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Respect My Authority

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:

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:

What Rank?

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.

Questionable Actions

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:

Marching Orders

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?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Respect My Authority"

#1 Comment By Donogh On June 24, 2011 @ 4:34 am

Of course, many of these problems are those real-life managers/superiors also have!
I played in a GURPS WWII campaign a while ago where I played the commander of a squad of Razvedchiki (Soviet Army Scouts) – because the rest of the players have subordinate characters this could have led to some sort of tension in the group. In my experience most role-players like to do exactly what they want to do.

Generally speaking though, it’s a truism that good officers listen to their senior NCOs, and I try to do that. Also in special forces units (which we are) rank and file divisions tend to be less obvious than in regular army units. Special forces training instills (or selects) a soldier with many of the traits role-players ensure their characters have – independence, forceful decision making, unrelenting will and immunity to stress. I guess that leading a group of role-players has some of the challenges that leading such a group of soldiers must have.

At the end of the day though an officer or manager who cannot control his subordinates gets pulled in by his manager. Some good scene-setting by the GM as well as realistic role-playing of the hierarchy is required.

#2 Comment By guttertalk On June 24, 2011 @ 8:38 am

In our D&D 3.5e campaign, we had the situation sort of described in “I am not the kind of boss.” In the game, my character is captain of the squad. In real life, even though I lead projects and manage, I’m very judicious with orders and work by consensus as often as possible. I’m not a weak personality, but in this context in particular, I didn’t have the confidence of the stronger, more experienced players. And that is a huge influence on how I played for several sessions because I wasn’t confident in my in-game strategy or my knowledge of even how to play.

However, we have two very strong personalities, one of whom you could say is a natural leader. His character is very quick to take certain lead duties. For a while, this gave me concern. 1) My character would think his authority is being undermined. 2) As players, our “real” personalities were playing out rather than our characters. 3) In the case of disagreements, the game could be sidetracked.

I talked with the GM, and we agreed that there are different types of leaders, even within a squad. In short, my character did two things. First, he did some things that I do in real life–like recognize when we need to make a decision, get input (but quickly) and call for a decision. In cases of no agreement, my character would make the call.

Sometimes, in a group of equals, leadership has to be defined differently.

Second, I made some effort to play my character more strongly, more assertively. IRL, I would rarely make a deal out of chain of command. In the game, in a couple of situations, my character did. On one occasion, my character said to one of the strong squad members, “That’s my call.”

Recognizing that there are different ways to lead and that a lack of leadership might require more player confidence in the game can greatly help establish authority.

#3 Comment By SavageTheDM On June 24, 2011 @ 8:46 am

For the longest time I was afraid to run a game with one PC being the Leader. It took until my zombie apocalypse game using DnD 4e rules that I tried out one of the players being the leader. This Player was vary good at it He took in the other players thoughts and ideas but when it mattered he would step up to the plate. In short this was one of the best things I have ever seen happen not only that but in all of the campaigns I ran after that The players just named Him the leader of there group even though I didn’t say a thing. It was a great role playing experience and I think that everyone GM should try this at-least once.

#4 Comment By evil On June 24, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

No real successes or failures from me, just games that were…. When I have had leaders in the games, they tended to be picked democratically prior to the game starting. If things get a little heated, or the leader/players aren’t living up to expectations, I tend to insert a political officer type role in the form of an NPC. This way I have someone who can call the leader and followers on their actions without harming feelings. Not the perfect solution, but it can help when you know in advance that something is going down.

#5 Comment By recursive.faults On June 24, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

I ran a game not too long ago. The Kingmaker adventure path from Paizo. The PCs set up a kingdom and take on roles in that kingdom. My group elected one player as the King.

We had problems from start to finish. People felt he didn’t make good decisions but refused to help. They even made an agreement to follow and still didn’t.

We have a saying in my group, “We’re not a group, we’re a bunch of individuals.” This attitude causes no end to our woes when it comes to cooperation.

Oddly, the thing that wound up really making that work the best was when the king finally said, “Look, I’m going to do what I think is best for the kingdom as the king and as my character would. You can tell me if you don’t like my decision, but I expect you to back me up.”

As soon as he removed any form of democracy from the procedure things calmed down and people were a lot happier. It was a strange, but welcome turn of events.

#6 Comment By Razjah On June 24, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

I think leadership in character is something that should be drawn up in the social contract. It must be discussed or many of the problems mentioned can result.

I have had experience playing in games with the leader role while playing and GMing. The game as a player was a war campaign. We were part of a special forces branch that operated with much more autonomy than the rank and file soldiers. Our cleric was a real soldier and the rest of the party were conscripts. In situations he had the final call. He did not abuse the situation and we would let him know out of character more of what our characters were capable of so that the in character plans were better. My goblin barbarian even referenced the cleric as “Boss”.

