Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fighter Love 3: First Among Equals

Leadership. O man…another tricky topic.

I’ve run a lot of B/X games over the years for a lot of different people…and by “run” I mean “as a DM.” Small groups and large groups and ones that hung together with consistency and ones that had a constant rotating bunch of faces and more than a couple that were simply “one-offs.” The largest tables had nine or ten active players, the smallest had one. In nearly every case I can remember…and here I mean, “going back to childhood”…in every session I can recall, nearly all groups of two or more players suffered from a distinct disadvantage:

A complete lack of leadership.

Now, I am not referring to the presence of the B/X “caller.” Callers are useful…especially when dealing with a large, rowdy group that’s trying to make their intentions known over the noise of the karaoke at the bar. Especially with large groups, I’ve required the election of a caller, if only to keep some semblance of organization and efficiency. But a caller isn’t a leader; he (or she) is simply a mouth-piece for the group, the medium channeling the spirits that are the other player characters.

Don’t you folks have leaders in your lives? Authority figures…that’s what I’m talking about. People who’ve played team sports are used to deferring to a team captain on the field of play, and to a coach when off. People who work for companies or volunteer for organizations usually are beholden to someone…a boss or manager or supervisor or foreman. And military people certainly understand chain of command and following orders and the importance of both.

Because it IS advantageous to follow a leader…to have someone with an overall vision who coordinates activity and provides a direction (and directives) for activity. A coordinated team with a good leader is more efficient and more effective. I’d think that would be evident to most people just by experiencing it in their daily, real lives.

But at the gaming table? O boy…what a bunch of dithering, bickering, consensus-laden saps!

There are plenty of reasons why groups display a lack of leadership. All the players are “friends” (or maybe they aren’t, having just met each other at the table, but they would like to be), and want to consider each other equals. After all, all the players are Capital H Heroes, right? D&D is supposed to be “fun,” and telling people what to do (or taking orders from someone) creates discomfort or feelings of resentment (depending on which role you fall into). Authority figures remind people (uncomfortably) of their daily lives which they’re trying to escape in game play. Players may not be “A” type personalities (that’s usually the dude who gets assigned the gig of Dungeon Master) and aren’t used to stepping up into leadership roles…this one is especially true of kids who are more used to taking orders (from teachers, parents, coaches) than giving orders.

And perhaps for folks who learned to play D&D from a young (kid) age, this behavior of “free-for-all,” lack of leadership is simply learned behavior carried over into adulthood. ‘We never elected a leader when we played as kids, why do so now?’

Yeah, well, your characters got smoked a lot as kids and you cared a lot less about it, too. NOW, you act all cautious and shit to avoid getting killed…to the point that the whole group dithers around and is hesitant to take assertive action. At least, that’s what it feels like to me. Sure if something obvious triggers a proactive action (“A chest? I’ll search for traps!”), individuals are likely to stand forth. Otherwise, there’s simply a bunch of cautious negotiation (for the players who are wary of stepping on each other’s toes) or outright chaos (for the players inclined to “do their own thang;” though they're a rarity amongst adult gamers).

That’s been my experience, anyway. The intrepid party of adventurers is approached by a group of [insert semi-intelligent humanoid monster race]. “Should we talk with them? They might not be hostile?” “Does anyone speak their language?” “Maybe they speak common. Or we can try signing.” “Who has the highest Charisma?” [lots of consultation] “Do you want to do it or should I?” “Maybe the magic-user should have a spell ready?” “Do we know who’s going to attack if everything turns sour?” “Who’s holding the torch again?” Etc., etc.

It’s not just creature encounters, by the way. I clearly remember, while running a large group through White Plume Mountain, multiple instances when the party got “bogged down” upon being confronted by some trap or obstacle. Multiple ideas for circumventing the hazard would be hashed out, batted around, considered…but no one would make a frigging command decision. At some point, one has to act…someone needs to take charge and say, “hey, this is good enough…let’s try it.”

How many times have I heard, “let’s put it to a vote,” and wanted to pull my hair in frustration. It’s not rocket science folks, it’s D&D and things certainly don’t need to be solved by committee!

