Richard Cobbett on the Lack of Urban Fantasy Games

A few days ago, Richard Cobbett talked about the lack of games with an urban fantasy setting in his RPG Scrollbars column. He listed several reasons as to why the urban fantasy subgenre is a great fit for an RPG, mentioned the few games that did attempt doing something with this setting, and insisted that it serves a different purpose than the currently trendy cyberpunk. An excerpt:

Vampire: Bloodlines is a masterpiece for many reasons… admittedly, one of them being that some thirteen years later, it’s easier to remember the good bits than, say, the sewer level. But it got this. It understood. Like City of Heroes in the same year, it was a game that managed to convey the feeling of being both special from the very start and yet also not remotely special at all. Break this down to pure numbers and you’re statistically not really that different from any other low-level character, except that against a world of bums and regular guys on the street, you immediately feel like a force to be recognised. The roleplaying comes naturally, especially when dealing with something like an obstructive cop. Sorry, what’s that? Something about your primitive little human laws? Oh, dear, sweet child, did you just make a mistake.

And yet at the same time, you don’t get it all your own way. The new wider world is still intimidating and brutal and full of dangers, and you’re at best auditioning to be a tiny little cog somewhere in its machine. The dichotomy is delicious, and not something you generally get in traditional fantasy or SF gaming worlds. Urban fantasy protagonists are almost antiheroes by default, outside of the system enough to make their own decisions, while still subject to the consequences and schemes of endlessly more powerful figures. That’s exactly the right level of power for drama, for consequence, for threat, and for fragile alliances of outcasts bound together for a cause that might mean the world to them, but is still only a distraction or inconvenience for the true monsters and power-brokers way up the spiked ladder.

But that’s only skimming the surface of why the genre is such a good match for RPGs. Another is that in creating urban fantasy worlds, writers have long had to deal with questions that most RPGs historically avoid – the classic being why everyone isn’t constantly making a fuss by flinging spells around all the time. I’ve spoken before of how much I like the Baldur’s Gate 2 handling of this, where magic is outlawed in the main city of Athkatla and breaking out the spells in public summons a team of lethal Cowled Wizards to first give you a warning, and then try and take you out.

As a party with a magic user, you’re left with three choices – keep your wands in your pants, pay for a magic license, or out-gun the magical fuzz until they accept that you’re beyond their power to contain and agree to leave you alone. Generally, the urban fantasy equivalent is some form of World of Darkness’ Masquerade – a general agreement to keep things hushed, whether the reason is fear that pissed off regular humans with guns would trounce the magical world (Dresden Files) or that reality itself would go wibbly (Mage) or simply that people aren’t very observant if not directly poking into such matters and that it’s probably best that continue (Rivers of London).

This alone is a really cool mechanic for games to play with. The Secret World handles it by keeping the main cities free of noticeable trouble, with the conceit being that you’re being sent to places that have gone so far off the rails that the ‘secret’ thing doesn’t matter. Just about everyone you meet who has survived has survived because they’re already in on it, while those who don’t probably aren’t going to last that much longer – and if they do tell, then they’ll be dealt with. It’s simply more important to deal with the end of the world right now. Bloodlines meanwhile keeps track of Masquerade violations, which can range from saying “Hello, I’m a vampire,” to simply being seen in public as a Nosferatu. Losing points is liable to spawn vampire hunters, and running out means an instant game over. True, that focus on points does mean that a few individual scenes are oddly low-impact – particularly the one where you meet someone from your former life and nothing ever actually comes of it – but it’s something.