Worldbuilding: Masquerades vs. Broken Masquerades/Unmasqued World

…Decisions, decisions.

I’ll be up-front: I love stories with supernatural/other Masquerades going on. The Dresden Files, Master of None, the Ukiah Oregon series – just a few of many, many books I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. And then there’s Gargoyles. Stargate. Highlander. Bleach. Buffy. And… you get the picture.

There’s something incredibly tantalizing about being in on a secret. And as the reader, you are in – at least as far as the viewpoint characters get. Which can range anywhere from “Did that guy just walk through a door that wasn’t there?” to “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

(Hary, Harry, Harry. No one who knows you will ever believe that. Unless Mouse testifies. I wouldn’t put it past him.)

As a writer, a Masquerade simplifies things. A lot. Vampires, werewolves, world-shaking spells – they’ve all been hiding out of sight, staying under the radar. They didn’t change the course of history because they were already part of it. This means writing your story is much easier. Vampires eat the mayor? Someone covers it up with BBQ fork attacks by gangs on PCP. No problem. All you have to worry about is the characters in your story contacting the supernatural and surviving it afterward. Then they’re part of the Masquerade, like it or not, and will be busily covering things up for their own survival.

And yet. And yet.

Historically, humans are very bad at large-scale conspiracies. Summed up in the old joke, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead… unless one of the dead ones was a politician.”

In other words – if there’s a massive secret organization/society of monsters (man-eating or otherwise), its odds of staying secret are very, very low. These days we hear about shark attacks off the coast of Florida, boa constrictor attacks in various unexpected places due to escaped snakes, and man-eating tigers in Siberia. If people went missing in the numbers needed to support even a small population of super-predators, people would tend to notice. Especially when one of the intended victims got away.

And over a long enough time, someone would get away.

No predator is 100% efficient. None. Cheetahs have one of the highest success rates, and they still lose about 1 out of 3 chases. And when you’re preying on creatures as smart, fast, and mentally flexible as humans, you will have a failure rate. Human beings took on every natural predator on this planet with pointy sticks. And vampires and werewolves think they’re going to do any better?

We have historical accounts of vampire and werewolf hunts. Not just folklore. History. Printed in broadsheets! It often took a long time to track down the beast/ supposedly undead body responsible for the chaos, but people did find it. And disposed of the problem. Thoroughly.

So no matter how I love Masquerade worlds, they make it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. Not impossible. There are factors that make a Masquerade easier to buy. Bleach, for example – unless you’ve been exposed to the right spiritual energy, you both can’t see the monsters, and are unlikely to be a target. The added factor of “Hollows spend most of their time in another dimension, so they’re not just hanging around Earth’s back alleys” also helps. Changeling: the Lost brings up alternate dimensions in a similar way, with the Hedge and Arcadia. Nura: Rise of the Youkai Clan takes a different believable tack; anyone might see youkai. But everyone thinks they’re just folklore, so who’s going to report it? Also, in that setting it’s implied the youkai are policing their own pretty well, so there’s not a lot of victims to go missing.

Anyone else have thoughts on what makes or breaks a Masquerade or Unmasqued story for you?


58 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Masquerades vs. Broken Masquerades/Unmasqued World

  1. Two thoughts.

    Firstly, in the Fate/Type Moon universe, there is an actual ability related to this: Information Erasure, “which removes any records or memories of her true name, abilities, or appearance following the conclusion of an engagement. It not only targets witnesses of the her fights, but also the opponent and even digital recordings by a closed-circuit camera in broad daylight will be changed. Physical evidence of the engagement is not altered in any way, and her identity may be revealed through logical deduction.” So, one way you could go is literally having magic users weaponize the Someone Else’s Problem field to cover the whole world. If your setting includes World Fraction level magic but also a Masquerade, this would probably be how it works.

    The other way you could go is Earth being the literal boonies. In Magical Girl Nanoha, Earth is the general equivalent of a third world country, because it doesn’t have dimensional travel or widespread magic use, and isn’t a part of the magical equivalent of the UN. The magic users who are on Earth make liberal use of barriers that actively screen out people/objects without a magical charge and keep the landscape from being destroyed and have the advanced tech to futz records. So the nexus of paranormal activity isn’t here to be discovered.

