Worldbuilding

Explaining the Urban Fantasy Masquerade

Evil Stiles and his minions from Teen Wolf

In Teen Wolf, the villains constantly murder hospital patients, but somehow no one notices.

Speculative fiction storytellers will go a long way to make fantastical situations feel plausible. Sure, they will never be perfectly plausible because magic isn’t real, but it’s still no good if our audience is wondering why the hero won’t use teleportation during our tense climax. We can make most fantasy conventions feel plausible with a little extra thought and planning, but there’s one nut that’s hell to crack: the masquerade.

For those unfamiliar with the term, this is the trope wherein all magic wielders and magical creatures remain a secret, unknown to most of the world. Since the masquerade is a cornerstone of urban fantasy, its implausibility is a huge problem. To make this a little better, let’s go over why the masquerade is so important, why it’s a nightmare to explain, and, yes, we even cover a couple explanations that I think can stand up to the rigorous examination that some stories need.

Why We Need the Masquerade

A vampire catching on fire in Buffy's class In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our heroine has to balance the terrifying supernatural against even more terrifying pop quizzes.

Despite its misleading name, urban fantasy actually distinguishes itself by adding magic to the world we currently live in. This not only delivers relatable wish-fulfillment scenarios to the audience, but it also doesn’t require as much worldbuilding from the storyteller. While that makes the genre very attractive, it comes with an inherent contradiction: the world has to be the same, but… not the same. The existence of magic would naturally alter every part of our world from the beginning of time, so urban fantasy storytellers need a reason why it hasn’t done that.

We do have one way to explain this without the masquerade: magic is brand new. Everyone wakes up tomorrow and finds there’s a rift in reality that’s leaking magic into the world. While this is a great explanation for some stories, it goes against the traditions of fantasy. The whole genre is based on our misguided nostalgia for the past, so many of us want our magic to be ancient and mysterious. That’s a big reason why most storytellers prefer to say that magic has always been around, but we just don’t know about it.

Plus, the masquerade is great fun. Storytellers get to take the mundane world and imagine what’s hiding out of sight. Audiences get the wish-fulfillment of seeing a character pulled out of their everyday life and into a place of magic. And making characters hide their true natures from others is an alluring source of conflict, so alluring that storytellers keep using it even when it makes no sense whatsoever.

Suffice to say, the masquerade is going to be widely used by storytellers for a long time.

Why the Masquerade Is So Implausible

A vampire with fangs out from Being Human In the UK’s Being Human, we learn that the entire vampire conspiracy is one chatty coroner away from being blown wide open.

Now we’re onto the tough part. The masquerade requires a huge number of people to all keep an enormous secret. Even worse, every one of those secret keepers has a huge incentive to divulge: money. Don’t tell me your hero wouldn’t like a crisp million for hiring out their magic powers. If they don’t want a million bucks, they don’t have enough problems to be a good fantasy protagonist. Trade them in for someone else.*

In the era of internet and cell phones, even one person blabbing means game over. Sure, others might not believe them if the magic seems weak and coincidental, but the vast majority of fantasy stories don’t depict magic that way. It’s usually big, flashy, measurable, and provable. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be powerful enough to impact the story or near as much fun.

The reasons that storytellers give for the masquerade are simply no match for this reality. You cannot convince every person in a society to go against their own interests, and very few incentives for keeping the secret would be strong enough to balance out the power and protection that money provides.

On the bright side, the commonness of the masquerade trope does give it some defense against implausibility. Urban fantasy audiences are so used to it, they’re unlikely to ask questions when it’s introduced. However, this defense breaks down in a couple common scenarios. First, when the story features big magical conflicts in full sight of regular people, it becomes impossible to believe that magic is still a secret. Second, when the protagonist makes sacrifices to protect the masquerade, the audience will wonder why the hero can’t just tell everyone the truth.

So the more you are planning on using those kinds of conflicts in your story, the more important it is to have an explanation that works. This explanation needs two components: why and how. After noodling it over, I’ve managed to come up with two robust possibilities in each category.

Why a Society Might Create a Masquerade

A Hispanic woman in a judge's robe holding a thumbs down In The Good Place, a higher authority, the Judge, makes the rules.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, you’ll need a reason why an entire society of sapient beings has chosen to go to great pains to maintain their secret. They’re not only hiding their powers individually, but also hiding the very existence of magic. Otherwise, spellcasters might be anonymous, but normal people would still know magic is real.

Because maintaining this secret is so far from the society’s self-interest, I’ve found that justifying it requires an outside being that is even more powerful.

Hiding From a Super Powerful and Vicious Force

Something wants to murder all the magic workers and magical creatures, and it’s so powerful, it can easily defeat an entire magical society. Ideally, it’s from somewhere other than Earth/our realm, and it doesn’t know that lots of magic wielders/creatures are here. This way, people have a reason to hide the existence of magic altogether. If the big scary thing finds out that magic is more than an aberration on Earth, it will arrive in greater numbers and go to greater lengths to hunt everyone down.

Again, this thing has to be ridiculously powerful, because the magic workers in a typical fantasy story are no pushovers. Many storytellers suggest that normal humans would hurt spellcasters, but that’s as implausible as the masquerade itself. We have a whole article on why regular people could not and would not persecute mages.

I do have one exception to this “the threat can’t be humans” rule, but it’s so niche it’s all but useless. If your non-humans are very few in number, and their magic isn’t that powerful, and they’re all preying on humans, okay. Basically, your world just has vampires – but not Twilight or True Blood vampires, because those are too powerful. You can have Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampires that are much more discreet and rarely sire more vampires. They also have to be rich, or they’ll have trouble with the how component of the masquerade.

