Whether it's Lankhmar or Camorr, San Angeles or Mega-City One, even Ankh-Morpork, the city has long been a favorite setting for genre fiction. It's a comfortable bridge between our own urban lives and the sometimes alien worlds of fantasy and science fiction: sure, everybody carries fencing swords, have ears of various magnitudes of pointiness, and battle with extradimensional threats, but they live in a building on a street, go to a pub to socialize, and maybe have a local sports team they root for. They buy their food at a grocery and they have neighbors that are either too noisy or too nosey. We understand the baseline, and that lets us appreciate the crazy genre bits all the more.
It's a natural consequence, then, that genre gaming often sets its sights on the city as a setting. From the dazzling Freiburg to dangerous Freeport, from utopian* Alpha Complex to beleaguered Gem, we've played our way through a lot of cities. Gaming cities give us that same familiar-but-unfamiliar feel that we get from city novels, but do a little more, besides. Here are my favorites:
Cities give us lots of different power factions from all sorts of backgrounds. You have the city's officials, clerics of its churches and temples, cutthroats of the thieves guild, the local lords, the merchant houses, and so on and so forth. That's a whole lot of story fodder just waiting to be tapped.
A good city map can just pour ideas directly into your brain. The cathedral's here, the river goes down this way, and then there's the docks? Well, there must be underwater river access in the catacombs underneath the cathedral, right? And that lets you smuggle out the heretics and get them on a ship…
Cities are juxtapositions of disparate agendas. Everybody comes to the city for their own reasons, and those reasons are easy to weave together into snares for the player characters. All those factions I mentioned? Their ambitions all intersect and interact, creating an endless mesh of possibilities.
This last is my favorite, and is also probably the least represented, historically. On top of all the factions and cross-purposes and intrigue, you have a sort of shared identity: you have civic pride. Sure, the thieves guild might be shaking down the merchants' caravans for protection money, but once some outside threat rears its head? All those rivals quickly become allies: this is our city, and we'll stand together to defend it.
That's what a city provides for me and my brain. What about you? What do you get from a good fictional city? What does it do for you when you read a story or when you play a game? What do you want to see, and what do you expect? What does the city provide you?
* for some definitions of 'utopian'