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Let's build an urban fantasy setting:
Well, I'm not sure if this is allowed to be here, or if it should be in role-playing discussion or something but it seems like "world building is probably'' where a collaborative attempt to build a world should go. So panning through the RP list here, I can't seem to find a nice, flexible urban fantasy kind of story to jump into. The obvious solution is to create one, but I don't have a complete story arc and setting in mind and so it seems like it would be irresponsible of me to start up an RP since I don't believe I currently have the resources to push it to any kind of conclusion or even keep it supplied with forward momentum for long. So what I'd like to do, and this isn't a means to an end I think this could be fun all by itself, is discuss what tropes should appear in an urban fantasy setting and develop a description of it based on how that discussion goes. If this thread gets rolling, I'll clean up this first post so it becomes as description of the world as indicated by the arguments and suggestions that come up and update as she goes. I figure once the world gets detailed enough, plot elements will start jumping out of the cracks. To start things off, here's a few things that I think at least need to at least be considered, even if they're not going to be used. The Masquerade I'm not really a fan of the masquerade. To elaborate, off the top of my head, here's some urban-fantasy-esque stuff that involves it: The "Blade" movies, Dresden Files, Vampire The Masquerade, Mercedes Thompson, Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel. In Vampire The Masquerade it more or less works because its the whole point. The game is named for it and the whole point of their civilization is staying hidden. It makes it pretty justifiable, and it makes sense, but it can be pretty restrictive in terms of what supernatural characters can get up to. In Mercedes Thompson the masquerade is falling apart and that's a major theme of the series right from the start, and that works too, I think. In Buffy/Angel, Blade, and Dresden Files the masquerade is in place totally inexplicably. It has absolutely no business surviving the crap it gets put through. Vampires and other monsters attack people in plain sight, mages flaunt their powers, and somehow no one ever catches on that there's something supernatural happening. I find it pretty immersion breaking. There are other ways of doing things besides the monsters have an informed ability to hide and no one ever notices they exist. People in general could be aware that there is a supernatural world out there, but it is so weird/rare/dangerous that they don't have the opportunity to know anything about it. There could be a self-enforcing masquerade, some kind of global, mystical effect that prevents normal people from realizing they've seen anything out of the ordinary, or progressively distorting their memory until their memories of witches and monsters are replaced with memories of something much more mundane. There could be no masquerade at all, and individual monsters and such are just very good at hiding what they are. Vampires wouldn't necessarily be wiped out when people discover they exist if most individual vampires are good enough at hiding the fact that they are vampires. If there is no masquerade at all the question of how powerful organizations, governments for instance, approach the existence of supernatural creatures. gods Religious elements tend to figure in to varying degrees. It gets tricky because you can't get away from this being a reflections of real world religions... but granting that this is a fictional world and any gods or religions in it are entirely fictional entities, one does need to decide how they fit into the world. monsters I don't think you can get away without including something at least inspired by the idea of vampires. Demons are another one so common that it would be disorienting if there weren't any. Supernatural seems to have made a strong case that they don't have bodies of their own and need to possess people to actually affect the physical world, but that doesn't need to be the case. Ghosts are in much the same boat. It would be good to decide exactly how Ghosts work. Are they really the disembodied soul of the dead person? Are they some kind of psychic echo instead? Is there more than one kind of ghost? What determines who becomes a ghost when they die? That kind of thing. Since you've got demons, angels sometimes show up, sometimes as antagonists. That's strong tied into God/gods, though. There's nothing wrong with original creatures or more implementing more obscure myths though. I don't know if I'm a fan of full on "All myths are true, " but I do feel like the more weird stuff is out there the better. practitioners There's usually some element of otherwise ordinary humans who can cast spells or wield some kind of supernatural force. Sometimes it takes thirty guys in robes drawing elaborate pentagrams, making human sacrifices, and chanting for hours on end for human magic to actually achieve anything. Other times you've got people who can throw fire and lightning as easily as they spit. Since I'd like this to be a good setting for an RP and I think mages are a popular archetype for people to play, I don't think it would be good to limit practitioners to elaborate, evil rituals.
