Over the past few months, I have become interested in the topic of Leadership. As a project manager, leadership comprises a large part of what I do each day as I work with various project teams. As I began to study the area of leadership, I came to realize that it plays a role in RPG’s as well. With some thought, I realized that there is not a single leader, but there can be three different leaders at the table.

What is Leadership?

There is no shortage of definitions for leadership, from the basic dictionary definitions to the interpretations of the concept by various business leaders. The one that I find easy to grasp, and one that I think holds up well in the context of RPG’s, is the following:

“Leadership is the process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal”. — Kevin Kruse

There are a few important parts to this definition:

  • Social Influence – its not about giving orders its about using our “soft skills”.
  • Maximizes…others – leadership is not about making yourself awesome, it’s about making others awesome.
  • Achieve…goal – ultimately what we are doing is trying to reach a goal, be it delivering software, killing a dragon, etc

Why Leadership Matters?

Leadership is about taking individuals and leading them as a group for the betterment of that group. In the absence of leadership, we either remain individuals and miss the chance to combine our talents to make something greater than our individual efforts, or we become a group who lacks the focus and direction to maximize their combined efforts. In either case, any goal we are trying to achieve will either be out of reach, or will cost in time or emotional drain to reach.

Why does Leadership Matter in RPG’s?

Taking that idea a step forward, an RPG group is a team of people who are trying to achieve a goal. Depending on what game you are playing, the type of campaign, etc, your goals could vary. The goals of your game can be tactical, story based, or character based. You could be working to kill the Great Wyrm to capture its treasure. You could be a team of supers protecting the city. You could be a group looking to explore the social issues of what witchcraft does to teenagers.

Since we have a group of people working towards a goal, there a place for leadership to play a role.

Different kinds of Leaders at the Table

I mentioned before that there can be up to three leaders at the table. Not every group has all three, some prefer to do without some leaders.

Game Master – Leader of the Game

This one was the most obvious. The GM is often thought of as the one leading the group, in part because the GM has the largest amount of work in the game. In this role, the GM is typically the one who organizes the game, gathering everyone together. They are responsible for helping to solve player conflicts when they arise. The GM is a natural leader for helping a group of players collaborate, acting as a facilitator.

From their detached position, they can lead the group of players into making a decision when they become stuck during the game, not knowing what clue to follow, or whether to go deeper in the dungeon or back to town. As the organizer for a game, they can lead the group of players into forming a new campaign and in deciding when to close out an existing campaign.

The GM should never lead the characters in the story. They should never have an NPC or worse a GMPC who is leading the group of characters.

Party Leader – Leader of the Characters

Most parties of characters have a leader. That leader can be a social decision, as in we all want Bobby’s character to lead the party, or rooted in the mechanics of the game through class or other abilities such as the Savage Worlds leadership Edges, and the Warlord of 4th edition D&D.

The Party Leader leads the others characters within the fiction of the game. They help to move the story along by interacting and dealing with the other characters. They are often the point person who will address NPC’s on behalf of the party. They can be battlefield leaders, giving orders during a combat scene.

Player Leader – Leader among the players

One of the least obvious leaders at the table is the Player Leader. This is a player who works to help the other players, and not their characters. They can lead in many of the ways that the GM does, by helping forge collaboration and resolving players conflicts. They can help lead the players through planning scenes, be it a heist or ambush.

Player Leaders are great for assimilating new players into the game. They can help a new player get familiar with the rules, provide advice on things they may want to do, as well assisting them in navigating the established social structure of the gaming group.

Player leaders are also great assets when an individual player becomes stuck. They can provide the stuck player ideas to help keep things moving along.

Player leaders also offload work from the GM, by taking over some of the leadership activities. This allows the GM to focus more on other parts of the game, and boosts the productivity of the group.

Mixes of Leaders

There is no perfect formula for leadership at the table. At a minimum there needs to be at least a GM or Player Leader to lead the group of people. In the absence of either of those, the group is going to be frustrated in terms of getting the game organized, and progressing at the table.

The players should have a Party Leader or a Player Leader in order to make the characters productive. A Party Leader gives a narrative hook for the NPC’s to know who to address, and it gives the GM someone they can go to for determining what the party will do next. The players can have both roles, being the same person or two different people. With the presence of both roles, the players become an efficient team and should be able to accomplish many things.

In the case where all three types of leaders are present, you have a formidable group. With the Player leader and the GM helping to lead the group as a whole, and the Party Leader helping to lead the narrative of the game, this is a group where everyone is helping to move the game in a positive manner.

Three Ways to be a good Leader

No discussion on leadership would be complete without some discussion of traits of good leaders. As with the definitions, there are so many traits that I will focus on just a few that, if practiced, will make a positive difference:

  • Serve over Order – Good leaders help others not order others. Ask the question, “What can I do to make you be more awesome?” Helping people be awesome makes everyone more awesome.
  • Listen over Being Heard – Good leaders are about hearing what others say and acting upon it more than having people hear what they have to think. A good leader listens, incorporates, and then acts.
  • Solve Problems over Assigning Blame – Leaders are not there to figure out who did what wrong, rather they want to solve problems, and achieve goals. Put your focus on helping to solve problems that come up in the game, rather than figuring out who’s fault it was.

Leads Us Out

We all want to play great games and have great campaigns. But wanting those things is not enough. What are we willing do to, beyond just showing up with our dice, to make the game better? What can we do to lift up the others in the group, to help everyone have a great game? What gaps can we fill, what help can we provide? Being a leader, be it as the GM, a Player, or the Party leader, can help make a great gaming group produce fantastic games.

What leaders do you have in your game? Do you consider yourself a leader? What leader is your group lacking?