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Wednesday 9 October 2013

"Leaders" and the Real Social Dynamics of Gaming Groups

Hello, faithful readers.  Over on therpgsite, we had a thread where someone posted a subject too interesting to pass up.

Here's the relevant section of the original post, talking about whether there should be 'leaders' in a player group:

"Few months ago I bumped into a forum discussion by game designers where they were wracking their little brains on ways to prevent the dread occurrence of the group having a leader.

As far as they were concerned having a group leader was apparently akin to having a group rapist or something. The players should not be stifled and railroaded by these vile commanders of their fate. So they were coming up with game rules to prevent anyone from becoming the leader. Didnt matter if it was a board game or RPG.

So I've seen that before too.  Its a common mentality among fashionable game designers and other various Swine alike.

See, the problem is that these are people who've gotten a little bit of most shitty modern education, and have been taught by gramscian socialist college professors that "authority inherently implies illegitimacy".  In other words that we have to at all times implement social rules that DISCOURAGE rather than encourage people from becoming leaders or standing out. That what you want is to try to gradually weed out of humanity any tendency toward individual achievement, much less the notion of one person being better than others at things, because then they might get it into their head that they're better in general as people!

So like good little drones following their programming from poli-sci or phil or soc or comp-lit 101, they're trying to apply this notion that "leaders are bad" to all levels of society, right down to gaming tables and other meaningless venues of social activity (because the change must be gradual but profound to all levels of western civilization so that its collapse can be assured; because of course western civilization is the ultimate illegitimate authority!).

The fact is that Reality is the exact opposite of what they're pushing (that's always been socialism's single biggest problem)!  Human beings tend, at all time, to want leadership. And when they haven't been brainwashed into handing over said leadership to the Central Committee (and even then!), what they want is to figure out the natural hierarchy: there's someone who's an alpha, there are betas (seconds-in-command), there's a whole shitload of 'gammas' (people just along for the ride) and there's an omega (the one at the bottom, the one that gets picked on).

In my old blog I wrote a whole series of entries about this, about the qualities of the Alpha gamer, the Beta gamer, and the Omega gamer; the conclusion I came to is that the GM had damn well better be the Alpha of the group, and this is the most important. Second most important is that there needs to be an Omega, believe it or not. A group where there's one person who (usually unbeknownst to himself) is kind of the loser of the group, the one the rest of the group can either have a chuckle at his antics or complain about his goof-ups, is in my long experience a more stable and healthy long-term group than one where there isn't someone like that.

Thirdly, the group needs one or more Betas: someone who is competent, and isn't "just there for the ride" like most of the group will be, but is the hardcore player that will always show up (and usually always on time), will pay the most attention to the game, will know the rules sometimes better than the GM and act as a helper in terms of referencing and arbitrating rules, will subtly or openly get the rest of the group's act together (getting them to pay attention, helping them to make decisions), and will do all this without trying to usurp the GM's place or power.

In the set up quoted above, the 'group leader' would be the Beta. In my experience, he's not always thought of as the 'leader' by other players, or even to himself.
Shit, in my experience, players often want to imagine they're all lone wolves and an autonomous mass of rugged individuals that defy all social structuring because they're so cool.

Notwithstanding, the fact is, in almost any group I've seen the above hierarchies apply; and when they don't (when there's no beta to keep the group on-task, or no omega to help the group hierarchy feel defined, or when some player really wants to challenge the GM for the alpha spot) that's when you have fucked up gaming groups that are not long for this world.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4K Collection Canadian + Image Latakia


  1. I usually game with friends - not Alphas, Betas or Omegas... o_Ô

  2. Well, in any group, this will form pretty naturally, and for different roles. I guess I see it more as a technocratic thing:
    Some players are good at coming up with bluffs and speeches, some add colour or humour, one guy always brings snacks and one guy is good at tactical planning.

    As long as you avoid the people who can't share the spotlight, it's all good

  3. The fact that you game with friends doesn't mean that any human group doesn't automatically have innate dynamics. You seem to think its an either-or situation but its not.

    1. The innate dynamics of a given group are much more complicated than the alpha/beta/other scheme you propagate - at least if we are speaking of adults. And if you define a need for leadership for the players, instead of the characters, I don't believe I ever saw this working longer than 1-2 sessions before the group was done for even as a non-adult, back in the days...
      But I have limited experience in this regard - as I said, I tend to play with friends, and the simplistic model doesn't work there (or ever, probably).

  4. 25+ years of running very long-term gaming groups of diverse makeup disagree with you there, Rorschachhamster. However, I think that perhaps the mistake you're making is in thinking this is somehow openly "defined"; are you envisioning a scenario where the group sits down and someone says "ok, you're the beta player, and this guy here is clearly the omega player, etc..."?
    Because that's not what happens. I would imagine a group where someone (or everyone) sat down and declared such a thing probably wouldn't work well at all, sure; but no one is talking about that. We're talking about unspoken dynamics that emerge as a group gets to know one another and unconsciously establishes hierarchies.

  5. What a stupid way to go about things. Just let things emerge naturally. Players will find their dynamics in different situations. Emergent order is the way to go. Viva anarchy!

  6. Well again, emergent order is precisely what I'm talking about here. I don't think there's any way you could do a forced order; you can't just say to a guy "you will be the beta player" or something like that. I'm talking about how to UNDERSTAND emergent order, and how its important.