This is a poor solution for most stories. You’ll probably want additional magical creatures that have no reason to hide, and it means all your magic wielders are serial killers. Oh, and please don’t use this for an oppression analogy. Marginalized people are not serial killers, and creating a parallel where they are is gross in the extreme. Looking at you, True Blood.

A Non-Interference Mandate From a Higher Authority

Instead of a powerful threat, there’s a powerful authority demanding that regular humans not be sullied by the likes of magic. The higher being must have a great interest in humans and in controlling their development, and again, it can’t be humans themselves. Humans would leap at the chance to receive magical cures or other magical favors. The authority would probably be a god-like figure, though storytelling will be easier if it isn’t completely benevolent.

The audience should have some idea of why the higher being doesn’t want humans to be influenced by magic. Perhaps the god knows that if the masquerade is lifted, magic workers will end up controlling regular people. In stories using religious or divine magic, preserving free will is also a good explanation. The TV show The Good Place uses this to great effect when the characters end up back on Earth with knowledge of the afterlife. To get to heaven, people have to do good things without knowing they’ll be rewarded once they die, so if the characters tell anyone about the afterlife, that person is doomed to hell.

While a god-like figure also explains why your spellcasters would care about the authority’s wishes, what’s most important is that it’s powerful enough to impose its will on everyone. It may tell all the magic workers, “Or else!” or it may use its magic more directly to enforce the masquerade.

Will Natural Laws Work Instead of Intention?

It’s worth exploring this, because it clarifies some distinctions between different story scenarios and what they require. By “natural laws,” I mean the world has some generalized magic-like effect that hides magic from a non-magical society, without anyone actively trying to hide it. A great example is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which residents of the titular Neverwhere have a “don’t notice me” field around them that feels like a natural effect of the universe. However, this works because Neverwhere is a separate place, and magic is cloistered away there.

In stories where the masquerade is really needed, there’s a lot of intermixing between the magic and non-magic portions of the universe. Vampires have day jobs and witches put protection spells on regular homes. At that point, an automated effect that somehow manages to tease out the magic stuff from the non-magic stuff feels contrived. For instance, if someone receives a mortal wound and then it’s suddenly healed, they’ll need an explanation, and an automated “don’t notice me” field wouldn’t plausibly construct an elaborate cover-up. At that point, it feels more believable for something to be intentionally concealing the existence of magic.

If you do have all of your spellcasters and magic creatures off in another realm with occasional doorways to this one, that makes explanations significantly easier. At that point, it’s plausible that a magical society would have their own non-interference policy or that natural laws could maintain the secret.

How a Society Could Maintain a Masquerade

A large chamber with gold statues of magical creates and a crowd of professional workers. In the Harry Potter books, the Ministry of Magic spends much of its resources hiding magic from muggles.

Once you know why the whole society would stay secret, you still have the question of how. Again, it only takes one person willing to provide evidence, and the jig is up. With lots of people over hundreds of years, someone will let it slip. That means that society needs a way of not only dissuading everyone from telling but also covering things up when someone inevitably does.

A Powerful, Dedicated Organization

This is the Harry Potter method of enforcement. In the Harry Potter books, there’s a wizard government with a whole department dedicated to concealing magic and punishing wizards who make that difficult. If someone casts a spell in front of muggles, the wizard will get a fine and some government workers will show up to erase the muggle’s memory.

Enforcement doesn’t have to be done so openly. Maybe agents of the powerful authority wait in the shadows, watching for anyone who would dare use magic on humans. If someone does, they disappear. Again, enforcers will need a way to repair damage that’s already been done, but it could simply be the removal of the divulging individual, some well-placed bribes, and a cover story. The point is that enforcers are powerful and able to respond when the rules are violated.

If you’d like lots of conflicts where the protagonist struggles to avoid telling their loved ones about magic, this method is ideal. That’s because violation of the rules is possible, but it comes with consequences. It’s no good to tell your date about magic if some assholes will show up and drag him away. The authorities can also warn your protagonist against telling or make them jump through hoops for a special permit that would allow them to divulge.

Widespread Masquerade Magic

For enforcement that’s more mysterious and unbending, the world can have a universal magical effect that’s designed to prevent non-magical people from learning about magic. Since it has to cover up leaks, the ideal effect is something that makes people forget about magic shortly after they encounter it. It could be combined with other effects as necessary. Maybe elves look like humans to the non-magical, or casting magic in front of normal humans causes damage to the caster. Because the effect has been intentionally designed, it can do whatever you need without feeling implausible.

However, magic of that kind would be ridiculously powerful. If the higher authority has not created this effect themself, you’ll want to come up with some other reason why the society can’t do magic that powerful again. Maybe it required every mage working together at a time when mages had twice their current numbers. If you introduce a big outside threat to your setting, you don’t want your magic wielders to defend themselves that easily.

This kind of widespread magic is the best option if you want magic to occasionally spill over into the public. If a dragon is going to destroy several buildings and you still want people to not know dragons exist the next day, you’ll need something that tampers with their memories en masse.

When and How to Use Handwavium Instead

Harry Dresden from Storm Front's cover art. In the Harry Dresden series, author Jim Butcher just tells readers there’s a masquerade and then leaves it be.

