Urban fantasy? (that isn't WoD)

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
Is anyone interesting in discussing, playing, and/or creating urban fantasy games that aren't World of Darkness (or it's spin-off Chronicles of Darkness either)? You know: vampires that aren't descended from the biblical Cain, vampires that don't have generational limits, werewolves that aren't ecoterrorists, werewolves that can infect muggles with a bite, wizards that don't demonize science as a lie created to enslave muggles, etc. There a huge conceptual space that can be explored here, so I'm astonished that there's just one game with one campaign setting (with several decades of unavoidable canon/lore baggage) that dominates 99% of the available scene. At least with D&D you have a bazillion campaign settings, retroclones, 3pp, etc that all take their own spins on rules and fantasy tropes.
 

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UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
D&D operates in the liminal space between order and chaos. In the place between society and its constraints and the lack thereof. The characters have complete agency. This is very conducive to long campaigns. Not very realistic, which is why a lot of the early stuff was on literal frontier territory like the Caves of Chaos or places abandoned by society like the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk.
This has become so embedded in to D&D that no one bats an eye at random dudes taking it upon them selves to solve a murder in Waterdeep and the machinery of state going along with it.

Urban Fantasy generally operates as a Demi Monde outside regular society a bit like the criminal underworld but with even less contact with the muggles. This makes it harder to sell a long campaign (unless the characters are the forces of law and order) and even then is more suited to episodic or short form play.
You know how our society works so your suspenders of disbelief need to be much stronger. Steampunk probably works better, it is that little more alien.
 

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
D&D operates in the liminal space between order and chaos. In the place between society and its constraints and the lack thereof. The characters have complete agency. This is very conducive to long campaigns. Not very realistic, which is why a lot of the early stuff was on literal frontier territory like the Caves of Chaos or places abandoned by society like the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk.
This has become so embedded in to D&D that no one bats an eye at random dudes taking it upon them selves to solve a murder in Waterdeep and the machinery of state going along with it.

Urban Fantasy generally operates as a Demi Monde outside regular society a bit like the criminal underworld but with even less contact with the muggles. This makes it harder to sell a long campaign (unless the characters are the forces of law and order) and even then is more suited to episodic or short form play.
You know how our society works so your suspenders of disbelief need to be much stronger. Steampunk probably works better, it is that little more alien.
There’s a bazillion urban fantasy novels that we could use as inspiration, couldn’t we? It’s a very diverse genre. There’s Vampire Chronicles, Anita Blake, Dresden Files, Harry Potter, A Discovery of Witches, etc. I’m bursting at the seams with ideas.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I love the idea of Urban Fantasy for an RPG. And I have a few on my shelves - besides the WoD games you mention there's also the Dresden Files RPG and the Buffy/Angel RPGs (which, shockingly, still seem to be in print!) in the "licensed urban fantasy" properties area. And there's also Monster of the Week and Urban Shadows in the "not tied to a property" area. And there's also Scion from Onyx Path (formerly from White Wolf) which is urban fantasy American Gods style. There are others that are no longer in print - Nephilim, In Nomine, and Urban Arcana (d20 Modern) all come to mind. To a degree Shadowrun is "urban fantasy" though since it's also cyberpunk I don't think most folks think of it that way.

The trick with Urban Fantasy games IME is that they have a tendency to either become "mystic superhero" games or investigative horror with superpowers games. Until I read the Dresden Files series I thought it was just me and the groups I'd played with, but the arc of Harry Dresden from investigative horror detective to mystic superhero is right there, so I know now it's not just me and my groups.

(The one exception to this in my own personal experience was a Vampire game I played in in college that basically fell apart as everyone was pursuing their own agendas and the GM couldn't figure out how to get us all into the same adventure and instead of just forcing the issue he tried to run everyone's side adventures individually and the game eventually just fell apart due to lack of time on everyone's part, especially his.)
 

payn

Legend
I love the idea of Urban Fantasy for an RPG. And I have a few on my shelves - besides the WoD games you mention there's also the Dresden Files RPG and the Buffy/Angel RPGs (which, shockingly, still seem to be in print!) in the "licensed urban fantasy" properties area. And there's also Monster of the Week and Urban Shadows in the "not tied to a property" area. And there's also Scion from Onyx Path (formerly from White Wolf) which is urban fantasy American Gods style. There are others that are no longer in print - Nephilim, In Nomine, and Urban Arcana (d20 Modern) all come to mind. To a degree Shadowrun is "urban fantasy" though since it's also cyberpunk I don't think most folks think of it that way.

