • The hexmap image was stolen  borrowed from a MERP book. I overlaid a basic hex pattern over it and added the numbers manually in an image editing program. 
  • I used interacty.me to place clickable hex descriptions onto each hex. 
    • Note: Interacty is free for people who list their purpose as educational but otherwise requires a fee. 
    • Note: Interacty limits the number of clickable icons to 40 per image. 
  • I used perchance.org to create a nested overloaded encounter table. I talk about my process for making a random table here (including the robust sources I drew from). 
    • Each time an encounter is rolled, it is marked off of the list. Your generator won't give you that result again until you refresh the page.
  • The content of the hex map is mostly borrowed from old MERP modules, hammered and chiseled to fit my own personal predilections.
  • The images for the hex map are either from Evind Earl's paintings for Disney films or from the background art of The Banner Saga (which was obviously inspired by him). The goal here is to evoke a particular tone for the GM while running the game.
  • Several hexes include content from entries to the One Page Dungeon contest.

What else is there?

There have already been some very good work in this space. For my money, everything Numbered Works does is prettier and shinier than this. But I slapped this together with a sort of simple speed that appeals to me. I would use my methodology if I was running a game for myself instead of publishing it.

If there are other no-code/low-code tools I should be aware of, please do put them in the comments!

Reflections

Basically, this sort of prep is indicative of what I would do the next time I wanted to run a hexcrawl or dungeon game. I don't want to flip around between all of my wonderful books - my old modules, my new modules, my friend's random tables, my own notes. I would just cobble them together into a few tools and then slap them in a website. 

Now that I've figured out what tools I want to use and how to employ them, I think this sort of prep would take ~an afternoon-ish of work to do, once the basic content has been generated/curated/selected. 

I am hopeful this level of up-front work will minimize the work I need to do at the table in the future. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Random Encounters in the Trollshaws

I'm a big fan of random tables. Assuming I curate the table correctly, a random table brings a feeling of exciting realness to the flow of a game - they ensure I'm not just writing a fantasy novel in front of my players.

However, during a game, I can only have so many *things* in front of me. I'm always thinking, "Wait, I know I have a d100 list of books around here, where did I put the Dungeon Alphabet?" In practice, I've become frustrated with how many good tables I know I own vs how many good tables I can bring to hand easily.

I'm trying to solve this problem with technology. I started experimenting with Perchance.

Here is a generator I made to run a Middle-earth game set in the Trollshaws:


If you're looking for a random encounter table to use for your next MERP game, voila! You can stop here. 

If you're curious about the individual entries (there are hundreds), you can check out the generator on Perchance and click "edit." They are mostly stolen from d4caltrops and glassbirdgames, but curated to ensure a pure Tolkienian aesthetic.

If you're interested in the "theory" of my random encounter designs, read on!

Making random encounters

Art by Alan Lee

I talked in In Search of Better Travel Rules how random encounters that are just "Everyone makes a Travel check to navigate the marshes or takes 1d6 HP damage" are boring. No matter what the flavor is, rolling dice and taking an HP tax is not an interesting encounter. Random encounters need choice to be interesting.

In Walking Holiday, I laid out the basic procedure that I use: wandering encounters are combined with static, landmark encounters to create the scene the players find when they travel to a new location. Wandering encounters are basically Necropraxis's Overloaded Encounter Die. (Schwew, that's a lot of references.) 

Consider the troll scene in The Hobbit. This is actually a super gameable scene. The trolls all have names - they're not just Troll 1, Troll 2, and Troll 3. They are a strong enemy that has treasure, but must be fought or dealt with through stealth. They can be negotiated with somewhat - they even argue about whether to let Bilbo go at first. They have an obvious weakness to be exploited. 

Would that every encounter on a random table was so rich with possibility.

For the wandering encounters in this generator, there are four possible types: 

  1. Curiosity: These are basically "nothing happens," but framed to give context and flavor to the environment.
  2. Sign: These are hints at hazards or monsters that live in this area. Because there are only about a dozen of these, these programmatically happen only about half as frequently as other encounter types.
  3. Travel Event: These are scenes that provide open-ended problems to avoid a hazard or gain some reward. There are about twenty of these.
  4. Encounters: These are scenes with friendly or unfriendly NPCs. There are hundreds of these.

Each time an encounter is rolled, it is marked off of the list. Your generator won't give you that result again until you refresh the page.

For Encounters, it's vital that these are never framed as "1d4 red dragons." Some random tables try to randomly provide activities for the monsters and this can sometimes produce weird results like "3 skeletons are dancing." Luckily, d4caltrops provides lots of inspiration here as they have d100 monster activities for each creature in the Monster Manual (including interesting variations on only barely different monsters - such as pirates vs buccaneers). 

Encounters should be a mix of both friendly and non-friendly NPCs. Moreover, almost no entry is "1d4 starving wolves attack." Almost everything can be talked to, almost everything can be handled outside of combat. 

The generator is doing a lot of work here. Each monster is assigned a type (hill troll vs stone troll), an appropriate number, and an activity based on the time of day. Friendly NPCs are given names. Trolls occur frequently (it's a region called the Trollshaws after all) but only occur at night.

This generator was made as an experiment. If I was going to spend more time on it, I'd probably bake a weather hex flower into it and give the unfriendly NPCs names as well.

