Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Making Urban Fantasy More Real

Though most of my GM work in Urban Fantasy , specially Buffy/Angel Unisystem I seldom cover the genre here. I figure Tim at the Other Side blog has that covered pretty well and I'd like to concentrate on Pathfinder and the OSR

Today however I am making an exception and posting an old essay of mine on making Urban Fantasy more real. This was originally going to be a column on but I decided not to finish it and instead I am going to post it here.

Its a little rough in places and not 100% complete but I hope y'all enjoy.

Making ModernFantasy seem more "real' which is what we are talking about here isn't too hard.

There are a few tricks I use to help out.

First: Character design is all important.

Make sure the characters have NPC friends, relatives employers and so on. Make sure there is no more than one (if that) moody orphaned loner per group.

Second: Set the adventure in a town you know.

It doesn't have to be a real place. Twin Peaks, Newford wherever, as long as you know the town. I find using the home town works best.

Third:Make actions have consequences.

If the PC's shoot a gun, have the cops called. Don't hesitate to play the forces of law and order to the hilt. But do it fairly. if it is realistic have them arrested whatever but be fair and reasonable.

Fourth: Make the characters have a life.

Everybody has a life even the "Struggling Writer with a Trust Fund" that seems so popular among the adventuring set. PC's have friends, contacts relatives. All those folks they thought up either when the character was made or even on the fly can be used. Resist the temptation though just to use them as victims. They can also help out the PC's in a lot of ways. "Sure Buddy you can stay at the old cabin for a week"

Fifth: Emphasize sense and emotion.

Urban Fantasy isn't a game of numbers and monster bashing unless you want it to be. It is often a game of mood and texture. Be as descriptive as you can. If you aren't that good at description relax and fudge a little. Borrow something from your favorite author will never know the difference.

Sixth: Use real locations.

Know a good diner? Everybody hang out at a certain club? Use it. The players will love you. Even in an unfamiliar city there are familiar chain restaurants and businesses.

Seventh: Use the Internet.

If you are reading this article you probably have Internet access. Use it. There are millions of pictures and resources out there. City web pages, online directories you name it is out there. All of it for the cost of paper and ink.

Eight: Go slow.

The pacing in an Urban fantasy game does not have to be the relentless attack, recover, loot, sell back to the attack style of gaming. Pace the game in a manner that shows the real world as much as the false one.

Nine: Take a break from unreality.

Once in a while roleplay something like a trip to the mall or the dentist or the park or even a day at work and have nothing weird happen. This strengthens the notion that the PC's are in the real world and makes supernatural events more shocking. Not too much though, most players aren't interested a long game of papers and paychecks.

Ten. Even Monsters have Motivations

Monsters in Urban Fantasy setting benefit from having a realistic motivations. Not only does it add to the roleplaying aspects of the campaign it helps cement how reasonable it all really is.

Unlike in conventional Fantasy game marauding around looking for loot isn't reasonable. A pack of Goblins had to be much more careful modern Chicago then in a fantasy wilderness. Even a rogue werewolf may find himself outgunned by the local constabulary.

Now some systems address this issue with game mechanics. If your does those "mechanics" can help you balance encounters they can also lead to splatterpunk games in the hands of some players.

Eleven: Demphasize Violence

Many player character reach for a gun as a first response to any threat. Discourage this unless you are running a splaterpunk game. Realistic consequences are one way but there are a couple of others including setting the game somewhere with strict gun laws (I am sorry handguns are illegal in the UK and you can't get one) and simply writing adventures where guns aren't that useful. "You can't shoot a ghost Hillbilly"

Twelve: Encourage OOC knowledge.

Unlike in conventional game if a trivia fact, common bit of lore whatever is known by the player the character will likely know too. All those horror movies you watched, your character has seen them too. Those books you have read, he or she has read them too. Encourage the players to use what they know. As a corollary to this if the player is particularly knowledgeable in some esoteric area, encourage them to take the appropriate skill. This way Player Knowledge and Character Knowledge can blend harmoniously

Thirteen: Roleplay like crazy

Whenever possible roleplay and encourage the players to do the same. Ham it up a little. Play the waiter and the cabby and the monster too. make the people seem as real as you can. If you don't have a bunch of stock voice or extra stock characters, don't worry. Base them off you uncle Bob or your third grade teacher no one will ever care. In fact they will thank you for it.

A good way to encourage roleplaying is with some sort of "Brownie Point" system that allows the players to effect rolls. The more roleplaying the more control the player has over the dice. It is self perpetuating reaction

And finally Number Fourteen :

Be flexible in your GMing. Most games are run in a passive down manner "here is the room, here is what you say what do you do." Break out of this mold and let the players help you set the scene. For example let a player run a minor encounter with the traffic cop. If it isn't a big plot point who cares who runs it. Stuck for ideas, don't know what happens next? No problem let the players come up with something. For daring GM's letting players run a monster or reoccurring character is a possibility. Players who abuse the system, no problem, over ride them and start back a little bit.

With these tips you can improve your Urban Fantasy games,whatever system you play. Good Gaming.


  1. Hey, the more the merrier I say!

    You have a lot of really great tips here.

    I think the best thing is that Characters have lives. This is one of the reasons why I liked Charmed. Many episodes dealt with how the characters could deal with their real world lives and loves while dealing with monsters and demons.

    We actually play in a Chicago-based game where we get to use our knowledge of the area to our advantage. Of course so does our GM!! So the flip side of that is "if we don't know it, then neither do our characters".

    Thanks for the shout out too!

  2. Thanks for the compliment. I am a HUGE Unisystem fan though of late my interest has been slight, mainly do to like 4 years of nothing but me GMing Buffy/Angel.

    And you are quite welcome for the shout out. Its a great blog.