What To Wear: Costuming as Information

Costume Briefs are often associated with games that have exacting and intimidating costume standards, but looking individually stunning is perhaps the least important aspect of a costume from a game design point of view[1].

The clothes on the backs of each player constructs a world[2]. Their costume conveys information about who they are and that is part and parcel of a well realised setting. At a glance, one should be able to tell who someone is. And that information does not need to be conveyed with elaborate and beautiful clothing. The wardrobe of a game can be entirely composed of unhemmed tabards scribbled over with sharpie, but as long as the faction sigil is clear and that information is conveyed, that basics of that world is in place.

In other words: as the player adorns themselves accordingly, the brief should inform them what “accordingly” means.

Most costumes briefs start by describing how a typical member of that culture would dress, and this is useful. After all, knowing what base layers to default to, be it chiton or t-tunic, is useful. But we are not all playing typical characters.

Thus, the first question I would ask is this: What sorts of people exist in the world of this game and which are the signifiers that matter?

If this is a setting where wealth matters, it should be possible to tell a rich character from a poor character. If this is a setting where factional allegiance or national identity is important, then that should equally be obvious. If fashion is key, then the brief should outline ways in which one can look fashionable and more importantly, how to look unfashionable. Is religion matter and if so are there hats or surplices or stoles to distinguish a priest from the laity, a monk from a bishop, etc?

Think of milestones in a characters life, the things that matter to them and the things the culture would be interested in knowing at a glance about any given person. If a culture has a strong emphasis on marriage and marital alliances are a key part of the game, then marital status should perhaps be easily visible. If a culture confers different status to people who pass their tests or ordeals of various sorts, then that too should be visible[3].

This is, of course, not to say that every priest must wear their clerical collar at all times. Or that married person can’t choose not to wear a wedding ring, but that choice signifies something. Just as a warrior may take off their armour when there is no fight impending and don something suitable for a dance, different circumstances call for different garb and that too is a nuance worth noting.

Clothes are a language of symbols that we speak with our bodies. We wear our identities and thus communicate to each other. In writing a culture, I would want that vocabulary to be available to each player so that they may make those decisions when it comes to defining their character’s identity.

Moreover, if left undefined, players will often reach for shorthands from the real world and that can feel jarring or simply uninspired. That said, too divorced from the real world and the signifiers can become unevocative. There is a middle ground between every culture having a white wedding dress and the players having to relearn every bit of visual shorthand.

But above all, the options for each of these categories of people should be accessible to players of different economic circumstance and body shapes. That is to say, the brief should make clear how to appear wealthy in the game without having to spend an out of character fortune on your costume[4].

In general, the most striking things about any given costume are its shape (or “silhouette”, to take the costuming term) and its colour. After that, the eyes fall to the face and torso. As a rule of thumb, no one looks at the feet[5].

The information that one wants to convey should be located above the waist. This applies as much to status in real world cultures as symbols of office are often upon the brow as some sort of headgear or a something around neck like a chain of office. The forehead is also excellent real estate for drawing on symbols or attaching prosthetics.

Nations or groups favouring certain colours or combinations of colours is a solid idea, but it’s important to give individual player created groups (if the game has that) space to signify their own identity as most groups like having a unfied colour scheme. Again it is important to remember that deviation isn’t bad. As anyone who has attended a school with a uniform will know, it’s how each student attempts to customise it and make it their own that matters. At Beast Below, I remember telling each player their character’s various affiliations and loyalties and then outlining what the colours and symbols of each House and organisation were. It is not that a member of House Grimaldi must wear black and green, but that they now have the option to declare their allegiance upon their person.

If this culture favours pastel shades, what does it mean to wear bright red within it? Does it mark a character out as ostentatious? Is it seen as a particularly severe colour or does it mark them out as poor or in mourning?

It is not that people always wear black to a funeral, it is that it means something. To deviate then becomes a conscious decision that is laden with meaning and intent, allowing others to understand (and misunderstand) a character.

[1] A bit of hyperbole, admittedly.

[2] Perhaps more than the set dressing, the costumes of each character is what the world looks like. It’s what most of the players will spend their time looking at, after all.

[3] This is also useful for things such as “I am a non-combatant” or “This child has not passed their test of citizenship”.

[4] It is equally legit to write a game in which appearing rich requires a certain level of out of character investment, but I do not personally consider that ideal.

[5] Not technically true and it is a nice detail when people wear period footwear in a game, but not everyone is blessed with good feet and most live roleplay events take place in muddy field. The instinct for many is default to a good pair of boots.