I am going to look at the idea of a stereotypical fantasy city through the lens of american history. This will contain a lot of metaphorical subtext which is mostly intentional. A mirror to examine the dark parts, plus I think there is a good amount of deep storytelling to be had out of fantasy gaming if we take this approach. I am also taking things to extremes for drama purposes.
In “standard” fantasy rpgs there are an abundance of non-human character options. Whether these are called demi-humans or meta-humans or just referred to as races. Along with them are the humans, but why play a human when you already play one everyday? Game designers also know this so they give all kinds of perks and bonuses to help balance out the outright coolness of playing a race different from your own.
One of those attempts to draw attention to humans is that they breed like rabbits compared to the other races, and so have grown to power due to sheer number. These humans are often portrayed as very democratic in their policies regarding the other races. This is all well and good after all it is a fantasy. Viewed with the glare of our own history, would we be so accepting? Examples say otherwise, and paint us in a much more xenophobic color. After all, you see how we react to a subtle difference such as hair color. Imagine if a race of tall, pointy eared people showed up.
Following this line of thought, a fantasy city would be ruled by humans. Their faith would be the biggest, they would have all the good paying, clean jobs. Leaving the street cleaning and manure shuffling to Dwarves and Elves. The Dwarves would be looked upon with a mixture of pity and disgust, while Elves might be thought of as potential agents of the human gods great adversary and treated with mistrust. Halflings/hobbits could become akin to household pets. Or even used as lost children replacements for rich empty-nesters.They would most likely be ghettoized in this scenario. after years of sucking up the leavings of human dominated society these demi-humans might turn to violence to make more coin. In a larger city this might lead to formation of gangs out of a need to protect themselves.
Laws would be made to favor humans, weapons would be illegal in the ghettos while human nobles would be able to wear swords openly etc. Of course the demi-humans would get a fair trial.
Of course not all Humans would be the bad guys, some would try to help them and side with them. Let’s say this came to pass and we started our city with three ghettos, one for Each of the three aforementioned races. Each ghetto area has its own gang, I am thinking more along the lines of Mafia as opposed to crips/bloods but in your city you can do what you like. The rich humans (noble houses maybe) would use them like city mercenaries, trading coin and favors…some weapons.
The story tropes that could be played out would be things like;
- doomed love (a romance between races)
- The grim struggle for life
- An attempt to rise above your origins (most likely ending badly)
- Or you could go whole hog revolution, start with the city teetering on the brink of a massive uprising.
Those were the first four that came to mind. If you were of a more wargame oriented bent, then the gangs would make great units fighting as they scramble over resources.
What other troubles would the down trodden have? Humans would have access to all the best healers, magically enchanted light perhaps. Sanitation would most likely be better for the Humans, access to education and general safety. In fact your average Elf would be unlikely to be literate, or versed in anything beyond basic counting.
This might lead to some intense RPing situations, which I think is great. This kind of setting would work better with a more mature group, require a bit of discussion between the players as well.