This time of year I’m usually involved in a lot of playtesting. In addition to my yearly pilgrimage to Gen Con I’m also involved in the preparation of new games that are likely to debut at Origins or Gen Con. Needless to say that covers a lot of games, some old and some so new that I’m working off of Word documents. Recently I was running such a playtest when an issue cropped up.
Normally when I draft an adventure I try to ensure that each PC gets a chance to shine at least once. This is easy when I’m the one drafting the adventures and the characters but not so much when I’m using materials prepared by others. In both cases it’s part of the playtest; long-time readers may recall that a playtest for my first con adventure revealed that a particular PC was sidelined for the climax of the adventure. I was fortunately able to fix that before the con.
In this case, there was a PC that had a skill set that was only relevant in the final scene. Worse, she lost the tool kit that would have given her a bonus early on in the adventure. Even worse than that, she was woefully incompetent in the challenges that the group faced throughout the rest of the adventure. Now, to be fair the PC did shine in that final scene, but by then the player had mentally checked out after 3 and a half hours of feeling worthless. Perhaps the worst observation was that the player was initially very interested in the game but wanted no part of it by the end.
Playtesting is a valuable tool for me, not only for improving the final product but also offering insights for me as a Gamemaster. This particular playtest offered me three of them.
First, if a PC only has one chance to shine during a four hour (or more) session then her presence isn’t really necessary, an NPC can cover that base. This is further exacerbated by the fact that if the “spotlight” comes early then the player has little motivation to stay for the rest of the session; if the spotlight comes too late then the player may no longer care. The player needs regular assurances that her presence is useful.
Second, it’s inevitable that some PCs are easier to write challenges for than others. That said if one or two players get several attempts to “show their stuff” during a session while others only get one or two then it’s going to cause issues around the table. In the playtest, one PC had the equipment and abilities to overcome the challenges in most scenes, while the others did not. Also, it’s a good idea to occasionally toss something at the “spotlighted” PCs that require assistance from the other PCs; this keeps everyone engaged and cultivates the idea that it’s necessary to be part of the team.
Third, even when a PC is not in the spotlight, she needs to be reasonably competent for most of the other scenes. Going back to the playtest, not only did one PC absolutely shine in combat, he was the only one capable of really harming the opposition. The others spent most of their time running for cover. In a scenario which was predominantly combat and physical challenges, all of the PCs should have been reasonably equipped to handle them.
Those were insights I gained about spotlighting while playtesting; how about you? Do you find “one spotlight moment per session” adequate or do your players need more? Is everyone in your group reasonably competent most of the time or are they highly specialized? Have you ever playtested a game or run a one-shot and gained a valuable insight?
If you’re running a one-shot game then it is probably important to make sure each character gets a turn in the spotlight, but for longer running games I just don’t think it is necessary to try and put each character in the spotlight every session by providing some element that caters to them alone.
However, you can make sure each character is ‘engaged’ in the game by giving them something to do or respond to without it necessarily catering to their specialty or expertise alone. As long as PCs are regularly engaged with other things going on in the game, they should never feel useless just because they didn’t get time in the spotlight.
I usually create my own adventures, but whenever I use something prepared by others (very rarely) I always try to customize it for the PCs in my group. Sometimes that is a simple tweak here and there and sometimes it can mean I just keep the basic premise and rewrite almost everything else. I’ve always looked at pre-made scenarios as just a rough guide rather than a strict blueprint. YMMV.
It’s not just the number of times, it’s the amount of time and usefulness. For example, a common “balance” would be a bard needing to gather information on where the treasure is, a fighter to take out the guards, and a rogue to disarm the trap on it. This may seem balanced, but it’s really not.
1) The bard basically makes a single Gather Information roll and then the “spotlight” time is over. They could get more spotlight time by role-playing out the process, but in a time-limited game that’s going to really slow things down. And if he fails, there has to be some sort of backup, so even the bard’s one meaningful roll doesn’t end up being that urgent.
2) Then the fighter gets to be in the spotlight for a long time. Even if it’s just a few average guards it will probably take a half-hour in most systems (and even though they have more spotlight time than anyone else, the fighter’s player will not feel very useful), more significant opposition could take an hour or more, and success would be vital to the mission.
3) Finally, the rogue gets to be in the spotlight for a single roll, and again even failure will most likely result in the party getting the treasure. You could play with this to make it more vital, but just like for the bard you’re limited in your options – a failed roll either means the mission was for naught, stretches out the adventure for an unacceptable period of time, or is effectively meaningless.
You could add more areas for the rogue to shine, but the players will probably get tired of the rogue getting so many opportunities to shine, even if each is only a minute or two long.
Combat is really the limiting factor. If the system is combat-heavy, it’s going to be almost impossible to balance spotlight time unless you leave out characters whose focus is combat.
You can certainly make non-combat interactions much more involving than, “Roll your skill check…. A 23? You succeed.”
When I write an adventure where I know the PCs are going to want to Gather Information, I determine in advance what various result ranges entail. For example, a 15 gets generally correct but vague information, a 20 gets a set of specifics in which 1 or 2 of the details are mistaken, a 25 gets you the low-down from the fellow who’s actually been there, etc. It’s always more than just a yes-or-no situation.
