When we talk about fantasy worldbuilding, most people imagine high fantasy or epic fantasy. Maybe it’s because we tend to romanticize the past, especially the medieval period. However, don’t overlook contemporary fantasy! Urban fantasy is a hugely popular genre, in fiction and tabletop RPGs. But urban fantasy worldbuilding has its own unique elements and challenges.
In urban fantasy, the everyday meets the supernatural. Stories are set in cities, where mythical creatures coexist with familiar surroundings. Building a convincing urban fantasy world involves blending the ordinary with the extraordinary. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the art of urban fantasy worldbuilding, offering insights for both aspiring writers and modern gamemasters.
Join us as we romanticize modern reality to craft an urban fantasy setting your readers or players will want to mentally inhabit – and explore every dark corner.
What is Urban Fantasy?
Urban fantasy is a fantasy subgenre that combines fantastical elements of plot, character, theme, or setting with a largely-recognizable world—combining the familiar and the strange. Such elements may exist secretly or may occur openly.
Urban fantasy often blurs the lines between dark fantasy, supernatural horror, and gothic romance. The earliest cited examples of popular “urban fantasy” are Stephen King’s Carrie and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in the 1970s, although most modern readers would consider these books horror.
Which is understandably confusing! Urban fantasy often includes elements common in horror fiction – vampires, werewolves, witches, and demons. Sometimes these beings are villainous monsters, but just as often they’re tragic, dark heroes. Urban fantasy also often includes elements from traditional fantasy and myth, like fey creatures, dragons, and wizards.
Urban fantasy is also often conflated with paranormal romance, which is similarly set in a modern world with magical elements. The general rule of thumb in fiction is that if the romance is the inextricable main plot, it’s a paranormal romance. If there’s a romantic subplot, but you could omit it and still have a functional story, it’s urban fantasy.
Remember, genre is largely a marketing tool, helpful for getting the right book or game into the right hands. It’s not a hard and fast set of fixed rules.
Urban Fantasy Worldbuilding: Where to Start
The biggest challenge with worldbuilding in urban fantasy is deciding which elements of the real world to keep, and which elements of a fantastical world to add to avoid a kitchen sink fantasy.
There are a few key decisions you’ll need to make early on that will have broad ripple effects through your urban fantasy world. These are the functional cornerstones of your setting, which makes them a perfect place to start worldbuilding. Thinking through these worldbuilding questions carefully will help you avoid having to make major changes later.
As you build your urban fantasy setting, consider what tone and mood you want to set.
- Are you trying to evoke a sense of dark angst, or cozy wonder? (The Underworld movies and Studio Ghibli are both urban fantasy, just wildly different vibes).
- How dangerous is your world for ordinary people? Is that different for magical beings?
- Is magic hidden or public? If public, does magic bring privilege or persecution?
- Has the presence of magic altered technological advancement?
- Do magic and technology work together, or cancel each other out?
These decisions are critical in conveying the mood and tone you want for your urban fantasy setting. This is a situation where using World Anvil’s worldbuilding meta can be hugely helpful in honing your premise and creating a focused, coherent world. If you haven’t, consider creating a World Anvil account to get access to these helpful prompts and templates.
Anatomy of an Urban Fantasy Setting
Let’s talk meeting reader and player expectations! When you pitch an urban fantasy game or novel, you’re setting some expectations in place. Knowing the common tropes helps you to meet them. Even if you want to subvert those tropes to avoid cliche, knowing what they are is necessary to do it skillfully.
Many urban fantasy settings embrace some or all of these tropes and elements:
The rent is still due, vampires or not. Urban fantasy tends to focus on blue-collar characters struggling to get by, and often their initial motivation is money or debt.
Nobody expects your main characters to win. Including them. If they wield unfathomable power (and they often do) they either don’t know it, can’t control it, or are forbidden from using it.
Monster-of-the-week books that slowly build an overarching mythology. This subgenre lends itself well to serial fiction, web novels, and RPGs, letting you shroud your uber plot in mystery (aka, until you figure it out).
