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The Play's the Thing

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

by David Goodner
Sep 23,2004


You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Welcome back. Today, we discuss what may be the most difficult problem character of all...

...The Leader.

To begin with, let me tell you, I hate playing the Leader. I hated being group leader in group work at school, too. (And I hated group work in general, but that's another story) I don't like being responsible for anyone else's fun, and in a pretty big way, the Leader is responsible for everyone else's fun. If he screws up, the rest of the group pays for it.

That said, I've ended up playing the Leader fairly often. A few years back, I was one of the oldest, most experienced gamers in my group, so the others tended to deferr to me even when I didn't want them to. I don't consider myself a very good leader, but I was good enough to get by. And, perhaps because I'm uncomfortable in the position, but frequently thrust into it anyway, I've given a good bit of thought to what it means to be the Leader in an RPG group.

The Leader, for our purposes is both the character the other PCs follow. To confuse the issue, the Player of the Leader is probably also the Leader at the meta-level. This is not so true of other character types, but with the Leader, the line between Player and Character is blurred. A Player can play a Rat-Bastard without the other Players hating him, but he can probably only play the Leader if the others are willing to follow.

The Leader is a really hard role to play, unless it's easy. This column probably isn't going to tell you how to do it. The best I can do is show you the pitfalls and suggest ways you might work around them.

First off, how about some general thoughts on leadership. RPG.net used to have a column on the subject. I suggest checking it out in the archives. Not bad reading. I'll be much more brief.

One of the tidbits I remember from sociology is that any group has two "leaders." The primary leader is the one everyone sees as the leader. He makes the decisions, picks the goals, and generally runs things. The second leader is the one who keeps the group cohesive and looks after the needs of the individual members.

We're mostly focused on the first type, but I'll digress into the second from time to time.

A Leader is more than someone who gives orders. In fact, giving orders can make you NOT the Leader. The Leader charts a course, and other people follow it. A good leader inspires people to follow him, or persuades them. Then comes the tricky part. He has to take them somewhere. So effective leadership has two components: inspiration of loyalty, and vision of objectives. Someone who can inspire loyalty, but can't come up with objectives makes a good figurehead, but not a good Leader. Those who follow him are likely doomed, unless he's very lucky. Someone who can set objectives and figure out how to reach them is only a Leader once he can articulate his plan and get someone to follow it.

If you want your character to be the Leader, you have to be able to do both, or at least simulate doing both. This being a game, not real life, you can sometimes fake it. Otherwise, any gamer who played a lawyer or a surgeon would probably be fairly wealthy.

Let's start with the first side of the Leadership coin.

Inspiring Loyalty

You're not the Leader until you tell someone to do something and they do it. In fact, you're not the Leader until you consistently tell people to do things and they do them.

There are lots of ways to inspire loyalty. Personal charisma is nice if you have it. Largess helps, too. So does blackmail, up to a point. But all of these have practical limitations. If you aren't charismatic, wealthy, or sneaky, you might have trouble with them.

Another good option is generally being right. If, every time the group says "what should we do now?" they end up following your suggestion, you are probably the Leader.

Once again, there are practical limitations to that, inasmuch as you have to really be right.

There are many books in the business/management section of your local bookstore or perhaps Dewey Number 6XX of the nearest public library on the subject of how to inspire loyalty. Most of them boil down to the following:

  • Treat your followers with respect.
  • Give them an environment in which they feel empowered and needed.
  • Trust them and make sure they can trust you.
  • Reward them for their accomplishments.

Most of that's pretty obvious, once someone points it out to you. Reading a book or two on the subject might not be a bad idea if you want to know more. The "Short form" is that it's about respect. Particularly in a roleplaying game, a group is probably a group of equals. Even if your character is Captain Jean-Luc Tiberius Archer of Starfleet you are still just another member of the group, and your friends aren't going to take well to you ordering them around. (If they do, hey, I'm big enough to admit when I'm wrong. More power to you)

So for now, let's assume you need a little help getting into your position of leadership. Here are some suggestions.

First off, you should clear your plan with the rest of the group. If you want to play the Leader type, mentioning that to the GM and the other players is a good idea. You can work out in advance why they'd follow you, and you can iron out potential problems. Or you might realize it's all a big headache and play a moody loner instead.

If the rest of the group goes for it, you can play a really autocratic character and get away with it. As an example, right now I'm playing a Star Wars game. My character is essentially another PC's butler. His character orders mine around and is generally a little condescending. If he'd tried to pull that without asking me, I'd be pretty annoyed. But since I actually asked him if he wanted a butler, it's all in fun.

Second, you should be prepared to metagame. I've previously discussed that there's good metagaming and bad metagaming. Altering your character portrayal to avoid nasty conflicts is usually good metagaming. In Character, your Starfleet captain might be a decisive man of action who just snaps out orders that are instantly obeyed. Out of Character, you should probably be a little more diplomatic. Taking a minute OOC to discuss what you've got in mind and ask the other players what they'd like to do is a good idea. It can help you in another way as well. We'll get to that in a minute.

Third, be prepared to compromise. If you have a really strong direction in mind (which we'll discuss in a minute), you have to either be able to sell that goal to the rest of the group, or be ready to lose your leadership position if you try to force them to follow it. So be ready to change your goals if necessary. Remember that the game isn't about your character and his sidekicks (generally). It's about a group. Everyone needs a chance to shine, and if you're always pushing your character to the front, you're going to annoy your fellow players.

