Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Hows and Whys of City States

At his blog, In Deep Places, Evan has been wondering about the demographics of city states. My reply is bit too long for a comment, so I'm resorting to another blog post.

I'm going to be pretty flexible in my definition of city states here. Traditionally, the city state is a city that is also an entire nation. Today, both Singapore and Vatican City are considered modern versions of the city state. However, many of what we call city states from the past violated that definition little bit. Classical Athens, for instance, made itself the capital of an expanding empire, the acquisition of which led to the Peloponnesian Wars. In this case, I'm going to call a city state any nation dominated by a central city whose borders extend only to the extent of a few days march.

Heck, even that is problematic, because what exactly is a city? These days, any respectable city probably has a handful hundred thousand citizens. The walled city of Jericho at around 8000 BC probably boasted a population as large as 2000. Here's another fact about Jericho to twist your noodle: cities started forming before agriculture. It appears that the walls of Jericho may have been built to protect rich hunting and gathering territories. Settled living probably later led to the development of agriculture, rather than the other way around as we were taught when I was in elementary school.

So exactly what we're talking about when you say city states entirely depends on what you want in your game. I'm assuming that Evan’s thinkgin along the lines of the classical city state like we see in ancient Mesopotamia or Greece. Where you find city states like these is pretty simple; human communities form near water. It's vital for drinking, it's vital for agriculture, it's vital for sanitation, and helpful for both defense and trade. So, if you have a map of your world, your rivers are going to run from the mountains to the sea, and population centers are going to be placed along those rivers. You can also put small cities in desolate places where there are oases, and, if you don't mind being completely fantastical, you can have magically supplied cities.

The why of city states might not be nearly as important, especially if you don't really want to get into the mechanics of demographics. Many city states seem to be primarily about defense, like ancient Jericho. People gather together, build walls and other defenses, and protect their rich territory from those who would invade. Others are more about geography. Rough terrain, like you find in Scandinavian countries and in Greece, tend to support the creation of small, isolated communities. The terrain was fertile enough to support the creation of city states in Greece. In Scandinavia, communities tended to be much smaller and there seem to have been a much stronger emphasis on going elsewhere (going “a-viking”) whenever possible.

So, the question of supporting themselves is fairly simple. For the most part, these city states are going to be self-supporting. Local agriculture will be producing enough food to support both the farmers and non-farming citizens of the community. Keep in mind, most everyone was a farmer in ancient Greece. They may have had their home within the walls of the city, but they usually had a plot of land outside as well. The Spartans got away with not having everyone be a farmer by invading and enslaving the local population, the Helots. The indigenous slaves did all the farming, freeing up the Spartan men to concentrate almost exclusively on warfare.

With agricultural surpluses, the city state doesn't necessarily need to trade with anybody. Trade frequently happens where communities intersect, but it's not a given. In fact, the closer communities are to each other, more likely there is to be acrimony, especially if their territories are close enough they could possibly overlap on each other. In this case, it's not unusual at all for one city state to utterly dominate its neighbors, and now we’re back to empire building.

So for Evan’s underworld campaign, I’d suggest city states be placed fairly far from one another, with at least 50 miles between each. The intervening land might be peppered with small freehold farms and farming communities which help support the city state. I'd clustered these in river valleys, arable plains, or at oases. Local culture and character can be heavily influenced by local resources. A city state on the edge of the jungle, for instance. is going to sport a lot of wooden structures, while one in the hills or at the foot of a mountain chain may use more stone. You can break this pattern to create mystery, a sense of unease, or say something about the local cultures. Maybe the city state at the edge of the jungle uses stone because the forests of the jungle are too dangerous to harvest. Local customs, holidays, clothing, and diet will be heavily influenced by what is available in the area. Salted fish, fried locusts, and beer were favorite foods in ancient Ur, while in Athens you're more likely to find wine, bread and olive oil as the staples of the diet.

