Striking A Balance: Reality vs. Fantasy


Photos from Deviant Art and Final FantasyXIV

Hey folks! Something I see more and more every day is discussions about realism in fantasy. As someone interested in history, but is also a huge fantasy nerd, it’s something I would really enjoy talking about.  So, for your viewing pleasure, I put above two reasonable examples of each side. The left is a drawing from a Deviant Art page that seems to represent a medieval infantryman wearing plate armor and carrying something akin to what appears to be a hand and a half, or bastard, sword. This guy historically would have had to been pretty rich to afford that armor and blade, but the structure of the image at face value is very realistic in comparison to archaeological finds. Then on the right, we have some sort of knight from Final Fantasy (not a game I’m familiar with) wearing terribly spiky armor with a low visibility helmet and a ludicrously large blade, something the franchise seems to be famous for.

So where am I going with this? Well, the most fun (for me) in a tabletop setting seems to be somewhere in the middle of realism and over the top fantasy. As a fan of history, seeing works, be it stories, movies or games, that pay close attention to the detail of real arms and armor hits a bit of a soft spot with me. Real arms and armor serve as a good model for one simple reason: It worked! Armor had one function and that was to protect the wearer. Armor evolved over time because weapons were being similarly modified to combat the quality of armor. But here we see the creators of such things in our world focused balance between protection and mobility because they’re held to the cruel laws of our reality. Fantasy arms and armor seem to take this concept and say, “To hell with that!” and just create anything and everything that looks cool.

A great sword is one hell of a weapon, even when crafted conservatively. That beast in the picture on the right would be hard to swing at the broad side of a barn effectively, never mind hit a living being that wants to protect itself. But it looks so damn cool! It’s a shame that it doesn’t make sense in real life.

This is where we find our middle ground. I suppose this post will turn into a GM advice post approximately… Now.

In a creative game setting, finding your perfect middle ground is totally subjective to your group. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with crazy, over the top fantasy if your players find it amazingly fun, but hear me out. Having some sense of realism in your fantasy world reinforces the fact that player choices have consequences that the may or may not like. If you describe something that sounds closely related to the world we live in, it gives the setting weight. At the same time, a fantasy setting should have the marvelous, strange and wonderful in certain places as well. It helps bring about that surreal feeling of magic and awe. Usually, with arms and armor, I tend to keep my descriptions more on the real side, with a slight touch of fantasy. A perfect example of this would be Link’s Master Sword from the Legend of Zelda. Ultimately, the sword design is a little sketchy as far as a functional sword. However, at first glance, it’s marvelously beautiful and brings about that sense of mystical power. Another good example is the visual representation of Ice from the Game of Thrones television series. The design of the sword is plausible when compared to real swords, but it’s on steroids because it’s over sized. I’ll be blunt and admit that I’m not sure if headsman’s swords ever existed, but I suppose it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility (though, likely expensive).


Deviant Art

On the flip side, being a little too realistic can sap your fun. Plate armor is a total beast to carry around for long periods of time. It’s heavy, it’s  relatively hard to move and even harder to see out of while fighting. If this translates to the game in a mechanical sense, it makes plate armor an unappealing thing to pick.  Nobody wants to play a Fighter if you take a -4 penalty to all attacks and suffer half your base speed because it’s heavy. That ruins a player’s initial character concept and may be largely discouraging. Though that rule would be realistic, it’s not exactly fun.


Realism can be fun, but a mix between realism and fantasy is really the best way to bring the smiles to the table. If your Fighter can’t jump across the ravine and behead the orc before his boots hit the ground because his armor is too heavy, it’s a drag. If your Fighter does three cart wheels followed by a front flip before beheading the orc though, well… yeah. For my group and I, realistic imagery with the absurd fantasy stunt in an epic moment makes for the most enjoyable gaming experience. Find what works best for your group, what works best for your style of story. Above all else, for goodness sake, have fun!

Stay Metal \m/

One Comment on “Striking A Balance: Reality vs. Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Gaming in a New City – The Heavy Metal GM

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