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In the 1980 Basic D&D rules (Gygax and Arneston, Moldvay editing), the following text appears in Part 4: The Adventure:

THE CALLER: One player should be chosen to tell the DM about the plans and actions of the party. This player is the caller. The players may tell the DM what their characters are doing, but the game runs more smoothly when the caller relays the information. The caller should be sure to check with each member of the party before announcing any actions (such as "We'll turn right" or "The thief will check for traps"). The caller is usually a character with a high Charisma score, and should be near the front of the party, where the character would be able to see what the DM describes.

From a game design standpoint, we now understand that this isn't a character responsibility but a player responsibility. Did having this 'caller' player result in better gameplay than without?

For this question, I'm defining 'better gameplay' as follows:

  1. Gameplay that moved faster
  2. Gameplay that flowed smoothly
  3. Gameplay that resulted in less confusion
  4. Gameplay that had a neutral or positive effect on the group's fun
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The Caller is just a primitive version of the party Leader or Face, no? –  DampeS8N May 6 at 14:02
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@DampeS8N No, it's not that. The bit about Charisma is misleading, it's not the primary purpose of the caller, just a post-hoc justification for why they're the talky player. It's not usually an in-game role, it's a table role. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 at 15:07
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I don't mean the leader role in 4E, I mean the concept of a leader, you know, from reality. Most parties end up with a leader or face. (in my 4E game, that's a Dragonborn Sorceror) it is independent from rules. –  DampeS8N May 6 at 16:18
    
@DampeS8N As a player-leader sort of yes, but not necessarily as an in-character party-leader. I addressed that in my answer in the bit about delegating to a "negotiator" PC. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 at 16:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

The caller is an archaic role that is only relevant when the play group is very large. And by very large, I don't mean six or eight players, I mean ten or sixteen. Our sense of what a "large" group is has adjusted drastically downward since BD&D was written, and consequently the purpose and utility of a caller is no longer obvious.

The gameplay advantages of having a caller were all of the above. In early D&D it wasn't uncommon to have a dozen or more players in one gaming session. The role of the caller was primarily a table role: they were the liaison between the giant mob of players and the DM. The role of the caller allowed the responsibilities of table management, player organisation, maintaining speaking courtesies and discipline, and consensus-building in terms of course of action, to be devolved from the DM's chair onto one of the players. The chaos of having "What do you do?" answered with a babble of a dozen or fifteen voices all talking over each other is instead replaced by a single speaker for the player-group.

Of course, that still meant that the caller had to deal with that babble, but the division of labour meant that they were better able to do it than the DM. Also, it gave the players a more-or-less subtle motivation to be more organised and regimented in their communication—if shouting the loudest doesn't allow you to dominate the DM's attention because your declarations still have to go through the caller, and all it does it interfere with the caller's ability to bring a group consensus to the DM in a timely fasion (which may be deadly at times!), then you're much less likely to resort to impotent shouting and more likely to develop keen group decision-making skills out of necessity.

A far secondary purpose of the caller role was to speak for the group to NPCs, not just the DM. This is a natural extension of being the conduit of decisions between the players and DM, as the caller would speak to NPCs according to the plans of the group. But, as the speaker, their Charisma influences the NPC's reaction rolls, hence why the advice to have the player-role of caller be held by a player whose PC also has at least a decent Charisma. It was entirely possible for the caller to not be the in-game "face" of the party by delegating the role: where instead of saying "the thief will check for traps", the caller might say, "our charismatic wizard will negotiate with the mayor," at which point the direct communication would switch from between DM and caller to between DM and the indicated speaker.

This is not to say that the caller was the only means of communicating with the DM. It was a formalism to set default expectations and to alter the behaviour of the group as a whole when it was very large. But DMs could and would address individual players if that made more sense, such as when an NPC was directly speaking to their PC instead of to the caller's PC, or when the player's PC was separated from the group or otherwise perceiving things unique to their PC. The DM would also consult with the mapper (another player role with a mixed-in character role), time-keeper, and other distributed-responsibility player-roles, if they were being used by the group.

