Last updated on September 23, 2020
Tabletop role playing games are all about shifting perspectives. When you sit at the table, you agree to share the story with others at the table. During play, everyone sees through the eyes of their character, distinct and different from themselves. You look through the eyes of a character distinct from yourself while everyone else is doing the same. Through shared perspectives, stories grow and flourish. How can we optimize this to tell better stories?
Using a Spotlight
One, we use the spotlight to keep everyone engaged, making a richer, more team-driven story. Two, we intentionally utilize different points of view to explore many different narratives.
The spotlight is a strong narrative tool in so many forms of media. Techniques like camera focus in film help frame the story and direct the audience to focus on things the storymakers deem most important. In RPGs, we have the unique opportunity to be storytellers, audience, and producers. The way we handoff and share the spotlight is a crucial part of the game, and is worth doing correctly.
If the spotlight isn’t shared correctly, people are left out, and we get a worse story. If we distribute the spotlight without a plan, we create an unfocused, chaotic mess.
Are there specific structures to manage the spotlight in DND 5e?
Let’s look at combat.
Spotlight Structures - Combat
Combat in DND is structured. Each participant rolls initiative to find their turn order. When it’s their turn, the spotlight is fully on them, They get the freedom to do what they want, how they want. They literally have full creative control over the story.
When they’re done, they pass the spotlight onto the next person. It’s structured, focused, and predictable. Maybe this is why combat turns can take so long; it’s one of the few times a player knows they’ll have the spotlight.
Spotlights - Points of View
There’s also 3 different points of view we can use in DND. Just like in books, we have first and third person perspectives. Players can act out their characters’ actions in the first person. They can also narrate their actions and the world around them in the third person. We also have access to the second person too. In second person, the book, or the media, interacts with the reader, or consumer directly. Think “Choose your own Adventure” books. Game Masters can speak directly to the players, players can speak directly to each other, and players can even interact directly with the characters and set pieces in the world.
Shifting Spotlights - Random Tables
I use random tables filled with perspective shifting questions to help steer the story more intentionally.
My tables focus on three different perspectives: internal focused, object focused, and people focused. Each question on the table gives players the chance to explore those things not seen. Inherently, this game has no visuals. Sure you can bring props and paintings and images, but you will never see another character’s facial expressions. Just like a narrator in a book tells you what the protagonist is seeing, or a first person passage in a book can tell you the thoughts and feelings going on in their head.
How I use the Table
Anytime I want to shift the spotlight, or explore a different perspective, I roll a die on one of the tables and ask a player that question. This shifts the spotlight while expanding the narrative. The character gains the spotlight to shape the narrative and explore those hidden worlds. Each shift adds to the story, enriching the fabric of the narrative, while building engagement with each player at the table.
Stories flow better in my games. We now have a structured way to shift the focus between players. Everyone at the table can use these questions to explore the various social, observational, and personal interactions with each other. I know these will help your games too.
Try it in your games
If it feels a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. I have a template. These are the questions I use in my game. Try them out and let me know how it goes. Feel free to adjust any of the questions to best fit your table. Usually, I start the session with personal questions to draw the players in. Throughout the game, I use the observational and personal questions to help everyone flesh out their story through different points of view.
RPGs are an incredible form of media, with unique strengths that help tell stories you can’t tell anywhere else. Let’s use these tools to tell these stories with greater intention, clarity, and focus. I know your table will have more fun in no time.