So, you are running your Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) group and you want to do everything you can to make sure your players have a great time. (That’s a lot!) You keep hearing and reading that you should spotlight your players. What does that really mean and how do you do that?
Each player in your group deserves your effort to shine the spotlight on them! So many “tips” on running amazing engaging adventures find their way back to mentioning the standard advice - “spotlight” your player/s. But those articles rarely go on to explain what to do exactly.
What is spotlighting a player??
Spotlighting a player or group allows them to show off something about their character. Maybe it is their combat prowess, maybe it is something from their background, or maybe it is simply their NPC interactions. All these moments are them being in the spotlight. In the end, you as the person running the game are trying to get your player to do something cool that they think is fun.
Why bother? Every player gets the same turn opportunity and that should lead to equal spotlight time, right?!?
No, because player’s real-life personalities often dominate games. Shyer players might hang back a bit during role play situations and let the more extroverted players speak up more. If these things habitually occur, then there might be an imbalance in the group dynamics - especially if resentment grows. Plus, D&D game mechanics makes it so one specific player is justified to always be the one who “handles a specific situation.” Maybe it is communication or sneaking around, or scouting, reading ancient text, climbing or sharpshooting or using magic. With this in mind, every player does not naturally get the same opportunity. (Many articles out there on how to handle a player who hogs the spotlight.)
Adventuring Portal fights this phenomenon by using the Turn Order (Initiative Tracker) when not in combat during role play situations. For us, using the Turn Order is a way to inspire role play for each adventurer and to make sure everybody gets a chance to participate and be heard. After the DM describes a new situation that requires role play, we ask all players to role for initiative so they can be put in the Turn Order. Then, we ask some simple questions: “What is your character doing? How is your character reacting?” Or, not often, the dreaded – “How is your character feeling?” Then, after this step, we start rolling dice to see the results. Simple right? It is. The important thing to remember here is that the DM has to actively manage the entire group during roleplay and NOT rely on waiting for one person to simply speak up. The DM has the massive responsibility to stimulate engagement on an individual and group level. Spotlighting can be one method to accomplish increased engagement.
Best way to spotlight a player?
Giving all your players some spotlight time can be easy. Just pick a player and focus an entire scene around them. Then do the same until everyone gets their own scene. Do you need to go that far? If time is not an issue and you have a long game going …. then yes! It is necessary to arrange a scene for everyone. If time is short – then no way! This step is too extra, unless you are running a game for pre-teens. With this young age group – you need to make sure all your players get the same (treasure, magic items, spotlight time….) of everything.
Two other ways to spotlight players:
1. Change/Adjust your adventure to spotlight your player’s backgrounds
In the 5e Player’s Handbook there are many (10 Species x 12 Classes x 13 Backgrounds = 1,560) character combinations looking at just 3 basic categories Species; Class; Backgrounds. Each one of these combinations could present unique opportunities for spotlighting. Instead of looking at every combination, let’s just consider the 3 basic categories distinctly and not look at all the combinations. To start let’s use backgrounds to think about how to spotlight your players:
· Acolyte: (PHB pg.127) Any story elements that revolves around religion or churches will get steered to the player with this background. If any of your NPCs fall under the religion umbrella then they will be drawn to this player. Also, this player allows the party to heal for free in a church so … that could be handy.
· Charlatan: (PHB pg.128) Is your story delving into the seedy world of supply and demand via deceit? If you are planning on bringing MLMs into your story – look no further than this player. You could lean in to the False Identity trait which could be super fun.
· Criminal: (PHB pg.128) Extortion, murder, theft, violence…. this background could get a lot of play in D&D … right! 8 criminal specialties to choose from but it is the Criminal Contact trait to focus on – might there be a criminal element in your game?
· Entertainer: (PHB pg.130) How many scenes center around taverns and music? Like the criminal background, this background comes into play often. Any Kvoth fans out there? This player is a rumor magnet once they are established in town.
· Folk Hero: (PHB pg.131) Word might get around that this player has a way for saving the day. Maybe the new townspeople come to this player for help? Are there paparazzi in your game? The common folk will actually help you hide from the law or bad people – as long as you don’t put them in danger.
· Guild Artisan: (PHB pg.132) 20 different areas (from Alchemist to Woodworker) to choose from to be a skilled artisan. Maybe cartography will come into your game or some well-known merchants recognize this player’s skills. Of course, being part of a Guild could come with many benefits – political power, connections….
· Hermit: (PHB pg.134 ) Why did your players choose this lifestyle? Some past event maybe? This background also comes with “Discovery” which means you get to know a “great truth” of the universe!
· Noble: If you are dealing with NPCs that are a bit snooty and rich – they will most likely identify with someone from a noble background. This background comes with a title and could make you a land owner.
· Outlander: Sometimes paired with Barbarians, this background makes you great at Athletics and Survival – 2 common needed skills. You also get “Wanderer” which makes you excellent with maps. And if you are a Jamie and Claire fan...
· Sage: You know things and how to learn! Questing for knowledge will make this player to shine. Behind many super fun adventures are mysteries …
· Sailor: Maybe you were living the life of a pirate, merchant or navy sailor. Each comes with different connections that could be fostered. You also get Ship’s Passage which gives you and your group free passage on vessels.
· Soldier: Players with this background grew up in the military and still have connections they can use. Some NPCs with nefarious backgrounds could come from the military.
· Urchin: Growing up in the streets is harsh. These players know the underbelly of cities. They know all the gangs and have connections. These players might be motivated in much the same way as Robin Hood.
Of course we can use a similar lens and look just at Species or Class like we did above for Background. (Part 2? 😊 )
2. Have Players Talk to Each Other
Tough to plan for, but the best way to have a spotlight on a player is to have another player shine the light. In other words, the best-case scenario is if your players are talking with each other, in-character. How can you promote these interactions? Silence. 😊 As all school teachers know, after you ask a question – you wait. Then wait more. And then wait just a bit more. Many educators agree that you need to wait somewhere between 5 to 15 seconds so that your audience can do all their processing and respond. Without consciously waiting for a response, I read that the national teacher average response wait time was under 2 seconds. The lesson here is that you need to consciously wait a long time after you throw out a question to your players.
If no players bite, and you need to act, you can use prompts or leading questions. Ask the Druid, “You recently learned that the Ranger was in the army before they became an adventurer -- you said you fought in the war right?” and see what happens.
Remember back to your 1st session when all the players told you how they knew each other. Go back to that! Use the information they gave – good thing you took notes!
Paul Lazrow is the founder and one of the DMs at Adventuring Portal, an online edutainment service that focuses on running live-guided fun, safe D&D games for kids and adults. Find out more at AdventuringPortal.com.
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Above: Satyr Ramoutha bested many with her rapier skills.