Tabletop gaming and the Eddie Izzard Circle of cool

I’m currently playing in a tabletop Hollow Earth Expedition campaign set in 1933 which has turned out to be a pulpy, shirt-ripping, alcohol-swilling (the characters! the characters!) hoot.

The characters were pre-generated, which isn’t usually my thing outside one-offs or convention games (and it’s been 20+ years since I went to one of those), but in this case it wasn’t an issue — and it’s a choice that clearly has some upsides for the GM, which is never a bad thing. I’m not sure the game was supposed to end up as a full campaign, either, and for a between-campaign filler or a one-off, pre-generated makes all the sense in the world.

That said, I actually like Zara, my character. You can click here for her writeup on the GM’s site; she’s been fleshed-out a little bit since but is substantially the same. She’s an almost-ex flapper, a ‘modern’ woman who does her own thing and most certainly won’t let anyone (especially a man!) tell her what to do. She’s highly self-reliant and capable, except when brawny handsome men are around, at which point her player’s dice rolls go to shit — but I’m taking that as an cosmic side-effect of the 30s pulp setting and just going with it. (As an aside and to explain the photo below, I have modelled her extensively on Essie Davis’ portrayal of Miss Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.)

phryne

The only problem I have is that when given half a chance I — the player — tend to get a bit… bolshy 1, shall we say, when NPCs get in my — the character’s — face. Or when they look like they might get in my face. Or when they look at me funny. Or if they’re wearing a truly dreadful tie. Or if they’re Nazis, or might possibly be Nazis (Zara doesn’t differentiate much between ‘Nazi’ and ‘Thule Society’, if in either case the owner of the label is also German; for her, the Great War was not that long ago). You get the picture.

I’m not entirely sure how much of it is Zara’s feistiness as written and how much of it is my own attitude towards authority or indeed pretty much anyone trying to tell me what to do — or trying to objectify me or my character. 2 Most of the time I’m not entirely sure it matters. In role-playing games I tend to play a version of myself because I’m comfortable with that, I like exploring the variants, and I’m not much good at playing anyone who holds radically different views or values from my own. If I were an actor, I’d be one of those not very good, narrow-range actors I often rail at on TV. I know this about myself and I’m okay with it.

And in my old group — the ‘several-dozen member with a smaller core’ group of people I played with 20 years ago, the only group I ever really played with before this new group — this would have been fine. They knew me both personally and in games, we’d played together for years, and we were all good at egging each other on, backing each other up, or diverting the more potentially explosive character excesses. Is that ‘good’ RP in a meta sense? Probably not. Was it fun? Yes. And it was a very safe space in which to play. Our characters could be asses at times but that was okay — the other characters would just handle it (or hide it, or lock the other PC up for a few hours till the frothing stopped) and move on. Our personal and character foibles were known and accepted.

In this new group, however, I don’t yet know how to read my fellow players’ reactions. A few times now Zara (or her player) has got the bit between her teeth and become a little… Well, that’s the rub. I would say feisty, but others might say downright obnoxious or at the very least annoying, in that I’m making my character do and say things that make the situation more awkward for the other characters. I’m not entirely sure where my fellow players stand on that continuum.

Hence the Eddie Izzard reference; the TL;DR don’t-send-me-to-YouTube version is that on the Circle of Cool, ‘cool’ (or better yet, ‘hip and groovy’) actually sits right next to ‘looking like a dickhead’. Over the years I have found that, as with many things, Eddie’s sartorial wisdom and observations actually apply to a great many other things in life, and the Circle of Cool certainly has applications outside the adolescent dress code arena.

When Zara gets right up in someone’s business, is she being cool, or is she looking like a dickhead? More to the point, do the other players think I am being a dickhead for causing trouble? Last night, for instance, we ended up in a pirate-run town where slavery was perfectly ok and where women’s lib was firmly stuck somewhere around 1723. Predictably enough, we run into a posse of pirates looking for trouble or fun or both (or, in Zara’s mind, cruisin’ for a bruisin’), and those silly pirates immediately ask the largest, most manly man in the group how much he wants for the “twa wimmin”. Said wimmin being Zara and Olga, who is basically the Bride in 30s Russian clothing and with blunt weapons.

theBride

Olga is an NPC and therefore not likely to get all up in someone’s face unless directly provoked. Zara, however, reacted in exactly the wrong way… if the aim of that scene was to avoid a fight at all costs. Which it definitely wasn’t for me. I — the player — was perfectly aware that glaring at the pirates and silently implying things about their parentage and prowess was going to cause trouble. Zara, the character, was also perfectly aware of this and didn’t much care. It’s not in her nature to back down: she’s upper-class English from a time when England still had an (admittedly crumbling) Empire, she’s highly privileged, she’s extremely self-confident, she’s usually either drunk and/or high (not much impulse control) or suffering from a hangover (bad mood) or both, and she had 3 extremely competent fighters and one medical doctor standing right beside her.

I think I called it exactly as I should have — for me as a player, for Zara in character, and for the fun around the table. Because come on, how was an encounter with a pirate posse not going to turn into a fight? Are we 30s pulp heroes or are we mice?!

But part of me does wonder, hence this post. The reactions from the other players were — it seemed to me at the time — somewhat ambiguous and possibly even a little exasperated, and I wasn’t sure whether those were directed at the character (who does tend to puff herself up more often than prudence might warrant, but which I think is perfectly in line with her various flaws), which would be absolutely ‘cool’… or at me, which would be me ‘acting like a dickhead’.

I’m mostly sure it was the former. I tend very strongly towards cooperative play and I don’t think I’m gratingly obnoxious, but I also don’t see myself from the outside. Perhaps the rest of the group (which is composed entirely of men, which shouldn’t matter but somehow does) wishes I would tone it the fuck down a bit. Which in turn makes me wonder whether the same behaviour coming from a male player (with a male character) would be judged in the same way or whether the other players would just think it was a man asserting his manly right to be manly. Because like it or not, men being assertive are usually just seen as assertive, whereas women being assertive are often seen as being bitches. 3 Or, in RPG terms, as ‘endangering the party’ (in character) and being annoying (out of character).

We’ll see as the sessions go on. I have no answer to this — mostly I’m just raising the old question of ‘how much feisty is feisty and how much is just plain annoying, and how much of it bleeds over from the character side to the player side, and how much of it is gender and/or privilege and isn’t this really three (actually four) questions instead of one’?

I’d certainly be interested to hear other people’s experiences on the subject. I’ve never had to ask myself before whether the other players around the table thought I was being really annoying as a player, and I’m only just becoming aware of how rare and privileged that situation was.

Notes:

  1. For my little American chums, this means ‘stroppy’. Oh wait, you don’t know that one either. Okay — it means ‘obstreperous’, only better ‘cos it’s real English.
  2. I am aware of my double standards here. I am perfectly okay with objectifying men and I’m quite, quite sexist. I’m going with ‘turnabout is fair play’.
  3. No, I will not quote chapter and verse here. This is a fact. If you don’t think it’s a fact that’s your right, but it’s my right to think you’re being wilfully blind to the last several thousand years of most human culture and society.