The vast majority of people game with their friends, and if lucky their family. In real life, your relationship with them may be at best a democracy or at worst anarchy. In-game decisions are often made in a chaotic group-think where different people within the group assume different roles: the loud one, the peacemaker, the sage, etc. That kind of decentralized cooperation works fine when you are trying to figure what to get on your pizza before the game, but what happens then when the characters have a hierarchy or command structure? What happens when one character is put in charge of the other characters?
Games With Authority
Many games are devoid of any authoritative structure. The typical adventuring party in D&D is a great example. The rules and default setting do not impose someone as leader. A group can operate without a leader, or they could choose a leader based on the personality of the players or characters. Superhero games are another great example. Heroes can work together, without anyone having to be the leader.
Then there are other games, where an authoritative structure exists, which results in one character being in charge, and the rest of the players subordinate to that character. This can arise from one of two elements:
- Rules Driven: In the game Corporation, during character generation it specifically calls for one of the characters in the group to be designated as the Division Lead, and grants perks to that player. Paranoia has a mission leader, which serves the same role, and comes with a promotion of one color ranke. In both games, the rules specify that one character is given authority over the other characters in the group.
- Setting Driven: In Serenity the typical party are the crew of a ship, and that crew has a captain. The same is true for Star Trek. Or a fantasy game where the players are part of the city guard or the king’s army, and are given ranks, with one character ranked above the others. In these cases the rules do not impose putting one character in a position of authority, but the logic of the setting demands that it be put in place.
Ways It Plays
Different groups handle the issue of authority with different degrees of success. In my experiences I have seen three methods of dealing with it:
In this case the players and to some extent the characters just ignore the issue and play like they were a typical adventuring party. This result keeps the peace, and since everyone is ignoring the issue of rank, they typically go upon their merry way. The downside is that they are missing an opportunity to engage an important facet of the rules or the setting; important enough that the designers put it in the game.
Play It Out
Here the players really work to role play the situations out and deal with the issue in a mature manner. Depending on how comfortable the group is with the leader, the major decisions may flow quickly, or they may grind down to a metagame discussion. The advantage to this approach is that there is a real opportunity to explore issues of command and its consequences.
This is where one or more of the players in the group are uncomfortable with either the concept of a character having authority over the others, or a dislike for the character who has the authority. This typically starts with a quiet tension, some whispering or passing glances between the subordinate players. When left unchecked this has the chance to boil over into a game halting argument; often heated.
When It Goes Wrong
Even the best of groups will occasionally have trouble with the role of command and authority at the table, and a group who is handling the issue well (or not at all) can descend into some very negative play quickly. Some situations seem to bring it to a head faster than others. If you see these come up in your game, be wary…
Because I Am In Charge
This is a case where the commanding character has given an order, and rather than listening to the other characters and in most cases the other players, shuts everyone down by decree. Not only does this suck at that moment, but it runs the highest risk of creating resentment at the table.
In a recent Serenity game I was in, the Captain and Pilot got into an argument about leaving the planet we were on. The Captain made the decree, and the next moment guns were drawn. The characters were staring each other down, and the players were charged up. While it was a great dramatic moment, it derailed the game, as the game moved from a discussion about leaving the planet, to a metagame discussion about giving orders.
Solution: As GM, remind the player of the character in charge that they still need to respect the feelings of the rest of the players, to solicit the input of all at the table, and that you are each responsible for the enjoyment of the group.
This is when the commanding character orders an NPC or other character to perform an act that is morally challenging or contradicting to the group. The reasons are known to the group, but the group is uncomfortable with the decision and because it came from the commander, everyone stays quiet. This often leads to silent resentment by the group or acting out by one or more of the characters in a subsequent scene. This issue is often fuel for a future argument about authority.
In my Iron Heroes campaign, one of the players was king, the rest were aiding his return to the throne. After a scene where the party was ambushed, the king ordered one of the NPC’s to kill a prisoner that was taken. The group was uncomfortable with the order, but stayed quiet because he was the king. It took two more sessions before that issue boiled over into an argument.
Solution: As the GM, keep an eye on the other players and if they look uncomfortable with a decision being made, stop the game, and go around the table and ask everyone what they are feeling. If people are uncomfortable then ask the commanding player if they want to revise their decision.
Because She’s In Charge
There are cases where the subordinate players will not take any action, without checking with the commanding character. In these cases the player is often being absurd, such as not attacking an enemy because, “the commander did not say to” even though the monster is bearing down on the group. In most cases this is done as a passive-aggressive attack on the commanding character and is a sign of some issue with the player in command.
Solution: When this happens, its best to stop the game and address the player who is failing to act, and attempt to discover their issue with the commanding character (or player). This could be done at the table, or you could take a break and pull the player aside and talk about it. If it cannot be resolved right then, then encourage the player to stop the behavior.
I am not the kind of boss who gives orders
In this case, the player of the commanding character is uncomfortable with being in charge, and rather than being in command, they are ignoring it. This is fine if the rest of the group is ignoring it as well, but if only the player of the commanding character is ignoring it, then the rest of the group is waiting for some decisions to be made, and could be floundering without a leader. This could result in a drawn out planning scene where no decisions are made, or it could lead to dead characters if it happens in a combat scene.
In my Corporation game, the player of the Division Lead did not want to “boss” the other players around, and so did not really exert a lot of authority on the group. For the most part this worked fine, but when a mission went bad, the lead player became upset that certain actions were not made, and the other players responded that they were not given the orders to do them, and took other actions instead.
Solution: If you see the commanding character not stepping up to the plate and leading the group, take the player aside during a break or after the session and encourage them to take more of a leadership role. During parts of the game when a command decision needs to be made, only accept the answer from the commanding player.
Keeping It Healthy
As a GM there are things you can do to keep the command dynamic healthy. In many cases it will be in the role of facilitating positive communication between the players. Here are some specific tips:
- Encourage Player Input– define and then encourage the difference between the players and their characters. While a subordinate character may not speak back to their commander, the players should be free to talk among themselves, share ideas, opinions, etc.
- Be respectful– remind the player who’s character is the commander, to be respectful of the other characters. The other players are allowing that player to be in the role of the commander, so respect the role and the other characters. To quote Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick”.
- Take the job seriously– The player who is playing the commander needs to take that role seriously and meet the expectations of the players. Players who are uncomfortable with commanding, should consider relinquishing the authority and allowing another character to fill that role.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help– remind the player who is the commander that they are not expected to be an instant Sun Tzu, and that if they are unsure of a decision, they should seek input from the other players (see above).
Games with authority structures can be the framework for very dramatic and exciting stories. At the same time, when they go astray they can create player detachment, resentment, and arguments. While the responsibility of players being in command of each other falls heavily on the shoulders of the players, the GM as referee has a role in helping to maintain a healthy relationship between the players. Understanding when command has gone wrong, and knowing the tricks for healthy relationships can keep your group engaged.
How has player authority at your games been handled? Have any success stories, any epic failures? What have you done as a GM to keep things moving along?