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:
Aesthetics of Domesticity
Sense of Connection to:
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
|Art by @ChrisDunnIllos|
Here is a list of 50 cozy touchpoints. Use them in your games. Describe them in delicious detail.
A cat asleep on your lap
A mug of cocoa with a big fat marshmallow in it
The sound of rain on a tin roof
Watching snow accumulate while sitting on your porch with a blanket
Filling a mason jar with a bouquet from your garden
Cooking with herbs hanging in your kitchen
The smell of baking cinnamon rolls
Walking through a pile of crunchy leaves
A tiny digestif glass of madeira
Falling asleep while reading a book
Playing chess in front of a fire
The burbling sound of a stream swollen with rain
Carrying a basket of vegetables back from the farmers' market
The smell of pipe smoke
The smell of wine mulling with vanilla bean, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves
A teapot, pitcher of cream, bowl of sugar cubes, and a heap of mismatched porcelain tea cups
Fishing at a pond full of lily pads
Walking on stepping stones through a mossy garden
Scattering feed for the chickens
Forking hay out of the barn
Sweeping the front porch
Canning jars of pickled cucumbers, beans, and onions from the garden
Sharing a blanket with a friend
Edging the garden beds
Hanging the sheets to dry on the clothes line in the sun
The sound of your dog lightly snoring
Stepping out of the shower and putting on a warm, fluffy robe
Chatting with the mail person through an open window
Touching up paint on a picket fence
Dust motes glittering in the afternoon sunlight
Young cows gamboling as the nanny cow lies attentively nearby
Whittling a knick-knack
Hot butter on toast
Receiving a box of shortbread cookies from a friend
Picking sun-ripe blackberries
Receiving a letter from a relative
A quiet child whispering a terrible joke into your ear
Drifting off to sleep in an overstuffed easy chair
The smell after it rains
Listening to a vintage record
Quietly working on arts and crafts with a friend
Warming your feet on a sunlit patch of floor
Flying a kite
The sound of wind chimes
A lazy bicycle ride
Seeing a shooting star