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Take the Lead: Advice on winning players and influencing parties

A Leader Is?

by David Bareford
January 22, 2002  
The giant cobra convulsed in final agony and then lay still. The panting ranger ripped her greatsword free of the carcass and pointed down a dark corridor leading from the cave-like room. "The temple must be that way. Move out."

"Wait a minute," protested the thief, "There's a locked door over here. Don't you find it odd that a snake would use doorknobs? I'll try to pick the lock..."

"Don't bother with that," said the wizard, "Let's grab these eggs from its nest. We can use them as hostages to negotiate with the evil high priest."

"Negotiate?" interjected the fighter, "I'm going to negotiate his head right off his shoulders!"

The ranger sighed. She could hear guards running closer as the party stood bickering. She took up a position to hold the corridor.

The Need for Leadership

Players know that cooperation and teamwork are key to survival. Adventuring parties working as a unit are much more resilient and deadly, and players united behind a common goal can accomplish much more in a session than groups who continually disagree and argue. Rare is the group who can achieve this unanimity of opinion and clarity of purpose spontaneously: most of us need a leader.

A leader is not simply the bossiest person, not necessarily the character who charges in first, and not merely the non-confrontational player who pleads, "Can't we all just get along?" A leader wades through the morass of sketchy facts, players' opinions, game mechanics, and GM disinformation, weighing mission against resources, player ego against group harmony, and danger against reward to arrive at a unified course of action for the group.

A good leader can speed up game mechanics, smooth over differences of opinion between players, and make the party greater than the sum of its parts. They are the bedrock of the party's confidence and the lightning rod of its valor. Sounds like a job for a hero, right?

In novels or films, the hero dominates the plot and controls the action, often simply through an indefinable "leader-aura", and everyone else takes a back seat. But roleplaying games have an inherent problem with this model: every character is a hero and every player has their own idea about what to do next. Each person is at the table to have fun and no one wants to feel like an unimportant or token member of the team. But if everyone tries to be in the spotlight all the time, chaos results.

Often, players seek cooperation by democracy, and try to discuss every possible option and decision until a unanimous decision is reached. While this is commendable, some choices call for immediate action with no time for debate, and in other situations players cannot agree. These are the times when a party leader must step to the fore.

The party leader is an interesting (and little-discussed) notion. Most adventuring parties do not have a formal military, religious, or structured hierarchy that would indicate a natural authority figure. Some groups elect a leader or rotate the title amongst the members, but many do not bother with the idea at all. Certain players feel they should lead based on the statistics listed on their character sheet, citing a high Charisma or the Leadership feat. Sometimes the GM will agree, forcing the would-be leader and the recalcitrant character into a contest of Leadership vs. Will. Whatever the outcome, the losing player often resents the situation and will continue to chafe under the imposed domination.

The irony is this: a party leader must lead the players, not the characters.

However, guiding one's friends around a gaming table is a much trickier proposition than a die roll against a reaction chart. Where does a potential leader start? By looking around the room at the real-world group.

How to Read Players

In order to lead a group of people effectively, a leader must have their confidence. Gaining that trust can be a real-life power struggle, requiring a discerning look at how the players in the group respond to leadership. Some don't mind being led, others need to be convinced of everything, a few do their own thing no matter what, and some will want to lead instead.

1. The Follower. This type is the easiest to lead-- the battle is over before it starts. Given reasonable directives that do not endanger their character too extremely, the follower will cooperate with any leader. Players who like to follow are not weak-willed or stupid; they would simply rather fulfill their party role and leave the politics (and responsibility of leadership) to others. Leaders use these players as a reliable power base.

2. The Debater. The second type demands a clear rationale behind every order. These are players who generally know the rules inside and out and have strategic and tactical ideas of their own. The leader should appeal to their logic at times and explain the reasoning behind the decision. This reassures both the unconvinced player and the rest of the group that the leader is not deciding rashly or arbitrarily. However, it is important that the leader does not explain every order, but forces the doubting player to simply respect the decision on occasion. Doing so builds up trust from the player and the rest of the group.

3. The Loose Cannon. Players who do their own thing can seem anarchic and unpredictable. Often they have a character motivation or a particular gaming preference that makes their behavior different from the rest of the group. If the leader can discover this key, it can be used to bring the character's goal in line with those of the party, or use the player's enjoyment of a particular aspect of roleplaying to advantage for the group.

4. The Challenger. Dealing with other players who want to lead is a dangerous business. No one wants to be involved in a real-world power struggle between friends, and parties with split leadership get little done. Sometimes, giving a challenger a subordinate leader role is effective, especially when the party is divided. Asking the would-be leader to take half the party and cause a distraction while the rest of the group snatches the artifact is a good example. Such a command gives the challenger a heroic role where she must make leadership choices, all the while obeying an order from the leader. If this occurs often enough, the challenger will be seen as second in command-- which is a good thing to have if the leader should fall.

In the next installment, we will outline the qualities of good leaders and analyze which character archetypes are the most natural in the leadership role.

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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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