I watched Netflix’s new movie Bright with a mixed bag of expectations. On the one hand it kinda looks like a generic brand Shadowrun and that could be awesome or unwatchable. On the other hand, it could be something else entirely and then it’s a big question mark that might be awesome or unwatchable? Well, other people have written film reviews (some calling it good, some bad) and you should check out the professionals to see their takes. For the record, I thought it was great. What I want to write about instead is using the ideas in Bright for your RPGs.
I’m going to try not to spoil much here, just background stuff, in case you haven’t seen the movie yet, but suffice it to say that there is plenty to mine here for your modern fantasy game and for fantasy settings in general. Whether you’re working in a published setting or making up your own, here are some ideas to use for your own campaign.
A Low Magic Modern Fantasy Setting
So the thing I really love about Bright is that there isn’t much magic at all. The title of the movie actually refers to Brights who are the only people able to make use of magic, ancient wands without exploding (not a euphemism). This is what sets this setting apart from Shadowrun or Dragonstar where there are semi-automatics and SUVs but also reagent shops on every corner and corporate mages. This is just the world you know but with Orcs, Elves, centaurs and other races (there are nine races alluded to but including humans we only see four, since I don’t think the faeries are supposed to count).
This means the world is at once accessible and also intriguing. Without magic, why are the Elves so successful and powerful? Are there dragons and other creatures out there or is this just it? Will Smith’s character mentions Shrek which has ogres and gnomes but also lots of magic so what do people think about this in the setting? One of the Orcs mentions that race relations are a lot better in Miami so is this because of local politics or some historical event? Normally we would just have to throw up our hands and say “history must be crazy-different because of magic,” but there hasn’t been any around since the Old Days™.
The flip side of this is that players have an easy entrance into the setting even if they want to play a non-human character. Sure the Orcs have clans and rituals and religious prophecies but it’s not like they have blood-magic or ancient gods or dark sorcerers. They’re just different. Likewise, Elves live in their own district and pull all the strings but they don’t go through a transformative coming-of-age ritual or live in floating castles or anything. Corporations also don’t hire anti-magic security companies and there aren’t weird scanners or anything for disguise self uses. Society is different but you can count on the same tech and architecture for your heists.
Again, it’s hard to get into details without spoiling things but this is something that I can get into and it’s also a good example of an archetypal setup with some great twists. Basically, two thousand years ago (they don’t say it, but I’m comfortable guessing it’s about two thousand and seventeen years ago, if you follow me) a “Dark Lord” arose and threatened to enslave the Earth. He was defeated by the Army of the Nine Races led by a nobody hero, which is all familiar ground so you can pretty instantly roll with it.
What’s different, though, is that this is all treated like religions are today. Some people take it literally, some people think a lot of it is all stories, and most people don’t think about it day to day. I love this and it means that when there are stories of a safehouse covered in graffiti that references the Dark Lord the police don’t think “God, there’s a black cult!” they think “Ugh, another drug house.” Put some PCs in here (i.e. Will Smith and his partner) who start saying “No, man, this is a cult!” and they get dismissed as crazies.
It might seem frustrating since there are black cults in this setting but if you went to the police today and said that a murder was the work of secret monarchists they’d send you packing too. It’s not that there aren’t people out there who would like a monarchy in place (check out the Monarchist League of Canada for a fun read) or that groups like that haven’t been huge problems in the past but… I mean, there are so many other more reasonable answers to be had.
Use the Expected, Then Flip It
On thing that I think Bright does really well is to set you up with things that you expect and then to throw some twists in that pull you up short. It’s a buddy cop movie with partners who start off not liking each other so of course they’ll end up as friends in the end. Except that it’s not a conflict of personality dividing them as things first appear, but it’s effectively a religious divide dating back thousands of years.
The hero from the Dark Lord days (see above) was an Orc farmer prophesied to arise, but most of the Orcs fought with him so there are “legit” reasons for the racial hatred towards Orcs. With players this would be a fun thing to try out: have some group in your setting (Orcs, synthetics, myconoids, something) that is belittled and treated like trash. Bait them into saying something and then have a NPC round on them to say “Oh, I should treat the rat-person like a human? Did you know they burned the Great Archives and led to the Dark Days?” Now things are interesting.
This is a great way to approach things in an RPG, I think. If everything is new and different players don’t know where to stand and they might not be into your avant-garde take on high fantasy (or low, as above). Have you ever made a situation that’s totally new, that blends today’s headlines with detailed social histories and surprising reversals, then have someone show up with a Tolkien PC? And it’s nobody’s fault: sure the group all agreed to play Dark Sun but Charlotte really wants to play an elf bard and she should be able to because it’s a game.
Instead, lead players along with room for lots of stuff and then turn it around suddenly. Eberron does this with elves, actually: the elf homeland is creepy necromancy-ville but so many of them live in human cities that there are plenty of fancy elfs with lutes too. In your home setting you can bake this in with a fantasy race that fits the mold pretty well but there are customs or histories or alliances that change them. These are things that are high-level enough to be left out of character creation but they deepen the experience.