What are the pros and cons of having a player party leader, or leaders? Is it more fit for some situations than others?
- makes large party play much faster
- decision making easier and faster
- combat cohesiveness
- GM not player interpersonal problem solver, leader is
- potentially abused to minimize certain players' involvement
- indirect routing of intended action from player to GM
- often not based upon the fictional relationships between characters (and thus a verisimilitude issue)
- often IS the player interpersonal problem
- potential to leap to decisions without waiting for party input
- enhances perceptions of Player Vs GM play mode (even when untrue)
- Bad party leader sometimes replaced by PvP action, which can lead to bad feelings
- increases in-party political maneuvering vs each other
- In military games, it's appropriate to have a PC in charge of the party
- In space opera or nautical games, he who owns the ship tends to be the PC in charge
- alters the story dynamic if party leader also caller.
- alters interpersonal dynamics of other players by having another party member in charge
The Big "But..."
- party leader player need not be playing character in charge
- caller need not actually be party leader
- even when a PC is in charge, players need not have a designated party leader outside the fictional construct (and I in fact recommend not to have one!)
I'll toss some ideas out there to get the ball rolling...
- Makes total sense for a game in a military setting for one player to be the leader.
- Can help a game move along if everyone is having Analysis Paralysis that day.
- Can assist the GM in adjudicating large combats.
- Less freedom/decision making for the other players.
- Very easy to abuse. An overbearing jerk of a player is bad enough. It'd be even worse if he were the party leader.
We did this in D&D for about a semester, university/college players
- The major pros are: Improves DM prep, keeps play moving, and gives the party a goal to achieve, or an aim, for a given session.
- The cons that I saw were few, but now that I have been exposed to
"modern" RPG players in play I can see that for a great many of them
(a) it's awkward to fall in on that structure unless the small dynamics
of the group have lent themselves to a leader emerging among peers. and (b) Players don't seem to desire this structure.
- an odd exception to (b)
- I had one DM a few years ago (@nistua60 from this community) identify my Ranger as the leader of our party (despite the low Cha score) given how I as a player tended to be unafraid to propose or suggest an approach or course of action. It was a surprise to me, but Blank's 'leadership is an action' theory of leadership fits his assessment. Nothing formal happened in our group, though, to elect or identify a leader.
- an odd exception to (b)
Another "con" seems to be this: since the "caller" convention seems to have fallen out of use, it doesn't naturally fit the expectations of play. But there is ...
... A game where it's necessary to have a leader
In the Star Trek RPG campaign I am in, I was identified by fellow players as the captain of our ship. The GM has (due to how turns work in that game) tasked me lay out who goes first, second, third when it is necessary to do that during various encounters, combat or otherwise. Part of why he did that is my long DM experience and that I agreed to do that when he proposed it.
The other players accept this set up for a few reasons:
- I have enough interest in doing this
- They can't be bothered to think for other players
- In Character it makes sense for the Captain of a Starship to have a certain amount of positional authority.
For my part, I am routinely calling on players to step forward in their area of expertise so that they get the spotlight ... and to keep play moving. In Star Trek, the specialization themes and mechanics more or less require that, but for my part I am aware of spotlight sharing (or the need for it) and I want the other players to step forward and contribute. Some need a poke.
How it worked in practice for D&D, EPT, and Traveller
The DM in the group I mention in the title had a large party (usually from 6 to 10 players showed up) and we were playing in OD&D + Greyhawk + Blackmoor + Eldritch Wizardry. Our usual play style included the players telling the DM what their intentions were (where to explore/go) before the session started (which is also common in sandbox games) so that the DM had a chance to prep for the session.
We usually used the "Caller" convention so common in the original version of D&D. (See Volume 3, Wilderness and Underworld Adventures, for details).
We took turns being leader. For a given session, one player was the leader and would (usually after talking to the other players) identify where we were going to explore, what we were looking for, and what the objective of the session was. For the first few iterations of this, the DM provided a bonus of XP for the group leader, but after a while the group consensus was "let's not do that" so he stopped.
It worked pretty well for our group. During a given combat, though, most of the player personalities tended to come to the fore and the smarter (tactically) ones tended to take over leadership during a battle. During exploration, discovery, and parley we tended to follow the leader's cues.
In this style of play, the session was intended to end with the party back out of the dungeon/caverns/highway/river/ocean, which left the party in a position to get ready for the next session with a new leader.
We also used this structure in the few Traveller sessions we got to play, (same player base, mostly) but none of the Traveller campaigns I played in the had the staying power of the D&D campaigns that were running in our playing group/club.
I encouraged this approach in the Empire of the Petal Thrones sessions that I ran with this group but didn't require it. In retrospect, since most of the players were in both campaigns, I could have required it but we weren't doing dungeon raids as often as in that D&D campaign. My groups tended to be 4 to 7 in size. When they did adopt the leader convention it was great for me as a GM in terms of prep being simpler and more focused. The sessions ran with good pacing.
- helps give the party direction when everyone wants to do different things
- keeps the game moving if the party can't make a decision, especially over something not very important (e.g. which corridor to explore first when they're already decided to explore both anyway)
- uneven spotlight distribution - the leader will always get more even without trying just by definition of their role
- limits the freedom of other players
- can monopolize DM's attention even more especially if the loudest player ends up as the leader instead of the one most suitable
- it can be difficult to choose one in the first place, the decision will very rarely be unanimous and that leaves some players with a leader they don't want
- can make other players feel like sidekicks in the game between the main character and the DM
- it's easy for the DM to fall into the pattern of interacting mostly with the leader
In my experience even with a competent leader the cons outweigh the pros by a large margin, the only real benefit is that you have a single person that can make the final decision if the party can't agree on something and this is something that a competent DM can nudge the party towards anyway and without making them all feel like their voice was overridden by a single person. From what I've seen in my games groups that work well together will do so without the need for a leader and those that don't won't really be helped with one.
The one possible exception to this are large parties (like 6 players or more) where it naturally takes ages to do anything and having a designated leader can help speed up gameplay. I tend to run small groups (up to 4 players) and I found they don't really need a leader.