The RPG Scrollbars: In search of urban fantasy

There’s a real urban fantasy gap in the gaming industry, and it’s never made much sense. We see a thousand Tolkienesque fantasy games a minute (rough napkin calculation) and the future’s typically so bright, even the lens flares need shades. Yet when it comes to that line where the mundane meets the magical, mostly what we’ve had for the last few years is false hope. Hope that World of Darkness would bring the complexity of Eve to the mean streets of Chicago or wherever. Hope that the right person with a big chequebook would get hooked on something like The Dresden Files or Hellblazer. Hope that games like The Secret World would lead the way.

So much wasted opportunity, just sitting there and waiting to be seized.

I’m not, of course, saying that we never see games that take our familiar world and go backstage to show us the secret realities of wizards and vampires and the like that really pull the strings. I mentioned one right there in The Secret World, due to be re-released later this month, hopefully with the entire of Tokyo replaced with an apology for the AEGIS system and a voucher for one of those delicious double chocolate gateau slices they do at Patisserie Valerie. World of Darkness kept everyone excited for years, largely on the back of the astonishingly brilliant Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and its predecessor, Vampire: The Masquerade: The Crap One. Unavowed (pictured above) looks awesome. And of course, outside of PC RPGs, we’ve had a few high-profile offerings, like the Darkness series and Persona and… Hellgate, maybe? Then a couple of arguables like Vampyr and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of QA and…

Hmm.

Seriously. Where is the urban fantasy? Think about it. Thematically and mechanically, it’s perfect for RPGs. It’s the ability to reshape the world while still maintaining the relevance and resonance of exploring real-world locations. (I know I’ve linked this before, but I still love that The Secret World’s Illuminati base is based on an actual New York district.) Even on a purely fictional basis, there’s a lure to the concept of seeing the ‘real’ world, of being one of the chosen few who gets to cut their strings and advance to the next level of understanding. Likewise, power is never more seductive than when we can vicariously enjoy it against familiar backgrounds in which most of us at least would feel distinctly powerless – to show the mugger in the alley who the real monster is, to clutch a nemesis by the heart and squeeze, or to be the one who dares try and be the ray of goodness in an otherwise bleak world.

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.

That’s just one of many rules that urban fantasy has to offer to make basic interactions more interesting. The Dresden Files, for instance, has the Laws of Magic, with one of the biggies being that killing humans with magic is a capital offence, with black magic as a whole banned because it acts like a drug – the more you use it, the more it starts to feel like the answer to any problem. Again, that’s a limitation that can both canonically keep things from going crazy in an RPG setting, and add depth to encounters by adding a limiting factor beyond the classic ‘good vs evil’. Hellblazer has the fact that it’s a rare John Constantine spell that doesn’t cause trouble for someone, fairly or otherwise. Most major series have their own specific hooks, and what works to prevent a fictional universe from becoming too crazy to have the resonance that the genre needs to feel right also works hand-in-hand with most of RPGs’ sillier issues.

Honestly, the more you explore the genre, the better a fit it becomes. Combat is usually a factor, with urban fantasy heroes typically forming classes by dint of species or magical speciality, with a whole second layer of mundane weapons thrown in. Harry Dresden for instance always carries a firearm, for when out-classed with magic or fighting someone he can’t use it against or just generally as an element of surprise in a magical community that tends to be uninterested in such things. However, combat is also usually a last resort or at least less than ideal outcome, which also permits a whole range of RPG skills like stealth and communication and hacking. Exploration gets to take advantage of all the modern niceties. Nobody cares if a vampire takes a subway train or a taxi. (Indeed, in World of Darkness, the canned MMO, this was intended to be a tactical thing – players watching for when opponents were out of town, and knowing that they wouldn’t be able to take the train back for another few hours.) This allows for easy moving between locations, or focusing in depth on one, with modern communication systems for missions and contacts and the like.

Oh, and romance? There is no hornier genre than urban fantasy. Just saying.

What makes the lack of modern urban fantasy so odd is that the last few years have seen a bit of a resurgence in one of its sub-genres, cyberpunk. Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is a particularly good example, and honestly a game I would likely steal a lot from if given something like the Vampire license – its strong central hub broken up into lots of smaller modules, much like Baldur’s Gate’s second chapter, strong outcast characters working towards a larger goal under player control, and so on.

