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I think the most natural party organization for a group of friends that are playing a game is a flat one, in which no one has authority over another, and decisions are made by consensus (and if that fails, with votes).

But there are times when the setting implies that the party should have a leader. In theory that shouldn't be a problem, as roleplaying is about portraying people who are not yourself, be they a noble or a servant, but in practice not everyone is okay being subordinate to another even if it's fictitious.

I have been in games in which leadership went smoothly, because everyone accepted the leader. But I have been in others in which players had a hard time accepting the leader, and every decision and step was an argument.

What are the keys to successfully including a leadership role in a party? How should the leader lead and the followers follow?

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Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7414/… –  Phil May 30 at 8:41
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Having a good leader is a big help. –  RBarryYoung May 30 at 19:42
    
@RBarryYoung True, but, what makes a good leader? –  Flamma May 31 at 1:02
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This question might be useful; it's about how to handle a game system where one character is assumed to be the "leader," with both mechanical and narrative enforcement of the conceit. –  BESW Jun 11 at 4:12
    
Sometimes, when the party leader is also the player with the most experience playing the game, it helps for them to be the party leader in and outside of the game. –  Zibbobz Aug 21 at 20:08

10 Answers 10

While some groups may accept an authoritarian structure, my experience has been that, for most groups, it is better to recognize that, even though one character is in charge in-game, all of the players are still equal out-of-game. So you and I would still be able to discuss plans or decisions out of game, even if my character must obey your character without question in game.

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That's a good and smart solution (+1). But there are some groups who dislike discussing things out of game. –  Flamma May 30 at 9:14
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This is one structure that works for some groups, but can you expand on how it works? Do the players negotiate a plan and the lead character give those orders? What does that mean for the player who is playing the leader? Does he play any special role at all, or does his character just happen to have the star? –  C. Ross May 30 at 16:57

I have extensive experience with this style, having been the GM, "party leader", and under a "party leader". I will describe the situation where the "party leader" player makes real game decisions for the group.

We first came to the idea of having party leaders as a way of managing large games. It can be extremely difficult for a group of 12+ players to work together and come to a timely decision; in this case a party leader may help the situation.

The foremost thing that has to be said about having a party leader is that the player must be a good leader in and out of RPGs. Every time I've seen this be successful the player has had some prior leadership experience such as business executive, technical lead, or non commissioned officer. The skills that are required to be a good leader in a game are the same as in most other situations: giving clear direction, motivating others, listening to those you work with. I'm not going to try to write a book on leadership here, there are many many books written on the subject already.

The party leader should not be a tyrant at the table, even if the character might be. The player should give general direction and resolve the questions that need immediate answers such as do we go left or right, but should not micromanage other players. He needs to trust their competence and allow them to make mechanical and roleplaying decisions for themselves. If the party leader sends the rogue to scout the enemy stronghold, the rogue still gets to decide how he does that. He also needs to take good ideas from other players. When making a big decisions he should poll the group before making decisions.

It is OK to have RP conflicts if you have a party leader, in fact it can be one of the more entertaining aspects of the style as long as people can separate their character's emotions from their own. In one game where we played a mercenary adventuring company there was the often good-natured conflict between characters and leadership, which was countered with "This is not a democracy!", which was in our social contract and company charter.

Being on the same page is critically important. The leader should know his limits and the players should know theirs. An explicit social contract can be a great tool for this, as has been written about here and elsewhere often enough.

The party leader should also be a help to the GM at the table. Duties such as maintaining the initiative order and calling the table to attention often fall to the party leader, freeing up the GM to focus on the NPCs and other matters.

All this said, it can go wrong, and people can get their feelings hurt. Everyone needs to sign on to the style of game, and have the emotional maturity to follow leadership. Both the GM and the party leader should keep a close eye on the player's attitudes and act quickly out of character to defuse any conflicts. There are also some players who naturally chafe at leadership, and are likely never to be comfortable in this style of game.

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First of all, there's a huge difference between being the leader of the characters' party and being the leader of the players. In your question and in your answer, it seems that you've mixed them. As such is the case, I will try to address both subjects in my answer, but I'll be far happier to know on which one I shall focus.

For this answer, table level means the level of the players around the table, where the players tell the story. Story level is the level of the actions and characters inside the story. If we take a fight against a dragon as an example, the dragon is in the story level fighting the PCs, while the players and the GM describing actions and rolling the dice is the table level.

Leader of the characters

I believe that this is the easier thing to handle, as everything that happens in this level can stay in this level. This means that in the table level, everyone can participate, but in the story level there is a person who leads. This is a huge difference. As such is the case, I believe that the key here is to let the players talk between themselves and after they've decided about their route of action they should present it as the leader's idea or something.

