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Take the Lead:
How to Command an Adventuring Party

Copyright David Bareford ©2002

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

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." Drums echoing in the deep suggested she was right, and that the worshippers of the serpent demon had been alerted.

"Wait a minute," protested one of his companions, "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 is key to survival. Adventuring parties working as a unit are much more resilient and deadly, and players united behind a common goal can accomplish more in a session than ones who continually disagree and argue. In novels or films, the hero dominates the plot and controls the action, but in roleplaying games every character is a hero and every player has their own idea about what to do next. If everyone tries to be in the spotlight all the time, chaos results.

Often, players seek cooperation by democracy: discussing every possible option and decision. While this is commendable, some choices call for immediate action with no time for debate, and in other situations players cannot unanimously 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. Every player is there to have fun and wants to feel like an important and vital member of the team. Who then is capable of leading?

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 the 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.

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.

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. Any single player does not have all the answers, including the leader. When time permits, input from the rest of the party is vital. An adventuring party is not a dictatorship, and the leader must determine what most of the players are interested in doing. 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.

3) A leader demonstrates competence. No player wants to put their character's life into bumbling 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 very important here. 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.

4) A leader projects an aura of confidence. Role-playing worlds are dangerous places, and players will gravitate to someone who seems in control and rock-solid. "As long as I'm standing, everyone will make it out," the leader says without a word. This passive aura is achieved 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 role, 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.

Techniques of Leadership

Leadership qualities are only half the equation; leading itself is another matter. Players can be notoriously difficult to guide, since the leader has no form of disciplinary authority if insubordination occurs. And players often dislike direct orders. How is one to lead them?

1) Be decisive. At the most basic level, the leader is the player that makes the final decision for the party. If you want to lead, decide—whether the question involves which door to open or if the party lives or dies. A leader's choice will not always be right, but indecision is fatal. Some decisions may get a player's character killed. No one said it was easy.

2) Tell players what to do, not how to do it. Take the example of a party fighting 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. But telling the thief to hide in the passage shadows and be ready to sneak attack, or ordering the wizard to cast a clairvoyance spell to ascertain the danger would be puppeteering, not leading. The players of Torvak and Selana know their abilities and would 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.

Second, the leader says, "I need you to hold that passage." Saying "I need you" reminds the player 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 are focused on deciding how best to obey it.

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. At other times, 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, fighters would be better character types 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.

How to Read Players

In order to lead players, a leader must have the confidence of the group. 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.

The first type is the easiest ... the battle is over before it starts. Given reasonable directives that do not endanger their character too extremely, they 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.

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.

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.

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. In fact, it is exactly analogous to the example of holding the side passage, above: it 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.

Pitfalls of leadership

The road to good leadership is fraught with danger, and one misstep can seriously undermine hours of work. Be aware of these common mistakes:

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 it goes badly, they will be more inclined to listen to you next time.

2) Self-deprecation. Do not be boastful, but beware of comments about how feeble one's skills are. Too many, and the party will begin to believe it. You may always worry whether your last decision was correct, but never let players see you fret—if you don't trust yourself, why should other people trust you?

3) Condescension. If players feel that they are being dismissed, they will ignore the leader's decisions. Honestly listen to their advice and actually value their input. Bullying players or shouting them down is not leadership: it's intimidation, and while characters may be forced to submit by die rolls and charts, players never will.

4) Contention. Leaders who wish to remain in charge of a party avoid direct conflict with other strong players if possible. If the rest of the group respects the thief's player, for example, the leader would do well to listen to the player 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.

5) Domination. A leader must be very cautious about dominating a party against their will. The biggest weapon in the leader's arsenal is the right of 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 or because the decision is based on a hunch. These moments make or break a leader.

Command decisions can be thought of as an old-fashioned measuring scale. On the one side is placed the life of the character and all the hours the player has devoted to make that character who she or he is. On the other side the leader places 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: risk your character's life simply because the leader said so.

If the outcome goes badly, much of the party support will have been gambled away; too many of these and the leader will be replaced. If it works, however, 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 made the player is a true hero. Few moments in roleplaying are better.

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