But of course, it’s only one game. There’s also Shadowrun Fails, or whatever that online version was called, and a big stack of other recent games in other genres, ranging from VA-11 HALL-A to Quadrilateral Cowboy to Hard Reset and so on, and of course, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and at some point in the future, Cyberpunk 2077. Historically speaking, more than a few games have also openly conflated the two – often, though not always, in the interests of easier-to-create worlds and even easier justifications for open combat – like Dreamweb, and Bloodnet’s wastelands full of psycho-bums.

Doesn’t this fill the gap I’m looking for? Real cities, real toys, etc?

For me, not really. Cyberpunk definitely offers some of the same appeal as urban fantasy, like the real-world feel of the locations, the modern trappings of advertising and technology and so on, but the vibe of it is very different and I never find that the future resonates as well as the present/almost present. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is right on that edge, being primarily the present day plus a bit. Even the jump to Mankind Divided and its focus on future-problems like augmentation takes it away from being our world. That’s not a critical judgement on it, just that resonance thing again. I put it like this – there probably aren’t in fact vampires and mages and wraiths and mummies and whatever running around controlling the world, but there definitely aren’t street samurai running around Berlin with katanas, and that’s ignoring all the stuff with elves and magic spells and the like. Good urban fantasy typically feels plausible and plays within the boundaries of the world, even if the characters find them laughable.

There’s just too much potential sitting on the table here to let it go to waste – for it to have been almost fifteen years since the last great example in Vampire: Bloodlines, and for the closest thing to a follow-up, never mind successor, to be a somewhat shaky mobile game (fun first half, then it collapses…). Whether it’s in the form of something known, like a World of Darkness or Dresden or Hellblazer, or a brand new IP with all new secrets lurking in the shadows, it doesn’t matter. It’s about time we were reminded that one of the most exciting worlds to explore and adventure in can be our own.

83 Comments

  1. Wulfram says:

    I don’t think Urban Fantasy is a good fit with the basic premise of 99% of RPGs, which is that you’re going to be killing a good 500 people (or maybe zombies etc) by the end of them.

    The Masquerade is always going to start looking pretty dumb by the end of the game.

    Books and TTRPGs just don’t have to cope with the level of open warfare that video games have to.

    You could ditch the Masquerade aspect of course but then you’re really looking at a “supers” game than an Urban Fantasy game.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “I don’t think Urban Fantasy is a good fit with the basic premise of 99% of RPGs, which is that you’re going to be killing a good 500 people (or maybe zombies etc) by the end of them.”

      So don’t make that game. Bloodlines is a great example of a combat-light game where the best bits are in the social areas. As above, The Secret World gets around it by specifically setting its combat in trouble-spots where the masquerade has been lifted. Any RPG can draw a line between, say, a city hub where everyone has to watch out for the mundanes and muggles, and mission areas where anything goes. This really isn’t that big of a problem.

      • Wulfram says:

        The Secret World is a great example of Urban Fantasy not fitting a video game, because the whole “secret” bit goes out the window pretty much as soon as you finish the opening cutscene. Its a game about super heroes shooting hordes of monsters with machine guns.

        Bloodlines is better, probably because its at least not trying to be an MMORPG, but its still got a ton of combat – that you can refer to it as combat light is revealing – and the masquerade gets pretty damn silly by the end.

        Urban Fantasy can be a good setting for video games, but it’s best done justice in other genres (Stealth, survival-horror, adventure) not CRPG.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          No, that’s being unfair to the setting. The conceit is as above, that the world as a whole knows nothing, but there are isolated trouble spots where the situation warrants dropping the masquerade and sending in the shock troops. The people there tend to know about the secret world because otherwise they’d be dead, or they’ve literally just learned that things are messy. London, New York, Seoul… everywhere else, the secret remains, in much the same way that just because almost everyone you meet in Vampire: Bloodlines is a supernatural, it doesn’t mean that everyone in town is drinking blood and transforming into werebeasts.

