City Hierarchies

Some history: in late 2012 I had the idea for the City Accelerator, wrote down a few blog posts and then wondered how to turn it into a generic RPG tool. That tool is now getting used after a fashion in Black Mantle, but on its own it’s only really worth a couple of blog posts — which is what I’ve decided to do here.

A few months ago I wrote this minigame for exploring the high-level details of the City — putting it in the context of the country and surroundings, deciding on what the barrier(s) between the Outside and Inside look like, etc.

I’m considering the City in the most abstract, setting-agnostic sense — it’s an area defined by Outside and Inside, with an interior set of features and an interior population. And this next part covers the City’s hierarchy — the people and the factions.

The Three Tiers

There are three tiers to the City’s hierarchy:

  • the Upper Tier, occupied by the King and Queen; the ruler, law-maker, head of state, dictator or autarch
  • the Middle Tier is for Bishops and Rooks; these individuals lead bodies of people — corporations, pressure groups, unions, economic and political interests. They are accountable to the Upper Tier.
  • the Lower Tier is for Pawns and Knights. These are individuals with no direct authority, accountable to the Middle Tier

The Exchange

The Pieces are positions, not Citizens. Individuals can transition between the roles in any direction — laterally, upwards or downwards. The normal progression is upwards, tier by tier — so an ambitious Knight in turn becomes a Bishop and ultimately Queen or King. But sudden transitions are just as possible — a Pawn is elevated to the King position, a Queen falls to the position of Knight, and so on.


The King

The King is an Upper Tier piece. It represents the overall vision of the City, the ideals and principles on which it operates, and even the connection between the City and higher powers. The King could be an actual person (a regent, a philosopher, a prophet, a god-king) or could be a set of principles (laws or history handed down, a connection with the past or with principles) or some thinking but inhuman force (a vast computer, a captive god, a source of magic).

On its own the King is powerless; it’s a figurehead that others look to for direction. It needs the other components beneath it to take any action. If the King is ever deposed (the Regent is replaced by a republic; the Computer is smashed by luddites; the Sacred Scrolls are burned in a revolution) then the whole tone and principle of the City will change to suit the new King. This may be reflected by thematic changes in the Heart of the City.

The Queen

The Queen is an Upper Tier piece representing the authority of, and acting on decisions of the King. It will never be abstract, always a person or group of people (a Prime Minister, a Vizir, a Council acting on certain principles of law, etc.) but it could be obviously separate from the other citizens — an elite priesthood, a cabal of magicians, undying robots or clockwork automata, etc.

The Queen has absolute authority and power in the Heart of the City. Outside the Heart they have no direct authority, but instead need the support of their Rooks to impose city-wide order.

The Bishops

The Middle Tier Bishops are individuals who lead bodies of people — including unions, political factions, cults and religeons, and corporations. Technically the Bishops are answerable to the King, and are kept in line by (but not accountable to) the Queen.

Bishops are the primary players of the great political game. Most Bishops pursue power, with intent to grow. Some Bishops will be content to grown within the Middle Tier, and others will have their eyes on the Upper Tier, their ambitions including the Queen’s throne, or even the King — and this takes a lot of power. There are several ways power can be acquired:

  • by outright conquest of another Bishop or Rook
  • by forming alliances or otherwise securing the backing of another Bishop or Rook
  • by getting power from some external source (e.g. Outside the City)

For City design there is typically one Bishop per District — if the Bishops are forced to share then they will tend to be weaker as a result, and if a District has no Bishop then something will move to fill the vacuum.

The Rooks

Since the Queen can’t exercise direct power outside the Heart, it needs proxies to carry out its will throughout the City’s districts. This is where the other Middle Tier pieces — the Rooks — come in. Functionally these are similar to Bishops in that they represent bodies of people — in this case police forces, a standing army, or other peacekeeping body. They’re not necessarily so overt, though — they could also be a secret police force, or even enforcers for organised crime.

In exchange for enforcing the Queen’s directives on their District each Rook enjoys some privileges (like the power to imprison or impose fines, immunities, etc.). These privileges mean each Rook is functionally on a similar power level to the Bishops, though unlike Bishops the Rooks don’t need to look to conquest or alliances for expanding their power — if they need to defend their position (or attack a Bishop) they can sanction resources from the Heart of the City.

Note that resources granted by the Queen are ultimately traceable back to that source — so if your Rooks are a shadowy organisation or deniable asset this could make for an interesting mystery game. Rooks might pose as Bishops, Bishops pose as Rooks, etc.

For the purposes of the Lower Tiers there’s not much difference between Rooks and Bishops — both represent employers of some kind, with internal drives and interests (primarily self-preservation, and growth). And indeed, some Bishops become Rooks, and some Rooks become Bishops. The main difference is where their power comes from.

The Knights

Knights are individuals with no political territory; they may have personal holdings and affiliations to others, but they don’t represent any kind of organisation. Like Pawns, they will work for a Rook or a Bishop; unlike Pawns they’re not fixed in place, and instead free to make contracts with whomever they choose.

In the most common RPG formats the Player Characters are all Knights — free agents with personal power who make their way on their own, forming short-term alliances with Middle Tier employers.

The Pawns

Like Knights, Pawns are individuals. Unlike Knights they are fixed in place, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. They will tend to belong to a particular workforce (headed by a Rook or a Bishop) and will be slow to change their working situation. Pawns are content to be where they are, forming deep links with their community, family and culture. This is the one thing an itinerant Knight doesn’t have; nor does the Bishop or Rook, even if they otherwise represent a community.

Pawns are most interesting when you consider what might cause them to transition from their current, comfortable position to another piece. What happened in their life that they suddenly became a Knight, a Bishop or even the King? All of these should be considered a “Kicker” — the Pawn character has been suddenly outlawed, made an offer they couldn’t refuse, or changed direction of their own life because something happened to disrupt their world (a death, a loss of position, an encounter with something or someone magical or mysterious, etc.).


This isn’t intended to be a game — there are no mechanics here. If you were designing a game using this template — with the view to having your citizens moving up and down the greasy pole, you might consider a currency to work out

  • how much power each Bishop has in their District
  • how much power it takes to knock over another Bishop or Rook
  • how much power it takes to depose the King or Queen
  • what alliances might look like when deposing a King or Queen (who gets to be the new King?), or conquering a Bishop (how do you divide up the previous territories? Does a District get broken up and its locations absorbed into other Territories?), etc.

Afterword: City Accelerator Manefesto

This is the point of the City Accelerator:

  • In overbuilt settings like Irilian a massive amount of effort goes into designing the location, but only a fraction of the content gets used…
  • …and because it’s so vast, it’s hard for the GM to focus on details in any useful way without extra work…
  • …and it’s also hard for the players to get an holistic sense of the city, because they’re overwhelmed with details…
  • …also, Great Clomping Feet

So the idea of the City Accelerator was

  1. focus on what’s interesting
  2. leave space to grow; write what’s interesting right now, play that, and avoid distractions from unnecessary details
  3. most importantly connect the player characters to the city — not only factions, but the actual, physical places using a system of locations and districts

There are a few other philosophical points like the benefits of Messy Design and the limits of Working Memory. TL;DR the harder it is for your players to view the City conveniently, the harder it is to get across the scope, scale, culture, or actually interesting details — they all get lost.