The explanations I’ve offered probably won’t work for every story using the masquerade. If you can’t offer reasoning that will stand up to scrutiny, the next best thing is to handwave it away. This means you’ll state the existence of the masquerade in simple terms, move onto something else, and don’t call attention to the masquerade again. If you do this, your readers may all accept the masquerade just because they’re so used to it.

A great example of handwavium is in the Dresden Files. The masquerade exists there, but protagonist Harry Dresden makes no effort to maintain the masquerade and suffers no consequences for violating it. In fact, he even has an advertisement in the paper telling people he’s a wizard for hire. Someone will be like, “Haha, you’re not really a wizard are you?” and he’ll respond with something like, “You wanna hire me or not?” Because the masquerade never influences Dresden’s choices, the story doesn’t invite readers to scrutinize whether the reasoning is sound.

However, if you want your protagonist to lie to their loved ones, this won’t cover you well. In that case, the best you can do is look for situation-specific reasons why the hero can’t divulge. For instance, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy could have been hiding that’s she’s a slayer from her mother because her mother would try to stop it, since slaying is obviously dangerous. However, this is a tall order, so there’s high risk that your situational explanation will feel contrived.


Occasionally tropes are worth using even if we can’t explain them well. So it is with the masquerade. However, the closer you get to a plausible explanation, the less distracted your audience will be when it becomes important to the story.

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Comments

  1. Innocent Bystander

    My favorite version of the masquerade is still the Paradox from Mage: The Awakening. Why don’t mages use magic more openly when it can benefit them? Because doing that in front of people who aren’t clued-in at all will invite reality itself to crash down on the mage.

    That aside, this is the one thing that keeps me from writing urban fantasy even though I want to. There has to be a lot of explanation for how it works and why and I just can’t think of one that works. It doesn’t bother me when reading/watching other stuff — I enjoy the Dresden Files and Demon Slayer (which also uses a hand wave approach) — but actually writing it is something I can’t get past. And removing the masquerade entirely is opening a whole nother can of worms.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I used to call my own writing urban fantasy, but since I don’t have any masquerade, and the demons and the exorcists have been around for a long time, it ended up being set in a world that actually differs in a lot of ways from our own, even though there are similarities as well. So I guess it’s just fantasy. Even though it takes place in a city and people have tech.

      • Innocent Bystander

        Same. Moving my story to another world not only cleared up that issue but also opened up so many opportunities for the story and themes. It just seems easier to create a new world from scratch than adapt aspects of ours.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, which I mentioned pretty recently on this site as an example of a protagonist with a good candy-spinach balance, use the “it’s all recent” explanation as to why there’s no masquerade but the world is still very similar to ours. That, I guess, and the fact that magic is so limited: It can basically just exorcise ghosts. Presumably, ghosts have existed for a long time, but they used to be super rare and not particularly active. A few years before the first novel starts, there’s suddenly a lot of ghosts, as well as derivative werewolves and zombies. (What happened to make it that way is still a mystery by the end of the last book. I read that Carey planned on revealing an explanation but never got around to it… I’m fine with this, though. All the characters’ archs were nicely wrapped up by the last book, anyway.) Also, a whole bunch of people discover that they have the magical talent required to work as exorcists.

    I just like the absence of a masquerade, I guess. It feels fresh NOT to have it in an urban fantasy book.

    Doctor Sleep, both the movie and the book, has a pretty plausible masquerade though, merely by having low amounts of supernatural stuff. (I know both book and movie are marketed as horror, since it’s a sequel to the Shining, but I really feel Doctor Sleep is more urban fantasy in genre.) First, we’re told that most people with PSI powers have such weak powers that they don’t even realize themselves that there’s something supernatural about them. They’ll just think they have good hunches, are lucky, good at understanding people (if they have a bit of telepathy), etc. Danny, with his strong powers, is an exception – and his powers made him a target for malevolent ghosts, giving him a powerful motive to repress them as hard as he can. Abra is extremely powerful, but she’s just a young teen – you can easily imagine her becoming some kind of superhero later on, though.
    Second, the energy vampires who feed on PSI:s don’t kill that much. Killing one person every few years is sufficient to feed the whole clan. Their murders occur in different parts of the country, and they take some care to dispose of the bodies, so it makes sense that they can get away with it.

  3. Dinwar

    The Marla Mason books (Blood Engines is the first in the series) deals with this in several ways. First, there’s a territorial thing involved–as the territory a mage has gets more powerful (from trade, economic development, artistic flourishing, whatever) the mage gets more powerful, so there’s an incentive to do help regular people out (for a given value of “help”…).

    Second, most mages are self-centered jerks. This makes it enjoyable when the main cast defeats them, and explains why they don’t flaunt their powers: They simply don’t CARE what normal people think, they just want to be left alone to do what they consider their real work. This sounds implausible, but it works with the characters involved.

    Third, humans have a tendency to not see what they don’t want to see, or don’t expect to see. Many books exploit this (the Somebody Else’s Problem Field in Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example), and the Marla Mason series handles it pretty well. It’s not that humans CAN’T see magic, it’s that it doesn’t fit into their world view so they tend to avoid noticing it. Makes it relatively easy for mages to cover their tracks.

    Finally, most magic (99% or more) isn’t showy. It’s rare that you get mages shooting fireballs at each other. Most often magic is subtle enough that non-magical people won’t see it anyway. Random example: A spell protecting an artifact is powered by a moat around an island. If you’re not a mage, you think it’s a pretty bit of landscaping.

