The issue of one PC having authority over another has been something that has perpetuated through RPGs for decades. When I first created Duty & Honour, over a decade ago, it was something that was cited as a facet of the genre that would make it a bad game; something that could only end in disaster. With the recent success of Star Trek Adventures, there are once again GMs wondering whether a table can handle those fateful words “That’s an order!”
I think we can all imagine the scenario; one player, drunk on power, ruling over the rest of the table in a Caligula-esque reign of terror. Wielding ultimate power with increasingly bizarre demands that rip any agency or spotlight away from the rest of the group. Eventually, the other players either rebel (in character or out of character) or switch off to the game completely. And if challenged, what does the player say? They did nothing wrong, their character was in charge and that’s what they wanted to happen.
This is obviously an extreme example and one that might well be shining a light on deeper problems around the table than a game with a command structure, but it’s obviously something that we want to avoid. A more likely issue with a player character commanding officer (PC-CO) is that of spotlight time; if everything flows through the PC-CO then they are always going to be in focus, limiting the time that others can shine. This is obviously a case of good table and game management, but again, the verisimilitude of the setting can sometimes clash with the around table mechanics.
And finally, this verisimilitude raises its head again when it comes to the constant inclusion of a PC-CO. Star Trek has a long running joke about the entire senior command of a starship being sent on every dodgy away mission, risking dozens of years of Federation experience and training on a ‘simple’ science mission. If the PC-CO is in the middle of the adventure, who is keeping things ticking over back at base (or on the bridge?)
There is something remarkable in a game where the players have bought into a genre so much that they are willing to embrace the structure and style of it wholeheartedly. Simply referring to your PC-CO with an honorific adds so much to a game. It doesn’t have to be supplication either; a science officer reporting the results of a scan ‘to the Captain’ is still telling the rest of the table.
There are also some moments of roleplaying gold to be had; the rousing speech, the relationship between a plucky young recruit and the elder officer, a firm voice of authority delivered through position rather than violent power. It also frees up the players who are NOT the PC-CO to pursue some very different stories and developments. It creates another layer of differentiation and distinction. In Duty & Honour, the scenes that can be played out around the campfires of the rank and file are markedly different from those of the Officer’s mess – and they are unique to the lower ranks. The division provides for the creation of these two distinct crucibles of play and the game can be better for it.
Finally, and this might only be for some tables, it gives those gamers that are prone to ‘analysis paralysis’ an in-character method to solve it. When one character can say “Right, I’ve listened to what you have to say and this is my decision” and that’s that? Bliss…
So, how do you run a game with a PC-CO? Well, it starts with getting a complete buy-in from the players about the game. They have to understand the game they are about to play and the implications of that game. Most games with a PC-CO cannot run properly if the other PCs are in constant rebellion, or complaining that they can’t just wander off and do their own thing. The next thing is choosing the right player to be the PC-CO. Not everyone will want to do it – for reasons I’ll outline below – and not everyone is suited to it. Make sure that there is a degree of trust between the player and the rest of the table. Hopefully, this will be a consensus but it might not, and how you deal with that is something to consider (and the solution probably unique to each group)
Alongside this, you need to present the correct models of leadership and conduct for the PC-CO and the other players. Here, Star Trek offers us some great examples. Capt. Kirk is, of course, the archetypical adventuring PC-CO, where every problem can be solved with a two-fisted smash or a phaser. Capt. Picard has a more consultative style, heading to the ready room to hear the opinions of his command staff. Capt Janeway is a lot more no-nonsense crisis decision-making. What model do you want your PC-CO to take? (Hint: Be Picard initially…)
You also need to have the right game set-up in terms of personnel. First, you need a really good NPC First Officer (in Trek terms) or supporting officers in D&H terms. By creating a realistic, competent command structure, there is no problem with the PC-CO taking leave of his command to have a little adventure with some other chosen few from the crew. You also need to establish who the Superiors are within the game. Even the Captain of a Federation starship or the roving leader of a band of chosen men has to answer to someone higher up. This chain of command is vital, both in terms of providing interesting missions and keeping the PC-CO honest … and if necessary giving them a taste of their own medicine. Along with this goes the concept of accountability for the PC-CO. There is an old dictum in leadership; you can delegate authority, but never responsibility, and one of the unique things about this style of game is that one person is answerable for success … and failure. By emphasising this burden of leadership, you can present the PC-CO’s role as one that has as many downsides as it has benefits.
I’m not going to write about spotlight sharing techniques, handling conflict at a table or methods of creating games with multiple layers of story – there are umpteen different texts that address them. There is a good case in these games to examine the use of some safety tools, specifically Brie Beau Sheldon’s Script Change tool
If you’ve been hesitant about trying out a game with a PC-CO, have a go. Even a one-shot WW2 horror squad-based game can have that structure or a game with a Jedi and their padawans. If you can restrain your inner teenager from screeching “You’re not the boss of me!” you can have a great gaming experience.