Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but sound advice can help ease the way.
Today’s tips cover how to assemble a great larp (or Halloween!) costume.
Geoffrey Schaller recommends starting small:
Take it easy. Rome wasn’t built in a day! Start simple, and gradually add to it over time. “Get dressed” as your persona. Assuming this isn’t for a cosplay as a specific character, or a one-time event like a Halloween party, you can keep adding bits to your costume each time you wear it. It’s one thing to hear “Nice costume” – it’s another to hear “Wow, you’re costume’s improved over the past few months – I can’t wait to see what’s next!”
It doesn’t have to be fancy, says Emma Wieslander:
Keep it simple, make sure it’s functional for the game and for the location. Ask If you can borrow some of the stuff and focus on a tunic or top that says something about your character. Take real patterns and use them as a base if you are going to sow from scratch. Often you can find stuff at second hand stores and alter.
The elusive Liz recommends thrift stores for costuming on the cheap:
I feel it is important for first time larpers to get the best costume they can for the least amount of money. The easiest way to do this is shop thrift stores. No matter what genre you are going to be playing you can find something that will work and for very little money.
If you are handy with sewing you can alter the costume to suit your character better. The other option is the entirely sew yourself a costume. Patterns will only set you back a few dollars and since you can buy out of print patterns on the internet, you can make pretty much anything you could want. Though, be warned that higher-end fabrics can cost you almost as much as buying a professionally made garment.
Do NOT buy from a trendy store, the clothing will not stand up to the rigors of larping and costs a lot more.
The details count for a lot, according to Anna Westerling:
Accessorize! You can have a fairly simple costume, and then add accessories to put it in the right era of time or to mark the qualities of your character. For example, use a fan if your character is flirtatious, a book if your character is learned or wear a lot of color if your character is artistic.
Buy strategically, Avonelle Wing says:
Don’t feel like you have to go buy everything from scratch. If you do buy something new, either buy something with enormous impact, like a flashy wig, a signature doublet or a quirky hat, OR buy items that can be repurposed into your real life or future costumes.
As an example, over a decade ago, I bought two black ballgown skirts on clearance after the holiday season. I’ve used those skirts for vampires, gypsies, dignitaries, wizards and faeries. I’ve lent them out, I’ve mended one of them twice. Since I know I like playing flouncy female characters, this was a GREAT investment for me. If you prefer playing skulky, shadowy, edgy characters, maybe your splurge is a leather jacket from the thrift store.
Look at what you’re playing. identify the basic shape of costuming–is it pants, shirt, utility vest? is it skirt, bodice, cleavage? Scavenge your wardrobe and then add the signature piece/color/theme. Going monochromatic is a fast way make a strong visual impact.
For a campaign, don’t commit to an entire wardrobe until you’ve settled into the character and really know what you need. And don’t sink a lot of money into the costume until you’ve played the character in the space you’ll be in. I worked up awesome theoretical armor for a boffer game I play. And once I wore it, I realized it needed MASSIVE adjustments. (Any armor that makes it tricky to use visit the little gamer’s room is suspect at an all-weekend event. any armor you can’t put on single-handedly? also suspect. Any armor that ends up twisting and bunching up when you break into a jog? Unacceptable.)
Theoretical costuming often falls apart in a physical world. Test it before you commit to it.
Cassie recommends pockets and vacuuming:
The best advice I can give is this: make sure your outfit has pockets of some kind. Whether they’re regular pockets in your pants, hidden ones sewn into the lining, or even just belt pouches, do not neglect the pockets! You may not need to carry your wallet and phone, but larps have plenty of other things you’ll need to keep track of and access easily. Think carefully about what your character might be carrying, besides what is logistically needed (like character cards). You might have in-game currency, potions, item cards, plus small props or tools for your character. You will need a way to carry all of these that does not involve constantly setting them down on the nearest table.
Other practical concerns: If you’re larping outside, you need to take the weather into account. If you’re just starting out, consider wearing a costume that you can easily hide mundane clothing underneath. Later on, you might consider having summer and winter outfits, with some removable outer pieces for those autumn and spring days when the temperature changes wildly. Even if you’re larping inside, hotel temperature control is notorious for being too hot or cold, so again, consider layering your costume pieces.
