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Whose hand swivels the spotlight?

Posted By Scott Martin On November 6, 2008 @ 2:08 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

Recently Vanir brought back a good post about the spotlight– who gets personal (as opposed to group) attention. Much of the article is about how a player should treat spotlight time, which started me along a path of thinking– who is responsible for spotlight distribution?

Before I dive in, let’s figure out what we mean by spotlight. (Or cheat, and just use Martin’s definition in GMing 142: Spotlight Moments.) In some games, the default assumption is that each character acts alone, on essentially parallel but rarely intersecting paths. For these games, the time spent roleplaying with each character is spotlight time for that character. [Trollbabe and Sorcerer often features this style of play; both are produced by Adept Press. I’ve played in character driven World of Darkness games that are similarly near-parallel games. “Sandbox” games often have this model.]

In most games, the characters interact significantly more. In fact, sometimes people will joke about the party being one multi-headed monster. This can lead to the assumption that there’s no spotlight… but that’s mistaken. Even when the whole party is in the scene, a situation often focusses on one character. If there’s a lock that stands in the way, the rogue gets to shine for a moment. (Let’s ignore the knock spell for now.) If the scene is a battle, whoever deals the most damage probably garners the admiring looks. If there is a negotiation, the character with lots of social skills steps into the spotlight. These are a little less definitive than a character acting alone, but it’s still nice to shine– even if you can still make out other characters at the edges. (The cautionary tale of without which not is partially concern that each character won’t get their moment in the sun.)

Spotlight from the GM’s side

There are many ways to ensure each character gets a moment to shine. One way is to have a part of the adventure that requires the abilities of one PC to overcome.

    Advantages:

  • Because only one PC has the skill or power to solve the problem, the focus of the group is on them.
  • This is very simple to implement. Look at the PC sheet, pick something only they can do, and include a task that requires that skill/power/etc. to overcome it.
  • Drawbacks:

  • Any PC with those skills can overcome that challenge. It’s more a class role [or skill point purchase, etc.] that’s being highlighted, not the actual character.
  • If you need a skill/power to get past a point and the PC isn’t present (the player’s home sick this week), then everyone’s stuck until the player can make it.

Or you can build a subplot around a PC’s interactions or backgrounds. Maybe a farmboy falls in love with the confident fighter, or the Dragonborn Paladin is actually the last descendant of the royal line.

    Advantages:

  • Very specific to the character. “Old Ben” isn’t just any Jedi– he happens to have been secretly looking out for your character for years. Why?
  • Can highlight subtler parts of the character; beliefs, creeds, and motivations. Often provides a chance for the PC to change directions.
  • Drawbacks:

  • Requires a good background or a player who is willing to improvise.
  • Sometimes the spotlight is seen as GM manipulation, not exciting time the player would seek out.
  • If the character leaves the campaign, unresolved loose ends can feel awkward.

The GM controls the spotlight in these instances by introducing the subplot or providing obstacles that only that character can solve. A good GM will try to make sure that each player gets a share of spotlight time, though it can be hard to gauge– because different players react differently to spotlight opportunities.

Spotlight from the Player’s Side

See Vanir’s post for pitfalls of hogging the spotlight. In most games, the player doesn’t have much control over when their character gets the spotlight– it’s often a result of the GM providing something for the PC to engage with. (Some games, like Primetime Adventures guide spotlight distribution, but it still falls on the players at the table to make it happen.)

Encouraging the GM
Many GMs enjoy playing up the background of the PC, including their tragic history, cool NPCs, murderous uncles, etc. A GM without a background generated by the player can still bring the PC’s background into play… but the effectiveness is limited by the GM’s predictive powers, unless the background is created in play. A way for a GM to do so is to have an NPC talk to the PC about their past. Whatever the player says will probably be the real past unless the PC is trying to mislead. From the player’s side, a way to introduce background once the game has begun is to discuss the character’s background with other PCs (or convenient NPCs). Discussing a character’s dream (or nightmare) with fellow PCs and explaining why it affects the PC can be another way to add emotional background mid-game.

