Focusing the Spotlight: How I Handle Split Parties For More Drama

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0622

A Brief Word From Johnn

The Productive Game Master

Did you know I recently doubled my reading speed?

It took minutes. No, really.

There’s a way of reading on-screen where the words just flash by. All you do is focus.

I did a reading test first, because I was skeptical. I did two, actually. One on-screen and one with a book. They both came to roughly the same rate.

Then I read for a few minutes using a screen reader app. And my reading rate instantly doubled. I just kept cranking up the reading speed until it became too fast.

Now, I still like to read fiction at my normal rate, but for mowing down articles and information online, it’s awesome.

I use two apps. One for my Chrome Browser and one for my iPad.

The Chrome app is called Spreed. It’s free.

The iPad app is called QuickReader and it has a lite version you can try. I use the Pro version with Instapaper articles I’ve saved for later reading.

Both apps have limitations. Neither will read any old PDF. I suspect it’s a problem with PDF coding.

But there’s still a lot of online stuff I use the apps for.

The method they use works because several things slow your reading down:

  • Regression – your eyes will wander or re-read words
  • Focus – your attention wanders
  • Sub-vocalization – you speak the words in your head as you go

The apps force you to read fast, keeping you focused and alert. Beaming one or two words on the screen at a time prevents regression. And setting the speed to be a little too fast forces you to stop sub-vocalizing, though I still struggle a lot with that.

You might wonder if I still remember or retain as much of what I read at the doubled rate.

That’s actually a trick question. Retention is based on focus and a different skill set than reading rate. It doesn’t matter if you read fast or slow, if you are distracted or don’t use memory techniques like repetition, retention suffers.

I think it’s important to be a Productive GM. The more you get done in various areas of your life means you have more time for gaming, right?

Focusing the Spotlight: How I Handle Split Parties For More Drama

After last week’s recount of my D&D 5E session where the PCs split up in the town of Phandalin, RPT reader Glenn Davis asked me this:

How did you play out the last campaign session when various PCs were separated?

For example, how did you keep the fighter’s player from knowing the paladin had conscripted a goblin, or the paladin’s character from knowing the fighter was joining a party of ruffians to attack him?

I know you have already posted on how to run a session when the PCs split up, but I’m interested in how you implemented those ideas in your recent session and whether you learned anything new.

My favorite part of your posts are the session recaps, keep them up!

In case you missed the session recap, the group had acquired a goblin prisoner.

The first night in town, the paladin converted the goblin and made him a loyal servant.

Same night, the fighter got caught cheating at cards and was asked to join a gang of local thugs. When he agreed, the gang said his first job was to help whack a disgusting goblin servant of a new guy in town….

So what follows is how I used spotlight time to manage split-party play while the PCs were in town. Chances are, my memory of events is improved by hindsight. 🙂 But I think this is pretty close to what happened – the play was fast and furious many times during the session.

Play In Character, Stay In Character

Sometimes I’ll take players out for hallway chats to preserve secrets and surprises. In our new gaming location, we can’t do that. So everything was done in front of everyone.

When the characters split, the players stayed together. But we have a couple of house rules for these situations.

Play In Character

The first house rule:

Separate character knowledge from player knowledge.

If the players know something their PCs wouldn’t, they can’t have their PCs use that information.

I GM the same way. If the wizard and rogue PCs have some killer combo, the monsters won’t know this and have a killer counter-strategy. Instead, I’ll use in-game tools like rumours, reputation, and spies to make my monsters smarter over time.

It’s part of the reason why I prefer lots of NPCs and factions in my campaigns. They make the game world dynamic and adaptive in a believable and consistent way.

So the fighter’s player, let’s call him Chris, knew his mission was to attack the paladin’s player, let’s call him Jason, and the pally’s gobbo minion.

And Jason knew Chris was coming after him.

Stay In Character

The second house rule:

Stay in-character.

Chris is new to our group. So congrats to him for staying in-character. And the rest of us knew to do that, and played along.

Chris did not tell Jason if he was going to actually attack the paladin or goblin. He didn’t reveal his plans. Maybe secret hand signals passed back and forth, I don’t know. But I did not hear Chris break character and say, “Don’t worry about it, I’m not really going to attack you. Here’s my plan.”

