2013-02-04_23-34-45_281One of the things that bugs me when I’m a player is the fact that games can tend to get really bogged down if the spotlight gets stuck on one player or style of play. Sometimes it is hard to avoid, and the nature of a particular session will be on one style of play or a particular player’s story, but I’m a firm believer in every player getting at least a little time in the spotlight in every session. When I’m a GM, I try to do things to remind myself to acknowledge other players in a game. Here is one of my organizational methods to keep from getting bogged down.


  • I start every game with a list of each player and one play style/game element/or goal that they have.
  • I then take my phone and set a pretty long timer. If the game lasts for 3 or 4 hours, I set the timer for about 30 or 45 minutes. Something that breaks the game up into 6 to 8 chunks.
  • When the timer goes off, I look at the list and make a quick mental assessment of how the last half an hour of play has been. Has the last chunk of time been solely on planning for the fight? Do the players seem to be enjoying it? Is anyone bored? No, things seem to be going okay? Great, I do nothing.
  • I reset the timer and when it goes off again, I make another quick mental assessment. Are we still planning for the dungeon? Has the shopping trip been going on a long time, does Joe who likes fights seem like he is bored. Maybe it’s time to handwave some things, cross tactical off the list and progress onwards.

I don’t use this as a hard and fast means of changing game focus at a preset time – that would be very forced and railroady. I use the timer and the list to remind me to look at what the game has been like for the last half an hour. Just a bit of a kick to see if everything is going smoothly and remind me to get my head out of the forest so I can look at the trees, as they say. As the game progresses and new situations occur, the timer keeps reminding me to look at my list. If Julie seems to keep getting the spotlight, maybe I should make sure that Mike or Sara have a chance to shine. I won’t force it, but I can track whose style of play has been emphasized this session and make sure that the others don’t get lost in the shadows. 

Aside from helping me keep track of how the game time has been progressing, this also makes me assess my GMing style. If tactical does seem like it is going on too long, I am reminded of this and can ask myself why. Maybe I need to change some things to speed it up. Am I making it too hard to get the information they want? Am I not providing clear enough clues and the players are looking annoyed or zoning out because it is getting frustrating?

Any tool that makes you look at yourself and your surroundings in a fresh light can help you improve. In the games that I’ve used the timer and list, I’ve noticed a lot more player interaction. Part of this is because I’m making sure more people are participating and that builds up the energy at the table, but also because I’m not making any one person feel like they have to carry the game and that any one style of play isn’t dominating. And if I find that everyone seems to be having fun, I’m more than capable of ignoring the list when that timer goes off. Going on hour 3 of the epic fight but everyone seems to be having a great time? Sweet. Keep on rolling.

Do you ever feel that your games (as a player or as a GM) get too bogged down in one style of play or on one character? Do you use anything to keep the spotlight moving or do you feel it should just organically move on without any nudging from the Game Master?

13 replies
  1. shortymonster
    shortymonster says:

    I actually had this feeling last Tuesday during my CP2020 game. For the first time, the players were to get some cyberware. Instead of handing out the multitude of chrome books and the like, I just asked them what they wanted, and trusted to my knowledge of the game world to find something for them that fitted the bill. It all seemed to be going OK, but before I knew it, we had been doing the cyberware thing for over an hour, and one of the PCs hadn’t taken me up on the offer, so was sat twiddling his thumbs. We were already getting to the end of that bit, so I was able to move on quickly, but it would have been nice if I had noticed it earlier and introduced something a bit more fun for the odd man out.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Shopping trips are a definite place where I’ve seen games get bogged down. Players know there are tons of options and want to make sure they are getting the best things they can for their buck/gold/credit/etc. I usually try to short-form shopping trips as often as possible, but there is a visceral fun to figuring out new character options.

