Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Callers: They Ain't Just for Square-dancing

I've often wondered if everyone in North America was subjected to square-dancing in school, or if this was just a special torture reserved for kids growing up on the Canadian prairies. While the rest of the world was boogying to Stayin' Alive and Disco Star Wars we poor adolescent wretches at Sutherland Elementary School were lined up in the gym, and ordered by the Caller to 'Bow to our partners, and bow to our corners.' It was an awkward affair; nervously clasping the clammy hands of the girl next to you and shuffling through the steps like the walking dead. Inevitably, at some point during the dosie-do, my arm would brush her budding bosom and I'd die of flaming embarrassment under her outraged glare.

For some reason, the Saskatoon School Board thought that square-dancing was a vital skill that no child should grow up without, though I've never actually seen or heard of anyone square-dancing ever since, for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have much fonder memories of Callers in my early D&D games. The caller, for those who started playing with later editions, was a player designated to interact with the DM on behalf of the party. This is a role that has fallen by the wayside in contemporary play, and I've heard it argued that the Caller was an artefact held over from the earliest days of D&D when twenty or more players supposedly played at once. I don't buy this. Our group always used a Caller, even though we usually only had four players not including the DM, and we found it damned useful. Furthermore,the example of play in the Holmes edition rule book, which I started the hobby with, features dialogue between the DM, the Caller, and the Players. Likewise, AD&D's Dungeon Masters Guide also has an example of play with dialogue between the DM, the Leader, and Other Characters. So clearly a Caller or Leader was assumed to be a normal part of play in these days.

We often divvy'd up responsibilities among the players: one would serve as caller, another as mapper, a third kept track of the treasure, while the fourth recorded everything that happened for future reference. So every player had a hand in keeping the game session organized and well-documented and it worked really well.

It's been many years since I've had a caller at my game and I really miss it. I don't think anyone who hasn't sat behind a DM screen can really appreciate how much multi-tasking the beleagured Game Master has to do, and how difficult it is to pay attention to everyone, particularly when everybody is talking at once. Try as I might to encourage everyone to wait patiently and state their actions one at a time, as soon as things heat up and people start getting excited everyone wants to be the first to announce their actions.

DM: Okay, Ragnar, the orc hits you for four points of damage.
Player: But I drank a potion of invisibility and ran across the room.
DM: What? No you didn't!
Player: Yes, I did. I told you, remember?
DM: Was that what you were muttering while I was talking to Bob?
Player: Yeah!
DM: Sucks to be you. Next time wait until you have my attention. You're standing in front of the orc, bleeding from four points of damage.

Another frequent point of confusion is when the party engages in a lengthy discussion about what to do next. I use this time when the players are talking amongst themselves to review my notes, check the map, prepare miniatures for the next encounter or look up a rule in the book. I am NOT paying the least attention to what the players are saying. My assumption is that when the players figure out what they want to do someone will explain it to me. Instead they say, 'okay that's what we're doing,' and look at me expectantly as though I've been hanging on their every word for the last five minutes of debate.

Here's where the Caller comes in. Having one designated player interact with the DM means that he will always have the DM's undivided attention while he describes what the players want to do and explains their plan succinctly and unambiguously. This means that no one ever gets stuck on the end of an orc's scimitar when they intended to be hiding invisibly on the far side of the room, and that the DM has a thorough grasp of the party's plan.

It is interesting to note that the DM's guide refers to this player not as the Caller, as Holmes called him, but as the Leader, which is a subtle difference and implies that the role extends to more than just being the player's voice to the DM. I've never played in group where one player was designated as the leader, per se, but as I've been studying The Art of War, it has become apparent to me that it would be beneficial to have a designated leader, not only to serve as the caller, but also to ensure that there is someone paying attention to the party's overall resources and deciding when it's time to rest and to make sure that every player's opinions and ideas are heard rather than allowing one alpha-player to dominate the rest, as I've seen happen in certain groups.  A leader might not be necessary for all groups, but I think it would go a long way to ensuring that the players and the DM are all on the same page and the party never again wipes because no one was aware just how low on hit points and spells the whole group was before going into that boss fight.

Now, I give you music to boogie to, courtesy of the 1970's.  May square-dancing die a grisly death.


Shane Mangus said...

I have never square danced...

As for the caller, I can say that thinking back on all the gaming groups I have been part of over the years it does seem like we divvied up the various responsibilities, so we had the mapper and there always seemed to be one person who seemed to become the leader of the group. I am not sure this was something we ever thought about or planned. It just sort of happened. Human nature I guess...

Sean Robson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Robson said...

I have never square danced...

Then you've probably never tried to pick up girls at a family reunion, either. But don't go thinking that makes you better than me!
(I am kidding, by the way, I've never even been to a family reunion :})

I am curious though, how much is dividing up the roles in the party innate need to organize and how much was informed by those examples of play in our early rule books? I'd also really like to know how many groups still use a caller and how many have let it slip by the wayside, or never used one at all.

Dennis Laffey said...

In rural Illinois, in the early 80's, we were also subjected to square dancing at school. I have seen some people actually square dancing beyond that, but only within the confines of Civil War Reenactment groups.

As for a caller, back in the day we never really had enough players to use one. I was in such a small town that having three actual players in addition to the DM was a rarity.

I've been thinking about trying it out, though. Especially in the PbP that David of Tower of the Archmage is running for me and some friends. It's slow going, and I think a caller getting us from interesting place in the dungeon to interesting place in the dungeon might speed things up a bit.

Shane Mangus said...

I take it back... I had a horrible flashback of having to square dance once when I was in fourth grade. I believe it was part of gym class for some reason. The horror!

I can't say that I ever paid much attention to the examples of play. I must have glanced over them, but I can't recall how much attention I paid to them.

Sean Robson said...

I knew it! Square-dancing was a continent-wide conspiracy against our generation. I suspect the Illuminati.

Shane, I'm sorry I've dredged up some obviously suppressed memories.

I paid great attention to the examples of play. Given that my previous gaming experience consisted of Monopoly and Payday, I was completely bamboozled by D&D and relied heavily on the examples to tell me what to do.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I remember early games where callers were used. Now that I think about it, callers did make the game run more smoothly.