Talking with the GM
If you’re getting frustrated because your character is just a cog in the party, mention what you’re missing to the GM. Odds are that if you miss spotlight time, everyone else does too. Unless it’s a case of the spotlight hitting other PCs but not yours… in which case, it’s good to bring that to the GM’s attention. Beyond the bare demand (give me the spotlight!), give the GM some idea about the type of attention you’d like.

Conversely, some players don’t like the spotlight– at least, certain types of spotlight. If you hate having to solve puzzles just because you’re playing the rogue, let the GM know. If you aren’t enjoying the GM’s romantic subplot, break it to him gently. With flowers.

Don’t hoard the spotlight
After you finally get the spotlight, you may be tempted to hold it on you for as long as possible. Don’t. If possible, draw other players into the moment. Spotlight time is inherently fragile– if only one player gets to play and everyone else has to watch, the GM will keep the time limited. But if your spotlight winds up involving everyone, you’re no longer forcing everyone to just watch. For example: If your PC has been told that she’s the rightful heiress to the Duchy, you could sneak off with the NPC to discuss the next step. Or you can bluntly inform your party and ask their help– make it a council of war with your friends contributing their best advice. After all, you’ll need their help to claim the coronet.

Spotlight from your side

Spotlight is a huge topic, and one that we all have to deal with as GM or player. Do you have a good story about rotating the spotlight and keeping everyone happy? Or how, as a player, you managed to draw everyone into the scene in a way they all appreciated?

If you have spotlight problems, we might be able to help. I’ve seen GMs use a stopwatch to remind them to split their time evenly when the party is split. Do you have any good tricks to share?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Whose hand swivels the spotlight?"

#1 Comment By Rafe On November 6, 2008 @ 7:52 am

I think a lot of spotlight issues can be dealt with by an open, communicative group of players. If there is both a Rogue and Ranger in the group, find out who has point in various situations. If both the Warlord and Cleric have good Charisma (and are roleplayed as being spokesmen), who takes the front ranks in what kinds of negotiations/social exchanges? The players should work this out for themselves.

Personally, I think a GM needs to be thinking of particular roles and backgrounds when making adventures. What would be interesting to whom, and for what reasons? If you look at your plan and see that half the group is left out, change a few things:

Too many traps/locks for the Rogue? Then make an essential one different. The lever isn’t a trap. It’s just a lever… but it’s on the other side of a chasm, and the Ranger is the best person to make the shot. A riddle might best be solved by whoever has the highest Int, but the Wizard has his parts already with an arcane challenge and a cipher. So make it a military riddle. The Warlord now has his chance to shine. Or it’s the creedo for the Order of Pelor, and the Paladin knows his vows by rote. Make some traps/issues physical. The door isn’t locked, it’s just really warped. Now the Fighter can apply strength to the challenge.

All it takes is a look at one’s gameplan and asking oneself: Will everyone – or most people – feel involved? If not, alter a few things as done in the examples above. When it comes to background hooks and involvement, I’ve always said: If you don’t give me a background with hooks and ways for me to put you front and centre on occasion – and aren’t proactive in being involved to make it happen – don’t complain; you’re riding shotgun. (Said to experienced players, obviously. Initiates receive help upfront and along the way.)

#2 Comment By Swordgleam On November 6, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

I don’t know about the spotlight, since that’s one of my weaknesses, but I can answer your question about split parties.

I usually try to manouver one group into a combat or a skill challenge, something that has rounds. Then I switch back and forth, giving the absent party member(s) an “initiative” at the very end of the round. It helps build tension, making whatever is going on with the missing players – a search, a negotiation, a mad dash for help – feel a lot more urgent. It also ensures I don’t forget anyone.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 6, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

I take a few moments each session, usually during the group’s discussions, and make sure that each player has gotten some spotlight time. If not, I ensure that they do.

