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A case for authenticity

We often feel safe and comfortable with our modern technology and comforts. Our modern technology and outlook on life makes us look down on how people lived in the past as something backwards, primitive and very uncomfortable. However, in most cases that's simply not true. Life of our ancestors was not a suffering, toiling experience. As a matter of fact, there's plenty of situations where they were wiser than us and had a more comfortable life.

And that specially applies to fantasy larping, where in many situations (not all, since different fantasy larps have different standards of authenticity, some of them enforced by rules while others relying on peer pressure) people only emulate the look of the medieval, without proper understanding of how and why things worked for them - reenactors and living history folks have it easier, since they tend to go authentic from the start and things simply work.

So yes, this is a post that will promote authentic - or close to authentic - solutions to clothing, shelter and other aspects of medieval or medieval-ish life. However, before I start writing about it let me make something absolutely clear, which shall be the point of this post.

It's NOT about elitism. It's NOT about being a condescending authenticity nazi. It's NOT about making others feel inferior.

It's about efficiency. It's about comfort. It's about looking and feeling awesome. It's about value for money and saving money.


There, it's been said. But it sounds impossible, right? I mean, you can't possibly look more authentic, be more comfortable and save money at the same time. Right? Right? But oh - you totally can. Let me go from the start.


Tents


First, let's start with a tent. I've done an article about shelters nearly four months ago, but now I'll focus on tents, or specifically a comparison of plastic vs canvas tent. While my friend Vesna over at Skirts 'n' Wolves wrote a good and comprehensive article about plastic tent use, I'd like to state a case for canvas. Even if I do in fact own a McKinley Matuka.

If you ask me, there are exactly two benefits that plastic tents have.
  1. They're lighter and easier to transport
  2. They're cheaper to manufacture
Although note: #2 will not be your savings. They will be manufacturer's savings. So you only get "lighter" as a real benefit.

Canvas offers much more benefits:
  1. More authentic looking
  2. More durable - sturdier, storm and rip-resistant, not degraded by UV light, longer-lasting, more hail resistant, more wind resistant etc.
  3. Easily mended with a sewing kit
  4. Breathes better - you get less condensation and moisture
  5. Doesn't transfer heat as quickly as nylon (so it's cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter)
  6. Less flammable
  7. More eco-friendly
Now, I'll address some of the supposed modern tent "comforts" specifically:

Rain resistance - not an issue. Well, if you're using a tent that's been overused, not properly maintained and had someone draw faces on it well yeah it will leak. No tent protects against stuff that should never be done with tents. On the other hand if someone plays with fire, canvas is less likely to burn than plastic, and if your tent is approaching voting age it's almost certainly canvas and it can be successfuly re-waterproofed. Plastic would typically degrade much earlier due to UV exposure. Now, a lot of canvas tents don't have bathtub floors but they're easily made if you seriously want them (with a tarp or something similar, depends on how visible you want it to be) - however, unless you're in a swampy area or subject to days of thunderstorms you're unlikely to need it (or you can just dig a shallow ditch to redirect incoming water away from your tent, if you're in such a position). My floorless canvas tent has remained dry even when exposed to (moderate) thunderstorms, while some modern tents leaked (and the water remained inside due to bathtub flooring). In addition, you can light a small fire or a stove in a floorless tent without risking CO poisoning or floor burning on you, and you'll find such tents much easier to clean and much harder to stink up and you can go in in shoes if you want to. But as the flooring is easily obtained or made, it shouldn't be an issue.

Insect resistance - I thought this will be an issue. But in 2 years of use, I only got 1 bothersome mosquito and a couple of small ants. Didn't need full enclosure, and besides the sides of my tent touch the floor so nothing big can easily come through. For those with a panic fear of insects, see bathtub flooring above - and if you're really feeling crafty I guess you can sew mosquito netting and a zipper too - or, heck, just use sleeping bags or bivy sacks with integrated mosquito netting. But as I said in my case it hasn't been needed, and I really saved a lot of time for setup, packing, cleaning, opening zippers and taking care that the stuff doesn't get torn.

Misc - while there are modern tents which are extremely comfortable, they tend to be on the high end of the price range (several hundred euros and more) and/or canvas. True modern, comfortable camping? That's what campers and RVs are for, not tents. Maximum comfort in tent? You get that by using canvas. Planning to set up a tarp for shade or some other visible way? Please, use canvas (looks way better and it's much more breathable under it when the sun goes up).

Cost - this might surprize you, but canvas costs approximately as much as a comparable modern tent. You can get small military canvas tents at the same price as cheapest plastic tents. They won't be 100% authentic, but they will be authentic enough for most checks. It scales well until you reach €1000 and above prices. However, with canvas not every price range is covered - however, people can sew their own tents - and a simple tent is easy to sew. Heck, if you're simply sewing a fake tent to camouflage your tent as an authentic tent, you'll probably spend 70% of the cost and most of the effort of making a real, authentic, functional tent. If you also add up the cost of buying a modern tent every few years, well... The only time when a plastic tent is really cheaper is if you're buying a cheapest tent you can find which you plan to use for one season only (because it likely won't last longer). And my advice is... don't. Buy cheap, buy twice. A canvas tent can last you a lifetime.

TL;DR version about tents: buy canvas. It will be worth it, and in the medium or long run you will save money. If you can't live without features of your favorite plastic tent, you can get them all on canvas too or find an alternative. For me, after comfortably sleeping in a canvas tent it is the modern tent which feels uncomfortable and insecure - only a small, flimsy, shaking plastic film between myself and the elements. The only thing plastic tents got going for them is transportability and storage space, and even transportability is easily manageable if your larp has a car access.

