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Somewhere out there on that horizon,
Out beyond the neon lights,
I know there must be somethin' better,
But there's nowhere else in sight.

It's survival in the city
When you live from day to day;
City streets don't have much pity,
When you're down, that's where you'll stay.

(from) In the City The Eagles

Basic Information

A city is an urban area of greater magnitude than a town, usually without much in the way of primary production and instead devoted to industry and/or commerce.

The actual boundary between being a town and being a city varies - in some places, it is merely a matter of the number of permanent residents, in others it requires a formal charter (much like that often required historically of a town) before it can be "promoted". In English tradition, a city has generally required a cathedral - and vice versa - leading to the phenomenon of "cathedral cities", which are cities only because they have one, and for other purposes are little more than large towns. Another filter is the abandonment of primary production for industry and commerce - of course, that describes almost any built up area in the modern era, but un until fairly recently even decent sized towns could have a substantial agricultural footprint.

Generally, however, a city will be a large centre of population with significant commercial and cultural activity. They are also places with a significant degree of anonymity (generally absent in smaller communities) which foster greater social development and mobility. As against that they are typically far more expensive to live in than (for example) the countryside and are likely to exhibit significant contrasts between those that benefit from all the city has to offer and those who mainly suffer its costs. Anthropologically speaking, the creation of cities is generally thought to be the benchmark for a civilization (from the Latin cives - a city) as opposed to a culture.

In political terms, a city is usually an entity unto itself and outside the control of local power centres - this may mean answering directly to the king (in a feudal state), being a region in its own right (such as a metropolitan county) or even being an independent state (historically known as a "City State"). This, coupled with their financial and industrial muscle can make them important players in political conflicts - albeit balanced against their requirement for imported food and thus reliance on their hinterland.

Of course, for most of history, cities have generally been fairly small - giants like Rome, Constantinople and Baghdad were rare and exceptional, requiring unusual coincidence of circumstances (including the ability to import massive amounts of food) - the average pre-modern city would be tiny to a modern urban dweller1 and large cities would need to wait for the agricultural revolution, industrialisation and mass transport. When the population of a large city drops off sharply, Urban Prairie is liable to form.

Like towns, a pre-modern city will usually demand some kind of water access for trade and industry. Those of use with a modern perspective, and therefore used to consider a river as an obstacle requiring bridging in key places, should note that pretty much any pre-modern city with river access used that instead of roads wherever possible. Until the late nineteenth century, for example, London used the Thames as its largest open space and public thoroughfare - it was at least as normal to take a boat from place to place as it was to travel by land, and more so for those of high status or with significant cargo to haul.

Fortification of cities is a constant battle between economic requirements and security. A city lives by moving food and raw materials in and finished goods out - restrict the flow of either too much and the city chokes. Cities also suffer from being prevented from growing - build a set of walls for defence and the paint will barely be dry before a suburb has sprung up outside them. Often city walls will serve best as revenue collecting exercise - funnelling traffic into places where it can easily be taxed.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Urban adventuring is a very different kettle of fish to traditional fantasy adventures, generally requiring a different type of character, not all players take to this well.
  • Cities are occasionally personified and may develop a genius loci (or, in a polytheistic setting, their own god(s)), which may have very interesting effects. If nothing else, the spirit population of a city may be as large and chaotic as its human one, making the life of an urban shaman … interesting ….
  • There is also the possibility of the urban druid (in the fantasy RPG sense, if not the historical one).
  • The anonymity of urban life gives great potential for all sorts of things to hide and the sort of cultural churn they create is ideal for spawning mythagos.
  • World builders should avoid the fantasy cliché of the city stuck on its own in the middle of no-where. Unless they have a very good reason to be otherwise, a city should be seated at the centre of a web of food and industrial production and trade links.
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