Peregrine's Nest: Taking Charge

It’s all fun and games until someone takes control.

stormtrooper-2899982_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

When it comes to creating a character, most people insist on playing a “lone wolf” and those who don’t prefer to be a “rogue agent.” So, most gatherings of player characters are just a bunch of cats with no one even trying to herd them. This often means that few adventurers, investigators or heroes are good at taking orders. Most tactical decisions are either managed by a frontal assault or hours of complex planning. Then, after everyone has agreed on the complex plan, at least one player will ignore it and just do a frontal assault. Sometimes it’s a wonder any of them survive.

In most games this isn’t a problem. Usually everyone just follows the paladin, even if they grumble at their every decision. As long as no one actually gives them an order they generally do as they are told. Unfortunately, when a game setting has an actual chain of command, this becomes a problem.

Chain of Command​

Professional soldiers (many of whom are keen tabletop gamers) are trained to follow orders, and this rarely sits well with a player character group. It’s not that unreasonable either. Role playing is about freedom in many ways, making your own decisions. If another player character or NPC is taking that freedom away, all you are doing is playing an extension of their character and not your own.

Now, this is not to say that all soldiers are automatons that just do as they are told automatically. Any modern army relies on its soldiers to report back and use their minds as much as their physical skills to get a job done. However, efficiency demands someone make the call and everyone falls in line with it. Standing around debating what the best course of action would be doesn’t get anything done.

Sometimes the GM can give the group a little more freedom than the rest. You might be the group of elite Special Forces veterans whose experience and skill is trusted even by their superiors. Maybe your superhero team technically works for the government, but if they ignore their bosses, who is going to stop them? Unfortunately, that isn’t always an option, and when a chain of command is baked into the game setting, everyone being able to do their own thing quickly breaks the setting.

While it may be most useful for games like Twilight 2000, Stargate or Alien (Colonial Marines) a hardcore military game is not the only type with a codified command structure. Settings like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica are just as militaristic, and even fantasy games like Pendragon and Legend of the Five Rings might have characters placed very clearly in charge of other player characters.

Falling In​

As with pretty much every game, the first step is to talk to the group. If you are running a game where there is going to be a solid system of rank and subordination you need to make the players aware of this. Get their input about how they want to play the game and make it clear they will need to create characters used to obeying their superiors.

This doesn’t mean they can’t play a malcontent if they insist. But in a realistic game there will be consequences for their insubordination. Being locked in the brig or put on the worst duty is something they’ll have to get used to. But, played well, that can be a great source of drama and role play. What is important is that the players are aware they can’t talk back to NPCs, disobey orders they don’t like or run in whatever direction they feel like (however unfairly they feel they are being treated) without these consequences. Those consequences must be spelled out. But it should also be made clear that no character will be avoiding them just because they are the heroes. If you want to play a maverick rule breaker, fine, but you can expect to be punished for it. Steve McQueen may have been cool in the Great Escape, but he spent a lot of time in the cooler.

Having said that, players whose characters are in charge should not expect unquestioning obedience either. They also need to remember that there are people above them who can also give orders and countermand theirs. Everyone reports to someone else, even the Admirals and Generals are beholden to some sort of (usually civilian) government figure.

In general there are three main ways to run a game with hierarchy: Charismatic leader, Flat structure and Group decision. They all have different benefits and problems, so pick the right one for your group (or share another option I’ve missed in the comments!).

Charismatic Leader​

In this set up the GM just puts the most trusted player character in charge. This is not just because their character has a higher rank, but because the player themselves is a good leader. If the players trust the leader player to be fair, good at making plans and most importantly, listening to their team, this can work very well. In such a case when an order is given, even if the player characters don’t agree, they will still follow it. They might even be glad someone else made the tough call.

Unfortunately, players like this are not very common. It is usually another experienced GM who will help the GM “on the inside” by keeping the group together. It also assumes the player in question wants to be the one in charge. If they are usually the “other GM” they might be looking for a break from running things!

Even if they are trusted by the group that doesn’t mean every decision will be a good one. If they screw up, they might end up getting the rest of the group killed and that won’t go down well. So if you are using this method, you should make special note of when the player, as well as their character, is losing the faith of the group. That might be the time for someone else to take charge for some reason. This might be a new NPC, an expert PC or the next in the chain if the commander is “having problems.”

Flat Structure​

Simpler, but less interesting is just making everyone the same rank. Their officer, like the patron of any adventure, gives them their orders and sets them on the adventure. They have their orders, and they need to follow them. But what they do once they go on the mission is mostly up to them.

One of the PCs might be the “sarge” and technically outrank the others. But there is a general assumption, after years of working well together they all just get on with things and the leader doesn’t really need to give any orders. Failing that the leader might be an NPC. They might be with the squad or sitting in a control centre running the mission through screens and helmet cams (like Gorman in Aliens). It saves a PC doing the less “hands of” job and allows the GM to guide the group a little using the NPC leader. However, it does take a certain amount of choice out of the players” hands.