    Money isn’t much of an issue in the books. Most mages have ways of getting money (there’s a necromancer art dealer, for example–he could verify the authenticity of antiques because, often times, he was around when they were new). And money is only really useful when dealing with non-mages, which most mages tend to avoid. When dealing with mages, trading favors is more common.

    Please note that I’m not saying these are fantastic works of literature. They’re brain candy. But they’re fun brain candy, and handle this particular issue in fairly plausible ways.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      There’s something very odd, though, about invoking “someone else’s problem” to explain why regular humans don’t notice magic, if magic has always been around. If magic appears on Earth for the first time ever, I guess an author could go “ok, people are prone to make up rationalizations rather than acknowledge it was magic if they do happen to see some”. But if magic has always been around, how did it GET to the stage where people didn’t expect to see it? I fear we’re gonna get into circular territory here…

      Q: How can the masquerade be upheld? Won’t someone notice magic sooner or later?
      A: No, because people don’t expect magic, and people don’t see what they don’t expect.
      Q: How come people don’t expect to see magic?
      A: Because there’s a masquerade hiding it from them!

      • Dinwar

        Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well.

        There are two ways this works in the series. First, magic is hidden in plain sight. Again, there’s that mote thing–it’s a big circular pool of water, pretty obvious, and all the mundane people talk about how pretty it is. They don’t see it as, essentially, a generator for a spell. That’s not far-fetched–California hides oil wells as random buildings in the middle of a city. No one looks at them twice, unless they know what’s behind the mask.

        In addition to this, mages actively exploit this tendency in humans. They can use magic to gently nudge people to not notice more bizarre things. At a party Marla encountered a door that was spelled to make her disinclined to investigate. She does anyway, but only because she’s trained to be aware of such manipulations and has a mission she needs to get through the door to accomplish; most people would have thought “This is more boring than what’s going on downstairs” and left it at that. Again, this isn’t terribly far-fetched; no more so than hiding valuables in a hollowed-out old book or behind the hinge of a door.

        As for magic always being there…..that’s tricky in this series. It’s not a hard magic system. There are various gods, eldritch horrors, and other beings that come into and out of existence from time to time, and they each have their own rules. At one point a character tries to bring a god to life. Marla asks an oracle if his views are real. The oracle responds “Let’s put it this way: If he succeeds, it WILL BE real.” So no, magic hasn’t always bene around–or, more accurately, no specific type of magic has always been around. Reality is more or less the average of the various types of magic, and humans tend to ignore the extremes. Again, not far-fetched–humans ignore the extremes of cosmology and quantum mechanics, after all, since both average out, on the mesoscopic scale, to normal reality.

        I’ll grant that it won’t hold up all the time, and in fact the books occasionally point out potential violations of the masquerade, but it’s certainly not circular and it’s better than most at explaining the situation.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Sorry, I got that the series you’re talking about had a number of different explanations in play, not just one. I haven’t read that series so can’t talk about that specifically. The comment was targeted at “someone else’s problem”/”weirdness censor” explanations in particular.

  4. Dave L

    Animorphs had a good setup for a Masquerade (SF, not fantasy, but the same tropes applied)

    The Yeerks wanted to conquer Earth, and their abilities to take over humans made a stealth infiltration the obvious tactic. They planned to stay hidden only until they had enough power to win. And the Animorphs couldn’t go to the authorities, because they didn’t know who was already taken over. Blab to a Yeerk, and you’re dead

  5. LeeEsq

    How about a masquerade that exists because using the special power comes with immediate embarrassing side effects like braking out in rashes or vomiting? It’s not that the magic users want to hide their power, it’s that they don’t want to look ridiculous in public after using it.

    • Chris Winkle

      If somehow magic was REALLY embarrassing, mages might be anonymous, but everyone would still know magic exists. But honestly, whatever side effects are associated with magic would probably cease to be embarrassing pretty quickly, because of their association with magic.

      • Dave L

        Not a Masquerade, but embarrassing magic to be sure

        NSFW
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        To this day, Loefwyn wished he had never become a masturbatician.

        https://www.theferrett.com/stories/one-hand-tantra-ufo-anthology-1/

        (This might be too NSFW for you to let post, though)

        • Cay Reet

          The idea of tantric and sex magic isn’t new. Using sexual energy for magic would therefore be an option. In this case, it might be quite likely that a magic-user would avoid doing it in public.

    • Cay Reet

      In that case, a magic user would have to be extremely motivated to use magic at all. People do not enjoy breaking out in rashes or vomiting. Most magic users would probably never use magic, neither publicly nor in private.

  6. Tony

    Would powerful human organisations (governments, corporations, organised crime, etc.) make sense as Higher Powers that mandate secrecy?

    In my setting, the idea is that all these powerful mortals use supernatural secrets to their own advantage, which is why they don’t want the secrets getting out. One story in that setting involves a clandestine paranormal division of the US government summoning the Midgard Serpent as a turbo-WMD to scare the USSR. Going further back in history, this also fits with the idea of monarchs and court mages. So for example, Roman emperors might’ve employed a top-secret mystery cult as a sort of ancient Men in Black, which could’ve evolved into a secret church order as the empire adopted Christianity, then split into multiple secret orders with Christianity’s various schisms and reformations. (Incidentally, this idea could fit well with Beethoven Was An Alien Spy-style stories involving the secret doings of figures like John Dee, Cardinal Richelieu, and Grigori Rasputin, all of whom were religious and/or occult leaders closely linked to Europe’s monarchs.)

