One of the mechanics built into Primetime Adventures is called Screen Presence. It’s a mechanic that goes on everyone’s character sheet, but has to be coordinated by everyone before anyone can set it. Screen Presence is awesome in Primetime Adventures… and might amp up your current game too.
What is Screen Presence?
In Primetime Adventures, Screen Presence measures how central your character is to the episode and how much the episode revolves around your character’s issues. Screen presence also affects your character’s competence. When your character is screen presence 3, you draw three cards in every conflict and can activate each trait three times during the episode for more cards. When your screen presence is only 1, you draw 1 card in conflicts, and can burn a trait for an extra card only once per episode.
Your character has a narrative arc over the season, and your screen presence reflects that. For example, in a 5 episode season, you might assign your character this pattern of screen presence: 1-1-2-2-3. Or you could set the pattern as 1-2-3-2-1, or any other arrangement. For the first arc, you have a steady build: the character starts off in the background, contributes more and more, becoming ever more central to the group, culminating in the situation where they convince their group to go for the plan that’s so crazy it just might work… In the second pattern the character might be the established leader, who at first is apart from and distant from her people, but steps in with wit and dynamic leadership that saves the day at mid-season. Then the spotlight passes to the people she’s nurtured, who have their own spotlights as their talents come to full flower.
Key is that the narrative arcs are set by the players in consultation with each other. You have to carefully arrange the arcs so that you don’t wind up with multiple spotlight characters in an episode–there’s only one character rated Screen Presence 3 at a time. Even more important than the mechanic (drawing extra cards) is the direction in the rulebook to both the producer (the game’s GM) and the other players for setting scenes and plotting storylines for the character’s spotlight episode.
Spotlight has been a popular topic over the course of the Stew. Figuring out how to encourage players to shine without boring everyone else can be tricky. It’s exciting when the whole table’s looking to you, when your talents are called on, and when your backstory ties critically into the current plot… except when that leads to creative shutdown. Handing off the spotlight and keeping everyone engaged is a big part of the GM’s core responsibility.
When I play D&D, we’re often a multi-headed problem solving mob; we throw our spells and blades together against the foe and bring them down with teamwork and skill. There are often scenes with spotlight elements–the rogue is the one who sidles along the precarious ledge, while the rest of the characters wait, breath held. Or undead come pouring out of the niches, too thick to handle… until the cleric brandishes his holy symbol, buying us breathing space. Unfortunately, these scenes are unpredictable to the players– will this be an adventure where my ranger’s favored enemy shows up? It’s not like the ranger’s player gets to make that decision. Or, most common but worst: how awesome you are comes down to die rolls–you might get the moment of glory, because you happened to crit when things looked darkest. The converse is even worse–when your dice go cold, you drag along making little contribution–and then you fail when it’s the moment that relies completely on you. We’ve all had those nights.
Making the spotlight’s motion predictable solves some of the spotlight moving challenges and encourages players to step out of the light when their fifteen minutes of fame run out. Below are two approaches you can borrow for your games.
Screen Presence as Social Contract
The primary approach simply requires that everyone–players and GM both–plan out characters’ screen presence. If the group is playing a short series, then we can just agree that Sally will have the spotlight in session 2, Joe in session 5, and Mike in session 7.
The GM should make sure that the session 2 plot focuses on Sally. Bringing in an NPC from the character’s background is a way to naturally focus the story on the character. Similarly, the GM can make sure that the plot brings in elements of the PC’s past, or requires talents that only the PC possesses. If Sally’s a mechanic, her mentor from the old garage approaches her for help–there’s a big road race through the borough and everyone’s trying to get an edge. They’re sabotaging the course and each other’s cars… can she and her team prep a car to make it through all of that?
Even more important, the other players know that tonight is Sally’s spotlight. Because it’s her spotlight, they lend their characters’ talents to supporting her approach to the problem. There are lots of approaches that could be taken to win the race: if it was the hacker’s spotlight, there would probably be a cool scene about getting municipal workers’ uniforms and sneaking into “mission control” and hacking remote traffic control overrides into the city streetlight mainframe. Since it’s the mechanic Sally’s spotlight, Mike will have his hacker support Sally’s plan… which is likely to have special car modifications “mis-routed” to her shop, or involve getting data about the rival racers. Both are great solutions, but by agreeing to follow Sally’s lead in her spotlight, we come to a quick decision and get to support the star’s idea with our character’s talents.
A different example: in a D&D campaign, if the treasure is held in a castle, the approach will depend on the spotlight character. The rogue might need a great diversion to draw away the guards while he scales the secure tower. A tactician might get his foes to accept a Trojan Horse and lead a night time raid from within their defenses. A bard might talk their party into attending the masked ball… where the fighter will break off and quietly knock out the guards, the wizard will use the clash of cymbals to cover his verbal components, so the bard can isolate the young heiress and steal her heart… and the key, which he passes off to the rogue as he returns to the ballroom and dances with many charming matrons, who all vouch that he was twirling in the ballroom when the jewels went missing.
Screen Presence with System Help
Depending on your game system, all the planning in the world might get thwarted by terrible dice rolls. If you want to strongly focus the spotlight on a character, you can give them rules to enhance their abilities. In Pathfinder, you could give the spotlight character mythic power to spend in an otherwise non-mythic game. For 5e, you could allow characters to ignore one disadvantageous condition on every roll, or let the character take the best of three d20 (instead of two) when they have advantage. In Fate… you feed the spotlight character more fate points because you’re compelling frequently (the character’s rival is the foe this episode, and they’re threatening your boyfriend!). In Star Wars, give the character a force point for the episode. Or, independent of system, you can just give them an I WIN! token or two.
Screen Presence in Your Games
Have you tried rotating the spotlight through your group? Do you find your players reluctant to relinquish their time in the spotlight, since it’s so hard won? If you’ve played games with an explicit screen presence (or similar) mechanic, did knowing that your time to shine was coming help you back other players’ efforts when it was their spotlight? Please share stories of moving the spotlight at your table–whether through a formal mechanic like screen presence or informally rotating through the characters to make sure that they all got a spotlight scene or character focused episode.