Pick-up-groups (PUGs) are a fascinating phenomenon. Statistically speaking, if you take a bunch of random people and put them together, there’s a fair chance that on balance they’ll be a decent enough lot; nevertheless, PUGs manage to have a reputation for being generally unpleasant and incompetent.
Despite this, some people would rather join a PUG than go with a guild or regular raid group. I think this is often because PUGs dodge the requirements for commitment and relationship building that exists in formal groups, and thus often dodge the potential drama of these long-term establishments. Sure, PUGs often involve arguments and difficulties, but you can leave the group and it’s gone and you’re not left with any consequences, except maybe that a player you don’t care about and will never see again thinks you’re a jerk.
PUG leadership, however, is a bit different. I’ve seen otherwise quite good collections of players fail spectacularly due to bad leadership, and pretty dire groups of players overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through the work of a dedicated leader. In this I suspect PUGs are no different from any other human enterprise. Here’s a quick personal post-PUG peek at the issue.
Bad leaders or poor leaders?
There is, I suppose, a difference between a leader who is actively bad and a leader who is just not very good. In a PUG, both types tend to have the same result: a poor PUGing experience. The former is able to take a good group and make it fail, while the latter may take a reasonably decent group and do nothing to stop it failing.
Really, the most disturbing kind of PUG leader is the one who joins on the exact same assumption as most of the other PUGers: they’re there to get loot, PUGing is the only option available to them, so they’ll endure the experience to accomplish their goal. This is generally how most people, I’d guess, feel about PUGs. But if the leader takes this attitude then he or she is likely to be distant, noncommittal, poor at communicating, indecisive, and prone to indiscriminately blame other people for things that go wrong. Or worse, just whine and quit. I’ve seen so many PUGs fail this way that I tend to regard it as a 50/50 chance at best that any PUG I join will last more than ten minutes or past the first wipe – whichever is soonest.
Leaders that actually lead
Sometimes, you realise that a leader has put a lot of thought and effort into a group. He or she has carefully chosen each member by doing research – maybe a simple conversation to check attitude, or a gear and experience check, perhaps with a serious concern for group balance and synergy. Perhaps they’ve even enlisted a team of friends to help the selection process. They’ve got clear rules in mind and communicate them effectively to the group. They make firm decisions and stick with them. Sometimes you get a real battleaxe who thinks they’re amazing despite being WRONG about a strategy or decision or whatever, but that’s better than not making a decision at all. Sometimes you get amazing leaders who somehow manage to create and enforce a friendly atmosphere of courtesy and respect.
How? Because they take the job seriously, and commit to it, and do their very best – the antithesis, unfortunately, of a large number of prospective PUGers’ attitudes. Needless to say, PUGs would be better if everyone came with this sort of attitude – but again, isn’t this true of pretty much everything in life? And let’s face it, if you show up for a PUG ready to give your best and find the rest of the group asshatting around, you’re not going to feel inspired. How much harder is it, then, for a prospective leader to do the same in the full knowledge that all his or her hard work may still result in failure due to a lack of commitment or skill from the players themselves?
The not-leader dilemma
What if you join a pick-up-group and you’re not the leader, but the leader sucks? What do you do? Do you try and fit in as best you can, or do you take charge? Or maybe you just offer some input and assistance from the sidelines when it seems appropriate? These can be difficult decisions because no matter what you do, chances are someone is not going to like it. (Chances are, that someone is yourself!)
Generally I know how I’m going to act when I encounter such situations. But that puts me in yet another bizarre position. I raid with a group of friends who know me and respect me and listen to me. I’m a guild leader, and a raid leader, and have been for over four years – and before that I was a gaming club leader. In my university I’m well-known and highly regarded by both students and lecturers. In my own little Monkeysphere, I am somebody.
BAM! Join a PUG and I’m just another nobody. Nobody knows me, nobody expects me to be any more intelligent, accomplished or generous in attitude than anyone else in the group. As far as they know I’m just another asshat out to hoover up as much loot as I can with as little effort as possible. So why should they listen to me?
It’s a curious feeling, being the unknown.
In the PUG, anything I say is going to be viewed with the same suspicion as any other random PUGer. There’s rarely room for generosity of spirit or benefit of the doubt in these sorts of situations – trust has to be earned, and a PUG is a difficult place to do that. One mistake and you can lose most of your credibility. One success and you may be forgotten and discarded in the euphoria so that nobody listens to you for the next task.
The personal line
As for me – well, if there’s one thing I am pretty good at, it’s earning that sort of trust, establishing a rapport, and generally ingratiating myself to people based on what I judge their standards to be. That is the type of person that I am. But it still takes a lot of effort and careful judgement, and it can still go wrong, and there are still situations in which it’s just inappropriate. And still I have to judge just how far I’m going to go: just be polite and friendly and try to improve the atmosphere? Offer tactical insight – to the leader, or the specific players in need of it, or to the whole raid as humbly as possible? Or even, heaven forbid, stage a coup?
Naturally, the latter won’t really work in a PUG environment unless you’ve somehow managed to get almost the entire group to trust you implicitly and reject the previous leader entirely. Even if it does you’ll probably lose half the group. Which leaves people like me dancing the delicate steps of the Unknown Nobody trying to be a positive influence on a group without taking over and without stepping on anyone’s toes. And let’s face it, one of the reasons I do PUG is to get away from the responsibility of leading a raid group. Most of the time I don’t really want to get anywhere near the proverbial front of the room. Sometimes this means I’m willing to let PUGs die, but sometimes it means I’m willing to do a bit extra to help them succeed.
I guess at very least the original leader – good or bad – has done something I’m generally not willing to these days: found enough random people to make a coherent group for something. And for that I suppose I should be grateful.