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Take the Lead: Advice on winning players and influencing parties

Pitfalls and Power Bases

by David Bareford
April 9, 2002  
This series of articles has examined leadership, mainly focusing on the exemplary qualities and positive techniques of good leaders. In this final installment, we delve into the darker side of command: what are some common mistakes made by leaders, and how does a would-be leader actively build their base of power?

Pitfalls of leadership

The road to effective leadership is fraught with danger, and one misstep can seriously undermine hours of careful roleplaying. Some prevalent errors include:

1) Petulance. Never whine if the party overrules a decision. Make your opinion known, but do not force it. If the result goes well, you will be seen as cooperative; if things go badly, the party will be more inclined to listen to you next time.

2) Self-deprecation. Don't be boastful, but beware of comments about how humble your skills are. Too many, and the party will begin to believe it. Characters can only work within the skills and abilities they possess, and the other characters are likely just as limited as you. A leader is not expected to be all-powerful, so don't try. Be very competent, admit when you don't have the goods, but don't denigrate your own abilities.

3) Open self-doubt. All leaders will doubt themselves at some point. This is normal, and comes with the job-- in fact, self-doubt is a recurring obstacle for leaders in works of fiction. Learn to accept and even relish that tight-stomach feeling of fear: without fear there can be no courage. The important thing is to keep the struggle with doubt internal and not obvious to the other players.

You may always worry whether your last decision was correct, but never let players see you get nervous-- if you don't trust yourself, why should other people trust you? The second half of this column will discuss the time and place for your doubt to surface-- -- but when crisis decisions needs to be made, never show doubt.

4) Condescension. If players feel that they are being dismissed, they will ignore the leader's decisions. Honestly listen to their advice and place a high value on their input. Comments of "That's stupid," or "Yeah, great, whatever..." will not be taken well by character or player, and will weaken you as a leader.

5) Contention. Leaders who wish to remain in charge of a party avoid direct conflict with other strong players if possible. Usually a player is strong because of extensive experience and knowledge of the game system, a very powerful character, or by sheer dint of real-life charisma and personality.

If the rest of the group respects the thief's player, for example, the leader character would do well to listen to the thief and only contradict or overrule when necessary. Too many arguments and the rest of the players will unconsciously take sides and the leader's power base becomes fractured and unsteady.

6) Domination. A leader must be very cautious about dominating a party against their will. Bullying players or shouting them down is not leadership: it's intimidation. While characters may be forced to submit by die rolls and charts, players never will. Sometimes a leader must make a decision that contradicts one or more members of the party. This is the privilege of leadership, but use it sparingly and avoid railroading the group to fit your own agenda. You dislike it when the GM shoves a plot down your throat despite your leanings toward a alternate task; dominating another player or a whole party is no different.

Power is a Savings Account

In order to lead, a person must have power over someone else. Though this concept sounds Machiavellian, it need not evoke images of the despot rubbing her hands together with maniacal glee as she plots world domination. Imagine you are driving in an unfamiliar city with a friend. You become lost in the maze of streets and your friend, a native of the city, says, "I know the way. Turn here." Do you turn? Of course. No bullying, manipulation, or condescension was involved, yet you have just been led; your friend has power over you based on superior knowledge.

A power base can be thought of as a savings account: you accumulate and dispense power as you would money. So how is power acquired? There are a multitude of ways, and most of them only increase your account by small amounts: the trick is to make them add up over the long haul.

Some power is granted at character creation: you are assumed to know the abilities of your character better than anyone else and to be competent in those abilities. Each time you demonstrate these abilities or draw on this knowledge, you deposit a small competence "check" into your power account. Every time you suggest a course of action and the party follows it, you gain a little more power.

If a dangerous situation is survived or avoided through your advice, you build the party's trust in your leadership and your power increases. Each character that recognizes you as the leader is a steady base of income, and even those that chafe under your leadership can provide additional power to you if they agree to your decisions. Even when your choice is overruled, you can gain power if the result goes badly-- but not if you call attention to the fact or had actively worked to sabotage it.

Situations that drain a power base are also legion. All of the pitfalls in the section above will subtract from your "account balance"-- and one careless mistake in roleplaying a leader can cost you substantial amounts of power which will then have to be earned back over time.

The largest risk-- and the greatest potential reward-- a power base faces is the command decision, when the leader decides that the best course of action is one that puts another character (or the entire party) directly in extreme danger. Command decisions often overrule the party's general wish or cannot be explained by the leader, whether for time constraints (like an attacking dragon) or because the decision is based on a hunch. These moments make or break a leader.

Command decisions can be expensive. The players whose characters are at risk unconsciously add up all the hours they have devoted to make that character who she or he is and multiply that by the odds their character faces. That cost is then weighed against their loyalty to the leader, which is the size of the leaders' power base from that character's point of view.

In return the leader offers their aura of confidence, their evidence of concern for the character's health, and all the built-up trust and respect of the player. Then the player is asked to cast the ultimate vote of confidence: to endanger their character's life simply because the leader said so.

If the outcome goes badly, much of the party support for the leader will have been gambled away. If it works, the leader's power base will increase significantly, and a bond will be forged between the leader and the other player that is not easily broken. The leader truly becomes the leader of the party and the player is a true hero. Few moments in roleplaying are better.

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What do you think?


All Take the Lead columns by David Bareford
  • Pitfalls and Power Bases April 9, 2002
  • Techniques March 15, 2002
  • Qualities February 22, 2002
  • A Leader Is? January 22, 2002

    Other columns at RPGnet

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