It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. I’ve already talked about Cold Opens and Flashbacks. Now let’s talk about building stories around your characters by using the Spotlight.
My highest priority running a role playing game is the story being told. When you’re optimized for play, you have to build that story on the fly, and make it relevant to the characters to boot. Spotlights are a way to share that work with everyone at the table, player and GM alike.
The idea and the name come from Primetime Adventures, where each character’s gets one “Spotlight episode” per “season” of 8(ish) episodes. The spotlight makes one character stand out from the crowd, making it obvious that this is the focus this week. In PTA, each character, as part of character creation, identifies an “issue” that they will be working through this season. The producer— PTA’s GM role— then uses that issue to frame the character into a situation that will uniquely highlight their issue and force them to show the audience something interesting about their character or their world.
In 13th Age, you don’t have an explicit “issue” on the sheet but you have a ton of other hooks to use:
- Did the player leave something unfinished in a previous session, especially in a Flashback? Bring it to the fore with a recurring character, a debt called in, or a delayed consequence.
- Does the character’s One Unique Thing suggest a conflict with outside powers, or internal turmoil? Find a way to make those dangerous in the present and put them on display.
- Did the player get a complicated Icon roll? Make the situation about how they pay the cost to get the benefit.
- Did the player get a hit on an negative Icon relation? Let them show off their knowledge of the baddies by dropping the PCs behind enemy lines.
- Does the character have a background that suggests backstory but hasn’t been used much? Highlight it with a trip to the PC’s hometown/dojo/boot camp/college arcana/whatnot, or a trip by an NPC from same to find the PC.
Any one of these will provide a well-lit road into the character’s story, at varying levels of importance: backgrounds are great fodder, but hitting an icon roll is nearer to their core. Hitting a Unique will show off why this particular character is different, but I have found that the best route is to circle back to the spotlights that have come before, to highlight continuity and build upon what everyone at the table knows, which is ultimately as unique as you can get. The players get to invest in each others’ stories, and the interconnections that result are one of the best surprises a GM gets.
The cold open will put the spotlight character into a position to make the story go, and when I finish reading the cold open I ask the spotlighted character the question1: “what do you do?” It’s at that point that the player in the spotlight gets to take control and determine the tenor of the game to follow. It is their point of maximum leverage, where they get to decide if tonight will dive straight to combat, veer to diplomacy, or jump to a chase. Using that moment to control the narrative is huge, but it is not immediately obvious to the players, so it’s best to point that out a few times.
Narrative control is great, but most players want some crunch, so our spotlight provides some, although the specifics have shifted a few times over the course of our game. It began as a simple pile of three bennies given to that player, to allow them to emphasize what was important to them (“I really need to convince this guard we’re legit, so here’s a Bennie before I roll.”). Ultimately that freeform method diffused the spotlight too much: there was no real direction for the character to go beyond what the cold open provided, which is as often as not more of a team effort than an individual one. We needed something more focused.
Spotlight Questions are written out on 3×5 cards in big letters, asking the player to emphasize or show one specific, important thing about their character. Some examples:
- Pick another player. How did you meet them, and why are you still traveling with them? 🔗
- The Elf Queen knows your destiny and has been preparing for your arrival. How do you overcome the obstacles she’s put in your path? 🔗
- If you had to pick one of your friends to save, which would it be? 🔗
- Are Arroway and Vessel actually a couple? 🔗
- You share a mystical connection with The Lich King; explain what it is. 🔗
- Dral has become an ally, but not all orcs are. Show us how you deal with that. 🔗
- Why did you leave the Order of the Closed Fist to go adventuring? 🔗
- Will you serve the One True God now that you know his true nature? 🔗
- We know that The Orc Lord supports what you are attempting. Show us what that is. 🔗
- How did you adapt to the current Age and how did you fall in with The Prince of Shadows? 🔗
A good spotlight question2 is a one-two punch, laying down a fact and then asking for clarification on it. Often the fact stated is from a previous episode, but I find that it is a simple and effective world- building tool, letting me extrapolate on what has been said to what has happened “off screen” since then. The question follows a similar dynamic: mix in the mysteries that are left unsolved, but do not be afraid to introduce new ones.
The important thing is that the question should encourage focused storytelling. This is a tool that allows and demands player input, and there will necessarily be world building on their part as well. This is frankly my favorite part of the mechanic: it lets everyone advance their own story while the shared story of the group advances as well. Think of it as the “b plot” of the episode, where the more-personal story emphasizes the main action thematically and tonally.
The players love getting the spotlight. It means that their creation gets to shine, and it means that they get to do a bit of showing off. This is exactly the kind of game I want to play: where everyone gets to toss in their ideas, and everyone else gets to be impressed and amaed. Getting your character’s first spotlight is a right of passage, where the team’s new guy stops being just another token on the combat map and becomes a real part of the story, growing connections into the world and the group. And as the GM I love seeing what crazy obstacles the players are willing– eager, even– to throw into their own paths to make their eventual triumph all the more sweet.
I write all the questions ahead of time3, and have them ready. Before the cold open, we decide on the spotlight.
- I lay down 3 or 4 cards, each with a different question on it, and I read them aloud so the whole table hears.
- Upon each card I lay a poker chip that acts as a bennie4: the spotlight means the character should shine, not just be the center of attention.
- Then, each player who is not the spotlight gets two bennies to assign as they wish to the questions (Yes, you can drop both on one question): this is a story we are all telling together, so getting input from the table on what is and is not interesting is important.
- Finally, the spotlight player picks a question. They collect their bennies, but they’re also committing to answer the question. That gives them a single task to accomplish, which can be as simple as a one scene flashback, but it lets them guide the larger story to make that flashback a payoff worth waiting for.
Using this mechanic, the whole table gets to push in directions they like, but the choice and the responsibility ultimately lie with one player. We have started to think of ourselves as the show’s “Writers Room”, where different people throw out ideas and everyone else refines them, but in the end the “script” for each episode has one name on it.
Spotlight Questions are a terrific way to give the players a way to shine that is completely divorced from their luck with the dice, by giving their character center stage. It allows you as the GM to guide the growth of those stories without requiring you to plan out every plot twist, and it allows the players to guide the growth of the world toward topics and themes that interest them. They will make your games more interesting and your characters more memorable, and your table will always be excited about what happens next.
Are you using spotlights? I’d love to hear all about it! Regale me with your stories on Twitter at @TALlama!
Note that not all of them are strictly questions in the gramatical sense, but they all direct the story in one particular way. ↩
Our bennies started as a static +2 bonus when spent before a roll, but they were little used in that way. They have since become akin to D&D’s advantage, but still have to be spent before the roll, and they see much more use ↩