Players enjoy spotlight time during a game, some more than others, but as a rule the opportunity to let your character shine is one of the key elements in having fun at the table. How you as the gamemaster manage the spotlight can be critical to creating a fun, rewarding experience for everyone playing. The players at my table are really good at sharing spotlight time but every now and then things tend to linger a little too long on one character or another character sort of fades into the background. It’s incumbent on me to recognize when this is happening and do something about it.
There are a variety of ways in which to put the spotlight on one of the characters in the campaign. The three methods I like to employ include highlighting a character’s background, their abilities, or their goals. Any of these three elements go a long way toward putting the attention on that character and the player. Here are a few ideas and tips to help you include any of these spotlight techniques in your campaign:
I like characters with developed backgrounds. They don’t have to be extensive historical narratives but they do need to be least a few solid bullet-points that serve to tie the character to the setting and the other characters. Ideally a background should also suggest a potential plot-arc or two to use in the future. An adventure that focuses on coming to the aid of an old friend, mentor, or family member definitely highlights a character’s personal story. I’ve built adventures based on all sorts of character background information; things like: where they grew up, where they trained or went to school, old friends and acquaintances, their former career, or a criminal past. I’ve even used a non-background for inspiration. You know the kind I’m talking about; the player that says their character is an orphan, without any friends, from another region, who grew up making their own way. The last time a player did that in my campaign they discovered Jeren’s home village… of identical clones… that wanted him back in the fold… and were ruled over by his archenemy. That adventure became very personal and defining for character as well as the player. It also built an epic back-story for a character that started the campaign with a one-sentence background.
One of the reasons players create the character that they are playing is because of the cool abilities the character possesses. Whether it’s awesome super powers, unique class abilities, or having a specialized skill set, players want their character’s to do “stuff”, especially stuff they are good at. Take advantage of this as you set up adventures and stories. Make sure the party detective has clues to find, the cleric has undead to turn, and the Jedi has simpletons to use his “mind trick” on. In my current D&D campaign I want to focus on the party rogue for a session. I put together an adventure with lots of opportunities for stealthy maneuvering (she excels at this), daring acrobatics, and the need to quietly take out lone guards. This last point is especially important to the player because it highlights her assassin sub-class; as opposed to the “regular” killing that the whole party engages in.
Goals come up all the time for characters and players. Most of the time these goals are part of the ongoing campaign narrative and are applicable to the entire group; things like defeating the evil necromancer or saving the colony. What you want to look for however are the goals that relate to a specific character. These might be background elements, like reclaiming an ancestral home or avenging the death of a loved one. Or they might emerge from party goals such as killing the arch-villain’s lieutenant or finding the fabled Axe of Korra-Nar. Building an adventure around the potential for one of the characters to realize a goal is a great way to spotlight that character for a session. To ensure maximum impact make sure the goal is one that the other players at the table are well aware of. Whether or not the character achieves the goal, your goal of highlighting the character will be met.
The above topics cover how to place the spotlight on a character, however the most important part of managing the spotlight in your game is to be aware of it and communicate with your players about it. Pay attention to where you’ve placed the focus or on who has taken the focus. We have all experienced having more outgoing or more reserved players at the table. As gamemaster it’s your job to ensure that some players don’t completely overshadow others.
There are many different ways to manage this but I think talking directly to the players is one of the simplest and most effective methods. I have recently begun adopting the technique used in the Malifaux RPG, Through the Breach. In this game every session includes a brief prologue that hints at the adventure to come and informs the players of who will have their fate “in play” for the session (each character has a multi-part “fate” that resolves over the course of the campaign). I have taken to letting the players know if the upcoming session is “Salazar-centric”, or focuses on Braethel’s quest. I don’t necessarily do this for every session but when I do everyone at the table helps in keeping the game on the focus character.
This brings me to my final point. For the spotlight to be truly effective in your campaign you need players that will embrace the opportunity to celebrate a character other than their own. You need to foster and encourage a gaming environment where your players are invested in each others’ characters. Rotating the spotlight between characters helps support this by allowing a player to “back-off” a bit when the spotlight is on someone else, secure in the knowledge that their turn is coming soon. Playing a character and doing cool things is great, but playing a character and doing cool things and everyone at the table celebrating it is awesome!