Urban Fantasy usually features many humanoid magical creatures such as werewolves, vampires, magic user, children of demons or angels and fae of all kinds living in an urban setting, usually in a present day city or town.
There a few concepts that turn up quite often and here some of the ones I think are a big part of the genre. Any number of these may be useful to use or keep in mind when it comes to making world for your story/game.
The City often has a character
This can be more of a thing in books and rpgs than tv shows i find, The Dresden Files is set in Chicago, and it has a personality – you know what the city is like and how it would feel to live there in the world of Harry Dresden.
This is not so much the case in television settings – the city is often more of the background in some ways, just being used to tell the story, therefore things may not be set in stone (even when they should be). A good example of this is Buffy’s Sunnydale. Buffy is one of the best known, oldest examples of urban fantasy TV shows, you can tell me it name but not what there other than a high school but what else is in the town changes throughout the show one week it may have a docks others it might not.
When it a suburbia/small town in the UK it might not also because with a small town it’s more the people who live there that give it character, make a place feel a certain way – and if you know all the people there’s no need to anthropomorphise the place.
While everywhere has it own story and its own history that’s not what gives a place character, its about how it feels in the present, to me anyway.
In many Urban Fantasy settings something keeps all of the bad things hidden from the world, the thing that stop the normals from know about all the monsters.
This is usually done a few different ways, often some kind of magic to make you forget what you know about it, or there the no-one never believes you, or no-one can talk about it so even if everyone seen the supernatural you don’t talk about it to each other. But most settings tend to have some people with lot of money and power helping to keep things quiet – censoring the news while spreading false conspiracy theories to make the believers look foolish.
In Magical Realism subtle magics are real, like white sage keeping away bad things or imaginary friends are real but only them that need them, can see them. Hold story can be built around these like “If Only You Could See Me Now” by Cecilia Ahern or “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman this is something that is done well in books and film but it’s not usualy a big thing in games, it may be there but its just another part of the world – running a game with the minor magics of Urban Fantasy tends to be a challenge, and few players are interested in the kind of low-intensity play it entails.
Ones of the things i found about these kind of story is they tend to be more uplifting less dark and gritty like Urban Ffant can be.
Hidden Cities, Markets and other such places
Places that only certain people can get to that are hidden by a veil of magic, these can be places where the whole story happen like Neverwhere in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or the Nightside by Simon R Green. Or they can be a side place where people go that are just part of the big world like a hidden market or fairy-land in True Blood.
These are used in games quit often and work quite well as they give you somewhere to get all the magic you need and it can look so much more fantastical than the everyday street.
This is a more recent form of Urban Fantasy where supernatural group comes out from hiding, there are usually reasons for this like in “True Blood” where artificial blood could be mass produced for the vampires or like in “Parasol Protectorate series” where they have all been pardoned for by crimes by the crown in the UK since the royal family found them to be very useful.
Usually it’s only one or two type that tell the world that they’re real but not everyone of the type will like it or do so, and usually there are still quite a lot of things still hidden from the human world like other race that are not ready or able to come out.
These are usually part of the coming out world since not everyone likes change. They’re usually very religion based in most story and setting, and they’re usually about trying to make sure humanity keep power and that the monster don’t take over.
There may even be monsters hiding in the group to stay safe from them, or a monster secretly in charge so they get the power by eliminating their competition.
This seems like something the be interesting to deal with in a game sense, but the monster not only have to be out they need to be capable of good which is why it not really seen in Buffy because on a whole this is not the case.
There is an odd case in Angel where there is a hate group but it made up of demons that hate half-demons.
There are a few different archetypes that are seen in both stories and games. The main character is generally someone who finds themselves travelling deeper into the world over time:
The PI/cop, or soldier who knows about the monsters and hunts them down or cleans up their messes, in the cop or solder case they be part of a unit that looks into these things.
The chosen one/child of the gods and the likes, that has superhero like powers and they have been picked to fight the monsters.
There’s the human that’s part fae, or god, or angel or some other magical being that usually knows nothing of what they are when the story starts out and them finding out is part of the story, and they’re usually very attractive to the monster for some reason or another, often their magical bloodline.
Then there are the rarer ones, like wizards and other magic users that have some job that they do using their power within the magical world.
When telling a story you’ll also want numerous characters around the edges who are at different levels of knowledge – for instance the mentor or secret-keeper who knows more than the main character but is informing them only piece by piece, and the friend who doesn’t quite believe in what’s going on, but knows enough to listen when given advice.
In games it’s common to skip the “introduction to the hidden world” aspect of Urban Fantasy stories, but it can be a useful way to begin a campaign if you intend to do something unusual with your world, or if you want to create deeper characterisation by maintaining links to the mundane life that came before.
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