    One principle I have for these stories is that the secret magical divisions of all these organisations stick to dealing with magical issues: either threats from other organisations’ magical divisions, or independent supernatural threats. That way, it’s easier to keep these affairs secret. As much as all these factions may fight, none of don’t want the public finding out about the supernatural, which would take away every faction’s advantage of secrecy. And most magical nonhumans, for their part, prefer to keep to themselves in the first place.

    Man, that got long. But does this idea make sense?

    • Tony

      To elaborate, I imagine that the principle of “secret societies use magic to deal with magical problems” arose because the secret societies started using magic to deal with magical problems way back when they first originated (like, we’re talking about the earliest civilisations here). Over time, they became solely preoccupied with the supernatural and left mundane problems to the normies.

      This fits nicely with magical arms races between different factions. Everyone involved knows about the supernatural, but they don’t want normies finding out because each side’s secrets could spread through the general population and reach the enemy. It’s the same reason that the US military didn’t want civilians finding out about the Manhattan Project, or the experimental aircraft at Area 51.

      Nowadays, a lot of the population has stopped believing in magic, and everyone who knows about actual magic has decided they like it that way because it makes keeping their own secrets easier. I’m not sure WHY fewer people would believe in magic nowadays if it’s real. It might be because increasingly powerful secret societies started monopolising control over it to the point where outsiders saw less of it, and because (as I mentioned in my earlier comment) nonhumans prefer to keep to themselves in the first place. But I do know that I want to keep a cloak-and-dagger tone to these adventures, or at least avoid massive battles in the big city like you see in a lot of big-budget spec fic on screen. So that’d make it easier to keep the supernatural on the down-low.

      • Bubbles

        Yeah, I was actually thinking about government secrecy as an explanation for the Masquerade, especially since there have been real-life cases of governments hiding things that are important to national security. However, for that to hide all magic, all magic would need to connect to security in some way, either directly or indirectly, in such a way that governments would want to hide it. Furthermore, as shown by the fact that we know about many things that governments wanted to hide, it’s difficult to keep a secret for a long time. Here’s a mathematical model for how long a conspiracy is likely to last, based on real-life conspiracies: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0147905 (Obviously, it doesn’t take magical means of hiding into account, but even those may not be necessarily as good at hiding things as you might think: see https://springhole.net/writing/write-believable-masquerades.htm). To increase the plausibility if you want to, you could have the “magic is recent” and/or “magic is rare” qualifiers as well.

  7. Sam Victors

    I think for my stories, I worked something out to maintain the Masquerade.

    The magic of the Other World can make mortals forget within 3 minutes after seeing a magical event. That is if more than one mortal (like a whole village worth) saw the event.

    Also, magic and any supernatural/paranormal being cannot be caught on camera or video, it magically erases from being caught on any media, the screen/picture just makes it look like a normal event or nothing there.

    The Masquerade has a self-protection charm.

    • Tony

      I think the Percy Jackson books did something similar with the Mist.

  8. Jenn H

    I was playing around with a setting where there were different worlds, with different levels of magic. Earth was a very low magic realm, some magic was still possible, but it was either weak or subtle enough that nobody could really prove it was magic. There are some places on Earth were the magic is stronger, but the entities guarding those sites are very selective about who they share their magic with. Many magical entities only appear as dreams/hallucinations, leaving no evidence they exist.

    Magical creatures from other worlds could come to Earth, but they lose most of their powers and would be stuck in a form more appropriate to Earth while they were here (eg werewolves either get stuck as humans or wolves, dragons get stuck as what ever they were pretending to be). Likewise ordinary humans and animals that found a pathway to another world could develop magical abilities.

    The main reason anyone would want to be on Earth though is because it is far more safe and stable than more magical realms. Not only are there fewer dangerous creatures, but reality tends to be more volatile in highly magical realms, to the point where some worlds regularly undergo apocalypses then reform.

  9. Cay Reet

    For a new series, I decided to go with ‘supernatural things are rare.’

    Witches keep to themselves and make sure that those who don’t learn the error of their ways (so my supernatural DI doesn’t have to deal with them).
    Vampires, being weak during daylight hours, have a vested interest not to get the mortals to believe in them again.
    Werewolves prefer hunting bigger prey than humans and there’s not that many of them.
    I have zombies, which have been summoned by a necromancer (probably going to go the ‘power given by a demon’ road, since I already have mentioned demons exist, but rarely visit the human plane of existence).
    I hope I’ll be getting away with it, but I could introduce more higher powers over time, if I need to.

    My MC has no magical powers, even though there are some techniques which he can use short-term to match the speed or strength of a supernatural being. He’ll also be needing specialized weapons, there’ll be no ‘one fits all’ (unlike in a series which gave me the basic inspiration, where the MC has a cross which can, essentially, destroy all but the most powerful supernaturals).

  10. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Fantastic article. I love reading these long ones. Such an enjoyable way to start the day.

  11. SunlessNick

    One trick I seem to recall the Dresden Files using is that each “source” of magic is finite, and the more people try to draw from it, the less power is there for any of them. So if a particular style of magic, or category of spell, got out into the mainstream, pretty soon it *would* effectively be a myth.

    • julian matak

      I don’t think that the Dresden Files has that particular limitation. I think that comes from the Nasuverse.

      Otherwise, that is a very interesting article. I found something similar on TV Tropes called the “Masquerade Paradox.” Here’s the link: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MasqueradeParadox. I would be interested in hearing what people think about that article as well.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I read the article after I made the post higher up about invoking a weirdness censor/someone else’s problem field/analogous, to explain why regular people don’t notice magic. The article brings up the same problem. The idea really doesn’t hold up when you stop and think about it.