Another idea might be a weak leadership, with the leader having the final vote, in cases of ties. This, again, lets the leadership be entirely in the story level, and thus it won't interfere that much with the players themselves.

Leader of the players

This is the more difficult part, but again it can be solved. Being the leader of the players means that one is the PM of the players; she is the one who will decide about the courses of action.

For this level, I think that the first thing to do is to talk with the other players and see if everyone wants it but also to decide upon the rules and habits that the leader should follow. This ensures that everyone is on equal grounds, and that the leader won't disuse his or her power. Personally, I prefer the extra vote kind of rule, meaning that the leader has an extra vote in times of ties between the players ("2 wanna go south, 2 wanna go west, so the leader is the decider").

In addition to that, though, the leader should try as much as she can to make sure that everyone is having fun. If someone is bored, it is her duty to make sure that this bored player will participate. In a nutshell, the leader should act as a lesser GM in this particular matter.

Rebellions

I believe that this deserves a section of its own. As I see it, rebellions in the party, be they in the story level or in the table level, should be discussed beforehand. Rebellions can be seen as a revenge act, or as a way of saying that one doesn't like the leader or something, and this can lead to much hard feelings between the players if it goes out of hand. Due to this reason, I truly believe that they should be discussed beforehand.

Addendum

A few things to keep in mind that just didn't fit anywhere else:

Firstly, one should keep in mind that the leaders in the table level and the story level don't have to be the same one. If Bob wants his character to lead the players' characters and Lisa wants to lead the players, they don't have to be the same.

Secondly, there doesn't have to be a leader in the table level in order to have one in the story level, and vice versa. They usually coexist but it is not mandatory. Bob's character can lead the PCs without the need for Lisa to lead the players or vice versa.

Lastly, the players can and should switch leaders if they don't enjoy the leadership of a certain player and the characters can switch their leader too should the PCs' leader prove not good enough or the like.

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I'm very sorry I confused all things in the title. I was referring always to player characters. Frankly, I don't fully understand the "leader of players" concept, except in the case of the game group being so big it must be divided on subgroups, and still then the role should be more a spokesperson than a leader. –  Flamma May 30 at 16:20

My good and bad expriences

Our most successful game were that in which we had a weak leadership. The leader was still leader nominally, but most decisions were still made on consensus. The leader had final word on all matters, but most of the time she didn't use it. She also draw red lines, but on those contours we had plenty of freedom.

I had also been co-leader in our current game, and I think it has worked fairly well. In this case, the leadership is somewhat stronger, but other members are always listened and considered. Although there have been some problems with the other leaders, my character's high diplomacy has always been able to smooth them. The members have duty with the gang, but the rest of the time they may care of their own business, in which the gang leaders never intervene unless it affects the gang. Also, gang members can ask for help to the gang in their own problems.

On the other hand, we had terrible game experiences with leadership. The worst was one in which the leader wanted to control every aspect of his followers, even the cloth they weared. Also, he never listened a word of them. That was boring, because the options were a) having a lot of discussion on any decision, or b) blindly obey, which felted like you weren't really playing.

Last but not least, successful leadership is not only on the leader, but on the followers. We have a specific player that just cannot play a follower. He loves to be leader, but always make trouble when being a follower. His characters are always rebelious, even if that wasn't originally the original concept. He makes small revenges when he has to submit to someone, and he even is frequently upset out of the game for having to follow orders.

Dos and Donts

So, summing up my experience, here are dos and donts of leaders:

  • Stay in character, but don't be rigid if your character personality is making the game not fun for everyone.
  • Listen and consider everyone.
  • Consult your decisions often, if they affect the whole party.
  • Leave your followers space and freedom in their own matters.
  • Don't try to be obeyed on things that are not the party's concern, or that are too personal.
  • You can order your followers actions (you shouldn't always) but you cannot change their thoughts. (Avoid things like "If the leader says the sky is green, the sky is green").
  • Reward your followers when you must. Remember there must be a reason why everyone is following you.

And the dos and donts list for followers is smaller:

  • Stay in character. Play a rebel if your concept is that, but be a follower if it's logical to be one.
  • Participate. Advice your leader and your party about wise courses of actions. Roleplaying is not about shut and obey.
  • Try to follow your leader when it suits your concept, and the decisions are not disastrous or illogical.
  • Try to get yourself and everyone committed to the group's success.