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  2. As with most things for me, what breaks SoD is when the inconsistencies are too great. I can handle “this is totally different from reality” just fine… but not “this is self-contradictory and breaks its own rules”. Also, when it’s clearly “this is being done because the author wants X to happen and isn’t skilled enough to set it up to make sense in-story”. I actually find this tends to mean Masquerades are harder to do without breaking my SoD rather than easier, since you have to go to the work not only of coming up with how the Masquerade works and is maintained, but also have to make sure that this doesn’t interfere with anything else you want in the story.

    Take the Masquerade in HP:
    We’re told that magic makes tech (at least electronics) not work right… yet several major magical institutions/etc are placed right in the middle of London.
    We’re also shown that wizards are horribly incompetent at fitting in with mundane settings, so they have to use memory modification/erasure to deal with things… yet no indication they have any way to deal with the discrepancies this will cause (and several indications they don’t even recognize this as a problem), or to make sure they’ve gotten everyone who might have seen (instead of just the ones right at the scene.
    We’re also shown that wizards are uneducated about mundane tech, including electronics, so are unlikely to even recognize that any problem exists… right when London is really getting started on massive automatic public surveillance, and when cameras and such might make the discovery of discrepancies even worse.
    And this is just a few of the initial problems with the HP Masquerade, that make it totally SoD breaking in-story because of it just being casually thrown in there as something “cool” and “to make it easier” without considering the unintended consequences of how it interacts with everything else in the setting.

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    1. Yeeeeeah, HPverse has a lot of issues, and that’s *without* digging into the nitty-gritty of the setting. Definitely a franchise where I prefer the fanfics over the source material!
      I also really enjoy Masquerade-type stories, but I think another problem with them is this: if the supernatural entities are this scary, how are the vanilla mortals still alive? Why do the monsters even bother hiding? (Hellsing is one of the more egregious offenders that’s coming to mind, but I know I’ve read/watched others) That’s a story-breaker for me if the author can’t explain it.

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      1. That. Supernatural creatures throw off game balance, so to speak. If they’re recently invading from another dimension a la Devil May Cry, fine. Otherwise? Why are werewolves not the dominant species? Oi.

        …The Bloodhound Files by DD Barant posits an Alternate Universe where something like this actually happened. It’s interesting to read, but somewhat depressing to see humans as terrorists.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh yes, Potterverse is dreadful at it.
    I’m better at thinking of what breaks my suspenders of disbelief, than what keeps it up. Anyone else here read Barbara Hambly’s vampire novels? I liked the first one when it was new. Eventually I thought about the implications of the author’s claims that every time a vampire feeds the vampire kills, and of a vampire nest in Tudor London. Or similar era Paris… Too many people would be dying or disappearing in what moderns would consider small towns. Can’t be hidden. How many people would realize this I don’t know. She knows history so she probably does.

    If the author makes an attempt at justifying how the Masquerade works, and it’s somewhat plausible, and I’m enjoying the story anyway I’ll roll with it. Potterverse doesn’t – it’s insultingly sloppy I don’t recall if Hambly had a justification for no one noticing or not.

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  4. I’m a big fan of the “most creatures hang out in an alternate dimension” masquerade – it’s a lot more plausible than a lot of other tropes. Plus it means that space is saved since a lot of supernatural beings, especially the bigger ones like dragons, aren’t tromping around in the human-dense areas. They just hang out in their dimensions and occasionally poke their heads out to eat some unfortunate soul, then go back to chilling.

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  5. For me, scale of setting plays a definite part in if SOD is broken or not. If the story is only taking place in one town, then the Masquerade doesn’t have to be that well thought out for it to be believable. But make the setting a large city or a state or crossing state (or country lines?) and the Masquerade had better be well thought out.

