Story Focus: Who Gets Screen Time?

When you’re playing an RPG, which characters get screen time?  Where should the focus be?  How can a storyteller make sure that they’re not giving their players short shrift?  Finding a good balance and learning how to give your players’ characters the focus that they deserve is an art, one that requires awareness of where your attention is at any given moment.

I believe that by running a game you are agreeing to give the PCs the stage.  The NPCs you portray may be important people, and they may be powerful people, but the story is not about them.  The actions of those important and powerful people are only shown insofar as they matter to the PCs.  Even if you use cool camera tricks to show things that are happening away from the PCs, you are only going to show things that have an impact on the PCs.  We, as the players and audience, don’t really care what the crime lord does in her office unless it directly impacts on our experience of what is going on in the fiction.

There is a temptation to give more screen time to your own characters.  Some of your NPCs are people that you might really enjoy playing, and you’ll think they’re super awesome.  But if one of your NPCs is competing with the PCs for screen time or story focus, you should take that as a warning sign; it suggests that you are no longer focusing on things that are primarily of concern to the PCs and the PCs’ story.  Note that focus: it’s the PCs’ story.  I’m not saying that you can’t have fun playing your NPCs, but when you love your NPCs you need to be especially aware of whether or not your players are getting the focus that they deserve.  And whether you’re giving NPCs special treatment.

Giving your players and their story preferential screen time is the first step.  But you must still make sure that all your players get enough screen time, and that can be quite difficult.  There are plenty of times when one PC will be in the middle of a cool scene, while the other PCs are doing things that are comparatively less interesting.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, and your scene shifts won’t increase tension as consistently as you might like.  But what you should aim for is having all of your players in their own good scenes, or matched up in sets in good scenes.  Then you can cut back and forth between characters, asking the players what they are doing at any given moment and prompting them for their responses to other characters’ actions.

When you’re doing really well, all of your players will be excited about the various scenes each PC is involved in and you can cut back and forth between them to build involvement and leave them in cliffhangers.

Don’t be afraid to ask your players what they thought of game afterward.  Ask them what their favorite moments were, when they felt like the story dragged and when they thought it was really smooth.  You can learn a lot from that, and incorporate your players’ favorite moments of play into later games.

So, where does that leave us?

  • The PCs have the stage.  The game is never about your NPCs, even when your NPCs spend a lot of time interacting with the PCs.
  • If an NPC is competing with a PC for screen time, take that as a warning sign.  Play your NPCs to make the game more about the PCs and their decisions.
  • Balance player screen time.  Cut back and forth between scenes and prompt the PCs, asking for their actions and reactions.  If you’ve spent much time with one person, it’s probably time to shift again.

2 responses to “Story Focus: Who Gets Screen Time?

  1. Pingback: Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs | Fistful of Wits

  2. I think it might be worth noting that scene changes are somewhat delicate things. There is an art to changing scenes in a timely manner without ruining the focus and tension of the scene being cut away from. I’m not sure I have much insight into how to make scene changes build tension (and avoid having them destroy it), but it is a detail worth keeping in mind. Similarly for simultaneous engaging scenes, it bears remembering that plans to have characters in simultaneous good scenes may not always survive player contact. This isn’t to say it isn’t a worthwhile goal, but rather to note that it may conflict with another worthy goal, namely organic play.

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