And one small Do for the GM:

  • Be alert for everyone participating and having fun. If not, talk privately to which you think is not doing right and advice him for a better course of action. You can also speak to the whole group and give general advice, without blaming someone specific.
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Figure out what works for your players. Don't ask us how to make it work—ask them how to make it work. You see a problem that you think you need a leader for—do they see the same problem? Do they see the same solution? Or will they come up with a solution that you might not have come up with? It really is dependent upon the players how it will work best.

For our group, the important aspect was us getting together, as players, and trying to figure out what will work best for the story, and what will work best for letting them have fun. It's a long example, but demonstrates the difference between imposed and self-organised leadership, so let me tell you how it worked in our group...

We were playing Exalted. I came in later than the others, had a nice little monkish smith sort. Had a group of NPC followers, happily growing his flock, etc. The rest of the players were all much more exuberant and all over the place, with very different priorities. My character was also almost the only one who followed the GM's request to have our characters linked to a specific location on the map. The others are very quick to violence, my guy stops and thinks about stuff, first. And since they're so fractious, he often ends up mediating between two very strong egos and asking, "OK, what do you want. And what do you want? Here's some possible compromises, would any of those work for you?"

Fast forward several months. One of the players comes up to me and goes, "Hey, I had an idea, and since you're the leader of the group, I wanted to run it past you first."

My response: "Wait, I'm the WHAT?!"

Everyone turns to stare at me. "You didn't know you're the group's leader?"

"No! I can't be leader!"

"Who did you think was leader?"

"I didn't think we had one."

"And that's what makes you a good leader."

etc.

They loved having me as leader. Eventually he became ruler of such a large area and got caught up in so much politics that I retired him and made a follower character... but everyone always wanted his input on something every session, so I had a half-hour at the beginning of each session where everyone came by asking for favors and making requests. Eventually we got a lot of new players, and several of them were very, very angry that I had two characters, one of whom was a leader that was never there. They didn't care about the history, and decided to try to destroy me. It didn't turn out well.

Long story short—the first group tended to play "Not It!" with party leader. Whoever happens to be most responsible ends up getting saddled with it. It develops naturally.

The new players were very anti-group-leader. They hated having someone else with any decision-making power and constantly tried to go against the leader's statements, ultimately forgetting all about the main story and focusing all their energy on assassination attempts.

I still play with the original group. I do not play with that newer group. Sometimes I'll deliberately make follower characters just so I don't get saddled with leader again. Sometimes I decide to just stop avoiding it and make myself a nobleman and grab the reins right away.

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I've been thinking about this question a fair bit and feel that, for me, the answer to this question has three constituent parts: party leadership, player leadership and how to make it work.

Party Leadership

In-game leadership (aka leadership of the party) is the most common form of RPG leadership and the type I most like to see in games. Party leadership can create an interesting party dynamic and is an intensely useful wedge for a GM to play with during the course of a game. However, there are a number of factors that can make or break having a party leader in a game.

When

Not all situations work with a party leader, but I've found there are a series of conditions that are most conducive to a party leader.

  • Large groups typically benefit from a party leader - largely as a way of managing the number of voices and the activity. I've written on this topic before, but it's worth repeating, in-game leaders are able to act as assistants to the GM, helping to absorb some of the management aspects of a game.
  • Some settings are just designed for an in-game leader. Military, caper and many other settings lend themselves to having an in-game leader.
  • Passive players/characters can force the need for an in-game leader, someone who can provide voice to these more passive characters (though this carries some dangers of keeping more passive voices quiet).
  • During a character spotlight (whether a session or an arc), it's very natural for the spotlight character to become a leader. While not a leader in the traditional sense, the spotlight role does have many of the same characteristics of an in-game leader.

Methods

There are a few basic approaches to acting as in-game leader that provide basic models for in-game leaders:

  • Good ol' fashioned dicatorship is the simplest in my view. Simply having someone who is acknowledged as the leader and has some form of vested authority solves a great many problems, though it can seem out of place in some settings.
  • Democracies where players vote on their path forward always seem popular, but I rarely see this model work in practice. It's time consuming, a bit annoying (and has a tendency to turn games into a non-stop series of debates) and tends to create power plays that hurt the concept of a unified leadership.
  • Leadership by concensus, with one character acting as the vocie of the party. This model arises surprisingly often in games and is a very natural form of in-game leadership.
  • The emergence of a de facto leader is about as common as the leadership by concensus model and is the model I most often fall into when I get to play in a game.

Techniques

So how does an in-game leader get established in a given game? There are a few different models that work well in establishing a leader (I've not included the raw assumption of power option) in my experience:

  • The most direct approach is for the GM to help directly establish the position of the leader. This approach is direct, but I find it particularly troublesome - it takes away from party autonomy and establishes one player as different in a way that often creates issues in my view.
  • Structured parties that have specific roles defined often establish a leadership position. This works well, but I find that parties defined in a more traditional manner (as opposed to through a party template or other structuring mechanism) have difficulty with this model.
  • One approach that I really like is the character who acts as a mentor figure (I sometimes call this the "father knows best" character), guiding the other characters through advice and mentoring. This model doesn't work with all of the methods outlined above, but it can be a very soft approach that ruffles fewer feathers in execution.
  • Nominating one character as a questing knight figure can be an effective approach. This approach combines a number of different options, but can be a useful tool that simultaneously allows a player to be spotlighted while establishing clear leadership for a party (and this appraoch can be used to move leadership around a party).
  • Some systems have firm mechanics for establishing leadership within a party. I'm not a huge fan of this appraoch, but many systems with social conflict systems handle this appraoch well.

Gotchas

A few potential snags can disrupt in-game leaders and really need to be addressed head on if they begin to emerge:

  • Some characters lend themselves to becoming petty dictators (heck, some players tend to guide characters this way even if the character wouldn't normally display that type of trait), moving from leading the part to lording their "power" over the other players.
  • Some characters just don't want to be led and will rebel at the merest sign of an established power structure (again, some players drive this above and beyond how their characters would act), undermining the leader and creating drama that may not aid the narrative.
  • Some leaders overwhelm the more muted characters, creating a situation where they withdraw further rather than get an opportunity to shine.
  • Similar to the last issue, some leaders are so powerful a presence that the situation turns into a show starring the leader with a background supporting staff made up of the other characters.

Player Leadership

While in-game leadership is the most common form of leadership in a RPG, games are made up of people and people are inherently social animals. This means that often, some players will emerge as leaders, some as followers and some with less defined roles. In my mind the biggest difference beteween player and character leadership is that player leadership is rarely a necessity in a game (large games being the most obvious exception). Leaders amongst the players can be useful, but the GM has to pay attention to the dynamics caused by such a situation. Strong leaders can help to encourage and promote other players, but they can also drive away or mute other players.

Working It

So after all that, what makes leadership in a RPG work? In my opinion, there are a few key attributes that can make it work:

  • Get the buy-in of the players; if they don't believe in having a leader then a leader simply won't work.
  • Reflect the presence of leadership in the game itself; in the case of in-game leadership, this is generally fairly obvious. In the case of player leaders, it tends to be a bit more nebulous. Something as basic as addding mechanics reflecting the leadership of player leaders can establish the legitimacy of the leaders (I've used something as simple as having leaders help run intiative).
  • Some people are born leaders - extroverts with a healthy dose of charisma; these people will tend to gravitate to act as leaders or play leaders in a game and tend to do well in this role in my experience.
  • Having the GM actively recognize the leaders (in-game or players) can go a long way to making sure that everyone is on the same page and helps to reinforce the notion that the players and the GM are all acting cooperatively in the game.
  • For in-game leaders, make sure that the character is appropriate as a leader. Nominating the introverted mage who sulks in the corner as party leader is probably not a great idea.
  • Allow (possibly encourage) healthy tension in the party/group between the leaders and other characters/players. Healthy tension can help to drive the narrative and create a more realistic and alive game (after all, in real life, no one agrees with their leader/manager all the time). Just keep an eye on this and ensure that the tension remains healthy - if it becomes contentious or personal, it's best to step in and address the issue rapidly.
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Games are a great way to teach complex subjects. Have you considered using a setting where the player characters are in a hierarchical organization?

I learned how to handle this as a GM and player from playing FASA Star Trek and Twilight 2000. In Star Trek, sometimes I would play as a Captain and lead the Crew on a mission and other times I'd play as a Lieutenant and follow orders. Constraints like having to follow orders can present great roleplaying and creative opportunities.

If you are worried about how a particular player would handle it, consider experimenting with it in the fiction. Using Star Trek: The Next Generation as an example, let's say someone is playing Lt. Barclay. He's not a good leader, but the senior staff wants him to improve.

So, Lt. Barclay is given command of an away team. Riker mentors him through picking a balanced team and making sure the Lt. is set up for success -- picking experienced away team members for a mission with a high probability of success. Riker models being a good follower and Barclay learns to handle team leadership. Then, the Crew and Lt. Barclay debrief and discuss the mission.

By extension, the players learn how to handle the table dynamic at the same time.

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I find that a related problem is that players are a lot smarter than their characters. They will also take 15 minutes in Real Life to debate whether to open the chest. And so you have to decide: are you playing to min/max and get the loot or are you there to focus on fun and roleplaying? (Neither is right nor wrong, but I find when it comes to Monty Hauling, good tactics is always the leader and there's no problem.)

So if you're focusing on role-playing style and a leader...

I have found the solution to this problem (over analyzing in the meta) is arrived at through good role-playing. Make the party leader the Paladin and give the Paladin to "that guy" in the group (you know the one I mean) who leads by his station. Encourage the players to respect his social position, but talk behind his back. Make sure they make decisions in a game-timely-manner. In short, make the characters experience interpersonal conflict and not the players.

It takes a little effort to switch gears, but some of the most hilarious moments I have had were when the characters bickered. Once, I (as DM) said, "In the middle of the room is a pillar with a giant chest on top, laden with gold. A mysterious magical light casts a luminous glow around it from above—" The impulsive rogue, interrupting my description of the room, picked up his 20 sider. Player #2 yelled (in character) "DUCK!" and he was so into the game he almost threw player #3 out of his chair onto the floor out of instinct.

So long as the DM honors the unwritten contract "try not to kill the players," not going along with the group can add to the experience. I find most players start to understand the unwritten code of things, like "If I run off in this direction, we separate the party and then it's half as fun for everybody." So they stop doing that. Most people can find the right way to be just rebellious enough to not ruin it.

Another time the party was getting wrecked by this Hydra growing heads. So the Sorcerer said, "I'm dropping lightning bolt." I pointed out the old school lightning bolt+water=fireball rule and warned him the entire party (which foolishly charged into the water) would also get zapped. The whole table held its breathe as he considered it briefly and said "we gotta kill this thing." He literally saved the entire party from a wipe, but no character ever forgot that Mork thought they were expendable, even when that's not the truth of the situation. That's Epic story right there.

The best part is I didn't plan a second of it. They rush in, made a bad situation worse, and he pulled it off—and they never forgave him. Ah the memories.

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One trick is to have them elect their leader, if the setting allows that.

Players will accept his leadership much more easily if it's them who gave it to him.

(of course the others good suggestions still apply)

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Besides all the great answers already given, I think I have an idea to add to this -- maybe it will prove useful to some. (I seriously hope I'm not duplicating anyone: I read/skimmed all the answers, but even so I might have missed a paragraph or sentence. Should that be the case, sorry.) So:

Superficial hierarchy

So, there's a group of PCs. One of them is a leader, because they're all part of a military task group or something. Be the leader strong or weak, she's practically in an elevated position, which, as you say in your Q, is not welcome by some players. A solution is to introduce, either overtly or covertly, secondary hierarchies that raise the other PCs' status as well to that of the obvious leader. How do you do that, and what do I mean by that?

Let me answer with examples:

The group plays soldiers, three grunts and a sarge. The sarge is the leader, obviously: the military background provides the primary hierarchy. However, unknown to everyone else, one of the PCs (one who has trouble playing a subordinate) is a spy, who has to report on his group's activities regularly, and might be / might have been commanded (by NPCs) to sabotage this and that subtly, or even to revolt and act openly against the party. But this latter moment will possibly never come - or perhaps only during the great showdown of the campaign. Till then, he's supposed and ordered to play along with the sarge's organization. This option empowers the player playing the spy: he's not a simple subordinate, he's a sleeper agent.

In the same group, another grunt (whose PC also dislikes being a simple underling) is also an agent -- but he works for the counter-intelligence of the sarge's army, and knows that one of the other grunts is a spy. He's not sure, though, and has been told (by NPCs) to play along even if he uncovers the identity of the enemy agent, because that way his superiors could feed false information to the enemy. This PC is, in fact, a higher ranking officer than the sarge... but he's not allowed to reveal this, only under the direst of circumstances. Yet again, this empowers the player playing this character.

Still in the same group, the third grunt, whose player has no trouble playing a simple grunt, an underling, is... :drumroll: just a grunt. But you're a twisted GM, so you decide in secret that he's a lost bastard of the King -- and an heir to the throne, should anything happen to the prince. Practically nobody knows this. Yet. However, one day, the now distinguished group is assigned on top secret guard duty: they must escort the sickly prince out of a besieged city... and the spy receives a secret order.

I hope the example is good enough illustration of secondary hierarchies. Use such hiearchies to fine-tune and balance out the inequalities present in the apparent, primary hiearchy - but do so subtly, planning for the long run, discussing the options with the concerned players (possibly in private, if you feel that necessary.)

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