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  6. There’s also degrees of Masquerade, where on one hand you have Harry Potter, where no one whom isn’t magic (or related to someone magic) is supposed to know about things, and then you hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the Masquerade is only ‘keep thineselves off the morning news’ and a lot of otherwise normal people have a clue or otherwise know about things, specially the ones working around the edges of society anyways, and a lot of people know something because they did run into something and live.

    And then there’s the conspiracy in What Comes Around, which isn’t a secret in that no one knows about it, it’s just that no one knows the truth about it, thinking it’s just organized crime or more generic mad scientists or so on.

    So there are degrees of secrecy and hiding.

    (One of the things that really tends to bug me in any masquerade is when there’s some single global secret society or government enforcing it and whom has been doing so since the dawn of history. Newsflash, globalism is a modern thing and I highly doubt a secret society could actually be active and connected in China and Europe and Africa throughout the middle ages unless it’s literally being backed by aliens or somesuch. The Communication speed issues would kill it if nothing else did…)

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  7. If the monsters are weak enough, it works– the traditional werewolf being inside of the range of “really dangerous wild dog,” and vampires being rather like wasting sickness (meth epidemic, anybody?) but too many of the stories have big, scary, powerful magics– because they’re straight from Hollywood, and that’s what works on the big screen.

    Groups of 20 guys who can bench press a pickup and turn into a wolf that can rip up a tank, take a dozen automatic weapons to the chest and keep walking, and have to eat a deer a day to keep going? Nope, not going to hide.

    Nests of things that only eat humans, have to eat every day or two, kill after each feeding, are of human intelligence and those killed turn into vampires? Nope.

    I haven’t seen it, but probably the best handwavium would be that humans have advanced to where the supernatural are threatened by them– the advantage went down.

    For non-physical stuff, it works a lot better– did you know that the ghost shows “signs of a haunting” line up with Catholic signs of demonic infestation?

    The various kinds of phenomena that can occur in this situation are vast and include unexplained sounds or noises like mysterious footsteps, loud bangs, laughter, screams; the temperature of a room dropping or the feelings of a cold wind with no discernible source; objects disappearing suddenly and materializing in other parts of the house; strange presences felt’ the presence of offensive odors’ interruption of the electric current or the malfunction of electronic devices; pictures that mysteriously bang or fall off the wall; doors and windows that open and close on their own; dishes or other objects levitating and flying about the room.
    From The Rite by Matt Baglio. (Non-fiction inspiration for the movie; I ran into it researching this article.)

    The ones I both love and hate are the enhanced reality versions– takes stuff that really did happen, and threads things that COULD happen in, until you’re not sure where it starts and stops. (Like the lead-up to The Secret World’s launch.)

    Thing that breaks suspension fastest is, like someone above mentioned, where you can “see” the strings pulling– “X happened because they wanted to do Y.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I was actually thinking about the awesome speech in the nightclub with that– and thinking about the old line about how the greatest trick the devil ever managed was to make folks believe he didn’t exist.
        (I think I heard it from Fulton Sheen, but it’s probably older– he quoted/alluded to Chesterton a lot, and the saint of common sense had a great way of rephrasing stuff so it stuck.)

        It wouldn’t make for as good of a movie, but for a book/TV series, it would be great, and best of all it survives suspension of disbelief.

        Total aside: you did a great job of avoiding dating the story too much with technology details.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I, personally, love stories where the masquerade brakes, and we have the hidden and the mundane having to deal with each other- the knowledge that schoolkid is also ‘special’, the way it effects, strains and supports relationship between the protagonist and their ‘normal’ friends who were kept unaware… the way suddenly everything changes…

    unfortunately rarely is it written well-and even when it is, more as background then not. i really want more stories of ‘masquerade breaks’ an how people deal with it.

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  9. Amusingly enough, my favorite is still Vampire:the Masquerade(1st and 2nd ed), where it’s a lot of differing groups doing it in different ways and it’s not perfect! And the monsters are scared of humanity, and like to pretend they aren’t. It helps that they don’t have to kill, and it’s in fact a bad idea if they do for more then one reason. Then again, I’m also a big believer in that whatever game you’re playing is the “canon” one for the setting…let’s not talk about Werewolf’s version, though.

