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?