Thursday, December 3, 2020

Four level of Fantasy in Aesthetics (for Equipment/Items)

Originally, this was designed to be a Vagueposting article, but it's clear enough it doesn't need to be- though it is quite ranty. This is also a general listing of ideas that isn't necessarily tied into anything specific, obviously you could have mix-and-match elements of all of these levels, but it's organized in this fashion to make it a simple little d4 table, maybe if you're generating a fantasy setting with random rolls. This table is also specifically about the appearances of items, either in their description, materials, or actual artstyle as they appear in a video game or other visual medium. The actual power level or fantastical power of these items tends to be related but not always, and is mostly separate from this table.

Before we begin, I also want to stress that this is not an objective reviewing of these aesthetic “levels” as levels of quality or “realism”. I personally find value and enjoyment in ALL levels of this proposed grading scale; I see why some people might be bugged by things like overly decorative armor, huge weapons, bikini-mail and the like; to some it may detract from the experience. But on the other hand it also stresses the unreality of the world and plays into willing suspension of disbelief and can better communicate a growth or power scale- it totally depends on the story or kind of fantasy setting scale you want to set in your writing or play.

4 Levels of Fantastical Equipment Aesthetics
– Roll 1d4
[1] Mundania
Equipment is very much based on real world historical or inferred historical examples. Low tier or starting equipment may be rusted or broken, low quality stuff. If using a material scale it will typically be very simple- such as going from Bronze to Iron to Steel to “Better Steel” or like mythril and meteorite metal and what have you as fantasy material. High tier or “end game” equipment maybe extremely well crafted full plate mail or enchanted swords, but they will mostly just appear as real world swords would, though unusually shiny or perhaps mildly decorated with gems or gold in the most extreme of examples.

This tier of equipment-aesthetics doesn't necessarily mean equipment is less impactful or less powerful, though there tends to be a correlation between the two. For example, a sword like Excalibur can be extremely powerful or just “destined” for greatness in some way, even if it doesn't appear too much more fantastical then just a really high quality, somewhat ornate sword.

For this level of Fantastical Equipment-Aesthetics, I would put things like folklore/free domain art, The Witcher, Conan, and similar settings with “low fantasy” aesthetics, even though the actual magic or supernatural elements in the setting could be quite high. You could also tie in real world artifacts of special items or biblical fantasy stuff in a way; the Shroud of Turin for example is incredibly important and could be a very powerful relic in a modern fantasy esque world, but it's actual appearance is not fantastic or especially ornate. Obviously, any historical fantasy game or universe like Mount & Blade, Chivalry, Kingdom Come Deliverance and so forth all also belong in this tier. It'd also put Dark Souls at just a bit above this level; Dark Souls is well known for being really gritty and dark, but it still has certain fantasy aesthetics in the form of huge weapons, overly heavy armors, and some unreal designs for various equipment that the players can use or that enemy “humanoid” enemies can use- I'd put Dark Souls at something like a 1.5 to 1.7. Since we're on the subject, Bloodborne gets a much heavier rating, closer to a 3.5 or even a solid 4 on this list, not because of its grittiness but because of the unreality of all of its weapons, since those mechanical weapons are a pretty solid fit in that upper category.

Fantasy Sprinklings
In this fantasy world, most equipment, armor, and items tend to fall into the “close to real world practicality though too ornamental or unusual to be based on real historical models”. It is also common to see lower tier items or equipment be based on real historical examples, with only the end game or highest tier of magical or powerful weapons or armor be more fantastical or highly ornamental. Something like a bit of parade gear actually being the most powerful armor around, or a magic sword actually glowing, being on fire when drawn, pulsing with energy while otherwise being a mostly practical blade, etc.

This tier of fantasy equipment tends to imply worlds where the really powerful or crazy stuff is uncommon and hidden away, a bit towards the “low fantasy” spectrum, though obviously these aren't very defined terms we're using here. (Yes, we all already know the literary definition, nobody uses it because it's bad, I don't use it and will not mention it for the remainder of this essay.) Typically speaking most items may be of a grounded power level, as long as the world is not operating off of super video game or fantasy TTRPG logic- a steel sword is just a really good sword. But only the magical sword of truth which can slay dragons and is crazy indestructible and sharp and all that is allowed to have an unusual or unique appearance, and it tends to have a heavy power jump to fit. I'd also lump here a lot of fantasy stuff where most weapons/items are relatively grounded with only enchanted items having runes or special decorations that mark them as such; another good example might be Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup how you can tell if something is enchanted (but not necessarily cursed) by it being a “glowing” item as opposed to just a regular item.

As for common settings; I'd argue that Lord of the Rings, several TTRPG settings, and Harry Potter fit under this umbrella. Note- while Harry Potter is very much higher magic/higher fantasy then most of the fantasy settings we're discussing here, the actual appearances of the items and equipment is relatively grounded FOR THE STANDARDS of the setting. For example, I can't think of any examples of any Wizards carrying super crazy sparkling magic wands, faster broomsticks aren't really that much crazier then normal flying broomsticks, they're just more enchanted or made from a better “brand” of magical item makers, the “deluxe” model. Lord of the Rings is also relatively grounded in this sense, but many items are clearly fantastical (such as elven stuff, or the rings of power) which push it just out of the range of totally grounded “mundania” for me. Of course, Lord of the Rings (movies usually) is the poster child for “low fantasy grounded aesthetics that aren't trying TOO hard to be realistic”. Orc weapons/armor from the movies are also something that is pretty grounded in how it is presented while still being totally fantastical.

