DISCUSSION: How long is it reasonable to hold the spotlight?

Fauchard1520

Explorer
We all know that splitting the party is bad. But by the same token, allowing a player to have a "spotlight moment" can be good. These include backstory scenes, solo stealth missions, and dramatic confrontations between a small number of party members. These can be tense and exciting encounters, and some of the most meaningful of individual PCs.

I think that the problems tend to come up, however, when these scenes drag on. If you force half the party to sit by and take on an audience role for hours at a time, you're no longer GMing for the full table.

So for GMs that do like to give dramatic moments for individuals: How do you do it well? What's the longest you're willing to linger on an individual character while the rest of the party looks on? And for the players out there: When is it good form to be a good audience, and when does that expectation become unreasonable?

Comic for illustrative purposes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm confused by the concept that giving someone spotlight means everyone else is audience. The player characters are very rarely audience - at worst they are supporting characters.

That can depend a bit. In a combat scene, you are generally correct - if one person does some stunningly awesome thing in the fight, the rest are still helping.

However, if the scene is some hefty role-play between a character and the the BBEG who is also the PC's stepfather... it is entirely likely that the party is sitting on the sidelines while the role play plays out.

I don't think we can set a plain clock time limit on it - it'll vary a great deal from one group to another, and even one scene to another.
 
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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I'm lucky to be the most spotlight hungry person at the table when I'm a player, and being a DM who sometimes has very prominent NPCs has trained me to be very, very, aware of how much spotlight I've been taking compared to anyone else. I've had good and bad outcomes running so-called DMPCs. Usually because I'm not going to just have a person who is integral to the life of someone else, and a trusted and valuable member of their combat team, fade into the background for obviously forced reasons, and, well, we don't stop playing campaigns when a DM stops running them, in my group. Another DM just picks them up.

All that said, it depends. Timing it involves trying to plug subjectives into an equation and expect a coherent result. Unlikely.

Rather, I'd say that what you want here is a solid understanding of where the other PCs are, and to think about these scenes like a TV or movie. HOw long would a show-runner let this scene go on for, before cutting away to the other characters to see what they're doing?
And it needn't be a whole long thing with the other PCs, just check in ans ask what they're doing. Maybe keep a sort of "initiative order" to help you track when it's time to jump back to the other PCs, and ask each of them in order. Maybe each jump goes to one PC, or to a group of two or 3, and the party is split into 3 groups. Great, each times it's a PC's turn, we return to the scene that they're in.

That might mean spending 5 minutes talking about and rolling dice to resolve how they're stealing another PCs favorite camp blanket as a prank, or breifly discussing what the interesting book they're reading is about, or introducing something into the scene that will vex them but not endanger them, etc.

If you are running a deep simulation game, the above may be of no use to you, of course.
 
Yeah, I'd tend to go the route of cut scene if the spotlight moment was running long. So long as the scene is good I don't want to stomp on it, but it can't drag on too long for the rest of the table either. So I'll take a dramatic moment and cut back to the other characters for a while.
 

uzirath

Adventurer
I ended up managing a party split three ways this weekend and rotated between each scene every 5-10 minutes, giving each person an opportunity to do something useful and then cutting to the next scene at an exciting moment.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I have a rule at my table that whenever the spotlight is on a particular player, all the other players are allowed to comment on what is happening, and offer advise. Their characters may not be present for the spotlight moment, but I encourage them to participate all the same.

However, I always keep an eye on the attention span of the other players. If I feel a scene is dragging on too long, I may suspend the action and switch to a different scene. I don't really have a set time duration for it.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
I have a rule at my table that whenever the spotlight is on a particular player, all the other players are allowed to comment on what is happening, and offer advise. Their characters may not be present for the spotlight moment, but I encourage them to participate all the same.
This is a good scheme, and we follow it. I have a character in an occult WWII game who is a truly effective solo infiltrator, and can sometime be miles from the rest of the party, getting into places that they could never reach. Another player has an ally ghost who gets sent along with me, and the rest of the party are often staging distractions or otherwise contributing; we cut back and forth as makes sense. It helps that we're all in our fifties or sixties, and can be reasonably entertaining for the other players.

If I've had a long scene, I will then deliberately avoid the spotlight for a while.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So, part of the question will be - how invested are other players in the story that they aren't personally involved in?

I played in a Star Wars (Saga Edition) some years back. One of the players had a Mandalorian character. However, they played it...laconic in the extreme. They didn't invite any of the other PCs into their Mandalorian-ness. Didn't discuss culture, or why they did the things they did, and engaged in pretty much no interpersonal bond-forming with other characters. They were supposedly, for their own inscrutable internal reasons, dedicated to the same goals as the other PCs, and so could generally be trusted with our physical welfare, but beyond that... no interpersonal engagement to speak of.

