Roll for the Caller: Using Initiative for Faster Group Decisions

Delta’s D&D Blogspot has posted a session summary of Saturday’s expedition into Dwimmermount. He notes:

Tavis may have more courage than I do, because he had something of an open call out to players, and once we had dinner, piled into the Brooklyn Strategist, and set up to play around the custom gaming table there, he had no less than nine players ready for the session… About the first thing that Tavis said to me was, “You can have 4 henchmen, does that appeal to you?” Does it!? (I’m semi-infamous for gleefully playing multiple characters. Here I would get to play a whole crew of 5 dwarven plate-armored fighters. This was a very good sign.) With similar rulings around the table, we had a total of eighteen characters assembled and marching up to Dwimmermount.

I'm glad Stefan insisted that we actually put all the miniatures into the layout; the work he put into wrangling them was well worth the visceral sense we got of just how insanely stretched-out our marching order was.

This weekend there is indeed an open call for players at the Dwimmermount sessions I will be running on the evenings of both Saturday 3/17 and Sunday 3/18. After that, the expeditions will continue every Saturday until 4/14, but I will be passing my spot at the big Sultan gaming table on to other GMs.

I am famous for running groups of up to 15 players, but normally those are shambolic affairs in which we are glad to spend six or eight hours chatting and chewing the scenery and not getting much done. The Dwarven Forge scenery we have at the Brooklyn Strategist is so appealing that it begs out to be played with right now, so I evolved a way to get this big group moving faster than I normally do. I hope this house rule will be useful to those who come after me.

Because we were using the Adventurer Conqueror King System, when combat occured I would ask everyone to roll for initiative at the start of each round by holding up a d6. This part is standard, and with the possible exception of the kobold massacre, each of the fights on Saturday was sufficiently complicated and high-stakes to make it worth paying close attention to who got to go before the monster(s) and who didn’t.

When we weren’t in combat and the next course of action wasn’t obvious – basically whenever the flow of action seemed to pause a little as people wondered what to do – I would hold up a d20 and ask everyone to “roll for the caller”. (Actually I said “roll for initiative” here too but that led to confusion. Do as I say, not as I did.) Only the high roll counted, so once I heard a pretty high number I’d say “OK, can anyone beat an 18?” I didn’t have the players modify the dice roll by anything, so that all participants had an equal chance of winning. I don’t think it makes sense to have charisma modify the roll – this is a procedure for the players, not their characters – but it might be interesting to keep track of how many times this call for callers had been issued, and tell everyone who had not yet been a caller to add that number to their roll.

Once a high roller had been established, I would find a way to describe the scene to explain why that player’s character now found him or herself in a position to set the next course of action for the party. The first time I called for a roll was in town as soon as everyone had a character sheet ready. Stefan and Peter tied with an 18, so I said “OK, Father Roy and Dewdrop Morningwood, you were the survivors of the previous expedition. As you’ve been here in the Fortress of Muntsberg healing and re-equipping, you become aware that news of your exploits has brought a new crop of adventurers who are looking to repeat your success. Do you want to lead them to the dungeon right away, or spend more time in town seeking out special equipment or pursuing the truth behind some of these rumors?”

It was intentionally implicit in this setup that all the new and old characters would form a party together, but I think Pete picked up that it was not actually covered by anything we’d roleplayed, so he had Dewdrop’s henchman Lafonte Shimmersky give an elaborate recruiting/motivational speech, and then Stefan and Pete read the mood of the group and decided to head for the dungeon right away. (This was what I thought everyone wanted, and also what I wanted myself – all that Dwarven Forge terrain begged to be marched upon – so the caller procedure worked!)

At the top of the landing, we rolled for caller again and the dice chose Miguel. His character was a prestidigitator named Obed Marsh, so I said “As the group reaches the head of the stairs and the metal Thulian doors, a feeling of eeriness settles over the party and they unconsciously look to Obed for his expertise in arcane matters. How do you direct your fellow adventurers?” Miguel chose to have his characters take the lead and investigate the situation, asking questions that let me feed the group information. But just as you can see in historical accounts of parties using callers like the example of play in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, the caller was the decision-maker but not necessarily the spotlight player. Other players might speak up to contribute – when Obed learned that the mountain was protected from tunneling by some kind of enchantment, Dan said “My dwarves put away their axes and picks, disappointed that their plan is shot” – and sometimes the caller would designate another character to perform a task, whose player would then take the spotlight (for example, Carl’s thief who led the exploration of the rockfall that exposed the gorgon cave).

