The Four Roles in the Human Herd

This article was originally posted to but it’s relevant to some of the game design ideas that went into building Feyhaven Drunk & Disorderly, so it’s worth a repost.

The Four Roles in the Human Herd

In any gathering of humans there are four persistent behaviors that emerge as soon as the group is faced with an obstacle or a problem. These roles occur in groups as small as two and as large as a billion. They are persistent in the sense that if one person leaves the group, another immediately picks up the mantle. Age, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity are irrelevant.

In a sense, any group game is a problem, so the psychology behind the four roles is important to game designers.

The Leader

This person presents a solution. The Leader shows initiative, takes charge and tells people what to do. If there is no leader, one will emerge as soon as something needs to be done. Someone has to do it! In a poker game, the Leader is the one raising the stakes. In a dictatorship, the leader’s portrait is on the currency. If a group is playing a new game, the leader is explaining the rules. If no one knows the rules, then someone will be reading, interpreting, or house-ruling them. That’s the leader.

There can be multiple leaders, they may vie for power, but sooner or later a single leader will emerge. Depending on the size of the group this may take centuries of bloody conflict. In a smaller group, especially if it is friendly, leadership is determined by a dynamic and intuitive process – the herd will choose whom to follow. Smaller herds turn around faster than the big ones.

Leadership is not a static establishment. When problems change, so does authority through the interaction with the second role, the Dissident.

The Dissident

The Dissident questions the leader’s direction. The Dissident thinks he or she has a better solution. Whether the cure is actually better than the disease, is to be debated. Some groups are less tolerant than others to this kind of disruption; some are downright hostile to them (i.e. military chains of command, totalitarian regimes). Regardless of this, every group will have a Dissident. Exiling them, excommunicating them, even burning them at the stake is pointless: another person will step up to the plate. The Dissident and Leader are inseparable, like Ying and Yang, they cannot exist without each other. As long as someone is telling the group what to do, someone else will not be happy about it. Whether they voice this opinion in the open or work more covertly, that opinion will spread, whether the Leader likes it or not. In a poker game, the Dissident calls the Leader’s bluff. In a dictatorship, the Dissident starts a rebellion conspiracy.

The Follower

The Follower is not a brainless sheep to be herded. This role is more passive than the previous two, but is the most important in its own sense. The Follower gets to decide who the Leader is. The Follower is the silent (or loud and disorderly) majority. If the Follower joins the Dissident, it makes the Dissident the new Leader, and the old Leader takes the mantle of Dissident. In a poker game, the Follower decides whether to fold (letting the Leader have it), or to call, joining the Dissident. In a dictatorship, the Follower decides whether to rat the rebellion out or to join it.

When a group accepts a new member, that person is a Follower until they find their true calling. Any person unfamiliar with a game being played acts like a Follower until they figure out what’s going on and start making their own strategies. Being a Follower can be its own strategy – to a point. The point is usually sharp and pointy and ends in someone’s back.

The Clown

This person makes fun of everything. Unlike the Dissident, the Clown does not have a solution to the problem, just finds it hysterical. Like the Dissident, there is no stopping the Clown from doing what Clowns do. Clown’s wit can be aimed at the human condition, at the current situation, or at very specific people, the Leader, the Follower or the Dissident, or even at the Clown himself. The Clown is really good at derailing and distracting everyone from the real problem.

Thus, the Clown holds the power to sway the Follower (who is, in fact, making the decisions of the herd) to follow one person or the other. On a global scale, the Clown is the news and entertainment industry as a whole. In a family reunion, the Clown is that special uncle that every family has. In a game of poker, the Clown makes fun of people’s poker faces.

In a dictatorship, the Clown is complicated. Dictators tend to run propaganda campaigns aimed at their own goals with state-owned media companies. But bribing the Clown does not really work as intended: when the Clown becomes a Follower, another, independent Clown will sprout from the ground to provide alternative, underground news reports or sarcastic commentary, making fun of the “official” Clown among other things.

What Does It All Mean?

The takeaway for the game designer: let people choose their own roles, but don’t let them get stuck in them.
The process of the emerging herd behaviors is organic, so pigeon-holing someone, putting them on the spot to be the Clown or the Leader when they know barely enough about your game to be a Follower is not going to be fun for anyone involved.
As soon as the problems change, so does the dynamic of leadership. Expect the Leader-Dissident debate, expect the Follower’s double cross, and expect the Clown’s cheap laughs and distractions.

Giving players reversible choices that coincide with one of the four roles can make your game more fun, as long as the choice does not stick an unlikely hero in an awkward position for the rest of the evening.

Whenever the board’s strategic situation changes, so do the roles. The player who was the Leader the last Turn, might be the Clown in the next one, just because he doesn’t cope with being the Dissident very well.

How Was This Applied To Feyhaven Drunk & Disorderly?

There was a lot of playtest iteration done to deal with role switching. In Feyhaven Drunk & Disorderly, even though the skill and creature combinations are random, players have a finite amount of control over what they get to play. Even at the beginning of the game you can spend mischief points to draw extra cards if you don’t like your starting combination (“the mulligan”). When the going gets tough, you can walk out of the tavern, especially if you have bounties in play, and get a new brawler, a fresh start that gives you a new set of cards but keeps your mischief score.

Many opportunity cards were designed for counter-play: when you are a target, there are things you can do to react.

Last but not least, alliance cards are a good example of a prisoner’s dilemma and a finishing move all rolled into one. Each alliance card can change the situation on the board in a dramatic way.

Here’s an example.

Preview of Do You Trust Me card.

This is the card that you may give someone to save their bacon, or to finish it off. If you’re given this card, it’s up to you how to respond. The game absolutely allows you to collude with each other. “Ok, on the count of three, we’re going to wink. One, two, three!” And then you both smirk. Oops.