Monday, July 31, 2023

The Problem of Spotlight Management in OSR Games

I listened to the “expert delve” segment of this episode of Fear of a Black Dragon (starts around the 28 min mark) with great interest. Jason and Tom were discussing “spotlight management”, that is making sure that each player gets roughly equal time in the “spotlight”, i.e. being the one who gets to contribute to the game, by saying what their character does, and so on. 

Almost all the techniques they mention involve situations where the PCs are in different places doing different things. Their advice is excellent: to consider narrative beats, to switch from one PC to another at cliff-hanger moments (i.e. moments of high drama) that keep people engaged, and so on. They also talk about systems that incorporate different turns more more systematically. Although I could be better, I’m not the worst at what they are talking about. For example, during my downtime segments in my face-to-face game, where PCs break up to all pursue individual projects and activities, I try to move the spotlight around intuitively using something like the ideas they float. I think it works. 

But outside of downtime, in the OSR style games I run, the party is almost never separate. “Never split the party” may be a tired trope, but it’s also sensible practice in old school games. You might think, great, if they're together then it will be much easier to keep everyone equally involved, since the scene is shared. In a more narrative heavy game that was focused on individual characters as individuals, or on their relations to one another, that would be true. In such games, you can move the spotlight around in a single situation by simply asking each players in the situation what their characters do, or how they react to the situation, what they're feeling about it, and so on. 

But the way I run the game, outside of downtime, the focus tends to be on collective problem solving. The players tend to talk freely amongst themselves about what they are going to do as a group at each step. Sometimes people don’t even say what their separate characters are doing, but announce what the group is doing. And this is how I like it! In the games I run, the focus is not on individuals taken separately, nor on their relation to one another, but rather on the exploration of fantastic and perilous spaces by the group collectively. I always allow this kind of collective deliberation, even when it's utterly implausible in the game: in the heat of combat, in the middle of a high-stakes conversation, at any point really, since what I’m here for is the cooperative problem solving that is the heart of the particular flavor of challenge based, sandbox play that I like. 


The problem is that what controls the spotlight under those circumstances is not me, the GM, but rather the social dynamics of the players' freeform collective deliberation about what to do. In order for me to move the spotlight around in that process, I need, essentially, to intervene in the group's deliberations. But I don’t have a good way of systematically doing that. It's hard to know what the proper technique to intervene to move the spotlight without disrupting the freeform deliberation among players. 

I’m blessed in my current face to face group in that no one dominates the conversations. They manage the spotlight relatively well. (The problem is MUCH greater in online play, I’ve noticed, probably because normal conversational dynamics break down over videoconferencing.) But even in my current face to face game, there still is one player who is a bit more passive than the others—despite being a very canny player. But he just doesn’t speak up as much in the group's collective deliberations. 


I can rectify this to some extent, insofar as often characters will act individually, especially when we’re focused on tight scenes where it’s less about what decision the group is making and more about what contribution to a shared effort each character is making. In those circumstances, I can ensure that the spotlight travels to the quieter player. But this is a far cry from the kind of “spotlight management” that Jason and Tom are talking about. If I'm going to be real, it’s more like spotlight damage control. 


I actually have no idea how to solve this problem. I’m tempted to say that without changing the kind of game I’m playing, there’s really no way to manage the spotlight in the core experience. I hope that’s not true, but I’m afraid it is. Any ideas?




  1. First, you have to think if this is indeed a problem that needs fixing. Not everyone is equally outspoken, or care as much about being in the spotlight. Some would like to shine when the mood strikes them, and then prefer to hang back a bit. Many like to help the group reach its goals without being the ones having the ideas. It is also situational: maybe the player is tired or distracted, maybe the game today veers towards areas and situations they find less interesting or engaging. Maybe they are actively holding back in an attempt to support other group members and would like to give them their time to shine.

    Now, you might reach a conclusion that this is indeed an issue. For example, maybe a player needs more time to phrase their ideas and the group keeps going with the first and loudest ideas, so they despair in silence. Maybe you detect some bitterness building up, which in some players might come out as overall antagonism and argumentative behavior (which might be completely justified!).

    So I think the question you're posing is not one which lives in the realm of gaming, but one that resides in the realm of interpersonal dynamics. As such, it will require interpersonal dynamics to resolve or at least detect. Either you cultivate a tendency within the group to listen to multiple ideas before deciding upon a way to act, or you can rephrase the players' ideas and outright ask if anybody else have any more ideas or insight. You can also ask a specific player what they think, pushing the spotlight their way.

