Last week was the first session of my Wednesday night Roll20/Discord group’s new B/X campaign (a continuation of a long-running AD&D campaign that went on hiatus last year). Overall, I think it was a successful revival of the game with both the players and myself quickly falling back into both our roles and the lore of the setting.
There was one aspect of the group’s typical play-style that I was hoping to pre-empt, though: the tendency for the players to over-analyze and debate decisions both large and small so that the balance of any given session is 90% preparing for action and 10% action. While this interest in intense discussion can be taken as a compliment — they’re clearly invested! — it can cause things to drag out unnecessarily.
In the past, I had tried the typical solutions to such issues: random encounter checks, careful tracking of time, and depletion of exploration resources. These were useful tools, but not complete solutions because of two factors: (1) situations often arose where it would not be realistic to interrupt the party’s planning with random events or deplete resources (i.e., the characters are in a secure location with hours/days to spare); (2) any one player could prolong debates with clarifying questions about the situation directed at the Dungeon Master (sometimes relevant, sometimes not) even when a consensus to act had been built.
My solution to the problem of moving things along when the party could realistically be dilly-dallying within the game’s fiction has been to implement strict time limits on decisions on a meta-game level: ten seconds during combat rounds, one minute during exploration turns, five minutes while camping or in a secure location. Failure to make their decisions within those limits means time passes regardless of whether their debates and questions could have “realistically” fit within the time available to the adventurers. After all, we’re playing a game that makes abstractions all the time and there is no reason this approach shouldn’t extend to time management.*
That’s well-and-good as far as it goes, but I also needed to preempt any one player using up the party’s precious time — after all, if individuals are asking me questions and declaring intentions during an exploration turn, there is no way everything is getting resolved within one minute! It was then that the genius of the traditional party caller role become clear to me: a person that was responsible for facilitating a quick discussion of intentions amongst the party members — reminding them of the time limits and reining in those who would use up that time on their character’s individual actions — and then conveying that succinctly to the Dungeon Master for resolution. In short, the caller acts as the editorial voice for the party’s collective Id so that decisions can be made within the time limits imposed by the game’s referee.
The benefits of the caller role are numerous. First, having one person speak for the group means that the whole adventuring party will not be punished for any one player’s use of time unless that player happens to be the caller (in which case the party probably needs a new caller). I can also affirm that, for the Dungeon Master in terms of workload, this system is great: I just need to track the passage of time and not worry as much about making sure no one player is hogging the spotlight during what should be group endeavors. If the group decides to rotate the caller roll, it also becomes an effective way of gently pushing more passive players to step forward and find their voice.
It’s a bit early to give a final verdict on the system since it was our group’s first time trying both time limits and having a caller. There were definitely times the other players forgot to channel their intentions and questions through the caller and times I let them do so. Things did move along at a faster clip, though, and we will almost certain become better at this with practice. I’ll report back on this experiment after a few more sessions when it is clear whether this is a sustainable solution to issue of time management in game sessions.
* I’m not a complete monster, though. My time management rules allow for one thirty-minute discussion each game session without penalty for the purposes of detailed planning or debate during camping/party downtime.