There is a 100% chance your main character will fall for someone they’re expressly forbidden to love, and a 75% chance of a love triangle… with an equally problematic person.
City as Character
Urban fantasy borrows heavily from film noir, and that includes moody, atmospheric cities that live and breathe. (In the case of N.K. Jemisin, quite literally).
Urban fantasy often keeps the magical, mystical and mythical hidden from the mundane. Maintaining this “masquerade” a secret is another rich source of conflict and drama.
Advanced Urban Fantasy Worldbuilding
Writing urban fantasy isn’t the same as writing medieval or historical fantasy. There are both elements you can use to your advantage, and specific things you need to watch out for. Here are a few next-level techniques to help you build your urban fantasy setting and convey it to your readers and players:
A character who isn’t familiar with the secret magical world serves as a convenient exposition tool, allowing you to introduce quirks of the setting in a more natural feeling way. In fiction, this is often a character whose supernatural abilities manifest unexpectedly.
If you’re going to make up words for things that don’t exist in the real world or traditional fantasy, portmanteaus are your friend. They tend to be self-explanatory and easy to understand from context.
If your fictional world is at least 50% our actual earth, you should get the details right. Urban fantasy often demands more research than second-world fantasy to make it feel authentic.
It’s important to consider what technology level your urban fantasy world contains, and how that technology interacts with magic. Has magic replaced electricity? Has it slowed the development of technological devices?
An Urban Fantasy Reading List
Reading is a great way to understand a genre and get inspired at the same time! This urban fantasy reading list starts at the beginning and includes a wide variety of examples.
- Moonheart, Charles de Lint (the first urban fantasy novel)
- The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
- Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch
- American Gods, Neil Gaiman
- Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo
- Dead Until Dark, Charlaine Harris
- The City We Became, N.K. Jemison
Urban Fantasy Games: ttRPGs to Try
And for gamemasters, there are several RPG systems and settings designed for Urban Fantasy games. Some come with a default setting, but most encourage you to create your own.
- World of Darkness (Vampire the Masquerade, etc.) – Play as a monstrous hero (or hunter) in a modern city. This narrative game challenges players to hold on to what remains of their humanity. If you love the Underworld movies, Universal Horror or Anne Rice, this is your game.
- City of Mist – Regular people who gain supernatural powers connected to legendary alter-egos in a magical noir city. This game leans into investigatory adventures, as you unravel hidden truths. Fans of Fables and Once Upon a Time will enjoy this take on urban fantasy.
- Modern AGE – A version of the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) designed for modern play, this is a flexible system for anything from the Industrial Revolution onward. If you prefer gameplay that is more like a traditional ttRPG, or want to create an original and unique modern setting, this is a good choice.
- Monster of the Week – Do you want to be a Winchester? Here’s your shot! Monster of the Week is a narrative-driven Powered by the Apocalypse game inspired by episodic TV shows like Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files.
- Urban Shadows – A political urban fantasy game in which mortals and supernaturals vie for power in a modern-day city. If you like labyrinthine intrigue and scheming, and enjoy stories like Constantine, The Dresden Files and John Wick, this might be the game for you.
The combination of modern technology and magic can be mechanically challenging to balance in combat. As a result, many systems lean more into roleplay and less into “dice play” for urban fantasy campaigns.
Now Grab Your (Enchanted) Hammer…
Whether you’re weaving spells in the heart of a modern metropolis or discovering ancient secrets beneath the city’s surface, let your urban fantasy world come alive. The delicate blend of reality and magic is what makes this genre truly delightful.
Whether you’re a writer seeking to craft your next urban fantasy novel, or a gamemaster hoping to dive into an urban fantasy campaign, remember that a magical modern world can be just as wondrous as a medieval one. If you’re eager to take your worldbuilding skills to the next level, consider checking out World Anvil. This powerful tool is a must-have resource for writers and worldbuilders, offering a structured and interactive way to develop and share your unique settings.