Monday, March 4, 2013

The Catch

In my last post I claimed that you can put together a good kit for the SCA inexpensively and I'm sure you thought to yourself, "What's the catch?" Well, the short answer is time. The classic project management pyramid demonstrates the need for a balance between three main constraints; time, cost, and quality. As noted in my previous post, our goals are to keep costs down and do things well, so we should expect that this will come at the expense of speed. In our case, putting together a nice, cheap kit is going to require us to spend more time doing research, shopping for deals, and probably making things ourselves. However, you should not be left feeling like you cannot play until your kit is done. For that reason, this post will be focused on what to do until your gear is ready and a few tips for getting your kit put together more quickly without sacrificing quality or spending a lot of money.

Loaner Gear:
A lot of newcomers feel uncomfortable borrowing garb/armor/camping gear/etc from other people (who may be relative strangers after all). I think this largely stems from the value that our mundane (modern) society places on being self-sufficient, however your local group can in many ways drive this feeling as well. When I joined the SCA as a 22-year old first-year graduate student, my local group was made up of a group of married adult professionals who were approximately 30 and who had been playing SCA for a decade (or more). In general, this group had all the stuff already and were established enough in the SCA to take care of doing their own thing. Taken together, I very much was left feeling that I needed to take care of myself, and in retrospect, this isn't an approach that I recommend for newcomers, particularly if they are on a budget.

Most SCA groups (and some individuals) have garb, armor, camping gear, tools, etc that they don't use or don't use frequently that they are willing to loan to newcomers in order to help them get involved/put their kit together. As I mentioned in the introduction, putting together a good, cheap kit is going to take some time, so the best way for you to get involved while you're working on your kit is to borrow garb to get to events, borrow armor to wear at practice, etc. Remember that this gear is meant to help newcomers (like yourself) get involved, so don't feel embarrassed/weird about borrowing it. However, there are some expectations that you should keep in mind, and even if they don't state them explicitly, you should follow:

1) Be responsible for what you borrow: It should go without saying that you shouldn't trash other people's stuff, but you also should be sure that you are using and maintaining their gear appropriately. For instance, if you borrow a tent and aren't sure about how to set it up or how to pack it, ask. Some people are very particular about how their gear should be used and sometimes the care of equipment may not be straightforward (such as needing to air a tent out after use or needing to avoid using soap on cast iron)
2) Make progress on acquiring your own gear: Loaner gear is meant to help newcomers while they get their own kit together. At the point where you decide that you are going to pursue the SCA/an activity in the SCA, you should make progress towards acquiring your own equipment. Remember, there may be someone who needs that gear more than you do.
3) Pay it forward: A lot of people in the SCA who have been playing for years (or even decades) got their start as proverbial 20-year old poor college students like yourself. I'd bet that they remember that experience fondly and that many of them will be more than willing to help you out. As a newcomer, you'll find that there really isn't a good way for you to pay them back for their help (it isn't like they need a T-tunic), but that isn't really what they are expecting. If you stick with the SCA, someday (and it might not be that far off in the future, really) you'll be in a position to help another proverbial 20-year old poor college student put together their first kit, and you should do so because that's really what makes the SCA awesome.

Ask for Help:

One of the coolest things about the SCA is the wide variety of skills that are represented within our group and the general willingness of people who have such skills to teach others. In terms of our goals to make a high quality kit cheaply, getting expert help can save us quite a bit of time and money. While help with making things is the most obvious way we can get help, consider asking for help with your research as well. It is likely that more experienced craftspeople can point you towards appropriate sources for what you are trying to make and many will loan you books and source material if you ask. Furthermore, if you are't familiar with how to do research in the first place, you may even ask someone to teach you how. In my local group, we are awash with librarians who teach people how to do research as part of their job. There may be people who are able to help you with your research based on their mundane skills/professions even if they aren't particularly familiar with the time period/crafts that you're trying to do (librarians, scientists, writers, etc).

In terms of making things, getting help from those who are familiar with whatever craft you are attempting can save you time and money and improve the quality of your kit. More experienced helpers can provide guidance that avoids wasted materials, point out reasonable shortcuts that can save you time, and sometimes provide you with tools and workshop space. The right tools can save you a lot of time and make it easier to build a good-looking product. Furthermore, there are some objects which really can't be made without certain tools. As before, remember to respect the help that you are given. Take care of any books/tools that you borrow or use. If someone invites you over to their shop, follow their rules, bring a 6-pack, and be courteous.

Hunt for Bargains:

To a certain extent, putting a kit together cheaply means buying as few items as possible, but sometimes you can find some great deals on items that you need which can result in you getting a nice object cheap and quick. For starters, at many events there are what I like to call "SCA yardsale" merchants. These are typically people who have been playing for a while and have realized that they have no need for the 15 sets of garb, 3 suits of mismatched armour, 5 sets of wooden feast gear, and various candles and baskets that they have acquired over the years. These sales are good places to pick up wool and linen fabric, no-longer needed garb, armour bits from peole who have upgraded their kit, and books. In the past year, I've picked up a pair of knee cops for $20, a pair of rapiers for $25 each, a pair of rubber band guns for $15 total, a whole bunch of wool (some of which was free), and a few other sundry items for only a few dollars. When you are just getting started, these types of sales are probably the best place to pick up some basic feast gear (wooden bowl, tankard mug, wooden spoon, knife) for only a few dollars (usually less than $5 total) as well. These merchants are usually just trying to get rid of stuff, so they are also typically willing to haggle, especially if you are taking several things off of their hands.

Most other merchants at events and online are actually trying to make money, but you may find that you need to purchase from them at some point. If you do, be sure to pay attention to their clearance sales, etc. At most major wars there is typically a "midnight madness" event where the merchants have special sales. Several of the "major merchants" at events like Pennsic have clearance bins where they are selling seconds, discontinued products, surplusses, and one-off pieces at drastically discounted prices. At last year's Pennsic, for instance, my little brother managed to acquire a pair of well-made period shoes and a leather sutton-hoo pouch for about $50. The last day of such events is also a good time to hit up the merchants for deals. Many of them would prefer to sell their product for a slightly lower price than pack it up and haul it home. Also remember that even though these merchants are a bit more formal than the SCA yardsale types, they are still often open to a bit of haggling, especially if you are buying several objects.

One last piece of advice when looking to buy things is to do you research in advance. Know what sorts of objects would be appropriate for your persona so that you don't need to replace them later, and get feedback from other people about the seller. At a major event like Pennsic, it is worth asking more experienced SCAdians to guide you around the merchant area to help make sure that you buy the right thing from the right person at the right price.

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