Elements of Play: PC Spotlighting Techniques

Saturday has come, and I’m still sniffling a bit, and my eyes are more bleary than usual, but brain function seems to be okay, so away we go!

If you’re running your group’s game, you’re essentially the director of the movie, and it’s your responsibility to give each and every player’s character a certain amount of screen time. Let’s examine a few methods of spotlighting. We’ll start with the fruit hanging lowest on the tree–Archetypes–and then wander through Hindrances, Edges, and Background respectively.

Note: These methods work equally well for any game system, but we’ll be using the terms from Savage Worlds. Replace the appropriate words with those of your system de jour and you should be good to go.

Archetype: This is the role the player has chosen for his character–regardless of skill level, dice, and other crunchy bits–this is how the character has been defined. Is he a ronin? a thief? a barbarian? an exiled prince? All these are bristling with hooks and thematic elements for the GM. A ronin could encounter someone from his old clan. A thief may hear tell of some great treasure secreted away in the old prison. A barbarian may have to fumble his way through a courtly audience. An exiled prince may be attending a diplomatic council and things are going well when the emissary who framed him shows up at the talks. All of these take what may be a rather vanilla adventure, and give it twists and turns unexpected by the group. This transforms the character’s role and expands the character all through the player’s choices and interactions. Imagine a peaceful monk who undertakes a quest to find a lost heir, and the atrocities he encounters along the way. How is he changed by the experience? Does his faith grow, does he take up the blade, or does he become aware of the cynicism and hypocrisy of the people he serves? Make certain to create grey areas where there are no right or wrong answers, but only varying shades of light and dark. You don’t want to entirely derail the whole throughline of your story arc, but you want possibilities for character growth. In the above example, the return of the lost heir is certain to quell the civil unrest, and reduce the chance of war, so what must be done along the way can be viewed as necessary evils. Is it better to slaughter the peaceful dissidents or placate them by performing some task on their behalf (in order to buy some time) or should the group create some other threat to underscore the necessity of their mission?

Hindrances: This arrow should be in the arsenal of every GM, and should not be overlooked. They are, by their very nature, designed to create trouble. The player has accepted this as part of the social contract in gaming–he gets more points for his character in return for varying degrees of abuse in play. If you’re going to ignore hindrances, you may as well not have any and just give the characters free advances (experience points, level ups, etcetera) or disallow them altogether. If the character is the meat, the hindrances are the garnish adding variety and flavor. Steak is great, but so is the sour cream laden potato oozing with butter and chives, and they work so well in concert. For example, characters crossing a misty graveyard at night is a regular occurrence in horror games. If one character is wearing glasses, a slight rain is going to drive the point home for them as they have the option of removing their glasses or view the world through water dappled lenses. Overconfidence doesn’t necessarily have to stay on the battlefield. What if a character refuses to back down in a discussion with a society elite who professes to know a lot about architecture, but is consistently wrong? Will the character correct him? And enemies, good old enemies, are a quick way to put the focus on a particular character without a blade being drawn. Imagine the character is a stage magician when not fighting the dark forces, and returns from defeating a heavy and finds his nemesis has ousted him from his venue by undercutting his rates? What will the character do? The complexity of what goes on between adventures are threads which a creative GM can interweave into the story elements. Perhaps the rival magician has connections to a cult, or the stage manager does, and wants to disrupt our hero’s schedule? One need look no further than Spider-Man to see how social interactions elevate the web-slinger from another hero to a guy who is constantly mired in social dilemmas (who just happens to have “great power” too).

Edges: The counterbalance to Hindrances are Edges. These are the things the players choose and is their way of saying “I want to be really good at X!” X can be sword swinging, spell casting, just darn tough, or any of a huge list of things. Make certain to put the character in situations where he can put his special talents into play with regularity. Do you have a character who can sweep through a dozen foes with one Conanesque spin of his blade? Throw hordes at him. Is there a wizard in the party who took dispel? Present him with magic locks and illusions. Certain priestly types need undead to validate their existence. It’s your role to make certain these special things selected by the players make their way into the game. In essence, this is where your players are telling you, “Okay…we’re playing Swords & Sorcery, sure, but these are some of the elements I want in my game.”  Edges are arguably more valuable than skills in defining a character. Two characters may have Shooting d8, but the one with Marksman as well is saying to the GM…”give me things to shoot, please.” Listen to the players. If in doubt on how to make things work, go watch an old episode of Super Friends and you’ll note every episode featuring Aquaman has water, whales, or some other bit of nautical nastiness. If Hanna-Barbera could do it, so can you. It’s your job to make it not feel particularly contrived, mind you, but players never object to spotlight moments, as long as you’re giving everyone equal screen time.

Background: Mandatory in some games, but less so in others. If you have your players create backgrounds for your characters, this serves two purposes. One, it makes the character more rounded, and affords you the additional opportunity of integrating elements from the character’s back story into the narrative of the campaign. Two characters may presently be living in Charleston, both may be doctors, but one could be a hometown hero who fought in the war and has a successful practice, and the other could be escaping ghosts from his past–perhaps he was a back alley doctor being blackmailed by the Mob, and ducked into the sleepy, southern town to regroup and decide what he’ll do next; heck, the second guy may not want anyone to know he’s a doctor, and now works on the docks as a common laborer. With elements such as these to play upon, you can have socialites interested in the first doctor or he may run into old war buddies. The second guy could be forced into a position where a woman goes into labor as she’s disembarking a ship, and if he doesn’t save her, she’ll die, and he knows this. Will he break cover to save her? This defines how seriously he takes the Hippocratic Oath, and reveals a lot about the character.

Be certain to give spotlights as they are warranted. Experienced gamers are especially deft at creating their own spotlight moments, but it’s important to rotate the spotlight around to ensure everyone is getting equal screen time. Depending upon the session’s length and the size of the group, it can sometimes be tricky, but keep a sense of whom you’ve spotlighted, and plan to make the players you missed in one session the focus in the next. Balance is key. Your players will certainly your application of this technique regardless of the system you’re using.

Now, I turn the spotlight upon the rest of my day, and bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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