    In Nomine(GURPS) also has a good one and good reasons why the various sides keep things secret(including more then a few depressing ones about the state of the world’s metaphysics involving the Fate of human souls.) Plus, you know, a lot of the action taking place in places humans will never see.

    I think my suspension snaps when it involves mass killing required(aka, most werewolf stories), total misunderstanding of history/plague mechanics, or when it requires humans to be not very human. As in, warned once and stay away forever more sort of not human. And as much as I loved the first Blade movie, it did make me facepalm at that “Everyone who gets bit turns.” argh!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. VtM was cool, WtA drives me nuts due to someone really not considering what it means for a werewolf to take over a pack just long enough to breed, among other things. Biology and behavior are not that simple….

      And yeah. The Blade vampire mechanics are awful. Not to mention vaccines need to be administered before infection, not after; rabies being a rare exception because the infection travels so slowly through the nerves that you have weeks needed for the body to kick on an immune response to the vaccine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a three hour rant on W:tA, and their masquerade components are only a tiny bit of it.

        In a more broken Masquerade, my brain finally coughed up Operation Chaos and Operation Luna, where the magic came back sometime in the 1920s, and humanity decides they’re going to science the heck out of it. A bit dated, but fairly fun. I was going to throw the Case of the Toxic Spell Dump out there, but I’m pretty sure there was never a Masquerade there(but for “Humans will science the heck out of magic.” it’s one of the best.)

        I suppose the October Daye series mainly works on a “if you’re not fae, you can’t touch it” system, but I’ve only read a couple of those.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The Kinfolk supplement to W:tA pretty much covers all the reasons I loathe that whole setup. Ugh.

        I’ve read the novel made up of Operation Chaos and a few other stories, and the Toxic Spell Dump. 🙂 Haven’t checked out the Daye series yet – I hear there’s a lot of betrayal in it.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. In the Dresden Files, at least, humanity’s ability to ignore unpleasant truths appears to be cranked up to 11. And even then, the Big Bads want to avoid anything that would *force* humanity to take notice of them, because A: Clever tool-using monkeys, and B: a roughly 6-billion-to-1 numerical advantage.
    One story that has an interesting take on this is “The Heretical Edge”(, wherein the Bystander Effect is apparently *baked into the OS of the universe* (there are hints that the underlying reasons will be part of the Slow Reveal). Basically, anyone who isn’t “meta” (just being clued in doesn’t count) is essentially *driven* to rationalize away even the most bizarre events they witness. And while the various predators are powered to near-Lovecraftian scale on the high end, so are the “heroes.” And while neither side cares much about maintaining the Masquerade (since it’s self-maintaining), there’s a certain level of “this planet is where I keep all my stuff” going on on both sides, driving a level of restraint on the continent-busting power levels (well, except for one particular group who {SPOILERS}).

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  11. Would giving the regular humans cultural reasons to ignore anything they see help? If anyone who sees vamires/werewolves/etc and actually says anything about it or reacts in any way to it is automatically judged to be insane and tossed in an old-style bedlam house that follows all the worst examples of the trope…

    “No, officer, I didn’t see anything. Hear anything? Um, dog. I think I might have heard a big dog barking. No, officer, that gun registration isn’t because I thought I saw a werewolf. Yes, I know any sane individual wouldn’t want a gun to deal with dogs. All you need to do is close the front door and call animal control. That’s there… because it’s a prank from my brother! Yes, that’s it. Just a prank. I’m not actually getting a gun. I know I don’t need one…

    Of course, in this trope the bedlam-house where all the people who refuse to ignore reality for their own benefit would be together in one place, which could lead to the “crazies” saving humanity on a semi-regular basis…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. …amusingly, your example made me blink in confusion, because around here, most people(especially the farmers and ranchers) would automatically grab a gun if they heard a strange dog. And likely shoot it! (A dog that chases livestock can easily cause several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage, hence why most states allow you to shoot/kill them.) Human customs change far too much to have that really be the thing, for me. Heck, even in the same community, unless it is passingly small, you’re going to have lots of differing groups that will each have their own way of reacting to threats. Now, if that’s part of the story that that character can’t do it without being thrown in the asylum, that’s one thing, and actually fairly effective for most stories.

