Novels tend to have a protagonist, or heroes that aren’t just traveling 100% of the time with the other heroes of the story in a “party.”  In movies, you could have a movie like “Iron Man” where the main hero gets most of the spotlight in the story, and then a movie like “The Avengers” where all of those interesting heroes have to share the stage.  How do we reconcile our expectations from novels and RPG video games to tabletop RPGs where the players are on a team and forced to share the attention throughout the gaming session?

I hear about groups that have 7-10 players, and I have a hard time imagining how the GM can possibly give all those players time to shine in a 4 hour session.  As the GM, I already feel as though I fail in spreading spotlight appropriately on occasions, and I have 5 players.  I think the problem lies in two things: how long does the spotlight last, and how much tolerance do players have for being out of the spotlight.  In a 5 player game, each player is going to get approxiamtely 20% of the spotlight.  That means, if you’re playing for 4 hours, each person is getting the attention about 45 minutes of time.  That’s a long time to sit there for 45 minutes of personal attention.  Now, if a particular session fits a specific character’s backstory, that 45 minutes could get further reduced for the other members, so that you’re down to 15-30 minutes of spotlight in a 4 hour session.  I can just imagine trying to support a group of 7-10 people.  Now, in a 4 hour session, you’re getting about 25-30 minutes of spotlight, on average.

I’ve already alluded to it, but the problem isn’t unique to 7-10 people.  As the GM, when you think about “giving spotlight” to a character, there are a few decisions to make.  How often do you switch spotlight?  What’s the complexity of that spotlight?  Is that 5 minutes of action starring that character, or 30 minutes?  If you’re trying to reward a player for some excellent background tie, or interesting in-game decision, it’s hard to give them any depth in 5 minutes unless it’s mostly narrated with maybe a decision or two by the player.

For example, in a recent session, we had a number of personal story arcs the players were wrapping up between major events of the game.  Two of the characters decided to host a social event in order to meet and explore some of the important people in the area.  In order to give them the depth they deserved, I had to decide how many people would attend, and how many people they could meet and converse with during that time.  I also had to decide how long the interactions with these people should last.

Now, hopefully, the other players at the table were interested and entertained by the various people and interactions at the party, but they weren’t able to be too invested.  I was hoping to jump around from person’s story to person’s story, but due to conflicting schedules, that wasn’t possible, so the goal was to make each peron’s story as entertaining and relevant to everyone as possible.  It takes a certain amount of social unselfishness from everyone to make a session like this work.

A board game will tell you how many players can play, and I suppose an RPG could too.  What’s the sweet spot?  For me, it’s 3-5 players.  I think there’s a directly inverse relationship between number of players and the players investment in the game.  I’ve played solo sessions before, and the single player tends to be highly vested in the story (although I’ve also noticed a pretty significant reluctance to solo play, and haven’t done it over 10 years probably).  With 2-3 characters, you’re in the spotlight just about all of the time, and it’s easier to share in the spotlight together.  With 4-5 characters, I think you’re at the edge.  You now have enough different personalities at the table to really add some chaos and see social/group dynamics work, and you also start to see players check out during portions of the game they don’t find as interesting.

I wonder though, what design changes would you make in order to accomodate more people?  For one, the resolution mechanic needs to be fast.  We’re talking, roll a d6 and tie or beat your rating (set at 1-6) to succeed – no modifiers.  As Robert Schwalb points out, this isn’t really a bad mechanic if you want the game to get out of the way a little bit and you have players and GM that want to drive the story a bit more.

Next, you’ve got to be able to share spotlight between players, and spotlight has to be simple enough that you can get it, the player can feel rewarded, and then move it around.  Take a basketball game, where you’ve got 10 players.  The spotlight follows the ball around the court, and so when someone passes you the ball, you’ve got the spotlight.  You can take a shot and hit, and that might be the only shot you’ve taken in the last 30 minutes, but you still have been given little bits of spotlight the whole game, and when you think back on the last 30 minutes, that shot you made is going to stand out to you.  The person passing you the ball can share in the spotlight, since they may have made the perfect pass or draw the defense setting you up perfectly.

Finally, you’ve got to have some sort of structure that helps ensure everyone is getting some spotlight.  You could rely on social contracts for this, but I think the framework of the game has got to help out those that aren’t as assertive, since getting that spotlight can be a little addicting.  Maybe everyone has 2 spotlight tokens.  Every time the person on your right gets the spotlight, they give you one of their spotlight tokens.  Every time you get the spotlight, you pass one of your tokens to the player on your left.  That would help ensure that nobody dominates the spotlight, but add some flexibility so that you don’t have to literally go in a circle taking turns.

Any other thoughts on how to make sure everyone’s getting enough attention to enjoy the game?

3 thoughts on “Spotlight

  1. blackcampbell

    Good piece — the share of time players get while playing is probably one of, if not the most, important element of running a game. I find that for long campaigns, where the players have “bought in” on the story and the characters (not just their own, as would be the case for most one-offs and convention style play) that they are willing to give up the spotlight for a bit if the goings-on with the other characters are interesting. However, when it comes down to it, you shouldn’t have players fallow for more than, say 15-30 minutes.

    One way I get around this, if a player has wandered away from the main party, or the story line required (s)he be separate from the others for a time, is to let the other players roll for the bad guys, if there’s a fight scene, or more rarely and if I have a group that is more amenable to it, I’ll let their side chatter dictate a bit of what happens — it’s like shouting at the movie screen, only to have someone do what you said.

    Stumbled onto this post because it looks like WordPress associated one of my pieces with it.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Thanks for stopping by. I guess the only solutions I can think of are:

      1. Don’t allow players to split (pretty limiting to the feel of an RPG)
      2. Constantly skip around between the groups (this is my ideal solution if possible)
      3. Allow the non-spotlight players to play a different “character” involved in the scene, or the antagonists of the scene
      4. Allow the non-spotlight players to help narrate the scene

      The only other solution is to have a game designed around quickly resolving even somewhat complicated scenes, so that the game structure itself rarely leads you to the possibility of having 30min+ side stories that leave out certain characters.

  2. Brian

    1. Never split the party….but yea – this isn’t really feasible.
    2. Agreed – this is probably your best bet
    3. Sometimes applicable – more in terms of running enemy monsters than NPCs
    4. This is tough – especially when you are trying to set the scene as a DM

    A lot of this will certainly depend on the types of players you have…
    Personally – I enjoy hearing the other players’ story arcs almost as much as running through my own, but this is probably not the case with most players.


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