Elden Ring has an accidental hard mode. Although the game is hard as nails as it is, I played it without an essential piece of kit for the first dozen hours. Unless you see a specific NPC very early on in the game, you're locked out of an entire ability set without knowing it, and the way to rectify the situation is similarly obscure. Hear that? It's FromSoftware cackling in the distance.
I'm talking about the Spirit Calling Bell. This item unlocks the spirit summoning system that becomes close to essential, especially as a solo player. Spirit summoning is different to NPC summoning, as it's the ability to call in smaller spirits with health bars which will fight alongside you. Even if they're not going to do a lot of damage, they may turn attention away from you long enough to heal or recuperate. I've never summoned a friend or NPC in a Soulsborne before. I'm stubborn like that. And if you're like me, having a separate mechanic to at least distract your enemies and bosses is phenomenally important.
The system revolves around an item you receive from a specific NPC: Renna the witch. Miss her and you may think you're locked out of this ability for the entire game. So here's how to make sure you're not missing the witch and the summoning bell altogether.
Once you've passed the tutorial and find yourself in the Lands Between, you can look out across the map and spot a dilapidated building. This is the Church of Elleh and one of the first places you'll visit on your journey. Carry on exploring until you've received the mount, Torrent.
This is the time critical part: Once you have Torrent, you have to return to the Church of Elleh at night. This is what will trigger the interaction with Renna who will ask you a question. Answer honestly and she will gift you the Spirit Calling Bell.
If you have missed the witch, not to worry. You may be stuck for a little while without it though. If you've not yet had the opportunity to visit the Table of Lost Grace, just keep playing. Eventually Melina will appear after you've played enough of the game and teleport you to the Roundtable Hold.
Within Roundtable Hold, you can find the Twin Maiden Husks. They act as a vendor and you should be able to purchase a Spirit Calling Bell there instead for 100 runes. At long last, you'll have the ability to play the game as intended, huzzah. The shop will also offer the Lone Wolf Ashes (which summons three wolves), which you'd get from the witch too, so thankfully you'll be set to get some much needed support from the offset.
If you want to know more about the bell and how blooming useful it is, check out our Spirit Calling Bell guide.