What is Urban Fantasy?

The Fantasy Hero campaign book for Fourth Edition claimed that "[f]antasy stories all share a single convention: that magic [...] works."

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is, of course, the model of the fantasy adventure. It has fighters, elves, wizards, enemy monsters and a life-or-death quest. Like most fantasy stories, The Lord of the Rings is set in the past or in a medieval world. That relegation of fantasy to the past seems to reflect an unarticulated belief: magic may have existed once, but it certainly isn't around now.

But what if that belief wasn't true? What if magic still works in the world of today?

Surely if magic still worked we know about it. Wouldn't we? Unless they are trying to keep it a secret. But how? And to what end? Who are these people who know how to use magic? How do people find them? How do they decide who to share their secret knowledge with?

And if they've managed to keep magic a secret, what else has been hidden from us? Mythical beasts? Faeries? Places of power?

These are the questions that inscribe the contours of the urban fantasy genre.


Conventions of the Genre


Flavours of Magic

Magic works. Perhaps only a select few people know this, and know how to use it, but it's available. There are probably three main "flavours" of magic in an urban fantasy campaign: combat-ready magic, unwieldy magic, and synchronistic magic.

Combat magic is the most "superheroic" of the three magic forms. Charactes throw around fireballs during combat, and block attacks with mystic force shields. Spells are extremely easy to cast (most spells can be cast as part of a characters attack) -- at worst, they require some incantations, gestures, and the occasional special materials.

Unwieldy magic, on the other hand, is not suitable for combat. Although it can be very powerful, unwieldy magic usually requires extremely rare material components or must be performed in a special location or at a special time. At the very least, spells are lengthy or require special prep (and it's not uncommon for the group's fighters keep the Bad Guys occupied while the mystics are spending time invoking the spell). Once the spell has been put into place, the effects are significant.

Finally, synchronistic magic lacks the special-effects of the other two forms of magic. Synchronistic magic appears as coincidence. After having malevolent spells cast upon them, the characters may find themselves coming down with a nasty illness, or perhaps the brakes fail on their vehicles. Synchronistic magic is often extremely hard to model in gaming terms, and is probably best suited for campaigns in which most spell-casting is happening behind the scenes, rather than by the player characters themselves.

Systems of Magic

In some urban fantasy campaigns, people can wield magic in fundamentally different ways.

Ceremonial magicians employ specific materials and incantations to cast spells. Often, ceremonialists belong to quasi-secret lodges that train and work together.

Aboriginal shamanism occurs all over the world, and often involves altered states of consciousness in which the shaman contacts the spirit world to gain knowledge about how to change the world.

The magical workings of African Traditional Religions (such as Vodou or Santeria) center around being ritually possessed by powerful spirits.

Eastern systems of magic often revolve around discipline and devotion to self-knowledge to control over their bodies. Hindu gurus can repair the damage to their body caused by aging using the powers of their minds. Many eastern martial arts are part of a process to know oneself.

Character Types

Many of the traditional fantasy character types still exist in urban fantasy in updated forms:

The Fighter: Fighters can be members of official organizations, such as the police, federal agencies, or the military, or fighters can simply be good brawlers such as construction workers, bar bouncers, martial artists, gang members, or professional wrestlers.

The Cleric and the Magician: These characters are the priests of various religions and magicians who have learned how to access magic in the modern world.

The Sage: Occultists -- people who don't practice magic themsevles, but who want to understand magic -- are common in the urban fantasy genre. Other sages take the form of librarians, professors, and journalists. In urban fantasies, some sages provide specialized knowledge: consider the hacker who can break in to important databases.

The Thief: Grifters, pickpockets and break-in artists are all still around in today's world. There are also mobs, professional assassins, and street gangs.

The Bard: Professional actors, singers or novelists also provide story possibilities.

Non-Human Characters

An urban fantasy campaign can be populated with any number of non-human characters. Because of the nature of most urban fantasy campaigns, obviously non-human characters such as trolls or reptile men are difficult to include as player characters, but elves/faeries could probably pass as human sufficiently well.

Classic Hollywood monsters such as werewolves, ghosts, demons and vampires can also make good characters. As player characters, they might be trying to atone for past sins, or maybe they're trying to hold on to their former humanity.

Some urban fantasy campaigns can accommodate non-human-appearing characters: Neverwhere-like campaigns in which the adventures take place in a secret underworld, or campaigns in which the existence of magic is not a secret.

The Government

In urban fantasy campaigns, the government usually plays one of three roles:

  1. the government is completely oblivious;
  2. governmental agencies are trying to investigate and understand magic and monsters, and probably trying to quiet any rumours that magic and monsers exist; or
  3. the government has its hand in almost every supernatural event going on in North America.


More often than not, characters in urban fantasy settings are working for the Forces of Good, or some mysterious Higher Powers.

People could simply ignore the magical happenings going on around them -- so many others do. So why do characters choose to get involved in fantasy adventures again and again and again? Usually because they know that unless someone gets involved, Bad Things are going to happen. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of eternity.




Urban Fantasy campaigns can take many forms. Sometimes, campaigns can mix and match elements from the following variations of the genre:

Monsters Among Us

Vampires, Werewolves, Demons. They could be living next door. Every hour, someone's blood is being drained somewhere. If we don't fight back, who will?

Adventures: The players are a crack team of monster hunters, always trying to ensure that nests of vampires are dusted before they cause a problem. Or perhaps they are monsters themselves, desperately trying to hold on to their last shreds of humanity.

You can't go around telling people about the monsters, mind you. People would think you were crazy. Besides, there are Sentries who make sure that the truth is never revealed.

References: Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Forever Knight, Ghostbusters, Wolf Lake, Blade, Vampire: The Masquerade, or Werewolf: The Apocalypse

The Secret Wars

The time of the great conflict is almost upon us, and the various magickal factions are preparing for the final battle. Vying for power. Trying to score whatever victories they can against each other before the last great battle. Who will ultimately fight on the side of light, and who will fight on the side of the dark?

The mundanes must never suspect, of course. We can't even begin to understand what effect that would have on the Grand Battle. None of the factions want that.

Adventures: The players belong to one or more of the factions, and they attempt to forge alliances between important magical groups. When necessary, they fight the enemy factions for control over magically strategic sites.

References: Mage: The Ascension, Dr. Strange, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, In Nomine, Nephilim


Magic returns to the world with a bang. There is no secrecy about magic; everyone noticed when people started displaying odd abilities, or when the trolls arrived. Society isn't quite the same as it used to be. Lawmakers, already scrambling to keep up with the computer revolution, couldn't adapt quickly enough to the return of magic. Operating outside the law became... commonplace. Government lost its relevence, and so the megacorporations stepped in to protect their interests.

Adventures: The players take the role of adventurers-for-hire, as they break into corporate strongholds, battle with rent-a-cops, and have spell and machine-gun shootouts in the downtown gangland.

References: Shadowrun, The Last Hot Time by John M. Ford., The Borderlands series created by Terri Windling

What If...?

It's not quite our world, but it's a world very much like ours. A different history lead to a different present. Magic never disappeared. Now, it's a part of everyday life. People cast charms to do well on a job interview, or perform rituals to get rid of troublesome spirits.

Adventures: Perhaps the players are police officers working for the magical incidents division of the local police station.

References: Temporary Agency and other books by Rachel Pollack

The World Below

Beneath the city, another world stirs. Populating this world are the people that have been largely forgotten by the yuppified, corporate world above -- the homeless, the crazy, the dispossessed. They see a different society, a dark reflection of our city. It's a feudal world with its own customs, it's own rulers, and its own laws. People who slip between the cracks may find themselves unwilling immigrants to the world below.

Adventures: The players are a team of underworld adventurers from different guilds: nobles, fighters, scroungers, mystics. They chase monsters through the subway tunnels and sewers, and search the world below for magical artifacts. Or perhaps the players are trying to find their way back to the World Above.

References: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Midnight Nation by J. Michael Straczynski.


Copyright © 2002 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated September 29th, 2002.

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