Thursday, November 5, 2009

City States

Although I started playing D&D in the late 70s and have gone through several modules set in Greyhawk, I have never taken part in a campaign which took place within that iconic setting. For whatever reason, the vast majority of the people I have played with over the years have always used home brew settings and do-it-yourself dungeons. I have had a passing interest in Greyhawk, due to its place in the history of our hobby, but never felt comfortable with it.

This week I cracked open a book that explores the economic and political history of towns and cities in Germany during the Middle Ages. What struck me was that as a political entity, these towns and cities became independent city-states due to several factors. Trade allowed the Burghers to become wealthy. In order to ensure stability and continued trade, these Burghers allied with each other to create councils which became the political force behind these city states. They invested in armies, in defenses and in superior technology (canons, guns, etc.). The remarkable part of this story is who they were protecting themselves against: the nobility. There is a story of one city state who was besieged by several princes who banded together to take it over. They failed. The technology and the professionalism of the city state troops proved to be too much. In addition, city states endeavored to acquire territory — a defensive buffer zone between them and the nobility.

For me, this sheds a new light upon the city state as a D&D setting, of which Greyhawk is the archetype. The city is governed by a council of various families and guilds with a variety of interests. Some of them conflict, but all are united in the desire to protect the city (and thus their own interests). In addition, the city invests in "technology" — it houses a school of magic, is tolerant of magical research, and gives wizards a seat on the council. In turn, this collection of magic-users can be called upon in times of trouble. As a result, there will also be a heavy concentration of magical items within the walls of the city.

There is a very competent city militia; however, there will also be a requisite number of adventurers hired on by various members of the council to take on tasks that ensure the survival of the city. One of these tasks is the acquisition of territory — clearing areas of monsters and the building of strongholds in order to maintain this territory.

These efforts will be in opposition to various "princes," whether they are orc tribes, the armies of mad kings, demon led hordes of barbarians, evil monks, or your run-of-the-mill power hungry nobility.

Although this framework does not lend itself as easily to a sandbox kind of game as does the proverbial keep in the borderlands, it does allow for a more political and patron driven campaign.

Having never had the whole Greyhawk experience, I am curious as to how closely this model fits with what was actually played. I know that if I ever were to go about making my own version of Greyhawk, this is the direction I would go. I am, however, more inclined to just apply this model to a campaign entirely of my own design.


  1. Most of Greyhawk is comprised of princes. There are some city-states like Greyhawk, Dyvers, the Wild Coast, Irongate, etc. But most are realms with sovereigns of one sort or another. Although there is one major religous realm in Veluna. There is noting explicitly like Germany.

    The closest would be the Great Kingdom which is slowly breaking apart. The problem is that the core territory is ruled by a despotic evil King determined to hang on to what he has. In later Greyhawk supplement it all goes to pot with this king turning undead and the Great Kingdom finally collapsing.

    Of course you make it however you want including turning it into a version of Germany with what left of the Great Kingdom a quasi Holy Roman Empire.

    The Wilderlands of High Fantasy in contrast is dominated by the City-States if that what you are going form. However it much more Swords & Sorcery in feel. The PDF for the latest version is a bit pricy but just about everybody liked who got it. I am bit biased in that I wrote parts of it.

    The nice thing about the Wilderlands there is few high level detail so you can make up whatever overarchign society/history you without impacting much.

    The original stuff is evaliable under the Judges Guild section at RPGNow. It much more barebones.

    You can see a sample in the download section of Just multiply by 18 to get a sense of what the main product is like.


  2. Nice post.

    Fr. David, what are you reading? Just out of curiosity.

  3. Rusty Battle Axe,

    The Medieval Town by Fritz Rörig, U of California Press 1967. My dad picked it up off a remains table years ago and gave it to me because of my interest in things medieval. Over the years I have referred to it for realistic tid bits to add to my games. This was the first time I made this particular connection. It is always interesting how different things jump out at you when you go back and re-read things.

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for the info. Of note, I have probably used more Judges Guild material as a Referee than I have any other due to its utility. For whatever reason, I find it easier to put my own brand on their stuff than just about anybody else's stuff. As a matter of fact, I stole the WIlderlands maps and "low-level" info as the foundation for some of my Lost Colonies campaign. Out of curiosity, which parts are you responsible for?

  5. Wrote the Castles and Villages for the following

    Map 5 City State
    Map 8 Barbarian Altanis
    The Northern Half of Map 11 (the stuff that is not on the Isle of the Blest which was done by somebody else)

    Due to the how the original was laid out this represented nearly a 1/3 of the villages and castle despite only doing a 1/6 of the maps.

    I did an overview of Map 8 Barbarian Altanis that you can see here.

    Thanks for the Compliment.

  6. Rob,

    Thank you much for the link and for all your work — again, good stuff.