Sharing the gaming spotlight

The idea behind RPGs is pretty cool. We get together with friends and collaboratively create a story. Our favourite fiction is a great source of inspiration in this: we can create our own epics inspired by, in the style of, or even explicitly in the setting of our favourite authors, directors and artists. But by and large, fiction tends to have a single protagonist, and that doesn’t translate well from the page or the screen to the gaming table. Even when there is also a cadre of major supporting characters, it’s generally clear who the main character is. In fiction this is a good thing, as it provides a coherent feel to the story. The major story arc relates directly to a character’s goals. We get to see into this character’s head, and it becomes possible to enjoy an entire chapter/scene/whatever that is only happening to or only relevant to that one character.

It’s difficult to do this in gaming, though. If one character is always the star of the story, the other players will feel neglected. Even if Willow gets as much stage time as Buffy, and even if she gets significant personal story arcs and love interests, the show is still about the slayer. Certainly, when one player is the one whose character is consistently featured in flashbacks and solo missions, the other players tend to lose out. It can be unfulfilling when a player character’s whole purpose is to tell a story about another player character.

In my experience, then, and in the vast majority of what I’ve heard from others, RP groups tend to use the “ensemble cast” model. Plots are tailored to try to involve every character as equally. Any given scene might focus on one character over the others, but part of the GM’s job is to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to shine. This is much rarer in fiction, especially done well, but we do occasionally see it happen. One example is Battlestar Galactica. It’s difficult to say whether the main character of the series is Starbuck, President Roslyn, Gaius or one of the Adamas. Each regularly gets the spotlight, and the dozen or so other major characters gets it fairly frequently too. In that sense the show really is about the whole cast.

So what makes it so difficult to do this in a game? Unless the characters are designed to have explicitly harmonious sets of skills and goals, setting up a story that plays to everyone’s motivations very often winds up being watered down: only tangentially interesting to each character, or else tremendously contrived (“Tarek, you need to collect an important spell component from the eastern forest. The forest is near the tribe of orcs that used to terrorize your home town, Mika, and Nale, you realize that this is the forest rumoured to be the home of the most revered elder druid in the kingdom.”). Otherwise, we often use generic adventure plots, so that each character is equally un-special and can find their own motivation for rescuing the princess from the trap-filled dungeon of the evil monster that has been turning the villagers into thralls who polish its pile of treasure while the monster plans to unravel the fabric of existence.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to play with the sort of dynamic we find in books and on the screen? As a player, I love to spend time wrestling with my character’s personal demons. I’ve played with groups where this worked out really well, because the other players loved that too. But not all players are happy to sit by for half an hour while one character takes another’s confession.

One solution is to run a game with just one other player. I’ve done this, and it works really well. The GM doesn’t feel guilty for dedicating the entire session to one character, or for letting them spend it all soloing in a VR rig or dream sequence. This is suboptimal for other reasons, though, chiefly because one of the main attractions of gaming is often the group dynamic, doing something fun with a bunch of other people, and it’s nice for there to be more than just the two of you.

So I was chatting recently with the GM of the Starblazers game I’m playing in, specifically about this. We came up with a couple of ideas, and I’m hoping to implement something like this at some point.

  1. Penumbra Model: PCs are supporting cast for an NPC protagonist, who is never centre-stage.

    Here, the PCs’ actions drive the story, but the plot revolves around the NPC. One way to run this would be for the protagonist to not really be all that competent, so that the PCs are the real heroes — although they may never get recognized for it. Or the protagonist could be constrained in some way, unable or not allowed to do the really interesting work.

    I can see this working really well, or else getting tiresome. You might inadvertently wind up with a “band of operatives” dynamic, where the PCs all work for some third party and go on designated missions without necessarily being personally motivated to do so. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing a party of FBI operatives or interstellar couriers, but it doesn’t tend to produce plots characters are very personally invested in. Chalk this suggestion up to “maybe”.

  2. Rotating Spotlight model: Each session, a different character is explicitly designated as the hero, and the others as supporting cast.

    The idea here is to let the GM develop stories around one of the characters at a time, and let the dynamic of the session build around it. I think it may well be more satisfying to everyone if there’s a goal that is really important to one person, rather than spreading the focus around too much. And unless the party is totally randomly thrown together (and perhaps even then), there will always be plenty for the supporting players to do. If this week the gunslinging Jack Hustler goes back to Montana to face his fear of ghosts and finally put his father’s spirit to rest, at first glance the other characters are out of their element. But the big-city gumshoe Duncan Dirk is the first to notice that Jack Senior was the victim of foul play, the smooth British socialite John Howard convinces Jack to stick to his guns when the chips are down, and the Shinto-Jesuit monk Friar Takanawa is pivotal in granting the restless spirit its repose.

    This may work really well. In fact, BSG did something like this. Listen to the opening sequence of any episode. Usually the actor who says “previously, on Battlestar Galactica” is the one who is in the spotlight for the episode. If your group likes cheese, you could even have the spotlighted character of the week do a quick recap at the beginning of the session.

So I think I’m going to try implementing the “rotating spotlight” method. There are a few details to work out, such as:

  • Do the characters rotate in order through the spotlight, is it randomly chosen, or do I choose based on what plots I have brewing? Either way, I’d need to keep track of how many times each has been in the spotlight.
  • Do I tell the characters beforehand which of them will be the star?
  • Is it necessary to sweeten the deal a bit for the supporting characters? For instance, in FATE I might give each supporting character an extra Fate Point or something.

If you’ve read this far, cool. Please let me know if you have any ideas on this.

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