Callers, Multilogue, and the GM as Ant Queen

Army ant bivouac by Geoff Gallice. Used under CC BY 2.0.

The six villages were in a world of shit.

In the Crooked Fingers Pass to the northwest, an entire orc clan was fortifying its position and preparing for an incursion into the human-inhabited region. In the south, from the Barbtail Woods, predatory blights grew increasingly aggressive and bold, harvesting humans and using their corpses to cultivate more blights. And in between, a bastellus fed on the fear of sleeping victims, spawning more of its kind.

These were problems at a scale that a party of not-yet-second-level adventurers lacked the power or resources to solve. We’d been trying—and failing—for weeks.

After a few minutes of sitting and staring blankly, rubbing our foreheads and eyes, we hit on an idea: if we couldn’t solve each problem individually, maybe we could turn those problems into mutual solutions. The blight and orcs were too strong for us to fight, but if we pitted them against each other, the eventual victor may be weak enough for us to handle. If we removed the blights’ immediate prey—the human settlements—the orcs in the north would be the next target of opportunity for them and the bastellus.

This opportunity presented another problem: what to do with the six villages’ inhabitants? Luckily, we already had a lead. After the bastellus killed Glendale’s reeve, the citizens evacuated north to Hillcrest. If we could convince the other villages to evacuate the area entirely and head to Humphrey Hall, the path between the orcs and the blight would be clear. Sir Humphrey had refused to address the blights’ threat to his subjects; a mass of scared, tired, hungry, angry refugees would be only a small spark away from peasant revolution, solving yet another problem: a lord who had thus far done very little to protect his people’s wellbeing.

We planned. We scrutinized the map, estimated travel times, strategized how to move populations in waves to avoid overcrowding any one village, designated messengers and leaders, devised strategies for convincing people to evacuate, and all the other details required of any high-quality mass exodus.

Throughout this discussion, the GM had one ear on our conversation but both eyes on his notes, trying to stay a few steps ahead based on our backtracking and brainstorming. When we finished, he looked to the player beside him and asked her, “Okay, so what’s the plan?”

That player was our caller.

The Caller

Until recently, I’d only seen the caller mentioned in Jon Peterson’s history books Playing at the World and The Elusive Shift, which discuss the role and its inception in the original Dungeons & Dragons (1974). I’ve since learned that it’s still prevalent in OSR discourse, but I’d never seen it explicitly invoked in a contemporary game design until I read Ava Islam’s Errant.

The caller acts as a delegate representing the party to the GM. The caller doesn’t decide what the characters are doing; that would reduce the other players to nothing more than dice-rolling machines. The caller simply listens to player intentions and then presents the GM with an executive summary of the party’s plans.

OD&D and Errant stipulate an explicitly designated caller, but that wasn’t the case in my anecdote. The GM spontaneously designated a caller out of necessity and convenience. Trying to create and update a mental map of our plan while it was still under construction, constantly shifting and adjusting based on multiple people’s input, would be a complicated and redundant task obviated by simply asking one person to sum it up. And since we players were negotiating mostly autonomously, he was free to check his notes, brainstorm in broad strokes, and attend to other matters behind the metaphorical screen.

The caller, whether formally or spontaneously designated, lightens the GM’s cognitive load, and that hierarchical information flow helps the game progress smoothly. As we all know, even a small group of people trying to formulate a plan can spiral into a very complex process.

Multilogues in TTRPGs

Most direct and mediated interactions (conversations, lectures, texts, art, hypermedia, etc.) are dialogues between two parties. Multilogues, on the other hand, are characterized by simultaneous communication amongst three or more people—which is what happens during game sessions.

A diagram of a five-participant multilogue. From Gaming: the Future’s Language, © 1974 Richard Duke. Fair use.

Obviously, people can’t truly converse with multiple others simultaneously; our brains can’t handle that cognitive load. But multiple conversations can occur at the same time and influence each other. While the warrior and the rogue are making martial plans, the cleric and the wizard are devising spellcasting strategy, and though no single person can parse the language of both exchanges at the same time, they can still pick up on cues like tone of voice, body language, and non-play actions (what Michael Gorodin calls guiding actions in his article “Everyone Is a GM”) that influence their own ideas and conversations.

Abstract diagram of pulses affecting gameplay over time.
Pulses influence gameplay over time by introducing new problems to solve. From Gaming: the Future’s Language, © 1974 Richard Duke. Fair use.

Those thoughts and conversations are all motivated by a pulse. Richard Duke, who coined the term and applied multilogue to game interactions in Gaming: The Future’s Language, defines a pulse (in the book’s glossary) as “a problem, issue, alternative, or information presented to the players through the game used to trigger an exchange of messages.” In TTRPGs, a pulse is any situation that invites interaction, particularly when that situation is a problem in need of a solution.

Duke situates multilogues in gaming as the most complex form of communication yet developed by humans. But surprising analogies in the nonhuman world happen every day, right beneath our feet.

Coordinated Action in Social Insects

Colonial insects like ants communicate sometimes with sound and touch, but they primarily use pheromones as sociochemicals that convey messages between individuals. They are fairly limited in the messages they can communicate: forage for food, defend against enemies, remove dead ants and garbage from the hive, and other fundamental survival behaviors.

Black ants sharing sociochemicals.
A pair of black ants engaged in trophallaxis. Photo modified from the original by Rakeshkdogra. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But contrary to popular myth, these directives and behaviors aren’t decreed by the (misnamed) queen. For example, if an ant, in the course of its normal ant business, doesn’t come into contact with enough other ants that are secreting the chemical signal for “I’m foraging,” it will go about finding food and informing the other ants that they should do the same.

These distributed interactions amongst individuals inform the ants’ collective activities at the macro scale, just as a multilogue guides the overall course of playing a TTRPG. A colony’s behavior is entirely bottom-up and emergent; the queen is the colony’s reproductive system, not its central nervous system.

In that sense, the ant queen occupies a position analogous to the GM in a TTRPG multilogue.

Games as Autopoietic Systems

The GM does not (or, at least, should not) control a game or serve as a rules repository any more than the ant queen issues orders or coordinates the colony’s behavior. As Justin Hamilton argues in “Less Rules Do More” (available in Knock! #3), the GM is the players’ interface with their fictional world, a role without which the game could not continue.

The GM and the ant queen enable their respective group dynamics to persist over time. Both contribute to the process of autopoiesis, self-creation or -reproduction, a concept originated by Chilean biologist-philosopher Humberto Maturana (first in “Biology of Cognition” and later expanded in Autopoiesis and Cognition and The Tree of Knowledge, both with Francisco Varela) to describe living systems’ defining dynamic (as an alternative to characterizing organic life by a cumbersome list of characteristics).

Without a queen, an ant colony would quickly collapse for lack of new members being introduced as old ones die; without a GM (or someone temporarily occupying that role), the game would collapse since players would lack an interface for pursuing and resolving the conflicts that make play fun and interesting. Both GM and queen serve important roles in their respective groups’ continuous self-reproduction as organized social bodies, and the GM particularly in games’ self-reproduction as an activity.

However, neither can exist in isolation. The queen and the GM rely on the rest of that social body for input (for example, food and intention, respectively) that allows them to continue in their role. Both participate in and perpetuate the larger group dynamic without strictly governing it.

In RPGs, the GM is just another—albeit asymmetrical—participant in the multilogue. The caller functions to coordinate with them and the rest of the group, reducing the cognitive load for the other participants. All together, they participate in the large-scale communicative dynamic that defines and sustains RPGs in play.

The header image is a cropped version of a photo by Geoff Gallice. It is used under CC BY 2.0.

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