        Sure, there are science deniers, but most modern humans accept science, even though it contains a shitload of stuff that was initially super weird. (Matter is made of elementary particles, matter and energy can be converted into each other, or simply the heliocentric view of the solar system!) But in some works of urban fantasy, we’re supposed to believe that MAGIC, and nothing but magic, is still TOO WEIRD for regular people to accept.
        And sure, from OUR perspective, magic is weirder than a heliocentric solar system, because we know the latter exists whereas the former doesn’t. But in a universe where magic DOES exist, it seems super arbitrary that this one thing is just too weird for humans to acknowledge.

        • julian matak

          Oh, I agree completely. As someone who takes world-building seriously (a bit too seriously), I’ve long pondered how to properly construct a masquerade.

          I do think that there needs to be some clarification about WHAT the masquerade is actually hiding. In reality, there are many belief systems that posit what are referred to as “unobservable agents.” Catholicism, for example, has a long tradition of philosophical speculation regarding the nature of angels. Modern cosmologists speculate about the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence, and asking, if extraterrestrials exists, then where are they? Similarly, in theology, there is the question of “Deus Absconditus” and “Divine Hiddenness”, which asks the question: If God exists, why is he hidden from humanity?

          What distinguishes this from urban fantasy is anthropomorphism. In contrast to actual modern-day belief systems, the so-called “supernatural” and “magical” entities of Urban Fantasy are human, with human mindsets. Creatures from Urban Fantasy often be boiled down to humans with some physical enhancements, and some weird disabilities. The challenge if Urban Fantasy world-building, then, is to ask why such human-like entities, who have such obvious advantages over muggles, would then hide form muggles?

          I was wondering if anyone found a good example of a Masquerade anywhere. Literature, video games, books, I don’t care.

  12. Bubbles

    Well, I actually have been thinking about possible justifications for a Masquerade for a long time. Eventually, I came up with the idea that the knowledge itself of supernatural things (in which the rough definition of “supernatural” might be something along the lines of “things that don’t exactly follow string theory, which is a sound theory in the universe I’m thinking of whether it is the Theory of Everything in *our* universe or not,” but there’s plenty of debate and thought in and out of universe), was dangerous. So, if too many individuals who shared enough mental traits (which often, though not necessarily always, meant a species), individuals in a given area (whose exact proportions are currently unknown, but is extremely large, even in cosmic terms) would start developing negative mental effects that would become more serious and eventually lead to death. Some species weren’t affected (often believed to be because of their mental traits, although exactly which ones were unknown), and the effect would stop for any species that reached a certain level of technology without outside interference and then discovered FTL (which is, in fact, supernatural). Among those kinds of beings who would be affected, only a few could know about those things, providing the motivation for the Masquerade.

    As for how it could actually be done… well, sometimes, it couldn’t. Plenty of alien species had been wiped out by the discoveries they made (part of the explanation for the Fermi paradox in the universe I’m talking about, along with the whole hiding thing – it’s science fantasy). In the cases in which it could be done for the time being (such as humanity’s), it was generally because supernatural phenomena were rare and there were ways to control travel to and from the world.

    And as for why this phenomenon in which knowledge is dangerous in the first place occurred, and why it had the effects and limitations that it did… that’s not known for sure in-universe, but it’s believed to have something to do with the nature of the mind, and possibly souls. Some think it’s fundamental, while others believe that it formed from something else, or even that it was intentionally created… but if so, why? Many beings are still trying to find out.

    • julian matak

      I think that was the premise of the RPG Esoterrorists. In that world, people knowing about the supernatural would be enough for supernatural monsters to cross over into our world and wreck havoc. Enemy cultists would try to disseminate knowledge of the supernatural to as much people as possible. The Heroes would try to suppress such knowledge, even if it meant killing a few witnesses.

      I think that would work in a very Horror setting, or in a Very Grimdark Urban Fantasy setting. I’m not sure that is to everyone’s tee. After all, the setting might incentive heroes (or player characters if you are GMing an rpg) to act as Bookburners and Hitmen, destroying literature and killing innocent people. This can bring up some very unflattering comparisons to real-life events.

      Remember, different worlds are more suited to different genres and different moods. Take the Dresden Files, for instance. The series aims for a very pulpy, superhero-type world. In such a world, a handwave for the supernatural is acceptable, as the superhero genre is knowingly silly and over-the-top.

      My concern is trying to create an Urban Fantasy setting that’s more like the HBO series The Wire, or some other show by David Simon. Something that emphasizes believability, relatability, and realism. Worldbuilding a masquerade that can stand up to a critical eye. As the original above article mentioned, it’s very difficult.

      • Bubbles

        Good points. Although the moral dangers can be somewhat lessened if you have something that can erase memories (and I would include that in this setting), there’s still definitely potential for hard choices and gray morality in this kind of setup.

        (I mean, I was originally inspired by the SCP Foundation, which takes the moral dilemma to an extreme and features people doing horrible things to prevent even worse things from happening to humanity. I wanted to think of a plausible reason why someone would try to hide *every* supernatural thing, no matter how harmless or even beneficial it would be, but not “natural” things even if they were harmful, as in my opinion at least, the Foundation often didn’t feature a good enough reason for that.

