To be cozy is to enjoy feelings of comfort, warmth, or contentment. Words synonymous with cozy: snug, homey, relaxed, cheerful, welcoming, pleasant, soothing. We may not always know what we need when craving cozy but we know it when we feel it: being warm when it’s cold; being surrounded by the familiarity of things you know by heart; inhabiting a space that has a place for everything and everything in its place.
Brindlewood Bay is a mystery-themed role-playing game designed by Jason Cordova that our game group recently completed over the course of a six-month campaign. Playing was revelatory. It was like being with friends, eating our favorite comfort food while binging our favorite comfort television—and being surprised each time anew by how it enveloped you like a blanket. Playing and running the game as keeper led me down a rabbit-hole investigation into the secret meaning of Brindlewood Bay, like a cold case mystery I didn’t know i needed to solve.
Get cozy. We’re taking the scenic route to Brindlewood Bay.
A Cozy Mystery
The cozy mystery is a subgenre that arose in the late 20th Century in benevolent opposition to hardboiled, two-fisted detective fiction. Cozy novels are usually set in small, tightly-knit communities and postcard-perfect locales where murder seems incongruent and inconceivable, and violence is depicted offscreen. A place where likable amateurs and accidental sleuths treat these murders like hobbies and tinker with them like jigsaw puzzles until they inevitably solve the case.
Cozy mysteries are supremely satisfying as single-servings of repetition and familiarity. You and the detective are longtime dance partners: you know each other’s moves. And while bodies pile up and they may be imperiled, you know they will prevail, unharmed, in the end. Cozy mysteries also emphasize non-murdery downtime by showcasing a detective’s day-off passions and leisure pursuits: gardening, baking, cooking, books, cats. Their exploits double as aspirational “How to Cozy” self-help guides. In a cozy mystery, cozy is the text and subtext and meta text.
Brindlewood Bay is cozy homage with a sinister twist. While most role-playing games are high-concept by default (Dungeons! And Dragons!), Brindlewood Bay’s setup is sky high. Players are elderly women and close friends (The Golden Girls!) who solve baffling murder cases in a cozy seaside New England town (Murder, She Wrote!). During these amateur investigations the Murder Mavens (so-called for their weekly mystery book club) unearth a sinister, eldritch conspiracy that grips Brindlewood Bay by the throat and endangers not only the Mavens, but all of humanity (Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!). The setup is as cinematic as a widescreen popcorn movie and quite easy to imagine as essential must-see event television.
Brindlewood Bay’s game system (a clever hack of Powered by the Apocalypse) is stripped to the bone. Players have seven core Moves. Do something in the daytime? Day Move. Do something at night? Night Move. Search for clues? Meddling Move. Do something spooky? Occult Move. Dice aren’t poly; two six-sided (2d6) dice determine outcomes and many actions require no dice at all. Dice are also not binary: there’s no “win or lose” totality but three subjective tiers: outright success (yay), partial success (I have good news and bad news), and failure (welp). Five abilities act as dice modifiers to these rolls. If you have an Advantage doing something you roll three dice and pick the best two. If you get dinged while doing something you take a Condition (negative modifier).
Character creation is a snap. Players fill out one-sheets with prefatory info chosen from a list of prompts: Name, Style, (“All the Cardigans”), and Cozy Activity (favorite hobby or love language). Players also choose Maven Moves—stunt-cast, special guest star superpowers. Each one grants a unique and game-breaking benefit during gameplay. All are named for heroes from (mostly) crime or adventure shows from the 70’s and 80’s: Frank Columbo. Jim Rockford. Thomas Magnum. Dale Cooper. ALF (???). It’s no mistake that all Maven Moves are male protagonists: in Brindlewood Bay the men are strictly background performers.
Despite painting characters with broad strokes Brindlewood Bay ensures they won’t be paper-thin by tasking the players to imbue them with weighty emotional arcs. Mandatory to each Maven’s backstory is that they retired to Brindlewood Bay as widows. When players introduce their characters they must describe their pre-Brindlewood lives—including memories of their deceased partner. How did you meet? Where did you live? How did they die? The prompts are open to interpretation; for example, “children” may be a dog and cat. But regardless of what you choose to share and how you choose to breathe life into your character, emotional honesty is unavoidable when playing the game.
And the solution to the cozy meta-mystery is thus revealed: Brindlewood Bay is an emotional investigation.
About those Day Moves and Night Moves: you use them when you attempt to do something risky or something you fear. You then describe what you wish to do and what you fear will happen if you fail. You must narrate your character’s fears. And in your voice, out loud, at the table, those fears sound like your own.
Then there’s the Cozy Move. You take this move when you share a private moment with another Maven while one of you is engaged in your designated Cozy Activity to clear Conditions or uncover Clues. You narrate what you do for self-care in your downtime and share your innermost thoughts in a comfortable and safe space with a close friend. These low-fi in-game moments make you lean forward in your seat. They manifest as confessional memoir more than exposition due to their powerful intimacy.
Cozy as intimacy is Brindlewood Bay’s renewable natural resource. The murders and clues and solving of mysteries and prevention of apocalypse are essentially red herrings. Or maybe Trojan Horses. Brindlewood Bay kayfabes these elements to invite players to safely navigate emotional landscapes. To take risks and face fears. To role-play feelings of contentment, love, pain, and loss. And do so in collaboration or narrative negotiation with friends. The game’s mechanics are intentionally minimalist so this intimate self-investigation is not abstracted by stat counting or dice rolls or the ogling of loot and gear.
During pandemic lockdown, our game group found overwhelming comfort in keeping a regular appointment to connect in those early days, and starting a RPG campaign was the excuse. Brindlewood Bay provided the means, motive, and opportunity for us to commit acts of intimacy and creativity together week after week. And we became closer and stronger – and cozier – as a result.
Social distancing was always the sloppiest, first-draft name for it. My distancing wasn’t merely social. It was physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. And it wasn’t just distance from other people. I was numb to my own thoughts and feelings. The unblinking sameness of Spring 2020 felt like solitary confinement. Living without enrichment or spontaneity or comfort dulled my senses and creativity, and left me traumatized.
Brindlewood Bay slyly teased me out of my deep dark sameness. I needed to process my trauma. To do that I needed to relearn intimacy. To be vulnerable and to own it. To be afraid and to admit it. To feel. To connect with friends any way I could to feel safe and secure. When I went to Brindlewood Bay I discovered that with great cozy comes great responsibility.
Brindlewood Bay recognizes what many RPG’s do not: that the games we role-play and the characters we inhabit aren’t defined by the stuff we acquire or the achievements we unlock or the adventures we complete. It’s about the quiet downtime and sleuthing the inner-workings of trust and intimacy, in the spirit of collaboration and at the service of telling great stories and solving spooky mysteries of the heart. This is the epitome of cozy, and the cozy mystery itself. So to Brindlewood Bay, I say this: thank you for being a friend.