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?