Monday, March 12, 2012

The Clothes Make the Man

Beware the orc wearing panties on his face

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between clothing and roleplaying games. Not in the sense that I have two t-shirts that say, "My other shirt is chainmail"* (true story) but in the sense that the characters in my game seem to spend an awful lot of time running around in full-armor, and armed to the teeth, no less. This is certainly not an uncommon occurrence in tabletop gaming. My characters have been the sort to eat, sleep, shop and woo the ladies in their robes and wizard hats... in-game, of course. However, I feel that, while there are several possible reasons for what I suspect is a common and imaginatively odoriferous trend in character behavior, the choice to “change 'yo dang pants!” can potentially add some richness and/or challenge to a game.

First, the reasons that I suspect lead to 1-outfit characters:

1. “Math is hard, let’s go shopping.” There is something to be said for having one set of stats when playing a tabletop RPG. Changing a character’s clothes, especially in a game like D&D, can alter a number of stats. Most prominently, it changes a character’s armor class, but might also affect how well they run, jump, climb, swim or sneak. Players have a lot of stats to track with just one outfit. Adding additional load-outs is just asking for a headache.

2. Video games. Having not achieved sentience before the existence of rudimentary videogames, I may be talking out of my ass on this one, but I suspect that the merging and interplay between the digital and pen-and-paper RPG worlds has contributed to a sense that it is okay to have tea with the queen while wearing full plate. After all, characters in games like Skyrim, WoW, etc. go everywhere in their battlefield best, waving glowy implements of death and dismemberment, no less.

3. CONSTANT VIGILANCE! Players think/know their GM is out to get them, and as such, feel it is perfectly appropriate to lug 200 lbs of adventuring gear on every jaunt to the corner store to buy more troll jerky. They sleep in their armor and likely would even wear it in the bath if they could. In essence, they are playing the stats, not the character. Never mind how uncomfortable and stinky perpetual existence in armor would be, taking it off would lower my AC by 4!

Now, some would argue that worrying about what a character is wearing/carrying is a level of nit-pickiness that detracts from the ultimate purpose of a roleplaying game, which is to have fun. Well, what about the expanded purpose? to have fun while roleplaying? Something as simple as a change of clothes opens up a lot of potential for new and unique encounters and roles played. A barbarian from the steppes just saved the kingdom and is to be honored at a high-court banquet... huh? big earthy guy in cummerbund and fur briefs? The situation practically writes itself!

I believe that a story and a heroic protagonist is much more interesting if they are not always fully prepared when a sticky situation arises. Getting caught unprepared gives them an opportunity to show their versatility and emphasizes that this person is a badass even without their gear. The Indiana Jones movies have several great examples of this sort of situation. During the opening scene from Temple of Doom, Indie gets poisoned in a swanky nightclub. He doesn’t have his hat, whip or even a gun. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unprepared, just that he has to approach the situation in a different way than if he was fully kitted out. The scene in the Venice library from Last Crusade is similar in a lot of ways. The situation and resources at hand become part of the challenge and add to the excitement.

So, how do you implement this in a tabletop RPG without bogging down the game and becoming the enemy of fun?

1. Take the number-crunching burden off of your players. I recommend having your players come up with just three alternate outfits. Each requires only a brief list of stats, mostly modified AC and movement stats. They should also make a list of weapons/gear they keep with them, but a single listing of bandolier, baldric, backpack or utility belt should imply that they have everything they usually carry therein without need to list it separately. The alternate outfits I suggest are as follows:

Around Town: This is the shopping, drinking and general personal-time outfit. It may involve armor or weapons, but probably would not include full 50 lb backpacks and the like.

Schmancy Occasions: Meeting the king? Gathering info in the noble district? Your PCs will probably need to look respectable to avoid sideways looks and questions from the guards. Most armor and things like blood-crusted greataxes are likely out, but rings of protection, other magical aids or a dagger in the boot would be perfectly acceptable.

Sleepy Time: This is probably fairly straightforward. Though PCs on the road might stay at least partially armored, if they’re crashed out at an inn in the middle of a friendly city, chances are they’ll want to be comfy, though propping the trusty broadsword by the bed isn’t beyond reason.

Once you establish these baselines, it should be quick and easy to reference or modify the list without having to grill your characters everytime they walk out the door. Are you really bringing your 10-foot pole to visit Madame Ruby’s brothel?

2. Make your characters’ appearance matter. If they go out in full kit, have NPCs react to what they see! Poor villagers might run up to them 7 Samurai-style and beg for assistance with the bandits raiding their village. Bouncers and thugs might think twice before messing with them, but guards might ask a few extra questions and wealthy shop-owners might balk at letting armed strangers into their fine boutiques.

I haven’t yet attempted to implement such a systematic approach to these matters in my campaign, and really my players have been pretty good about policing themselves, but I think I might run the idea past them and see how it works.

Any thoughts or stories from my fellow players or GMs about 1-kit wonders?

*After writing this I realized the bizarre feedback loop established by such a situation. "My other shirt says "My other shirt is chainmail"... add "other shirts" until space-time tears itself asunder.


  1. The problem is that this really unfairly penalizes gear-based characters (such as fighters) while allowing wizards to continue unaffected. ("No, Gragg, you can't wear your full plate to the king's dinner, even though the assassin is rumored to be about. What's that, Leafwind? You memorize your spells and then dress in finery (keeping your rings on and a pouch of sulfur and live spiders on you, natch)? You're good-to-go!"

    If you want to have situations and encounters where the characters don't have access to their full list of gear, I'm all for that. But make it an encounter where everyone is ill-prepared equally, or better yet, handle it completely outside rolling. Tell the players that they may not roll dice of any type, and neither will you. Have a "role play" encounter where the players have to resist the urge to roll dice in any way. Take away Wizards' "Charm Person/Solve Encounter" spells along with the Rogue's and Fighter's toys, or else it's another case of "screw the meatshield, wizard supremacy erryday"

    1. I agree that this sort of thing can be implemented poorly, but if it is done well, I don't really think of it as penalizing. Most encounters are not equally suited to all character classes, but an adventure as a whole should give everyone a moment to shine. A wizard might have a heck of a time against a beholder's anti-magic field, a creature with hefty spell resistance or any time they have to run away, climb walls or otherwise be athletic. Playing a back-stabby rogue can be incredibly frustrating anytime you have to face undead or other non-functioning organ types, but on infiltration missions, rogues are absolutely vital, and it's gonna be tough getting into the vampires pocket-dimension lair without arcane help.

      Besides, setting up a less than ideal situation can potentially give a character like a fighter a chance to shine in a way they might not otherwise have if it was another, "I step in and hit it with my axe" sort of encounter. It can also encourage the rest of the group to flex their standard tactics.


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