        I had personally also been going for something that could still feature moral dilemmas, but be overall *somewhat* less dark than the Foundation – by keeping the supernatural relatively rare on Earth at least and having many people with supernatural abilities have their own input with dealing with the phenomena, unlike in the Foundation, maybe that could help somewhat with that.)

        To be fair, the more I think of it, the more I feel that *any* Masquerade will or should feature moral dilemmas of some sort. You’re going to have to find some way of dealing with those who find out the truth, and even memory erasure has its own ethical issues. Plus, as the Springhole blog points out, in real life, we consider it correct to tell people about things that could affect them, particularly dangerous things, and immoral to hide that from them. There could be other methods, but what I personally wanted was a way to keep hiding things at least somewhat ethical – and what I thought of was making knowledge itself dangerous on its own.

        Maybe the only way that doesn’t feature any ethical dilemmas is if the Masquerade was not set up by any conscious being and cannot be broken even if you try – but then again, some might argue that you should, to be moral, keep trying until you find a way to communicate the truth to everyone. Also, as the original article says, this sort of thing has its own plausibility issues, especially if magic is supposed to commonly intermingle with the mundane Earth.

        • julian matak

          I think that the key to designing the Masquerade is to look at the incentive structure. Based on what we know about human behavior, psychology, sociology, etc., we can extrapolate what would incentivize anthropomorphic magical beings to hide their existence from muggles.

          Let’s some real-life examples. In biology, there is the phenomenon known as literally as biological masquerade. It’s also known as crypsis or mimicry. This was mentioned in the “Masquerade Paradox” article on TVTropes: “First, there is a prey that evolves some type of defense (like tree frogs being poisonous) to protect itself from its predators. Then, that prey evolves a signal (like bright colours) to tell the predators about the defense, which successfully warns off predators. Then, a similar species evolves the same signal (bright colours), mimicking the original, but without the defense. The predator, seeing the signal and unable to tell the difference between the original and the mimic, leaves both of them alone. Thus, the mimic masquerades as the model.” (Here’s the link: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MasqueradeParadox.)

          This can be applied to humans as well. In this context, the predators would be the police. The prey with the defence and signal would be innocent civilians. if the police go after innocent people, then those cops will get in trouble. Smart criminals would then masquerade as civilians, in the hopes of dissuading the cops.

          If we applied this to the anthropomorphized human beings of standard urban fantasy, then I think it would look something like a Super-charged version of the Paradox effect found in Mage the Ascension. Predators would be something like Paradox or Paradox Spirits. For now, I’ll just call it “Countermagic”. Muggles would be the prey with the defense and the signal. If Countermagical entities tried to feed on muggles, then they’ll get hurt. So, real magical entities try to masquerade as muggles.

          This leaves the question as to why the Countermagical entities would masquerade from humans? Perhaps humans are the countermagical entities. Their presence unwittingly destroys magic, again similar to Mage the Ascension. However, there are things that humans want to avoid, namely feeding on other humans. So, magic-folk have used subtle magic to convince muggles that magic doesn’t exist so that the humans won’t use their countermagic against magic-folk. In addition, the magical entities masquerade as humans.

          So, basically take Mage the Ascenson’s Paradox, super-charge it, if necessary detach it from the “consensus reality” metaphysics that Mage works under, and apply it to all magic-folk.

          This still leaves a lot of problems. First, you have to be careful with other planes of existence in your world. If there are other, more magic friendly otherworlds or planes of existence, then your magic-folk might just move there instead of sticking around on contemporary Earth. One solution is to make the other planes far too dangerous, and Earth is a sort of haven of last resort. The local countermagic works dissuades the real nasty threats from invading our world, while the magic-folk hide here. That could make for an interesting story. The local magic-folk have to hide from humanity, while also protecting this world from the real nasty threats that might dissuade to take a crack at earth despite the countermagic.

          Another is issue: if humans are the cause of the countermagic, and the reason why magic-folk have to hide in the first place, then this might incentivize those magic-folk to start trying to eliminate humans. However, a clever writer could turn this problem into an interesting solution. This could create an interest source of drama for heroes: they wan’t to protect humans from dangerous monsters, even though humanity itself is the greatest danger to all magic, monsters and heroes alike. Besides, humans can also be an asset. Humans have invented civilization, with medicine, running water, etc. Compared to the nasty other planes of existence, perhaps sticking around on earth might be worth the risk.

          Sorry for the rambling. It’s just one suggestion that I came up with on the spot.

          • Bubbles

            Interesting. I think the original article did mention something like that – that the Masquerade could be justified by a greater threat that magical beings needed to hide from. The issues it noted are that there needs to also be a reason why the threat hides from humanity as well and that it usually cannot be humans. You did think of a reason why it could be humans other than the one that the author gave (and it’s one that, IMO at least, the authors often don’t address much. There’s been a lot of focus on how their abilities make magical beings more powerful than ordinary humans and therefore unlikely to be oppressed, but I think less on what would happen if magical beings also have significant disadvantages that ordinary humans don’t have).

            I think the issue here is the mechanics of countermagic. If countermagic is just something that occurs passively when humans are present, merely hiding a magical *identity* from humans but still living among them wouldn’t help. If it is an effect that needs to be activated, then would enough humans choose to activate it even if they discovered the magical beings? You would need to think carefully about why either enough humans would not want magical beings around that the benefits of staying undercover would outweigh the drawbacks, or why enough magical beings would *think* that is the situation, even if they are incorrect.

