Careful, the Spotlight Can Burn

By RJ on 12 December 2022. 

The spotlight should never linger too long on any one character in a multiplayer game, be it Dungeons and Dragons or any other tabletop hobby. When it does, it doesn't only burn the highlighted player, it also burns everyone else at the table and potentially turns them sour. 

However, it's not only the Dungeon Masters job to ensure one player and character isn't focused on consistently over the others. The players themselves, particularly the highlighted player/character, can help avert this common problem, too.

As always, if you notice this trend of focusing on a single player character over the others occurring at your table, ask yourself a few questions before thinking up a way to address:

  • How intense is the focus?
  • Are other players outwardly bothered by it?
  • What is the reason for it?
  • Should it be addressed? How?

Let's tackle each pointed question one by one.

Intensity of the Spotlight

We've likely all encountered Dungeon Masters homing in on certain character's stories before. As we'll discuss later, sometimes there's a good reason for this. Other times, it might be a clear sign of favoritism, sheer unawareness, or, in the worst cases, spite.

Perhaps the DM greatly favors the backstory of a certain character. Unlike the other PCs, it relates to their world or connects very well to the Big Bad Evil Person. While that may be great, unless it was specifically outlined in the session zero that this should be the case for all characters, this shouldn't dismiss the importance of the other PCs at the table.

Backgrounds should enhance the experience at the table, not hinder it. 

If the DM is only focusing on the character that relates to the overall world because of their backstory, that's not a good tactic and it should be addressed. Jessie's character might be truly tied to the world, with a backstory relating to the vicious high elves of Jhaeros and their vile manipulating of mortal minds and psychic powers. However, that doesn't mean her character should receive more focus than Guy's character, who might only vaguely be tied to the setting at-hand.

The DM might just be unaware of how much they're focusing on a specific character, too. 

Perhaps this player talks a lot and takes the crown of the party. Naturally, the DM will focus on their story and question them about the game more than others. If other players are okay with taking a backseat to piloting the game's direction, that's fine, but if clearly this is a scenario of a domineering personality driving all questions from the DM and NPCs to them without other player input, it should be addressed. This has happened quite a few times at my table, and at times it has been alright. Sometimes, players are fine with someone taking on the mantle of "party leader". If that's the case for your table, that's all swell!

In the worst case, some DMs focus on characters of players they like and intentionally leave out characters of players they dislike. This is a simple problem to address: directly speak with the other players and/or DM and figure out why this is ongoing. If no one will resolve or address it, leave the game and find another group. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Does the Focus Bother Anyone?

After the spotlight highlights a certain character too much, it should become evident other players are bothered by it. 

Watch those not explored. Are they clearly bothered by it? Do they stop paying attention to the game and go on their phones? Do they start side conversations unrelated to the game very quickly? Are they taken completely out of the game?

Watch for heavy sighs. 

Be aware of dice-stacking. 

Scout out pencil-flipping. 

Hunt for light rules-reading. 

Look out for sleeping too, that's the worst.

It might not even be outright shown, at times. If you notice someone is getting a lot of the spotlight, other people will too, but as we'll discuss below: don't go and talk to people behind their back about it. If you'd like to address it, don't gossip: go directly to the source.

Succinctly: be attentive. If you notice someone at the table not having a good time, try to address it. We all play D&D to have fun.

Reason for the Spotlight

Sometimes, the spotlight shifts to a specific character and player for good reason. You should be able to detect if the reason is sound or complete rubbish.

Some campaigns have arcs, and the focus might shift from one character to another. Is this the case for the shift? If so, there's likely little to worry about, other characters will likely soon share the spotlight. It's natural. Ian's character might just be the perfect fit for this run of the story, wherein the party battles aberrations in the Realm of Madness for a bit. Next up, when the group returns to the mortal world and a split faction of psionic elves are on the tail of the party's allies? Well, now it's time for Jessie's character to trounce under the light!

Did the DM and a set of players have a fight, in-game or out? If the DM suddenly stops focusing on certain characters because of out-of-game reasons, it should be addressed immediately. That's no fun for anyone at the table.

Are people just not piping up or showing interest in the game? 

That might also be a reason for their characters not receiving major roles in the show. While some players take on this persona, more of an observer than an active mover and shaker, some might just be going through a rough time or not be invested in the current story. If you think it's the former, make sure to check in with them and see how they're doing. If it's the latter, try to rope their character into the latest escapades of the party.

Addressing the Focus

If the points explored before this part decidedly conclude the focus should be addressed, you should consider the best way to handle it.

The best way, always, is to address the problem at its source. Talk to the DM and other players openly about the focus of the game. Explain how you feel about your character not being a part of the game, how you feel you might not get the chance to speak as often as you'd like. At worst, they blow up and act as though none of that is true, which means it's time to find a new table. At best, they'll come up with a solution to include you and your character more and ensure the spotlight doesn't burn too brightly on any one character.

If you don't want to confront someone about the focus or don't think it's too big of a problem at the time, there's a more subtle way even a player can help diminish this: always include and play-off other players.

Even if you're the focus of the game for a session or an encounter, always search for a way to include others in the moment. Bounce off their characters. Ask them advice. Call out their character in some way. Just because one character is the focus doesn't mean others can be included.

For example, if your character is speaking with a dwarven priest about a demon deep within an abandoned mine, they could ask their fighter friend their opinion on delving below might be. Have they fought a demon before? If so, what's the best way to approach it? If not, are they frightened? Then, the DM can bounce off their response as the dwarven priest and pull the fighter player deeper into the conversation.

If you're on a brief solo-mission, investigating the trapped warehouse of a rival in a grubby dock, don't just interact with the DM: bring in the other players! As your character, mutter/ask yourself: what would Ian's character think of this? Even ask the other players what they think you should do. It might be a meta-gaming, but in scenarios where your character is alone and the other players are literally spectators, it's fair to do this to include them in the game.

It's not just the DMs job to ensure the spotlight is shared amongst everyone, the players can easily help this happen, too!

Being a Dungeon Master, though, you are usually in the best position to remedy any focus issues. Watch the table as you play, look for any signs of bother. If you see it, if you notice some is not engaged, quickly find a way to draw that character into the fray! Address a question from the NPC toward them. Engage them in combat. Spring a trap or mystery in their face! Don't let them sit idle and become more disinterested in the game. 

If it recurs, talk to them about it. Are they no longer interested in D&D, or is something else the matter? 

Ask what you can to help them.

In Summary

In games like Dungeons & Dragons, no single player should be the whole focus of the game. It's a collaborative experience, built by the myriad players at the table, not just one or two. Always remember:

  • Share the spotlight at the table. Encourage others to speak up and participate in even moments dedicated to your character.
  • It's not just the job of the Dungeon Master to ensure multiple people share the spotlight. All the players can take part.
  • If sharing the spotlight becomes an issue, never gossip about someone's handling of this task. Go direct to the source and discuss it with the players/DM to resolve the issue.

In last week's post, I explored how to create monsters based on the paladin class. If you enjoyed this article, check it out!

Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

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