          It’s not the only way of doing it, and it’s not the one I’d personally choose if I were doing an urban fantasy game, but it sells it reasonably well – with the action set in the cities kept at a much lower profile and restricted to the likes of parking garages at night or ghastly medical experiments down alleys. And to be honest if that’s the argument then you may as well ditch just about every MMO on principle. What’s the point of fighting things if they only come back to life, etc.

          • April March says:

            I believe you’re being way too kind, Richard.

            That said, I think that’s a limitation of the WoW-like MMO, rather than a limitation of the RPG genre as a whole.

    • Archonsod says:

      “I don’t think Urban Fantasy is a good fit with the basic premise of 99% of RPGs, which is that you’re going to be killing a good 500 people (or maybe zombies etc) by the end of them. ”

      The Dresden Files involves a war which ends with genocide of an entire side, so it’s not that hard to manage :P
      In actual fact I’d argue it makes more sense than most RPG’s, which have the hero (and possible companions) effectively defeat an entire army on their way to the showdown with the Big Bad. The need to maintain secrecy and contain open conflict only to levels that won’t attract too much attention explains why said army is only ever deployed against the hero in small groups, or why if the Big Bad is supposed to be some seriously world-shattering power it doesn’t simply snuff out the hero long before they’ve managed to collect the three magic McGuffin’s, slaughtered most of their army and gained enough power to take them on relatively equal terms.

    • HoboKnight says:

      It’s not like other games in modern settings (FarCry, Uncharted, etc) don’t have this problem. Apparently Nathan Drake has killed over 1800 people. Plus, with Urban Fantasy settings, a good portion of the enemies you kill could be monsters or other beings that “normals” wouldn’t be aware of, so their death wouldn’t be noticed as much.

  2. harcalion says:

    Seeing Jeanette again makes me remember how her artwork image at Troika’s website was called dontlinktothisassholes.jpg .

    Everything Richard says is spot on. The F2P re-release of The Secret World looks promising short term, even if there are scarce new projects set in urban fantasies.

  3. Turkey says:

    I don’t think it’s that surprising. Most fiction with mass-appeal right now is pure escapism. People don’t want to deal with anything that resembles contemporary life anymore, and urban fantasy sometimes delves into some pretty depressing real-life subjects to boot.

    • Turkey says:

      On the other hand, games like GTA are still pretty big, so maybe I’m completely off the mark.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yet the books still routinely sell well, and the lack of urban fantasy isn’t a remotely a new thing as far as games go. Hell, if anything, moods like the current one are where real-world power fantasies and their vicarious thrills tend to shine. See GTA for instance.

      • Werthead says:

        Urban fantasy isn’t the powerhouse it was in the 2000s, mainly because a lot of the big series have finished or gone on hiatus, but it still does very decently, enough to show there’s a big market out there.

        • rochrist says:

          I think you’re missing a lot of the big urban fantasy (or contemporary fantasy) stuff that’s current. Amazon is literally drowning in the stuff, much of it from major authors.

      • ColonelFlanders says:

        Books =/= Video Games.

  4. N'Al says:

    There are far too many settings that are untapped in CRPGs, urban fantasy is just one of them. Where’s my American Wild West RPG, damnit?!

    • Emeraude says:

      Don’t know if it will be your cup of tea, but look up Hard West.

      • N'Al says:

        AFAIK, that’s more of a tactical RPG with full focus on combat, no? I’m sure it’s a good game (and I will check it out myself at some point), but it’s not quite what I meant.

        • Emeraude says:

          That’s certainly not Fallout 2 or Age of Decadence as far as narrative interactions are concerned.

          Not a bad game in its niche though.

    • Shiloh says:

      Yep, a proper Wild West RPG would be just the ticket. As would a decent Cthulu-’em-up PC game – just use Eldritch (or Arkham) Horror as the template and have at it.

    • Werthead says:

      I’m still holding out for a Deadlands CRPG.

    • N'Al says:

      To add to this, what I was basically thinking of is Red Dead Redemption the RPG. Just like that game leave out the supernatural*, but with a more flexible story and character development.

      On that note, GTA the RPG! Not just character stats like in San Andreas, but a full fat RPG with story choices, etc. Imagine in GTA3 whether to side with the Mafia or the Triads or to play of both against each other, for example.

      *Yes, yes, the DLC was all about the supernatural, I know.

