It's a staple in tabletop RPGs: "Long ago, the guilds ran everything, but then [insert event] made the people form a more centralized government".

I want to make a medieval fantasy city-state civilization that is a satire of corporations, in that there is no central government only guilds, but I always get stuck because I have a hard time understanding who would make sure bridges go up, pavements are maintained and the that the water is running and healthy. I don't want a council who is recognized by the guilds, because that's too centralized, but more occasional coalitions between a few of the guilds that are done to complete certain projects.

So, to focus it on one question, how would very expensive projects that need more resources than any one guild or individual is prepared to spend be financed in this anarcho syndacalism? Defense, aqueducts and pavements are very long term investments but a huge incentive for people to chose a city to live in, so everyone would agree it's important, but how would they pay for it?

There are enornmous power gaps in this city. The mages who are specialized in creating magic items are the most wealthy guild in terms of revenue but they are dependant on other guilds for resources to make the items, defense and many other things like any other economy.

  • $\begingroup$ That's many questions in one. You might want to consider focus on one. Otherwise, have you thought about a council of guild? You can read a bit my response to another question as well as the comments below it. $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2015 at 11:17
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I like this question, but it seems a bit broad. I think you mean something like this: "How would public services be provided in a city mostly governed by guilds?". You might also want to elaborate on the different power groups that you already have in order to avoid this being closed as too broad. $\endgroup$
    – amziraro
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ I rephrased the question to deal with how public services would be payed for when one guild can't take the whole burden. Maybe still too broad? $\endgroup$
    – pimmen
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ You probably should have a look at the anarcho-liberalism, which I think matches more closely what you want than Anarcho-syndicalism. You did not answer my question about a council of guilds? $\endgroup$ Jun 25, 2015 at 11:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Maybe take a look at Sir Terry Pratchett's Diskworld-Series. Ankh-Morpork is (mostly) what you are looking for, although this city also has a supreme ruler. Apart from having a setup much like the one you're looking for, his books are also simply brilliant. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:47

6 Answers 6


The people would pay for their services. Kind of like how our utilities work now. If you didn't pay, you get no service. So of course the richer neighborhoods will have better services than the poorer ones. Where are roads built? Where rich people need them. Who gets clean water? Those that can pay for it. The poor might get lucky in that a pipe with clean water will feed a neighborhood, but if it gets broke, it will likely be the last one on the list to get fixed.

Police guild? If you don't have enough money to pay for services, don't bother reporting the crime, and better make sure you aren't suspected of any crimes against a much richer person, you'll lose.

For many services a neighborhood might pool resources to get the service they need. All the shops along a road might pay to keep the road in good repair to encourage more shoppers to walk by their shops, or a middle class neighborhood might pay for some plumbing to have fresh water for the neighborhood and keep it running uninterrupted.

  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly the type of answer I needed! How would disputes be settled, though? Would the guild responsible for law enforcement have a sister guild who does the legislative and judicial worl? $\endgroup$
    – pimmen
    Jun 25, 2015 at 13:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @pontus There is a good chance that there would be a council likely made up of the different heads (or appointed) from the different guilds where disputes are settled. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Jun 25, 2015 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ Sort of like how company policy and decisions are formed by the stock owners represented by a board of directors, the guild council could have their seats for sale or seats could be divided by how much each spends on something. That would also give the guilds an incentive to spend on infrastructure! $\endgroup$
    – pimmen
    Jun 25, 2015 at 13:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @pontus: Another interesting angle is disputes between guilds. Do they go before the council (creates political intrigue), or are they negotiated privately between the affected guilds (presents the council as a unified organ)? $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Jun 26, 2015 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ The police guild is a great idea. Firemen guild, Mint guild... $\endgroup$
    – Joze
    Jun 26, 2015 at 9:56

A question regarding how the guilds might afford large infrastructure projects might be more informative if you were to invert it somewhat- what large infrastructure projects could the guilds not afford to ignore? Their money is largely going to derive from trade, so strong trade links and safe trade routes will benefit the guilds and the general population.

