Worlds of Design: Monsters Can Be Leaders Too

The older I get, the more battles I study, the more I recognize how important leadership is to success, whether of a nation, an army, a business concern, or an adventuring group.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
"There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind." Napoleon Bonaparte

The Importance of Leadership​

I was once again reading Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, a major rule supplement to Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. There are several pages of encounter tables, by terrain, to replace those in the original 5E rules. I was struck by how some encounters involved two types of the same creature (for example a kuo-toa monitor with kuo-toa whips), something I don’t recall from the D&D 1E tables. Why the difference?

One reason may be that there are now many more species with differentiated types, some more powerful or more “aware” or intelligent than others. What the multiple types reminded me of just then, however, was the importance of leadership.

As a boardgame designer I have to take this into account. In a practical sense the leader in a boardgame is the player, but I like to represent leadership within the game if I can, even if it’s not going to be as important as in “real life” because of the presence of the player.

Leadership vs. Generalship​

Keep in mind also that wargames tend to be about generalship, not about warfare, two quite different things. Generalship is the ultimate leadership, in war.

For example in my game Hastings 1066 I had to recognize that it was a contest between two men, Harold II and William of Normandy. They play a big part in the combat success of their troops depending on where they are in the field, and if one of them gets killed then that side suffers penalties and is much less likely to win. Yet in Stalingrad Besieged, which uses a modified version of the same system with vastly upgraded components, there are no leaders. That’s because people don’t think of leaders as important in that vast, lengthy struggle of attrition. Even on the scale of the thousand years of British history in Britannia there are leaders that make a big difference at times. I particularly like situations where a leader can make a big difference on the battlefield, but if the leader dies you lose the game. This definitely puts the player on the horns of a dilemma - how much to chance death in order to help the troops - which is generally what you want in a competitive game.

Of course, in RPGs with pure avatars each player is faced with this dilemma of participation versus the threat that they will “lose” the game if their character dies.

Opposition Leadership​

An old tradition for running monsters, one that still exists in many games, is that the monsters are a horde of brainless individuals who don’t cooperate much, who don’t have leaders, who are there to get dead at the hands of the adventurers. And if that works for you still, fine. It certainly makes it easy for the players.

But some want more challenge in their play, a feeling that the opposition might actually win. That’s where opposition leadership comes into play. Even if most of the bad guys are stupid, a good leader can help them behave much more intelligently as a group. If the leader has powers or capabilities different from the average bad guy, you also get the possible synergy of “combined arms” interaction. If the leader is good at what he/she/it does, this can make the bad guys much more formidable.

This can certainly affect how challenging a monster is. When considering a challenge rating, does the monster charge into battle (as described above), hold back to determine its option, or act with good leadership?

Something as small as taking a defensive position that has been well prepared, versus attacking en masse, can be a matter of leadership and make a big difference in the danger of the encounter. Some monsters may do this sort of thing naturally without needing obvious leadership, but in other cases you may have one group of, say, hobgoblins who have a good leader and act quite intelligently, versus a group without a (good) leader who act unwisely.

Some types of monsters will need leaders much less than other types. Some may need leaders and occasionally one is available (a renegade human?) while other times one is not. In the extreme you could assign a leadership value to a group of bad guys, from 1 to 5 with 5 being top leadership. Some kinds of monsters may not be able to have higher leadership barring unusual circumstances.

Think also of the situations you sometimes get in “dungeons” where a group is living somewhere and you ask yourself “why would they be crazy enough to live right next to a beholder” or something like that. This too might depend on leadership, and the groups with higher leadership scores are going to avoid the situation while the lower leadership scores would not.

Leadership also makes a big difference in morale. As you probably know, morale is more important in a battle than physical circumstances, or as Napoleon said, “the moral is to the physical as three is to one” and "two armies are two bodies which meet and try to frighten each other." The same applies for adventuring.

Your Turn: Do your bad guys have clearly defined leaders, and do they make a difference in combat?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
"something I don’t recall from the D&D 1E tables."

In 1e creatures like Orcs and Goblins listed leaders under the monster entry. Something like for every 12 encountered their will be a Sergent with max HP or for every 20 encountered their will be a chuef with 2HD. I am guessing the assumption was if you rolled 30 Orcs on an encounter you filled that number with the proper number if leader types.


