Having one PC act as party leader is pretty common practice, and on the whole it tends to be a good idea. In many groups, one player will also act as leader — sometimes the same player, sometimes not.
Let’s look at both approaches — player leader and PC leader — as well as the areas where they intersect.
Naturally, neither the party leader nor the player leader should be a jackass. Overly bossy, domineering or otherwise overbearing folks make poor leaders (and poor additions to your group), so I’m not going to spend any time on them. The rest of this post assumes that your leader is blessed with at least average social skills.
A player leader is just that: the player who takes the lead in decision-making. It’s often a good idea to have one player in a leadership role, because the leader can help you, as the GM, to keep things moving.
Party getting bogged down in an extended planning session? The player leader can get them rolling again (no pun intended). Players sidetracked by Monty Python jokes? That’s another good time for the player leader to step in.
Not every group needs a player leader. The role overlaps with your role as the GM, so you may not see much reason to have a player leader. There is a difference, though, between the call to get back on track coming from you, the GM, or from another player.
The party leader, on the other hand, is the PC (not player) who is in charge of the rest of the party. Depending on the RPG that you’re playing, just how in charge they actually are can vary — from having an actual military rank (in Star Trek, for example) to simply being Highest Charisma Guy in D&D.
Having a party leader doesn’t work unless everyone agrees on who that leader is going to be. Oddly enough, in my experience there always seems to be exactly one person who wants the job — or at least is willing to take it. (And forcing someone into either role — party or player leader — is a bad idea. Definitely something to avoid!)
Whether the PCs formally regard the party leader as leader is less important, but it does tend to work slightly better that way. As long as they agree on a meta-level that when Gwen says “I’ve heard all of your plans, and I think we should use this one,” everyone more or less goes along with her, that works just fine for most groups.
Many times, the player leader and party leader will be the same person. Players with leadership personalities often play similar PCs — officers, paladins, bold explorers, etc. The player leader and party leader roles overlap so much that this makes little difference in the outcome — the benefits are the same.
Sometimes having two different people fill these roles can cause problems. A natural leader who becomes player leader, for instance, is fairly likely to take the lead even when someone else is actually the party leader. A quieter player who is running a leader PC may be less inclined to speak up in this situation, even though that’s their job.
Over many years on both sides of the screen, I’ve reached the conclusion that having a party leader is a very good thing. Having a player leader is less important, although still quite handy. Is this a quirk of my experience, or have you found the same thing to be true?
What have your experiences with party and player leaders been like?