Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Caller and Modern D&D

Somewhere along the way, Dungeons & Dragons dropped the "caller" role.  I learned how to play and run the game from the Moldvay Basic Rules back in 1981, and the caller was prominently featured - for each dungeon exploration session, the players were expected to pick someone to map, and someone to "call".  Moldvay defines the caller as "the player who normally tells the DM what his or her party will do, based on what the other players tell him or her".  Here's a description right from the introduction:

To avoid confusion, the players should select one player to speak for the entire group or party.  That player is named the caller.  When unusual situations occur, each player may want to say what his or her characters is doing.  The caller should make sure that he or she is accurately representing all the player characters' wishes.  The caller is a mediator between the players and the DM, and should not judge what the player characters should do.

When I've seen the role mentioned on the modern discussion boards, it's usually disparaged with that charming anti-establishment attitude that makes us 'Muricans so likable.  I don't need a leader.  No one needs to speak for me, I can speak for myself.  Don't tread on me.  You can't make me wear a COVID mask.  You're not the boss of me, and I certainly don't need a caller.  (If alignment was real, sometimes I think a sizable portion of our society would be "chaotic neutral".)

I now recognize I've been keeping the caller as a vestige from an earlier instance of the game.  I no longer have any 3rd or 4th edition books lying around, so I can't go see exactly when it dropped out of guidance on playing the game.  My sense is that as D&D shifted from 6-10 (rowdy) players to much smaller groups, it naturally fell out of vogue.  The 5th edition ideal is 4 players.  Nonetheless, I still see value and practical benefits in the role.

As noted by Moldvay, the caller is not a tyrant.  The role is a facilitator, to lead discussion among the players when group decisions need to be made.  It's more of a scrum master rather than a project manager, if you happen to be in the tech world and can appreciate the analogy.  Since I mainly run exploration games, the players need to spend time at the start of each game session aligning on a course of action.  The caller is the one who frames the options and collects feedback from the other players, soliciting opinions and votes and bringing the group to a consensus.  When discussion and planning have ended, they signal to me play is ready to proceed and the caller relates what they're doing.  During combats, where the 5E initiative order is based on the individual, the players narrate their actions in order, but even then, the caller might kick off a discussion about major tactics and coordinated actions if the players are conflicted.

My home games have involved dads and kids for well over a decade (although now the "kids" are all graduating from high school) and being named party caller puts a player into a spotlight role and gives them the chance to develop group leadership skills.  By shifting the role each week, it ensures even the quiet players get a chance to be the center of attention.  This was particularly useful when the kids were younger, so the dads didn't dominate all the decision making.  It made the dads act more as advisors.  So although the caller role is a legacy feature, it still maintained its utility.

Finally, it gives the referee a break.  I rarely need to ask the players "which way are you going at the dungeon intersection, or what are you doing next" because there's a caller there already doing that for me! "Guys, looks like we can go left or right at the dungeon intersection, let's figure out what we're doing?"  It takes a lot of energy to run a game, and it helps you stay a step ahead of the action when one of the players is expediting the group decisions.  It gives the referee a breather to get the next set of descriptions right or consider some upcoming dialogue, or reflect on how to adapt the situation due to player activities.

I'm ending this post with a a thought triggered by dusting off the Moldvay book.  That Basic Red Book from 1981 is still arguably the best way to learn how to play D&D, run the game, and build dungeons.  Like so many people involved with the basic D&D line, Tom Moldvay's influence is really underrated.  In another 15 years when I'm considering retirement, I'd be happy to run classic D&D with my fellow geezers somewhere using nothing but those Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Rules.  While I've got several personal copies stashed away for the future, I'd love to see WOTC make them print-on-demand or republished when D&D turns 50 - I guess that's 2025?  Probably too early to start a write-in campaign for it.  


  1. John, this is exactly the kind of thing I have been looking for about the present-day successful use of callers! Thank you for sharing.

    In my own blog, I was just citing J. Eric Holmes, the one who did the D&D Basic edition before Moldvay's, about callers. In 1981 he wrote, "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."

    It seems that dissatisfaction with callers was not just an American thing, too. In the first issue of White Dwarf (UK, summer of 1977), a player wrote about problems with D&D that, "A major cause of boredom amongst D&D players is the practice of going round in parties of 6 or more. Generally one or two players make all the decisions while the rest get bored and often disrupt the game with side conversations and so on." His solution was to let non-callers play some of the monsters in combat situations!

