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Take the Lead: Advice on winning players and influencing parties


by David Bareford
March 11, 2002  

In our discussion of party leadership, we have examined the need for leadership and the qualities of a good leader. Now we descend from the ivory tower of theory and offer some nuts-and-bolts ways you can begin to lead when the d20s start flying.

Techniques of Leadership

Understanding the need for leadership and possessing leadership qualities are only part of the equation; the actual act of leading is another matter. Players can be notoriously difficult to guide, since each of them has their own agenda and character story which may not mesh with the party's plan or the leader's direction. The analogy of attempting to herd cats is not far off here.

Also, unlike leader-follower relationships in reality the roleplayer who would lead is often self-appointed and has no form of disciplinary authority if insubordination occurs. One possible response to this problem is to try and wrangle from the GM some form of in-game authority over the other characters: make them submit to your will. This is a dangerous choice, because exercising punitive measures against another player's character can very easily cause resentment from that PC, even if the player of the chastised character is mature enough to keep in-game emotions from bleeding into reality.

However, many of us roleplay to vicariously escape the boss-worker structure of our daily lives, and therefore many players dislike receiving direct orders that impinge on the freedom of their imaginary personae. How is one to lead them?

1) Be decisive. At the most basic level, the leader is the character that determines the final course for the group, whether the question involves which door to open or how to escape a situation where the party's life hangs in the balance. If you want to lead, choose to decide. A party leader does not-- and should not-- squelch all characters' opinions but there own, but should make the final call. The very word "decide" has a Latin etymology that literally means "to cut off." As the leader, you must listen to options, evaluate, then decide. Your choice will not always be right, but indecision is fatal. Some decisions may get a character killed. No one said it was easy.

2) Tell characters what to do, not how to do it. An example party is engaged in combat in a dungeon corridor. The fighters are battling orcs in the front rank and things are going acceptably, but then the GM describes noises approaching from a side passage. The leader turns to the thief and wizard in the back rank, "Torvak, Selana, I need you to hold that passage. Nothing gets by."

This is good leadership in action. In two short sentences, the players are recognized as members of the team, entrusted with the survival of the entire party, and inspired to leap forward heroically. The leader could have queried the GM for more information, but that would have slowed game play. Pulling a fighter off the line would be a poor tactical decision and left Torvak and Selana standing around feeling useless or believing that the leader did not trust them, which is much worse.

Telling the thief to hide in the shadows and be ready to sneak attack, or ordering the wizard to cast a clairvoyance spell to ascertain the danger is not the best choice. While these actions may be sound tactical decisions, micromanaging other character at this level is puppeteering, not leading. The players of Torvak and Selana know their abilities and may resent being told how to run their characters.

Looking at the order given in the example above, there are several very important elements packed into a terse command:

First, the leader addresses the characters by name. This indicates the leader is choosing very specific individuals, not just ordering whoever is currently unoccupied. Using the player's name would pull awareness back to the real world, where the leader has no authority, and keeps everyone focused on roleplaying.

Second, the leader says, "I need you to hold that passage." Saying "I need you" reminds the character that the leader knows survival is a team effort and the leader needs the party as much as the party needs the leader. Telling the characters to "hold the passage" is a clear directive, but does not indicate a specific course of action. This means that the players involved must make their own decisions on how to proceed. They will invest in the task and make it their own, knowing that if they succeed they will be heroes and that if failure is imminent the leader will reinforce them. And importantly for the leader, they will have unconsciously moved from deciding whether to obey the order and have focused on deciding how best to carry it out.

Third, the leader emphasizes the importance of the task with, "Nothing gets by." The words that are left out are as important as the ones that are spoken. The approaching enemy might be a crippled kobold or a raging werewolf, but the order stands: protect the party. The players may fear for their characters' lives, but they know that for the moment, they are all that stand between the group and possible death. The leader has told them what to do and made them heroes in the process.

3) Don't be deaf. The other players may have the answer to the problem that eludes the leader. A good leader listens and evaluates party suggestions, then decides on a likely course. Often, players will suggest actions that do not directly contribute to the party's goal but neither hinder nor disrupt it. A leader is wise to encourage and support these actions. They may be beneficial to the whole party and even if not, they give the suggesting player the sense of real contribution and cooperation. By taking the advice of other players at certain times, the leader will be allowed to override suggestions when necessary in times of crisis.

4) Facilitate the party's wishes when possible. Roleplaying is a group activity, and the whole group needs to have fun. Often discussions arise regarding topics that have no real right or wrong answer, such as which adventure hook to follow or how to divide treasure. The good leader will say little but listen to the group during these times, developing a feel for the general preference of the party. Then, when the discussion seems to stall, the leader makes a decision in line with the wishes of the majority of the group. This is not selling out. The players should be allowed to do whatever is most fun for them, and leader should guide the group into choices that create enjoyment for the largest number of players. This will keep everyone as happy as possible while reinforcing the leader's authority, because the leader made the final "decision."

5) Involve everyone. A leader should constantly look around the gaming table and make sure that every player has something to do. Boredom breeds dissent. Ironically, sometimes this means that the best person for the job is not the best person for the job! In the above example, the fighters would be better character type to hold a passage against all comers, but they already had a task and the thief and wizard did not. The fact that these two character types are weaker in combat actually raised the stakes for the players involved and made the challenge greater and their heroism more pronounced.

The final installment in this series will tiptoe around the pitfalls of leadership and discuss the leader's power base.You know what they say about absolute power...

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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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