The use/usefulness of leaders has certainly evolved along with the game. In 1e the Orc Sergeant was just the one who took 4 stabs to kill, rather than 3. Now there's enough variant "leader" options that DMs can choose what best fits their play style.
At first I just used leaders as "the big one", but some of my campaigns have used monster leaders as major NPCs. It's neat when the players can tell the difference between troops led by General [x] or General [y]

I know in night below there are leaders for orcs and goblins who are considerably more powerful than the rest. They also have a shaman.
So yes, it is not unusual to have a leader type monster. And also there were morale checks which became much harder once their leader dropped.
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Dances with Gnolls
To answer your inquiry, yes. I do tend to throw leaders in with my encounters. They can range from the 'might makes right', to the 'clever girl', to the Ulysses S. Grant of Orc-kind.

I would say they make varying degrees of difference in combat. Sometimes depending on whether - ahem- I am in a certain set of mind to use tactics or strategy.

"something I don’t recall from the D&D 1E tables."

In 1e creatures like Orcs and Goblins listed leaders under the monster entry. Something like for every 12 encountered their will be a Sergent with max HP or for every 20 encountered their will be a chuef with 2HD. I am guessing the assumption was if you rolled 30 Orcs on an encounter you filled that number with the proper number if leader types.

They most definitely did! If anything 1st ed had some of the most baroque leader tables under the character-type entries. Here's elves:

"For every 20 elves in a band there will be one with above average fighting ability (2nd, or 3rd level). For every 40 elves encountered there will be one with this fighting ability plus 1st or 2nd level magic-user ability. If 100 or more elves are encountered there will be the following additional figures: a 4th level fighter/ 8th level magic-user, two 4th level fighter/ 5th level magic-user elves, and a 4th level fighter/ 4th level magic-user/ 4th level cleric. If over 160 elves are encountered their leaders will be a 6th level fighter/ 9th level magic-user, and a 6th level fighter/ 6th level magic-user/6th level cleric; and these leaders will have two special retainers each -4th level fighter/ 5th level magic-user, 3rd level fighter/ 3rd level magic-user/3rd level cleric. These are also in addition to the group indicated. If encountered in their lair there will also be these extra figures: a 4th level fighter/7th level magic-user, a 4th level fighter for every 40 elves in the group, a 2nd level fighter/2nd level magic-user/2nd level cleric for every 40 elves in the group, a 5th level fighter, a 6th level fighter, and females and young equal to 100% and 5% respectively."

You can just see the 1979 DM trying to figure out if he should use the miniature with the wizard hat to represent the 4th level fighter/8th level magic-user or the 4th level fighter/4th level magic-user/4th level cleric.

Or more likely saying "there you go again, Gary" and ignoring it.

2e was pretty similar and in many cases had the same text. (For elves it was almost the same except that it dropped the figures at the end 'in lair', and noted that elven women were equal in combat and 5% of elf groups had 10-30 female fighters riding unicorns.)

By 3e they had started whittling it down a bit. We get three sizes of group: company (2-4), squad (11-20 + 2 3rd level sergeants and 1 3rd-6th level leader), and band (30-100 plus 20% noncombatants plus 1 3rd-level sergeant per 10 adult, 5 5th-level lieutenants, and 3 7th level captains), with the note that most elves seen outside are fighters but leader-types are most often wizards. "Wait, you mean I don't have to remember if there's a 5th-level fighter/4th-level magic-user or a 4th-level fighter/5th-level magic-user anymore?"

4e had eladrin standing in for the original elves with nominal elves being the wood elves (and coming in 2nd level archer and 2nd level skirmisher), but the eladrin gives us the wonderfully poetic fey knight (level 7 soldier), twilight incanter (level 8 controller), bralani of autumn winds (level 19 controller), and ghaele of winter (level 21 controller). Much as everyone likes to complain about 4e they really do sound like creatures of the woodland who weave magic into their war like they do into everything else.

5e has standard stat blocks for grunts and leader-types, which loses some of the flavor of "the monsters are just like you" IMHO but is probably much easier for DMs.
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Oh yes, I often use war party leaders against the PC. They tend to die really fast because the PCs zero-in on them immediately, hitting them with the hardest spells/abilities they have.

my favourite remains the goblin boss who can throw minions to take the blow in their stead.

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