edited 6th Jun '12 10:32:33 AM by Paul3
How this world develops would depend on whether you wanted to create "the real world" with fantasy elements or to create some alternate fictional world where humanity has always been in knowing contact with supernatural forces. If you choose the real world, you would probably have to use the Masquerade in one form or another to explain why the world still functions exactly like the modern world on a superficial level at least. Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the world needs to be similar enough to the real world that people can identify with its functioning. For this, there needs to be a reason why magic and technology coexist, why people use extra-dimensional demonic summoning rituals to kill their enemies instead of firearms, or why humanity still uses coal power plants when a significant proportion of the population seems capable of harnessing the untold power of nebulous otherworldly beings. The only really easy way to do this is to have the fantasy elements only be practiced by a small secret circle of secrets. These groups need to be small enough and ineffectual enough that the effects of their existence would be unnoticed by the general population. The only practical way I see that you could bypass the restrictive nature of limiting fantasy elements to small, self-contained groups living in the shadows is if there is some sort of government (or other similar body that could believably have a large amount of resources and influence) conspiracy sanctioning the supernatural as in Hellboy and keeping them somewhat hidden. Only then could you conceivably have stories taking place on a larger scale while still keeping a facade of "realism" by not dramatically changing the way society functions.
edited 6th Jun '12 1:46:54 PM by naroinar
Also a third option that's sometimes used is 'the real world', but Twenty Minutes into the Future after some kind of global supernatural event that causes spiritual power to erupt. It's usually implied or stated that this is actually a return to a prior state of the world and that actually myths were historically accurate, but something since happened that cut the Earth off from its supernatural power source. Obviously this usually culminates in Unmasquing, but there may be some attempts to temporarily stifle it in the meantime. I think "real world with fantasy elements" with a Masquerade would be my recommendation though, since in an RP you want to keep everyone on the same page as much as possible and a Masquerade is a good way of preserving Like Reality Unless Noted without having to go into too much detail. I'd justify it with a combination of the things mentioned:
edited 6th Jun '12 6:02:02 PM by Kesteven
Okay, no masquerade means you can't have a masquerade enforcer. Best argument I've heard for having a masquerade. ...I may get a bit stream of consciousness here. The way I originally envisioned a masquerade working, if there was going to be one at all, was that something metaphysical prevents most muggles from recognizing or understanding supernatural phenomenon even when it happens in plain sight in the light of day. There would be "benighted" and "enlightened" humans. Benighted humans are ignorant to the point that giant wolf man can walk down a busy street and expect not to have to face consequences for it. But people are benighted to differing degrees, and enough exposure to supernatural shenanigans enlightens them. That threshold in variable, invisible, and unpredictable. I envisioned it as usually happening fast, the person crosses some invisible threshold and then develops the ability to see through the "veil" or whatever you'd like to call it completely over the course of a couple hours. Usually that's traumatic and terrifying. The monsters aren't always very well hidden once you're enlightened, but no one else can see them and if they catch on to the fact you can see them, they may not appreciate it. If humans are special enough people becoming enlightened could be a really big deal with various powers and organizations interested in the newly enlightened individual for various reasons. There'd also be powers in play with interest in encouraging or discouraging enlightenment. If for instance, magic behaves like a consistent natural force and is subject to scientific inquiry but a human needs to be enlightened to work it, enough enlightened humans applying modern scientific method approaches and collaborating on the internet be all kinds of goddamn disaster. Like some magical equivalent to a nuclear arms race would get set off or something. Good reason for most factions to want the masquerade to stay intact and keep humans benighted. Government conspiracies. maybe they want to keep it quiet, they want to keep enlightenments from happening because they employ monsters as super soldiers, spies, and assassins and they don't want people knowing about it or capable of retaliating. On the other hand, maybe most governments want to drag the truth kicking and screaming into the light of day to make supernatural goings on easier to police. The masquerade could be effective enough most governments don't have a response, but that shuts out the government sponsored supernatural agent again. What I'm talking about here might be too potent in general, actually. Regarding having the big showdowns in some nearby otherworldly equivalent of the real world... that's a good idea too. Its used pretty frequently, now that I think about it. To keep showdowns in the otherworld from being flashy and dramatic but meaningless, I think there should be some connection between it and the real world, like each location influences the other in some way. Like if you go into the otherworld and burn down the shadow of a city block, that city block doesn't get destroyed, but the real world feels that devastation. People lose their affinity for the area, it tends not to be well maintained, and so one because it's "soul" has been destroyed. On the other hand a very determined urban renewal project would make the shadow of that city block in the otherworld "grow back." ...or something like that, give people a reason to care what goes on over there beyond it's a convenient place to throw down without anyone noticing.