In a campaign that I ran one player was playing the mentor character and would take ideas and explain why some were good and some were bad all the while making up a 1001 rules to monster hunting. These rules were heavily biased by her own dislike of her fame and fans. She did a great job. Mostly because she let the other characters make “mistakes”. She was the leader and had the final say, but there was a lot of room for individual actions. Also fighting dragon turtle at level 3-4 tends to help keep group harmony or else face a TPK.

So to summarize: leadership can be great. Bt there needs to be a group consensus on how to run the leadership role. It is both a meta-game concept and a role playing concept. The meta-game part because a lot of this is done out of character. Who has final say? How much rebellion is allowed? (The lance will always think the plan is dumb but will follow because “he’s the leader and must have some kind of a plan”) How much do the other players trust the player with the leadership role? The in character part because the characters need to actually follow the leader. In the Dragonlance novels, the characters frequently argue with Tanis. But at the end of the day, they all agree that he is the leader and that they will follow him. If every character follows the leader for their own reasons, you have uncovered some of the in-character parts to the leadership roles at the table.

Also as a role-playing game, it can be interesting to explore new roles. The leader plays the sidekick. The fearless guy plays a coward and so on. Pushing some role playing boundaries can be a good thing.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On June 24, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

I’ve played in groups where we all ignore authority, or where it’s a b-plot at best–and that usually works well.

When there’s in world authority, it’s tricky to translate to the table. We had an issue with characters serving a captain for story/roleplaying group reasons, but without a reason that made sense to their background. Eventually the character’s internal conflict manifested in guns drawn… and everyone shied away from realistic responses to maintain real life relations. It was awkward and drove the campaign to an early end.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

I’m firmly in the camp of keeping players as peers rather than in a ranked structure, but I have allowed and encouraged a ranking structure to form in my Delta Green game because it was something the players seemed to want themselves. So far they are handling it.

I’ve found as a rule of thumb that whenever there’s a formal power structure, a ladder on which the players occupy different rungs, it is only a matter of time before tensions build to breaking point over issues deriving from the ladder rather than the plot problem(s) the team faces.

Giving the players an NPC boss (when one is required) allows them to vent in-character at some nebulous nit who gives them goals without the resources to achieve them and so forth without that nebulous nit being at the table and therefore in a position to retaliate or get bent out of shape.

I feel strongly that players stay focused better if they consider themselves to be the social and professional equals of the others seated around the table.

And as someone else has posted: We do the “downward progression of shirt” thing every day. Do we really want the same from our hobby life?

Your mileage will certainly vary.

#9 Comment By BryanB On June 27, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

I’ve thought about this topic often when I am considering a Star Trek game. If the Star Trek game is set in Starfleet, then there is the command structure of that organization to consider.

One could have everyone vote on who gets to play the Captain’s position. Let’s face it, some players are going to make better make believe commanders than others.

Another idea that I saw somewhere was to have the captain be an NPC. This NPC would be the voice of all the players at the table. Each player would be given an opportunity to suggest a course of action for the ship’s crew and then they would vote on those choices. If the course of action decision was tied, then the GM could decide using the Prime Directive as a tie breaker. Not sure how that would work in practice, but I liked the concept.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On June 28, 2011 @ 9:24 am

[1] – In fact I know of a ST:TNG game in which there have been many issues arising from people either not playing in-character to the hierarchy (aka arguing endlessly with the captain, first officer or other “ranks you” PCs) or simply not role playing in the ST manner (aka arguing endlessly with the players who play the captain, first officer or other “ranks you” PCs).

I read the rulebooks to a number of different “takes” on ST and my universal thought coming away was “make the players bridge crew, but make them all lieutenants (in key positions of course) and make the captain an NPC”.

Not only does that approach stifle any possible un-realistic bickering/arguing with the captain, it means everyone is potentially on the away team and different PCs can be put in charge each time they go “away”.

I don’t like the voting approach myself. It opens the door to the outing of people’s once-well-hidden thoughts on other people’s abilities.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On June 28, 2011 @ 9:37 am

It is interesting that the kinds of tension that are described in the article (the showdown on the cargo deck of the spaceship with hands hovering over blaster holsters, and the King making a decision that shows everyone he is not the saint they thought he was) are the very lifeblood of the shows that inspire such games (Serenity, Game of Thrones etc).

The desire to not have such tension-filled scenes is more a desire not to deal with out-of-character consequences that might carry over were a PC to gun down another or refuse a King’s lawful orders on moral grounds.

Which is silly when you think about it because if you were to ask each of the players involved in the altercation what they wanted from a game of the type they were playing, they would probably describe exactly the action they are facing.

The real issue here is having players who can identify with their characters well enough to play them well (the easy part) but distance themselves from them enough that they don’t treat the loss of a PC as a Death in the Family.

Good luck with that. I can do it, and so can the players in my regular gaming groups, but many of the self-confessed “expert” role-players I regularly interact with can’t.