Monday, July 26, 2021

The Caller and the Vietnam Hypothesis

In order to command well, we should know how to submit. He who submits with good grace will eventually become worthy of command.

- Cicero, On the Laws.

There was a post on the osr subreddit the other day asking about the caller.  This post is an elaboration of my comments on that post.

In what seems to be my idiom lately, I decided to go have a look at what OD&D and 1e said about the caller, and was a bit surprised at what I found.

OD&D makes only a brief mention of the caller on page 12-13 of Book 3, where there is a dialogue between the DM and the caller, in which the caller describes a series of actions the party takes during exploration.Curiously, none of the other players say anything.

AD&D 1e largely replaces the term "caller" with "leader". A dialogue demonstrating exploration on pages 97-100 of the 1e DMG does include separate voices for Leader Character (LC) and Other Characters (OC). The OC voice seems to do a fair bit of asking questions of the DM, undertaking combat actions, and in a few cases undertaking independent actions when separated from the party. There is also a note after one of the LC's proposals ("The other players concur") which indicates that this dialogue is perhaps not intended to capture the full discussion at the table, just what passes between the DM and players (but on the other hand, there are also lines that are more or less just other characters agreeing to a plan proposed by the leader, so the text is somewhat inconsistent). The LC does seem to have a very active role in proposing courses of action.

The 1e PHB also makes a few mention of party leaders. The heading "Obedience" on page 106 notes,

The leader and caller of a party might order one course of action while various players state that their characters do otherwise. Your DM will treat such situations as confused and muddled, being certain to penalize the group accordingly.

(emphasis mine).  It is foreign indeed to modern gaming sensibilities for any player to give orders to the party as a whole. I have often thought of callers as sort of like the chairman of a committee, responsible for keeping the party moving coherently, but perhaps "elected expedition captain" is closer to the original role.  Maybe "caller" is meant as in "shot-caller".

This doesn't seem like something that would work well with the sort of people I have historically gamed with - contrarian engineers suspicious of all authority, who can't take orders even from the people paying them without arguing (to be fair, a big part of the job is figuring out which orders are impossible and pushing back on them).  But it probably worked for some sort of player, once - but what sort?  And then I remembered that I had read of a game at West Point that used a caller in very much this commanding style (with a second-in-command even, I believe).

Maybe, like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, this commanding way of playing the caller comes out of the American experience in Vietnam, where a broad cross-section of men were exposed to giving and receiving orders as a consequence of the draft.  And like careful dungeoncrawling and Tucker's Kobolds, maybe its decline in the '80s reflects the spread of the game beyond its original audience of historical wargamers and veterans.


  1. I currently play in a game where I'm often caller. Most of the time I'm gathering opinions and actions, chairing discussion I suppose, but there are occasions where it is appropriate in out game for the caller to take a more authorative hand. Mainly this would be when we have out of game time pressure, within an hour of our cutoff time by which we need to be out of the dungeon. Then I'll be making decisions for which next room and how many next rooms and not pausing for normal discussion of how to handle exploring the features of a room.

  2. I've always assumed the caller came about because of two things (1) very large play groups in earlier games (2) it prevents anyone from going unheard, or cheating and saying the DM must not have heard them but come on. Both of these issues go away in smaller groups.