      • skeletortoise says:

        If you’ve not played it, Westerado might be a silly little distraction that scratches your itch just a bit. The world is actually pretty dynamic/reactive and you have a surprising amount of decisions that have a real impact. No substitute for a dream game, but a nice silly RPGish western.

        • N'Al says:

          Nice. Hadn’t heard of this one before, will check it out. Cheers!

      • April March says:

        I’ll be honest: I’d play a GTA RPG even if it was GTA with Mass Effect style companions bolted on to it, maybe a few sidequests. But if I had a whole city to go around, and maybe even a few turn-based car chases, then you’d see a happy panda.

    • April March says:

      Where’s my American Weird West RPG?

  5. Premium User Badge

    mickiscoole says:

    The Illumiati HQ is in brooklyn, new york, not San Francisco

  6. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Dammit, now I have to go reinstall Bloodlines.

    • benkc says:

      So, for someone who’s never played Bloodlines, are there any recommended fan-patches/mods/whatever other than grabbing the version that’s on GoG? I completely missed it when it was new, but have heard so much positive nostalgia for it here on RPS that I’ve been thinking I should really give it a go. (And I’ve heard mentions of necessary fan patches from time to time.)

      And should Redemption be skipped entirely? GoG has it for just 89 cents extra if buying Bloodlines, but I’ve never heard any buzz about it.

      • malkav11 says:

        Imagine Diablo, but playing a vampire with a blood meter instead of magic, and eventually moved into the modern day, and you won’t be far wrong. It’s…odd.

      • Unclepauly says:

        I think Malkav is talking about Redemption.

        Bloodlines is basically like DX:HR with vamps, except worse combat and better dialogue. There’s so many similarities with DX:HR that I thought it had to be the same game engine, yet it’s not. Somehow they are unrelated but mechanically almost identical. Even the little sewer grate opening thing is exactly the same. Super weird.

      • Abtacha says:

        As far as I know the GOG version includes the bug fixes from the fan patch. The most current version which also includes the option to install the plus version with added and restored content can be found here: link to patches-scrolls.de (I know its a German site, but it’s where the patch has been hosted since the first version afaik)There’s also a topic on the GOG forums for Bloodlines with links and descriptions to mods that add more to the game, but I haven’t tried any of those and wouldn’t recommend them for a first playthrough.

  7. elevown says:

    Are super hero games a bit similar in setting?

    It’s the real world but with this other world of villains and stuff that most of the humans wont see much of.

    But then all the super hero games seem to fall into various action genres. I was just trying to think of any rpg games where you play a super hero… ARE there any??

    A Lovecraft setting is also very similar – but yet again there are not that many good lovecraft rpgs about.

    I too would seriously love to see more games like bloodlines.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    I’d love to see some urban fantasy CRPGs myself. It’s probably my favourite genre for pulpy indulgence at the moment.

    Charlie Stross’ Laundryverse, Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guides, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, David Wong’s “John Dies…” world; they all have great potential for CRPGs.

    Ooo, and good old body horror writer Scott Sigler made a good stab at the genre with Nocturnal, but hasn’t done anything with it since.

    The weird living unnoticed besides the normal is such an intoxicating premise, especially in cities where the geography is so condensed. Things dark and wonderful lurk beneath the surface even in the real world; adding some magic to that only makes the fantasy that more potent.

  9. hpsaucy says:

    I live in hope that someone would make an RPG based off of the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross.
    Always loved the premise that computers can be used to summon eldritch horrors from other dimensions. It certainly sounds like it would fit nicely with some of the things you mention in the article.

    • Emeraude says:

      Well there’s a pen and paper RPG of it, if you’re interested.

  10. Captain Narol says:

    I want a “True Blood” MMORPG. That would be a lot of fun !

    Especially if they make it 18+.

  11. Fnord73 says:

    I want, I want, I want an adaption of China Mevilles New Crobuzon. And I want it now.

    • Werthead says:

      There’s a decent fan-made pen-and-paper CRPG based on Pathfinder:

      link to drive.google.com

      I suspect the series is a bit too niche – and Mieville hasn’t revisited it in thirteen years – for an adaptation. Dishonored, which is in the same ballpark but not quite as weird, does show there’s a potential audience for it.

