Table Techniques – Spotlighting

Earlier, along with prep techniques, I’ve talked about “table techniques” like reincorporation and sharing narration that you can do during your #TTRPG sessions to make them pop. This one is a bit different to those, in that it’s pretty fundamental. That is, do it well and it’ll have a big positive effect – but doing it competently is essential for an enjoyable session, especially in a one-shot.

Why? Well, the inspiration for this comes from a session I played at a convention recently. It was a fairly trad game, dice driven, and some time was spent explaining and teaching the system. I’m sure many of the other players had a reasonably enjoyable time – but me and another player didn’t roll dice a single time during the session. Did we get memorable roleplaying opportunities? Well, no, not really – we didn’t get to do much at all, and it was ultimately a quite frustrating experience. So, spotlight well – good. Spotlight badly – you’ll have players like me grinding my teeth all game.

What is it?

Simply put, spotlighting just means sharing the screen time that your players get around so everyone has a fair crack of the spotlight. Some players will demand more spotlight, and some will be happy to shrink and spectate – but this is one thing where the vast majority of responsibility falls on the GM – players won’t track their own spotlight. 

Actual tick list for spotlight from a Trophy Dark one-shot

So, you need to manage the amount of time players get, and be prepared to track who’s acted. It sounds like a simple thing, but from running PBTA games (and especially online) I often just have a list of the players, their characters, and a tick list, to check they’ve all had a turn at once. If you don’t do this, maybe try it – I think I’m pretty good at spotlighting, but this gives me a good safety net. But how else can we make help make spotlighting easy?

Have A System

Another way is to get into a habit of going around the table. This has the advantage of players knowing what their turn is, so they can prepare for it. If you’ve got multiple options for the next step (because you’ve designed an awesome scene with a target-rich environment), you can go round the table and get players to declare what they’re doing, and then cut to resolve them in a more logical order – you’ll get to manage what their actions are much  better in this quasi-initiative system.

Another good approach to manage spotlight is to use skill challenges liberally – scenes where everybody has to have a go to resolve the issue at hand. You’ll force yourself to give everyone a fair share of the spotlight if you use these routinely, and they’re a really strong one-shot technique anyway.

Make Fights Fighty

If you’re having a combat in your one-shot, even if it’s a ‘training’ combat to get the hang of the system, make sure everyone is going to get a go. For the initial fight, you might want to dial down (either deliberately, or in picking opposition) the damage that the enemies can do, but keep them fairly robust so that everyone will need to help if they are to be defeated – otherwise you risk some players not getting a go due to bad initiative rolls (or whatever system you’re using – I’m pretty keen on ditching initiative and going round the table in one-shots, and there’s a blog post coming around this soon).

Check In

I like to have a break every hour or so in a one-shot, and this allows a pause to check-in with your players and get some feedback – are they happy with the amount of screen time they’re getting, is there anything (in-character or out-of-character) they’d like more or less of, that sort of thing. This is general good practice, but it also helps if you think you might have players that are happier sat on the sidelines – I tend to ask for a minimum level of engagement in my games, but it’s good to know if people are happier being in a support role or letting other players lead in social situations especially. So ask how they’re going, and if you’ve got any doubts, ask again.

I think spotlighting, while fundamental, is sometimes a quite difficult thing to get right – but it’s absolutely essential to good play, and it’s something we can probably all get better at. So stick with it – and share any advice you’ve got in the comments below!