    If you want ideas for solutions that are not interpersonal in nature, maybe you can create more situations that a front-loaded with dilemmas and pressures, which will demand players to sometimes act without input from the group. When a quiet or overly-subdued player makes a hard choice, you can emphasize it by describing the result as impactful and following up with great consequences. Not all the time, but just enough so that the group starts seeing this player as capable of shaping the game in a meaningful way. It will increase the confidence of that player, too. Just remember to be fair and not create a situation that rewards passivity and punishes active, enthusiastic engagement.

    1. "You can also ask a specific player what they think, pushing the spotlight their way.

      If you want ideas for solutions that are not interpersonal in nature, maybe you can create more situations that a front-loaded with dilemmas and pressures, which will demand players to sometimes act without input from the group. When a quiet or overly-subdued player makes a hard choice, you can emphasize it by describing the result as impactful and following up with great consequences." I think these are really great points.

    2. This, a hundred times this -- and note that old school games already provide for different levels of engagement, with classes that are all about managing spells and skills, and classes that are more about running up and hitting things.

    3. Yes, that's a good point. Magic-user and thief are already a kind of high engagement type class, whereas fighter is much less so, since it has less bells and whistles.

  2. It sounds like your options are limited if you want to stick to your current style of game that allows the players to strategise whenever the characters are together. Some possible strategies I can think of: 1) set up more situations where it makes sense for the characters to split up - once the group has made that decision, you have more ability to actively control the spotlight; 2) for 'tense conversations' and 'action scenes' draw tighter limits around free group discussion to set the party's strategy or direction so that there is more occasion for spotlight-controlled player-by-player turn taking for implementation of group decisions, so that such scenes include a mixture of both modes (there's a lot of options and complexity here and I'm sure you can come up with interesting ways to use the general concept); 3) during the play of 'conversations' and 'combats' use the NPCs to put the quiet player in the spotlight from time to time; 4) accept that you are looking to adjust the position on a spectrum rather than move all the way to 100% spotlight control; 5) Consider splitting the spotlight: in my group I sometimes do this. In one of my main groups I have two players who are very happy chatting to one another in character for extended periods for the sake of the conversation, and a third who doesn't care for that and just wants to acquire information, strategise, make decisions and progress side hussles. I let the first two have their play and deal with the third. By the time I'm done with the third, the other two are often able to answer the question 'so what's the plan?' fairly succinctly; 6) question the necessity for balanced spotlight time.

    I add (6) because I don't think it's a given that equal spotlight time is always desired or desirable. I'm often the quiet player in a group, and it's not always the case that I want more opportunities to talk. Sometimes I want to get to the point of action, and asking me to contribute to the group is just going to push that desired event further into the future.

    1. Since I wouldn't want to sacrifice the play style, I think (3) is not a bad idea. I also think (6) is important and echoed elsewhere in these comments. I think it is an open question how much of a problem this has to be. Obviously it can be when it leads to people being disengaged, dissatisfied, or feeling left out, but it's not a given that it's a problem. I think you make a great point that it's not clear that "equal spotlight" time is a desirable goal. I hadn't thought hard enough about this.

    2. There's also the fact that the style you're wanting to preserve includes allowing the players to strategise amongst themselves. In other words, your target style empowers the players to handle both the content and the process of the strategic conversation. So unless you are going to adopt a more active role as a process facilitator, there's not much you can do during those discussions that you're not already doing.

      A possible alternative to assuming the mantle of conversation facilitator would be to invite the group to consider its degree of satisfaction with the the way it handles its own process - the spotlight being one aspect of that - and to consider what they might do to improve it. Or to offer a tool in the form of a conversation-structuring protocol for them to follow.

      However, I sense that telling people how to hold their own conversations is not your style, and probably unnecessary for your group.

    3. Yes, I think the things that can be done are probably more subtle conversational techniques and less "intervening".

  3. If the game is already collaborative and nobody is dominating the conversation, it doesn't sound like there's a problem to be solved.

    1. I guess there is a problem in my mind, because I feel like it would be good for the quieter player to be "drawn out of their shell". I feel like they have something to offer more than is being actually contributed. But I do have to admit that my sense that this is a problem may be coming from my own desire to see them contribute more. Hard to gauge in this case. Need to think more about it.