I also sketch out the source who’ll provide each of the bits of information. Don’t forget, most of these sources are people. They have physical descriptions, jobs, attitudes, and mannerisms.
During the game I roleplay the conversation the party has with each NPC. Don’t forget, with a skill like GI, a single check represents a number of interactions– so the party may meet several people while resolving the roll. Giving color to these encounters adds to the fun, provides a wealth of information for the players (sometimes too much!), gives them contextual clues about how to separate fact from fiction, and occasionally yields a recurring NPC the party wants to develop a longer term relationship with.
I prefer roleplaying encounters also, but I also prefer not to play d20-style games and this is one of the reasons why. Roleplaying is a player skill, not a character skill. If your Cha 3 fighter has a very social player who plays a fighter to be something different than real life, and your charismatic rogue is played by a shy player who also wants to play something they have trouble with in the real world, then your charming rogue gets _no_ chance to shine. The fighter’s player gets to take over the shy player’s spotlight as well as getting his own.
That could plague any system, but in a d20-type it’s even worse. The charming rogue or bard has doubtless spent a lot of hard-earned skill points on their Gather Info skill, while the big dumb fighter has spent none. Now if you give everyone a chance to roleplay encounters, the rogue has wasted his skill points – which is sure to lead to hard feelings! Of course you could roll a skill check after spending a lot of time roleplaying, but then it still boils down to a single roll, which can succeed even if the player did a horrible job or could fail even if they did a brilliant job – and by then, they probably have plenty of info anyway. You could also make a roll beforehand to see how well the commoners will react to the characters – but then you’ve still boiled it down to â€œRoll your skill checkâ€¦. A 23? You succeed.â€, with a bunch of other things tacked on to the end – especially if the characters failed the check and aren’t going to get any info anyway.
I think this speaks towards a need for more generalist characters, or at least characters who are not highly specialized one trick ponies.
I DO always try when designing adventures to identify one or more tasks that each character is the best at and include some of those challenges, but that does little to help a character who is otherwise useless.
The follow-up question is, why would an adventuring party run around with a character who is useful for about 30 seconds a week and is otherwise dead weight? “System concerns” is an answer I suppose (see early DnD mages for example) but if we’re thinking realistically, most groups would rather have a generally useful party member who’s “pretty good” at their specialty than one who’s a leading expert at their specialty but who is otherwise holding them back. That’s akin to a video game “escort quest” and we’ve all frothed all over our keyboard over those from time to time.
Another (bad) answer is the character who is useless now, but will make up for all their missed spotlight time at level X (again, see early DnD mages). Not only is this NOT better, it’s worse. You’re “fixing” an imbalance today with an opposite imbalance tomorrow.
I wrote about using the mix of encounter types supported by the rules to guide character creation and then using the mix of encounter types supported by the characters to guide encounter creation in my article re encounter types: http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/the-surprisingly-vertical-impact-of-encounter-type/
I think the pre-made adventure you were testing could have used a bit of that approach.
I tend to plan very loosely, so for me itâ€™s more an issue of making sure I balance my attention between the players rather than planning specific moments for characters. Donâ€™t get me wrong. I try and make sure the scenario before the players has a reason for all their characters to be there, but I play it a little more organically when it comes to shining the spotlight. I take advantage of their excitement and involvement to give them the spotlight when itâ€™s appropriate, or I seize the opportunity to draw a shyer player into the game with a moment for their character to shine.
With on-going campaigns, I weave bits for each character into the overall story, but I donâ€™t stress too much about â€˜schedulingâ€™ spotlight moments for the characters. The characters already have a reason to be involved in whateverâ€™s going on and my players are good at keeping themselves involved and creating their own moments to shine.
One-shots are a little different as they are very dependent on the mix of players you get at the table. I’ve found that different players can drastically change the flavor and importance of some characters. Good players usually make any character useful and involved, provided Iâ€™ve crafted a scenario that is open enough for any character to step into the spotlight. Itâ€™s also more likely to run into a shy player during a one-shot, forcing me to try and guide them into the action a little bit by giving their character an opportunity to show off their skills.
Cons and one shots are particularly tricky to balance for–especially as you have no idea which characters will come to life and shine in a player’s hands, and which will depend strictly on GM provided scenes for interest.
One trick ponies are often frustrating to play unless that’s what everyone is playing. (Though even that is limited, as the fighter “spotlight” for 30 minutes example by Norcross illustrates.)
Play testing is crucial and not just for ensuring all characters have enough to do. I’ve run convention games where I did several slots of the same game, but different players. In one instance I took lessons learned from one game session to the other and it made a ton of difference. Small changes would take encounters from mediocre to excellent.
When you create a party of six pregens for a one shot, it is hard to anticipate chances to shine – better to ensure everyone will have something of vaue to do. Make sure they have combat abilities (that’s the focus for a majority of games) and be flexible. I have had horrible play experiences at certain convention games where the DM had a script to follow and they would not deviate for any reason. Tournaments are one thing, but a basic con game is not some precious thing – power to the DM.