Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Face vs The Captain vs Individual Impulsiveness - Party Leaders in RPGs

I've been thinking about Party Leaders in RPGs a lot lately.  Beyond just what I mentioned in my last GM Commentary, this is something that I've been pondering since the summer. To my mind, there are two broad types of party leaders in RPGs, though they easily overlap in individual characters, which are:
  • The Face - The Face is the social leader of the group.  This is the character who serves most often as group spokesman to NPCs, usually due to the social skills of the PC, the social skills of the player and  often due to in-game character status as well (ie. being a Noble in the system setting).  The Face may not set battle tactics or make any plans outside of social situations, but by virtue of being the character doing important social interactions with NPCs, the Face of a party often leads simply by being the party spokesperson.
  • The Captain - The Captain is the plotter, planner and tactical leader of the group.  Unlike the Face, the leader is not a outside facing social spokesperson for the group, instead the leader is the character who comes up with the battle plans or the infiltration schemes or does the plotting of the group's next moves.
The Face and Captain can often overlap in the same character, but they can also be separate characters, depending on the make up of the party.  The Face is probably the easier to play, since at the simplest it can be decided just by the players looking around and saying "You've got the highest Charisma/best social skills/speak Troll" you talk for us.  But, in my mind the Captain is the more important or influential of the two, since any deals, diplomacy or social shenanigans that the Face makes are easily ignored by the other characters once that social situation has ended, or even during. (That brings to mind a D&D game I ran where after the other characters had just finished averting combat and talking the tribe of lizardmen out of attacking them, the party's wizard decided to just hit the lizardman chief with Acid Arrow and then chaos ensued).  The Captain, on the other hand, if he's actually the group's tactical leader, if he commands the respect of the other characters and the players, can help set the group's course, and therein lies the rub... To play the leader of your RPG group, it's not enough to convince the characters that your character should lead, you have to convince the players as well...

Playing a leader is a little easier in a LARP, since usually the game has enough players that when a player or character is dissatisfied with the leader of their group, they can join a different faction or subgroup or challenge for leadership.  Much of the plot in a Vampire LARP could easily be all the characters working out who is the Prince of the city or the leader of the pack, etc.  Plus LARPs usually have a large political component, so questions of leadership seem natural to the game.

For Tabletop games, it's been my experience that the question of leadership is much muddier.  Sometimes it's not a big deal, like if the priestess in a D&D campaign has a high charisma, she can serve as the Face during the brief social interactions with NPCs and the party might be able to get along just fine without a Captain when they're moving from room to room in the dungeon.  Linear plots and a focus on combat encounters (fight that troll) or trap encounters (disable that collapsing staircase) or physical skill based encounters (jump that chasm) make it fairly easy for a party to get by without a Captain, instead reaching group decisions on the fly or just getting by with the individual impulsiveness of the PCs.  Occasionally there are hiccups (shooting acid arrow when the other players are intent on using social skills) but more often than not, the lack of a Captain just makes the group slightly less tactically efficient.

For other tabletop games that have a focus on political machinations (including of course, D&D games that focus on politics instead of sticking to simple goblin/skeleton slaying and dungeon exploring) the lack of a Captain can often be acutely felt.  Here is a compare and contrast of two games run by the same DM and sharing several of the same players.