  2. intwischa
    intwischa says:

    I take a totally different approach. Instead of trying to force a shared spotlight as a GM, I intentionally designate one player as the “star of the show” for a session. When the other players take actions that bolster the star’s role, they get rewards (Fate points, action points, etc…)

    You can read more about the concept at Intwischa.com

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      What do you do if the players who aren’t the star of the night are feeling bored? I tend to be the best “turn-taker” in my group – meaning I enjoy sitting back and watching the actions of others as often as I like participating – but I know many of my friends want to be involved in every aspect of the story and often get bored when the play doesn’t foster group interactions.

  3. Drone
    Drone says:

    I tend to do something like this only I use my sound track to determine who get’s the “spotlight”. When one CD ends or a playlist comes to an end I throw in another perhaps with a different flavor and move the “spotlight” from one player to another.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Oooh. That’s a nifty idea. Timing by soundtrack. I could see setting up a set playlist of MP3s that have the total play times predetermined and then switching when those switch. 30 minutes of light in-town music while doing the shopping trip 45 – 60 minutes for the big, epic, combat, etc. I might have to play around with that idea.

  4. jpmg90
    jpmg90 says:

    I think this would be a great resource to call upon. It seems that combat is a large one in my games, mainly because it’s the nature of the beast. And Role play and such are okay, but I would like to have a way here my puzzles or traps get more face time.

    For traps its either they see it or not, and based on that it’s either they trigger it, disable it, or attempt to disable and trip anyway. Taking up very little time, and basically focuses on the rogue. And with puzzles it’s either they get it too quickly, or are unable to figure it out and they get bored. A good way to manage those would be very beneficial.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Traps are always tricky. They do tend to be short encounters that scream “BYPASS ME!”. I tend to try to use traps in a way that emphasizes their importance rather than the time taken.

      I don’t use them in most games, but when I do I usually give the rogueish character a “noticing roll” behind the screen and then have him catch it before it kills anyone. I’ve also had them roll 10 or 20 rolls as a list, then I roll a dice to determine which of the 10 or 20 apply to this perception check. Then I make disarming the trap not a single roll, but 4 or 5 rolls that emphasize disarming multiple elements of it with varying degrees of damage if he or she fails.

      It makes the group have less of a “Hey, disarm the trap, rogue!” and more of a “Hey, thanks man! That trap would have caught me if you hadn’t picked up on it.”

  5. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I like this. It’s very simple, largely unobtrusive, and acts as a subtle reminder. I know that on both sides of the screen I’ve been sucked into bad divisions of time; a reminder to break away from minute to minute continuity and focus on the larger issues is good.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Thanks! That is, to me, the beauty of this. It’s just a subtle reminder to make sure I’m taking into account everyone at the table. I don’t have to do anything, and I often ignore switching the spotlight because things are going good with the current scenario and no-one is bored.

  6. Redcrow
    Redcrow says:

    I usually try to hand-wave shopping trips, but some players really seem to enjoy it. I try to engage anyone not involved with the shopping in other ways. e.g. They run into an old friend or relative with a problem. A cryptic letter is delivered to them, but was intended for someone else. A lost and frightened child asks them for help finding their parent, but does the child have an ulterior motive. etc. etc.

    In a fight scene a possible example might be that the Mage has run out of magic points and is no longer a part of the fight. In that case I would try to keep them involved with other things. e.g. They hear reinforcements coming down the hall and need to slow them down somehow like barring the door or smashing a lit lantern in the hallway. Maybe they notice the BBEG everyone else is fighting is now standing directly beneath a chandelier that is tied by a rope to a hook on the wall. etc. etc.

    I don’t use a lot of mechanical traps in my games so that usually isn’t an issue. I give every character a chance to notice and deal with natural traps e.g. loose stones in the ceiling, rotted floorboards, etc. etc.

  7. thomax
    thomax says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this! I think your method is an excellent one, and will proceed to try it out in my next game!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] of great posts this week brimming with ideas you can use in your games. To kick them off, we have A Simple Trick To Keep The Spotlight Moving by John Arcadian at Gnome Stew. I think the title may be overly modest, however, as this trick […]

Comments are closed.