About Me

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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Leadership in RPGs

I don't subscribe to some of the hippie approaches to GMing that I read about these days.  Like business, like war, like everything else, strong leadership skills and strong management skills are applicable to successful RPGs.

Ask one of these -
they can fill in the blanks for you.
Today I'll talk about Leadership.

What is Leadership?

Leaders work with people and their feelings.

Leadership is the ability to set a direction, and to influence others to follow that direction.  Leadership does not require authority, although they sometimes have it.  When they do, Leaders do not solely rely on it.

What are Hippies?

"Do your own thing, wherever you have to do it and whenever you want."
  - Time, July 7, 1967

I could just say Hippies are drug-laden lazy people, which would probably be fair, but the truth is they have had a positive influence in some regards, mostly in breaking down social barriers.  That part benefits us all, including gaming, by giving us access to a greater diversity of players and ideas.

It is important to realize that even anarchists have their leaders - Emma Goldman, for instance - who set a direction of philosophical thought and influence others to follow it.   Hippie leaders might have been Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary (of tune in, turn on, and drop out fame), or even the Persian reformer Mazdak who was a sort of 6th century communist-hippie hybrid.

Nonetheless, I don't want hippies leading my game - I want strong leaders who can make decisions and instill strong morale.

What does Leadership mean in RPGs?

Whether you are lawful or chaotic, as a GM, you still need to step up and be a Leader.  The games we play imbue a certain degree of authority in the GM/DM/Storyteller.  We must be sure that we don't rely solely on that authority to guide a game, much as we must be sure that we don't render that authority meaningless.

There is a panoply of articles and information on Leadership spread around internet.  For GMs as Leaders, I recommend keeping in mind these fundamental concepts:

Truth by Example.

If you don't ever shine your boots, you have no standing with which to tell others their boots aren't shiny enough.  If you act like a rules lawyer, you have no standing with which to tell others they shouldn't be rules lawyers.

Learn how to get Feedback.

Ask detailed and specific questions about your players' experiences and take the time to truly listen to their comments, whether positive or negative.  Avoid Yes/No questions.

"How was the session?" is a bad question unless used merely to start a conversation.  "Do you like the campaign direction?" is a bad Yes/No question.  Try this instead:  "What would you like to see changed most in the next segment of the campaign?"

Be Fair.

Never show favoritism.  A good Leader applies the same standards to each of the people they influence.  For GMs, this sometimes applies to fictional characters as well - players need to feel that PCs and NPCs are treated similarly under common circumstances.

Make Decisions.

Decide when to play.  Decide what is being played.  Decide what happens when a character tries to swing on a chandelier across a lava pit and onto an orc's head.

Don't try to avoid decision-making.  That is weak and lame and doesn't benefit anyone involved.

You can (and should) listen to player input, when appropriate, but the final decision is yours and yours alone.  Sometimes you have to make a decision on the spot without time for input or negotiation.  That's perfectly ok - too much blah blah blah will slow things down way too much.  Leadership by Committee is a façade.

Scared of making a mistake?  Of course you will make mistakes when you make decisions.  Just learn from them, and acknowledge them when you make one.

The Group Succeeds - The Leader Fails.

When things go horribly wrong and nothing is very fun, the Leader takes responsibility for it.  When things go great and everything is hilariously fun, the Leader lets the Group take responsibility.  The Leader can accept accolades, but recognizes the Group which made the success possible.


If some aspects can be delegated, a Leader should look for those willing to step up.  A classic example in gaming is initiative - whether it is dealing cards or tracking numbers on a whiteboard, this is the sort of thing easily delegated during tactical scenarios.  Strategic delegations might be wiki updates or, if you are so inclined, campaign design such as cities, NPCs, or organizations.

Above all else, Leaders never abuse Authority.

Despite what your shitty manager/teacher/2LT/GM might think.

"You don't lead by hitting people over the head - that's assault,
not leadership."
  - General Eisenhower


  1. What do you think about having a leader in a party in D&D? For example, a player who is responsible for making the decision of whether to take the left or right fork, as opposed to having everyone yell at the DM and eventually coming to a consensus.

    Also, that person could help coordinate tactics (e.g. you heal, you tank those monsters, you stun them etc.)

    1. Informal leadership (that which is not based upon authority) certainly exists in PC Parties, and those desiring to lead would be well served to follow many of the same leadership principles.

      As a DM, I wouldn't ever require such a position to this degree, simply because not every party has the right ingredients.

      I have, however run campaigns where the setup included, for instance, a merchant PC who hires a bunch of mercenaries/experts (the rest of the party). It worked great for roleplaying, and the merchant PC was more than happy to delegate tactical decisions to the experts he had hired.

    2. I remember that merchant. He put together one hell of a team. They all lived much longer than he did, too.


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