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Take the Lead: Advice on winning players and influencing parties


by David Bareford
February 22, 2002  
The first column of this series underscored the need for leaders to organize a party of RPG characters into an effective adventuring team, and started the would-be commander to think in terms of leading players, not characters. In this installment, we will examine the qualities of good leaders and evaluate character archetypes for their leadership potential.

Qualities of good leaders

In order to be an effective party leader, the player must demonstrate certain qualities:

1) A leader cares for the party above all else. Greedy characters or those with a lone-wolf aura do not make good leaders; players immediately spot someone who makes decisions based on personal gain or abandons the party to achieve personal goals. The leader must value and protect each member of the party with his or her character's life. This nurturing side need not make the character a mother hen: the tough old sergeant ensuring the squad has enough food is a fine example of this aspect of leadership.

2) A leader listens more and speaks less. No single player has all the answers, even the leader. When time permits, input from the rest of the party is vital. Sometimes time does not permit debate, but if players feel they are being ignored, they will rebel and leave the leader with no one to lead. Remember, an adventuring party is not a dictatorship, and the leader must determine what most of the players are interested in doing. After all, we play RPGS to have fun, not be bossed around.

3) A leader demonstrates competence. No player wants to put their character's life into blundering hands. The leader does not have to be better than the thief at hiding or more deadly than the fighter in combat, but she should use her character's class skills well and demonstrate a firm grasp of game mechanics.

Image is everything here. No matter what the leader character's actual effectiveness, a perceived aura of incompetence will instantly quash any hope of leading the party. Therefore, the player must be constantly aware of their character's image. If, for example, the leader has cast a certain attack spell several times that has failed to cause damage, the leader's player should not exclaim, "I never hit with that spell!"

The fact is, most other players are too busy during combat to track the leader's spell statistics. Calling attention to the failing weakens the leader's reputation, and each subsequent casting of that spell will be seen by the other players as poor judgment-- a terrible blow to leadership effectiveness.

This does not mean, however, that the leader's character must be invulnerable or never miss a attack roll -- no RPG player expects 100% success from anyone. A leader can fail because of overwhelming odds or plain bad luck... but not to her own bungling.

4) A leader projects an aura of confidence. Role-playing worlds are dangerous places, and players will gravitate to someone who seems rock-solid and in control. "As long as I'm standing, everyone makes it out," the leader says without a word. In fact, voicing such a sentiment rarely produces the desired effect. The confident aura is best achieved passively in the real-world game room, where the real players watch the leader. A confident voice, nods of encouragement, and facing the GM with unflinching resolve are the leader's hallmarks, even when the player is very worried about the situation or doesn't have a clue what to do next. Does this mean the player has to bluff and hide their emotions from their real-world friends? Yes. It's called roleplaying for a reason.

Character Classes and Leadership

Any player can lead a group, but some character archetypes lend themselves better to a party leader. Especially at low levels, a leader must demonstrate ability in combat, even if in a defensive role. Inexperienced characters have the highest anxiety levels, and will trust a leader that makes them feel safe.

Charismatic paladins make natural leaders if the party is aligned with the character's moral compass, but paladins can seem too limited and righteous to a mixed group. A paladin leader should inspire the party, but be cautious of seeming too proud.

Clerics have the benefit of dispensing healing, which automatically places them in a nurturing role. They are adequate fighters and often strongly armored, so they protect wounded or weaker characters admirably. If they avoid the "medic" role and stay away from religious proselytizing of other players, clerics will do well.

Fighters are another good choice for leader. Bravery is their stock in trade, and no one doubts their combat ability. However, they often are perceived as solving every problem with the sword, and sometimes are too caught up in combat to watch the whole party. Barbarians fall into this category as well, but must additionally dispel any "dumb brute" reputation of the class they other players may hold.

Rogue characters are more difficult. They must overcome the traditional self-serving, skulking image and win player confidence with clever planning and personal risk. Players will accept a rogue leader who stays behind the front lines in a fight as long as the rogue is out in front as the group makes its way through the dangerous traps of a dungeon. A rogue character wins the players through personal charisma and "swashbuckler charm."

Robin Hood and Ali Baba are good examples of a rogue's style of leadership.

Wizards are good leaders at high level, but low-level mages, for their own survival, spend too much time avoiding combat to inspire heroism. They need powerful spells to demonstrate competence, and must usually wait for mid- to high-levels to live up to their leadership potential.

Rangers and druids fall into the same leadership role. They are the natural choice for adventures in the wilderness where many players feel exposed and vulnerable. To win the full-time leadership role, however, they must prove their utility and expertise in urban and dungeon settings as well.

The next installment will outline some nuts-and-bolts techniques of leadership get you started leading your own party!

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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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