The party leader is the Captain Kirk, Malcom Reynolds, or Gandalf (maybe Aragorn, depending on when you are in the wizard resurrection cycle) of your group. They are at least nominally in charge and the one who provides direction. They often end up making decisions for the group as a whole. Not all games will have or need them, but they can be very useful.
The Benefits of a Party Leader
Party leaders have three basic tasks.
- Provide focus for the group. If everyone is milling around without a clear idea of what to do next, the party leader steps up and says “I think we should go forth and get back our hobbits.” This can be a real help to a group with players who are either new to roleplaying or just need someone to give them a gentle nudge in the right direction, and it’s much more fulfilling than the GM doing the same thing via an NPC.
- Resolve unfun disputes. This doesn’t mean they should make sure the other PCs never disagree on anything. Rather, there can be genuine disagreements between players that are best settled in character by hashing them out with an impartial arbiter. As a nominal authority figure, the party leader is in a unique position to do this.
- Act as a point of contact with NPCs. When an NPC wishes to speak with the group as a whole, they can save time by going through the party leader. If the party leader is trusted by the other players, they can speak on the group’s behalf and save a lot of time. Think of all the aliens who contact the Enterprise and speak directly to Kirk without needing to get everyone else on the bridge involved.
What the party leader absolutely does not do is tell the other players what to do or lay down the law. That way lies madness. Even if the party leader is someone with complete authority within the game world, like the aforementioned Captain Kirk, they should always make sure other players are in agreement with their plans. No one wants to spend the session having their every move dictated to them by another player with delusions of grandeur.
Choosing a Party Leader
Sometimes a party leader emerges naturally, as in the case of Aragorn. He’s not in charge because of any rank or position, he’s just in charge. After Gandalf takes a Balrog tumble, Aragorn’s intelligence and charisma (read: ability to keep Legolas and Gimli from mutual murder) made him the natural candidate for leadership.
On the other hand, there are a number of games and campaign settings that have a party leader essentially built in. In Mouse Guard, someone must be the Patrol Leader. In Firefly or Star Trek, there is typically a captain of whatever ship your players are joyriding in. Choosing the right player to fill these roles can make or break a game, and it’s something that needs to be done with care.
The player in question should be someone who is…
- Laid back
- Familiar with the game being played
The party leader must be likeable enough to avoid what I like to call “you’re not my real dad” syndrome. This is what happens when the player in question makes a suggestion, and other players refuse to do it not because it’s a bad idea, but because they want to resist authority and stick it to the man. Make sure the party leader is someone every player at the table respects and can see themselves following.
At the same time, even the most charismatic player will quickly wear out their welcome if they let the power go to their head. The other players are there to have fun, not subscribe perfectly to the party leader’s grand ideas of how the game should be. A party leader needs to know when it’s time to stand aside and let the other players have their day.
The final point is important because the party leader is often the group’s decision maker. From a practical standpoint, it’s simply helpful for the player in that position to be savvy to whatever is going on in the game. Playing a Starfleet Captain without ever watching an episode of Star Trek is going to be very difficult. The lead smuggler cutting a deal over marked Alliance goods will have a much better time if they have a general idea how valuable that stuff is.
Ideally, the entire group should be involved in choosing the party leader. I recommend doing it while generating characters together. That way, whoever ends up getting chosen can make their character to fit the role. If this isn’t an option, either because the group can’t agree or no one is interested in choosing, then the GM must go with their gut instinct.
Supporting the Party Leader with NPCs
If there is not a truly suitable candidate among the players, and the game is one that requires an authority figure of some sort, then it is acceptable for the GM to create an NPC to serve as second in command.
This NPC can provide a buffer when necessary between the party leader and the other players. If the leader is getting a little power mad, or the rest of the group has the “you’re not my real dad” look, then the NPC can step in and calm everyone down. They are basically an in-character way for the GM to tell someone that they are acting inappropriately without violating the delicate power sharing deal that exists around the table.
However, do not introduce an NPC to be the party leader! A lot of GMs are tempted by the idea of rolling up an NPC and tossing them into the group. “It’ll be great,” they think. “Since I’m also the one making the adventure, my NPC can only make the best decisions!” I cannot stress enough how bad an idea this is. The best case scenario is that the players will resent this interloper and secretly plot their demise.
The worst case scenario is that the players will buy into the idea, looking to the NPC for marching orders every time they have a choice to make. Not only does this make the game incredibly boring for everyone, but it means that the GM will in effect be telling a story to themselves.
Similarly, the supporting NPC should never be someone who actually takes command of the group, no matter the circumstances. If the party leader misses a session, find a way to get the NPC out of the picture. Give them narcolepsy if you have to.
The party leader has a huge influence on the game. Groups without a party leader often spend a lot of time staring blankly at the GM, wondering what to do next. They can waste more time arguing the merits of their various plans with no one to serve as mediator. Groups with bad or poorly chosen leaders have it even worse. They have to deal with constant power struggles and attempts to hijack the game. Great care should go into deciding whether a group needs one, and who they should be.