Maddening Mechanics will hopefully be another semi-regular series that I put out (similar to Gaming Habits), where I talk about specific game mechanics in RPGs or card or board games that are bad by virtue of either being too powerful, too weak, or just not interacting well with the rest of the system. So today, inspired by a discussion that happened at my friend Ran’s gaming table, I will be discussing the d20 feat “leadership.”
Many of the problems with leadership can show up in other RPGs, as long as those games have some mechanic to allow the player characters to get multiple followers. For the uninitiated, the leadership feat gives a character a cohort (basically a second player character) and a group of NPC followers that ranges from a small team to a small army. There are a lot of issues that come up as soon as an ability like this hits the table, from the increased housekeeping that it requires on the part of both players and game master to balance issues and the potential for narrative dissonance.
The earliest a character can take the leadership feat is level seven. The level of your cohort and how many followers you have is based on your charisma score and your level. If taken as soon as possible by a character with a strong charisma score (We’ll say 16), the character will have a level six cohort and a group of five followers. By level 12, assuming no increases to her charisma score, the character has a 10th level cohort, 20 first level followers, two second level followers and a third level follower. The highest end of the scale gives the character close to 160 followers,which means you basically could run a very small village.
Well, the reality is that a lot of game masters don’t dig it. I don’t dig it most of the time, for a couple of reasons. I talked earlier about extra housekeeping, and effectively managing a large group of followers basically requires your game master to devote a lot of time to the game of “What are all of your extra hands doing for you?” Assuming your group does all of its resolution at the gaming table itself, this means your taking up a lot of everyone’s time playing SimCity with your village. Assuming you’re trying to get the most out of your followers, you’ll probably stat at least some of them differently than others. So, some players see this and they’re like “That’s cool! I can track that!” The thing is, your GM will need to look over it, as well as track what each group of your followers is doing, which puts a lot of extra strain on them. Remember, every minute you spend worrying about your level three expert is a minute not spent fightin’ in dungeons.
“Ok,” you might say, “Well what if I don’t care about the followers so much and just want the cohort?” Well, having an entire extra character is still more powerful than anything you can get from any other feat in the game, especially at level seven. Plus, adding an extra (techically non-)player character to the game adds an extra turn to combat rotations if its an adventuring character, or it really messes with the wealth distribution of your cohort is a spell caster who sits around making you magic items at half cost. So really, apart from being rather useless, there’s no way the cohort isn’t troublesome.
So am I saying that that no one should ever use the leadership feat? Well, no. I mean, I will, I firmly believe that no one should ever use the leadership feat. I think that the things that it represents are much better represented as the result of role play rather than something that is just picked up by taking a feat at a certain level. That does not mean that the mechanics set by the feat could not make an OK guideline if you wanted followers to be a feature in your game, it’s just important to make sure that including that element is appropriate to the game that you’re playing. What games are those? Well…
I have a friend who runs games with a very macro perspective. It’s generally understood that most of the players will take leadership, and most of the things that the players’ minions do are handled through a forum that was set up just to handle those sorts of things. Player management of homesteads, strongholds, and organizations is a cornerstone of the game and it’s understood to be a part of the group’s wealth and resources. The players also, in my experience, spend a lot more time traveling and building connections than they do exploring dungeons. It’s an interesting play-style that is not necessarily for every player, nor is it something every GM wants to run, but it’s certainly more conducive to using the leadership mechanics than your typical dungeon crawl.
With every GM, and in fact every game, having a character who runs a gang or a small army or a guild or anything similar will be different levels of appropriate. However, minion-based mechanics always have the potential to be troubling, so don’t be surprised if GM just says no.