Being A Leader Without Being A Boss

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re a game designer who, having spent most of your time doing solo work, have found yourself with a little bit of money, and a team. You’re probably also a lefty type, and might be having a little anxiety around the role of a Leader within your new found flat structured non-hierarchical tabletop design collective and coffee shop. Not to fear! While there’s a lot to learn, being a leader is not as bad as people make it out to be. Here’s my quick guide to bring a good project leader, and how to do it without being an enormous prick.

First of all it’s important to understand what exactly your role in this is. However you find yourself holding the reigns of a larger project, nominally responsible for pulling everything together, your job is now to shepherd the project to completion. Lets see what that entails


Above all else, regardless of how you distribute individual tasks, your job as a project leader is all about custodianship. While everyone else is busy with their own work, doing the art, the writing, edits, whatever else, it’s your job to keep the big picture in mind, and advocate for the sake of the project itself. Your job is to know what the project needs, and to funnel resources towards those needs. Your duty isn’t to any individual within the group, just as no individual in your team is responsible for your job; your duty is to the project as a whole.

Don’t get it twisted, you are not a dictator. Your role is not to declare every detail of the project and watch over your teams shoulders to make your vision come to life. A good leader trusts their team with their expertise. Your artists should have final say on the art, writers should be trusted with the words, etc. – while balancing that with trust in yourself as a guardian for the project.

This advocacy role often creates tension within a team. Finding ways to navigate difficult social situations, maintaining a mutual respect for each other, and keeping the project on track is not always easy. This goes double for flat orgs, where each member is encouraged and empowered to make enormous contributions to the soul of the project. Ensuring everyone has space to do that while keeping an eye on what’s best for the project is likely to be one of the harder tasks you’ll have as the head of this ship. I manage this two ways – first of all, the aforementioned faith in my teams abilities. The entire reason I’m working with these people is because I trust them to be the very best artists and creatives for this project. I know, through this faith, that if my artist suggests using such-and-such reference materials, or such-and-such coloring, or such-and-such inspiration, even on elements outside their regular purview or on topics I personally consider “done”, their input is valuable as gold.

Secondly, I make sure to have as many open floor creative discussions as possible. Bad ideas come up, ideas that don’t quite fit the project, or proposals for unhelpful directions come up, and it can still be hard to disregard those, especially from a close friend or respected co-worker, but by inviting many voices, many times, over a long period of time, those bad feelings tend to evaporate as more opportunity for input opens up, and seeing more input develop into the project itself creates trust and faith in the team that their experience and expertise are valued. Simple, right?

Bottom line is, your job is to be a voice for the work. It’s your job to make sure it is completed on time, and has the highest possible chance of success. This sometimes means upsetting people on your team, making tough calls, and stepping outside of your comfort zone. It sometimes means taking control of a situation when you’d rather not, and sometimes means yielding to more experienced hands. Your team is putting their trust in you to make sure their work isn’t for nothing, and that you won’t exploit them. That leads us neatly to…


NOTE: I will not be going over how to get your hands on capital in this section. If you want advice on crowdfunding or pre-funding or whatever, hit me up, but such questions are outside the scope of this article.

You have to make sure everyone gets paid. There is no ifs, ands, or buts about this. There is no edge case where denying someone their wage is ok, no extenuating circumstances where delaying or skipping payment is acceptable. There are plenty of options for how to pay people, plenty of alternatives to upfront, cold, hard, cash, but in every instance, in every circumstance, your job is #1 to Get People Paid. That is literally the only reason people afford you the authority to make choices for the project – because you show yourself, or promise yourself, to be someone who will put bread on their table.

Even when you’re working with close friends, even when you’re working on a big passion project that is so so important, even when all else falls apart; if you fail to get people paid, you’re not a leader, you’re a parasite.

So how do you do it?

I mean practically it’s very easy – you learn the rates of your co-workers, you examine the budget you have available, and you engage in open and frank discussions about the friction between these two data points. Do not skim off the top, be overly penny-pinching, or try to hide your own restitution to bargain for a “better deal”. This enterprise you’re engaging in is for the benefit of everybody involved, and negotiations around pay must be done with an eye to this dynamic if you want to keep your coveted Communist badge on twitter.