Anyway, I hope there's something worthwhile here for you!


Saturday, March 5, 2022

Cut-Out Decoration Cards for your Cozy Hole Home

I have made a toy.

The equipment cards from Mausritter/Last Gasp Grimoire are so fun. The gimmick is that you print out your equipment cards on card stock and use blue tack to stick them physically onto your character sheet, so you have a sort of Diablo pack experience.

I took this paradigm and applied it to decorations for the cozy hole that you call a home. All artwork is stolen from Mike Ploog's background art in Ralph Bakshi's Fellowship of the Ring.

Choose a decoration for your tiny home.

Place them in your parlor...

...or in your entrance hall.

Click on any of the pictures above - or click here - to download all of the assets. 

Use this for your Mausritter games or maybe even Under Hill, By Water.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Walking Holiday, a supplement for Under Hill, By Water, now live

I have just released Walking Holiday

Walking Holiday is an Under Hill, By Water supplement that contains procedures for traveling from one place to another, as well as some advice on how to make these procedures actually fun. 

The GM will take an afternoon to do some prep. First, the GM will randomly generate and draw a map to represent what lies outside of your home village. Second, they’ll write down interesting things to find there (but no adventures, certainly!)

Afterwards, players can go on walking holidays to see a bit of the lay of the land between halfling villages. This journey is the game.

Click to get the game!

In Search of Better Travel Rules

Journeys and travels are a fantasy staple. As such, RPG players have long tried to include this essential element in their games only to find the experiences fall flat. Often, travel is either reduced to a skill check or handwaved entirely. I raved about this in my post In Search of Better Travel Rules

First, complain. Identify the problem. Then, do something about it.

Walking Holiday is a game supplement that makes traveling fun by infusing interesting choices into the journey. The game includes:
  • Procedures for pointcrawling 
  • Map making by dropping dice and drawing landmarks
  • Collaborative rumor generation about the map's contents
  • Dozens of example encounters and strange landmarks 
  • An optimized PDF with links and bookmarks, as well as layers that can be turned off for printing purposes

Here’s an example of what I mean:
You can generate a map for your players by picking up one of every type of platonic dice - a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and a d20. Toss ‘em on some paper. 
Normal stuff is lower numbers so they're more likely to occur.

Then, you reference what landmarks you’ve rolled and draw them in. 

(Drawing can be fun even if you’re not good at it - like me!)


Have a nice trip!

Because Walking Holiday is designed for use with Under Hill, By Water, the example encounters and NPCs are intended to provide a cozy, slice-of-life experience.

Even so, the procedures, advice, and game theory included are universally applicable. Use Walking Holiday to improve your journeys for any game where travel is featured.

Walking Holiday Yuletide Jam

I have been so thrilled and so touched by the community’s involvement in my little game’s little jam. I wanted to highlight the entries because I believe they enrich the experiences for everyone who plays Under Hill, By Water by adding new NPCs, systems, creatures, etc. 

A Collection of Things That Most Certainly Are Not
By Wayspell
A bestiary written in-character by the adventurous (feh) halfling Unreliable Wanderfoot. It is a hand-drawn supplement that provides pictures and stats for a variety of creatures beyond the Hedge.

Auntie Everline
By Evlyn Moreau

A spider NPC that serves as a wonderfully monstrous neighbor to the PCs. Living just over the Hedge, she provides  the PCs aid in a cool way: you help her out with tasks so the GM can noodle on answers to the questions you’ve asked her. 

Of Mushrooms Meet and & Marvelous
By Kris Goldsmith

This scenario (not adventure, certainly) provides the PCs the opportunity to enter the yearly Harvest Faire. To win the top prize, the players have to find a way to get the best mushrooms in the Vale out of the fields of mean ol’ Farmer Worm. 

If you’re looking for a great introduction to the game to run for a night where you don’t have your normal game night, this is a great choice.

How Hard Can It Be?
By Seedling Games
This supplement introduces a crafting mechanic to the game that is infinitely expandable. The basic mechanic cleverly balances misfortune against progress. If you’re running Under Hill, By Water a lot and want to measure the PCs’ long-term progress for their tasks around their village, this is a smart way to do it.

Heart and Hillside Home
By Into the Wild Blue Yonder
Additional randomizers to infuse your village with color and texture. This includes lists of fancy food (you prefer 11 meals a day, if you can get them), rumors of things outside the Hedge, and more! 


These supplements are so cool and well worth your time and $$$. I hope you’ll check them out! 

The road goes ever on and on…







Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Scars

The following rules were drafted and playtested for the forthcoming game HIS MAJESTY THE WORM, currently Itchfunding. I ultimately cut them from the main text. Both I and my players enjoyed them but they did not feel like they were explicitly furthering the goals of the game. Sometimes you have to drown your darlings.

Anyway, here they are in case they’re interesting to you for your games. 

Scars

“Though he had been healed in Rivendell of the knife-stroke, that grim wound had not been without effect. His senses were sharper and more aware of things that could not be seen. One sign of change that he soon had noticed was that he could see more in the dark than any of his companions, save perhaps Gandalf.” - Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

 My family has a legend about my great grandmother. It was said that she was so fed up with getting seasonal poison ivy and suffering those itchy welts that she finally ate a poison ivy leaf sandwich. It sent her to the hospital.