Cloaks

Now, my second pet peeve: cloaks. Many people spend a lot of money and effort to get cloaks which are... absolutely useless. A part of their costume, something that waves about. Which is basically a waste of money. Here's a short movie explaining cloaks:


Yes, I get it. Wool is expensive. A wool (or heavy canvas) cloak will typically cost you 50% to double the price of your favorite synthetic material. But you know what? It will work as it should. I have a canvas cloak which I paid some 30€ many years ago. It has since been repaired multiple times, and it's basically a cosmetic piece which protects only against very minor rain and wind. On another hand, I've got a nice woolen cloak which I paid 60€. It will protect me against all but heaviest rain, I've successfuly used it as a sleeping bag in temperatures barely above freezing and when it closes it's warmer than most of my winter coats.

Yeah really. Its' shape is remarkable for keeping heat, and I must say it surprized me - and when it's opened it's cool enough to wear around in summer. If it wasn't so inconvenient to use in a car, I'd probably wear it daily during winter. When I only had my first cloak, I was often wet, cold and miserable as I didn't really have a solution to protect myself against wet and cold except stack offgame clothing. Wool just made it much more comfortable. It's natural and renewable material that has been used historically for a good reason.

A good woolen cloak is multi-functional. It's a part of the costume. It's winter gear. It's rain gear. It can double as a blanket or a sleeping bag nicely. A lot of people get cloaks because they believe they make them cool, dark and mysterious while they flash swords like an assassin from their favorite fantasy novel, but it doesn't really work that way - even light cloaks hinder this. Better invest a bit of money and get a nice, multi-purpose piece of gear - which also feels right and looks way better than a cheap, non-protective synthetic cloak and will keep you dry, warm and happy.

Other clothes

Headgear can make all the difference
between cheap and awesome

Having your clothes made out of synthetic materials? Yeah, almost the same as the cloak part up there. It makes a difference between a flimsy costume and functional clothes which look just right. Up close (and some distance away) you will notice a difference. Different materials than those you wear in daily life (mainly linen and wool) will make for a different tactile feel of a larp, and will enhance your experience. Fur is also incredibly soft, awesome and warm if you can get it (my favorite is reindeer fur, and other furs from animals farmed for their meat, not skins), but it might get you criticism from animal rights activists. Authentic old clothing designs are quite appropriate and functional for their intended purpose, and will in almost all cases be more comfortable than if you did them from synthetic materials.

One great example of this is hats. Nowadays people rarely use hats, but they were part of normal daywear until some 50 years ago. And there are very good reasons why. They protect you against elements. Whether it's excessive heat, glare, cold, rain or snow, hats are meant to protect you against that weather. On Croatian fantasy larps, players rarely bother to use hats which is a shame. They're very widespread e.g. in Germany, and they help you survive great open-field events such as Drachenfest. And indeed, it was Drachenfest 2012 that taught me the value of hats by giving me a sunburn on the back of my neck. Despite being an experienced larper at that time, larping for over a decade in Croatian woods - I never really thought of wearing a hat until I learned the hard way why hats are awesome (also, a hood would be too hot in that situation and wouldn't protect against glare so well). Heck, if I'd have to choose whether to have hat or shoes on a larp, I'd choose hat in almost every situation.

There's always an exception to every rule, and here it's about shoes. Modern shoes are simply way more functional than medieval ones, especially where it's slippery. But still, medieval shoes and boots (or even barefoot) will work well in most situations on a larp, and you can improve the grip by adding a rubber sole - such additions will usually not be seen and it will be fine in almost every situation.

The cost of authenticity

A fancy Landsknecht costume

The real cost of authenticity is sometimes hard to determine. It depends what you're focusing on. Simple authenticity can come cheap and be very functional. The price can skyrocket on the high end (if you want a rich costume with authentic jewelry, buckles, embroidery and expensive materials, plus a lot of accessories and extra gear), but on the low end it can cost only a bit more than a cheap, synthetic costume.

Here's some advice if you're short on cash:

  • Do not look for problems, look for solutions - this is a key approach to larping, and especially to improving your gear.
  • Buy cheap, buy twice - authentic, good quality gear will give you a bang for your buck, will be durable, and it is often very versatile.
  • Buy in group - see that awesome tent that sleeps 8 people but costs way too much? Get together with your friends and buy it.
  • Can't transport the tent? Get a friend, or a friend of a friend or a rental with a van, station wagon or a pick up truck to carry it, plus your other stuff. Give them gas money and buy them a nice lunch (or agree to an acceptable sum of money).
  • Consider getting some used gear which tends to be cheaper.
  • Ask on your larp's forum or facebook group for local advice, knowledge, deals and craftsfolk.

And some advice for larp owners and organizers to make their larps more authentic-friendly:

  • Set a good example yourselves.
  • Allow viable noncombat characters. If players don't have to invest in their larp weapons or armor to have fun, they're left with a larger budget for their costumes, tents and accessories which makes for more focused and better-looking characters.
  • Don't run your larp too often. Fuel and entrance fees cost money. Your players are more likely to put their best efforts into that one event that happens once (or a few times) in a year than into something that happens every weekend and stretches their focus during that time. Plus, equipment lasts longer that way.
  • Maintain a positive, encouraging atmosphere and do your best to make upgrading easy and help your players out.

Once everything looks better, players will take more care to keep it the same way. Hide or camouflage out of game items, and soon enough the period look will begin to feel natural. In such an environment, a single item tends to look more out of place than on larps littered with modern items.

And it's totally worth it. It makes you feel immersed instead of on a glorified camping trip with quests. Approaching the 360º illusion makes for a much more powerful and believable game. Don't forget - in a larp every player is a part of every other player's environment, and investment in your gear is also an investment in larp's production value. Make other players' game look and feel more awesome, and they will do the same for you.

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