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  12. This is funny, I was looking for an opportunity to recommend Heretical Edge to you, and here you are posting about secret worlds and if we can think of any good examples. Funny that.

    Just read to the end of the second arc and you are hooked, I know deconstruction has become a buss word, but it does examine a lot of the assumptions of fantasy. Sometimes with the gentleness of repeated kidney punches.

    In Heretical Edge the secret world is kept secret by a magical effect that removes people’s memories of the supernatural and damage recordings. The effect is suspiciously similar to the setting’s version of the Fidelius Charm and it was not done for the good of humanity.

    You know how in a lot of fantasy stories humans are one of the most important and powerful races in the setting even though all the other races are stronger or have abilities that humans don’t. In Heretical Edge there is a reason for that.

    You know the joke, if you want to crossbreed two different creatures just run them through humans first? in Heretical Edge there is a reason for that.

    If you disliked how stories like Harry Potter treated ‘wizard / muggle’ interactions, you should read Heretical Edge.

    If you thought the mind magic in Harry Potter or Percy Jackson was treated way too casually, you should read Heretical Edge.

    You want to read a story about monster hunters finding the measure of a non-human in a ‘shoot first ask maybe’ world. Think that the show buffy turning some of the demons into basically normal people should have had a bigger reaction from the slayer types? then you should read Heretical Edge.

    Want to read a story were long lived characters don’t have their personalities unchanged for centuries, want to read a story were every villain, including the mean teacher who hates the main character for something their family did has an understandable backstory turning them into actual people.

    (and no, not anything as stupid as Snape, Mr. I became a terrorist because I got friend-zoned by a girl in school)

    Than you should read Heretical Edge!

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  13. My suspension of disbelief can usually hold onto the Masquerade setting as long as the reasoning behind the hiding and how they accomplish it are plausible and it is consistent. Slips can be forgiven as no one is perfect through it helps if the writing is very good.

    Good writing and likable characters can cover a multitude of sins. Or at least make them tolerable enough to finish reading X or watching the movie. Through there are limits. After said limits, I cheerfully ignore canon, read fan fic, and indulge the plot bunnies.

    I find the non-Masquerade situations interesting because how they explain the impact on history and society. Through I have noticed that most are worlds where said supernaturals were hidden until recently . . .

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  14. Tho, thinking more on it, there’s another thing to mention. Even when care is taken to make sure everything “makes sense”, it can still break SoD. A story where everything in the story is technically possible and arguably makes sense, when examined point-by-point, can break SoD specifically because of the terms “technically” and “arguably” being necessary.

    Usually, there’s lots of different things that “might be possible”, but some of them are more likely than others. There’s lots of things that can be argued to be a reasonable set of actions, but some of them require specific sets of circumstances and coincidences to make them reasonable. If everything in the story requires qualifiers like that to justify them, then eventually it reaches the point of absurdity. “So, this happened, but required that 1:1000000 circumstance to make it reasonable, and that thing required it’s own 1:1000000 circumstance to lead to it, and…”

    Worm is an example of this, at least with “how people act in it”. Yes, there’s people in real life who act like any of the characters in that story at various times, but you have to examine each situation/reaction/etc individually to find an example from real life or to justify it as “making sense”. The story as a whole, no, it breaks SoD really badly because of the sheer “perfect storm of extreme unlikeliness”.

    On the other hand, while SG or Magi would normally fit under this SoD breaking situation, both of them avoid the problem. SG by “there’s lots of alternate histories/parallel worlds, and the one in the show is just the one where they were successful despite how unlikely”. Magi by “Kings are drawn to chaos/trouble/etc, and the world actively tries to manipulate events so that they find it, because they are reality’s troubleshooters.”

