I have an confession to make. It’s sort of an embarrassing condition for a LRPer, and doubly so for someone who runs LRP games that extol the virtues of good costume.
I hate costume.
I don’t mean the physical thing of course, I don’t have an actual hatred for bits of material and props and stuff. No, what I really absolutely loathe with a passion is the process of getting a costume together.
The hatred is visceral and deep seated. I very nearly failed to turn up for a LRP event for which I had paid £200 because when faced with the prospect of having to get a costume together for it – I just couldn’t bear the thought of having to go through that awful experience. In the end I did go, but “work avoidance” hit so bad, that I put off the need to sort costume for nine months… getting steadily more desperate with every passing day as I did literally anything other than sort my costume. In the end I threw myself on the tender mercy of a friend who doesn’t LRP – and they helped me sort a costume. Sort of the one-eyed man leading the wilfully blind.
I accept I could be wrong, but I think there are some people in our hobby who enjoy sorting costume. In my head this is a bit like enjoying the prospect of root canal treatment without anaesthetic. How can anyone enjoy something so agonisingly painful, so unpleasant? I don’t actually spend much time wondering how they do enjoy it, what I find more interesting is why I hate it so much. I have a sneaking suspicion that while I might be something of a caricature on the subject, for once I represent normal.
For me, for something to be this painful, two conditions need to be met. (1) it needs to be something I’m really bad at and (2) it needs to be something that is very important. I’m really bad at cooking – I mean desperately bad at cooking, but I never give that a moments thought because it’s just food so it doesn’t really matter – at least it doesn’t in our house. I’m really bad at loads of things, but most of the time they’re just not important. It needs to be important to cause me pain.
What I consider important can change over time. Like many LRPers, I’m desperately bad at football. At school I was only saved the embarrassment of being picked last each day by the existence of the overweight kid. Being good at football was the basic requirement for social acceptance. Being unable to dribble, shoot, or pass meant bullying and isolation. I responded in my usual “f*** you” manner by refusing to participate at all – which was a problem when the law mandates regular physical bullying sessions in school. The result was frequent detentions and an enduring hated for our “national sport”.
After university came an epiphany. I was suddenly part of a social group that played football for exercise and for fun, rather than as a means for identifying targets for bullying and social ostracism. Suddenly football was FUN! I mean I was still hilariously awful – we would all laugh at my utter inability to do *anything* other than a frantic waddle. I play football like a penguin being chased over snow by a polar bear – but now it didn’t matter anymore. And once it didn’t matter…. it stopped being painful and immediately became fun.
I’m bad at sorting costume. Making it is not a problem. Making things is a technical thing – I’m not very good at it, but really any idiot can thread a sewing machine and push the pedal. You just follow the instructions. Anyone can thread a needle and push it through some material. Of course I’m a bit cack handed and I struggle with any pattern more complicated than a cloak – but I’ve made lots of kit, the making of it is just a thing.
It’s *thinking* about costume that I hate. Trying to work out what it should look like. Trying to decide what colour it should be, what shape, what material. I’m desperately bad at this. Which bits of costume to put with which. It’s not a technical matter – what looks right, what looks good – it’s a matter of taste. And I don’t have any. As a result I find the entire process excruciating. It’s like trying to think in five dimensions, or trying to imagine what a new colour looks like. My five year old daughter already exhibits far more clothes sense than I will ever have. My brain just can’t do it.
Yeah, yeah, whine, whine, who gives a shit? I’m bad at lots of things – they don’t cause me pain like this one – why is this one so important to me that it is capable of tormenting me like this? That’s what is I find fascinating – why is this such a big deal? LRP’s just a game, it’s just for fun.
I didn’t use to care. When I first started LRPing I was part of a club which made leather armour using brown furniture leatherette. If we wanted studded leather armour… we put paperclips through the leatherette. Kit standards were not great, but you wore armour so that you could get Armour Class 17 – it didn’t matter what it looked like!
Then I went to my first national LRP event and suddenly I met LRPers who had great looking kit. Briefly I experienced some of the old familiar anxiety. Was my kit good enough? Would I look stupid? But my friends assured me that my leatherette armour with 8,000 curtain rings sewed to it and a shield made of cardboard was good enough and off I went. I soon discovered there were people with gaffer tape weapons and Karrimat armour – whew… I was ok.
