Critical Party Roles, Part 1: The Party Leader
I was talking the other day with the members of one of my gaming groups, and I mentioned that one of the players was filling an essential party role for a good gaming experience. And when they looked at me with quizzical expressions as if they'd never heard of this before, I realized that I hadn't articulated to them (or on this blog) the critical party roles that, in my opinion, every good gaming group should have.
So I figured I'd take a brief moment to write up a synopsis of what these roles are, as they may prove useful to you in your group. And as I started writing, I realized this was going to be my longest post to date, so I decided to break it up into smaller sections to look at each role, what it means, and some examples of how it can be done well and poorly.
As a bit of background, I am not discussing the roles that your characters have in the group - party healer, party "tank," party support, party damage dealer (or "DPS," as some like to say), etc. The critical party roles are the roles that the players fill through the characters, serving both the party and the game master.
I. The Party Leader: The Crisis Manager
Probably the most well known on this list, the party leader is not what you think it is. Some think it's "the boss": the person who tells the party what to do. That is sometimes true. The person who tells the party what to do could be a non-player character (NPC): someone who can hire the party, give them a mission, and pays them for their work. As one of many examples of this, consider Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: he's not one of the turtles, but he gives them guidance and prompts for what to do.
The "party leader," as we use it here, is the person who makes crisis decisions. If there's a fork in the road, the party can talk about it, but the party leader keeps the action going. They make the decision that the party stands by. And that could be literally a fork in the road, determining whether to say or flee in combat, shooting first or talking first, etc.
I highly recommend having a party leader. It's always a good idea to have an idea of who to listen to before a crisis arrives, and it helps to keep the momentum of the campaign moving.
II. Examples of Party Leaders: Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf
When I think about the ideal Party Leader, my mind almost immediately turns to Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, the heir of Elendil from The Lord of the Rings. And it's not because he tells everyone what to do, becomes a king at the end of the story, or defeats the great enemy in single combat. In fact, some might even argue he's not really the Party Leader, at least not at first.
And they're right - Aragorn isn't the ideal Party Leader for any of these reasons. I think I think of him because he's preceded by two poor examples of Party Leaders.
Frodo is the Ringbearer, so one might say he's the de facto Party Leader when the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell. Frodo's place as Party Leader is first tested in their first moment of crisis: which way to take to reach Mordor. He follows the advice of Gandalf and attempts to go over Caradhras through the Misty Mountains, and then is faced with a decision and goes through the Mines of Moria.
What makes Frodo a poor Party Leader is not that he makes the wrong decisions. What makes him a poor Party Leader is why he's made Party Leader: he has the (Fill in the Blank Important Thing), so he must be the leader.
But that's not what makes a Party Leader: the leader should be the person who, in times of crisis, can make decisions that give the best outcomes for the party (with the knowledge that we don't know everything). And if there is one thing that is consistent for Frodo on his quest is how much he doesn't know. So even if a character is telling the group, "we should take this quest," that doesn't mean they are the best choice for Party Leader.
Some might say that Gandalf is the Party Leader, as he takes the active role in making decisions up through Moria. And while Gandalf is likely the most powerful member of the Fellowship in raw ability (not to mention knowledge), that doesn't make him a good choice for Party Leader either. Gandalf's power lends him to fixing problems all across the globe, and thus he is constantly coming and going, leaving him absent when critical decisions should be made.
Similarly, I recommend against choosing a Party Leader who will be gone often from the session. If you have a gamer who travels a lot, perhaps placing them in the role of Party Leader is unwise. If they aren't there often for the session, not only will they not be present to make critical decisions, but they also didn't witness firsthand the critical elements of the campaign. And that removes the emotional tie (and potentially gained wisdom) from past experiences.
The Party Leader isn't the most powerful person in the party. It isn't the person of the highest social rank, the person with the "most levels" (if you're using a game system with character levels), or the person who is destined to rule or defeat the (Fill in the Blank Big Bad Guy). The Party Leader should be a person who is present, engages with the group, has the respect of the group, and can make decisions in a moment of crisis that people will follow to insure that lines don't get crossed and the party remains one unified fighting force.
And that's what we find in Aragorn. He spends time with everyone in the group, getting to know them and what is important to them. He earns the respect of everyone in the group before he takes leadership. He gives vision and purpose to the group when Frodo and Sam leave, and makes decisions in times of crisis based on years of experience roaming Middle Earth. These are the marks of a good Party Leader.
I'd wager that basically every group has a Party Leader, if not by command from the GM then by default as time goes on. And one final thing I wanted to touch on, the Party Leader can change as time passes. If you find that someone else would do better at filling this role there's no harm in changing it - talk through why the characters would select a new leader, and let that person try their hand at it.
Because I don't want this series to drag on for months, I'll be posting more regularly to complete the series. Our next one will be out early next week, so stay tuned!
Until next time,