On the other hand, you do get the occasional impetuous personality who’s willing to fly off the handle (solo) and put everyone else at risk. I’ve seen this both in games I’ve played (as a player) and games I’ve run as a DM. My buddy, Steve-O, is semi-infamous for this in fact. It’s not that he gets bored or frustrated at the consensus process (Steve’s a non-conflict, Libra-type himself)…it’s just that he sees a void of action, gets an idea into his noggin, and proceeds to fill said void. Sometimes the result is a spectacular success; usually it’s the exact opposite. The thing is: Steve is perfectly happy to follow someone’s lead. I know this from having known Steve outside of gaming for more than 25 years. But no one ever attempts to rein him in. No one steps up and fills the leadership role…and neither does Steve.

[besides, it’s often humorous for everyone to see where Steve’s ideas take him. It’s just less humorous (for the players anyway), when his antics lead to a TPK or other clusterfk]

Now in addition to all the other reasons listed above, one of the problems with establishing a leader in a party…even assuming the players are mature enough people to elect someone to shogun the group, if only for a session or two…is the lack of quality examples in fantasy literature. I mean, most fantasy literature (and cinema) – which is what informs a lot of our ideas on “fantasy adventuring” – showcase a single individual, not a group of individuals. Conan. Elric. Perseus. Whatever. Sometimes there’s a pair, but usually the focus of fantasy stories is on ONE person with everyone else denoted as “side-kicks.” And D&D isn’t about “one dude plus supporting cast.” It’s a group effort. The stories told are not about a single character; they’re about what happens to an ensemble cast.

Unfortunately, other than TSR produced fiction (a la Dragonlance), there’s only one place to find an “ensemble group of equals,” and that’s the prototypical adventuring party found in the prototypical dungeon detailed in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. The fellowship consists of an all-star group of adventurers: a couple of heroic warriors, a dwarf and an elf, a wizard, as well as several hobbits (not a single one of which is a thief, by the way). And as a bonafide “fellowship,” everyone’s on a more-or-less equal footing with each other (it helps that most of the characters are princes or royalty in their own way). Sure, most of the group defer to Aragorn, who in turn defers to Gandalf…but Gandalf often asks Frodo what he feels is the best or correct course of action. In the end, of course, the fellowship splinters, but it operates effectively with its “group of peers” attitude, while it lasts.


Written by one guy (Tolkien) with a single agenda (as the author) to spin a good yarn. Real human beings don’t function so well as a true democracy…at least, they tend to be a lot less effective without a brain directing the body.

So then what’s the answer to the quandary? And what (if anything) does it have to do with fighters?

[*inhale*] Okay, here goes:

First off, I think it behooves a group of players to elect a leader from amongst themselves. Now, the leader may only be temporary…should, in fact, only be allowed to remain in power as long as he (or she) is doing a good job…and may only be for a single session. Now a GOOD leader isn’t a domineering tyrant…the wise leader will ask input from his (or her) fellows in order to make decisions, and will respect the opinions of those in the group.

Because truly the player characters ARE all equal…at least in the terms that they are all ambitious, special, and uniquely talented individuals, heroically braving dangers that normal folks wouldn’t dare to encounter.

Okay, having said that a good leader should listen to the opinions of his or her peers, the leader still has to LEAD. That is, the leader has to be decisive…has to make decisions and then pull the trigger and have those decisions executed by the other party members. Assuming the player is elected to the position by the other participants at the table, those “other participants” have to abide by the leader’s decisions…at least until those decisions prove the leader inept, incompetent, or morally corrupt.

[and even in those cases, it might be best for the leader to remain in charge, depending on the alternatives available!]

The leader should not be a “consensus builder.” Adventuring (especially underground) is the fantasy equivalent of being on a war-time mission, more often than not, and is neither the time nor place for facilitating a brainstorming session. For this reason, the choice of leader should often be informed by the experience of the possible candidates…that is, it’s useful to have a player with more experience (not “experience points” but real, gaming experience) act as the leader. But what about when all the players have roughly the same general knowledge base? Because (as I mentioned earlier) B/X isn’t rocket science, and a person who’s played for six months (or less) will probably know as much as the guy who’s played six years (or more).

Well, after experience, I'd say the choice of leadership more often than not should come down to a question of temperament. Who’s willing to take charge? Who’s untroubled by conflict and willing to become embroiled in confrontation? Who’s ready to stick their neck out and lead by example?