  12. Zhivko Yakimov says:

    If you want something not very well known, I would strongly recommend the Watch series by a Russian author, Sergey Lukyanenko. These take place in an urban fantasy setting with familiar tropes and beings (vampires, mages, werewolves) but offered with a twist. It is heavily inspired by Slavic folklore (very much like the Witcher series), with Dark and Light constantly trying to be in balance (or forced to be). The author doesn’t shy from breaking stereotypes, for instance the books’ lore argues that both Hitler and Stalin were social experiments launched by the Light side :)

    Anyway, it is an interesting setting that could be easily used to make an RPG game and break the all-familiar genre. Unfortunately, the books have a few atrocious movie adaptations (made by a Russian director, no less), putting poor reputation on an otherwise great series. I think the book series is translated in English, there are six of them thus far. The first four are great, the next were written mostly because of fan demand, so they don’t quite maintain the same quality.

    • lglethal says:

      I can strongly agree with this statement! I cannot for the life of me remember how i discovered them, but the Watch series are some of my favourite books. You should definitely check them out.

      For something a bit more fun, definitely check out the Rivers of London series. Great books! :)

    • Hands of Orlok says:

      The funny thing is that the world of Watches is already full of game concepts. They have a very RPG-esque approach to the concept of the magical awakening of their characters where they basically choose a class and the Others are ranked in categories according to their power-level.

    • Pintaius says:

      Can’t really reccomend it, but for if you might want to check it out there is already a RPG based on this setting. Not great, not terrible, plays a bit like Silent Storm and its full of bugs through its very core. In summary, as punk as the setting deserves!

  13. Sithinious says:

    I would dearly love to see a Dresden files game, were it done well.

    But honestly, I’d rather see a game set in the world of Jim Butcher’s other novel, Aeronaut’s Windlass. One of the best books I’ve recently read and a huge improvement in Butcher’s writing.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Really? I rather like windless but I though the book came across a bit too trope ridden. I mean I know he likes to stylize his work around tropes, which is fine, but with this one I got pulled out of the immersion a bit.

      Also I found the main characters a bit Mary Sue like, in that their flaws we’re nowhere as central to their characters as the ones in the Dresden files (granted he did take a few books to really explore them)

      Ughh, I really want a Dresden Files game …. probably going to have to re-read them all for the nth time now

    • Mongward says:

      I think Codex Alera would be better off as a straight-up RPG. It has the scope and the nuance to handle a decent party-based RPG and even potentially handle some RTS bits.

  14. Daymare says:

    I wanted to say Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, but sadly it’s not much of an RPG. It has dialogue choices, I guess.

    • Mongward says:

      Which is something that bugs me, personally. The Wolf Among us doesn’t really differ in how it handles the plot from, say, The Witcher 3 or Mass Effect. Cut the action parts from either and you effectively get the same thing.

      • Czrly says:

        Geralt’s dialogue ain’t timed, so you can actually relax while playing it. I tried The Wolf Among Us and found it to be far too much like work, constantly paying attention and ready to mash random buttons, and honestly not cathartic enough to reward the button mashing.

        Combat is different because you can usually predict when a fight will start and how long it will last. There’s also a system and a strategy to fighting so some player-skill can be developed.

        Button mashing is just mashing.

        • Mongward says:

          Which is why I talked about cutting the action bits. As for the dialogues… it’s details, really, timed or not. I’d say it’s actually more engaging when you have to make spot on decisions, because after it’s a game, not a movie you can pause anytime. Alpha Protocol had times responses too, and it was a total blast as far as the narrative was considered.

        • Premium User Badge

          Ninja Dodo says:

          There are some timed decisions in the Witcher 3, though it’s used more sparingly.

          It can definitely make things more engaging and avoids unnatural pauses, but I kind of wish game dialogue would move past the abstract visible timer and just have characters indicate through body language and expression that they are waiting for you to speak, gradually losing patience and then simply moving on if you don’t, sort of like that metal detector puzzle in Grim Fandango where you can interrupt but if you say nothing the lady just keeps talking, but with more facial expressions.

  15. Premium User Badge

    duns4t says:

    I was just thinking about this last night – that the television show “Supernatural” could translate well into an RPG. The show’s format is already similar to The Witcher 3, traveling among towns and cities investigating monsters’ murders, identifying the proper gear to kill the monster, and then accomplishing the deed.

