Support the Spotlight as a GM

Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rick Hershey / Fat Goblin Games

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In roleplaying games, we talk A LOT about the spotlight. “Make sure to spotlight every player,” we tell our fellow game masters. “Share the spotlight,” we advise players. But what IS the spotlight? What does it mean? How do we focus, support, and share the spotlight?

What Is the Spotlight?

I’m sure for players who are old hat, they instantly understand what is meant by the term spotlight. In fact, if you’ve never played an RPG before, you can probably still figure it out based on context clues. Still, I think for the purposes of this blog post, it helps to define it.

The spotlight refers to the story’s focus at any given time, specifically a focus character. In other words, if your game’s story were a staged performance, it’s where the spotlight operator would be pointing the beam of light. In film terms, we might use a close-up metaphor. In an orchestra we might call it a solo. You get the idea. It’s a standout moment or a time to highlight a character in the story.

I’ve often seen spotlight moments referred to as a character’s “time to shine,” but I’m not sure this is entirely correct. The story can focus on a character’s failure or sadness and be just as dramatic and compelling for the player and story as a heroic moment. Spotlight moments should be more than just, “You were awesome at that and we knew you would be.” They should involve the player character being an active participant and driving the story of the scene. For instance, if the characters are caught in a Saw-style deathtrap and the rogue manages to reach her thieves’ tools and tries to disable the device, the spotlight is on them, whether they succeed or fail at disarming the trap. If they win the day, their friends are saved. If they lose, the story continues… and now the rogue feels responsible for the wizard’s missing arm or the cleric’s death.

Focusing the Spotlight

So how do we as GMs focus the spotlight on different players? There are a few ways to do this.

Mechanics

The first and most obvious way to focus the spotlight on someone is through mechanics. The best way to create spotlight moments through mechanics is to write down a list of exclusive attributes for each character. What can they do better than any other character? For a rogue in Dungeons & Dragons, you might write down “sneaky, trap disabler, locksmith.”

Take that list and create situations that play to that character’s strengths. Using our rogue from earlier, you’d want to be sure to include places to hide, traps, and locked doors and chests in a dungeon crawl. If there’s a bard in your party who can charm the pants off anything, include some creatures that don’t immediate shoot first and ask questions later in your dungeon, and be sure to include some that do for your barbarian to smash.

Of course, not every game is a structured, self-contained dungeon crawl. With more open or improvisational games, you should keep each character’s list of exclusive attributes handy, and you’ll be able to highlight situations with challenges unique to each character’s abilities. You could even make a list of generic challenges before a session with each character’s exclusive abilities in mind. Your list of challenges might say, “Trap, fussy bureaucrat, melee battle, mage duel,” and leave the details up to you to fill-in as you go along.

Remember a character doesn’t have to succeed in a spotlight moment when it comes to mechanics. They’re still in the spotlight, even if they fail and mechanical spotlight moments are more dramatic if there’s a chance of failure. Let your player revel in failure as much as they would success.

Story

Story moments can be big spotlights for players. The main villain is your mother? You used to work for the bandit king we’re hunting? The IRS finally caught up to you for all that tax evasion? These all throw a player right into the spotlight.

If you’re the kind of GM that uses backstories, there’s often plenty to pull in those tasty tales, but you can also pull from previous sessions. Remember that goblin Ned the Fighter threw off the top of the tower? Well he’s got a sister and she’s coming for ya, Ned. The merchant the Ralph the Sorcerer helped in passing comes back to ask for more aide, offering even more reward.

The best way to keep track of all these possible moments is to keep some lists handy. The digital age makes that super easy. You can plan for these threads to come into a character’s life or you could simply keep that list handy when GMing and highlight story moments when it feels right.

The best spotlight moments go beyond just giving the character new information or exposing a backstory element to the rest of the player characters. Give characters choices to make. When the spotlight is on them, let them take action. Present the information and allow them to react. When the villain reveals herself to be Nadir the Monk’s mother, it should be at a time where Nadir can choose to fight, join, or let her mother get away. If the IRS comes for superheroine Masked Lady Night, she has to make the choice between going peacefully or running away… from the law she claims to represent!

Combination

Truly great spotlight moments are a combination of mechanics unique to the player character and personal story, like Nadir the Monk’s showdown with her villainous mother on the narrow rafters of an ancient castle or Sam the Rogue disarming a trap before it tears his pet pig to pieces. When these truly dramatic story moments happen, remember to utilize the mechanics of the player to whom the story moment pertains. For instance, if Sam the Rogue’s pet pig was stolen by a beholder who just wanted to throw down, that’s not as much of a spotlight on Sam the Rogue as it would be if the pig were in a trap. Now if the fighter’s pet pig got stolen, throwing down with a beholder would be just prime.

Drawing in the Spotlight Shy Player

Some players jump eagerly into the spotlight (looking at you, bard players), while others tend to hang back because they don’t want to jump on someone else’s moment… even when it is the person who is hanging back’s moment! Feel free to draw that player in with head first engagement. “Hey Paul. Nadir is your character. How do you think her villainy should be approached?” If the player still wants to hang back, that’s fine, but it should be a signal to that person and the other players that it is now this person’s time in the spotlight.

Multiple Spotlights!

It can be fun to highlight multiple players at once, especially if they have backstories that are tied together (like siblings or army pals) or they have some crazy plan (the fighter picks up the spikey-armored halfling and hurls him at a dragon). When this happens, take a step back and let the players really drive the story. Only fill in the gaps where you need to, make sure everyone who is in the spotlight at the moment gets equal time to be the focus, and you’ll have a blast!

Coming soon: Support the Spotlight as a Player!

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