The trick with Urban Fantasy games IME is that they have a tendency to either become "mystic superhero" games or investigative horror with superpowers games. Until I read the Dresden Files series I thought it was just me and the groups I'd played with, but the arc of Harry Dresden from investigative horror detective to mystic superhero is right there, so I know now it's not just me and my groups.

(The one exception to this in my own personal experience was a Vampire game I played in in college that basically fell apart as everyone was pursuing their own agendas and the GM couldn't figure out how to get us all into the same adventure and instead of just forcing the issue he tried to run everyone's side adventures individually and the game eventually just fell apart due to lack of time on everyone's part, especially his.)
I did my first Monster of the Week game a few months ago. Was interesting how it played out for us. One player wanted it to be like leverage, another wanted it to be like Supernatural, and I went with Fargo. The GM split the difference and it worked out to be the investigative horror with superpowers you betcha.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Depending on how far you stretch the definition Shadowrun would also be Urban Fantasy (although dystopian cyberpunk would be a better fit) where magic has integrated a lot more with normal society (Vampires and werewolfs being both victims of the same virus which causes your soul to slowly bleed away unless refilled through feeding on others. There is a lot of prosecution, but also research to develop viable substitudes. And magic is an acknoledged part of life, taught at schools for those that have the gift like the MIT&T and there is an industry for spellcasting).

Most urban fantasy settings keep the mundane and fantasy world separate and hidden for some reason.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I did my first Monster of the Week game a few months ago. Was interesting how it played out for us. One player wanted it to be like leverage, another wanted it to be like Supernatural, and I went with Fargo. The GM split the difference and it worked out to be the investigative horror with superpowers you betcha.
What's funny is that the Icons RPG I'm running is going in the reverse direction. It started as a mystic superhero game but because of the kinds of characters the players rolled, their backstory ideas, and the choices they've made it's rapidly becoming an "investigative horror with superpowers" game.

Sometimes I wonder if modern era games just naturally want to become investigative horror games or if its me or just the people I tend to play with. (The same thing happened with my long running TORG game back in the day - the plot threads the players really liked were the horror ones and so it slowly became an investigative horror with superpowers game.)
 

payn

Legend
What's funny is that the Icons RPG I'm running is going in the reverse direction. It started as a mystic superhero game but because of the kinds of characters the players rolled, their backstory ideas, and the choices they've made it's rapidly becoming an "investigative horror with superpowers" game.

Sometimes I wonder if modern era games just naturally want to become investigative horror games or if its me or just the people I tend to play with. (The same thing happened with my long running TORG game back in the day - the plot threads the players really liked were the horror ones and so it slowly became an investigative horror with superpowers game.)
I love both creating mysteries to run, and try to solve mysteries that GMs create. I do this in almost any RPG I play. So, it doesn't surprise me its a strongly desired game loop for others too.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I love both creating mysteries to run, and try to solve mysteries that GMs create. I do this in almost any RPG I play. So, it doesn't surprise me its a strongly desired game loop for others too.
It's the "horror" part that baffles me a bit I guess. I get the investigative part - in a modern setting especially mystery solving is a game loop that works - but that even in a setting as variable as the multiversal mishmash that is TORG or the superheroic DC-comics inspired world for our Icons game that my players will still go for the horror angle over the more sci-fi or fantasy ones when given a choice is interesting to me.
 

payn

Legend
It's the "horror" part that baffles me a bit I guess. I get the investigative part - in a modern setting especially mystery solving is a game loop that works - but that even in a setting as variable as the multiversal mishmash that is TORG or the superheroic DC-comics inspired world for our Icons game that my players will still go for the horror angle over the more sci-fi or fantasy ones when given a choice is interesting to me.
The horror angle is interesting. I think the investigative point is just so central to the genre. There is always a political/historical angle to the horror genre. Even slasher flicks usually have the whole library microfiche scene planted. Another part of it is the danger involved. When you are facing something stronger, meaner, and without your total understanding its a rush. You can do that with supers, but its often so outlandish its not believable. It lacks a certain vicarious feeling that horror often delivers. IMO
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
There’s a bazillion urban fantasy novels that we could use as inspiration, couldn’t we? It’s a very diverse genre. There’s Vampire Chronicles, Anita Blake, Dresden Files, Harry Potter, A Discovery of Witches, etc. I’m bursting at the seams with ideas.
I am unfamiliar with the Vampire Chronicles or Discovery of Witches but Anita Blake, the supernatural is out in the open, killing a vampire is murder. Anita Blake as a character works in law enforcement. Harry Dresden becomes a supernatural cop. All of this is operating in a legal and institutional framework that is radically different from traditional rpgs. Which are more Grand Theft Auto and any of the characters in some of these stories.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
What's funny is that the Icons RPG I'm running is going in the reverse direction. It started as a mystic superhero game but because of the kinds of characters the players rolled, their backstory ideas, and the choices they've made it's rapidly becoming an "investigative horror with superpowers" game.