    One would simply need to excise the tiny dramatic subplot of angels existing and anything related to that, and you’ve got a clean world setting for urban fantasy adventures.

    • Hands of Orlok says:

      Replace Geralt’s horse with a car or a motorcycle and you have a nice template for a Urban Fantasy road-trip/monster hunt CRPG.

  16. poliovaccine says:

    *reads article*

    *stands and starts a slow clap*

    I feel like I’ve been lamenting this very thing in various comments sections lately. If we’re going to have these enormous, gorgeous open worlds, please dont make me be a swordwhacker or a spellchucker in em *every* single time. We’ve beyond met our quota for mages and elves.

    I want to be a vampire, or an international spy, or a Chandleresque detective, or a cyberpunk (whose existence isnt always topdown and turn-based), or a “blade runner,” or an anonymous cabbie whose mysterious fare one night draws him/her into a seamy unseen world of [insert any awesome thing here] just below the roiling city’s surface, or a superhero who actually needs to conceal their identity and the maintenance of whose ordinary double-life is actually part of the game, or a cat burglar who has to pick a spot for a job and then scope it out and set up a plan of action almost like a criminal version of an early Rainbow Six game (not strictly fantastical, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt that most of us here are only ever gonna commit burglaries in a fantasy), or a mutant who must hide from the view of the citizenry by living in the sewers (i.e. VTMB’s Nosferatu race: The Game), or a lowly, anonymous citizen of a major metropolis which just so happens to be on another planet, or a dog in Manhattan after the end of the world, or the protagonist of an Escape From New York game, or, or, or, or…

    Also, I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: right now, to my knowledge, the closest thing currently in existence to an open world vampire sim/RPG is a modded-up Skyrim, and that just feels *incorrect.*

    • caff says:

      I like all your ideas. Can someone please pay attention and do stuff like this pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?

  17. Someoldguy says:

    I’d love there to be more World of Darkness stuff in the style of VtM. Unfortunately the guys at White Wolf and Paradox are much more interested in making ARPGs right now and I don’t see how that’s going to shift. If the ARPGs make a ton of money, they’ll make more of them and if they crash and burn they’ll probably sulk and ignore the genre for another 10 years.

    To be honest, though, it’s hard not to see why they have this attitude. You only have to look at the Steam Charts to see what kind of games seem to be very successful and lucrative these days and the temptation is always to try and create another one of those instead of something more risky. It will take a bold company to look at the market and decide to invest serious time and resources into a single player, combat-light, plot-driven RPG in a modern day setting. I really hope one does, but I can’t promise to buy their product if they do, because unless they manage to do it right it could be a total dud.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      TBH, if I was doing it, I’d probably do it like Shadowrun Returns. Not exactly, because there’s a lot of that engine and style I dislike, but something of that kind of style versus an AAA experience. Something where you can focus on story and character rather than trying to impress with visuals and the like.

  18. DaveGilbert says:

    Thanks for the Unavowed shout-out! Its alternate title is “Dave couldn’t get the IP rights to Hellblazer or Dresden.”

  19. HoboKnight says:

    A Buffy the Vampire Slayer style setting could work. Other than the stake fodder vampires, most of the monsters Buffy fought required research and specific methods of dispatch. This could add some different gameplay elements and keep the body count on the lower side.

  20. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    My speculation as to why games don’t do a lot of urban fantasy is that the attractiveness of urban fantasy in written fiction is that the modern day setting creates a convenient baseline for all the supernatural stuff to happen. You don’t have to describe mundane Chicago in a great deal of detail for the reader to imagine it, and then you layer the werewolves and vampires on top. Whereas in games everything has to be meticulously built – if anything, building a realistic mundane city is more difficult than just going all out fantasy. So there nearest analogue of urban fantasy is stuff like Transistor, or Deus Ex Human Revolution, where there are elements of the technosupernatural in operation in the city, but the city itself is already infused in the fantasy.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Eh, plenty of games use reality as a base, and just because you’re using it as that doesn’t mean you can’t stylise it like crazy. Bloodlines for instance is a super gothic take on Santa Monica, which I can attest is nothing like the real thing. There isn’t that awesome steakhouse just across from the pier, just for starters :-)

