Admittedly I didn’t pay much attention in college during my undergraduate studies but during my graduate degree it was a different story entirely. In particular, my classes on organizational communication lined up shockingly well with some GM and gaming theory. In particular, discussions on the five bases of power. While I don’t like to slot people into particular roles and buckets, the bases of power can help a GM identify who is exerting what power and their leadership style.
The five bases of power originated with John French and Bertam Raven, two social psychologists. It’s since been expanded in some circles to include a sixth power base, informational, but the original model focuses on the five: coercive, expert, legitimate, referent, and reward power.
In general terms, using the bases of power you can derive a primary foundation of their leadership style. In turn, some ideas on how to deal with them.
Now the trap here is to think “hey, I’m the GM, I have all the power, right?” As we know, that’s not true. Your players wield their own power, so understanding their bases of power is important. We’ve all had a game where a player wielding expert power exerts influence over the whole table and it feels like they’re in charge of the game!
Rather than try to clumsily reiterate portions—and because I’m lazy—I’ll instead reference the Wikipedia  article on the subject and quote the five power descriptions for you. References have been removed for brevity and portions highlighted for emphasis.
This type of power is based upon the idea of coercion. The main idea behind this concept is that someone is forced to do something that he/she does not desire to do. The main goal of coercion is compliance. According to Changingminds.org “demonstrations of harm are often used to illustrate what will happen if compliance is not gained”. The power of coercion has been proven to be related with punitive behavior that may be outside one’s normal role expectations. However coercion has also been associated positively with generally punitive behavior and negatively associated to contingent reward behavior. This source of power can often lead to problems and in many circumstances it involves abuse. Mindtools.com states that “coercive power can cause unhealthy behavior and dissatisfaction in the workplace”. These type of leaders rely on the use of threats in their leadership style. Often the threats involve saying someone will be fired or demoted.
The ability to administer to another information, knowledge or expertise. Example: Doctors, lawyers. This power makes one able to combine the power of reward in the correct fashion. As a consequence of the expert power or knowledge, a leader is able to convince his subordinates to trust him.
This power which means the ability to administer to another certain feelings of obligation or the notion of responsibility. “Rewarding and Punishing subordinates is generally seen as a legitimate part of the formal or appointed leadership role and most managerial positions in work organizations carry with them, some degree of expected reward and punishment”. People traditionally obey the person with this power solely based on their position or title rather than the person specifically as a leader. Therefore this type of power can easily be lost and the leader does not have his position or title anymore. This power is therefore not strong enough to be one’s only form of influencing/persuading others.
The power of holding the ability to administer to another feelings of personal acceptance or personal approval. This type of power is strong enough that the power-holder is often looked up to as a role model. This power is often looked at as admiration, or charm. The responsibility involved is heavy and one can easily lose this power, but when combined with other forms of power it can be very useful. Celebrities often have this type of power in society on the flip side they also often lose it quickly in some circumstances. Referent power is commonly seen in political and military figures.
The second type of power involves having the ability to administer to another things he/she desires or to remove or decrease things he/she does not desire. For supervisors in an organizational setting, it is the perceived ability to present subordinates with outcomes that are valued in a positive manner. This type of power is based on the idea that we as a society are more prone to do things and to do them well when we are getting something out of it. Social exchange theorists as well as Power-Dependence theorists continue to focus on the idea of reward power. The most popular forms are offering raises, promotions, and simply compliments. The problem with this according to Mindtools.com is that “when you use up available rewards, or the rewards don’t have enough perceived value to others, your power weakens. (One of the frustrations with using rewards is that they often need to be bigger each time if they’re to have the same motivational impact. Even then, if rewards are given frequently, people can become satisfied by the reward, such that it loses its effectiveness.)”
In general, the agreed upon power base that most people agree you should strive for–and I would submit GMs in this as well–is that of referent power. It’s based on the feeling of the user that conveys trust, admiration, and/or respect. People do things for you and cooperate out of respect. Your model leader, for example. At the gaming table referent power can come from not only being a fair and approachable GM, open to new ideas and possibilities, but also having an understanding of the rules, working with players to achieve a mutually beneficial gaming experience, and so forth. It’s not about just being a nice guy, although that helps!
So the rules lawyer takes their power from the expert base; that’s fairly obvious. They lead because the others trust their understanding of the rules, not necessarily because they want to. When the rules are no longer the driving force, say in a social/intrigue role-playing scene that may have no rules, the rules lawyer’s base of power has now been eroded; they have no power. They’re no longer the leader.
And the concept of the leader isn’t the GM or the “leader” of the party; it’s the person driving the social construct at your gaming table. The rules lawyer can be the leader of the social environment during a heavy comment, bending everyone to his or her wishes, even though they aren’t the GM or even the agreed upon leader of the party!
The other roles you’ll see, undoubtedly, characteristics from your gaming table. I would encourage you to do a self-assessment of how do you believe your players perceive you? Would they say you wield referent power or are you a no-nonsense, by-the-book GM that keeps everyone in line with your coercive power? In most cases the GM wield legitimate power; they’re the GM! However, that power base unto itself typically isn’t enough to hold onto power; you need to tie something with that legitimate power that will keep others following your leadership style.
Taking It Further
I apologize if this is boring academia to you. For me it really was an “ah ha!” moment during my MBA. Instead of trying to push players into RPG buckets I found it easier to try to understand their bases of power that could fluctuate at any given time. Plus, as a GM, it really helps to be self-aware of your own base of power.
So which are you? Tell us below and also how would you handle players at your table from each of the power groups? Can two people wielding legitimate power at the gaming table co-exist?