Sometimes I wonder if modern era games just naturally want to become investigative horror games or if its me or just the people I tend to play with. (The same thing happened with my long running TORG game back in the day - the plot threads the players really liked were the horror ones and so it slowly became an investigative horror with superpowers game.)
I think they do, it is a fit that sidesteps a lot of the obvious breakpoints of suspension of disbelief but creating good mysteries is a skill that I am not sure may people have. I have toyed with the idea of running a game like Arkham Horror as an rpg story generator.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I think they do, it is a fit that sidesteps a lot of the obvious breakpoints of suspension of disbelief but creating good mysteries is a skill that I am not sure may people have.
This is true. And it's true of many of the people who write and publish mystery adventure scenarios as well. In published scenarios the writers get stuck on coming up with a clever mystery that nobody has seen before and end up making things convoluted sometimes to the point of frustration for everyone. When in fact IME most players are not Sherlock Holmes and so a dead simple mystery with a single twist and maybe a single red herring is usually sufficient to generate hours of play at the table.

And if you're not going to publish it just watch any murder show, change the murderer to have some supernatural method or motive, and you're probably good. Mostly you just need an event to investigate, a handful of clues, a red herring, and a twist. Any mystery procedural is going to have all of those (though the "event" will always be "a murder", so sometimes you have to think a lot how to reskin it into something else if your players are getting tired of murders). Your players are unlikely to realize you ripped off an episode of Psych to create the scenario for the night, and even if they eventually do they won't care.
 

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
Yeah, there's definitely a sliding scale between horror investigations and hidden superhero investigations. I would say there's a sliding scale between horror and urban fantasy too. E.g. Buffy definitely became more urban fantasy as it went on, especially in the comics.

There's been a bunch of urban fantasy games and associated settings that take very different approaches. There's contemporary world with hidden magic like Urban Arcana, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk like Shadowrun, alternate history like MagiTech, occult investigations like Nephilim, high school drama like Monsterhearts, really surreal stuff like Invisible Sun...

Unlike what D&D did with fantasy, there's never been a single RPG created with the intent of replicating urban fantasy as a whole using a shared rules base and then producing a bunch of campaign settings for different flavors like those I mentioned. The urban fantasy genre among ttrpgs is very fractured, with like 99% of the market taken by WW's highly specific legacy products and squeezing out everything else. I really had to dig to find those other games, especially years after they were originally published.
 

I've just started running an urban fantasy game, using Hero System. 3 sessions in and so far, so good.

It's set in London in 1986. We're going for a monster of the week vibe, with short arcs for other plot development. The first session was a not-quite a pub brawl in their local. It was a chance to introduce some recurring NPCs. The last 2 sessions were dealing with a kelpie who'd murdered a woman.

The setting is fantasy kitchen sink. A masquerade is in place and out heroes are all firmly part of the demi-monde. Our session 0 was a brainstorm in which people threw out suggestions for things they wanted in the game. We wound up with all the things. Vamps, werewolves, fey, demons and angels, wizards'council. I'm doing my best to make my monsters different, or at least memorable.

The vamps are all Sloane Rangers/Hooray Henries. The two main vamps (so far) are the heads of a (fictional) organisation called the Bermondsey Embankment Renewal Authority, BERA. BERA is seeking to "renew" the embankment area from Tower Bridge to Canada Water. This area includes the tech college where the PCs all work AND their local pub; there will be conflict. My werewolf is actually a were-malamut and the adventure with him is titled "An American Werewolf at Crufts." 1986 is also the last time Halley's Comet came by so I've got to work that in somehow. I'm thinking it opens a gate letting in space angels and space demons. The Irish Sidhe and the British Tylwyth Teg are fighting a proxy war, using The Troubles as their front.

In terms of tone, it's comical in that the heroes are basically the Young Ones. I'm not sure that's actually occurred to the players yet, but that's how they're playing them. NPCs include someone I've described as a "goblin Del-Boy" and two cops who are Burnside and Tosh from early seasons of The Bill. Our vamps and BERA are going to be my segue into Yes Minister (Humphrey Applebey is obviously a senior vampire.)