But she survived. And she never got poison ivy again.

Believe my family legend or not, it’s the basis of this subsystem. So strap in:

  • You were dead. Now you’re not. You bear a mark from your death.

  • Describe your scar. Every time you see it, it reminds you of the time you died.

  • Based on the enemy that marked you in this way, you gain a new talent. This talent may be Wounded like any other.

  • You may only gain a scar once per Crawl.

The list of scar talents below is not exhaustive. Work out the specifics of your scar with your GM.

 Animate Statue Scar

A hand-shaped scar. In the brief moment of your death, the statue’s machinations made sense to you. Spend a lore bid and ask the GM where the animated statue’s empowering rune is.

Bloodybones Scar

The bloodybone skeletons stripped all the flesh off of one of your hands, trying to free their “lost brother” under your skin. Luckily, your skeletal hand still functions more or less as normal. One of your skeletal fingers is a “skeleton key.” It functions as a lockpick that you always have on you.

Bog Zombie Scar

An ugly wound, swollen and pus-filled. It never quite heals. As long as this talent is not Wounded, undead will ignore you. You are invisible to them. They smell themselves on you.

Brain Spider Scar

The thing left scars you couldn’t see, deep in your head. As long as you are in physical contact with someone, you can communicate with them telepathically. This freaks most people out, but allows you to overcome a language barrier.

Cockatrice Scar

One of your eyes remains stone, smooth and polished like marble. You can pop it out and still see through it. Also, it is made out of stone, so it’s really hard to hurt.

Devil Scar

A red blotch that looks vaguely like writing. You become extremely good at legalese. You can spend a lore bid to ask the GM if there are any hidden clauses in a contract that you should know about. The GM will lay everything out clearly.

Your scar prickles whenever you enter a mythraeum (aka temple).

Face Rat Scar

The rat stole your fucking face. Now there’s just a big blank fleshy space between your hairline and your chin. You can still eat with that little slit and see basically okay, but you have no face. If you ever find another face rat, you can cut their face off and wear it like a mask. It fuses onto your blankness and is a perfect disguise. The more face rats you catch, the more disguises you gain.

Fungoid Scar

Your scar sprouts ugly little brown mushrooms. If you ever actually die, these will sprout into a fungoid doppleganger. Nobody will be able to tell the difference (at least at first).

Griffin Scar

The humans of House Gryphes host griffin hunts in honor of their king. Scars from griffins earn you mad respect with that group. Any member of the ruling house of the City will listen to tales of how you got your scar with rapturous attention.

Harpy Scar

A smear of white scar tissue reminiscent of pigeon shit on your car. You become great at insulting someone. During a Challenge, you may treat Banter as either a Cups or Wands action.

Imp Scar

An ugly scar that looks like a grinning mouth. You can spend 2 Resolve to retry a test of fate that became a great failure.

 Jinn Scar

You were burned by the jinn. When the burned healed, it was in a hauntingly beautiful pattern of rainbow hues. Undeniably a burn, but somehow beautiful. This scar notably benefits sorcerers. While this talent is unWounded, you may use your magic whenever someone else holds an appropriate component and wishes you to.

If someone in your vicinity is holding a component, you may cast the spell “for” them.

  • During a Challenge, the person making the wish must use the Speak Incantations action.

    • You must know the appropriate talent to cast that particular component’s spell.

  • Either you or the person making the wish may spend the Resolve.

  • If neither of you are willing, nothing happens.

  • You must still be able to see or touch your target, per normal.

  • You can only concentrate on one spell at a time, per normal.

Kelpie Scar

You can cast the spell Defy Depths (see Appendix X, page XX) on yourself for a Resolve without a component. This spell requires concentration as normal.

Lion Scar

The outline of the lion’s bite shines with raw, pink flesh. Anyone marked by a lion carries the power of the king of beasts. You gain favor in tests of fate to tame or calm wild animals. 

Mimic Scar

Once bitten, twice shy. You may spend a lore bid to ask a GM if any one item is actually a mimic. They’ll answer honestly. 

Nymph Scar

Any scar suffered from a nymph’s meddling always turns out super dramatic. You look like a badass. You can spend a Resolve to ignore a nymph’s charm power and all other Inspire Trust or Inspire Joy effects. 

Ogre Scar

The scar barfs forth a teratoma. You grow a proto head. Everybody thinks it’s gross and people generally default to the distaste disposition when they see you. However, as long as it’s uncovered, your scar will bark out a warning if you are ever ambushed. You are never surprised. 

Questing Beast Scar

A bite mark. You can spend a Resolve to ask the GM in which direction lies your personal quest (but not a guild-fellow's quest). They will answer you honestly.

When this talent is Wounded, the scar begins to whine and yip like a pack of dogs and stealth becomes impossible. 

Slime Scar

The slime devoured one of your limbs (talk with the GM about which one makes the most sense). However, it left a little bit of itself behind. You grow a new limb out of slime. It behaves more or less like a normal limb, except it’s obviously an oozeand is super hard to actually hurt. It can be hit by a nine-pound hammer, slammed inside an iron maiden, or stretched on the rack and suffer no lasting harm. Fire still hurts it, though.

Titan Scar

Scarification of your lungs leaves you with a permanent rasp and the ability to belch out a cloud of elemental spume. For 2 Resolve, you can exhale a cloud of elemental energy appropriate to the titan who scarred you. This cloud affects everybody in the zone except for you.

