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 day ago