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.)


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.


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.


  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.

12 thoughts on “Tabletop gaming and the Eddie Izzard Circle of cool

  1. From the other side of the table (the GM side), I think I’m seeing this with our D&D group as well. I’m having a little difficulty determining whether or not the players are acting as players, or as their characters. I’m leaning way more towards players acting as players, as there’s very little “traditional” role playing going on, very little adherence to what’s on the character sheet, a lot of meta-gaming and more tomfoolery than RPing.

    If I’m reading correctly, you’re very much aware of your character’s personality, and those thoughts are present when you play. So I’m thinking that your behavior could easily be assumed to be your character…even if there’s aspects of you yourself in the performance.

    Personally, if you could justify the behavior in the context of the character, I’d say it’s cool, and better than coldly calculating and min-maxing opportunities through meta-gaming. Personality is always a good thing!

    1. Yeah, it’s weird. As a GM I see the whole thing quite, quite differently — and the ego is in an entirely different place on that one. I have a totally different perspective on group dynamics from the GM’s chair, and admittedly it’s generally the chair I prefer… but I do think that GMs who are entirely against playing might have the wrong end of the stick. It’s illuminating to be on the other side.

      On the player side I’ve definitely got way more ego going on. It’s… interesting. And a little annoying. 😉

  2. I wouldn’t worry. Too much about gender privilege. I’ve been playing with women for years (gigity?) and in this case, it was amusing to watch events unfold.

    I know Matt doesn’t give a toss, nor does Jim, and it played nicely into my plans. I just love to play devil’s advocate (or angel’s in this case, I suppose…)

    1. I think you just like to push my — uh, Zara’s, buttons.

      As a GM, I approve. As the player, I think all GMs are evil.

      EDIT – note that the last line refers to my old, long-term group; I just realised it might be somewhat ambiguous given the tenor of the preceding paragraph.

  3. What? She actually posted…. 😉

    I try to have a line between me and my character. But, let’s face it, most of us don’t want to deal with people we dislike, let alone play as someone we dislike. So, at the very least, our characters tend to be people we like if not who we are/wish we were.

    In that other group you participate in, my character probably does fit one version of an idealized self. Captain Steely is a solid leader who carries responsibility willingly. He doesn’t have to be the center of attention, although he certainly likes positive attention. It’s a good way for me to try out some of the leadership stuff I’ve been reading about lately.

    That said, one time I did play a radically different character and it certainly was an interesting experience. I played Lawful Evil “evil Paladin”. Lawful Evil is almost entirely diametrically opposed to my own attitudes (I’d see myself as more Neutral Good, as much as D&D alignments can be applied to real life), so it was a stretch being someone who obeyed without question and wanted to be on the top of the heap when order was imposed upon the world. It was a character I wouldn’t like to hang around with, but it was interesting.

    There’s something to be said about having a character that meshes well with the group. But, there’s also something to be said for someone who you really look forward to playing, as well. 🙂

    1. “But, let’s face it, most of us don’t want to deal with people we dislike, let alone play as someone we dislike.”
      Some (rare) players are really good at that, and at doing so *without* coming across like asshats. My ex was one such; in one Ars Magica campaign he played a character we all knew we should hate but absolutely couldn’t do without. He was essentially the Mr. Wolf to a bunch of unworldly mages, and we rapidly learned not to ask questions we didn’t want the answers to. Obstacles disappeared from our path and we pretended not to notice how it happened. It was a lot of fun, and he managed it without once making us feel the player was being a dick.

      Most other players (myself included) aren’t so deft at playing someone unpleasant or downright loathsome without crossing the line. I’ll stick with my idealized or slightly different versions of me, especially as I’m discovering that these days I find playing rather more difficult than GMing.

      1. My thought was less about ability and more about preference. I played the “evil paladin” fine; the rest of the group didn’t even need me, but they liked how I played the character. But did I enjoy playing it as much as my other characters? Not really.

        I think you can play something that isn’t your (idealized) self and that would be a cool person to hang out with. I like the challenge of a different mindset, but I find playing a unlikable character to just be less fun.

  4. Mostly commenting so I can get subscribed to the the blog. 😀 The game sounds fun, too. I’ll have to read more thoroughly.

    1. The game has, I think, sucked us all in more than perhaps even the GM (Scott) originally intended. Head over to his blog and check out the posts — he’s much more disciplined about posting useful stuff than I am. :p

      1. I finally read through. I have no experience playing in a tabletop group. But I suspect that, like you, I would end up playing an exaggerated version of myself. Given my (now somewhat distant) background in theater, perhaps if the pre-made character were different, I could play that without too much trouble. I have a hard tie imagining playing with a a group that didn’t know me well enough to know the difference between my character and me. I’m not sure how much meta-communication you have during a given session. “This isn’t really me, guys.” “Well try toning it down, Steve was going to try to talk his way out of the situation.”

  5. @rowan – I think meta-commnication levels depend on the group. I gather some groups try to avoid it at all costs, but both my long-term previous group and this group have a very high level of meta. (The older I get, the more convinced I am that it heightens enjoyment, improves player ownership, takes some of the burden off the GM and is all around a better option. Any half decent player knows how to separate meta and in-game with little effort.) It’s also usually quite obvious when something is in character and when it’s just messing around; I developed a bit of ego about it because I’m still new to this group and don’t know the other players personally as well as I knew the members of my previous group — and since it’s a blog post, I also applied a little hyperbole. (Who, me?)

    But yes, that’s often how it’ll go. If Bert is running away with something that the rest of the group wasn’t expecting, someone might say exactly that — not nastily, just as a comment. Then there may be some discussion about what would be more fun (on a meta level) and what might be more productive for the scenario, and the group will pick one and go with it. Like I said though, I have not often played with strangers and although I don’t know these new guys as well as my old guys, I know them well enough to know I’d socialise with them outside the game. I think Scott has mentioned more than once that it’s pointless to hope for long-term gaming from/with someone you wouldn’t also be friends with, and I very much agree.

    Last but not least, if you and/or Scooter *want* experience in a tabletop group, let me know. The virtual table top group is working very well and I’d be open for one-offs, infrequent groups or possibly another regular group.

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