  • In the first, I played Kamwise Clovertail, hyperactive teenage halfing monk and middle sibling of the Clovertail siblings (see also "An Excerpt from the Legend of Kamerlane Clovertail, the Doom Bringer (to his enemies)").  Because he was (a) a child and (b) not interested in it, Kam was neither a Face nor a Captain of the group, which aside from those damned, meddling Clovertail kids was entirely forgettable (honestly, I think there was a cleric and one or two additional rangers, aside from Kit, the youngest Clovertail who was a ranger, but I can't remember because our halfing siblings stole the show).   I'm sure one of the 'adult' characters served as the Face for the group, speaking to the 'adult' NPCs while the Clovertail kids peeped through the door and watched.  Outside of social situations, no character really stepped up to be the Captain of the group, which was fine, we probably could have used a Captain to focus our combat tactics a bit, but even with a spastic teenage monk charging all over the place, we survived, and that was even with the cleric going down in at least one fight.  Kam was the very definition of a character given to Individual Impulsiveness, where one player/character does what ever they wish and the rest of the party adapts around those actions, but since Kam had two siblings who always had his back, his impulsiveness tended to drag in 3 PCs acting in loose coordination instead of just one.  The game never reached a point where the lack of a strong Face or a Captain was a real hindrance to the group. Mostly, the sessions involved pretty straightforward wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling and any politicking was minimal and fairly ancillary to the plot (the very little bit of politics I recall from this game was straightforward, there was a civilized village(s?) and the party was on there side against obviously chaotic tribesmen and even more obviously chaotic and evil tribesmen and demi-humans. 
  • In the second, I played Isidore (Sid) Philokales, a crazy Ardent (psychic healer for those not fluent in the more obscure 4E classes) who was devoted to the worship of a stellar entity that he believed would come and cleanse the world in a burning apocalypse.  Once again, I went the sibling route, having my good friend Bob, who played Kam's older brother Bill, play Sid's brother, Maxallion, a Psion (more classic psionicist, the telepath/telekinetic route) who travelled through space, time and dimensions in some weird way.  This time, however, instead of discussing our character backgrounds in detail and really focusing on the sibling thing, like with the Clovertails, we agreed on a very basic sketch of a relationship (we knew we were siblings, we mostly trusted each other, we were both searching for our sister for some reason).  The rest of the group, too, was more center-less, instead of having a fairly defined goal (protect the civilized regions from the chaos and evil) the group (minus latecomers Sid and Max) had made a deal (gotten tricked?) by an NPC into signing a magical book and going off in search of a different magical book in order to pay off said NPC who would then presumably remove their names from his book.  Another character was also looking for Sid and Max's sister, not knowing of their relationship to her.  As Citizen Ben, the DM for both games, said himself "the group lacked a moral center" and that was certainly true.  As play progressed, the other characters quickly realized just how crazy Sid was as I let his descent into madness play out at a much more precipitous rate than was probably wise (or good for the longterm playability of the character).  This led to an interesting dilemma, the players respecting my ability and experience, were often inclined to follow my lead as a player but their characters, recognizing the insanity, depravity and evil of my character where very disinclined to follow Sid's lead as a character.  Because of his insanity (by the end he had not bathed or washed in almost a month and was clothed in several layers of tattered cultist robes and halfing gore) Sid could not be the Face of the group.  Perhaps because, although it was evil and twisted, Sid did have an unwavering core set of convictions (the end was coming, the stars would come and cleanse the world, this should be facilitated) Sid was sometimes the best candidate for the Captain of the group as he had a clear baseline that he could make decisions from.  Especially since the players looked up to me, this made it hard to thread the needle of Captaincy, holding both the respect of the players and their characters for decisions Sid made for the group.  For instance, at one point the party came to a monastery dedicated to Order (which Sid despised and was  dedicated to fighting against) being besieged by a chaos cult (Sid's natural allies).  The group was paralyzed for a moment, trying to decide which side to assist or if they should just sit it out.  Sid should have argued for them to join the side of Chaos, but the rest of the party was pretty unwilling to go that route, so I, as player and not as character, instead advocated smashing the siege from behind.  It was a triumph for the group, but it was when I realized that Sid would never be the leader of the party, even if I as a player could be. 
And that's partly what the Captain is about, having a character be the Captain, the tactical leader of the group helps downplay some of the (inevitable) meta-gaming that occurs.  Having a Captain who can lay out, in character, the plan of battle and have the other characters agree avoids the out of character discussion that occurs when the players decide as players and not characters what the best tactical approach is.  Having a Captain also helps the group focus their actions outside of combat.  For instance, once inside the monastery, Sid's group splintered, as each character was pulled by their own individual goals and impulses, towards different factions in the monastery.  If there was a recognized Captain, perhaps some of this fragmentation could have been avoided if the Captain argued for one course of action and the other characters agreed.  This is the kind of fragmentation I see occurring in my Reign game (see my last GM commentary, link at the start of this post), as the group does not agree completely on one course of action and the individual impulses of the PCs pull it apart.

As I return to Ben's 4E D&D game in a few weeks, I'll have a new character that I'll be debuting, one designed for me to try out some of what I've theorized in this post, a character of incredible conviction, who, by virtue of not being an evil lunatic like Sid was, will have a chance to sway the other characters (and their players) over to his point of view, or at least to convince them of the soundness of the courses of action he proposes.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are dead on here. The group was dependent on Sid's tactical mind, but so angry and repulsed by him otherwise that even when it would have benefited them to follow his direction they instinctively would not. In addition I think this is the by-product of a group of players who are all essentially shades of gray (not the 50 kind though). They are all hyper-motivated to selfishness that very few of them are able to put that aside for the greater good of the group.
    I for one have never run or played in a long term non-evil group like this. It is a challenge to 'herd those cats', maintain PC's personal interests and intrigues, not betray the motivations of said PC's, and yet still have a functional game.
    I look at the perfect manifestation of this being during combat. When the group is faced with encounters they should 'win' quickly they seem to struggle as the group becomes individuals. However, when confronted with a 'Boss Battle' it is FRIGHTENING how efficiently, effectively, and cohesively this group works together. This group of PC's is the most 'realistic' I think I've seen at a table. Individuals bound together by nothing more than circumstance who tolerate each other only as long as they get what they want.
    I keep waiting for two or three characters to be 'buddies' and form alliances of some sort, but it has not occurred. This troubled me at first, but since has simply become the 'norm' in this particular campaign. It's not always pretty, but it has been fun thus far.
    I'm excited to see where your new character fits into this dynamic. Will he be the strong moral center that brings them together or will he the be the strong hand they band together to rebel against? Either way I'll have a blast running it.
    Great post my friend.


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