In smaller groups, having a caller was obviously not as useful, and was often dispensed with. In a game of BD&D today, even what we would now consider a "large" group would probably be small enough to not see any utility from nominating a caller. If you only have six or seven people around the table, the group is able to self-organise easily enough without needing a player-role leader, and the DM can gather everyone's desired courses of action and hold them in memory more-or-less well enough that the filter of a caller wouldn't speed things up much at all; so the loss of direct back-and-forth is less worth accepting if there's little or no gain.

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Fascinating and informative answer from SSD as usual. It sounds like groups of that size would likely have more than one caller? (such as two groups of six or three groups of four) –  Dragonsdoom May 6 at 16:03
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@Dragonsdoom I don't believe so. Having two callers would have been done if there were two separate (in-game) PC parties, or perhaps if the party split up. If the party is maneuvering/exploring/fighting as a group though, one caller simplifies it. Besides, everyone knows to get their desires to the caller if they want to act, and that requires a certain amount of cooperation in the mob. –  SevenSidedDie May 6 at 16:44
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I've also always suspected (though I have no proof) that the Caller was in part a hangover from ChainMail. The practical difficulties of running a war game based dungeon crawl with a dozen different players may have made this beneficial: the Caller could be coordinating the players moves while the DM was busy coordinating the monsters. –  RBarryYoung May 6 at 22:56
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We had one caller per table for the guy who ran a single Greyhawk scenario for ~40 people at once at Gen Con. He had a megaphone. –  mxyzplk May 7 at 3:08
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Having run a game store campaigns for a number of years, when I have 10 or more people playing, having a caller streamlines things considerably. Reading accounts of of the first sessions it felt like large groups were the norm rather than the exception for a long time in the beginning. –  RS Conley May 7 at 14:52

Downtime - the Enemy of Fun Gaming

The biggest issue facing "large" parties is downtime. As in, the time spent not engaged by the game, because other people are going.

Having run games for groups as large as 13 players, and 23 PC's (Yes, most had 2 PC's), downtime management turns to several different elements. One of which is ...

The Caller

The caller's job is to collate the actions for the PC's and hirelings, and then, once the GM is done dealing with NPC actions, present the player actions to the GM, preferably also having the players ready to roll.

A caller is, for modern group sizes of 3-5 players, a drawback. It moves everyone a step further from GM attention, and provides a potential second layer of misunderstandings. And, in a small group, doesn't really save that much time.

In an Early-Gygaxian style 15-25 player group, however, it's almost essential. It allows the GM to not deal with individual players, only with their actions. The caller isn't an assistant GM, either - but he does enable the GM to handle a larger group with less downtime. While the GM is resolving NPC's, the caller can be collating people's actions. The GM then gets the list in sequence from the caller, and only if needed does he interact directly with the player. In fact, in such groups, it's often better to have two callers, or even three - with each player assigned to the care of one caller.

In the intermediate sizes (6-14 players), a caller can be useful at times. Such groups are small enough that a caller isn't essential to low downtime, but can really help, especially in larger battles or when the GM decides to be loquacious with his combat descriptions. Also, a caller can smooth things over when players have lots of hirelings, remembering that Hirelings are generally under the control of the player of the hiring character.

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Thank you for sharing this insight! –  Dragonsdoom May 7 at 16:43

Moldvay Basic's caller was interesting enough that it became a role in Torchbearer.

The Leader

Often one character will drum up a lead: find the map, hear from contacts or even need to remove a pesky curse. This character is considered the leader for this adventure.

Leadership is an informal role. You settle disputes among the characters about direction or method of approach. The role of leader changes with each adventure—so each player should have a chance to lead an expedition.

Like the caller of old, the leader determines what party is doing right now. Even better, if a player disagrees with the leader on a course of action, they can spend (read: waste) a turn in the adventure phase trying to convince the leader to change their mind.

Unlike the caller of old, it was a rotating position and not a necessity born from large party size (Torchbearer is best with 3-6 players).

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Note that in Torchbearer, unlike BD&D, a turn is potentially a large amount of time and always a significant resource. Wasting a turn in TB is an important decision. –  gomad May 7 at 5:45

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