Carrying a sword (or any other weapon) on the back is frequently seen in fantasy games and movies (and not limited to them). In this post, I’ll look into some parts of this.
There are many articles and videos on that matter over the internet, so I’ll keep this one brief. Drawing a weapon from a sheath carried across the back is only possible with a short weapon – even one-handed sword might be troublesome. It might be better with some looser system than a sheath (sheath fixed only at the shoulder point or a harness) but it’s still slower to draw it overhead. Finding material on this matter is not hard so I’ll leave that be. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts why I believe this is used so much.
Movies face a bit more obstacles than games as they are more constrained by reality (specifically, human anatomy). One of the videos on this topic I saw pointed out that they never show the full move because of the fact it’s not possible – they show a character reaching for the weapon, then switch the angle and suddenly the character has the weapon in hand, ready to be used.
There might be the simple reason that “it just looks cool” – and it does, in some cases. Slow-mo drawing the blade overhead in the rising sun, preparing a heroic speech – that’ll make a memorable image and a good poster material.
However, I’ve come to realize another thing: most characters look like they have no needs at all, carrying nothing but their weapon – no backpack with food and anything else they might need on their journey (compare it to me who carries backpack with food, spare clothes and a lot of water for one-day hike). Why, then, would they let the blade sway at their hip when they can sling it over their shoulder in a scabbard that won’t move at all? Especially when it can look cooler?
It’s a paradox that this immovable scabbard is what would prevent the weapon from being drawn. It also points at one of the potential uses: for prolonged walks, the blade might be better placed on the back. Yet, at the moment you need to be able to draw it quickly, it’ll do a disservice. Hence, looser fixing is better for times when the weapon might be actually needed.
Video games have different reasons for placing weaponry on a character’s back. Since many fantasy games have the camera follow the character, it’s the only way for the player to see their hard-earned gear when not fighting – and enjoy its look because there’s no time for that in combat.
Something that follows the point made at the end of the previous section is shown by the screenshot from Witcher 3 game: Geralt actually wears a harness that is not so fixed – and thus it sways when moving. While it would be less comfortable in reality, it allows for the easier drawing of the weapons – though I can’t say I know at what weapon length would it stop being possible.
Many games don’t bother with any kind of sheaths. The reason is simple – with thousands of different types and shapes of weapons, creating a specific sheath for each of them would multiply the amount of work to be done. It also allows it to look cool and directly show (off) the player’s gear. It also hides the fact that drawing most of such weapons would be outright impossible due to their shape – if it was even possible to create a sheath/scabbard for them.
Another reason is that many weapons are out of proportion (read: extremely large). Weapons attached at the waist in this kind of games is usually done by having a single fixed attachment point and an angle at which the weapon is pointed downward. Sometimes, even one-handed weapons are long enough to pass into the ground and thus the only way to avoid then being half-buried in the ground is to put them on the back. It has more issues, such as clipping into parts of armor, but those are minor compared to dragging your valuable blade through the dirt.
My learning curve
Since I’ve spent a lot of time playing games, some of these facts were unknown to me at the point I started writing. Discovering these facts led me to rethink some aspects. Some scenes in my work-in-progress story were changed or rewritten based on what I learned – I had the character use a tighter harness for his backup weapon carried on the back but moved his main weapon to the waist. There’s a scene when he decides to use the longer (usually secondary) blade and instead of unsheathing it overhead, he just pulls the scabbard’s strap overhead and drops it once the weapon is free.
I’ll wrap it up here. Feel free to leave your own opinions on this matter – whether just on seeing it or having some personal experience.