Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Revisiting callers and leaders in role-playing games

A month ago, I discussed the role of the "caller" in role-playing games. In my continued prodding of the rationale for the new school of gaming that calls itself Old-School (and the false claims that can go along with that title), I asked whether anybody used a "caller" in their games. It's in the earliest D&D rules, from Dungeons & Dragons: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (1974) to Gygax's Players Handbook (1978) and Moldvay's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook (1981), but did anybody use it, really?

I never did. I never knew anybody who did.

Obedience to the caller

The old idea of a "caller," for those of you who don't know, is that the Referee (DM, GM) interacts with only one player in the group who speaks for them all. The player group was expected to come up with a leader who would make executive decisions and abbreviate discussion for the entire group. The Referee would not interact with any other player directly!

Gygax, AD&D Players Handbook, actually has a section called "Obedience" (p. 106). It deals not only with hirelings but with "the leader and caller of a party" who "might order" a course of action. If a player doesn't cooperate with the leader, the DM will be "certain to penalize the group accordingly." As a player, you had to be obedient to the leader. Gygax does not spell out what the penalties would be, but presumably the DM starts to allow things to go horribly wrong for a disorganized and unmanageable party.

"Obedience" perhaps makes more sense when we remember that most role-players then were making a transition from tactical wargames that simulated command hierarchies and that a certain number of early D&D gamers were veterans of the US war in Vietnam or other wars, including men who had been drafted to serve in the armed forces whether they liked it or not. The US withdrew its last armed forces from Vietnam in 1973; D&D was published in January, 1974. Such players were used to working in tactical teams.

(To put this in perspective, every elder male blood relative of mine who was eligible to serve during the Vietnam war, including my father, did so: my father's brothers, my mother's brother. All lived in the Midwestern gamer-belt. At least two of them played Avalon Hill wargames, and one of them told me, when I was young and starting to play role-playing games, "I still prefer the old wargames. I just can't get into D&D." He showed me a bookcase with several shelves still full of boxed-up Avalon Hill games that he could not bear to throw out. When he offered some of them, I didn't want them.)

Callers today

To my surprise, several people responded to my query about the use of the caller, saying that they did use party leaders or callers in their groups to speed up decision making. This was news to me, because I knew countless gamers in the '80s and early '90s and nobody ever used a caller or a group leader. It would have been interpreted as favoritism towards one player and squelching both role-playing and player choice. No player would be "obedient" to any other. I have run games in which individual players forcefully persuade others of a course of action, but that is not a formal leader role.

That said, what the respondents to my query of last month have described is more like electing one player to "make a call" on a dilemma in the game, or to be an organizational leader. I don't think it means that the DM is a voice from behind a screen, like the Wizard of Oz, but who will only address one player of the entire group.

Too many players may necessitate a party leader

In the discussion following that musing of mine, we acknowledged that the earliest D&D games often had dozens of players for one DM. This would necessitate an organizer on the player side of the screen.

Gygax and Arneson wrote in their first D&D book, "Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts."

Imagine running a game for twenty players. Imagine playing in a group like that!

Evidently, they needed a caller with some large groups. I suppose that in the early days, when everybody wanted to try this new kind of wargame, but DMs were few, apparently they could expect twenty players per DM. I can't imagine playing like that. I might have asked them to elect a leader, too. Otherwise it would have been chaos.

The term "role-playing" had not yet even been coined for the hobby in 1974. I can't imagine there was a lot of actual acting out of roles in a room with twenty players. It must have been more like a tactical mission in which everybody had a team member plus hirelings. Hireling morale mattered a lot and had separate mechanics. That is the very reason that the Charisma score exists.

Now, if you want to get into "old-school dungeon adventure," this kind of play is as old as it gets. It's a tactical raid on a castle and the dungeon beneath it, all full of monsters and loot, in service of a larger drama of heroic individuals that emerged from ongoing sessions.

And that was how the hobby was in '74.

The written record on "party leaders"

This led me back to the earliest roots of the hobby, 1974 and 1975, when the sparks of fantasy role-playing were starting wildfires of imagination around the USA. I started playing late in 1981, only six or seven years later, but the hobby had mutated and developed drastically between '74 and '81 as a massive wave of new players took over the hobby. These new players, including many children like me, whom some of the older gamers called "munchkins" (after the little people of the Wizard of Oz) had an interest inspired primarily by the burgeoning of fantasy fiction and Hollywood adventure films, like Star Wars, and not wargaming.

By '81 there were many other games besides D&D and many new genres of game besides fantasy. If we forget all that and go back to '74 and '75, there are basically four main historical sources of rules in that first year of D&D's existence. (I don't have access to the early zines that probably discussed this, too, and I would not know where to look.)

1. The original three-book D&D set, published in January 1974. The third book, TheUnderworld & Wilderness Adventures, includes the role of the caller at the beginning of the "example of play" dialogue.

"The Referee’s part will be indicated REF, that of the “Caller” for the players being shown as CAL."

The game also includes a section on "Command Control," in which leaders make decisions for their units. The range of control is the leader's Charisma score, in inches, on the game board.

