Published on April 13th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen2
GM Tricks: Learning to Followspot
One of the hardest parts of being a game master for a role playing game is knowing how to followspot. In theater, the person who operates the spotlight is the followspot. Operating a followspot isn’t hard on its own, but knowing the best time to widen the spot or switch to someone else in a scene is tough without a cue sheet. Even with a cue sheet, you have to know how to plan for expected technical issues and people going off script. Make sure none of your players feels left out of the limelight!
In the current World of Darkness game I’m running we have a wide range of experience levels with RPGs among the members of our group. Two players are long time RPGers with decades of experience each, one player has played a lot of one-shots over the years but never a long running campaign, one player has had a couple D&D characters, while one player has never played an RPG before.
This is the first time in a long while that I’ve had players who are newer to role-playing in my group and finding the appropriate amount of spotlight time to give to each person is proving to be difficult. It’s easy to get my old-time RPG players into the mix, too easy sometimes! They are so good at getting into character that they always have something for their character to say, which can be a problem if someone else is trying to make their voice heard the first time on an issue.
Enthusiasm for the game is a great asset for a game master- ultimately your goal is to enthuse your players so much that they bring as many cool, thematic ideas to the game as you. Players who are very vocal and energetic like this are one of your best allies at the table. As a GM you can use their energy to help the group move along to the next objective, and these players’ experience with systems and tropes can help the group stay on task and focused on the story.
Talk to players who are a little too comfortable with taking the spotlight into helping a player who seems more shy interact more at the table. Instead of their character always having the right answer, maybe their character can help someone else figure out the right answer. Or maybe it just comes down to a veteran player mentoring a newer player with the intricacies of the system. Your most experienced RPG players are a wealth of knowledge and can be your best asset- but they only know to help if you ask them.
For a lot of people who are comfortable GMing a game, that feeling comes after many years of participating in the hobby as a player. Therefore, it can be hard to remember what it’s like to be new to role-playing, what the challenges are to playing, what questions you had. With board gaming things tend to be more straight forward- there are more precise things you can or cannot do on your turn, and you have a strict order of operations to follow.
With role-playing games that isn’t necessarily the case. Even very rules heavy RPGs, or ones that have strict action economies still let you do practically whatever you want. Role playing games in that sense are a lot more like improvisational acting, with a set of rules to resolve conflicts. It’s rare to have someone explain this to someone new to the game, as we tend to get bogged down in rules summaries and character power selection. Taking time to go over some essentials of play-acting (in whatever form your group prefers) could really help.
Explaining your group’s philosophy on role-playing will help the newer player come out of their shell a little bit and can help them feel more comfortable in taking the spotlight when it becomes their turn. I remember what it’s like being vaguely bored in my first session because I didn’t know how to mete myself into the action. Then, all of a sudden the GM started asking me what my character would do in a situation and I had no idea how to react either in character or out of character to the challenge being presented to me. Clear communication is essential to bringing new players into the hobby.
While rules themselves are usually made clear to the newer player, there are many unwritten rules that every game group has that will need explanation. Do you all use silly voices or do most people state what their character does then roll skills or some combination? Answering this clearly up front will answer a question that your new player may be afraid to ask, as it seems so obvious and fundamental to the rest of the group.
How much narrative control does a player have on the scene? Some games, like FATE, have a mechanic that allows players to spend resources to declare things about the scene. Does your game have this, or is it a game where players can add their own details pretty much without permission? Or is it a game where everyone plays 20 questions with the GM every scene to determine what exactly is going on?
Writing a Cue Card
During a session it can be easy to lose track of who has participated recently, and who is being a wallflower. Make sure to take time between sessions to think back at the amount of interaction between you and the players, and among the players themselves. Make notes on interesting things each character did, and try to tie story elements in the next session to characters who didn’t seem to get a lot of action this last session.
I don’t write adventures for my games like what you’d find for D&D or Pathfinder, but I do generally have a couple of flow chart scenarios that I put together for important decisions I want the group to make. These usually take the form of “If Margarette does X then…” followed by another paragraph of “If she does Y then…” along with one that covers “If she does anything else”.
These flow charts are useful because if I notice that someone is being quiet for a session, I can make sure to do up a flow chart focused on their character next session. This allows me to add additional story focused on that character, while staying loose and adaptable during the session itself. Additionally, I like not just brainstorming ideas, but writing them down before the session itself to make sure I actually make a decision on where to take the campaign and it’s not just a jumble of ideas that I have to decide on during the middle of an encounter.
Have any role-playing tips of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments or @board_crossing on Twitter!