So, when Mandalorian stuff came up in game, it bored the crap out of the rest of us. We just didn't care, because it was their story, and their story alone - they'd allowed nobody in to care about it.

So, if someone hoards a plotline, focus on that plotline is likely to be less well tolerated than if they share it.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Generally, in my main campaigns, I don't run into this problem. First, I've been playing with my current group since the release of 5e. The group works well together any personality or play-style conflicts have long worked themselves out. Second, we are all of the age and experience where our playstyle is a bit more old school. It is less improv acting and more group exploration and tactical combat. Especially so with our current campaign using Rappan Athuk, a megadungeon with an old-school vibe.

For us, "spotlight" is more about whether certain characters are designed in a way that they have as much interesting things to do during the game. Not in the sense of others being their audience but more in the sense that play starts to feel samey to them. For example, in my first campaign, one player was playing a fighter with sharpshooter feat and being a ranged fighter with a bow was so tactically superior that it was about all he really did.

In my current campaign, the rogue seems to have less interesting things to do in combat but when he does get that one good hit in it can be an amazing amount of damage. Also, in dungeon of traps and locks, and a dire necessity for stealth, he has plenty of interesting ways to contribute.

In short, I find if you have a good group of people with shared expectations, spotlight-issues are more of a mechanical challenge.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
Recently I had a unique opportunity in my campaign to have separated players experience the actions and dialogue of each other, despite being in different locations. One player used a ritual to contact his deity, which allowed his soul to temporarily visit the realm of his deity, where he met with the spirit of a grandfather of one of the other players. Together with this grandfather, he was given the option to spy on his friends and see things that perhaps they were unaware of. This allowed him to listen in on other players and comment on what they were saying, without them hearing him. This lead to a very funny scene where two players were talking to each other, and this third player was talking to the ghost about what they were saying. The two players, who were of course aware what was happening out of character, threw in some funny comments that related to the third player, but could have been something their characters randomly said. So there was this very amusing meta dialogue going on.

Meanwhile, in the same session, another player was placed in a similar situation. He came upon special stones in the fey wild, that showed him visions of characters whose fate were connected to him. This also allowed him to see his fellow players, without them being aware that he was looking in on them. He was also able to look in on some of his enemies, and see where they were and what they were doing. These were a unique couple of scenes that allowed us to bridge the divide between players being in different locations.
 

atanakar

Adventurer
Only had this problem only once. A player decided he couldn't be bothered with the quest and went on a solo wilderness side trek by himself. It ended badly with his character dying alone after a wolf attack. If you want a solo campaign you should say so. Having all the other players wait while you do your solo thing is rude.
 
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uzirath

Adventurer
Only had this problem only once. A player decided he couldn't be bothered with the quest and went on a solo wilderness side trek by himself. It ended badly with his character dying alone after a wolf attack. If you want a solo campaign you should say so. Having all the other players wait will you do your solo thing is rude.
Way back in high school, when I more frequently grappled with this sort of thing (single PCs running off to do things that the rest of the group wasn't invested in), I would ask the player to make a single die roll that represented their level of success or failure. The roll would be based on pertinent skills modified by my sense of the task's difficulty. Then I had their character exit the main story for an appropriate amount of time. When they got back, they could narrate the results of their expedition as they saw fit. This put the work on the shoulders of the player who wanted their character to wander off instead requiring the rest of the group to watch them roll endless hunting checks or whatever. Of course, if they rolled badly enough, they would not come back at all—whether this meant that they died or needed to be rescued depended on the nature of the task and whether the rest of the group was loyal enough to care.
 
Only had this problem only once. A player decided he couldn't be bothered with the quest and went on a solo wilderness side trek by himself. It ended badly with his character dying alone after a wolf attack. If you want a solo campaign you should say so. Having all the other players wait while you do your solo thing is rude.
I've played in games once or twice where there was a good reason for a player going off on their own. Everyone at the table was OK with it. If I had to deal with the jackass in your example here's how Id deal with it as a DM. Most likely I'd probably just boot them from the game then and there. If I didnt I'd be just as rude back.

DM: Party what are you doing?
Party: Adventuring to the Dungeon of Death as we planned.
DM: OK great! Lets proceed.

2 hours later
DM: Han Solo what are you doing?
Han Solo: Going to explore Peckerwood Forest alone.
DM: OK great, I'll get back to you.

Rinse and repeat until the player gets the hint or leaves.
 

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