    2. While it might be nice to offer quiet players the choice to " come out of their shell", I think it is also absolutely okay for someone to stay safely within that shell and just be quiet and observe the game for most of time, only offering feedback when they feel it is necessary. After all everyone has different points of comfort about how much they want the spotlight to be on them, and I find a lot of the trad and storygame approaches to kind of...never really address that as a point.

      Yes, roleplaying games are an inherently social activity, but not everyone at a party wants to be the center of attention, and I feel it is the same in an RPG too. I'll admit it does sound like this might be more your personal perception as to what and how much you want players to be contributing rather than their own desire on the matter.

      I can understand that too - as a GM I of course always wish my players to be as engaged as possible with the game, but that's also not realistic that it will happen all the time with all people.

    3. You might be right about this particular case, still not sure. BUT I do feel like this is a general question that comes up quite frequently. The fact that my current group doesn't have this problem much seems more the exception than the rule, especially for online gaming, in my experience, which I've done an awful lot of.

    4. Passivity can also be a path of least resistance. There is always a gradient to the proactivity of players, but there's a social element to determining why that's their mode of engagement. I prefer party decision-making because it allows that to be solved gradually, and naturally. Deliberately managing spotlight feels arbitrary.

  4. I guess you can add me to the above chorus of people saying that this does not really sound like a problem in need of a solution.

    Fear of a Black Dragon, while a generally enjoyable podcast whenever I've listened to it, does tend to more or less be focused on the Trophy rpg, what is essentially a storygame about pretending you were playing an actual OSR game (this is only partially me having a dig at it for that). As such it has the typical of that style of game's obsession with spotlights and performance and every person having equal say during the game. I personally have always found it kind of stressful to HAVE TO perform or offer something relevant just because the GM or everyone else have now decided that it is my turn. I am a naturally very outspoken and probably too-talkative of a person, but even I tend to find that unpleasant in the rare situations when I don't, in fact, have anything to say.

    Conversely, I remember reading Muster (a big recommend if you haven't read it yet) and the author mentioning that in OSR games the lack of a " spotlight" is not really a problem, but a feature. Essentially the collaborative and team-based problem solving found in these games we play means that while everyone CAN contribute, not everyone HAS TO contribute. It makes it so that if a person doesn't have much to say, they are not regardless put on the spot(light) and forced to figure something out.

    This also comes into some very questionable railroading practices of the GM being the person who decides who gets to speak when essentially. Because as Shahr H mentioned above, a lot of this is actually about interpersonal dynamics within a group rather than a gameplay issue. And to make it a gameplay issue is to essentially force the GM to actively dictate the social dynamics of their group. Which, hey, maybe they want to do, maybe they don't.

    As for an actual solution (since everything I wrote so far is admittedly a refutation of the question entirely) from my own personal experience running games and playing in them, usually the least disruptive way of making sure everyone is heard is to leave things as a group decision, but after that make sure to ask "Okay, anyone else have anything to contribute to what has already been decided?" And if nobody actively speaks up, then...they don't, and you proceed. It tends to work at least in my case, but obviously every table and social group is different.

    1. I hadn't heard of Muster, so thank you for that! I agree about Fear of a Black Dragon's focus, especially on Jason's side, being about what use can be made of OSR adventures for more "indie" or narrative focused games, such as Trophy (Dark or Gold). Part of the point of my post actually was to point this out in a friendly way: the advice they give is excellent, but doesn't apply as much to the play style I engage in. (Obviously my preferred play style is not the only "OSR" play style, but it's not uncommon I think.)

    2. I have a review of sorts of Muster on my blog, but honestly my recommendation is to just check out the book itself. It's free on DTRPG, and I personally like it as a piece of theory writing.

    3. Definitely going to check it out.

  5. I guess I don't understand what you mean by "OSR games."

    Spotlight control as (I believe) other commenters have noted pertains far more to story-based, narrative-focused games which I associate in no way whatsoever with games that are (generally) branded as being part of the "OSR."

    In AD&D (the game I run these days) it isn't terribly unusual for parties to be split depending on circumstance and scenario, but because of the procedures baked into the game (time, movement), it's fairly easy, even on-the-fly, to track what different PCs/NPCs are doing at any given time. Everyone gets their proper "turn" at the the wheel depending on the actions they're taking.