It’s only tangential, but I also tend to ‘draw out’ the wallflowers when discussions takes place, Otherwise the stronger personalities may dominate.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On November 7, 2008 @ 10:54 am

I also struggle to really turn the spotlight on each character; it’s hard to think up a way for everyone to be cool frequently. It’s important to remember that group success is good, but the characters are interesting too.

I’ve had some players who were terrible about hogging the spotlight– and I’ve had trouble keeping them from dominating a discussion and making everyone wait too long. (Dusty played with us for a while; his character annoyed us because in every campaign he’d want to sneak off and do something creative… away from the table, so everyone else’s play ground to a halt.)

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 7, 2008 @ 11:25 am

@Scott Martin – After a private above-game chat, I’d probably make Dusty’s little solo adventures boring as hell. Or detrimental to the group mission. Or get him arrested/killed because he didn’t have the rest of the party there…

It’s heavy-handed, but I don’t think the rest of the table is going to complain much. (Caveat: I don’t know Dusty; I’m only using him as an example of “I’m having fun alone again, while the rest of the group builds dice towers.”)

#6 Comment By BryanB On November 7, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

I have found it easier to share the spotlight as a player than I have to swivel the spotlight as a GM. I am an easily entertained individual so I find it amusing to watch other players that are “caught” in the spotlight.

As a GM, it can be a difficult juggle. Often times, I will just roll with the moment and hope that I can get enough focus time for everyone. My hope is that everyone gets a choice scene in the session or that there is a good amount of time sharing going on. The egg timer is an excellent tool for split groups or individual scenes that I have somehow gotten away from.

I once had a problem player that liked to bog the game down in minutia that only he was interested in. My tendency to hand wave what he wanted to do was not satisfying his needs. He actually wanted to role-play the collection of herbs and spell components or the search of a salvage yard for spare conduit cables. One die roll for a search was not sufficient for him. A take “20” approach didn’t make him happy either. He actually wanted to play out the search, one agonizing minute at a time, as if he was in a solo PC/Console game.

The searches got silly because I would tell him that there was absolutely nothing worthwhile to search for and he would take that as, “You didn’t roll high enough, search quite long enough, or search in the right spot.” He was tenacious. It was hurting the games. I couldn’t understand his fascination with minutia and the other PCs were on the verge of pushing him into a gravel grinder. I finally had to say, “Your play style just isn’t working with everyone else’s. What can we do to make things fun for you again?”

His “hogging the spotlight” issues never did get resolved to anyone’s satisfaction and he no longer games with us. I often wonder what I could have done differently as a GM, but I think I was patient and accommodating as much as I could have been.

#7 Comment By robustyoungsoul On November 10, 2008 @ 7:40 am

I remember having this problem when we used to play D&D, and we sometimes have it a bit again playing Burning Wheel now. But Burning Empires’ scene economy handled this problem extremely well, and there are other systems that do it also via narrative tokens (Universalis for example).

Bottom line is that I DO think it is the responsibility of the GM to keep the spotlight evenly distributed if you are playing a system that doesn’t help arbitrate this for you. The players are implicitly required in most games to maximize what their PCs can do, so it is only natural and right that they should want as much spotlight time as possible to increase their chances of achieving their goals. If the group isn’t playing a game with rules that will ensure everybody has equal time, it falls squarely on the GM I think to make sure it happens.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On November 10, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

@robustyoungsoul – I agree; it falls on the GM to keep an eye on it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be mindful as a player… but the GM has more power to address it in most systems.

@BryanB (and Kurt) – Yeah, abbreviating the solo player’s time is about the best you can do without being direct. I hope that today I’d be direct and just tell them, “I know X interests you, but you’re wasting four other people’s time. Tell me what you want to accomplish and we’ll roll for it quickly.”


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