I have a playlist that includes many of the best songs of the period. But nothing is allowed until it has had it's UK release.
 

MarkB

Legend
I haven't seen anything of the RPG that's being produced based on it, but the Rivers of London series is another great one on the investigative side. Aside from the UK setting, its main USP is that it's a police procedural - the protagonist is a cop, whose attitude is that just because someone's a wizard or a weird fey creature, that doesn't mean they're not subject to the laws of the land.
 

Jaeger

That someone better
At least with D&D you have a bazillion campaign settings, retroclones, 3pp, etc that all take their own spins on rules and fantasy tropes.

I can't recall off of the top of my head here a single fantasy RPG that has any kind of real traction in the hobby that is not d20 based outside of WFRP.

I guess technically there's also RQ. But Glorantha.

Fundamentally, it's all still D&D.

The bazillion campaign settings and clones are just D&D gamers honing in to their "perfect" flavor of D&D.


... There a huge conceptual space that can be explored here, so I'm astonished that there's just one game with one campaign setting (with several decades of unavoidable canon/lore baggage) that dominates 99% of the available scene....

I'm not.

First mover status in RPG land is HUGE. H.U.G.E.

As in - Very Big.

Every commercially viable niche in RPG land has already been taken.

Fantasy:
D&D - once the 800lb. gorilla in the room. Now the 80,000lb. King Kong of the hobby...
Pathfinder 1-2e - Clone D&D is now the perennial #2 RPG.
OSR - more D&D.

Basically, the wider hobby has doubled down on D&D fantasy RPG's to service their roleplaying needs.

The alternate go-to games: RQ, and WFRP, are no where near as prominent in the hobby as they once were.

Horror:
CoC, still. Unchallenged for decades.
Vampire/WoD - mismanaged into also-ran status, but still the only other 'go-to'. No viable contenders to take its spot have surfaced.
Straight up Zero contenders. No one is even really trying. Kinda odd actually...

Sci-Fi:
Traveller, still a loyal following. Small, but loyal.
Star Wars. Whomever has the license to this IP dominates over everything else in Sci-Fi. Until they lose it, then the next IP holder gets to sell a Star Wars RPG and dominate Sci-Fi RPG sales.
The rest is a bunch of niche systems in *Thunderdome Mode.

Cyberpunk:
Cyperpunk, still. Red is the current version.
Shadowrun - usually a go-to, but currently in the process of being mismanaged into also-ran status. No contenders to take its spot have risen yet.
Some alternate systems have popped up in the past few years, and there might be traction there if one can break out of *Thunderdome Mode.
IMHO Both SR and CP are vulnerable to this.

Superheroes:
Mutants and Masterminds is really the only known "name" go-to RPG.
Almost a fallen genre. Champions ceded it's first mover status years ago. It's practically a Footnote in RPG history at this point, and no current game has risen to be 'The' Supers RPG everyone is trying out.
It's mostly just niche systems in *Thunderdome Mode, for now.

Alt-Universe quasi-historical Fantasy:
Seventh Sea & Legend of the Five Rings used to be a thing. Both now firmly mismanaged into also-ran status. There are other games out there, but no one cares.
A fallen genre bordering on dead.

Post-Apocalyptic:
We had Gamma World, Twilight 2000, Aftermath... There is stuff out there now, but people seem to be getting their Post-apoc genre fix from CRPG's these days, so no one has shown up to be "that game".
A fallen genre. And no, 2d20 Fallout will not revive it...

Modern:
A fallen genre IMHO. Stuff like Top Secret and James bond used to be more prominent, and d20 modern was a thing for a bit. But now it's all kinda just a big 'meh of niche RPG's that can't be tossed to enter *Thunderdome Mode.

Western:
We used to have Boot Hill and Deadlands used to be a thing. Another fallen genre bordering on dead.

Generic/"Universal" systems:
Honestly I feel that the generic system has more or less gone by the wayside. GURPS and HERO are essentially dead stick in the hobby. I feel that the OGL was the reason for this. Most people want a version of a game they like. So why bother having to curate a tome like gurps or hero, when a d20 based game or the SRD gets you 80% to where you want to go, and you can just homebrew the rest.
And none of your players have to "learn new rules"...
The OGL is still killing it. You see that with modern publishers putting out 5e versions of their games that had dedicated systems.