So now you're reading this and saying "but David, if I do all that, I'm not really the Leader at all. I'm more like everybody else's servant." To which I reply, "Yeah, pretty much." The best Leaders don't think of their job as "order these people around." They think about it as "Help these people succeed."

Not all leaders are like that, of course. And if you have the personal magnetism to get the rest of your group to do whatever you want, you don't have to do it either. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Now, on to the second matter:

Providing Vision

The Leader's job is to direct his followers. This is the hardest part to teach. Giving orders is easy. Giving them in a way that people will follow isn't too difficult. But knowing what orders to give? Aye, there's the rub.

In a fairly typical roleplaying party, the group engages in a mix of investigation, intelligence gathering, and small-unit military tactics. An ideal Leader would be adept at planning for all of those. He'd know the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on his team, and be able to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his enemies. He'd also be able to put different pieces of information together to create a coherent view of any situation, then figure out how to exploit that situation to his team's benefit.

Tall order, huh? And we're not quite done yet. That's all tactical level stuff. A good Leader also has to be able to work at the strategic level. He needs to provide overall direction to the team, so that they're always moving closer to a goal.

Not many people can really do all that, which is, more or less, why leadership works at all. Fortunately, you don't really have to be able to do it all.

Some of the same mechanisms I suggested earlier will help you here. You should probably really talk to the other players about the overall strategy the group wants to pursue anyway.

For the tactical side, if you don't have at least a basic grasp of problem-solving skills, you might want to reconsider your choice to be the Leader. But you don't need to be a SWAT commander or anything. The GM's probably not, either. (Besides that, all too many groups use the tactic of "just do whatever" without much coordination anyway...)

If the GM is willing to work with you, you have some options. Spend points on skills like Notice and Tactics, and ask for rolls to give your character ideas. It probably won't be very satisfying to play a tactical genius by just sitting around waiting for the GM to make up your plans, but he can give you enough help to get by.

Another option is to delegate. If your character can provide the overall direction, others can help with parts of the whole. The most important aspect of the Leader's role is to know what needs to be done and be sure someone is doing it. If another player is better at planning out combat encounters, let him make the plans. Try to ask some good questions. It's the same as the fact that the Leader would let the unit's medic do the field surgery, and the scout do the intelligence gathering.

The, of course, you're just management. (Just a joke. Don't take it personally)

Seriously, though, you should be prepared to delegate some things. Everyone wants to feel creative and useful. Most games aren't about The Leader and his Spiffy Minions. They're about a team of relative equals. Often, even when there's a logical command structure, groups tend to be more democratic than would be logical. We'll talk about that more in just a minute.

The flip side is that if you're having to delegate everything, then perhaps playing the Leader isn't for you. Chances are good that if the other players are metagaming so their characters will follow yours, and someone else is coming up with the plans, you're not really doing a good job in the Leader slot. At some point, you'll have to consider whether getting to wear the Leader hat is worth the compromises you and the rest of the group are having to make.

Ok, so that's the basics of the job. Let's talk a little about practical matters.


The Leader of a group of PCs has different challenges than, say, a SWAT Team commander or a feudal lord. Essentially, he doesn't really have any authority other than what his followers choose to give him. It doesn't matter who spent the most on the Rank advantage. You can't make the other players do what you want, and attempts to do so will be disruptive to the game. Sure, technically, a military commander could have an insubordinate soldier court-martialed, but if you try it, you'll end up bringing the game to a halt.

And that, you see, is the key. It's a game, played by people who are doing it for fun. If you do anything that makes the game not be fun, nobody is likely to cooperate with you.

Another matter is that some tactics that work pretty well in real life just don't work in some RPGs. Unless you've been trained in small-unit tactics, you just won't be as good at making up plans as someone who has, and even if you have, you might find that the rules won't support some otherwise logical courses of action. For instance, if you're playing Dungeons & Dragons, you might have problems with plans that involve quickly and quietly dispatching opposition. Escalating hit points will get in your way unless you have options like Sleep spells. (Not really a dig against the d20 crowd. It's not even absolutely true - but it's a good enough example.)

In general, your planning will need to be fairly light and flexible, simply because you don't have the resources for highly detailed plans. There are exceptions, of course. I know a few gamers who really dig the minutia of planning and plotting with maps and guard schedules and all of that.

Often, as Leader, your real job isn't so much to direct every action as simply to remind the rest of the group of their true objectives. Going into a fight saying "We're here to take out the Liche Lord. Only mess with the popcorn as much as you have to," could be enough. Your fellow players will tend to pick out their own smaller fights within the larger engagement.

One last thing that separates RPG Leaders from their real life counterparts is that they're characters in a roleplaying game. (Well, duh.) Some GMs set every detail down in advance, making the experience almost the same as real life. I hate them. I've never been that organized, and neither have most of my GMs. That means, occasionally, a plan can succeed because it sounds cool.

But occasionally not. You've really got to know your GM. To some extent, you should collaborate with him. It's not your job to lead the group into an ambush, or to slavishly follow exactly the path the GM has laid out - but on the other hand, it's not very nice to exploit your position as the Leader to shaft the GM's plot. If he's dropping hints that the group should go to San Francisco, then deciding to take them to New Orleans instead just

out of spite will probably get dice thrown at you.


That pretty much wraps it up for the Leader. The best I could do here was a general survey. The topic is complex enough to rate its own series of columns, but I don't think I'm going to do that.

Like just about everything else, my theories on playing a good Leader boil down to playing nice with the rest of the group. Of course, sometimes the Leader has to make hard decisions - but those should be dramatic, done for the good of the group and the game, not just to annoy another player.


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