Callers for the Nibelungs

Greg asked me about the role of caller in my game *Im Reich der Nibelungen* (“*In the Realm of the Nibelungs*”), so here are some reflections.

I know the concept goes waaaay back, but I have never used a caller before. Now I have seen it in action for 25+ sessions.

The caller has a special role among the players, but in the case of my game, the role is implemented diegetically as well.

I see the caller’s job as speeding up play on the players’ side of the screen.

To that end, the caller will do several things:

a. Organize his fellow players (“Hank, could you map the dungeon?”).

b. Make decisions for the whole group (i.e. ‘call the shots’ – is this where the term comes from?), usually easy or not very important ones. At some point, either the caller does not want to make a decision alone or another player vetoes a decision — see c) below.

In practice, the caller will for instance determine the party’s route back into the dungeon. One of our callers simply said “We go back to the tomb with the ornate sarcophagus, by way of the great hall” and pointed to the map. On another day, another caller said “… and we check every plundered room again for savages: The two knights guard towards the front and the valkyre and the thief briefly check the rooms for enemies lying in ambush before we move on.”

c. Mediate discussions, i.e. ensure everyone  is heard, intermittently sum up the options developed, and possibly call for a vote.

Calling for a vote is rare with us — usually the caller will  at some point suggest we take option X and either the others nod (or shrug), or there’s another round of discussion.

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A dungeon expedition always starts in town (or at a castle or whatever), typically with a Christian service. The presiding PC or NPC priest has a vision and declares one PC the ‘Mediator’ (between God and the party). Procedurally, we draw one of the *players’* names from an envelope and that player is the caller for the evening and his character said Medium. Once the envelope is empty, all names are returned to the envelope.

The designation as the Mediator does not change the social order among the PCs, so a lowly pardoned criminal has to tread carefully, putting his views as suggestions to his betters.

Some players roleplay this a bit (“Milady, I’m not sure but the holy spirit suggests you guard our rear?”), others ignore it and just do their duty as a caller (“Gary, your valkyre brings up the rear, okay?”).

Also, God must work in mysterious ways, as we’ve already had two TPKs (and plenty of individual casualties)…

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Orginally the caller’s character got an XP bonus  (~50%!) but one player hated the pressure to succeed so much that I dropped it, especially as it had proved unnecessary: Our callers are highly motivated to facilitate a successful delve.

I love having a caller as a GM and really enjoyed the two times I’ve been caller as a player. I did make it a point to ensure everyone’s heard, but not everyone is as self-conscious about this aspect (and it’s been awhile since we’ve discussed the role — maybe it’s time for a refresher, especially now that we have some experience under our belts).

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I discussed the caller on the way home with a player last week. Some of his observations:

“I never doze off as a caller.”

“You’ve got to be on your toes constantly and sometimes, maintaining your authority can be a struggle.”

“Our callers take more risks with their own characters. They lead from the front.”

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When combat starts, the role of caller vanishes, probably in part because my Nibelungs game has a very formal initiative system (i.e. players declare their intended actions in a fixed order according to their PCs’ social rank — they even sit around the table in this order).

Finally, some more context: Our group is quite large (1 GM plus 6-8 players), with ages ranging from 19 to 60, a mix of genders, newbies and veterans, casual players and fanatics, as well as many distractions (kids, visitors, phone calls etc.).

My Nibelungs game is focused on dungeon crawling and facilitates ease and speed of play without dumbing down core aspects of the crawl (such as resource management, fielding hirelings, random encounters, maintaining character stables, restocking dungeons etc.). Having a caller is a perfect fit for this group and this style of play.

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5 responses to “Callers for the Nibelungs”

  1. Over the years I’ve noticed that having someone take on the role of leader in dungeon crawl games is extremely functional. Picking the left door or the right door, in the absence of any obvious incentives, is basically arbitrary. Trying to base it on consensus only adds time, not quality, to the decision.

    Making the caller role fictionally real — and within the fiction, literally sacred! — is a cool idea. Noting your TPKs, it makes me wonder if part of the fun is playing your character as following the caller with pie-eyed naive faith into a situation that you the player recognize as really dicey.

    • I’ve never seen a caller in game, but my experience in D&D is very small, and never with big parties.

      I was surprised to read Holmes’ interview two decades later after his 1977 rules, where Holmes states that the caller was an addition from Gygax that he found himself weird – his own game discussions being more organic.

      It seems to me that it automatically cancels any possibility for intra-group conflict. Is this true?

    • Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how the early developers and most-visible organizers of role-playing must have been overwhelmed by the sudden influx of interested people at the tables. Speculating a bit from the presentations in the earliest texts, it seems to me as if play groups were rather small, and that the great big eight-person, ten-person, twelve-person tables were a new and disorienting experience for everyone, especially when the participants were not already-invested fantasy readers.

      Holmes was one of the earliest adopters for D&D, and as a local in or near Lake Geneva (I think?), was certainly a play-organizing participant well before anything went between two covers for publication. How big were his groups (mostly high school students)? This was before the promotion and identification that “a new thing” was afoot. I’m willing to be corrected but I think they must not have been very big and they must have been composed only of teens whom Holmes knew, with whom he communicated well, and who got along reasonably well. Which is a far cry from ten tables of a dozen players each in full adolescent cry to compete at tournament play, which would soon be the case in Lake Genever and would be at the center of a flood of publishable material.

      It seems reasonable that callers of some description, not necessarily dictatorial, would quickly evolve into a perceived necessity.

  2. I’m thinking, before possible confusions take over, that it’s good to clarify that there is no single meaning for “caller.” Most importantly, that such a person’s privilege to override others’ input is often assumed when people encounter the concept in writing, but it is not in fact part of a widespread or accepted definition. They may simply collate what everyone says and perhaps resolve any current misunderstandings or contradictions. They may present a provisional “we do this” which is open to player amendments. Or they might indeed have a settle-down, stop-debating role which settles any input which seems to be going nowhere. It could be any combination of these or many other things. But before anyone over-interprets it, In my experience or based on what others have said to me, there has never been a caller who genuinely spoke for all present in a proactive way which completely substituted for what other players might say, under all circumstances. And even if there were such a persn in someone’s game somewhere at some time, that is not and never has been definitional for the term.

  3. I’ve certainly taken joy in following orders (whether from the Medium or some expert PC) with my character which I personally deemed tactically poor! As I’ve seen my tactical judgement be wrong often enough, this is a fun way to go with the flow (with or without a bit of irony at the player level, depending on the situation) rather than debate the issue. I.e, let’s get on with the game — my character either trusts yours or at least respects his authority.

    There hasn’t been any intra-party character conflict, but one player notably shows limited respect for callers in general and for our female players in the role in particular. This has led to some low-level social conflict (‘Hey, I’m the caller!’, ‘C’mon, let her do her job!’ etc.). Our callers can’t actually make decisions for other characters, so “limited respect” means “constantly questioning a caller’s choices” (or immmediately declaring that and how your character will do things differently).

    Our callers do indeed make provisional statements, awaiting player input (or get buy-in beforehand).

    I think this job *can* be quite difficult, reminding me of observing colleagues chairing task forces at school: You are seen as responsible, but actually don’t have any ‘hard’ authority (to proscribe tasks, reward or sanction etc.). You’re basically running on goodwill and people skills.

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