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GMing 142: Spotlight Moments

GMing 142 posts define and explore key game mastering concepts and RPG terminology. The reference to the meaning of life is pure coincidence.

Spotlight Moment

Definition: A spotlight moment is a scene or a portion of a scene in an adventure that is entirely focused on one PC. During her spotlight moment, that PC — and by extension, her player — is the star of the game.

Beyond Definitiondome: Apart from what they actually do at the gaming table, your players’ characters are their single biggest and most important contribution to the campaign. The PCs are at the heart of every adventure you run, and your campaign is (or should be) all about them. Spotlight moments take this basic concept and refine it, distilling it down to its essential components and upping the intensity.

When your players created their characters, they were saying, “This is what I want to do in the game” and “I think these things are cool.” These are signposts [1], except they’re signs for you from your players instead of vice versa.

A player who creates a rogue in a D&D game wants to sneak around stabbing people in the back, disarm traps, fast-talk NPCs and so forth; a player who rolls up a hard-drinking, hard-hitting musclebound galoot for your Call of Cthulhu game wants to slug cultists, smash down doors and tote a Tommy gun under his trenchcoat.

Ditto with pure roleplaying aspects: If a player puts a hated NPC rival in his character’s background, it’s because he wants to see that NPC in the game; if he yearns to return to his dwarven homeland, actually getting there should be a big deal in-game.

In Your Game: On its own, making a skill check to disarm a trap wouldn’t be a spotlight moment for that rogue — that’s just a skill check. Being the only PC who can sneak down the trapped hallway, pick the lock on the door without waking the ogre on the other side and return with the key to the next section of the dungeon, however, would be. The same goes for running into that hated rival: The showdown, whether verbal, physical or both, will almost certainly be a spotlight moment.

The other half of a spotlight moment is that for that part of the adventure, that character’s player is also in the spotlight. She’s on center stage, and the other players are hanging on her every move. A good spotlight moment blends mechanical and/or roleplaying as well as social elements.

As a rule of thumb, you should build at least one spotlight moment for each PC into every adventure you write. You can also create scenes that include so many elements that they act as spotlight moments for each PC in turn. Your players will also surprise you by generating spotlight moments of their own, which is one of my favorite parts of any session.

How do you handle spotlight moments in your campaign?

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5 Comments To "GMing 142: Spotlight Moments"

#1 Comment By Fang Langford On June 2, 2008 @ 8:42 am

Actually, I turn the spotlight moment idea on its head. I’ve had a lot of luck only running spotlight scenes. How to do you do this? [2]

This post is right on top of the whole point of role-playing gaming and gamemastering too. Your game is about your player characters (and little else). I take that a step farther; I treat it like nothing else exists. (But I don’t let the players know that.)

Unless they’ve said it, heard it or remember it, it doesn’t exist…yet. This gives me an inordinate amount of flexibility. And I’d rather be flexible than creative (when I can’t be both). If I can’t improvise something (even though I use an improv style), I grab something I’ve already thought up, file off the serial numbers and present it as if I’d planned it to be there all along.

The secret is the illusion of control rather than the control of illusion.

That means whenever a player starts a scene by saying what they want to do, I jump right to the spotlight time. (I cut the scene’s beginning so close that it bleeds just a little.) The biggest and most important challenge to running this way is what to do with the other players. I’ve seen a lot of advice on how to involve them, but it all comes down to what is written in this article. If the other players aren’t hanging on the spotlighted players every word, you have to bump up the tension.

So the players know that the key is ‘thataway’ and the thief elects to go it alone, what would have been a simple hallway for the party to traverse becomes the trap-laden hall of death described above. The locked door now emits the sound of ogre snoring (where no ogre was listed before). Now the whole group is hanging on the actions of that one player. Does it make sense that an ogre sleeps at the end of trapped hall? Probably not. (What about sleepwalking?) Does it work? You bet it does.

Signposts are also a fabulous idea. You should take it farther. I clumsily named my take on this a character’s [3] (which means, [4]). On the practical level, this means when a player gives me a very brief PC write-up (lacking in all but the most minimal signposts), I ask them what ‘three things’ they want me to never forget about their character. When presented too many signposts, I ask what are the ‘three things’ I should think of first about the character. These are my primary signposts, writ large. I also take notes while I run…but only potential signposts for the future (and nothing else).

So that’s how I handle spotlight moments. How does everyone else do it?

Fang Langford

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 2, 2008 @ 11:26 am

Spotlight episodes are hardwired into the rules for PTA, which does a good job of explaining what everyone’s role is during the spotlight… and explicitly cueing people depending on their screen presence that session. We just finished our first Spotlight episode last session and had a blast. Everyone was more attentive, and eager to throw the ball to the spotlight character. It worked out very well– better than the other sessions. I suspect that’s because everyone knew whose spotlight it was, instead of wrestling for a bit of spotlight time, as often happens in party based games.

In other games, I’m not good about prepping a spotlight moment for each character in each session. Some of the players in the D&D group are worried about the characters overlapping roles and lacking personal spotlights. So far the battles have been more “what’s reasonable” than consciously considering the spotlight– which has exacerbated the concern that the characters are overlapping too much. A good sneak scene hints at the rogue, but if you’re in the wilderness it also hints at the ranger, and anyone who dumps lots of points in hide and move silent might do OK… The “claim” on spotlight moments is less clear that I’d like.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 2, 2008 @ 8:27 pm

@Fang: Very cool. That reminds me of Burning Empires, which builds the “only spotlight moments” thing into the rules — more as “only the cool scenes,” but it’s still pretty similar. I really like the sound of your approach.

@Scott: I have trouble following my own advice. 😉 I’ve definitely run sessions in my current game where I didn’t put in the time to make sure everyone had a spotlight moment, or where I couldn’t find a way to do so. I always feel guilty, but sometimes it’s just not as easy as it sounds.

#4 Comment By Hautamaki On June 5, 2008 @ 4:14 am

Well hey, as long as someone picks a druid in D&D 3.5, pretty much every combat encounter is going to be their spotlight moment =p

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 5, 2008 @ 9:15 am

@Hautamaki: For a second there, I thought you might be in my group: I’m playing a 3.5 druid right now, and sweet Jesus do I take up a lot of time in combat. 😉 I’ve toned down my summoning accordingly, but it’s still a pain. Fun class, though.