Yeah, that's how I envisioned the otherworld thing, works well with what I was saying about souls too. In my own time-travel kitchen-sink omni-setting I was working on a while ago I had the 'shadow world' (again a fairly common idea) where shadows are real and physical objects appear to be flat projections. The idea was that a shadow contained the 'spiritual essence' of its physical counterpart, and manipulation of the shadow essence was the explanation for most magic, as well as supernatural phenomena like lycanthropy. The physical effect was just the projection of more complex events happening across the divide. Likewise, events in the physical world could project changes into the shadow world. I'm not a big fan of Weirdness Censor explanations of masquerades, personally. They play into a rather smug and frankly quite unhelpful notion that humanity separates neatly into two groups; the canny enlightened elite, and blind, helpless muggles who desperately shun anything beyond their bubble of experience. But on the other hand being part of an elite is part of the appeal of urban fantasy so I suppose as long as your players don't mind it's fine. It's also certainly an effective explanation for why the masquerade persists, but how were you going to explain it in turn? Without an explanation it kind of raises more questions than it solves.
edited 8th Jun '12 8:38:19 AM by Kesteven
Its not anything psychological or based on an unwillingness to see the supernatural, its an actual inability. Like... hard radiation is dangerous and you can't see it, but it's not because you're blocking it out or selectively ignoring anything too far outside your daily routine, its just plain impossible for your senses to detect it. Part of going that route is it dodges the weirdness censor and gives normals a reason to not catch on besides being ignorant/stupid/easy to trick/unwilling to accept the truth. There's often a heavy element of that in masquerades, and I don't like it because I think it's a gross misrepresentation of how people really are. In the real world while people will often work to avoid a truth they don't like, there's never any shortage of people willing to believe incredible, impossible things for the barest glimmer of a reason. I personally can't buy the "it's too weird, so people just ignore it." thing, so I'm maybe overanxious to step on it. As for how exactly it works and why it does: You're right, something that heavy would ideally be integrated into the setting's mythology. I like it as a convenient mechanic, but there should be more to it than that if I use it.
edited 8th Jun '12 11:45:52 AM by Paul3
I guess the thing is, it takes more than something being invisible to make it hidden, as radiation proves. The only reason radiation remained mysterious for so long is because the mechanisms by which it affects changes on a macroscopic scale are also quite far outside normal experience. However, the mechanisms by which a giant wolf-man affects change on a macroscopic scale, for instance tearing people in half and eating their flesh, are actually quite well understood even by an uneducated population, and if presented with enough secondary evidence I think people would pretty quickly figure out what was going on. So basically you have a choice; either have wolfmen tearing people in half and explain why the effects of their actions also remain hidden enough to thwart investigation, or have them not tear people in half and explain why the story is still interesting.
edited 13th Jun '12 3:54:30 PM by Kesteven
Well anyway, here's a writeup on how I think gods might be handled. Gods, Avatars, Angels, and Vessels: Gods are the embodiments of things, concepts, places, and so on. Most of them are fairly insignificant, only having enough power to manifest themselves or otherwise affect the physical world for a few minutes at a time once every few years. The god of an insignificant crossroads, or minor league sports team, for instance. Others have power to spare, and always physically exist in one form or another. Gods of globally applicable concepts like war, sunrise, or commuting can manifest as often as they like. The world is thick with gods, in fact there may be more gods than there are humans, but there are several reasons they are rarely directly encountered. First of all, most gods are tiny, weak, and rarely or never manifest. The God of a minor league sports team might appear once every couple of years as a screaming fan. Even if that ends up having some significant effect on the world it's very unlikely anyone will notice anything abnormal happened. Another reason is that even gods that have the power to manifest constantly and alter reality in significant and obvious ways rarely have reason to do so. Many gods have goals and agendas that do not intersect with humans or that can not be affected by human will or action, and so they don't interact with them. Finally, big and powerful gods have a tendency to cancel each other out. The god of a large city is a powerful entity, and would have an interest in preventing the destruction of its own city, but anything capable of actually threatening a city will likely have its own god, and the two of them will dedicate most of their energy to a struggle on the astral plane. The god of a city might not intervene to save it because it is too busy fighting the god of some nation's military or an avatar of fire or something similar. On the other hand, flames might not leap rooftop to rooftop as easily as they should, bombs might fail to detonate, or civilians might fight to defend their homes with greater skill and ferocity than expected without anyone realizing a divine hand in play. Gods and Worship Religions can generate gods the same way any other concept or organization can, but these are not literally the beings held as objects of worship by the religious. They often claim to be the god of the religion in question, and most of them probably believe it, but they are not really different from the god of any other human construction. They are not supreme beings and they certainly didn't create that