You guys remember Inquest magazine? That was my jam back in the day. Lots of cool strategy articles, M:tG deck lists, and even the occasional gaming-related comic (clearly an inspiration for yours truly). I seem to recall teenage Colin being a huge fan of their cover art as well.

Anywho, I bring it up today because of one particularly intriguing article. The subject was building a D&D “dream team,” and if memory serves the final roster came down to Conan, Aragorn, Elminster, and the Gray Mouser. Now there are two things that struck me about that list. One was that they were trying to squeeze Aragorn into the cleric role by virtue of Athelas. (The nerd rage of my youth still burns hot at the notion! Aragorn is obviously a necromancer.) But more relevant to today’s comic is the hypothetical rivalry between Conan and Elminster. Those are some strong personalities, and both would surely want to lead the company. Upon reflection, I don’t think that conflict is specific to Cimmerian musclemen and Faerûnian archmagi.

When you imagine the kinds of people that would want to risk life and limb to go dungeon delving, “strong personality” is something of an understatement. We’re talking arrogant elven princelings, power-tripping sorcerers, wannabe liches, and Keith Richards. Choosing a consensus leader from that lineup is damn near impossible, and that’s just from an in-game perspective. Managing out-of-game personalities is its own special challenge. I think that’s to do with the nature of the game.

When you sit down to play an RPG, you want to feel like your choices matter. However, RPGs are fundamentally social activities. That means no one player ever gets the final say in group decisions, whether it’s something blasé like camping vs. pressing on, something momentous like choosing to help the rebels vs. the empire, or something actually important like pizza toppings. It’s always down to a negotiation, meaning that “party leader” is at best a first among equals.

One interesting effect of this rule can be seen in Starfinder. Just take a look at the captain’s role during starship combat. The job description is to “encourage the crew while taunting enemies into making critical mistakes.” This is no tyrannical Captain Bligh. This is a party face rather than a despot, a friendly distributor of buffs rather than a dictatorial autocrat. Even more telling, the way to become a Starfinder captain is to simply “declare your role when you board a ship.” From the games I’ve seen, that declaration usually takes the form of a conversation: “I’ve got a pretty good Bluff and Diplomacy. Mind if I grab the captain’s chair this time around?” It’s an experience that mirrors the casual democracy of group decisions in general.

“Should we keep the goblin babies?”

“I’d rather not deal with it. Why don’t we drop them off at a temple or something?”

The only way to be a leader in that sort of situation is to do like the Handbook says, and to convince rather than demand. Let’s just hope Barbarian has a few rounds of rage left by the time she figures that out.

So what bout the rest of you guys? Have you ever had a formal “party leader?” Did they get any kind of special powers along with the job? Let’s hear all about your own micro-democracies down in the comments!


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