    With regard to social dynamic withIN the party (i.e. who has the loudest, bossiest voice when the group is together), I keep the players focused on working together AS A TEAM to stay alive. I do this by pitting myself against them as the antagonistic DM/world. AD&D isn't a game about telling's a game about experiencing struggles and hardships, surviving, and (hopefully) coming out ahead in the bargain. All the players pull for that goal...what concern is it that one player "shine" more if they triumph in the end? What concern is it that everyone gets an equal share of input if that input leads to the party's destruction?

    Smart players learn to cooperate and make use of each other's individual strengths. They celebrate each other's victories, and they help their companions who stumble along the way. With time and experience (PLAY experience, not "x.p.") they get better at this, becoming a well-oiled adventuring machine...and "spotlight time" has very little meaning or value to the individuals at the table.

    This is a weird issue to have with D&D-type games.

    1. I agree that the language of "spotlight management" maybe doesn't fit as well with this play style, since it suggests that the central manner of play involves having each player equally shine, or something like that. (I actually think it DOES apply, it's just that it comes up much less often given the cooperative structure of play. As I point out, it can come up in my game, for example, during downtime.) But I think an analogous problem still arises, for example, of the quiet or hesitant player, and I'm basically asking what resources the GM has to draw them out, when most action is determined by cooperative freeform deliberation among players.

      I get from your comment that you don't care about that question. You seem to suggest that it's because you view the game as an adversarial test of skill. I myself DO run a challenge based game (although I don't think of myself as an adversary, rather a referee). But that doesn't stop me from caring about players who are more hesitant or quiet getting to participate actively in the game. In the case I had in mind, it wasn't a question of skill so much as hesitancy in the social environment.

      Wouldn't it be a problem in your game if the dynamics were such that one player made all the decisions in the game about what the party did, and the others e.g. only skillfully executed their roles in combat? I wouldn't want that dynamic at my tabel, even if the party often prevailed, i.e. were "winning". Maybe my standards are higher than yours? Like, I want them to play excellently, but that's not all I want.

      BTW I am very familiar with AD&D 1E btb. I ran a campaign for several years where we used the initiative system, segments, casting times and all, more or less btb, on Anthony Huso's interpretation. (We didn't use weapon speed factors, it's true, so it wasn't entirely btb.)

    2. Just to be clear: I only mention AD&D because it's the game I'm currently running. Other editions of D&D that would be classified as "old school" have procedures that function equally well for tracking players when the party is split.

      SO...if I'm not misunderstanding, your "analogous problem" (to "spotlight management") is the issue of players who are more timid or reluctant to participate at the same level of expressiveness as other players at the table. Have I got that right?


      It's not that I don't care about the question ("how can I draw this person out?"), I'm just not certain whether or not it rates as a problem. I mean...clearly, you feel it is a problem, so it's definitely problematic for you. But why? Because that's not how you want your table dynamic to look? Because the individual has expressed dissatisfaction with the game being played? Because people are quitting your table?

      You ask:

      "Wouldn't it be a problem in your game if the dynamics were such that one player made all the decisions in the game about what the party did, and the others e.g. only skillfully executed their roles in combat?"

      I guess my answer would be: maybe. I haven't experienced this situation. Is that what is happening in your game?

      These days, I run games for kids under the age of 13. There are plenty of weird social dynamics in play. There's the fact that I'm an adult. There's the fact that I am the father of some of the kids but not others. There are differences in ages. There are older-younger sibling dynamics (both among my own children and other kids). Some kids are quieter than others; some have more forceful personalities.

      But I've run for adults, too. Before my second child was born (9 years ago) I ran a weekly game at the local pub for about 8-10 individuals, with varying levels of experience and their own social dynamics. Some of these people knew each other outside the game. Most of them knew me ONLY from the game (never met them before they sat down at the table). Different personality types, different levels of exuberance and engagement. That game was B/X, not AD&D.

      But regardless, I've run my table the same way: I make it clear to the players that they need to cooperate to survive. Then I challenge them. When they succeed they celebrate with each other. When they fail and/or die, they commiserate with each other.

      Every player is valuable. I think (for me), that's what I try my best to communicate to the players...even the new kid who just showed up because his big brother is playing and is debuting a 1st level PC destined to be eaten by an owlbear in its first outing. Doing that means listening to the player when they DO speak, answering their questions with the patience that is required, explaining to the others players (if necessary) what such individuals bring to the table, if there is some perceived 'lack' of worth.

