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Troy’s Crock Pot: Chiming in on Spotlight Encounters

Do you include Spotlight encounters — those designed to challenge individual characters — in your adventures?

Giving your cleric or thief a chance to shine sounds easy enough, right? You throw undead at the cleric and traps with pointy things that spring out at your thieves. Likewise, wizards need magic to dispel and fighters require opportunities to perform feats of strength.

But, c’mon, that gets a little old after a while, right? Deeper, more involved spotlight encounters require the GM to know the party members in ways not solely defined by their class.

Dig into the character sheets and look for feats, traits, skills and proficiencies that are unique within the party. Keep in mind, especially, areas that overlap. Nothing squashes a spotlight encounter faster than another player who can resolve a situation by coming at it from another direction.

Experience is the best teacher in those situations. Just note when it happens so you can avoid crafting Spotlights that focus on those same things again.

In all likelihood, as characters advance in level, it will be more and more difficult to design Spotlight encounters because of this.

Consider then, this alternative:

Look for ways pairs of characters can meet challenges. Identify character traits that complement one another and try to throw obstacles that incorporate both. It’s actually a great way to encourage cooperation among players, as characters require the support of others to complete tasks.

And well, if that doesn’t work, try again. Remember, you’ve always got the undead and the spiked traps in your back pocket.

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10 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Chiming in on Spotlight Encounters"

#1 Comment By Rafe On January 9, 2009 @ 7:59 am

I find skill spotlight moments work alright – and are necessary – but they’re nothing compared to background/roleplaying spotlight moments. It’s taken for granted that a Rogue will handle a locked door just as it’s taken for granted that a Cleric or Paladin or Warlord will be the first to attempt diplomacy. What isn’t taken for granted is that an old rival of the Cleric’s already has an audience with the lord to gain permission to search the old archives.

Roleplaying spotlight moments reward player creativity and the effort they put into adding their own part of the game, as opposed to the mechanics emphasis of a class.

#2 Comment By ZedZed77 On January 9, 2009 @ 10:38 am


Hear hear! I agree completely.

#3 Comment By Sarlax On January 9, 2009 @ 11:03 am

I’m on board with RP moments as well, not just because they highlight the PC’s identity, but because they’re easier to have happen (for me) than mechanics moments.

I don’t write outcomes for encounters, so creating an encounter for one character to shine is guaranteed to do so. I could spend a lot of time creating a monster group that I thought could best be handled by the dread necromancer’s spells and feats, but it turns out the druid smashes through the minions while the crusader comes up with the plan that drops the leader in a single hit.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 9, 2009 @ 11:31 am

I also prefer the RP spotlight moment, and I also prefer that most spotlight moments be non-combat in nature (such as a fighter choosing his party over his fellow clan members from his backstory).

But I can see how what Troy is suggesting will work better for groups that enjoy the mechanical aspects of the game. Some might see the RP spotlight as the character vs. the situation, while the skill challenges are more akin to the player vs. the in-game obstacle. I know of a player in my group that would prefer a well designed skill challenge at times, because his previous groups was very focussed on the game system and not the role playing. He’s had to switch gears upon joining my group, and I have had to adjust my GMing style as well.

I’ll definitely keep what Troy has suggested in mind when designing scenarios meant to target that particular player in the future.

#5 Comment By BryanB On January 9, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

I am a big believer in Spotlight encounters, especially when the background of a PC is involved.

Nothing provides better motivation for a PC than to have someone from their past or something from their background come into play and be the focus for a scene.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 9, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

RP encounters are fantastic — and I never meant to imply otherwise.

However, the focus of the article, as Patrick deduced, was on was to offer spotlight moments during a classic dungeon crawl. I think Sarlax observed correctly how difficult a task this can be if it is rules focused. You design a spotlight for one character — but in the course of play, another character uses different abilities to steal the spotlight.

In D&D, whether you are playing third or fourth edition, incorporating challenges that require multiple skill checks is one good way to either shift the focus back on the intended character — or, alternately, run with the one who has drawn the focus. Even in a combat situation, there are ways to slide in skill checks that redirects attention.

But I love hearing about those RP spotlight moments, too, especially when backgrounds come into play.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On January 9, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

I agree with all the RP spotlight comments. I try to have more than one story arc going on at a time, and tie each arc in some way to a PC’s background, with moments interspersed throughout it that tie in with other characters.

My favourite is when the players create moments like these for each other. The fighter leaves the baddie alive, so the cleric can finish it off, and use cleave for clerics (Raven Queen’s somethingorother) to heal the paladin. The ranger captures a goblin, so the wizard can use Comprehend Language to interrogate it. It’s cool when I make spotlight moments, but it’s awesome when my players think about each other’s powers as much as their own when approaching ways to overcome an obstacle.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 9, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

[1] – Ditto this entire comment.

Plus: It needn’t be done for every encounter, but it is occasionally extremely cool to include a mechanical element specifically for a certain character. Speaking as a player who has enjoyed the spotlight a few times, it’s a great feeling when you really get to shine.

#9 Comment By Sarlax On January 9, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

On mechanical spotlights, I think certain systems and styles lend themselves to better moments. I’m thinking of D&D vs nWoD as an example.

In D&D, the most common kind of mechanical encounter is battle. In a fight, it’s to hard make the fight the moment of one player over another (especially in 4E, given the degree of similarity and balance between classes), since all PCs are, ahem, hyper-efficient murderers. The skill challenges of 4E seem a better place for it, but again, there won’t be a tremendous degree of difference in capabilities (+5 training, another ~+3 for stat differences). On an extended series of rolls, however, the spotlight character can really stand out.

In nWoD, the focus isn’t on fighting, and the characters can end up with greatly varied abilities, and I think this may make it easier to spotlight certain characters. If faced with a reluctant informant who is under protection, the Ventrue dominator makes an excellent choice. When the coterie announces itself at Elysium in a new city, the Daeva makes the heads turn, etc. There’s some overlap in power, but to a great degree each PC has his own thing upon which the others do not tread.

#10 Comment By Rafe On January 11, 2009 @ 8:35 am

—However, the focus of the article, as Patrick deduced, was on ways to offer spotlight moments during a classic dungeon crawl.—

Completely, and I’m sorry I derailed that with the RP distraction. I suppose I find it easy to include mechanics spotlighting without meaning to, but I have a hard time purposely putting in situations to spotlight a particular character’s mechanics.

The idea of using pairs is a great one. Not only does it mean you don’t have to worry about whether all 5 or 6 players (if your group is large) are having a chance to shine but it allows for great character synergy, as Swordgleam said, and sharing the spotlight with others.