Here’s a list of some of the things you’re gonna have to do.

  • Figure out what platforms is easiest for everyone to receive payments – this is especially important if you run an international outfit
  • Figure out how and where everyone likes to receive payments
  • Maintain regular royalty payments through the project
  • Earmark funds for needed project elements
  • Maintain solid knowledge of incoming and outgoing finances
  • Pay for needed equipment
  • Pay third parties, such as printers or contractees for their work
  • Maintain a healthy budget sheet so that the next point isn’t a petite mort
  • Do The Fuckin’ Taxes

That’s not even everything, but you can maybe start to see why it’s good to have an accountant. If you can’t do the above tasks, you need to develop a very trustworthy relationship with someone who can, because this is a *must*.


Of course you have to keep everyone focused, keep morale high, and keep the project going. Some of this comes under the Custodian role I mentioned, but a lot of it doesn’t. It’s not very sexy, and you’ll never win an ennie for “Most organized TTRPG Project”, but good organization is literally the only way you’ll ever publish anything ever. Jokes. Kinda.

You need to know, and enforce, deadlines. That is never fun, but you have to, otherwise people will not know what to do or when to do it. Your team mates are not psychic, they have entrusted this power to you and expect you to use it.

You will need to set direction. You’re likely the only person on the team invested enough and aware enough of the big picture to do this. You will have to, periodically, drop in and let everyone know where everyone else is at and what is expected next.

You will have to analyze your current situation and constantly develop new moves based on what’s going on around you.

You will have to formally set tasks to people and weave together everyone’s commitments, deadlines, and due dates into a single coherent, mobile, beast.

You will have to check in with people who’ve clocked out regularly. You will have to chase up absentee colleagues and you will have to figure out what to do when people vanish.

You will need to keep your foot on the pedal, metaphorically speaking.

I’m not listing these all dramatic style to scare you. I’m trying to give these tasks the gravity they deserve. This is not busywork, or beneath your great creative mind. These are the nitty-gritty practical day-to-day needs of a project, and without them it really doesn’t matter how cool your ideas are, there will be no book, or game, and there will be nobody to buy it.


I’ll keep this one brief because I think each group’s approach to PR is gonna shift dramatically depending on what they’re doing and who is in the squad; but for the most part if you’re running the show, you’re likely to be interacting with the public in a way that represents all the people working alongside you. Don’t fuck that up.

If someone on the team is better at social media than you, it’s not a bad idea to see how interested they’d be in handling at least some aspects of this alongside you. Best if you can get everyone doing some degree of this but nothing’s perfect.


Since everyone else is busy doing the creative work you’ve set them to, nobody is on the lookout for things like licensing opportunities, collaborations, chances at cross promotion, etc. You have to be doing that. You can do it actively, or passively. You can grind away chasing down leads and networking, or you can just notice people seem to want pins and hit up your pal who did a pin kickstarter to make some pins for your game. But it’s you. Encourage people to bring stuff to the table, and enable your teams own hustles with whatever parts of the beast they’re carrying away, but you’re the project’s advocate, after all.

And everything else

A cold and difficult fact is that the above is maybe 50% of what a good non-dickhead Leader gets up to. Bosses see these duties as annoyances, or hire secretary and assistants to offload them to get back to the “Fun Stuff”, writing or whatever. A good leader knows that these tasks are vital to the work, and that they have been entrusted with great responsibility by people who rely on them for their livelihoods and their futures. A good leader also recognizes that they’ll probably be the first person up when something new comes up and nobody really knows what to do next.

That’s one of the hardest things about being a good leader – you have to step up. You have to be brave enough to fill space where others have been hesitant or reluctant. This is tough for so so many reasons – you don’t want to upset anyone, or overstep your bounds, or take on Even More Fucking Work. I get it, and you should listen to these concerns. Leaders who don’t quickly find themselves isolated and Burdened, arrogant and frustrated and seeing every poke and prod from the team as irritants. This is bad! Being the one who has to step up does not mean you have to kill yourself for a project any more than you’d make your artist overwork themselves. Reach out to the team and delegate, even tasks that seem yours. This too, is your job.

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