During combat, using this ability is a Wands action that targets the initiative of everybody in the zone.

  • A breath of fire lights all untended flammable objects aflame. Everybody affected in the zone catches fire. They take a Wound at the beginning of their focus action unless they use a Recover action to put themselves out.

  •  A breath of ice freezes all potions, oils, or bombs (making them unusable until warmed up). Everybody affected is crystalized and Rooted and Stunned until they make a Recover action to free themselves.

Ungoat Scar

A honeycomb of flesh that elicits a severe trypophobia response. You’re not sure it’s ever going to heal. If you would ever prompt maleficence as a sorcerer, you can draw twice and choose the result using the tables in Appendix III, page XX.

Vampire Scar

A vampiric scar—often intense scarification of the neck—carries a connection to the undead. By spending a lore bid, you can detect the presence of a vampire. If one is present on the same level of the Underworld, the GM will tell you which path is closest to it. If one is present in the same room (hidden, in one of a thousand coffins, etc.), the GM will tell you exactly where it is.

Unfortunately, this connection goes both ways. All vampires can sense you in the same way. You are a beacon in the night to their eyes.

Winter Wolf Scar

The wound festers into a cluster of crystals, icy cold to the touch. Anything you touch it to becomes frozen after five or ten minutes of close contact. 

Wraith Scar

Your scar is always cold to the touch. You now live half in the wraith world and half in the world of the living. You can interact with and attack wraiths, shadows, specters, and other spiritual enemies, even with your bare hands or mundane weapons. 

Yellow King Scar

A horrible creeping yellow blotch. You swear it gets bigger every time you look at it, as if it’s consuming you. By spending a Resolve, you can resist a spell cast on you. The caster’s Resolve is still spent. 


Monday, January 31, 2022

c o z y

At the time of this writing, my cozy game Under Hill, By Water is part of DriveThruRPG's "Cozy Game Indie Gallery." I'm extremely flattered to be listed among many notable games that I admire deeply, including: Wanderhome, Mending Circle, Chuubo's Magical Wish Granting Engine, Ryuutama, Tiny Taverns, and The Border Keep

Thinking about this package of games prompted me to ask "What is cozy?" and "How can RPGs create a feeling of coziness?" and "Why is this genre appealing?"

This blog post attempts to provide concrete advice on how to deliberately evoke "coziness" in your RPGs. 

What does "cozy" mean?

In the same way that the horror genre is a bundle of related but different emotions, I think that "coziness" is actually a series of related things. Namely:

  • Comfort

  • Aesthetics of Domesticity

  • Sense of Connection to:

    • Family

    • Community

    • Nature

And then, in its own category:

  • Threats to Coziness

Put together, coziness can be simply defined as taking pleasure in the presence of gentle, soothing things.

Conflict and Threat

I do not think that cozy games are defined by the absence of danger or risk. 

Roleplaying games are genre emulation engines where people who have read books or watched movies get to participate in stories like those. 

When it comes to cozy stories, you might think of Redwall, Narnia, Wind in the Willows, Studio Ghibli movies, etc. Though ostensibly content for children, there are meaningful elements of fear, danger, and violence in all of these stories. These elements balance the cozy experiences. The inclusion of the danger makes a feeling of safety possible. Without conflict, the narratives would have no catharsis. 

Basically, every one of the cozy pillars can be contrasted against its absence. These contrasts make for appropriate threats/conflicts in cozy games that highlight (and further deepen) the cozy experience. Coziness can sandwich stressful events over the course of play.

That said, placing urgent needs on players can override the feeling of coziness. Utilize threats to coziness intentionally. Players will be obliged to solve threats before turning their attention to low-impact tasks associated with safety and creativity.

Why do people want cozy games?

Art by Molly Brett

I think many people are intuitively drawn towards cozy games (as opposed to just games with occasional cozy content) because they sense it will scratch an itch.

  • Cozy games provide contrast to other, more common RPG experiences. It's nice to take a break from fighting dragons and exploring dungeons. 

  • Cozy games can share a genre or setting with children's literature that you enjoy. We want to play games that are similar to those stories. 

  • Cozy games provide an experience that is low stress. In the same way you might turn on a movie from your childhood just to have a simple, uncomplicated experience, some people are drawn to the same idea in a gaming experience.

In the end, I think the main goal for people actively pursuing cozy games is that they're seeking bleed

Bleed is when a player's feelings are influenced by those of their character (or vice versa).

Some types of games and some emotions can bleed easier than others. When you're sitting around and eating chips with your friends in a safe half-finished basement, it's kind of hard to really evoke "fear bleed" in the same way that you can when LARPing and a staffer dressed as a Wendigo is chasing you through the woods at night.

But I do believe that you can encourage cozy bleed at the gaming table through words and actions. We'll talk through tips to do this below. 

Note: You cannot force a player to feel coziness. They have to buy into it. This advice is mostly about facilitating a certain aesthetic for a gaming table who is invested in the premise of playing a "cozy game."