That's not the main reason you would build infrastructure though - it is also profitable. If the ferryman charges five silver to cross the river and you build a bridge and charge three silver to use it, you're going to make a lot of profit and probably put the ferry guy out of business, at which point you can charge even more!

Likewise roads are usually freely used now, but in the past ( and in France ) there were many turnpike roads, privately maintained which travelers were charged for.

Some guilds may have work that needs them to be able to bring in deep draft ships, so they'll need to maintain the harbour, keep it dredged, and to help finance that or maybe take a part of harbour fees in exchange.

There is an economic web involved in all of this. Large infrastructure projects that aren't viable for the guilds won't get done, but if there is something that people can be charged for, then the rewards in doing so are likely to be sufficiently attractive to the mercantile.


There is a number of options that have been already touched upon. If there is a demand for a particular service, people will find a way to provide it.

Medieval caveat

Keep in mind that medieval cities often didn't deliver the services you mention in the first place. Especially water supply was a sore point even after it was recognized how important it is - and that took a long time!

Localized services

Some of the items you've brought up (notably pavements) can and will be provided by the guilds themselves in their places of interest. Nobody wants to have a beautiful guildhouse surrounded by a swamp; similarly, places of trade need roads of at least some quality. People built roads without a central authority all throughout history as they do now.

Guilds can assume responsibility for specific parts of the city, with the rest being left to whoever is inclined to maintain them; probably whoever is living there or has to pass through.

The potential problem here is a hodgepodge of roads and pavings of highly varying quality and nature (although any medieval fantasy city is likely to have that anyway). Streets and roads can feature tolls, possibly applying only for some loads and travelers (e.g. wagons only) and can have weird rules for usage. Make sure to emphasize this during chases - in some places the heroes slip on the slick stones, in others they have to slow down to throw in a copper to pass. In yet others they can cross but must stay silent etc.

True Roman bread for true Romans

Guilds (hopefully) don't just focus on hoarding money, they also take care of their members and help out the wider community. They don't have to be altruistic at all - it makes perfect business sense to be seen doing good, especially if the guild members also profit.

The flipside of this approach is that much like today, the highly visible and popular projects will have priority over the necessary and boring.

The powerful guilds are also likely to try going at major projects alone, even if they can't really finish them. The lure of great income and/or prestige has brought many organizations down - and many will be eager to help them go down.


As pointed out by others, magic can make many tasks easier, especially in construction. You could also have priests cast repeated purifying spells on the water sources to supply the masses with clean water. (If you don't want to go outside of the guild structure, you can make those priests/magic users another type of guild, that everybody contributes to if they want water... just a thought.)

The downside of this is giving magic users a lot more influence and at the same time annoyance because they serve as common laborers. What could possibly go wrong?


A public fund could gather the money and resources needed for a vital piece of infrastructure. The project will be managed by a known group of people and may be well-defined in advance.

This approach can run into trouble when costs inevitably overshoot the budget, or someone refuses to pay up their IOU, do the promised work, etc. Public opinion can change and leave the project half-financed.

Part-time job

A number of guilds has agreed to cooperate on a long-term project. Each of them will work on it and finance it for a month or a number of months, taking turns.

There is of course the risk of some contributors dragging their feet, doing sub-par work or even sabotaging others to make their work shine more.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a great answer! $\endgroup$
    – Joze
    Jun 26, 2015 at 10:04

Taxes! "Guild fees"

All governments require a source of income to fund projects, even fundamental ones. Each member of the guild must pay a yearly, weekly or daily fee to be recognized as a member. However, large projects may be out of the scope of a single guild.

