Urban fantasy is a weird genre. In fiction, it’s handy because it gives the author shorthand for things in a way that allows them to focus on the strange and unusual aspects of their stories. No need to describe the police officer and his uniform the way they might describe a king’s royal guards; everyone knows what the police look like. Likewise they don’t have to worry about describing common items, and it gets easy to describe people who are Important because we’re all familiar with it.
It’s trickier to do urban fantasy in a tabletop game; people tend to come to the table to escape the stress of reality, not to venture back into it. Much of the time it can be a fast trip into what amounts to a superhero game without the spandex or – if your group is inclined to melodrama – it can head into the well-trod road of angst that serves as the cliche form of a Vampire game. Still, it’s worth considering urban fantasy once in a while if your group is tired of the routine settings. Here are a few reasons you might want to consider such a campaign.
Urban fantasy is all about home ground
Most of the hardest parts of running an urban fantasy game are already done for you. Ever struggle with maps for a game session? Just go look up blueprints for modern buildings and, if you use miniatures or play online, slap a grid overlay on them via your image editor of choice. Speaking of online play, or minis if you have a bit of time to cut out printed images and stick them on a base, you’ll have no trouble finding icons to use simply by googling the jobs of the NPCs. Most common supernatural creatures can be found, too, either as handy art or as costumes for cosplay or LARPing. It leaves you, as GM, free to focus on the story and the unusual stuff that adds the fantasy to the urban part.
The familiar looks different when you change the lighting
In the same vein as the first reason, you can get a great deal of use out of taking completely mundane locations, people, and objects and brushing a little weirdness, mystery, and magic on them. The old theater that somehow stays open even though no one seems to watch the movies it shows can become the front for some supernatural faction. The person who always sits in the park all day becomes an observer for some outside group with an interest in the area – or a hapless bystander whose unwitting presence deters certain creatures from causing trouble. Museums, full of old objects, hold all kinds of oddities just waiting to be given some unexpected and unanticipated importance in some terrifying ritual. Anything unusual that you see around you can be made into something new just by adding an extra, unexpected layer to it.
Stories on demand by the power of the internet
It is absolutely amazing what you can find as story seeds for an urban fantasy campaign by using Google. Just do a search for Weird News and you can find entire websites – some more reputable than others – laden with news reports about strange and unusual events. Checking it for my region, one that leaps right out is a man crashing his car into a church, supposedly because he was angry with the pastor. But, in an urban fantasy game, that’s clearly just an excuse. The man was a thrall to a ampire who had been driven off by the priest. The church was disrupting the flow of ley lines in the area and needed damaged to remove the influence. The man made a pact with a demon, and part of the cost was him desecrating the church. All these and more come to mind simply from one headline. It’s an excellent resource.
Conspiracy Theory Central Exchange
Likewise, conspiracy theories – something almost as common on the internet as cat pictures and pornography – can serve as a fantastic resource for urban fantasy games. Most of them require more tweaking than the Weird News offerings, but they can suggest entire campaigns in and of themselves. Look up the conspiracy theories around the Denver Airport sometime and just see how many bizarre things there are that have been woven into a baffling tapestry by conspiracy theorists. If anything, your main work in dealing with these will be trimming them down and adjusting them to be less outlandish, over-the-top, and unrealistic.
It’s a change of pace from slaying dragons and rescuing princesses
Not to say all high fantasy games revolve around that, or that sci-fi games tend to mimic Star Wars or Starship Troopers,, but if you play a particular type of game for long enough you can easily find yourself in a rut, getting bored doing something you theoretically enjoy. Urban fantasy can be a great breath of fresh air, letting you get out of old ruts and explore new ideas, with even the worn-in tropes being fairly fresh and interesting.
The greatest urban fantasy heroes come with a shotgun and baseball bat
Ordinarily, people rush to make a vampire, werewolf, wizard, or some other supernatural powerhouse when it comes to playing urban fantasy games. While this can be fun – particularly if you’re doing a shot game – some of the greatest stories are going to come from the games where everyone is, at first, just a perfectly normal person who suddenly stumbles onto a whole new layer of the world that they never even imagined before. When a group comprised of an off-duty copy, a muscular construction worker, a nerdy university librarian, and the owner of a local coffee shop find that they have to face down an angry werewolf before it goes from picking off vagrants to slaughtering families in their sleep, it gets far more heroic than when a pair of vampires, a wizard, and a werewolf face off against a dragon. It’s the story of the underdog – and pretty much everyone loves an underdog.
The world is full of wonders that we don’t see because we’re around them
Look at any city with a modern tower. The Space Needle, the Stratosphere, the Sears Tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, they’re all things that are both visually impressive and generally unusual enough to be a notable landmark in their respective city. People who live around them hardly notice them, because they’re normal. They’re a perfect illustration of how we ignore things around us from simple familiarity, leaving architectural wonders in the background. Tap any of these – any city you pick to play almost certainly has things that are ignored and amazing – and transform them into an important place for your game world. Any of those towers I mentioned are perfect for ritual events (to be thwarted), climactic showdowns (with optional plunge from the peak for recurring villains of supernatural longevity), and even as a base of operations for both opponents and lucky heroes.
Old monsters become frightening again when cast in a new light
Werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, trickster fae, and so on are old, familiar, and worn into such a rut they’re forming their own canyons by now. Urban fantasy games can give them all a measure of new life, free to twist the boundaries popular culture has written for them. A vampire, far from being a dried-up and antiquated old lord from some ancient land, could easily become a CEO of a major corporation, the entire board of directors in the creature’s thrall, keeping a ruthless grip on wealth and power that puts them beyond any reprisal by mundane means. A werewolf lives among the homeless vagrants, carefully selecting among them to form a pack of hungry predators; far from looking like wolves, they look like hungry alley dogs until they attack.
A ghost who can only be put to rest by having their remains buried in the cemetery from their days of life is forced to remain because a corporation bought the land with the church and cemetery and put a strip mall up over it; and the longer they go without being put to rest, the more violent the manifestations become. A gremlin, once a petty nuisance to mechanics, gets loose in a web cafe and soon the internet manifests a terrifyingly sapient worm infection that attacks whatever will cause the most havoc.
A demon turns up, having spent time studying psychology and the tricks of modern charlatans, and now runs a nascent megachurch dedicated to finding ways to explain every act of wickedness and depravity as sanctified and holy. The possibilities to augment and update classic creatures of horror and supernatural legend to the modern world border on the endless, and can easily create much deeper and more involved plots than any Monster of the Week escapade.
The new shape of the world can breed new monsters just as terrible as the old ones
As we advance as a society, and technology finds new methods to accomplish things, it brings with it the potential to create niches for new predators and new nightmares. No one could have predicted the damage humanity has wrought ecologically – but you can be sure there are, in an urban fantasy, nature spirits harmed and enraged by the damage. Elementals befouled with pollution, fae contaminated and twisted by the artifacts and debris of humanity, and even entirely new creatures spun from ruin and raw energy can come about. What will your players do when, while investigating missing people in a wetlands area, they come across an animate slick of oil and sewage that erupts into a tentacled thing reaching out to drown them, or when they find a nature spirit whose home has become contaminated with toxic metals to where they have jagged spurs of lead jutting from their fingertips and they weep tears of mercury?
The worst monster of all is still the closest to home, and everywhere
Really, this one should be a given, but it bears mentioning. The world is full of “But for the grace of (deity), there go I” stories of people who have fallen to miserable ends. In a world of urban fantasy, you can use this to full advantage – after being confronted by all manner of things like corrupt spirits and infestations of fae that feed on misery, after cleansing accidental manifestations of demons and putting down supernatural scavengers, the group finds their ultimate villain – and it’s the middle manager from the local strip mall who found a grimoire and uses it without caring who it hurts, because they figure the world owes them some comfort and reward after whatever wrongs they feel the world has dealt them. They’re not evil in any grand sense. They’re the worst kind of evil – the petty kind that causes misery out of proportion simply because they perpetrator doesn’t know or care about the results of their actions.
Do it right, and your players may look at one another and wonder if one of them has caused unwitting harm like that.