Ethos Building

When identifying roles in a party of roleplayers, one that inevitably rises is the “Face,” the character who does the talking for the party. The identified leader of the party is often decided by player, rather than the character. The truth is that being a leader in any given situation is a question of the ability to have a plan, envision its execution, and then deploy the plan, using the resources at hand. As a result, every character has the potential for some spotlight time as a leader, if they can identify their own power base and leverage it to establish their ethos to the other characters, as well as any NPCs that may be part of the plan.

Aristotle lists three different kinds of rhetorical argument. The pertinent one today is called ethos. Ethos was an argument about character – specifically, the elements of a speaker’s character that made them credible on the topic at hand. For the classic rhetoricians, it had to do with the quality of your reasoning skills, but a broader interpretation could look at the different bases of power that anyone can draw off of. A full range of the bases of power can be found at Wikipedia, but there are four that PCs can look to. I have shortened, folded, and spindled these concepts for ease of use in a gaming setting.

Personal Power – Referred to in the text as “personal reward power,” this is the sort of power we normally associate with the “face” PC. Personal power has to do with being able to offer people personal approval and them acting on that offer – in this case because you’re just so darned charming. High levels of personal charisma and training in social skills have taught you how to get people to crave your good opinion. Perhaps people follow you because speak convincingly of tremendous human achievement (“Ask what you can do for your country”), or maybe because they believe that you will appreciate their efforts, wherever you may be headed.

Position Power – this is normally called “legitimate position power,” but for our purposes legitimacy can be a little ambiguous. Position power is power derived from, well, your position – nobility, military rank, or a leadership posting in a guild, legitimate or otherwise. Position power gives you access to resources and personnel. Even if you don’t have a silver tongue, if you can call on horses for your party, or your battle brothers to bolster you in an hour of need, you have solutions to problems, which is the first step in being a leader.

Expert Power – There is power in being the gal who knows how things work. Oftentimes, the PCs who invested all of their skills in knowing what it is the party is looking at simply serve as exposition machines for the GM. But a quick glance at how high-intelligence characters can be portrayed – Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes – show something important: within that massive filing index of facts often lies the answer to the problem the party is facing. In gaming terms, this requires a little more cooperation between the player and the GM to enable a knowledgeable character to use their knowledge, rather than play a game of telephone from the GM to the other players.

Referent Power – It is not always necessary to be the leader of a group in order to make use of its resources. This power base is more likely to appear in games where the PCs spend most or all of their time in a single primary location – the allies you collect, by means of fellowship in a group or simply by building a circle of people you know – are, in fact, a resource, though it can seem callous to say so. We don’t generally think of our friends that way; however, we also don’t have to deal with life-threatening challenges as regularly as the average PC. If you’ve been keeping notes, as I advised, just having in your notebook the two or three NPCs that can help the party navigate the problem makes you a problem-solver, and a problem-solver is a potential leader.

Now, not everyone wants a leadership position, though most of us want to be heard from time to time. Learning to leverage your power intelligently is what builds your ethos – it makes you credible and increases the likelihood the party will listen to you the next time you have a crazy plan that just might work. A strong personal ethos means that you don’t have to be in charge all of the time, but when you open your mouth to speak, everyone’s going to listen.


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