The combination of these two in the D&D fantasy wargaming rule-set strongly suggests that the role of leader derives from the older wargaming hobby, and that it was transferred, in dialogic games played without figures on a board, but only with paper and pencil, to the role of "caller." Gygax's AD&D Players Handbook mentions "the leader and caller" as one person with two slightly different roles.

2. Rules to the Game of Dungeon, released in a zine in late '74 by a fourteen-year-old fantasy fan in Minneapolis named Craig VanGrasstek. (The games historian Jon Peterson published it online after devoted sleuthing.) These rules are the product of a teenager who got the idea from a friend, who in turn met some of Arneson's Blackmoor players at a local wargaming convention.

Think about this: D&D was published in January 1974. Arneson's Blackmoor players had been playing in Minneapolis with informal assemblages of rules since 1972. One of these Minneapolis players ran a game for someone at a convention mere weeks after D&D was published, and three days later that guy, Louis Fallert, introduced VanGrasstek. By the end of that year, VanGrasstek was sharing his own home rules with his friends. This is how quickly D&D was spread and adapted near its source.

The Game of Dungeon by VanGrasstek contains many references to decisions made by the "party leader." The idea party leader was a priest, rather than a warrior or wizard. This makes it clear that Arneson's game must have had party leaders.

3. Tunnels & Trolls, published June 1975, essentially a radically altered home rule set by Ken St. Andre in Arizona. He had heard of the game in December of 1974 but had the chance to undertake a short study of the D&D rules set one evening in April of '75.

The first printing of Tunnels & Trolls, full of the whimsical humor typical of the game and its developers, ends with a poem entitled "Advice for Dungeon Masters," composed in mock-archaic language. It says,

"Give each player thine ear, but speak only to leaders / And those about to die."

This is an important testimony to a party leader practice that stayed with the hobby in its transplanted form. It strongly indicates that norms of play-style were transmitted to Arizona along with D&D rules, and that St. Andre, for all his game's originality, must have had more sources about actual D&D play than his available account suggests. Somebody must have described or demonstrated the role of the party leader to St. Andre.

Imagine that you are playing a role-playing game and the Referee hears you but does not speak to you except at a special moment: when your character is dying! That is a different kind of Referee.

4. Empire of the Petal Throne, by M.A.R. Barker, released in July 1975, was a fantasy game set in an extremely distant future on a world that had been colonized by humans and aliens and then yanked mysteriously into another, starless dimension along with its sun. Its rich setting came with rules very similar to D&D, although it included the first skill system and percentile stats.

The EPT book, under "Developing an Underworld," explicitly assumes players know the first three D&D books and the Greyhawk supplement, as well as issues of Strategic Review. As Barker explains, the players “have drawn up their battle order,” a wargaming feature usefully retained in RPGs until today, “appointed one of their number to make a map of the areas they will explore,” something that was absolutely regular in those days, “and have elected a leader to speak for them.”

There follows an example dialog of play in which the Player responds in first-person plural: "We take the stairs," etc., representing the entire player group.

5. Metamorphosis Alpha, published by TSR in 1976. A similar example of play occurs there. It says, "The referee’s part [in the dialogue] is represented as R, that of the “caller” (the player representing the group) is noted as C.

1981: Contrast these representations with the "Sample Dungeon Expedition" related by Tom Moldvay in the original D&D Basic rulebook (pp. B59-60). There, we find a party of just four players. One, Morgan Ironwolf, is the caller. Morgan's player "makes the call" on where to go and what to do as a group. "Then we'll listen at the door." "We'll take the side passage." But all players interact with the DM directly, requesting and receiving information about the environment. Of course, Moldvay was in touch with the first players, so he knew what he was representing. And Morgan Ironwolf was Tom Moldvay's own character! (More on that another time.)

All of these games come from the group that formed and worked at TSR except for The Game of Dungeon and T&T, both of which are early spin-offs. The existence of party leaders in the spin-offs suggests that it was really the normative style of play.

The "original" dungeon play-style: follow the leader

Imagine a group of twenty players, some with more than two player characters each. Every one of them who can afford it and has the requisite Charisma has hirelings. You may have a group of thirty or forty individual personae, each with stats on an index card and represented on a board by a figurine, invading a castle (like Castle Blackmoor or Castle Greyhawk) and raiding the subterranean depths beneath it. Like a modern haunted house at an amusement park, the world below these castles, or dungeons, is a funhouse of deathtraps and bizarre monsters invented by the whim of the Dungeon Master who had no authoritative Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master speaks only to one player who represents them all. One by one, some of the raiders fall prey to the inhabitants and the traps. Those who make it out alive, their adrenaline rushing, have defeated the dungeon and emerged with treasure to tell the tale. And they get ready to go back to the same dungeon in repeated expeditions.

That was D&D at the beginning. Players who hanker after "old-school": is that the "old-school" you want to revive? You shut up and follow the leader? It could be fun. It could be stifling.

Does anybody out there play this way? If so, where did you learn to do it that way? From books or living examples?


  1. It would be fun to run a game in which the player with the highest CHA is the caller. Force people to improve their dump stat if they want to be the group leader.

    1. We use a bunch of other player roles besides Caller (like the Mapper, the Note-taker, the Chronicler, etc.), and early on, roles were chosen in decreasing CHA order (now it's just "figure it out amongst yourselves, and tell me when you're done").