    • cpt_freakout says:

      One of things I loved the most about Dragonfall was its writers’ capacity to articulate an entire re-signification of Berlin as a city without just doing away with its history. Usually you could replace the fantasy city of a game with any other and you wouldn’t really notice it, but not in Dragonfall (or Hong Kong, for that matter. Shadowrun Return’s Seattle is super generic in comparison). The way they crafted the city and told you its stories make it clear this is a future-fantasy version of Berlin, not just MegaNeoCity #243. My point is you don’t need to reproduce the city as it is, but re-produce the city’s signifiers to give a solid sense of place while having some leeway to change it according to your interpretation of it.

      • ravenshrike says:

        A well-crafted Seattle would have everyone bitching about how the Matrix is slow as fuck and regularly drops connections.

  21. studenteternal says:

    Wow, I really disagree with this article. I mean urban fantasy is awesome! and I would love to see more video games utilizing it as a setting – but far from a perfect fit, its HARD! It is hard because we know how the real world works and jamming a whole secret conflict in without breaking the “realness” is very difficult. Police and armies don’t generally put up with the sort of open combat that is the CRPG staple for example. It is much easier to leave room to adventure and cause \ solve choas in a world that you build from scratch.

    • Mongward says:

      Only if we consider modern RPGs. I still recall with fondness my pacifist run of Planescape: Torment for instance. And I consider it Tyranny’s greatest failure that it doesn’t allow it. For instance Dresden Files have several great ways to avoid conflict, for instance. Half the time people aren’t throwing down because the “gentelmanly” code of the Old World is like a law and things like the obligations to a guest or host are sacred, as are oaths etc. This is an amazing fodder for diplomacy and making new enemies at the same time.
      I strongly refuse to accept the trend that makes all RPGs effectively fancy-looking Icewind Dales. No hate on IWDs, but they were more about tactics than roleplaying.

  22. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Hmm, you forgot a tongue-in-cheek mention of Pokemon Go. There’s your urban fantasy right there. It’s terrible, but it’s got all of the elements.

  23. Merus says:

    Interestingly I think this is better explored in Japan – the Shine Megami Tensei sprawling series is explicitly urban fantasy, although usually apocalyptic, and the Persona spinoff series puts the urban fantasy stuff front and centre. You juggle your personal life and your life as a team of supernatural adventurers in pocket dimensions tied to some of the game’s characters – Persona 4, aka The Best One, has you step into a TV to ‘shows’ based on the inner fears of the people trapped by a serial killer, and Persona 5 has you infiltrate the minds of prominent personalities.

    • Artea says:

      Funny, I’d argue the opposite. The Persona series shows how NOT to design an urban fantasy RPG. The Persona games don’t even let you explore the intrigue of an urban fantasy setting, for the gameplay sections they just teleport you to another dimension that literally consists of a maze filled with monsters. It’s like they were terrified of deviating from the traditional JRPG game structure, and were too lazy to integrate the modern-day setting into the gameplay and narrative like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Deus Ex do.

      And the rest of Shin Megami Tensei is simply post-apocalyptic.

  24. Neonin says:

    I love you for mentioning both Dresden Files (my personal favourite) and Rivers of London. Either would make a compelling game I think.

    There’s a lot of decent magic/modern world fiction out there right now that would make great game settings. Two others are the Alex Verus novels (London again), and Kate Daniels books by Ilona Andrews which might adapt the best because of the magic “waves” that break like surf and periodically shut down tech or stop magic stuff from working, depending on the phase. The whole world knows about the magic suddenly working again in that one so no “I can’t believe people are ignoring this” disbelief needed, and even if I don’t find the books as personally compelling as the Dresden Files I think the setting would be marvelous.

    tl;dr – GIVE ME A DRESDEN FILES GAME!!!!! (Five exclamation marks to prove I’m truly insane, miss you T.P)

    • Mongward says:

      I’d play The Witcher 1 and Demonicon again if it meant somebody would give me a Dresden Files game, preferably in a Telltale games format.