    I guess it's a matter of preference in the group. Hearing lately from different players about callers and caller-like roles, though, I am really thinking of asking my family players to try it. I bet you're right that it will help the kids to take charge when there are grown-ups in the group.

    About the geezer red books, the ones you show are the ones that I started with, too. I still get a shiver from the Erol Otus covers. I have two copies of the Moldvay Basic book and one really tattered older one, as well as the blue Expert. But here's the thing. I actually tried to convince my son to try the Moldvay Basic (in my more intact copy) and he took one look at it and shook his head. He said his friends would never play with it. It lacks the high-polish presentation that his friends now expect from D&D. The image matters a lot to these kids.

    1. I was surprised by the Holmes quote! It's true the caller might exacerbate boredom in an overlarge group; the goal is to shift the work of bringing the players to consensus back onto themselves. I think you'll find with the family game it'll help build more confidence with the kids, particularly if the adult players are supportive.

  2. People like the pictures too. It's an unfortunate reality. But that's why we have things like Old School Essentials I suppose, which looks nice & modern. The kids might give that a try.

  3. We've been considering having a caller-like player role. With 9 players, a lot of decision-making and combat turns have dragged just because there are so many people involved. We've noticed our sessions have been just as long, sometimes a little longer, but we're not quite getting as much done. Having someone to sort it all out before the GM gets involved might help, so we'll give it a try.

    1. Peter - I don't think the caller will speed up your sessions. However, instead of you having to do all the talking and bring a group of 9 to a consensus plan, you'll have a designee (and that lets you focus on what's coming next and take a mental breather while they hash things out). That's quite a large group!

  4. I recently started running 5e for a group of new players and found that they did not naturally select a leader. I introduced a caller rotation and it's helped a lot to teach the basic RP skill of "think about your actions in the context of others"

  5. I asked a question on about this a while back and got some interesting further reading:

    Callers haven't worked for my games, but the naturally extroverted players typically work something out to speak for the party.

    1. Thanks for the stack exchange link, it was an interesting discussion. I would agree the smaller 5E games don't need a caller, although I bet most tables have that extroverted player(s) that take charge and gets everyone aligned on decisions.

      By making it an official role, you can move it around the group (although I do find the extroverts still extrovert). The caller doesn't make the game any faster, but does give me some breathing room while they do their planning.

    2. I can see the benefit, but i have a hard cap at 6 players (we were burned by the time it took to get anything done in 12-player 3.PF games), so i usually don't have a terrible time without one. I think it really depends on the group.

    3. I like the idea of using it to help kids learn to lead though, that is a great tip!

  6. I always use a caller in my games. I primarily play online and managing even a small party of 4 players can be confusing as people talk over one another, sound quality degrades, and no one can see each other to pick up on body language and physical cues.

    As has been mentioned earlier, a caller actually slows down gameplay, as players need to interface with one another before presenting their actions to the GM. some parties get frustrated with this and just try to talk to the DM directly. However for me, the bonuses outweigh the drawbacks.

    Involving a caller role forces the players to interact with each other instead of solely with the DM. A lot of the D&D play style is having the players wait until it is their "turn" to talk to the DM. with a caller, that "turn" never comes, and instead the players are in constant collaboration before the caller then talks to the DM to move the game forward. As has been mentioned earlier, this delegates one of the DM's responsibilities to the player party, and makes it easier for the DM to run the game. It also makes the individual players feel like they get more time being involved in the game. They may not get as far in the dungeon, but they spend more time talking and interacting with each other.

    Delegating the party management aspect of the game to the actual party also frees the DM to focus on the story. Instead of constantly breaking the fourth wall to ask each player where he or she is at, the DM can focus on conveying the story, describing rooms and locations, and playing NPCs. It frees the DM to roleplay as well.

    I have a hard time explaining the role of a caller to a party, especially a party of strangers online. So I give a basic description, and then I say that we will use it, and I let the players figure it out. And then the players do, and find their own, unique way of incorporating the caller role.

    A caller also actually speeds up combat, since there's no need to go around the table asking for mundane attack actions, and everyone can roll at once to resolve combat quicker.

    I prefer games with a caller and I think its a hidden gem of D&D design that has been forgotten (or actively ignored) by the modern RPG community.