I'd also like to throw my hat in here for Zelda (pre-BotW) to be about this level. Most things aren't realistic by any means and have a specific aesthetic, but most things in that fantasy setting don't break or over complicate that aesthetic. (Also, the only reason I'm separating Breath of the Wild Zelda is because of the Sheikah technology and elemental weapons being highly separated from real world designs. I'd lump BotW Zelda in with the third category where the high fantasy artstyle of items is more prevalent. For referance, I'd put the Master Sword at a solid 1 to 2 on this list.)

High Fantasy
In this level, items and equipment may be made of wildly different materials or be heavily ornamented. This is also where you get things like constantly glowing or burning magic items, highly ornamented weapons, extremely oversized weapons, or just straight up fantastical weapons like chain whips or throwing cards/coins as actual viable tactics. Once against, it's not like these can't exist at lower levels, they just aren't as common.

This out of all the fantasy setting aesthetic levels is most likely to have a “tier list” of fantasy materials- starting at iron/steel for low level items, advancing towards magical crystals for weapons/armors, fantasy metals creating truly absurd gear, things that are more meant to look cool other then function, though because of stats or magical power they can still function even better then a more practical or grounded weapon. We also get a lot of stuff like bone, wood, or stone armor and weapons to match at around this level. Usually only the lower tier or starting weapons are in any way based on real world designs or looks, with fantastical items quickly making up the ranks or levels of power as opposed to typical metallic weapons or armors.

I would say a large number of High-Fantasy video games fit in this level; Elder Scrolls is a good example, though I'd maybe put it at a 2.8~ level for most of it. This level is pretty strongly fitting towards most MMORPGs, including World of Warcraft. I know a lot of people have a problem with the game's aesthetic in terms of realism- especially the pauldrons. I do think that WoW has some very strong unreality present in its items, but its stuff is still usually meant to appear as protective armor or damaging weapons. They are pretty strongly routed in the 3.5 to 4th level, with only starting gear resembling a more “realistic” artstyle. Once again, it's a gradient.

I'd also put Dota 2 and League of Legends around this level too- some characters are more grounded, but the art of many of the items you can buy in the game (if taken literally as being that's what weapon you'd use to fight with) could be thought of being much more fantastical then a more grounded setting- I'd put many of these items in the solid 3.5 to even level 4 for some of them; since some characters fight with literal rips in space and time, but others are just fighting with oversized swords and big golden armor.

This level, which I actually struggle to come up for good examples for, is for settings with almost no connection to reality. Most equipment or items have no similarities to real world items or equipment other then basic forms or general ideas. It's also perfectly possible for these to be presented in a grounded or mundane way, but the items themselves are very much made for and designed for the secondary world space.

In this level we see two vague categories. In one, we have a total rejection of real world materials at all; items may be made from crystals or glowing ores that have no connection to real world items at all. The second is where materials or basic colors/textures are not unusual; items may still be made of metals and the like, but they are simply twisted into forms that are impossible or downright unfitting- we can see examples like this in various JRPGs with characters using weapons like dolls or actual volley (blitz) balls as weapons.

As above; examples I'd like to give for this level are things like the Monster Hunter series (where even starting weapons are hugely oversized because you're fighting huge monsters, of course), and various JRPGs with their very imagination-driven character design. Cloud's Buster Sword and Squall's Gunblade are classically cited examples of unreal/fantastical items and weapons- this level could be considered the quintessential "anime" level and has quite a few Eastern influences, if that wasn't obvious.

As for more Western influences; Warhammer 40k also fits into this level with its super decorated, highly stylized models and artwork. Obviously things like cartoon-inspired settings like Banjo & Kazooie or Kid's Next Door (or 40k Orks) with everything being a jury-rigged contraption could also be roped into this level, if you count the unreality of how the item would actually function and the absurdity of the situation as being part of the “aesthetic” of the item which is otherwise made of relatively normal and understandable materials or in a normalized shape. While not an expert in the subject, I feel as though Warhammer 40k is a bit stronger towards this level then Warhammer fantasy, which for much of it I could put in the high 3 ish level scale, perhaps a 3.8 for fantasy, since we have a higher tolerance for that kind of the thing there as opposed to in science fiction, but that's just my opinion. Finally; truly absurd world-scapes like Wonderland are clearly at about this level of unreality, since that's their intention from the start.

1 comment:

  1. The Warhammer settings mix their levels by having some elements or factions drawing heavily from Mundania: pikemen and musketeers straight out of Early Modern Germany, for instance, or soldiers who differ most clearly from a soldier of the Red Army in that their gun shoots lasers not bullets. There's a few older illustrations of Imperial Guardsmen that make it clear that they would best be modelled using historical miniatures, not anything space-age.
    I think it can be stated fairly confidently that Warhammer Fantasy got thrust closer to Absurdia with the Age of Sigmar reboot - hence the bull-helmet elves, or sharks suspended in an aetheric tide, or four-armed skeleton warriors.
    Of course, even the mundane can be thrust into the absurd - as the Grail Reliquae, the blessed corpse of a paladin ported about by angry ragged peasants. Not strictly fantastical, but still absurd.