  25. Czrly says:

    I like the ideas put forth in this article and I am as tired of Tolkenian Fantasy and standard sci-fi as anyone but I think the fundamental reason that we don’t get the games envisioned, here, is because game systems are generally much, much shallower than proper fiction universes and pen-and-paper systems.

    The ideas, here, for limiting “magic” and thus making the game challenging and fun are brilliant. Compare them to cRPGs, however, and the problem is immediately apparent. Exhibit A: where BG2 had a circle of law-enforcing mages discouraging flat-out casting in town – a very good idea – its ‘spiritual successor’, Pillars of Eternity, went with “per rest and you can only rest four times.”

    Games do not have interesting rules. They have: “because a number says so.”

    So I propose that you can solve THIS problem in any setting and you’ll have a lot of material to make a deep RPG.

    • Mongward says:

      You’re being sort of unfair and mix up crunch and fluff. Crunch-wise, Baldur’s Gate 2 and Pillars both suffer from the D&D concept of spell slots refreshing only during rest. This is in the game mechanics.
      Now the fluff in BG2 says that there is a ban on unlicensed magic and it’s meant to stop the player on the plot level. And yes, PoE doesn’t exactly have this (that I remember), but you weren’t comparing like to like.
      And these things aren’t really something horribly hard to do. The famed chicken-protecting Skyrim guards are specifically an in-universe, non-number-based solution to player’s transgressions. In Dresden Files for instance you have the Wardens of the White Council that track down and capture/eliminate users of black magic. Get some stench of the dark arts on you, and you’ll be chased like the worst chicken slayer in history.
      The problem is not in the numbers, but in how they are used. Numbers are fine, they just have to be used smartly.

  26. April March says:

    I agree, I am certainly amazed that this is not a genre that you see a lot out there. It’s one of the genres I’m constantly amazed there aren’t even bad attempts out there. (Steampunk is the other.)

    Though I think many commenters hit the nail in the head. Urban fantasy pretty much forbids a traditional ‘walk to places, attack mobs’ RPG structure. You have to deviate from it. So it’d have to deviate both structure and setting. I can imagine a financier going, ‘so who do we sell this to?’

    Still, a sad thing. I think I made a post that said this exact week earlier this week, but it bears repeating: I wish someone would make a cRPG based on the PnP RPG Urban Shadows. I’d be more excited for that than for a new game in the Vampire: The Masquerade lineage.

    • April March says:

      (Though another thing I must say: I don’t care much for the Masquerade or whatever it is that keeps magic on the dee-el in any setting. I’d really like to see more stories that just have magic in a modern-day world as a known entity. Like Castle Falkenstein, but in the modern day, with mages carrying spells in their Kindles and stuff like that. Is that even still urban fantasy?)

  27. MentalEngineer says:

    My personal candidate for an urban fantasy IP is Greg Eekhout’s “California Bones” duology. Osteomancy (magic comes from consuming the fossilized bones of extinct magical creatures – different animals grant different, temporary powers) would translate perfectly into a character class system, and the limited supply of materials puts a realistic limitation on supernatural abilities. And the books have a phenomenal sense of place to draw on – Eekhout nails gritty, ugly, this-isn’t-for-glittery-famous-people SoCal like nothing I’ve ever seen except Chinatown and (maybe) Drive.

  28. Risingson says:

    Are there THAT many sci fi rpgs? I can think of Mass Effect (which, for having the RPG label, are very action) and some indie efforts like Underrail and Shadowrun. Period. Stop.

    Comparing to the fantasy RPGs is like 1 out of 20 at most.

    And I am totally for the Western RPG. Makes so much sense to me. But please by someone that knows the western by something more than watching the same three Leone spaghettis.

    • Wulfram says:

      It possibly depends what you consider sci-fi, but there’s star wars RPGs and quite a lot of JRPGs have a futuristic tone.

      A star trek MMO too

  29. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Well, I can’t stand urban fantasy as a genre, but I’m all for more variety in RPG settings. Westerns – as other people brought up – is a neglected genre (unless you count the Wastelands as post-apoc westerns). Also don’t think there’s been very many good sci-fi RPGs – not including post-apoc and cyber ones. So much potential – and fantastic source material – waiting for interesting sci-fi games. We need more developers like the Expeditions guys (Conquistador, Vikings) who pick up interesting time periods.