This entry is part 9 in the series City Government Power Bases
What forces govern your city?

What forces govern your city?

In many societies, landowners have great power.

With all the economic, defensive, military, and strategic benefits land provides, most governments use this as a starting power base for their regimes.

For high fantasy games, consider land as an abstract concept that encompasses many possible dimensions. Land can be the ground, the clouds of sky realms, the flames of an elemental universe, or any material of the planes of alternate dimensions.

In essence, a government dictates that a certain area of “land” is under its control, and if one wants to live within that realm one must obey the government.


Land is often taken for granted, but it is an essential ingredient for life. The basic needs of a populace are water, food, and shelter. Water can be obtained from weather, but that is often fickle. Instead, one needs access to a steady source, such as a lake, or river, and land always surrounds these geographic features.

Food has the same dependency: crops and animals require land to grow.

Shelter requires ground of some kind. Extreme, high-fantasy situations might create exceptions to these rules, in which case the value of land might drop somewhat, but these truths should encompass most societies. A government needs a populace, therefore control of a parcel of land is requisite for that populace to survive, live, and grow.

Another core strength is land’s physical nature. It’s a tangible thing. Ideology, money, affiliation, and other power bases are intangible and can be whisked away by a change of thought. However, land is physical and durable, and it can only be removed as a power base by other physical (or magical) means.

Think of the children’s game, King of the Hill. As long as the King can push away all other challengers, no amount of name-calling, pleading, or cajoling changes the situation. Where governments are concerned, no amount of legal wrangling, threats from other countries, economic sanctions, and so on can deprive a city of its land until a force moves in to physically take control.

Land is a reliable, stable, long-term, valuable. It is a necessary power base.


Land is finite in most worlds. Hence, competition over it is fierce. Governments rarely cede land to its citizens – it always reserves ultimate control of it, even if laws and customs might lead people to think otherwise. Therefore, land needs constant defense and vigilance – things that incur costs in terms of building and maintaining defensive structures and a military.

In some cases, a government must defend the land against its own citizens, for as stated previously, anyone can technically claim a piece of land as theirs, and until they’re physically beaten, it’s a truth.

This brings about another key weakness: land has no allegiances. Certain groups in your campaign might gain benefits from occupying certain lands, but this is a one-way relationship only. The land itself has no allegiance to its occupants. For example, in your game elves might be attuned to wild lands, but the wild lands don’t care about the elves.

Remove the elves and the land is still there. You might grant blood rights, rulership bonuses, or domain powers to various land dwellers, but the land doesn’t require those dwellers to exist.

Under the watchful eye of a druidic society, the land might flourish with plants and animals, but the land itself isn’t dependant on the druids in any way – the dirt will still be there when the society passes on.

This lack of allegiance is a weakness, because it generally provides a government’s foes the same benefits and another reason for conflict.

Land is often immutable, except under exceptional circumstances of great magic, monumental effort, or extreme situations. If a chunk of land has physical drawbacks, there’s not much a government can do about it.

For example, a city sits between two great, war-like nations. The city cannot move its piece of land to a better, safer place. Most terrain cannot be easily changed either. It’s difficult moving mountains to create more cropland. There are many things a government can do to try to make its parcel of land more fertile, more defensible, or better strategically, but these efforts are often costly and last only as long as maintenance continues.


Try to make your city’s land unique and distinguishable in some way. Develop the land so that its use as a power base requires ongoing effort. Perhaps an unruly climate causes seasonal havoc. Maybe natural cave formations allow monsters, rebels, and factions to hide, survive, and thrive.

Think of land as a finite, valuable resource and make a list of competitors: races, gods, rival cities and governments, critters, and so on. Picture how this competition could affect your government’s make-up and actions.

Individual land ownership usually conveys great privilege. What kinds of lands do various powerful politicians control and how does this impact their position?

For example, land often enables other power bases, such as through wealth formation (crops, minerals), affiliation (neighbors), or social class (neighborhood).

A politician’s land can be a facet of their personality as well. Where an official is from is often how they’re judged, and the conflicts their land presents (foul weather, rivals, type of land-use such as mining or farming) moulds what skills and experiences they have.

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