Series Info...Playing with History #14:

Artisans in Historical Fiction I: Clothing & Furniture

by Michael Karlin
August 21, 2003

“So by craft or art / We can give the part / Wholeness in a sense.” — Robert Frost, poet.

The practice of creating props for a game environment is, in my opinion, a significant merit of the genre. Not only does it allow players to interact within an environment, but it allows players to contribute in populating that environment (in the physical sense) with their own additions. With the use of certain defining variables, characters can create goods from common to unique depending on their degree of skill and the rarity of that skill level. Whether or not you choose to introduce this concept into your game is obviously your choice; it could take a lot of research and work to pay off. Assuming that you are for the purposes of this article, I am going to go through certain historical and geographical quirks that may affect the fit of your approach. Do not underestimate the importance of getting the little details right. With MMORPGs, you are putting on a play. Why sacrifice the accuracy of the props?

Bear in mind supply burden when bringing artisans into your game. Even with a money economy, we expect business to be brisk in Glory of the Nile. The greater the demand for products, the greater the burden on the artisans to supply products. Do artisans have suitable reward to make their career option worthwhile? The pitfall of PC or NPC artisans is the amount of OOC time that needs to be invested in the creation of a product, an action that might become repetitive after some time. Of course, the busier the artisan becomes, the wealth they acquire increases until they may afford underlings to help them with production. We will be watching the economy closely in GN to ensure that artisans are never too stressed to produce more than they care to.

Ready to Wear

In Glory of the Nile, we are faced with the very limited fashion breadth that Egypt offered. The fabric of choice was almost always linen because it was light in density, readily available, and did not conflict with religious ideology that prohibited the wearing of animal products within temples. Colours were almost universally natural or white, although dyed fabrics were beginning to become popular around the period the game takes place. Furthermore, due to the scorching sun of southern Egypt, very little clothing was actually worn. Male commoners usually wore simple kilts, tunics and sandals, whereas women wore sheer dresses In such impeding circumstances, how are we able to still preserve variety? For Glory of the Nile, it will be colour and quality of the fabric that will distinguish clothing.

Unless your game is protolithic, there is a good chance that the populations of your game are going to be clothed. Human beings wore clothes to harbour themselves from harsh environments, and thus the development of clothing occurred most vigourously in colder regions or regions where wind or precipitation demanded protection from natural elements. Clothing is a very conspicuous aspect of culture that can easily be replicated for use in a computer game, as it is fairly unobtrusive. Apparel and accessories also can help a character distinguish themselves from another, an issue in MMORPG worlds, and give them an avenue of self-expression. However, because clothing is a) the crafted item that is changed most often and b) the crafted item that is most recognisable on a person, it demands the greatest amount of variety to be truly effective. Effective yes, accurate no. Castle Marrach sports clothing varieties not always possible in a more rigid historical setting. Offering a wide variety of colour and fabric options allows characters in the game to customise their wardrobe to their characters' personalities. Unfortunately, many ancient cultures in the world were limited in their knowledge of fashion and wore similar types of clothing on a more utilitarian basis. That said, most cultures included clothing that reflected their distinctiveness and societal trends. Clothing is a manifestation of a forward- or past-looking society. Of course, with the modern convergence of cultures, modern-day games do not have many restraints.

A few ideas to keep in mind:

  • Is clothing in your society viewed as practical, or only used as a means to assert a certain level of decency? Is there a modern appreciation for "fashion" there?

  • What are the colours and fabrics prevalent in the area? Did the culture import dyes and textiles from elsewhere? If so, where were these from and what were they? How are foreign clothes viewed in your society? Egyptians might dismiss foreign clothes as savage trappings, whereas those in Edwardian England might view clothes from China or India as fashionably exotic.

  • Are there sumptuary laws or customs in your society? Are certain fabrics or colours restricted to certain strata of society? For example, in ancient Egypt, we see that priests cannot wear pelts or leather at any time.

Clothing is an area we tried hard to get right. I suggest doing the same.

Stand Up, Sit Down

We are working steadily on constructing the game environment of Thebes for you, but if you walked around the rooms that you will populate in the future, you would notice a lack of furniture. I prefer that most of the furniture that you interact with will be the same that a PC artisan would be able to create, thereby increasing that sense of contribution to the game world. Since furniture is much more static than clothing, allowing PCs to make furniture allows them to chisel a bit of the creative rock for themselves. As well, furniture and its use are aspects of culture that you could easily include in your game. There is an asymmetry here; the amount of effort required to ensure that the furniture in your game is correct is decidedly less than the effect of such accuracy. Furniture accents rooms and defines living and working spaces. Getting furniture right for your time period is not simply recommended, it is imperative. Furniture, like clothing, became more intricate as the social class of its owner changed, but the primary difference lay in furniture's ability to last lifetimes. Furnishings are almost timeless.

In GN, you will have a wide variety of furniture options, as furniture was made from both wood and stone. From a meagre sandstone bench to a grand table of fine polished ebony, the furniture options we will provide will allow you to nicely decorate your homes. We are hoping that the homes will be centres of social interactions; inviting guests, hosting larger social events or group meetings will be commonplace in our world. As well, I am happy to report that upgrading your homes to larger abodes will not only be possible, it will be expected as you gain wealth and notoriety. Included in this will be the addition of new furniture, appropriately styled to your new social class.

A few ideas to keep in mind:

  • What materials did your culture use for furniture? Since there was stone and wooden furniture in ancient Egypt, PCs can specialise in stone masonry or carpentry to create it. Not only does this allow for greater variety, but it disperses the amount of supply burden placed on these characters.

  • Were furnishings popular at all, or were there very few? The feudal Japanese had homes with meagre amounts of furniture, compared to the copious amounts found in Ottoman Empire homes.

A good supply of furniture allows your setting to come alive and be more interactive. It also creates a more authentic setting without putting a strain on gameplay.

I'm going to continue this topic in two weeks, discussing jewelery and food. Stay tuned!

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