The GM can also plan to have the NPC officer hurt or even killed on the mission, leaving the player characters without a clear leader. But doing that rather sidesteps the problem and turns them into a rabble. This can be ok if they are all playing highly skilled or dedicated soldiers, like Starfleet officers or Special Forces. It won’t matter who is in charge as they will be focused on the mission. But a group of ordinary squaddies might reasonably decide to just bug out as soon as possible.

Group Decision​

The final option is probably the best but does require a little metagaming. Whoever is in charge is unimportant in terms of who makes a decision. When a call needs to be made, all the players discuss their options and decide on a plan of action (out of character). It is then assumed that the leader character gives those as their orders to the group. This means you can maintain the in game hierarchy as there is a clear chain of command, but everyone has a say out of game.

The problem with this option is that the player of the leader character might not agree with the plan, or think it is unreasonable for their character to give those orders. For instance, the captain PC could be a known pacifist who uses violence only as a last resort when diplomacy has failed. So it is unreasonable to assume they’ll order to shoot first and ask questions later. So the player group must take this into consideration before an agreement is reached, and the player of the lead officer should have the final say on any plan.

As a final note, when creating characters for a military campaign, don’t assume the other players will get behind your choices. It’s fine to play the “old sergeant who is loved by his men for getting the job done.” But if he turns out to be difficult and annoying, the player can’t be surprised if the other characters don’t follow him. You can’t say “but I decided my character was loved by everyone” and expect that to hold water. If you want the other characters to respect you, then you have to earn it, or at least create and play a character they will love and respect. You can’t just declare your character is a great leader that everyone follows, and play them as a pain in the butt. If you have a lot of points in leadership and persuasion they will follow you for a while, but eventually they will turn round and say “everyone else might like you, but I wouldn’t follow you to the shops, let alone into battle.”

Your Turn: Dow do you manage military campaigns? Can real military experience be applied to gaming too?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


log in or register to remove this ad


I find that when the PCs finally get together, they look more like this than a well-trained unit of soldiers.

To expand on this, in my mind a big difference here is, well, the amount of big differences.

Soldiers and armies are much more homogeneous than a D&D group. Yes, there will be people with specialties like medics and techs. And they will have different personal backgrounds. But overall, there is going be a lot of overlap in their training, skills, and goals. You can assume there is some form of orientation. And, most relevant to the OP, everyone will have similar expectations of power structure within the group.

By comparison, most D&D campaigns that I have played in let people create characters on their own, with wildly different results. There is often no immediately noticeably commonality in the characters. And getting together and forming a party is often limited to just "you all meet at a tavern". Generally speaking, there's no inherent structure in that; party dynamics form organically. Which is good and all, but it's also the exact opposite of the "military" style of play and power structure that the OP describes.

The only time that I've ever seen something like the OP describes happen is when it's set up in Session 0, and everyone agrees to join in. But I'd say that's rare. Sometimes, it even leads to players being more rebellious. If you start a thread on ENWorld with "here's my campaign suggestion" and it limits character creation in any way, inevitably you'll get a bunch of responses telling you to allow someone to break whatever limits you put in place. And IRL, I've actually had the experience of someone telling me they would only be happy if their character was from a race I didn't allow (it didn't matter what races I normally allowed or not, they wanted to be unique by breaking the rule).
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
The only time that I've ever seen something like the OP describes happen is when it's set up in Session 0, and everyone agrees to join in. But I'd say that's rare. Sometimes, it even leads to players being more rebellious. If you start a thread on ENWorld with "here's my campaign suggestion" and it limits character creation in any way, inevitably you'll get a bunch of responses telling you to allow someone to break whatever limits you put in place. And IRL, I've actually had the experience of someone telling me they would only be happy if their character was from a race I didn't allow (it didn't matter what races I normally allowed or not, they wanted to be unique by breaking the rule).
"Have you considered that you may not be a good fit for this campaign?"

One of my personal guidelines for gaming is Accept the Premise or Move On. There are other games out there (especially at conventions).

Then again, there was That Guy who picked the commanding officer character in a WWII horror scenario and decided to turtle in the abandoned farmhouse waiting to be rescued because, he said, that was standard procedure. The actual ex-military guy backed him up, and so we nearly didn't have an adventure.
 

MGibster

Legend
There's an old military joke I heard which I'll paraphrase. A professor at West Point asks his cadets how they would take an enemy position atop a hill. He got various answers from his students including artillery strikes, flanking, probing for weaknesses, etc., etc., but he shook his head at all of them. Finally, one cadet stood up and said, "I would order my sergeant to take that hill, sir." And that was the answer the professor was looking for.

I've run some games where the player characters were part of a hierarchy and they weren't at the top. What I try to do is make sure they have a lot of agency in how they accomplish the mission. They're like the sergeant in the joke there. They're may be ordered to take the hill, but they're the ones who get to decide how the hill is taken.
 

There's an old military joke I heard which I'll paraphrase. A professor at West Point asks his cadets how they would take an enemy position atop a hill. He got various answers from his students including artillery strikes, flanking, probing for weaknesses, etc., etc., but he shook his head at all of them. Finally, one cadet stood up and said, "I would order my sergeant to take that hill, sir." And that was the answer the professor was looking for.

I thought the idea of "single roll combat" was a hard sell as an RPG mechanic. I didn't realize it was taken from real life examples. :p


 

Related Articles

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top