The Rest:
Yes, there were some one-hit-wonder games that have since fallen by the wayside. Some I really liked, but ultimately inconsequential. Just like there are one-hit-wonder games now that will ultimately meet the same fate.


The real problem contenders have is that "First Mover" status in RPG land is so huge that people still love their established RPG IP, and are completely uncurious about looking for anything else; even if the IP is borderline dead.

The economics of the RPG hobby have also changed since the 90's. Making it significantly harder financially to breakout and unseat an established RPG IP with a fully supported game line. And that is assuming the game design side of your operation is solid.

The real issue would-be contenders have is that people like to play "supported" game lines. It is not enough to have a competent core game. You will need to release 3-4 adventures/supplements a year on top of that.

Vampire: The Masquerade released 12 supplements in its first two years of introduction. Outside of Pazio who in RPG land is replicating that today? (Although 5e has shown that one does not need hit the splat treadmill that hard - hence my 3-4 supplements per year.)

Which shows the other advantage that established RPG IP have: Their back catalogs...

You want to create an urban fantasy game that isn't World of Darkness? That people will actually buy? You either need to have a Killer great idea hook that will attract new players to your urban fantasy game.

Or, you need to tap into a pre-existing player base by making a clone that won’t get you sued into oblivion, and get enough of them to move over to your new hotness fully supported system to eventually supplant the older RPG IP's player network.

My advice: Don't go head to head with CoC...

*Thunderdome Mode: My catchall for all the more or less unknown games competing with each other in their respective niche gaming circles for attention from the wider hobby.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
There’s lots of flavors of urban fantasy out there, some of which have either been ported into RPGs or could work well as a campaignsett8ng in an extant modern/toolkit system.

Some I could see mining or emulating:

American Gods
Neverwhere
Imagica
Friday the 13th: The Series
Warehouse 13
Charmed
Odd Thomas
The Word & The Void
Weaveworld
Great & Secret Show
Everville
Apparitions
Evil
Books of Blood
Hellblazer

And so many more.
 

Corinnguard

Explorer
There is the Allison Beckstrom series by Devon Monk. The main character, Allison, is a 'Hound' (think Urban Ranger), a person capable of tracking spells back to their caster. She works with Seattle PD and a secret organization known as the Authority.

Then there is the Xuan Wu series by Kylie Chan. I am not sure if this series is an Urban Fantasy since a part of it takes place in Hong Kong while the rest takes place on the Celestial plane and in Hell (both the Demonic Hell and the Celestial Hell, which is like Purgatory). In this series, the main character, Emma discovers that her boss is none other Xuan Wu, a Chinese deity of the martial arts and the Black Tortoise (one of the four Saint Beasts). The main supernatural race here are the Shen (who are the eastern equivalent of the Fey).
 

BoxCrayonTales

Adventurer
You want to create an urban fantasy game that isn't World of Darkness? That people will actually buy? You either need to have a Killer great idea hook that will attract new players to your urban fantasy game.
Exactly. That's why I've decided to got into the much more profitable fiction and video game markets. As you've helpfully explained, ttrpgs are not a growth sector in the slightest. I do have a ton of ideas for an urban fantasy game with vampires, dragon shifters, angels, etc but it's never going to get traction because ttrpg gamers are so... conservative? Is there a better word? Whereas in fiction markets there's a constant demand for new series in that vein even tho the genre is oversaturated multiple times over and relies heavily on trends and fads; in video games urban fantasy is unexploited territory and there's always strong demand for new games.

No viable contenders to take its spot have surfaced.
Straight up Zero contenders. No one is even really trying. Kinda odd actually...
That's not entirely true. There have been a number of games that tried to compete with it back in the 90s: e.g. Nightlife, Nephilim, The Everlasting, Immortal: Invisible War, Legacy: War of Ages, C.J. Carella's WitchCraft... they all died out, even tho most of them were IMO superior in specific key aspects like rules, setting design, or scope. The only success, as it were, was WW's own Chronicles of Darkness which is apparently still actively supported to the present (and which has its own controversies that I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole). There are some more recent story games like Urban Shadows, Monsterhearts, and Feed that have tried to do new things with monsters, with mixed success. Vampire: Undeath tried to rip it off and failed miserably because the author was extremely antisocial. Apparently someone is making another vampire retroclone in response to the V5 debacle, so there's that.

I have considered more than once over the years to make my own urban fantasy ttrpg, but as you've explained at length there isn't any economic opportunity. My best chance at success is to first get successful in prose fiction and/or video games, then make a ttrpg spin-off that relies on brand name recognition.
 

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