From the Ground Up – City States

Last week, I talked about the strange anachronisms that we as players and writers bring to our worlds regarding nations, and what nations are conceived to be. Today I want to take a look at a much more common form of Polity, the City-State. 

Rule by Metropolis

Being that we are assuming that the world we are creating has few kingdoms, that there are many dark spaces between the lights of the world, and that we are pretty close to reality when it comes to what the landscapes and creaturescapes look like, The concept of city state correlates well with what we are trying to achieve in terms of political units, loyalties and governments. 

City States come with as many different governmental forms as one can imagine: some are rules by kings, others by councils, and even more by tyrants and petty warlords. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine a small, sovereign city rules by a fantastic creature, a Mageocracy, a Theocracy, or even a minority ruling race like Elves, Orcs or Tieflings. These cities rule not only themselves, but the outlying areas surrounding them, forging it all into a single governmental unit. 

The key form of a city state, to no ones surprise at all, is that of a central metropolis. This metropolis controls its immediate area through political or military might, often creating allies and enemies from other, local, city states. A key factor in the survival of a city state, as opposed to the creation of a Kingdom or Empire, is that of geographical disconnect. Cities that become city states, as opposed to one of many vassal cities to a king, is that they are difficult, and not worth the time, to conquer. This gives the city state larger leeway in how it treats those it considers equals. Most city states are blocked in by mountains, surrounded by a swampy morass, or located on an isolated island. They often embrace and fortify the barrier, forming it to something unique to themselves. 

Small and Powerful

Unlike many large kingdoms and empires, City states are the polities most likely to have direct, strong interactions with their populace. While many kings and lords are distant from many of their subjects, being directly involved only in the capital city and perhaps the field of battle, city states are by their very necessity, tight knit. The ruler, be they a Warlord, Cleric, or Overseer, is never more than a few days travel, at best, from their subjects. They are often accessible through audiences, and many can be seen by even the lowest beggar in the region to hear their grievances. This often humanizes the leaders of city states in a way that many larger governments simply can’t afford. 

In addition to being much more tangible than many other governments, the rules of a city state is often more involved in the day to day standard affairs of the city. With such a small footprint, for the most part, they cannot risk uprisings, discontent or other forms of rebellion. While there will always be those who disagree with a government and its direction, these rules are much more in touch with the consequences of their decisions as they will likely be the ones paying for those decisions if things go south. 

Building on that, there are generally two paths to power for a city state, either military or mercantile. Both of these allow for a city state to have out sized influence for its actual geographical area, increasing its influence and power by having that which others do not. With a military, this often means its soldiers have special skills or technology that allow them to overpower and defeat their enemies, often on grounds of their own choosing thanks to the geographical isolation they tend to have. This can include ideas far ahead of their time, as well, such a citizen armies, swift mobilization, or even basic metallurgy that has yet to be discovered by other people. With trade, this often means that they are either conveniently located on the crux of a trade route, or that they are privy to some form of desired commodity that no other place can secure. Gold and silver mines, Salt, and particular lumbers can all be the seed for a city state to form and flourish. Trade can also be consolidated through more skilled shipbuilding, roadwork, and even simply luck as a country built on a future trade route. 

The Basic Structure

When building a city state, make sure to take into account where the future-history lies. A city state in the open plains or the fair forests are largely going to be absorbed over the course of history. Without something to grant them power, that course of history will be sooner, rather than later, with the city state often falling to a kingdom, being absorbed and transformed into a vassal. Also keep in mind the reason this city, often one of history and stature, is currently both smaller in power than many kingdoms, but also unique enough to stand on its own as a polity. 

There are many aspects to creating a city state that one must measure and weigh. All of these ingredients are not strictly necessary, but they are vital for considering where the site is heading, and where it has been. 

May times, city states without any unique position or reason to be have been created by the very dissolution of an empire or state that held them together. As a single point of light, it is strongly possible that this one city is a holdout, a vestige of that what came before it, often because the members of the city state do not realize that what they once were is long past dead in the eyes of the rest of the world. 

I highly suggest taking a look at starting your next game in a single point of light, a single city state that really allows the players to shine. While many a Kingdom has the power and might to fend off the generic adventures that many partake in, the power of a city state is finite, and there will come a time when the Earl, Council, or even Dragonlord, will be taxed for resources and the players will be the only ones around who can set it right. 


Until next time,