Caveat about shared narrative responsibilities: A lot of my suggestions to prompt coziness involve the GM asking the players pointed questions and then using those answers. Fans of Powered by the Apocalypse games are no stranger to this idea of shared narrative responsibilities. Contrastingly, OSR games (including Under Hill, By Water) thrive on more traditional GM/player dynamics, wherein the GM is more like a referee. As always, your mileage may vary - use these suggestions within your games' contexts as much or as little as makes sense.

Is coziness worth pursuing?

Here is a blog post with a click bait title that nevertheless says many true things: https://deep-hell.com/against-wholesomeness

It is worth reading. I think it's points can be summed up as:

  • With a nostalgic appeal to a fictionalized hyperconservative past, "wholesome" games are very regressive.

  • Claims that wholesome games are somehow revolutionary ring quite hollow; all gaming is bound to the same capitalistic constraints.

  • Some arguments for wholesome games are the same ones that Tipper Gore used to try to censor violent video games in the 90s (and she's a big dummy).

These points all seem true to me, but I don't think a conclusion of "Therefore, wholesome games are bad and should not be designed or played" follows from that argument. 

I do think we can all play a game where Mr. Beaver toils all day at the Mill, comes home to Mrs. Beaver's delicious meal of roast and toast, says a prayer to Aslan, and goes to sleep under a pile of blankets--and avoid becoming right wing reactionaries. 

Should we be thoughtful about our actions, our inspirational sources, our stories? Sure, yeah, of course. Is the genre necessarily more deserving of self criticism in some way? No, I don't think so. Is "wholesomeness" absolved of this sort of reflection? Also no.

Comfort

"There is no bad weather, only bad clothes." - Norwegian saying

Art by Deborah Hocking

In "Utopia," Thomas Moore calls the cessation of pain the "lesser good." Greater goods involve the pleasures of the mind, but can't be achieved if people are toiling under the needs of the body. 

Here is a good explanation of why people seek this feeling through gaming from an article by Project Horseshoe about cozy video games (that is very good and you should read if you're interested in this subject):


> Cozy games help player practice fulfilling higher order needs: Cozy games also fulfill player needs. However, unlike a game like Don’t Starve which focuses on base needs like starvation, cozy games creates spaces for higher order needs like mastery, self-reflection and connectedness.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the bottom are pressing needs like thirst, hunger and safety. When these are present, they immediately grab the limited attention of the player and deprioritize those higher order needs. It is impossible to have a quiet conversation on a difficult subject while being attacked by a bear.

Cozy games give players space to deal with emotional and social maintenance and growth. Players don’t need to worry about the high stress, immediate trials of mere survival and can instead put their attention towards the delicate work of becoming a better person.



One of coziness's prime identifiers is comforting your basic needs. 

  • It feels cozy to hear rain on the window because you know that you have safety and shelter. 

  • It feels cozy to wake up and smell cinnamon rolls because you know that you won't be hungry. 

Comfort is different from indulgence. Coziness has a sense of balance - a feeling of something that's "just right." Comfort gives everybody just enough so that nobody is left without.

Cozy spaces are places that provide comfort: spaces that are small (so they can be completely perceived), softly lit, warm/cool (in contrast to the seasons), and safe. 

Cozy items are things that provide comfort: fuzzy blankets, warm knit socks, wooden rocking chairs. Food is a big one - especially food that can be shared.

Invoking Comfort #1: Specific is better than general

Words are spells; sentences are incantations. By creating specific descriptions of things that fulfill the lower order of needs, you can cast a shared illusion in the minds of other players. 

  • Each noun in your description should have one (or two, but don't push it) adjective that emphasizes comfort. 

  • Each description should have a sentence that deliberately evokes one of the senses.

For example:

"Mrs. Toad offers you a fruit tart." -> "Mrs. Toad offers you a warm mulberry tart. You can smell the crystalized sugars in the gooey berries."

Don't go overboard when you're simply trying to describe a space. No player at the table (GM included) should spend too long on any one description. But when another player asks for more details or a clarifying question, the description can go one click down and offer another layer of details. Pair this with vivid descriptions to create a sensory world that opens up as you narrow down into the fiction.

For example:

GM: Mr. Toad offers you a seat on a stool next to him by the crackling fire. His damp socks are off and drying by the hearth. The fire feels warm on your face, even from where you stand.

Player: What does the stool look like?

GM: You know the term toadstool? It's like that. It's a little wooden stool, but it has a central stalk instead of legs and the cushion is patterned like a white mushroom with red dots.

Invoking Comfort #2: Cozy playing spaces

You can make the space that you're actually playing in comfy. 

As the game host, you can do this by curating the game space. 

  • Warm colors and soft, low, ambient light are perceived as cozy. Lamps with shades, candles in lanterns, string lights, etc.

  • Objects of comfort, such as blankets and pillows, can increase the players’ personal comfort.

  • Reduce the presence of jarring, bright, or loud distractions.

As a player, you can do this by sharing gifts with other players.

  • Food and drinks brought for the entire table will be appreciated by everyone involved. 

  • Gifts like art of players' characters or game scenes will deepen your shared sense of community.

As the GM, you can do this by providing non-intrusive play aids.

  • Play soft ambient music, such as lo-fi, acoustic, or jazz.
    Note: Some players find any music, even non-lyric music, to be distracting and uncomfortable at a gaming table. Discuss with your players before introducing this element.

  • Play natural sounds with an identifiable, diegetic source, such as crackling fire, rain, and indistinct chatter.

