Monday, May 25, 2015

On Callers

Callers (or party leaders) are mentioned throughout the earliest D&D materials, but it's a mechanism that's fallen by the wayside in most playgroups. I'm the only DM I know of that always requests designation of a party caller at the start of every game. I actually get more and more convinced of this element as time goes by. So: a compilation of thoughts on the party caller. Callers are:
  • Chosen by mutual consent or election by the players when the game starts.
  • Not a dictator, but the liaison to the DM if it's unclear where the party as a whole goes next.
  • Similar to the chairman of a committee: responsible for determining and reporting the party consensus (sometimes by calling for and counting a vote).
  • Analogous to a union representative, or a construction foreman; point-man for negotiating with the higher power.
  • Inoculation against a random dominant personality taking over in the middle of a game; front-loads the conversation about how decisions will be made, and gets explicit agreement/buy-in to follow someone diplomatic & supportive of the whole group.
  • Keeps the game from getting bogged down by in-character squabbling and indecision.
  • Relief from the tendency in a large group for someone to always have one more idea for something to do/question/search/look at before moving on from an area.
  • Generally important in exploratory mode, and takes a back seat in encounter mode (where we quickly go around the table for each individual's action).
  • More important the more people you have (e.g., as in the earliest games with 10+ players).
  • Insurance against splitting the party.

8 comments:

  1. When I running a group of 7-9 players, having a caller was fairly essential for communication...especially as we were gaming next to a fairly loud bar and it was a long table with me at one end.

    However, in smaller groups (probably anything under six), I'm not sure the caller is necessary or even ideal for smooth communication of intent.

    It would be nice if players would elect a "team leader" to address these other points you raise...that's something I've found lacking (at times) from the gaming table, and I've written about it before. But players seem resistant to the idea of having a chairman/foreman/facilitator, perhaps because they equate it to that "random dominant personality taking over the game."

    [unfortunately, there's more than one way for "dominant" types to sabotage or manipulate a game, besides having the loudest voice]

    I think Holmes thoughts on the Caller ring true:

    [from his review of Moldvay Basic in Dragon 52]

    'Organizing a Party, The Caller: I think this rule should have been thrown out. I put it into the first Basic Set because it was in the original invention. I have never seen a successful game where one of the players was elected caller and actually did all the talking to the DM. Usually everybody talks at once. The resulting confusion is much more lifelike; one can hear the characters dithering at the cross corridor as the monsters approach. “Run this way!” “Charge them!” “Get out of the way, I’m throwing a spell!” “Here goes the magic crossbow bolt!” “Not from the rear of the party!” “I’m climbing the wall!”

    'As the players learn to work together as a team, a leader will often evolve. I think it is more fun to always allow a character to call out his or her own action and see the consternation on the other players’ faces. Also, this encourages the shy player (yes, there are shy players!) to get into the swing of things. “What’s your halfling going to do?”'

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    1. Yeah, at this point I really couldn't disagree with Holmes more strongly.

      Since the DM's not a multi-tasking entity, having everyone talk at once does no one any good; it's just a waste of playing time. The DM needs to enforce the caller selection and special status during exploration, precisely because the gracious players who you want as caller won't force the issue at the outset.

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  2. The Caller seems to be something that everyone was familiar with back in the 70's and so no one really bothered to explain it in the material. Then, as time went on and table-top RPGs evolved, the Caller was basically dropped; now a new generation of folks are rediscovering the older systems, and when Callers are mentioned it seems alien to what they're used to. So, I think that the Caller has fallen out of favor simply because its role is not properly explained in the source material. Especially when it comes to the verbose Gygax, many things need clarification and a viewpoint that doesn't assume that the reader has sufficient background experience.

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    1. Great argument, I can totally buy into that.

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  3. John Bell over at The Retired Adventurer ( http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.com ) uses Callers in his G+ hangouts game, Necrocarcerus. I was a bit skeptical at first but it helps the game along quite a bit.

    He adds a number of other player roles too. You can find them in the current version of his house rules here: http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.fr/2015/03/necrocarcerus-12-finished-finally.html

    I'm particularly fond of Rules Coordinator and Quartermaster.

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    1. Well that's interesting! I'm not sure I'd want one player choosing the role (by virtue of Charisma), I'm finding it important for the whole group to buy-in and confirm that role. But I can see how he came up with that, intriguing.

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    2. I like the idea of every player having a metagame role, to help keep people involved and busy, and to divide up the load. I think the method of choice is kind of a side issue. (Although I can see it might be desirable to sometimes "shake up" the status quo and give players exposure to a different role now and then.)

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  4. I only have three players, so I don't have much need for a caller. Each of my players does have a job at the table, though.

    Lorekeeper: takes notes and keeps track of maps and other DM handouts.

    Quartermaster: keeps track of group possessions and the loot list during the adventure.

    Prop Master: helps with physical things at the table. I use the Escalation Die from 13th Age, and he advances it each turn, helps erase the battle mat and resets the marching order. I also have special dice for inspiration, advantage and disadvantage, so he passes them out as well.

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