It’s game moments like these I live for, where nobody knows what’s going to happen and we’re all dying to see how it plays out.

To answer your question, Glenn, all players were aware what was going on. But everyone played in-character using only knowledge their PCs would have. And everyone stayed in-character, revealing character intentions just through roleplaying and PC actions.

Graphic of section divider

Oh, The Irony

My group does not always abide by these rules. I should get a referee whistle or something and call penalties when they’re broken, lol. But for the most part, the house rules are honoured.

This gives me a fantastic story device: irony.

There are several types of irony, which I’ve written about before.

In this case, I could use the Chinese Wall created by our house rules for dramatic effect.

One type of irony gets created when the players know something the PCs do not.

Once I saw where the game was headed, I chose the spotlight order and used it to enhance the irony and set up ironic situations.

Dance The Light Fantastic

When the party splits up I go around the table and get each player’s intentions. This tells me where the game is headed in the short term.

Then I referee each PC, one at a time, through normal gameplay – roleplaying, rolling, skill checks, etc.

And as GM, I get to choose who gets the spotlight when, and for how long.

So I make choices sometimes based on creating irony.

In our session, the paladin stated first he was converting the goblin to a minion. The fighter went after the rogue’s turn and said he was looking for a scummy place to play cards.

While GMing the paladin roleplaying a bit and then ultimately making an Intimidation check to start conditioning the goblin, I got an idea: “What if the fighter gets dealt two aces from the same suit, and is caught cheating?”

After the paladin’s turn, the spotlight hit the rogue. He got the commoners in the inn involved in grand stories and loud songs, in part to cover the sounds of the paladin’s activities upstairs. That was great.

Then the spotlight switched to the fighter. Part of the adventure’s plot involves the Red Cloaks, a local gang of thugs bullying the town. So now was a great opportunity to introduce them. Chad, a Red Cloak had a seat at the card game. Then I picked two local farmers for other players at the game.

As I did this, I was thinking of those HD photos you see all the time now, where the foreground is in sharp focus and the background is blurry.

I picked two vanilla farmer dudes for card players to be the fuzzy background, while Chad and the fighter could confront each other in sharp focus, if that makes sense. The farmers were just set dressing.

The fighter surprised me when he was dealt an illegal hand. He took the initiative, literally. He flipped the table and declared Chad a cheat. I was thinking of exposing him another way, so that was a surprise and it was great.

And you know the rest of that encounter’s story from last week – the fighter lost the battle and ended up in the dungeon awaiting the Townmaster to levy justice.

I should mention, during all this the spotlight rotated several times. I try to give each player about two minutes and then shift off. With four players, this means two minutes in active gameplay and six minutes off, each turn. With five players, it means one turn every 10 minutes, which is slow, but the players decide whether to split the party and know the consequences of that decision.

I’ll sometimes use an iPad multi-timer app to track this. I wish I had a physical six person chess clock in front of my screen, just to keep track and make sure spotlight time is fair.

And this rhythm can get disrupted if the game timeline gets skewed. For example, the boring monk played by – let’s call him Colin – cleaned his blood-stained clothes and then slept. So in his two minutes, hours of game time passed, while at times the fighter’s two minutes had just a couple rounds of combat pass.

So jerk Colin screwed up the rhythm there. I only call Colin a jerk because I know he reads Roleplaying Tips. Colin, you’re not really a jerk. You’re a big jerk. A big boring monk jerk. 🙂

The session goes on. Spotlight still rotating. It’s morning in game time now. The fighter finds Chad in his cell upon waking. Chad offers him gang membership. Fighter agrees. Chad says his first job is to kill the paladin’s goblin.

Before fighter responds, I switch spotlight to the paladin. Old movie and comic book technique, right? The previous scene frames the next in an ironic or suspenseful way, even though the second scene is unaware of what just happened in the first.

I tell the paladin the results of his efforts during the night. The goblin now seems to be loyal. This is great irony. Because we already know the goblin is a target. But now, after that revelation, we learn the paladin actually has something to lose, because his prisoner has transformed into a useful servant.

