Cut Off the Head…

Last night, one of my friends and I were discussing what happens when the spiritual leader of a group is killed. (Our reasons are by this point probably self-explanatory.) While people have often operated under the idea of “cut off the head, the snake dies”, I find the possible scenarios to be a lot more varied—and thus a lot more interesting. Note that for this I’m going to be focusing on symbolic/inspirational leaders, and what happens to the group, and I’m probably not going to get all the factors, just some of the major ones.

There were two things that we agreed on: that killing such a leader is almost guaranteed to produce a martyr (though we differed on the impact of such a result), and that any group so affected would be far likelier to seek something in the vengeance to justice range of results than to cease immediately to be a threat.

One thing to consider was how much of a practical role said leader actually plays in administration. The more they balance being inspirational with actually handling logistics, the more of a blow their loss is going to be in that respect, particularly if they handle things that they alone know how to handle. But the closer they go to purely inspirational, the less impact they’re going to have on the group’s logistics.

Is there a clear line of succession? If there’s an unambiguous successor, the reins might be handed off and business continue as mostly normal, particularly if the successor’s well-trained. If not, that still doesn’t mean the group’s going to fall apart; yes, it might if nobody’s got leadership potential at all (improbable), or if there are a number of strong candidates more determined that at least one of the other candidates not end up in charge, but if enough people are more concerned with the group’s survival than its succession, it’ll still at least function, and if there’s a lopsided contest with one person who has an advantage, we get to…

Is this the middle of a conflict? That’s going to make a big difference. If one’s just ended, even an unambiguous successor to a big shiny inspirational leader might fade into the background, because how are they going to demonstrate they belong in the big seat? But in the middle of a conflict, a definite successor, or someone who isn’t a definite successor but has enough resources to start making waves, will usually realize that the fastest way to ensure undisputed authority is to do something big, shiny and significant for The Cause and in the previous leader’s memory.

Groups bereft of their symbolic leaders aren’t necessarily the end of the story; as often as not, I find them to be yet another potential plot complication.


  1. Seth says:

    What’s interesting (in a roleplaying context) is that many settings, from fantasy to sci fi, present the possibility of having a leader die, become a martyr, then come back to lead his organization.

    That provides some interesting emotional and plot beats as well, since the process by which the leader is returned may alter his personality (usually for the worse) and create massive ideological shifts within the organization. You could use this both to provide a flip to a traditionally noble organization—the paladin who dies returns as an erratic, power-hungry revenant—or to make a monolithic antagonistic organization start acting in a more frightening fashion.

    Suppose you could even flip an “evil” shade by bringing him back as a changed, more heroic figure.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Excellent point; I’d been so busy with the politics (or so used to death-is-permanent sorts of worlds and games) that workarounds to the dead leader issue hadn’t even occurred to me.

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