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The Cultured GM: Clothes in Gaming

Written by Expy - Published on April 7, 2010

By Guest Blogger Sonja Wright

You happen to be at the local mega mart and you notice a Hindu woman looking over the vegetables. Another woman is clearly a Muslim. How do you know these things? The two women are dressed differently from the “normal” clothing that seems familiar to you. Their clothes might strike you as strange, exotic, or beautiful. Seeing their clothing brings up whatever associations you may have about that culture and you might even know immediately what manners to use with the Muslim woman should you need to speak to her. Conversely, let’s say you are standing in the middle of a bazaar in Bangladesh: now you are the one wearing weird clothes; you stand out or get stares.

Clothing is one of the most obvious displays that cultures use to identify themselves and separate themselves from neighboring cultures. The clever GM can use this to advantage in many ways: letting the PCs know that their clothing will give them away if they walk into a foreign city without taking thought for their appearance, adding a brief description of an NPC’s clothing (giving hints as to his background and personality), or having a merchant insistently try to sell exotic silks to the party’s bard while the group is trying to shop for healing potions.

Wearing the right clothes for the right occasion can also generate fun for the players. How does it look for the party fighter to go to the local noble’s birthday party wearing his battle gear? What if the local lord has been most specific in requesting that the fighter wear “party clothes”? What if the barbarian thinks that “party clothes” means nudity?! Not only can this be hilarious, it can put the party into dangerous situations: what if the local laws forbid wearing scarlet, but the only gown the bard owns is brilliant red? If the party doesn’t pay attention to this kind of thing, they can find themselves suddenly at odds with the authorities over something they might not at first understand. In this article I’ll discuss how a GM can easily and quickly use clothing description to drop hints about the environment surrounding the PCs; how to describe clothing without a lot of fuss; and give examples of how much difference a little time spent “fussing over your clothes” can mean to a scene.

Game Master or Costume Master?

Many of us “geeks” tend not to think about clothes outside of “does it cover what it has to cover, is it clean, ok let’s go on.” Certainly most of my gaming friends tend to wear just whatever jeans and T-shirts are on top of the clean laundry! But out in the world, there are hundreds of people and they don’t all wear “just whatever.” You can use this in a game, even a fantastic setting.

If you look at gaming from a theatrical standpoint, what we really do at our tables, with our dice and character sheets, is a form of theater – interactive, partly improvisational story telling. We’re creating stories, playing a part, and at least mentally acting out scenes and dramas. What theater production is complete without costumes? Sure, you can do Hamlet in regular clothes – but it’s a much different experience than if you dressed up in Shakespearean garb and did the play.

Or for another example: do you really think all the dancers in Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White” were actual members of whatever culture he was dancing around in every time the scene changed? They were dressed in clothes that evoked the culture, and that was all that really mattered for the purpose, wasn’t it? Likewise showing your players other people’s clothes through description (or even using pictures!) gives them that much more detail to work with. Bringing clothing into the game in this way deepens the experience, bringing the players that much more into the world you’ve created for them. It can be very rewarding for not a lot more work.

There are some obvious clichés that can come up with clothes, too: why is it all vampires wear red or black, for instance? Or why do peasants always wear brown? In thinking about your setting, try to imagine what the people look like. Does your local, corrupt noble wear black and stand around twisting a thin, oily moustache? Or does he wear fine clothes in bright colors and terrible taste? Or does he dress in good clothes and sober colors, hiding any hint of the wild orgies he throws on nights of the new moon? Just these choices show you how many ways you can portray just one “standard” NPC. If you can visualize the character, you can describe it. Sometimes visualizing needs help though…and that’s where the Internet can come in handy.

My players and I enjoy having pictures to look at when I’m describing people. When it’s at all possible, I browse around the Internet for pictures. Using them only for personal reference means that I can just about use anything I like. But not just anything will do, and sometimes it is hard to find just the right picture. If you can find pictures for reference, great! If not, words will have to do. Next I’ll discuss just how to talk about clothes.

Let’s Talk about Fashion…Hey Come Back!

It’s easy to describe modern clothes – “He’s wearing jeans and an old T-shirt; the guy next to him is wearing slicked-back hair and a pinstriped suit.” But how do you describe fantasy clothes? And furthermore how do you avoid having to sound like a fashion magazine to do it?
Fear not, it’s not as hard as it may seem. Talking about clothes can be boiled down to some basics: color, fit, wear, and material.

Color is obviously the first thing most folks notice, but sometimes it is necessary to go beyond, “She is wearing a blue dress.” What if it’s a peasant woman in a land where blue is the hardest color to obtain? Suddenly that color alone means something’s afoot – where would a peasant get blue cloth in such a place? You can also use color as a clue – for instance, in a city type setting, what if certain nobles wear specific colors? Perhaps then you could casually add, “The merchant you’re talking to is wearing green and silver, the House colors of your rival clan,” and your party has one more clue about why the merchant is trying to overcharge them.

Fit is a term that may stump some of you, but give it a moment of thought: would a street beggar be wearing a tailored vest? Probably not – he’s probably wearing ragged clothes that he got from some kind soul, or a trash heap. That means the clothes probably don’t fit well – most likely they’ll be loose. Fit doesn’t come up often – for descriptive purposes you can get away with three categories: fits badly (too loose or too tight), fits normally, and “tailored” which implies the wearer has spent at least a little gold on his appearance. And as you’ll see later in the article, it can change how the party perceives an NPC.

