Before I start getting into city-specific magic, and the expense thereof, it’s time to think about just how cities work in d20 settings.
In reality, cities provided the labor pools needed for large projects, concentrated wealth and demand to support specialists and financial centers, they are nexi for trade and industry, they foster education and innovation, they provide defensible refuges and strongholds, they are religious, diplomatic, and organizational centers, they store records, and they are symbols and centers of political power.
In d20 worlds… massive projects are far more easily and cheaply carried out with magic than with workers. Wealth is concentrated by high-level characters, who live where they will. The actual economy doesn’t need financial centers. Trade and Industry can be carried out by magic – and the important part is the creation of magical devices, which is a task for small groups, but assembly lines. Cities may still be useful here, but they’re not strictly required. Education and innovation relies on going up in levels and spending skill points, not on centers of learning. They really aren’t especially defensible without rules for citywide magical defenses, since walls and masses of low-level militiamen are no obstacle to a high-end character or monster. For that matter, political power is going to be vested in the individuals who can destroy nations, not in armies – and high-level characters don’t NEED symbols of power. They have the actual power in their own right, not just as leaders. Worse, cities are an implicitly hostile environment. Like it or not, they contain very large numbers of similar – and thus competing – organisms. More than any given individual in the population can possibly keep track of or form a cooperative social group with.
That leaves us with “they are religious, diplomatic, and organizational centers” and “they store records”, perhaps with a bit of trade and/or magical industrialization thrown in – and even those roles are hardly going to be unchanged.
The first item to think about is “how much magic should a city have”? – And the things to think about there are generic enough to apply to a lot of other systems and settings too, so that’s a bonus.
On Magic and Prosperity.
- Magic in fantasy games generally has few direct, and no unmanageable, drawbacks. People will use it.
- Major magic is usually a fairly personal thing, built up through exciting adventures, because that’s what fantasy RPG’s are generally played FOR.
- In such settings magic is pretty much the ultimate resource. With enough magic you can do, or obtain, almost anything – and that means that the availability of magic is pretty much a direct measure of a culture’s prosperity.
- Most fantasy settings allow the creation of permanent magical devices, which can thus accumulate in the world.
- Cooperative social groups in such settings will thus normally expend at least a portion of their group resources on permanent magical devices that will benefit the group. Not doing so is generally blatantly stupid. The rate of creation may or may not vary directly with the prosperity of the culture, but that level of prosperity will very likely have an impact. Uncooperative social groups (or “Monsters”) will not do so because they are UNCOOPERATIVE and do not form social groups with pooled resources.
- Magic items can be destroyed accidentally, purposefully (often by enemies of a social group), and by various sorts of natural/deific/alien/whatever catastrophes.
- The rate of such destruction will increase (linearly or not, since more items may make an area a bigger target as well as increasing the number of chances for something to be destroyed) with the numbers of items available in any given setting.
Given those principles there are three possible outcomes:
- Magical devices are – on the average – destroyed as fast as they are created. Magical devices are thus either trivial or they are rare and wonderful – and characters will rarely get to keep them for very long. They may still have dramatic effects on the world, but those will tend to be unique events. This is the “Fairytale” or “King Arthur” style; if the elderly hermit gives you a flask full of a marvelous potion that heals wounds to take on your quest… you will certainly need it desperately along the way, heaven help you if you use it too soon, and there won’t be any more coming your way.
- Magical devices (and more mundane infrastructure) accumulate until they reach equilibrium with the rate of destruction. This may be roughly steady state or it may vary with occasional catastrophes and monster attacks. The level of impact and prosperity depends on just how high that equilibrium level is. Most games tend to vaguely assume that that level is high enough to avoid disrupting heroic fantasy with crippled kids, starving peasants, people being routinely tortured and enslaved, and so on. (For another way to do that see the Sacredos Pastor).
- At some point increasing prosperity begins to increase the rate of magic item creation more quickly than the rate of destruction increases. Unless some special limitation pops up the setting is on its way towards a magical version of “The Singularity” at an ever-increasing rate. Any area which passes the critical threshold will doubtless soon vanish into a nice secure pocket dimension or some similar refuge, there to become some sort of post-scarcity society or dimensional crossroads or something.
Long range trade classically focused on spices, fine cloth, paper (a rarity at the time), pearls, gems, and jewelry, exotic remedies, (supposed) aphrodisiacs, drugs, perfumes, essential oils, precious metals, artwork, wines, books, and so on – luxury items which packed a great deal of value into relatively little space. There was no POINT in trying to ship bulk goods except in very special circumstances since if an area couldn’t produce all the basics people needed to live, they wouldn’t be settling there in the first place. Special circumstances did turn up of course. Rome imported grain from Egypt since being an imperial government (and being willing to spend massively on maintaining the greatest city in the known world as their capital) made it feasible. Many caravans and ships transported bulk tin to make bronze with during the “bronze age”, but that was still a luxury (you didn’t HAVE to have bronze weapons and tools, but everyone wanted to so you could sell a lot of that particular luxury) and was effectively highly compact since a ton of tin could make many tons of bronze when mixed with local copper.
