Who is the captain of this PC ship?

A long while back I ran a very short stint for Traveller using Savage Worlds. The group ran a freighter and while most important decisions came down to a vote, they opted to have one player always break a tie as the captain of the ship. Ultimately, that person had more say in what would be the next course of action, whether they took a job or not, would they try and pick up passengers, etc.

We might be doing a spin off occasionally with a game in the Star Trek universe where I’ll finally be able to sit at the table as a player (yay!). We haven’t sketched out too many details, but we are expecting to be Star Fleet enlisted (or officers). Something that’ll likely come about from this will be planning out how we all work together and who will be the ship captain.

This got me thinking about other campaigns, especially military campaign settings. If you have a somewhat formal chain of command, how could that work with most ‘democratic’ groups? I would expect your typical fantasy adventure company settles everything with a vote. If everyone decides to relinquish this to a single player, say a captain of a star ship, how well would this work in the long run?

Granted you could have plenty of opportunities to get feedback from the other players. Likely get their opinions on certain matters and then make a final plan of action. However some times I would expect you could have that burden of decision making shift to that one player, after all they are the captain. Other players might decide to let more tricky choices not be their responsibility.

You might end up with a player calling most of the shots for the group. Things go to pot, they might get more of the blame. Some players acting as the leader might not enjoy being the continual decision-maker for the group. Likewise it could be very easy for some players to slip into a passive role around the table, letting someone else think up solutions for tackling problems, i.e. ‘Hey, I’m just a grunt following orders.’

So how could this play dynamic be altered? Have the GM be the captain. You are the person that makes the final decisions. You are the one giving the orders. You can ensure that everyone gives you an opinion on a thorny situation, have them plead their case on a plan of action, and you choose the plan of action. Note that not all players have to be the same ‘rank’ as the others with the same weight. One might serve as the XO having a bit more pull with their say. Some might just be subordinates to other PCs.

A big plus for this is you can direct the flow of events for an adventure and give immediate tasks to the group. You can directly influence the general direction of an adventure. One major tripping stone with this is the danger of railroading. It could be very easy to slip into forcing the other players into a story they are not interested in. I think a key point of avoiding this is to provide plenty of opportunities for independent action and allowing players to offer opinions on tackling problems. Rather than telling players they need to beam down to a planet, find information on the situation, and negotiate with aliens to approve a trade agreement, a more open approach would be needed. Instead I might say that the Federation needs a trade agreement with these aliens. You all have to make this happen in 3 days, keep me informed and utilize any resource to make this task successful. This allows for players to be a little more creative with how they handle the problem rather than following a laundry list of tasks to complete.

Another alternative to this would be to run an antagonistic officer. This person is either incompetent or just does not like certain PCs and wants to continually put them into situations that will make them fail. Consider a classic WWII drama, The Caine Mutiny, as a potential source. What would the PCs do if continually given poor orders? Would they go through with a bad order that would put other people at risk? Or would they stand up to the captain and potentially incite a mutiny?

To muck things up even more, maybe you (as the captain) are a competent officer in peacetime, but freeze up in combat situations. Players might have to agonize over willfully disobeying poor orders, even though in other situations you make the right calls. What would be the potential fallout from that? Could that erode any confidence the captain had with PC crew members?

I’m pretty certain the next game I run that has room for one PC being the leader, I’m going to take over that role. I don’t think it would work for a long campaign (much better for short term runs). Certainly railroading could be an issue and something I’d have to have to watch out for. However having a little more control on the flow of events would be great, and having that not continually fall on one PC’s shoulders would be even better. I’d be interested in hearing how folks have run their military RPG campaigns.

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