From a game mechanics point of view, the character best suited for the gig is the fighter.

Why the fighter? Why not the intelligent wizard or the wise cleric or the crafty thief? Why the blunt instrument fighter? Because the fighter is best equipped for the job. A character’s ability scores (great knowledge or spiritual understanding) don’t translate to any of those intangibles that make a good leader, they simply give bonuses to languages known and saving throws. The fighter, by the nature of the class, suits the temperament of decisiveness needed for a leader. They are designed for staying power, with their high armor class and hit points. They are built to forge ahead into the thick of battle, with their high strength and attack abilities. The are able to amass power (at high levels) by carving out a barony, attracting troops and vassals to their banner, and making war as needed.

The magic-user is powerful and intelligent, but too weak and easily killed to lead. The cleric is tough, but is looked to for support, especially as he gains in level, and often has his attention divided. The thief, while clever, is seldom considered trustworthy, and suffers from the same fragility as the magic-user. And the demihumans are limited in the role they can play over-time, both due to their level restrictions and their inhuman nature (at least in a campaign world dominated by the usual human settlements).

The fighter is used to taking the lead, literally. Walking point and kicking in doors is a lot easier for an individual with a high strength and wearing plate armor. Assuming the player has the experience and know-how of the game (and is not the newbie at the gaming table, given that “simple, easy role” that undermines the perceived value of the fighter), the player should have the built-in temperament for leadership that comes from choosing the fighter class. Decisive? The fighter is the epitome of the Gordian-knot-solver!

It only makes sense to give the mantle of leadership to the fighter of the party…assuming the players are ready to make the smart move of electing a leader. Best make sure the PC is worth the title.

Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way!


  1. Heh, I love how "clusterfk" is one of your labels! Anyway, I agree with your thesis that, mechanically/system-wise, the fighter is the best character for the leadership job. BUT, there's still going to be the times when the most capable PLAYER to lead will not be the one playing the fighter. In those cases, the "player leader" is going to have to lead from whatever role his character class allows, i.e. from the back of the party as the magic user, from right behind the fighter(s) as the cleric as he's blessing his fellows and tending their wounds, etc. A good player will keep into account their "squishy" magic user low HP while leading from the rear ;-)

    As for instances of players being WAY over-cautious...sheesh! Tell me about it, man. There have been times where I've just had to sit back and marvel at how over-deliberate players can be when planning. There have been times when I've just wanted to scream things like "There's nothing behind the door, dammit! Sheesh, come on, just get on with it!" When you, the GM, are ready to reveal your secrets just to get things moving again, you know something's wrong.

    Then there's the chaos end of things. Man, just as annoying...maybe moreso. When everyone's spouting off at once...can't stand it. That's why I really want to use some sort of "roleplaying initiative" or "exploration initiative." For moments like this (all shouting one after the other in rapid fire, and/or talking over each other):

    Thief 1: I go over and check the door for traps!

    Fighter 1: I walk over and open the door.

    Elf: I move to stop the fighter from opening the door!

    Cleric: I go over to look at the inscriptions on the wall.

    Thief 2: I leave the room and go back into the hallway.

    Magic user: *silent due to being overwhelmed by the forcefulness of the other players*

    Fighter 2: *gets up from the table and wanders over to look at other RPGs on the shelves of the game store, because he's the kind of guy who gets bored if he's not in the spotlight*

    A roleplaying initiative thing, to me, in this sort of situation would:

    -Give the more gregarious players some structure, as well as a mechanical way to adjudicate competing player interests (ok, Elf, you get the initiative so you are able to stop the fighter from opening the door).

    -Allow the timid magic user player to not get overwhelmed and actually be heard.

    -Give a bored player at least a bit of attention they crave.

    Yes, the GM has become the "leader" of the group, I suppose...but someone has to be!!!

  2. "Real human beings don’t function so well as a true democracy…at least, they tend to be a lot less effective without a brain directing the body."
    Your experience is limited to a few fairly autocratic environments, isn't it? The main institutions of most of our society (family, school, work, even government) have defined leadership with fairly limited accountability to those being lead.

  3. Unfortunately, the type of player you characterize as Taking Charge is more often known by a different name among other players. That name is "Asshole"