Paladin says he’s having breakfast with the goblin. Then going to explore town. (Well-played, paladin.)

Spotlight swings back to fighter. Fighter says he’ll take the job. I have Chad and two other Red Cloaks accompany him and they saunter towards town.

Spotlight now swings to rogue and monk, to stretch out the tension of the coming confrontation.

Then it’s back to the paladin. I tell him he sees the fighter with three Red Cloaks walking towards him. What does he do?

I want the paladin to declare his intentions first, before the fighter. Again, because it seems like the most dramatic order of things. Even though all this is happening in the game at roughly the same time, the spotlight reveals the story in actual time, in linear fashion, just like a writer chooses what character to switch to next in a scene or new chapter.

I want the paladin, the victim, to set the stage.

Spotlight’s back on the fighter. The Red Cloaks attack. And at last, after all this build-up, we learn the fighter is going to betray the Red Cloaks with some nasty fire-breath because he’s a dragonborn. All three Red Cloaks are caught in the blast, and now it’s two against three, with the goblin choosing to be a bystander.

The Spotlight Is On You

I enjoy it when the party splits. I think it sucks gameplay slows, but it’s just the nature of playing with people off doing their own things.

I like split party play for two reasons. First, because of the spotlight. It’s a great tool for dramatic effect.

Second, multiple plots can progress at once.

In my previous Riddleport campaign, for example, the wizard would be off getting caught up in Wizard Guild shenanigans, while the cleric of Desna was learning what vices his church was up to, while the pit fighter was cozying up to one of the villains.

In one turn around the table, several plots took a small step forward at the same time.

As GM, I have a lot of levers here to enhance gameplay through spotlight, irony, NPCs, plot development, and storytelling. And the spotlight is also on me, like in a team sport where the players make the amazing moves, and the coach has defined the structure of play that often makes those moves possible.

When the party is together you can also use the spotlight for session drama. Because even in combat, the game carries on one character action at a time. Initiative might dictate the order of actions sometimes, but you still have other spotlight options to enhance gameplay, such as free actions by foes, plot point reveals, and things happening in the environment.

Consider how you can uses these levers to make your next game more fun.

I hope this answered your questions, Glenn.

RPT Reader Blogs

A couple weeks ago I asked if you ran a gaming blog. Turns out, several of you do, which is fantastic. Blogging takes time and effort, but it’s rewarding.

If you are looking for more reading materials check out these sites from your fellow tipsters:

11 Ways to Run an Anime-inspired Adventure

From Jesse C Cohoon

Anime is dynamic. It captures action and adventure like nothing else can. It lets you build amazing worlds in which you immerse your characters. And you can show depths of emotion that leave you heartbroken when those characters die.

You can infuse any game with anime style, high-octane action, set in imaginative and wondrous worlds filled with colorful characters, just like what you see in your favorite anime.

Here are 11 ways to infuse your game with anime themes.

Watch A Lot Of Anime

Don’t just watch one series of anime. Mix up what you’re watching to get a feel for all sorts of anime.

That way, you get a feel not only for the type of a game you’re wanting to run, but you’re also able to incorporate elements from other anime into the plot.

I suggest watching in the original language with subtitles. The dubbed versions often lose some of the plot details.

Choose A Setting

Decide whether you want to play in an established setting, or if you just want to add anime flair to your current game.

If you DO want to use an established setting, figure out what your stance on “official” events of the series is.

  • Are PCs able to change world events depicted in the series?
  • Are they so far removed from the action they never see what’s going on?
  • If there are to be changes, what are they?
  • How do the changes affect the story line, the world, and the characters?

Before you stat up the show, do a Google search for X world, Y system. For instance, d20 bleach or One Piece Fate. Chances are, someone else has already done the heavy lifting for you.

If you just want to add some anime style to your current game, one big thing you can do is incorporate some of the popular tropes found in anime:

  • Alien visitors or extra dimensional exiles: Why are they here? How are they affecting the characters’ lives? What happens when they leave?
  • Exotic girlfriend: Why is she special? Does she have powers? Is she a robot?
  • Gun bunny: Lots of large (and small) guns and explosions.
  • Heroic teams or magic girls: People with magic or technological powers fighting evil. Or are the layers of “right” and “wrong” so easily defined?
  • School days: Weird things all happen around the school. What’s causing them, and how are the students involved in what’s going on?