Wear means how new the clothing is: something we’ve all experienced for ourselves. Those jeans that have been washed a hundred times and are starting to fray at the hems, the shirt you’ve worn so much it has holes in it – or the nice slacks you’ve been saving for interviews or a special occasion, so new they still have the nice sharp creases in the legs: these are examples of wear. In a fantasy setting, think of the impact it might have if the party is trying to sell loot from the dungeon: are they going to trust the banker who wears clothes that are frayed or patched, or covered in grease stains? Or are they more likely to take their loot to the blacksmith, who may offer them slightly lower prices for their goods but whose clothing is newer and better cared for? The wear on a person’s clothes can indicate how they take care of themselves – and how they’ll treat others, such as the PCs.

Material, while last on my list of things to describe about clothes, is really the first thing a clothing maker decides on. After all, who would wear fur lined boots and a fur vest in Jamaica? Or, on the other side of the coin, how long would an adventurer dressed in loose fitting silk robes last in the middle of a howling blizzard? Clearly the world and people are going to make choices based on their environment – and based on what is available to them.
Imagine if you will an Egyptian type culture: the land is often hot; most of the settlements hug the riverbanks. Outside the river basin, the land is dominated by desert conditions. The most common cloth available is linen or possibly cotton. Wool is available (from goats), but is looked on as being too warm, except maybe for the winter rains. Leather is also probably a common material for clothes.

Now, let’s switch locations to a village on the banks of a river in a colder area – a place more like, say, France. The winters there are anything but mild, but the summers can get pretty warm – but not tropical heat. The people raise lots of sheep, and can only grow small crops of flax (the plant that linen is made from). They don’t grow cotton at all. Their choices for material are wool and leather – any linen they have will be used for fine and expensive clothes or (more likely) for little things like handkerchiefs. But the way they make their clothes will also be very different – for them, leather clothes will cover just as much as the regular wool clothes would, and in the coldest parts of winter they’ll wear more than one layer of clothes.

One last word on material: silk. The historical importance of silk is something for another time, but in a word, unless your campaign is set in a land similar to ancient China, silk is going to be the rarest and most expensive cloth around. If you can get it at all, a bolt of it will go for as much as a well made fur cloak. Items crafted from it will go for even more. In a fantasy setting you can make silk a little more common by having elves cultivate the necessary creatures and technology (if you didn’t know, silk comes from worms). Silk makes a good form of portable wealth, too: twenty pounds of gems could easily be worth less than twenty pounds of silk. Seeing an NPC wearing a gown made all of silk lets the PCs know right away that here is a person with some serious money. Many nobles and wealthy merchants will have silk scarves or silk handkerchiefs; only the richest nobility, or royalty, would be able to afford entire garments of silk, at least in a standard European-type fantasy world.

Ruffles vs. Leather

Now I will show you an example of how to put this all together.
Here’s the standard, rather boring NPC description of a woman behind the bar at the local tavern: The barkeep is a woman, standing about 5 feet tall. Her name is Lilly and she asks you what you want to drink.

Now, let’s change this up a bit. We’ll assume we’re in a typical European setting, so this is the town’s only tavern, and everyone else is dressed as we might expect. So…three different versions of Lilly the barkeep:

The 5 foot tall woman behind the bar is wearing a yellow blouse that falls off one shoulder, lots of colorful ruffled skirts, and a white apron. She greets you with a warm smile, introduces herself as Lilly, and asks you what you want to drink as she tosses her black hair over her bared shoulder.

The small woman behind the bar looks up as you come in. Leather creaks as she stalks toward you, for she is dressed from head to toe in skin tight black leather. She pins you with her stare as she slaps her hand on the bar and demands to know what you want to drink.
The woman behind the bar is short – five feet tall or so – and looks up at you with a gentle smile. Her white gown conceals everything about her; even her hair is covered by a white head cloth. Quietly she tells you her name is Lilly, and she offers you a blessing before asking you what you’d like to drink.

Three completely different women – and the only things that changed were the clothes.

It’s just that simple to add a little more depth to your game world – take a moment to think about what the people of the world look like, and take in their clothing choices as just another facet of description. Browse the Internet for pictures that call to mind the feel you want. Dress your NPCs the way a director would choose costumes for his actors. Have fun with it, and let fashion bring a little fun to the table!

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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7 Responses to “The Cultured GM: Clothes in Gaming”
  1. Noumenon says:

    I just copied down those ideas about the tailored vest, off-the-shoulder blouse, etc. I never usually describe that way, but it’s good.

  2. Sean says:

    Nice article, very often overlooked. I think we just think every fantasy game is filled with either folks wearing worn, brown, leather or the occasional armor. The women are of the little house on the prairie or something more of a bar wench. Will have to keep this in mind on the next adventure!

  3. kocho says:

    this thing is great
    hopefully it’s fine with you and the staff if I do a post on *my* dm blog (dmtips.tk) with the same sort of message

  4. Brian says:

    kocho, you’re welcome to blog about our posts, just give proper credit with a link to the post you’d like to talk about in more depth.

  5. kocho says:


  6. I love reading about the little things that can make a big difference.



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  1. […] The Cultured GM: Clothes in Gaming I think the saying goes, “Clothes make the man.” Next time you walk past a meeting at your office and you look through the window into the conference room, look at how people are dressed. If everyone is in T-shirts and jeans, except the one guy in the suit, you know that one guy is having a job interview with some engineers. If a GM includes these types of details in their world, then it will create that much more flavor and “buy in” from the players. This, in turn, will increase the players’ willingness to suspend their disbelief and pull them deeper into the setting the GM is trying to create. It’s something I’m going to try in my next game… we’ll see how it goes. var addthis_language = 'en';var addthis_options = 'email, favorites, digg, delicious, myspace, google, facebook, reddit, live, more'; […]

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