  • Put together "mood boards" on Pinterest to help the players understand the aesthetic of your game world.

Threats to Comfort

You can create a sense of comfort by juxtaposing the poison with the cure. 

Threaten Comfort #1: Attack Basic Needs

Create scenes and challenges that temporarily deprive the PCs of their basic needs. 

  • It's snowing outside but the PCs need to bring a calving cow into the barn.

  • The perfect gift for Miss Amalie is the rare swamp lily that grows in the middle of the midge-infested fens. 

  • A fat hedgehog has gotten into your pantry and eaten all of your pickles! 

These situations should be salvageable or solvable to maintain the basic premise of a cozy game. Discomfort is temporary, comfort is easy.

Rule Suggestion: Victim's Privilege 

The victim always narrates what happens to them when affected by a bad roll or a rule. For example, instead of saying that a character dies at 0 HP, the player can elect to have their character die or merely knocked unconscious. Or, the GM can say "As you tumble down the hill, you hear a crunch and a crack from your backpack. One of your favorite items has broken. Which one is it?"

Aesthetics of Domesticity

> "Historically, aesthetics of safety and softness have been marketed towards children, but cozy sensory cues can be more powerful for adults. Memories are like batteries of emotion. Over decades of living, an adult builds a rich history with otherwise mundane objects and environments, storing away personal and cultural meaning" - from Project Horseshoe's Cozy Game Article

Background art from Black Cauldron by Mike Ploog

Because the removal of the lower order needs is frequently done at the home, coziness has the aesthetics of domesticity. The aesthetics of domesticity focus on an indulgence and enjoyment of mundane activities. Preparing a soup will protect you against hunger. Chopping wood will protect you against the cold. Tending long term projects (like gardening) will protect against scarcity. 

Within this aesthetic, tools can signal coziness. Things like fishing rods, hammers, pots and pans, rakes, and pruning shears contribute to a sense of low-stakes work. Even potentially harmful items like knives can be repurposed into a comforting aesthetic when framed as cooking or carving implements. 

The products of these efforts are also cozy: carven walking sticks, homemade wine, artisanal soaps, and knit caps are all comforting results of domestic work.

Moreover, coziness is created by the feeling of familiarity. For this reason, mundane or rustic items and activities are perceived as more cozy than fancy or expensive ones. A castle is not cozy. A cottage is cozy. 

At the same time, a feeling of abundance is essential for coziness. The aesthetics of domesticity requires the impossible contradiction of "rustic and hardworking" contrasted with a "wealth of resources and time." This is perhaps uniquely achievable in the gaming medium.

Invoking the Aesthetics of Domesticity #1: A Place to Call Home

Whatever your game's in-universe justification for why the PCs are a de facto unit, provide the PCs a "home base." This gives them a place of safety and retreat in contrast to the challenges they face pursuing their goals. A home base can be a business, a clubhouse, or (obviously) a house.

Let the PCs establish what their home base looks like (within the bounds of the fiction). At the beginning of gameplay, their home base might be small, rundown, and simple. Through play, players might be able to unlock upgrades: gardens, bee hives, chicken coops, cow barns, fishing ponds, second stories. Through play, players can find things that they can use to personalize and decorate their space.

When upgrading their home base, bound the experience so that the PCs' home does not stray into a place of pretentiousness or ostentatiousness in a way that detracts from the coziness. They might grow an empty cottage to a prosperous working farm, but never into a mansion.

Invoking the Aesthetics of Domesticity #2: Chores

Provide the player a list of low-risk, supererogatory chores that need doing and let them direct their own time and energy. These chores are not things that cause failure if left undone, but create benefits if accomplished.

To perform a chore should require something besides just saying "I do it." An item to be procured, an NPC's aid to be requested, a puzzle to be solved. Finding out how to achieve this goal is part of play.

Provide a tangible reward or benefit for finishing a chore. PCs solving small play puzzles to receive small benefits creates a cozy loop.

Invoking the Aesthetics of Domesticity #3: Dark Souls Items

Dark Souls is not known for its coziness (although campfires provide a noted moment of respite where players can spend their resources, which I'd argue is pretty damn cozy). It is known for hiding its lore in the descriptions of its items. Steal this technique.

When talking about a PC's gear or home base, no thing is just a thing. 

For example:

  • A feather in your cap -> A feather given to you by your eldest child as a gift on their fifth birthday

  • A cup -> An acorn cup from the Wise Old Oak

  • An easy chair -> Your grandfather's easy chair, where he told all his tall tales

Threats to the Aesthetics of Domesticity

As mentioned, the aesthetics of domesticity thrive by being humble and grounded. Within this system, the rich and pretentious are set in contrast to PCs' honest labor. Appropriate threats to the aesthetics of domesticity include unrestrained industrialization and the excesses of the ruling classes. 

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe contrasts domesticity with an unjust ruling class. The White Witch’s cold castle stands in contrast to the aesthetics of domesticity of Mr. Tumnus and the Beavers. The just and divinely-sanctioned monarchy restores coziness to the common Narnians, and the story does not linger on the lives of the Pevensies as kings and queens because that story is out of tone for the work.

    • In the case of the White Witch, the threat was not on a timer. The protagonists chose to engage with the plot (as opposed to hiding or returning to their world).