            A loophole could be that it is only activated by knowledge of the supernatural but is not controllable once activated. Then, you’ll need to think of what counts as “knowledge” for this purpose (which is also something I’m dealing with for my idea, which also fundamentally involves knowledge in its own way). Would someone who sees a supernatural event but concludes that there is an explanation based on known physical laws count as having that knowledge? Would someone who believes in the supernatural without evidence count as having knowledge if any of their beliefs coincidentally match what really exists in your world? How does the degree of confidence in the belief matter? How does the objective degree of evidence for the belief matter? This can get very complex, so if you’re looking for something simpler you might want to go with suggestions from the last paragraph (although maybe those are complex too), but it can also lead to some interesting worldbuilding and philosophical thought in and out of universe.

  13. Mike

    My favorite scene from Neverwhere is when Door shouts into a microphone at a party to create a huge distraction – and, a couple minutes later, all the non-magical people don’t know why they were distracted in the first place, and collectively decide it doesn’t matter anyway.

    That being said, my one problem with that book is that Richard is able to ignore the “don’t notice me” aura and save Door at the start. Richard is a blank protagonist, and the story goes out of its way to tell us that he’s a normal guy, living a normal life, and he’d keep on living a normal predictable life if it weren’t for her. What’s so special about him then that could justify that?

    Richard hangs a lampshade on the problem by saying “huh, yeah, that’s weird,” and that’s all we ever get on that. Other than that, though, it’s probably the best masquerade I’ve seen.

  14. Cynkaar

    In my urban fantasy, there’s a masquerade because a bunch of regular humans, backed (supposedly) by magic-users, waged attacks on magical beings near them (they can’t access the magical world), and killed one of the Fae folk – which is a very bad thing to do, and almost caused the extinction of the human race, and started a massive war that they’re still trying to recover from. To prevent this type of event from happening again, the magic-users had to use an unbelievable amount of magic to remove the memory of magic from regular Earth, and to set up Cutting Point Forest – a forest that separates Earth from Ardad.

    For clarification, Ardad is a pocket world : it’s part of Earth, but at the same time it isn’t. It is governed by a council of higher beings (elves, fae, powerful beings that don’t include humans) who aggressively maintain the masquerade, partly because they believe that the events above caused magic to slowly drain out of Ardad (they are currently making plans to move to another compatible world, but that isn’t without complications).

    Humans also have a reason to keep regulars out – Ardad is, should i say, at a magical frequency that is too high for normal humans, and consequences could range from pretty-much-dead to…very dead. That, and magic-users would very much prefer to keep it a secret than to have the elves or fae swoop in. Their meddling could damage the individual beyond repair, plus the magic-user gets a hefty jail-time (it’s rumoured that the fae’s meddling was how the first vampire was born).

    As for modern tech, Ardad has found a way around that too, with tech of their own ( I won’t go into the details because this post is already too long). But, as of now, their biggest problem lies in another world, Vezona, which is much farther away from earth and so their citizens don’t mind flaunting their powers for the whole world to see

  15. julian matak

    This is a reply to Bubbles comment above, issued on December 1, 2019 at 6:44 pm.

    You’re right about the mechanics of countermagic. Going back to my incentive idea, the more immediate the threat that being seen will bring the countermagic, the stronger the motivation for magic-folk to avoid being seen. Therefore, I think that it would be a reflexive action. Basically, if a muggle sees magic, then countermagic instantly activates. It would be sort of like an automated drone strike. Currently, the technology exists for drones to launch a strike the moment their facial recognition software detects a face that is designated as a viable target. The countermagic force could work as something similar, a sort of unknown symbiotic force. It keeps itself a secret so that it ITSELF won’t accidentally reveal the existence of magic (after-all, why would there be countermagic if there wasn’t magic?).

    Now, there is the question of who decides what is considered “magic.” Different settings offer different solutions. Villainous examples include: the machines from The Matrix film series; the Technocracy from Mage: the Ascension; the Exarchs from Mage the Awakening; the Demiurge from Kult: Divinity Lost. All of these forces share a similar agenda: human beings as they are serve as a “domesticated animals”, unwitting agents for their secret masters. As humanity spreads and increases in power, so does their secret masters. In such cases, what is designated as “magic” really means “what can threaten the power of the secret tyrants that rule over muggles.”

    A more heroic example would be if the countermagic would be a sort of evolutionary adaptation to protect humans from magic. In this case, Countermagic would be similar to the body’s immune system. When its working properly, it shuts down diseases before you manifest any symptoms, and you never know you were nearly sick in the first place. The countermagic could be able to “adapt” to any changes of magic similar to how a healthy immune system can become resistant to infection. An example would be your proposal that mere knowledge or awareness of magic could be some sort of mimetic infection, making the muggle open to being controlled or hurt in some way. The countermagic then would destroy the magic before it could threaten this muggle. In this case, what is designated as “magic” really means “what can threaten the physical or mental health of muggles.”

    You are similarly correct about the power differential. Urban fantasy is similar to Superhero fiction, in that the magic-folk (or “superhumans”) are more powerful than muggles on the whole. In other words, Masquerade UF has magic-folk > muggles. This is understandable, a most fantasy fiction addresses the reader’s (or players) desire for escapism and power-fantasy. After all, everyone wants to be more powerful than they really are.

    However, this does not follow from what is known about actual human behaviour. People only hide when they are hunted by a more powerful enemy. Any realistic world-building would require magic-folk < muggles. However, while realistic, this would clash for the desire for escapism and power-fantasy. A skilled author and worldbuilder has to be able to navigate between the desire for realistic worldbuilding, and the desire to give the audience what they want.

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