In today's Digital and Dice podcast, our wonderful hosts talked about sharing the spotlight between the players. This largely banks on the players accepting the opportunities that are presented to them, and that their fellow players not upstage them through their own actions. However, they also talked about the work the GM has to do to craft these encounters in the first place, and that's what I'd like to focus on here.
As mentioned, it's much easier to leverage the PC's backstories for memorable moments if they have a more comprehensive backstory. While GMs might be able to work from 4 sentences or less, more detail makes our job much easier. If the player does provide information for you, look for key themes. Anything they talk about multiple times or explicitly state as being important should probably be your first choice. If you need to gather more information, consider having your character fill out a brief questionnaire, or filling it out yourself based on their backstories (or your own ideas, preferably with the green light from the player.) I've written on this topic before, and the simple 15 question list I have seems to do the trick quite well. Once you have your information at hand, you're ready to extract it.
Some of the easiest backstory elements to bring up are relationships with people, since the PC might encounter a significant person anywhere in the world, provided that the PC has a reason to travel and that the PC isn't one of those all-too-common tragic individuals with no ties to any living person. As mentioned in today's show, people from the PCs backstory can serve as rival or enemies of the PC, but they can also serve as allies, contacts, or simply as passing distractions. Those conflict often drives plot, sometimes NPCs simply exist for immersion and interaction, and not for exposition or to further the plot. Not every moment needs to be something epic and all consuming. Especially if the player themselves is one of those all-too-common shy folk who inhabit our hobby. Sometimes a casual and quiet encounter is enough for the player. But dropping in that NPC to interact with makes the player feel special and lets them know that you as the GM are thinking of them.
You can also make use of significant locations. As brought up in today's show, this can be a homecoming session where the PCs visit the point of origin of one of their comrades, but it could be any other important place too. The place where the PC trained, or perhaps some special place they just heard or read about and always wanted to visit. Again, the idea here is to give the player time to shine, however they choose to define that. If they decide that they don't like visiting home, then that's a perfectly fine decision. but what matters is that the GM try to thread that hook for them. While we're still on the topic of locations, this does have the added benefit of allowing for adventure hooks more easily than with an NPC. While ultimately the PCs have to choose to engage with an NPC, at a location stuff can just happen around them. Like it or not, if the PCs hometown happens to be attacked by zombies while they're visiting, the party will have to deal with that. Maybe they want to save the town, or maybe just carve a path out of there to save their own skin. But the zombies are still going to be a problem no matter what. It also serves as a hook for someone who doesn't care about the town. They may not give a damn about the little village, but they may well be interested in knowing where the zombies came from.
Items are another important source of backstory leveraging. Perhaps the PC finds an item they've always been looking for, or maybe they learn to read that strange book they've always been carrying. Players tend to take an interest in loot, so drawing on an item as a source of spotlighting a character can be really rewarding for the player. Maybe that demon sword they found gains sentience and they have to deal with that. Or maybe some little orphan girl just runs up to the PC and offers to share pie. Swords or pie, ultimately the shape of the object doesn't matter, what matters is that the player gets access to some sort of special connection to it.
There are plenty of other sources to be used too. Recently, I've had a PC receive a divinely inspired vision. Beliefs and ideals held by the character can themselves be the source of the spotlight. Maybe the Paladin's morals are tested. Or the Rogue's greed becomes problematic when she is given the chance to sell out her friends for a huge payoff. These are part of who the character is, and they can be used as a way of really giving the player a chance to really show who the character is and to get further immersed in the game. Which is what it's all about really. Getting into the game and enjoying it. And if the player looks at your carefully craft hook and says "This isn't for me." then there's always a chance to try again later with something else, and even if you don't the player will at least know and be grateful that you made the offer.
I hope you enjoyed this and the rest of the content by Digital & Dice. If you want to read more in direct relation to tonight's show topic, head on over to my personal blog and check out the post "Sharing the Spotlight".Until next time…Game on Internets!
- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.