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  15. One of the interesting things about Nura: Rise of the Youkai Clan is that it’s Masquerade wasn’t always in place. We end up seeing flashbacks to the previous Nura Can Heads during the Edo era and it’s pretty obvious that none of the Nura clan are even pretending to be human at that point. At the same time, they were already well on their way to being a buffer between humans and the more violent youkai. It made the Masquerade in modern times a lot more believable.

    I kinda wish more urban fantasy had a set-up like that where at one point, there wasn’t a masquerade until humans understanding of the natural world led to them thinking that supernatural explanations of events logically couldn’t be true.

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  16. Well, the original Gothics from the late 1700’s are almost all Scooby mysteries, where all the ghosts and magic are actually humans using secret passages and tricks. (Aided by the heroine’ s tendency to faint, and the love interest’ s tendency to cry sensitively and contemplate suicide.) Or the ghost is some poor living prisoner who is mistaken for dead.

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  17. In regards to keeping masquerades up I agree that unless the ‘muggles’ are dense as bricks and the magic side has some particularly interesting means of information control, it doesn’t work.

    At least in the modern era.

    There is a webcomic Anathema (that I highly recommend) that gets around this by having the ‘monsters’ keeping to the fringes of human society or blending in as much as possible while ‘policing’ their own. Haven’t seen all the details of nightwalker society as it were but what has been seen so far has been interesting.
    www . atelierlibertatum . com / anathema /
    Just remove the spaces.

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  18. Just came across this, and couldn’t resist commenting.

    I think you may be overestimating the humans. 🙂 Look at something like the Stargate program. Would there be rumors and stories, and people that swore they were true? Certainly. But, how much would most people really believe? Compare it to something like Roswell, or the Philadelphia Experiment. Nobody really knows – or more to the point, if anybody does, they’re not talking – and those who have talked have been laughed at.

    I’ve never read Potter, but from what I’ve heard of it, that wouldn’t be so easy to hide. A relatively limited number of vampires, though…

    If the vampires only turn people when they want to (and they’re smart enough to make that a rare event), then they could easily exist. Keep to the big cities and prey on people who won’t be missed – and who won’t be believed if they go to the police. Addicts, homeless, prostitutes – sad to say, but people go missing every day, and even if the vampire kills his victims all he’d really need is a good way of disposing of the bodies so they wouldn’t be found. If the cops -did- notice that an unusual number of people were going missing, they’d be looking for a serial killer, not a vampire.


    1. Stargate is stacking the deck when it comes to passing as something besides what it is– it screams “secret program,” yes. But it screams secret intel program, probably one involving middle eastern countries that we’re not supposed to be friendly with, brokered by Egypt.

      Fairly friendly to the US…I’d probably guess it’s their military trying to get “Not actively jihadi” royalty to like the US, which would explain having a cultural specialist. Probably on the basis of protecting antiquities, which is $$$ and have been a target for the more psycho jihadi for a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. To be fair, they also had them not kill people every time they fed(early vampire reports that we would recognize as such were more over several nights/weeks of feeding aka why some people suggest tb for the explanation.)

    And we already have an instant kill/kill every night monster. It’s the werewolf/sorcerers who turned into wolves or other big predators. So we know how people react to something like that! I think the big issue is both how recent cities are(especially ones that could have people go missing like that), and how it doesn’t really make sense that a predator would be able to do that would live for long periods of time. Of course, this could just be a story idea, that vampires evolved from a disease based model to serial killer as humanity grew, but I haven’t really seen anyone play with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. And this is part of the reason that we need feedback!

    My NaNo story for 2016 is a Masquerade story. No vampires or werewolves exist, however. It’s mostly yes, there are other sapient creatures in the world – dwarves, Sidhe/alfar/fae, witches, etc. – and there is policing. And… yeah, come to think of it, the Masquerade is likely comparatively recent (ref a comment above about not needing a Masquerade when people believed in these beings…).

    But yes. I definitely agree that major predatory creatures do Not Work for a Masquerade unless there is something more than just general hiding going on.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, they pretty much have to be – I’m pretty logical myself. They are (for the most part) live and let live. They have no desire for those howling human mobs to come after them!

        Liked by 1 person

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