What kind of larp is it? Is it a boffer larp, where you’ll be running around a lot? Is it a vampire larp, where you’ll be lounging like the sexy beast you are on the nearest couch? Whatever the style, make sure you can move in your outfit in the ways you will be moving in the larp. Wear the costume at least once before you go to the larp, so that you can tell early on if it’s going to be restricting or uncomfortable in any way, or if you’ll need help at the larp to put it on. Something I’ve heard often, and used to great benefit, is to vacuum the house in your costume. If you can’t do that, you have no business wearing that outfit, and if you’ve sewn the outfit yourself the activity will test all the seams.
Last piece of advice: good footwear is key. Larp is all about getting up and moving around, and you will be standing for a good portion of it. Four-inch heels may look great, but if you’re not already used to wearing them for long periods of time, you’re going to spend most of the larp surreptitiously looking for ways to sit down. Practical footwear in solid black or brown is a good choice for your first costume. A good work boot will blend in well with many costumes; ladies, if the larp is going to be inside and requires you to dress all fancy-like, consider wearing dressy flats instead of heels.
If you keep the practical aspects of the costume in mind while you’re planning, it will go further towards your enjoyment of the game than having a pretty outfit in which you can’t actually play. Your role-playing is the star of the show, not your clothes, so don’t wear things that will take your attention away from the game!
Think about your character’s mentality, and the game’s setting says Sarah Bowman:
Costume pieces are like power items for your character. Often, when we don our costume, it helps us get more deeply immersed in the mentality of the character. Think about your character concept as you shop, not just what you would personally choose to wear in the mundane world.
If you see another player whose style you particularly admire, feel free to ask them where they shop or if they are willing to give you pointers. Some players even hold workshops for costume, weapon, and prop-making. Most role-players love to help newbies, so don’t be shy!
Spend some time ritualizing the donning of your costume before game. Allow the costume to take you into the mindset of your character. If you are applying makeup or accessories, take your time and allow that transformation to take place both externally and internally. A well-designed costume can help decrease the nervousness you may feel before game, for both you and for the other players.
Nuance has a place, but not in a larp costume, according to Michael Pucci:
Don’t be subtle! Go over the top as you design the costume and think to yourself, “What are the signature items that truly make this character’s costume?” Every character has something that is key to them, and only them… be it a certain jacket, hat, or walking stick make sure you assign that item to that character and that character only. That way as your costume changes and evolves, people will still recognize the character by the key costume items.
Make sure your costume is something that you are willing to wear the entire time you are playing your character because players removing costuming bits is on par with girls at a prom removing their shoes.
See if your game has costuming they lend out, Amber Eagar says:
I’ve found it common for games to have loaner costuming that they can let you borrow if you don’t have anything at all, though check on this earlier rather than later as you may need to make special arrangements for it.
When in doubt, wear black, Jeramy Merritt urges:
Black t-shirt, black sweat pants, black sneakers. As far as costumes go, it is pretty lousy. It really isn’t a costume at all. What it is however is unobtrusive and cheap. If you don’t have them already, you can probably snag these articles for less than $20. If you are just going to check out a game, or you’ve never larped before and don’t want to make the investment, this is about as simple as it gets.
And finally, Aaron Vanek reminds us not to forget practical concerns:
- mobility – can you move with ease? This is extremely important if you are in a live combat larp with physical action
- comfort – is it warm enough, too warm, does it chafe, can you breathe in that corset? Remember that most larps are four hours or longer. Can you stand to be in that outfit all day and all night?
- pockets – seriously, you need a way of carrying character sheets, in-game info, spell components, whatever. And if you don’t have any of that to start, you might get some later on, and you need to keep it on you
Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member. He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.
Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.
Liz has been larping for ten years and her first costume (which was for Knight Realms) cost her $6 and that included shoes. She didn’t learn how to sew until she had been larping for 4 years.
Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year. She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.
Cassie tries to be a modern renaissance nerd, which mostly results in a mess in her living room, a closet dedicated to costuming, and a lot of soldering accidents. She also writes a blog about gaming and nerd culture.
Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.
Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media. He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.
Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.
Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.
Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.
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Other First-Time Guides