universe. These gods do in fact benefit from worship and a large body of believers. One might expect that the god of a modern religion with hundreds of thousands to billions of believers would vastly overpower ancient “pagan” gods who have few remaining believers, but that isn't exactly how it typically plays out. Instead the gods of major religions are strongly divided into collections of avatars, with schisms or differences of belief within their religion creating new avatars and dividing them further. The result is that it would be more accurate to say that the gods of modern religions tremendously outnumber the gods of ancient religions. Aside from the gods of major religions (who behave as their believers think they do, which generally includes both hiding the fact of their existence from the world to some degree and responding to prayers with guidance and/or miracles) most gods do not actively seek worship. Human perception of something can shape the god who embodies it, and in some cases this can empower the god. For instance, outside formal religion, the god of a sports team or a band is empowered by fame and success. The god of a crossroads or an airport becomes more powerful the more the place is used and seen as a hub of travel. Truth hardly exists except in contrast to Lies, and Lies depends entirely on humanity for its existence. The god of a mountain, river, or physical law draws its power from the raw existence the place or phenomenon and can not be empowered by human acknowledgement of its existence. Human sacrifice generates significant energy, and gods are not exempt from the ability to collect and harness this power, but few of them seek it. As with worship, most gods have no means to seek sacrifice. The gods of modern religions discourage it on moral grounds, the gods of vast concepts like the sun or the sky are too powerful to acknowledge it. Deadly gods embodying things like war or disease actually collect very few sacrifices, as hardly anyone is ever killed by another person in the name of the concept itself. Many gods of ancient religions encourage and will reward human sacrifice, but can't exert enough control over secular government and law enforcement to make it feasible. Kali is the most successful old god in terms of acquiring human sacrifice, by virtue of her pragmatic collaboration with thugs and murderers, and even she now receives only a handful of sacrifices a year. Several gods have acquired infusions of power via human sacrifice almost by accident. Various interpretations of Christianity and Islam have received occasional sacrifices both from the persecution of apostates and from assorted misguided witch-hunts and exorcisms. During the early twentieth century the popularity of social Darwinism and attempts at eugenics and “ethnic cleansing” resulted in Evolution receiving many sacrifices. Avatars: Because concepts are inter-related, difficult to separate from one another, and composed of smaller concepts, the corresponding gods are the same. For instance: Nature is a tremendously powerful god. There are gods of storms, disease, and evolution, which are all parts of nature. These gods are nature's avatars. Similarly, there are gods of thunder, lightning, rain, wind, and so forth: avatars of Storm. Avatars may have avatars and so on ad infinitum. Sometimes it is unclear which entity is an avatar of which, or whether they are related at all. Interpretations of this varies. Some scholars of the phenomenon believe that all of these entities are really a single god dividing its attention to different aspects of reality, speaking with infinite voices and acting with infinite hands as necessary. Other believe they are truly different entities generated from different concepts, places and so on, and that they are simply constantly bleeding into and consuming one another. Whatever the case, avatars of the same god may have radically different personalities from one another, can manifest in radically different forms, and are not under any compulsion to cooperate. Angels A very tiny percentage of gods can create independently aware, self-sustaining spirits, capable of action on the god's wishes without detailed instruction and needing no further investment of divine power once created. These “angels” can have many forms, and only bear a classically angelic appearance when created by gods closely associated with Christianity or religions influenced by it. The god who creates an angel has a great degree of control over how the new spirit will think and what it will believe, but once it has been created it is no longer under the direct control of the god and it may eventually change to no longer share its creator's aims or to lose its sense of obedience. Such fallen often undergo further mental and “physical” changes as a result of the disconnection from their creator. Many become monstrous and insane. Others, rebelling against a cruel god, may actually begin to resemble the popular conception of an angel more closely. The abilities and nature of angels vary dramatically. Most are “static” beings incapable of further growth or learning, but some are able to go so far as to reproduce, either with mortals or with other spirits, creating new races of inhuman creatures. Vessels: Instead of physically manifesting itself, an god may act through a human being. This ranges from the subtle, like recurring dreams and a vague sense of purpose, to the unsubtle, seizing control of the mortal's body and/or empowering it beyond what is physically possible. In either case a receptive and willing mortal vessel requires much less effort on the part of the god than directly manifesting itself and an unwilling and hostile vessel requires a great deal more effort that creating a similarly effective manifestation. For the most part only the gods of certain malign concepts, mostly negative emotions like hate or jealousy and their avatars, are willing to invest the necessary power to engage in something as vile as unwilling possession.
edited 13th Jun '12 8:45:15 PM by Paul3
This is neat.
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