Spotlight is the focus and attention that a player or player character receives from the audience. Spotlight is generally desirable by RPG players, although that will depend on the preferences of the players in question; some may be happy with a more passive role with less spotlight. As such, it is good practice for spotlight to be spread out fairly (if not necessarily evenly) among the players. It is usually the GM's responsibility to manage the spotlight, but it is good practice for players to share spotlight with each other as well.
How players receive spotlight
There are many ways that a character in an RPG will receive the spotlight. In this section, we will use the basic example of combat in a fantasy adventure game.
At its most basic, a character must be an active participant in the events of a game in order to receive spotlight. In general, a character who is an active participant for a longer period will have more spotlight and a character who is active for a shorter period (e.g. a character who is knocked unconscious for part of a battle).
Beyond participation, characters have more spotlight if they are more effective, i.e. if they have made a bigger impact on the game world and story. This can be measured in many ways. In combat, this could be dealing large amounts of damage, or delivering the killing blow to more enemies (or to bigger enemies), or saving allies (although doing so passively may not translate easily into spotlight), or using impressive abilities, or accomplishing another objective while allies keep enemies busy. Because there are so many ways of being effective, spotlight can be shared by different characters who are trying to accomplish different things. On the other hand, if characters have only one goal, there is a risk that spotlight can devolve into a comparison of numbers: if a fighter dealt a total of 100 damage but a wizard dealt a total of 300, it could feel as though the fighter has received less spotlight.
However, characters in most role-playing games are effective only when they are successful in the games resolution, which means that spotlight based on effectiveness can sometimes be overly influenced by good or bad luck. It can be frustrating to fail repeatedly and seem to accomplish nothing (although this is mitigated by games with rules that let characters fail forward).
Effectiveness spotlight can also be enhanced through good or detailed narration.
Some shot-based initiative systems are designed to share spotlight at the level of effectiveness, by having actions that are more effective be more expensive to perform. However, this is very hard to balance and can lead to some players being unable to participate and therefore receiving no spotlight at all.
Characters have more spotlight if the things they face in the game world are tailored to them, their personalities and their backstories. For example, a character with a personal connection to the BBEG (e.g. familial, rivalrous, destiny) will usually have more spotlight if they are in combat against the BBEG. A personal connection can be created by the GM, but is more meaningful if it arises from ideas that the player has come up with (or from play earlier in the campaign).
In part, a personal connection is an opportunity to speak in character and make meaningful choices, but it is also an indication that the GM (and, hence, the audience) is invested in the character. Personalisation can be one of the hardest types of spotlight to manage.
Whereas the other types of spotlight are managed by the GM, there is a type that can only be given by other players. When player characters engage with each other and give each other opportunities to take the spotlight, this is further evidence that other players (members of the audience) are invested in the characters. This is an action by players, not necessarily by their characters, and can involve one player character failing (often leading to a lack of effectiveness) in order to give another player an opportunity to step into the spotlight. The other player may then reciprocate by letting the first character succeed at a later date.
Rules that relate to spotlight
Spotlight may be spread out over the course of a single session or the wider campaign. For example, the game Primetime Adventures has a mechanism designed to spread spotlight for all players over the course of the campaign by varying the number of spendable tokens they have in each session of the campaign (low-spotlight sessions will give a character one token, and high-spotlight sessions will give a character three tokens). Each character will have the same number of tokens over the whole campaign, and the same number of high-spotlight and low-spotlight sessions.
- Reciprocity in RPGs - How to Share the Spotlight - Extra Credits by Extra Credits on YouTube
- "GM lesson: Reading the Room" (2020-01-03) by Aaron Hübrich at Jetpack7.