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Party Leaders and Player Leaders

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?

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Party Leaders and Player Leaders"

#1 Comment By lebkin On October 27, 2006 @ 10:38 am

I have found that there is always a player leader and a party leader. Also similar to your experience, the player leader’s character is the party leader. This has happened universally in my last few games. It even happens when the player leader is playing an non-leader type character (ex: low-charisma mage).

I think this is tied to two things. One is that those who step up to be the leader LIKE to be leaders. But it is equally true that most other people enjoy HAVING a leader. This is a phenomenon that I feel is independent of gaming; it is one that is more universally applicable to most social groups. And I would imagine that generally the player leader often steps out and leads outside the game as well.

#2 Comment By ScottM On October 27, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

It often takes a while for a group to settle into a role with a player leader. With the Vampire group I’m trying out, one of the players tried to lead last session.

It mostly worked (he was trying to power through a tangent that didn’t interest us as players), but I was annoyed when his directions to the GM included my character’s actions. (I didn’t fight it, since I was a little off last night anyway, but it did detract from my enjoyment of the game. I’ll nip it in the bud next time if it crops up again.)

On the character level, our group tends to resist having a dedicated leader. It does make it more complicated– we’ve lost long periods to planning that would have been better if we’d just gotten on with play– but we’re not very willing to play leader and followers in game. (I suspect it’d work out fine if we agreed to plan OOC, and just have the leader present the plan in the game world– we don’t want to dump the actual planning all in one person’s lap.)

#3 Comment By Telas On October 27, 2006 @ 3:02 pm

Good article… I suspect that those trained in group dynamics will chime in.

IME, the party and player leader roles are almost always synonymous, although I can see the player leader act a ‘first sergeant’ to the party leader’s ‘captain’. “He gives the orders; I make sure they’re carried out.” (It’s not a perfect analogy, but still…)

I think you’re onto something with “those who like to lead, lead”.

Finally, we tend to lead as we like to be led, and vice-versa. We had a party leader who was a bit of a hardass, and when the roles were reversed, he was most comfortable being told exactly what to do. It was a real learning experience.

#4 Comment By Martin On October 27, 2006 @ 7:49 pm

lebkin: Good point — there are definitely larger (non-gaming-related) social dynamics at work here. I often forget to think about GMing stuff on that level.

Scott: What annoyed you from your Vampire session (having your own actions narrated) would probably annoy me, too. It might have worked if it had been discussed in advance, but that’s still very sticky territory.

#5 Comment By Crazy Jerome On October 27, 2006 @ 8:36 pm

Our current grouped messed around with this issue for many years before we more or less stumbled upon the correct solution for us: We have player leaders, based on certain roles. If the situation calls for tactics, one particular player becomes the leader. If the situation calls for a trick, one of the two more devilish players will be the one (depending on which of the two comes up with the plan first). In your face roleplaying situations brings out one player while more subtle talks brings out a different one. You should see the two of them play good cop/bad cop. 🙂

In a group with nine players, we’ve also found that the leader having a “right hand man” is often useful. (In some ways, the player leader is a “right hand man” for the GM, as the article states. We’ve simply carried that another step.) For example, if the group decides they need a really complex trick, it’s not uncommon to divide into two groups of characters (players stay all in the room), each one led by one of the two tricksy players.

The players are so comfortable with these roles now that they never play characters that violate them. (And we make “social skills” matter. So the character abilities must back up the role.) One lady may plan anything from a canine knight to an erratic bard to a monkey-like rogue to a drunken ex-sailor. However, she is always a character that can play “good cop” and take the secondary lead for tactics guy.

Finally, and this is the really strange part, we have two players that never take the player lead in anything–except that they know who all the good leads are, and always back them up. In effect, they are the self-appointed “party cohesion” leads. And they too always play characters that can plausibly serve that role.

#6 Comment By VV_GM On October 27, 2006 @ 9:40 pm

The odd thing is that the real leader of the group is still the GM. I say this because a hint of what action should be taken that comes from the GM will almost always outweigh a command given by another player (at least that has been my personal experience).

As a GM I have found that this can be used to my advantage. If one of the players is the leader of the party (and I agree with Telas that 9 out of 10 times that same person is the player leader) and he or she insists on a certain action I might roll the dice to see if another PC detects something the others do not. I’ll then slip a note to the player of that PC and observe what happens. It doesn’t take long before the party starts listening to the more informed PC and not the party leader.

Granted, this is a lowly tactic if abused but sometimes the party leader turns into an order giver. The other players’ will start giving me clues via body language that they are tired of being bossed around by another PC. So I will do something along these lines to take the wind out of the party leader’s sails just enough to restore balance without having to make him or her lose face through direct confrontation. It is a gentle (well, somewhat gentle) nudge to get the party working together again.

It is using metagaming to my advantage (i.e. – I don’t try to hide my note passing but I don’t flaunt it either), but I’m willing to manipulate the group in order to keep it from tearing itself apart.

#7 Comment By Martin On October 31, 2006 @ 7:40 am

CJ: I’ve seen players take leadership roles based on their areas of expertise, but never in any sort of formal way. That sounds like a good idea.

VV: That’s pretty sneaky. Maybe a little dirty, too, but with the right game it could be a lot of fun. 😉