So yeah, I'd create a scattering of city states with maybe 75,000 total souls in each larger metropolitan area, in states of either uneasy truce or frequent war with one another, and each largely self-supporting. That should create all sorts of fun political tensions, reinforce local character, and provide frequent opportunities for adventure.


Dangerous Brian said...

Think warfare as well. Greek city states essentially spent the whole summer making war on one another. Low intensity combat with few casualties, for the most part. But war none the less.

Evan said...

I've posted further on the matter, but it was before reading your post.

You may find the second part here http://inplacesdeep.blogspot.com/2010/11/underworld-demographics-part-ii.html

I wanted to thank you for your very well reasoned presentation here. This makes a lot of sense and is good advice for anyone making a campaign, especially one that draws upon antiquity for its inspiration.

I may make another post in short order taking this entry into account.

Bigby's Left Hand said...

Well, since the subject has come up . . .

One thing that has always bugged about many campaign world maps is how the designers place and design their cities and towns and etc. according to "real world" criteria (the ones we understand) while seeming to ignore the fact that they are placing cities that don't just have to deal with ancient-style seasonal warfare, or even post-Peloponnesian-War all-season-all-the-time warfare; they also have to deal with the very real threat of monster hordes - anything from a goblin army to rampaging dragons - and powerful, evil, magic-dealing bad guys and all that.

Your average D&D world is insanely dangerous and frankly inimical to life and civilization, and I've never really seen that addressed in city and campaign design. Most guys just draw up a faux-medieval Europe and lay monsters over it pretty much at random, like a projector sheet on a slide, with no thought about the dynamics they're putting into play. Frustrating.

Seems to me that the closer the city is to a dangerous wilderness, the more militarized and fort-like it has to be just to survive, and lonely villages and inns and peaceful shires the like are only feasible in lawful, peaceful, "cleaned out" and strongly protected territories.

Just my two cents on a personal point of annoyance.

Chris said...

Most guys just draw up a faux-medieval Europe...

Bigby mate, you do realise that medieval Europe was essentially a militarised society with massively redundant defences in depth, right? Castles every 10-15 miles (in Western Europe at least), every city walled or built on a hill, city states hiding in lagoons, island fortresses and habitable bridges, etc; these things don't crop up in peaceful, orderly societies.

Medieval Europe or frontier-era America are all good starting points for D&D societies. Then you add the 'magical' elements on top.

trollsmyth said...

Chris and Bigby's Left Hand: Chris is absolutely right... for certain definitions of medieval. If you're talking 9th through 13th centuries, absolutely, and even more so if you go back into the Dark Ages. But Gygax himself was more interested in later, more Renaissance periods, with their cornucopia of pole arms and articulated plate armours.

Even worse, BLH is absolutely right to append the "faux". No matter the trappings, most "common people" in fantasy RPG settings have the outlook and attitudes of modern Western suburbanites. None of us worry that strangers in our neighborhood are advanced scouts of an invading army, or that a sail on the horizon heralds the arrival of raiders bent on murder and looting. Readers in Southeast Asia or the Middle East may have a better feel for such things (I occasionally get hits from Singapore, Tel Aviv, and Kuwait), but for the rest of us, such thoughts are utterly alien, and so they are utterly alien as well to the citizens of our sleepy pastoral villages. Most of us can't imagine trying to get on with our daily lives if we knew there might possibly be marauding orcs within two-days march from our homes, and yet the truth is, such assumptions of peace and tranquility are the exception, and not the rule, for most of human history.

Living in such a world didn't mean people were always hunkered down, afraid to go outdoors or out of sight of city walls. But it certainly did mean they took such concerns far more seriously than we do. I try to build my worlds accordingly, but I'm a history geek, and I love delving into that sort of stuff.

Bigby's Left Hand said...


Yeah, but: nothing out of the Monster Manual, and no spells, wands, magic swords, and etc.

Not that it matters, but it sure is fun to complain about.