I felt like this procedure worked very well for speeding up decision making by giving the power to the dice. As the Judge, I didn’t have to think “how can I get the players to start moving and stop debating; I only had to recognize when it was time to call for a roll, and then hand off the problem to the randomly appointed caller. A key part of the method was to set up the caller’s authority by setting the scene for their character. By describing to everyone how and why Obed had emerged as the leaders for the other characters, I was encouraging everyone to start thinking in character as well, which thus included accepting that their character was going to be regarding the caller as the natural leader for the moment.

I think the caller procedure would work even for smaller parties. If you try it out in your games, let me know how it goes!

12 Responses to “Roll for the Caller: Using Initiative for Faster Group Decisions”

  1. March 13, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I use a rotating caller, marked by a figure or toy that moves to the left whenever a scene (roughly about 10 game minutes) ends.

  2. 2 Ed
    March 13, 2012 at 1:13 am

    I was thinking along similar lines for my 7+ player Stars Without Number game, but just in going around the room for each time a caller would be needed. I’ll try out the dice rolling first, though. I think it’ll be more fun as a GM to have that feeling of surprise when the dice hit the table before setting out the scene description.

  3. March 13, 2012 at 1:27 am

    I like to see that we’re both thinking in terms of scenes, although I avoided using that wording because it’s a term of art in new-school games (as in “scene framing”) that I am not sure I’d use correctly or would give the wrong connotations. And switching up the caller seems intuitive – although it’s instructive to note that mapper is the old-school role that games I’m in use a lot, we’re just starting to experiment with caller. I find mapper to be a really satisfying and important role, I do it whenever I can, but not everyone wants to do it and not everyone who wants to do it is good at it (that’d be me). So rotating mapper doesn’t make sense. Does it similarly miss the point to insist on switching callers?

    The decision to switch at random vs. going around the table may relate to group size. With a big group, I didn’t go in a fixed order because I didn’t want people on the far end of the order to be like “what’s going on over there, I dunno, it’s hard to hear, let’s start a side conversation.” Rolling individual initiative and callership mixes up the pacing spatially and keeps people more on their toes, at the cost of some processing speed while I go “ok who rolled a 4?” and we all have to keep track of where we are in the combat countdown, or “who rolled higher than a 17?” and track that and (maybe) how often we have switched callers.

  4. March 13, 2012 at 1:29 am

    @Ed good point, it is a kind of enjoyable mental challenge to think about why each character might take charge of the situation, just as it is refreshing for players (I presume) to be caught by surprise in the role of caller rather than waiting for it to come to them in a predictable order.

  5. 5 Brandon
    March 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Definitely going to try this (in some form) for my next session. Great idea.

  6. March 13, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    This is brilliant, I must say.

  7. 7 Charlatan
    March 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Another happy effect: It helped prevent wandering attention in an otherwise large group when even a first-timer might sometimes have to decide something. It was a lot of fun!

  8. 8 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    March 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Gee, that’s usually the time I just announce loudly that I’ve rolled a random monster check.

    Amazing how fast that focuses attention. But then, I’m an irascible old SOB.

  9. March 14, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Apparently I haven’t been paying attention, I never notice you rolling – just the arrival of the monsters! I love the way you do that, it’s totally inspiring and worth a post of its own. One key thing is that it doesn’t come off as irascible at all. It’s easy for me to get frustrated with players and be like “come on guys, step it up” – but no one likes being lectured. The way you do it is like “Gee, this is a fun game! Here are some wandering monsters for you to fight! I will continue having fun in this way for as long as you are dithering! If you want to have a kind of fun that involves your characters achieving their goals, you will need to figure this out and step it up a little, but that’s totally up to you, I am having a great time meanwhile!”

  10. 10 tim h
    March 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Thinking about the “caller” thing, my experience is that the position tends to evolve naturally even if you don’t set out to use it – especially with groups who’ve played together for a long time. I’ve played in very few established D&D groups where the pecking order hasn’t settled into one or two pushy players taking control with another couple of players expressing complete disinterest or confusion throughout the game.

    Tavis’ formal moving caller rule would reign in the dicks who say “yeah, people just naturally listen to me when we play games” and draw out the people who are bullied/bored/distracted.

    I would like to have something cleared up:

    How intent of the caller is to smooth over the discussion and chatter during sections of the game that don’t take the processing power of the whole group, right? We are walking down hallways and reacting to doors and things, rather than risk a right vs left discussion that would be arbitrary and uncomfortable we have one person make that call – if others feel strongly they can jump in but they don’t feel pressure to do so because the group has delegated responsibility to one person. It’s like an autopilot making decisions for people as they sit and watch the terrain go by.

    Are there clearly defined moments when the group slips into and out of caller mode, do you signal these moments by calling for individual actions? Or is it based on how much of the group sits up and takes notice when something happens?

  11. March 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I am going to try this on Sunday.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2012

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