      Respect and value. They don't need to be "drawn out." Some players don't care or don't want to be loud or exuberant. However, so long as they feel they are valued members of the team they WILL push back in those group discussions if they feel the party is veering off course or in a direction they dislike. They WILL throw in their two cents when they feel they have something to contribute. They WILL assert long as they feel their participation is respected.

      That's been my experience anyway. Not everyone is a cocky loud-mouth (like myself). And thank goodness: we need all sorts of people in the world. No need to change them at all.

  6. Quieter players are quieter for a reason. Putting somebody in the spotlight when he is already avoiding that spotlight is actually shit for them. Not everybody has the same idea of fun, and for laid back persons, sometimes following the party, "being there", is as satisfying as it is to lead the party for the more leading player.

    1. I agree that sometimes this is the case, and it's an important point. Arguably, one advantage of the style of play that doesn't aim at equal spotlight time, but allows for a large role of collective deliberation, is that it let's people be quiet when that's what they feel like doing for good reason. So I take your point, it's a good one. But, I would add, it's not always the case. Sometimes people benefit from being provided a framework or structure that makes it easier to engage. Also, all kinds of dynamics can emerge in a social interaction that don't reflect people's reasons or preferences for being on quieter end. There's also the thing of people feeling disengaged, when they would like to engage more, or when it's a sign that something isn't going as well as it might.

    2. I think you're right. I am sometimes the quiet one. Sometimes that's because I think that serves my needs, or the group's needs, or some fuzzy combination of them. And sometimes it's because I haven't the resources to navigate a more active role. And sometimes it's simple disengagement: I'm not enjoying the process going on at the table right now, but I don't want to spoil the fun for others.

      In addition, it seems unrealistic to me to expect that everyone at the table will at all times be delighted with the way the conversation is flowing. So part of what we're seeking is some kind of reasonable pattern of joint satisfactions over time. That's a subtle and dynamic balance, not readily amenable to definitive assessment or fixed spotlight-sharing prescriptions.

      Insofar as we acknowledge that the GM's role in a game is different than that of the players, its plausible that they might have a different role in maintaining the balance of conversational attention than the individual players (but even if that were the case it would not necessarily follow that the GM bears a greater degree of responsibility for the outcome).

      The single strongest argument for non-intervention is probably that each individual player is responsible for their own contribution and for negotiating whatever is needful for their reasonable satisfaction, or its counterpart, that by intervening to help we might be doing more harm than good or fostering helplessness I.e. if a player is not speaking up and is not having fun as a result, then that player has no-one to blame but themselves. This has the same weakness as any similar argument that assumes equality of resource, status and a uniform understanding of and support for the social contract.

      So I think there is something to seriously consider here, and the single issue of spotlight time is only part of it.

      As to how to adjust the pattern of spotlight time without disrupting your existing play style, I am trying to imagine the kinds of subtle conversational inputs you might use to navigate the situation. For a start, if you're going to accept responsibility for shaping the conversation in this way, some tools for detecting and assessing the extent and nature of the players' needs would help. As is evident from this thread, the simple observation 'this person is contributing less than the others' is a start, but it doesn't provide you much guidance as to what, if anything, would be helpful.

      Another area to consider - as it seems you may be doing - is the extent to which you shoulder responsibility for whatever needs you detect (whether they be needs of the group or needs of the individual). My broad-brush starting point is that the group comes first. But it is far from obvious how that would translate into specific intervention criteria.

      Once you have those two pieces, it might become clearer exactly what kinds of interventions are going to help.

  7. There isn't necessarily a problem to be solved in the first place. When what you have is full stage lighting, there's no "spotlight management" problem.

    Also, some people talk less because they want to, not because they aren't allowed their fair time. "Spotlight management" can be an issue with certain groups and certain situations or certain game styles (as you pointed out, games where the PCs are routinely separated, or where the players have more narrative power), but I feel that it's often overrated.

  8. Out-of-combat initiative order (around the table in seated order is easiest) and a 2-minute turn timer (a toothbrush timer hourglass works) will solve most of these issues and keep everyone engaged. The timer is basically a temporary "talking stick". Everyone participates but no one hogs the spotlight.

    1. The focus of my game is untimed, free flowing, cooperative deliberation. This doesn't speak to my question, because it's advocating I adopt a different play style--which I have no interest in doing, because I love the more cooperative freeform style.