Mutual benefit and time/gain

Why exactly do they need the bridge. Is it merely for convenience sake? If so, the bridge won't likely be funded in a realistic amount of time, however, if the bridge happens to create a several hundred mile shortcut to a major trading site, then all the guilds interested in improving trade as well as the trading site will throw cash (and bricks) at it like crazy.

Unfortunately, the length of time each project requires can hinder their fulfillment. Bridges, roads and other structures can take a while to build and roads also have to be maintained albeit not as much as in modern times. In other words, the larger the project, the more resources and higher return needed.

Magical paving

All is not lost! Surely magic, enabling fireballs, explosions and other assorted deadliness, will have some method of improving build times. Earth wizards just became the most boring. Instead of laying countless bricks by hand and using heavy equipment to bring up bridges, 10-20 powerful wizards, via spells, rituals or other, simply and literally raise a bridge from the ground or flatten the roads while hardening them.

Definitely look for additional reading related to government project funding.


Err... You want a medieval city with running, healthy water? Now that IS fantasy!

Now on bridges, why not simply charge a toll for anyone who wants to use it? It's hardly unknown even today: most if not all of the bridges in the SF Bay Area charge tolls http://www.batolls.info/ as do ones in the New York metro area https://www.panynj.gov/bridges-tunnels/tolls.html

Same idea could be extended to highways and aqueducts: if people want water delivered, they pay a charge, as is done in many areas today. The people who invest the initial capital of course make a profit from it. This just requires that some entities - nobles, bankers, the guilds themselves - have access to the capital, and a long enough investment horizon.

Indeed, this is the way a lot of public capital construction is financed in the US (not sure about other countries). The state or local government doesn't put up the money directly; it issues bonds to raise the money, which are paid off over many years, typically through tax revenue, but it could easily be from income generated by the project itself.

PS: Some roads in medieval times actually were constructed this way, by groups organized for the purpose, who were recompensed by collecting tolls from users: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toll_road#Middle_ages Same was true in early America: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toll_roads_in_the_United_States

  • $\begingroup$ Well Macchu Picchu, Cuzco, Tenochtitlan and other cities had running healthy water. Admittedly that is late middle ages (1300's 1400's) but still medieval! $\endgroup$
    – Joze
    Jun 26, 2015 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Joze: They weren't medieval, though. That's a cultural description, not a time period. (And probably applies only to Europe and similar cultures.) Would you say that the inhabitants of say Australia or the Amazon had a medieval culture in that time? Also, I'd sure want some tests done before I assumed that the water in those cities was actually healthy! $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 26, 2015 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Well there have been a series of tests for the water that are conclusive on that regard (the aqueducts still exist and the water comes directly from mountain springs). You have a point about the culture though, it is reasonable to think that medieval also refers to a period of time however. $\endgroup$
    – Joze
    Jun 27, 2015 at 18:00

To completely de-centralize the administration of public services, each guild could own a portion of the land in your city-state and operate that land as its own sub-state. A guild's state would have to strike a financial balance between focusing on revenue-generating guild operations and the expense of forming an environment which is attractive enough to bring in the kind of citizens which lend to the guild's ethos. Guilds are therefore competing to some degree over citizens, which drives them to provide better living conditions. Guilds which are too small to provide for all of their citizens' needs on their own could buy the services of larger neighboring guilds.

Guilds on the city-state's border would get discounts on interior states' military services, as they are the first line of defense against invaders and therefore act as the city-state's protectors. Guilds owning land through which aqueducts pass are paid by guilds farther down the duct so that water is permitted to flow to them, and guilds without aqueduct access pay to access water from those with aqueducts.

Each guild has something the rest of the city-state needs, be it the resources of its land or the guild's particular services and products. Everything is driven by profit and an implied code of honorable business conduct. Guilds straying from this code in self-interest are shunned, eventually withering and being absorbed by neighboring guilds.

I won't speculate on the success of such a system in the real world, but as far as fiction goes this arrangement gives you tremendous narrative flexibility and, IMO, is generally believable.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .