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Some games come with a predisposition toward the characters having military rank. This is typically an element of the setting material, and is intended to aid immersion, and produce interesting social challenges for the players. These challenges might be things like:

  • duty interfering in private life
  • dealing with impossible orders or incompetent NPC leadership
  • competing for promotion
  • additional source of focus for 'builders' and 'achievers' beyond XP and Loot

The inclusion of rank, however, can at times cause problems which include, but are not limited to:

  • player frustration with being a subordinate, both in the party and in general
  • player inability to 'be a leader' believably/effectively/intelligently/etc
  • decrease in collaboration with attendant rise in expectation for the leader to plan all

How can the negatives be downplayed, and the positives accentuated in a typical group?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 28 down vote accepted

An effective command and control structure uses decentralized authority to give decision-making capability to those with the most facts at the appropriate level of granularity.

In modern military thinking, there is the idea of what I call articulation* decentralized authority1, 2. Roughly speaking it's that officers are not lords and masters, but that they have a job to do, just like everyone else in the unit. As orders are passed down from higher echelons transforming from strategic to operational to tactical, every person gets the general orders and then articulates them, adding their own expertise to accomplish the stated goals. Thus, a general says "we need divisions x to accomplish mission y". His decision is articulated by his staff, creating movement orders that provide for the necessary logistics.

Every unit then gets their own, smaller, orders that describe the unit's objectives. These are then articulated by the CO of the unit to correspond with the particular strengths of that unit.

In summary, the "Leader" should set goals for her subordinates, but needs to trust their expertise in accomplishing those goals. As everyone knows the objective the Leader's job is to coordinate the different skill-sets to achieve the objective, not to tell those people how to do their jobs. In older militaries, enlisted conscript soldiers had less expertise and had to be micromanaged. (Contrast: Soviet v. American military styles. And the basis of Warrior v. Soldier)

Avoiding micromanagement and practical examples

How do we apply this in game?

First, every person in the unit should be a specialist in something.

The "leader" should be the one who gets the orders (written) and has to interpret them for her squad. Her other functions should be logistical and running political interference.

The other specialists should have useful domains depending on the squad. If people double-up, they are a team under this level of organization (useful for people who don't want to accept agency) and should focus on mutual support. A key component here is that the leader is the one who makes sure everything's in place in order for her team to do their jobs. If she's trying to do their jobs for them, something else will fall apart.

The problem with this design is that being the CO of a squad is actually quite difficult. If it's abstracted away like is done in so many RPGs, the leader then has nothing to do. It's important to find the right mix of authority and responsibility that the characters feel comfortable with.

Specific issues

  • Subordination: if a PC doesn't want to take orders, try to see where the sticking point is. If they want to accomplish their own goals in their own ways, they are violating the social contract and this isn't the game for them. If they don't want to be micromanaged, make sure the leader understands the point of articulation: the leader should point out a goal, and then let the specialist take care of that goal while she goes onto the next problem.

  • Being an effective leader: This is a problem best handled at the player (rather than character) level. Some players like playing with logistics and politics and strategy. Make sure they're the ones in the leader spot and then give them problems in logistics, politics, and strategy. Demote their character, for cause, if they screw up. If necessary, promote one of the other characters or ask another person in the group to roll up a new character and take a swing at the problem. It's critical that you let players know what they're in for when they're sitting in the hot seat, though. Most people don't want that level of responsibility and it's unfair to surprise them with it.

  • Decrease in collaboration: Make sure the leader has enough to do that she can't micromanage. Some players will want themselves to be closely managed, though, and there's not much you can do to force a player to take agency. I would suggest that this is a feature, rather than a bug. Most "collaborative" plans I've endured while gaming have gone horribly wrong.

2 I believe the "officers just have a job to do" and the differences between warrior and solider feature in Kildar by John Ringo. But I don't have a copy at hand to search through.

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Re: Abstraction -- It's worth noting that abstraction can cut both ways (leader does everything <-> leader does nothing). If you abstract all of the tech specialist's decision making to "make a computers roll to hack some stuff" then the leader character ends up back in the lord and master role. –  AceCalhoon Apr 22 '11 at 3:15
    
This plus mxyzplk's requirements of establishing investment in the concept, applying the actual leadership methodology of an actual military (link), and demonstrating how the chain of command does not necessarily need to be used for beating PCs pretty much round things out, I think. –  Runeslinger Apr 27 '11 at 4:11

I like military type games. I'm currently playing in one, where the PCs are the command staff of a space station (the Lighthouse, in Alternity's Star*Drive setting) and I'm the Captain, with the others under my command. I've been reading plenty of Hornblower novels to get in the mood.

There is a problem in military format campaigns with players that don't like "being bossed around" or otherwise don't feel comfortable with leadership itself. I've found a couple things help.

First, get everyone's buyin at the beginning of the campaign. And get them into the military mood. A little bit of making them all bellow "Sir, yes sir!" gets the blood flowing.

Second, consider actual military leadership. RPGs provide a fun opportunity to learn about real world stuff. Read up on (and encourage players to read) stuff like the Army Board Leadership Study Guide. Modern army leadership has a lot of touchy feely element, it's about trying to get volunteer teenagers to do things willingly. Setting a good example. Developing people. Et cetera. It's not Full Metal Jacket style degradation and Catch-22 style insane obedience nowadays (at least, not totally).

I ran a pirate campaign once where all the PCs were under a pirate captain. There were initial concerns about being "bossed around" the whole campaign, but I had the captain tell a bunch of town guardsmen trying to arrest the PCs to go to hell and chased them off with the rest of the crew. It was an epiphany for the group, they really took to reporting to him in the future, because he showed he was on their side. Judiciously bailing them out with that chain of command makes it a lot more of a plus to people. (Ideally that's what leadership is for).

Third, set up scenarios where they get less structure if that's what they want (Inglorious Basterds was military but not all about chain of command). Let PCs settle into the roles they prefer. I'm assuming those more suited to leadership will lead and get promoted to leadership.

If you're concerned about environments where everyone needs to be of a higher rank for some reason, higher rank doesn't mean you have anyone reporting to you. In our Alternity game, our pilot is a commander but nobody works for him, so he seldom has to do leaderly things (though I do try to give him growth opportunities in that vein).

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This is more or less how I run my military-based CP2020 campaign. It is indeed vital to get everyone's buy-in up-front, as well as setting the mood by researching things and in general making it feel like a military setting. We mostly go the "elite special forces" route (just like your Inglorious Basterds comment) to avoid dealing with too much red tape, but once in a while red tape can be a plot hook in and of itself. –  drxzcl Apr 22 '11 at 8:58
    
+1 for Horatio Hornblower - I thought I was the only one to have read those tales - and for the practical tips. –  Runeslinger Apr 25 '11 at 6:34
    
+1 for the reminder that rank != people reporting to you. Engineers are often officers, but don't have people reporting to them. –  aperkins Apr 29 '11 at 20:26
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I've been watching HBO's Generation: Kill lately and that has a good model of a semi-detached unit giving plenty of local autonomy while still clearly being part of a big (and often annoying) chain of command. –  mxyzplk Apr 29 '11 at 21:10

The only direct experience I've had with this scenario was playing a special ops team using Shadowrun (2nd edition, FWIW). This worked remarkably well; as SpecOps, the missions were more satisfying for a RPG than, say, being a small part of some large offensive. Also, the players were told beforehand that military hierarchy is not based upon combat ability or badassedness or any such thing. Thus, the player who the GM thought would be the best leader was in command, and egos were minimally bruised; the GM intentionally picked someone who was good at discussing plans with others before making a decision.

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Good point about informing players for the basis of role assignments should they need to be made. –  Runeslinger Apr 27 '11 at 4:08

From a game design standpoint, there are a few approaches to this.

One option is to have the GM-managed leader-npc operate according to out-of-character voting. Whenever an important decision comes up, have the players vote on how the leader will act. Whenever the party needs to adopt a plan of action, have each player (or character, depending on the setting) propose a plan of their own, then have the group vote on which of those plans the leader will adopt. This works okay in smaller groups of players with a history of getting along, not so well in very large groups or pick-up groups.

Another option is to have a leader-npc who is controlled by the GM. This is really the only practical option in groups with lots of people--otherwise nothing will get done and players get bored.

A third option is to have each player take control of the leader-npc for different adventures. This works pretty well if all the players are experienced players who enjoy playing leaders. It's not so good if there are inexperienced players or players who don't like taking charge. If you do this, have that player's normal character removed from that adventure for some reason to avoid conflicts of interest.