  • Redwall contrasts domesticity with the threat of an invading army. Cluny the Scourge and his bilge rats try to steal the domestic resources that the creatures of Redwall Abbey worked for diligently. The conflict between Cluny and the mice of Redwall is notably violent and un-cozy. However, coziness is restored as the mice regain Redwall at the end of the book, and the following wedding feast capstones the experiences with a return to the aesthetics of domesticity.

    • In the case of Cluny the Scourge, the protagonists were forced to engage with the raiders as they forcibly captured Redwall Abbey.

Threaten Domesticity #1: Ticking Timebombs

Create threats to domesticity by adding in NPCs or events that threaten to rob the players of their household or livelihood. These threats should come from outside the PCs own community and social status. For example:

  • The landlord is threatening foreclosure

  • The sheriff is charging exorbitant taxes

  • The company man is going around buying up everybody’s farms to make way for the new factory

  • The sky pirates steal livestock 

Threats that the PCs can choose to engage or not give the players a sense of agency which helps retain comfort even if the subject is stressful. Instead of simply battering down the PCs’ home base door, create known clocks that give the PCs a chance to make preparations.

Sense of Connection

Art by Rebecca Green

The tend-and-befriend theory in evolutionary psychology explains the human behavior to form social relationships in responses to demands from the environment. It argues that because strong social networks are useful for human survival, your brain rewards these connections with oxytocin. That is, there is an enjoyable feeling in a sense of connection

There is also a feeling of safety created things that are known, familiar, and expected. The rhythms of life in your family, your community, and the wheel of seasons provide touchpoints that allow you to understand where you are and what comes next.

Think of the community as moving from the small scale to the large scale:

  • The PCs themselves - a de facto unit, no matter what the in-universe justification of the player group acting together

  • The PCs' family

  • The PCs' home town 

  • The natural world in which the community exists

Authenticity in roleplaying interactions is more important than complexity. Despite being conversation games, RPGs do not model social power or nuance well. Create simple interactions that exemplify the needs, wants, and goals of the NPCs in the players' community.

Family

Family can be a source of conflict, stress, and responsibility. It can also provide a sense of intimacy, belonging, and a "come as you are" inclusiveness. 

The inclusion of family structures in a game helps ground the PCs. They are not destitute mercenaries roaming a fantasy landscape in search of adventure. They have homes and people who love them.

Cozy games can also focus on stories of found families or immigrant stories of new homes. The term "family" in this section can be expanded to create differently textured experiences.

Invoking Family Connection #1: Make NPCs Related to the PCs

Ask the players for a list of their family members. This lets the players opt in to the idea of having nearby family. Use this list to create some of your NPCs. 

Use a PC's family to provide help, advice, and acceptance. 

  • Family members can be quest givers.

  • Family members can send letters that can provide rumors and setting details.

  • Family members can be consulted as experts on certain subjects.

Invoking Family Connection #2: Pets

Pets are emotionally powerful rewards for players in a cozy game. If the PCs find a way to rescue an animal in danger, take the time to befriend and train a wild animal, or just receive a kitten as a "thank you" from a neighbor, a new pet is a fitting compensation for successfully completed tasks.

Community

Community spaces provide meaningfully differentiated scenes from those of family/domestic spaces. 

  • These can be large but unpretentious spaces, such as libraries, markets, and town squares.

  • These can also be small, discrete spaces, such as cafes, taverns, and train cars.

Community spaces provide low-demand, opt-in companionship. You can trade gossip with someone next to you at the bar, trade work with someone at the farmers' market, or just trade kind words with someone you pass on the street. 

Communities are a patchwork quilt, with many contrasting and overlapping themes and ideas contributing to a cohesive whole. Kind gestures, such as favors unasked for, deepen the players' trust in the community as a whole. Rude gestures, such as a curmudgeonly reply, provide the players a chance to demonstrate empathy. 

Invoking Community Connection #1: Explicit Welcome

When a player enters a community space, have an NPC explicitly welcome them. A welcome does not imply any responsibility, merely a sign that they are accepted and wanted in the space.

A shopkeeper invites them to look around, a tavern keeper is happy to see them, a librarian smiles at them as they enter, etc.

Invoking Community Connection #2: Mentorship

Giving and receiving mentorship creates connections to NPCs in the players' social sphere. 

Receiving mentorship from an NPC can provide a PC the opportunity to pursue a particular set of skills and abilities. NPC mentors serve as great quest givers and plot hooks. As a PC works with a mentor over the course of several sessions, they can transition from the role of student to master. This creates a tangible feeling of growth and accomplishment.

Giving mentorship to an NPC allows the PC to feel established and capable. A sidekick NPC can be framed as both a hindrance and a help (perhaps adding or subtracting to a player's rolls in equal measure if they try to "help"). By roleplaying with a sidekick and completing quests with them, the mentee can eventually graduate into a friendly, capable, helpful NPC in your community. 

Nature

The rhythm of the year is predictable. Seasonal markers evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia that can be comforting. Framing seasonal scenes grounds the players and provides a connection with nature. Framing future seasons based on passing seasons allow players to understand that time has passed.

Use these touchpoints to evoke cozy scenes by season:

  • Spring: gardening, blooming flowers, baby animals, frequent rain showers

  • Summer: cool shade, cooling drinks, cold desserts, diffuse sunlight

  • Autumn: fresh fruits and vegetables, harvest rituals (scarecrows, carving pumpkins, etc.)

