Cities in Fantasy: Moving beyond the Pastoral

Fantasy cities can feature very unique environments.

Fantasy cities can feature very unique environments.

I am fascinated with cities, both modern, and ancient. Perhaps this interest comes from living much of my life in the country near a university town, about an hour away from Canada’s largest city. As I have matured, these communities have changed as the the town spreads outward, reaching for a greater connection to the city, while the older, more successful denizens of the city have spilled over into the quiet countryside looking for the pastoral life. Their is a certain magnificence in watching these interactions, like the feeling on gets from watching a tree grow or a great work take shape. Some things are best experienced in the fullness of time.

Urban themes are not new to Fantasy, but they are often under-represented. Even more complex modern Fantasy often limits itself to a Dickensian representation of the city: a place of corruption and chaos, squalor and oppression. There are a few exceptions, and a growing number of Fantasy writers seem to be interested in tackling city life both from a modern perspective and from periods analogous to anything from the late medieval to the napoleonic. I enjoy many of these shades of Fantasy, including such divergent works as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, Promise of Blood, or the Dresden Series. Perhaps it is the heady mixture of my fascination with cities and my love of fantasy that makes me prize these works above all.

Naturally I have tried to run city based Fantasy games. Some work well, and some fail. The ones that work best have a great deal of depth, treating the city as a character itself rather than simply a setting. Cities change, while castles are static, and many players will want to be a part of that. Here are some of the more interesting themes of the city that can be worked into Fantasy works.

  1. The Melting Pot: People constantly flow into and out of the city. These migrations can become a source of intriguing character backgrounds as well as a reason for conflict as new people become involved in the city’s power structures. Even migrations within a large enough city can denote a drastic change, especially in places where certain addresses are synonymous with success or loss. In Fantasy a city is a great way for many wildly different characters to meet, allowing a creative writer to convey details about the larger world with these characters and their actions within the city. Individuals all have different reasons for being in the city, but they are all united in having to experience the city itself.
  2. Complexity: Cities are complicated. It is not simply a matter of mazes of roads and infrastructure built up over time, which can be interesting enough, but more often the hidden social complexities that make a good urban tale. Multiple institutions are required to keep a city running and working properly, often with many more form simply to organize the chaos. In a Fantasy setting, the complexities of magic lend another resource and another layer of complexity to the city. If magic is common enough it will influence a city’s infrastructure in some way, and if it exists at all it will certainly influence the social structure. Just look at all the magic and superstition in real world settings. These competing interests create friction which can lead to much greater complexity of story than other settings.
  3. Opportunity: Cities are place of opportunity. Whatever draws that many people together and keeps them together is bound to create opportunity. This can be as simple as jobs or as something more dramatic like a Fantasy city that is built around a place where reality has bent, making it the only place where people can work magic in a world. Opportunities can often occur as a result of serendipitous meetings between people, tying back to the social aspect of the city.
  4. Corruption: Cities are also places of corruption. This is not to say that corruption does not exist outside of the city, which is laughable, but rather that cities can refine corruption in the same way that they refine other institutions. A larger population means more customers for elicit products as well as better hiding places for large scale criminal enterprises. With so many competing views it is often easier for the truly corrupt to slip through in the city.
  5. Revolution and Democracy: Democracy comes alive in the City. It is that constant dance of new ideas, compromise, and the need to engineer behaviour on a grand scale that creates the environment where a concerned citizenry thrives. In the modern day, one can live a fairly informed cosmopolitan lifestyle in a remote area because of our advanced communications, but in the past that sort of exposure to ideas and information was nearly impossible outside of the great centers. Revolution, even guerilla warfare, ultimately targets the cities as the centers for change in the end. These themes have yet to be deeply explored in Fantasy, but I think, as we reach a troubling point where Democracy faces a new enemy, that they are very much on the minds of many Fantasy writers.

Cities are places of change and coming together in all their aspects. They can be both positive and negative, and I look forward to exploring them in my works and reading how other Fantasy writers use cities in their works in everything from modern cities with supernatural elements like Vampires and mages, to mad steampunk and classically inspired cities.

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