As transport became cheaper, resource and basic commodity trade became possible – and people start doing things like eating a lot of bananas in areas where bananas do not grow. Supply chains become worldwide things in the real world, but this is due to the nature of technology; highly specialized components may require a vast pyramid of supporting industries – far too large to support with local sales of the finished product.
But very little of that has any meaning in a magical world. Magic is generally the product of individual experts – and about the only kind of natural natural resources that have any serious importance is stuff that helps an area get set up or which helps an established area boost its magic. That kind of thing is unlikely to be available in mass quantities to begin with (if it was it would just be part of the baseline) and most sane groups will want to hang onto any that they get. There won’t be a massive trade in that going on.
Even low levels of magic can usually provide flavor, make clothing prettier and more comfortable, cure diseases better than most ordinary remedies, make things smell nice, and open up long-range lines of communication – among many other things. Once an area is rich enough in magic and population… it doesn’t NEED any trade – and there’s little money to be made trading in normal goods.
Ergo, long-range trade items are mostly going to be dangerous, illegal, or magical in themselves – and quite likely two or more of those things. Trading will focus on local exchanges – stuff that it isn’t worth setting up local production for if it’s available “nearby” – and on long-range smuggling. “Trader” is likely to be a pretty disreputable occupation.
Fantasy RPG’s are – like superhero games – pretty much always focused on small groups of characters. In most games such characters can gather enormous personal power. In many cases enough personal power that entire armies of “normal” people become almost irrelevant and even well-trained bodyguards and special agents are little more than speed bumps.
That old saw about “the king and the land are one”? Well, it’s “the ruling class” – but in most RPG’s it’s pretty much true. The rulers are the realms true source of military power, they’re the ones who create the magic that brings prosperity, they have inhuman levels of organizational skills, they are likely to have greatly extended lifespans. The only real purpose for the peasantry may be to act as servants / paramours and to breed – thus producing the occasional adventurer type to replace losses among the ruling class. After all… what proportion of fantasy heroes rise from humble beginnings?
Some games will allow reasonably effective armies – either keeping the power of individual characters modest or allowing powerful people to command hordes of monsters, summoned demons, powerful golems, angels, or what-have-you. But unless the game is built around mass battles – a distinct rarity in RPG’s – those armies are just as much a part of the loot as the people, land, and infrastructure. The ruling class is always far more capable than their creations and summonings; otherwise the creations and summonings would be running things instead.
- There’s no point in holding a war if one side is vastly more powerful than the other.
- If the sides are roughly even, it will come down to a battle between the two ruling classes in any case, since that is where most of the real AND political power is concentrated.
In either case… there is no point in wasting time hauling in lesser forces. The only really efficient tactic is to bypass every minor obstacle you can in a high-speed strike against the enemy rulers. There’s no real point to targeting the land, people or infrastructure; those are just a part of the loot.
Yes, in d20 that’s pretty much back to scry-and-die, and an ever-escalating series of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures to specific approaches to the same general idea. The problem is that it is extremely difficult for a game master to find a way to make stopping to deal with a lot of minor opponents before the main battle a more efficient way to fight than bypassing as many of those minor obstacles as possible. It can be done – the side-quests may lead to a series of plot coupons that let the characters win easily, or they could level up a few times along the way, or they could steal vital supplies – but why do the local rulers have a mysterious weakness that no one has exploited before and which they haven’t done anything about? If this is normal, why are there ANY stable states? Why are those vital supplies there to be captured instead of somewhere safe? Why aren’t the opponents leveling up too?
The solution is actually pretty simple for player characters. This makes the game BORING. If players insist on doing this… “Well, that was fast! That’s all I’ve got for this evening, which of you guys wants to run a pick-up game?”.
They won’t make a habit of doing that. NPC’s however… NPC’s are aware that THEY (as opposed to the abstract playing piece of “their character”) can lose. They will want to avoid “wars” because magic makes the results HIGHLY unpredictable – and they have a lot to lose and not much to gain. They’re the ruling class; they already have wealth, power, and luxury. When you already have “all the cake I can eat!” twice as much cake isn’t really a big draw.
Inter-state warfare… is going to look a LOT like many an old-style adventure; A small group of powerful people gathers information, prepares themselves, sneaks in past as many of the defenses as possible, and launches a drive towards their objective when they’ve gotten as close as they can.
You can still have crusades, and waves of peasants throwing themselves at an objective of course – but that’s pretty much a symptom of insanity, not an effective way of making war in a fantasy RPG. It’s not like the Battle of Helm’s Deep, or Pelennor fields really decided anything in the War of the Rings; Sauron was overthrown by a tiny party of adventurers (including one undependable and treacherous thief) making a deep infiltration run into enemy territory. Sure, that’s a novel not a RPG – but such novels are a large part of the inspiration for Fantasy RPG’s.