Use Fast Camera Cuts And Special Effects

Think about how to describe what players see in terms of pictures, and ask your players to do the same. Have the camera zoom in on people’s eyes to catch they are scared. Or show the “sweatdrop” to convey anger, annoyance, or embarrassment. Zoom out to show the devastation of the entire area.

Figure out what special effects are needed, and the rules needed to make it work and make it exciting (if needed).

The easiest way is to add the effects is to make them descriptions and flavor. Become adept at describing little things that make a big impact.

Instead of the usual, “Your magic missile hits him in the chest, leaving a scorch mark on his armor,” say “Your magical Hand of Jotunn smashes into the warrior’s armor with a blast of energy that makes everyone shield their eyes. His armor and skin are blackened and he howls in pain from the stinging touch of your spirit magic.”

Know Your NPCs’ Backstories And Be Prepared To Reveal Them

One classic tactic in anime and manga is to have lengthy flashbacks to:

  • Show what happened in the past
  • Show how they are affecting events right now
  • To give enemy motivation
  • Show abilities
  • Show what else is going on in the world

Ask yourself: How is all of this connected? What does this seemingly insignificant action have to do with what happened 20 years ago? How can something long-forgotten affect the characters’ lives today?

Choose Your Game System Carefully

If you’re starting a new game, then you can find the system that has the best fit for the anime you’re trying to model.

If your world uses lots of magic, you need a system that has a robust magic system you can use to show the devastating effects of the magic. Maybe use a good superhero game system, dubbing all the powers as magic.

If your world has intense close-up fighting action, you want a game that can handle swords clashing, close combat, and fast movement.

If technology is the main thing, you’ll need a system that describes various technologies, what they do, how they do it, and what happens when something goes wrong (as it invariably will).

If you’re running a system where giant mechas and robots roam about, you’ll want a system for keeping track of what their abilities and weaknesses are, so you can throw challenging enemies at them.

Created Chaotic Action

Instead of using initiative, have all the players roll their dice and you roll for the enemies and then determine the order of things, describing the events happening as you see fit.

This allows you to be more creative in how things turn out, and goes a long way in speeding up the action to become “animesque.”

Don’t be afraid to “zoom in” on one character for several rolls. Many times a battle in anime consists of only two characters with teammates on either side just watching. Each fight is shown for several rounds before switching the action to another place to show what else is happening.

Don’t Be Afraid To Separate The Players

This breaks the typical rule of “never split the party.”

But in anime, you might have one group of people heading to X location while another stays behind. As events unfold, the people are forced to move, and within a certain amount of time, the entire group is back together again.

This facilitates players getting multiple things done at once, and allows the story line to grow multiple ways.

Create Defining “Moves”

Many times in anime, characters will name their attacks. Come up with a list of moves for the characters, and a description of what they do, how much power they consume, how they work, if they can be blocked, etc.

This doesn’t have to affect the mechanics at all…but it can if you want it to. Give players a small bonus to attack or damage, based on the description of their named attack. Hopefully this will keep the action flowing faster.

Ignore Physics

In anime, characters will move at impossible speeds, stopping instantly, changing direction and continuing on.

Characters may fly or walk on air without any mechanical or magical means, as a part of their “normal” way of movement.

Other characters may deflect bullets with their swords, be immune to weapons, drive cars that defy gravity.

In strategic moments, the characters draw upon hidden reserves of strength and perform amazing, heroic feats which turn the tide of the battle.

When Playing Enemy NPCs Think Strategically

In anime, the enemies will often have some sort of edge that allows them, at least initially, to beat down the heroes. Think about what skills and abilities NPCs have to show the PCs it’s wrong to mess with them.

Give them things the PCs can’t take from them. Something in their genetics that allows them to move faster, be stronger, think more strategically. They might have implants that can’t be taken out of the body, because they’re adapted only for that person. They might have a learned skill the PCs can’t duplicate because it took years of training.