If you have players willing to play multiple characters, you could also give each player one low-ranking character and one character in the chain of command. That character's play-time would be inversely proportional to their rank. Let each of these command characters issue orders for different adventures or portions of adventures. Maybe the "squad leader" gets to make decisions most of the time, but occasionally his own commanding officer gives him more specific orders... This sort of play would require a lot of planning however. It's not at all suitable for every kind of group.

The other approach is to limit military games to fringe units that operate under loose command, or who are given considerable leeway, within settings where that is allowable. This would probably rub military players or veteran players the wrong way, but it probably works better for civilian players.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of solutions--but it is generally a good idea to have effective methods of out-of-character feedback if players have different in-character ranks. Just giving the commanding character over to one domineering player won't work well for group dynamics.

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The type of military organization the players are part of makes a huge difference in how rank affects individual behavior. I can think of two areas of particular importance:

1) Specialization: Military organizations that are more technical will tend to have more specialized roles available for service members. Operators of sophisticated cutting-edge technology often go through training courses of weeks or months in length. The majority of these skilled operators are enlisted, and will frequently receive substantial monetary inducements to reenlist. In US military parlance, an enlisted grade 5 (E-5) might be fairly low on the totem pole, but if they run an important communications system or other complex technology, they will have pull in the organization that exceeds their rank.

If you can build an organization in which each player is a specialist, this can help smooth out the effects of a rank structure. However, the closer you get to running around in the jungle with an assault rifle in your hand, the less specialized the work tends to get. The US Army has a saying, "Every soldier is an infantryman." The point is that while everyone gets specialty training, the lowest common denominator tasks involve shooting, moving, and communicating. In my experience this makes playing infantry units difficult. It's easier to do the Battlestar Galactica pilots running around firing pistols thing, because the internal competition in a fighter wing is about who can knock down enemy fighters; it's not about who can lead marines through the dark bowels of a ship.

2) Combat Experience: In general, units that have been in combat for a sustained period of time tend to focus far more on the survival of the unit and achieving assigned objectives than on career politics. Senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and junior officers in particular collaborate intensely during planning. The reality of getting shot at by the enemy is far more important than anything else, and while turf wars and conflicts do come up, broadly speaking the level of cooperation and collaboration is higher than in peacetime. I'm talking about company level and below (units of ~100 individuals or less). Get to staff level and all kinds of politics and other weirdness can sprout (ex: the race for Berlin among Allied commanders in WW2).

With those two factors in mind, you may want to consider crafting your campaign around a team of specialists, perhaps senior NCOs and/or junior officers, all of whom have been in combat for an extended period of time. The special ops approach is usually pretty good, because the members of the unit are specialized, they collaborate intensively, rank seldom gets in the way of a good idea, and while they often face very difficult objectives, they generally get more latitude in planning and carrying out the mission than they would in line units.

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Unfortunately, making this type of setting relies entirely on the party. Most of the groups I tend to play with might have a pecking order, but it's highly unofficial. For example, a MechWarrior 3e campaign where the players are the "face cards" of a mercenary contingent so there is authority but there is also accountability, and they choose the types of assignments they want based on the contracts they are offered.

Part of the reason L5R campaigns have trouble when I run them is for exactly the reason of hierarchy. The players love the idea of being samurai but have a more Kurosawa derived image than the actual feudal systems in place and following the tenets of bushido in character is too much like work when they come to game for a fun time.

On the topic of work, and players with contrasting characters, some players are willing to find a book or a couple movies to give them an idea of what they need to do, but ultimately I need to cite the game 7th Sea for their section on RPing social strata. We don't demand a player to describe how they form an attack but we do allow them to make a cold skill roll without knowing a thing, but social situations tend to lose their acceptability with "I say something witty" and roll. What they recommend is having a couple of catch phrases/special moves/etc. and depending on the roll even a cheesy line can 'be cool how he said it'. So for players having trouble with the role their character plays (I had an L5R character who was a bushi, and the player couldn't even think of a workout that their character might do because of how little they knew about sword fighting) allow them to watch an expert NPC in action and tell them to take notes.

For duties interfering with personal lives, I tend to let that rely on disadvantages the players might have like "Dependent" or "Lost Love" instead of penalizing players unless it's story arc important.

I highly recommend watching the series Space: Above and Beyond because I feel it has a lot of good points for addressing how the chain of command works both ways and how the individual matters and is overlooked. Unfortunately it isn't an easy to find show the last time I looked.

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Space: Above and Beyond is a great example of having disparities in rank, ability, and social status. Good call. –  Runeslinger Apr 30 '12 at 6:04

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