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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?