  • Winter: warm food and drink, ice skating on the pond, softly falling snow, feeding livestock, warm clothes and blankets, reflection on the old year

Invoking a Connection to Nature #1: Track Time

Pay attention to the passage of time in your game. Set scenes based on the time of day and time of year. (Something something meaningful campaign something strict time records.)

  • Create a sense of busy-ness by giving the players a list of things to do and a limited time to get them all done.

  • Let time tick past when there's no tension so the players can explore different seasonal spaces. 

Rule Suggestion: Easy Time Trackers

Here's how I track time in Under Hill, By Water. Maybe it will work for you. 

Seasons: Every single session is a vignette in a single season. Unless there's unresolved, time-sensitive business at the end of the session, just advance the season each session. One week it is spring, the next week it is summer, the next week it is autumn.

Time of Day: If it is important (e.g., traveling, needing to get all your chores done before guests arrive), you can track time at the table using poker chips. Get out two red chips, one white chip, and one blue chip. As time passes, rearrange your stack of chips.

  • Red - Dawn - Breakfast

  • White - Day - Lunch

  • Red - Dusk - Tea

  • Blue - Evening - Supper

Time passes each time the players take one significant action (e.g., something that would prompt a dice roll). After the resolution of each scene, move to the next quarter day. 

(The poker chip method was first introduced to me through Hot Springs Island.)

Invoking a Connection to Nature #2: Holidays 

Holidays are community markers that are tied to the turning of the seasons. Based on the season, set a session's scenario during a holiday: Yule, Harvest Fest, Long Night, Beltane, New Year's Eve, Midsomer, etc.

Gifts are a natural extension to holidays. Finding an appropriate gift for an NPC can be the source of a scene. Receiving a personalized gift can be a meaningful reward for players taking the time to roleplay positive interactions with family and community members.

Threats to a Sense of Connection

As discussed in Threats to Domesticity, enemies and threats for the players should come from outside of the PCs’ community in order to create a community space that is explicitly safe and welcoming.

Of all the pillars of coziness, I’m the most hesitant to use game beats to diminish the PCs’ connection to their family/community/nature unless an external force that can be overcome is responsible (e.g., how the White Witch used spies and the secret police to decrease the Narnians’ trust of each other and how she subverted the correct environmental sequence into eternal winter).

Strengthen Connection #1: Unsafe into Safe

(Inverting the convention here somewhat)

A powerful story arc in cozy games is turning enemies into friends. Enemies outside of the PCs’ social space can be brought inside of it (consider the noble Grinch). Dangerous spaces can be turned into safe spaces. This expands the PCs’ community and is a cozier solution to antagonists than violence. 

Not every story or genre can utilize this convention, but it’s a thematically impactful tool to use when appropriate.

Cozy Touchpoints

Art by @ChrisDunnIllos


Here is a list of 50 cozy touchpoints. Use them in your games. Describe them in delicious detail.

  1. A cat asleep on your lap

  2. A mug of cocoa with a big fat marshmallow in it

  3. The sound of rain on a tin roof

  4. Watching snow accumulate while sitting on your porch with a blanket

  5. Holding hands

  6. Tree swings

  7. Filling a mason jar with a bouquet from your garden

  8. Cooking with herbs hanging in your kitchen

  9. Carving pumpkins

  10. The smell of baking cinnamon rolls

  11. Walking through a pile of crunchy leaves

  12. A tiny digestif glass of madeira 

  13. Chopping wood

  14. Falling asleep while reading a book

  15. Playing chess in front of a fire

  16. The burbling sound of a stream swollen with rain

  17. Carrying a basket of vegetables back from the farmers' market

  18. The smell of pipe smoke

  19. The smell of wine mulling with vanilla bean, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves

  20.  A teapot, pitcher of cream, bowl of sugar cubes, and a heap of mismatched porcelain tea cups

  21. Fishing at a pond full of lily pads

  22. Walking on stepping stones through a mossy garden

  23. Scattering feed for the chickens

  24. Forking hay out of the barn

  25. Sweeping the front porch

  26. Canning jars of pickled cucumbers, beans, and onions from the garden

  27. Sharing a blanket with a friend

  28. Edging the garden beds

  29. Hanging the sheets to dry on the clothes line in the sun

  30. The sound of your dog lightly snoring

  31. Stepping out of the shower and putting on a warm, fluffy robe

  32. Chatting with the mail person through an open window

  33. Touching up paint on a picket fence

  34. Dust motes glittering in the afternoon sunlight

  35. Young cows gamboling as the nanny cow lies attentively nearby

  36. Whittling a knick-knack

  37. Hot butter on toast

  38. Receiving a box of shortbread cookies from a friend

  39. Picking sun-ripe blackberries

  40. Receiving a letter from a relative

  41. A quiet child whispering a terrible joke into your ear

  42. Drifting off to sleep in an overstuffed easy chair

  43. The smell after it rains

  44. Listening to a vintage record

  45. Quietly working on arts and crafts with a friend

  46. Warming your feet on a sunlit patch of floor

  47. Flying a kite

  48. The sound of wind chimes

  49. A lazy bicycle ride

  50. Seeing a shooting star