In the years that followed, kit standards steadily improved – but I learned to freeload. If I was going to an event then I’d get myself in a group with friends going – we’d agree the kit together (they would agree, I would nod). Without realising it, I was making two mistakes – I was seeking out events where kit standards were promoted – because I enjoyed them more. But I was also getting to know an awful lot of people – this is a great hobby full of great people. As I got to know them… I became friends with them… and suddenly I cared what they thought.
And then the worst mistake of all, I started running events – professionally – that stressed the benefits of good costume. And what that means is that if I don’t have at least bearable costume… then I don’t just look stupid – I also look like a fraud and a hypocrite in front of my friends. So suddenly I care immensely about something I know I’m horrendously bad at. And that means that preparing for an event suddenly becomes unbearably painful – at least it does if I have to make my own costume choices.
Now I imagine that most folks don’t have to worry about their professional reputation when considering their LRP costume, (although I suspect that is a problem for some LRP traders), but I know from talking to LRPers over the years that I’m not the only one who suffers from this anxiety. The truth is that it’s a lot more common in our hobby than we think and by and large we don’t talk about it.
Why? Why on earth would we care? I mean seriously, this is a game, we do it for FUN. How could it possibly be important what we look like when we’re dressing up as elves and goblins and pretending to cast spells at each other? Get a grip right?
To look at it differently for a moment, why wouldn’t we care? In the real world people are obsessed with their image. Maybe it’s cultural, a product of society, maybe it’s genetic and we’re all just peacocks dragging round enormous tails. Whatever the reason, few people would coherently argue that human beings are disinterested in their appearance. We don’t have a global fashion industry worth billions because appearance is just silly and nobody really cares. Our sense of our self, of who we are, is intimately wrapped up in our appearance. I’m not concerned here with the ethics of why our self-esteem is so tightly wrapped up with our appearance – I’m simply pointing out the blatant truism that it is.
If there are deep-rooted psychological or genetic reasons why our appearance is massively important to us – then it seems to me that it would be incredible if that didn’t bleed into LRP. Sure, this is “just for fun”… but actually most of life is “just for fun”. When teenagers go nightclubbing, it’s just for fun – but judging from the time and money invested, when we socialise is precisely when our concerns about our appearance are most powerful.
The moment we start to make an issue of costume, encouraging each other to make an effort with our kit then I’d expect to see some negative responses in terms of people feeling anxious, awkward, or concerned. The plural of anecdote is not data, but talking to LRPers – and to other organisers I’ve accumulated scores of war-stories that expose exactly this kind of concern, expressed in many different ways. And alongside that, what I’ve seen again and again is amazement from organisers “Why would anyone feel like this?” and guilt from players “I know it’s silly to feel embarrassed over this but…” as if the problem was them.
Up to now that’s always been an intellectual concern to me, albeit one that impacts my games heavily. I desperately want players to make an effort with their kit – the more effort they make the better the game is. But *nobody* wants their players to be intimidated, anxious, or upset by the thought of joining the game. Yet I think we have a hobby half full of people worried about their costume yet run by organisers who are amazed that anyone would worry about their costume. I’ve given some talks on this subject, trying to look at why it happens and what we can do about it. But I’d made two core mistakes – firstly I assumed this was a problem caused by bullying and public criticism and secondly I assumed the people suffering lacked confidence.
What surprised me this year, having gone to play an event which had high kit aspirations and for which I had no existing costume – was how visceral my own response to those fears was. I worried for nine months on the run-up. I worried all the way through the event. And after the event I looked at the photos and thought “Oh man, I look stupid, my kit is awful”. I’m an incredibly confident person – I wouldn’t argue with the word “arrogant”, yet I felt unhappy about my self-image. I had assumed that this problem was a lack of confidence for the people experiencing it – but I don’t meet many people with more confidence than me. Yet here I was experiencing the exact same problem and of course I think of myself as perfectly normal. Well perhaps that should be “normal for LRP” but you see my point.
Going forwards, I hope we see costume standards improve over the next decade the way they have over the last. But to make that happen with as little pain as possible, I think we need to seek out ways to encourage people to want better costume while trying not to heighten anxieties about how we look. That won’t be easy but I think it helps to talk about the problem so that we recognise and acknowledge it. People who write about LRP in our hobby don’t seem to talk about it much, so either I’m the only one who feels this way – or it really is a problem that is going undiscussed. Talk doesn’t solve anything, but you can’t solve a problem you don’t know you have. The first thing we need to do is make it acceptable to be honest about how we feel about our appearance in LRP.
Whatever happens I think the starting point needs to be the realisation and acceptance that our appearance in front of our peers is as important in LRP as it is to normal people in the real world.