101 Days of D&D: "Spotlight episodes"

There’s a great RPG called Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson. It’s a heck of a game. It’s my favorite of the “indie,” narrativist RPGs. It’s really good stuff. I highly recommend it if you love good stories and good TV. It’s also a great one-shot or convention game, too.

Not only is PTA a great game in and of itself, it has really affected the way I look at running other RPGs, too, even D&D. In PTA you create a TV show and play through some episodes. Like with TV, not all the starring characters in the show (“protagonists,” in PTA lingo) are the star of every single episode. PTA uses a concept called “screen presence,” which dictates how much of the episode is centered on any given protagonist. Each protagonist will have a screen presence that will vary throughout the season. For example, in a short, five-episode season, Protagonist A might have a screen presence of 1,2,2,3,1. 1 meaning a minor, supporting role and 3 meaning A is the star of that episode. In fact, A’s not just the star, that episode is her “spotlight episode.” PTA defines “spotlight episode as:

Every protagonist has one spotlight episode per season, and it presents a player with a clear opportunity to reveal that protagonist’s complexity. Spotlight episodes are the ones where the studio knows they have a doozy and promote it like crazy all week. For this episode, the spotlight character blossoms in front of the camera, and by the end, that character can’t help but to have grown.

I really like the concept of spotlight episodes in RPGs. Sure, they often evolve naturally on their own, but I like the idea of planning an adventure around a certain character’s — and its player’s — personality, history, desires, fears, etc. in a way that might result in a big epiphany or victory (or defeat) that will change the character or how the player runs it.

Sure, D&D 3.5e as designed is a very gamist, tactical sort of game, and if I really wanted to be focusing on more narrativist sorts of things, there are other games that do them better mechanically. I can rattle off a half dozen of them (starting with Burning Wheel), but I won’t, since this project is about D&D, right? (I have to keep reminding myself of that.) BUT, that does NOT mean that you CAN’T have more complexly-plotted and textured D&D games. It’s just that it’s not really part of D&D’s core story and plenty of folks play D&D in a satisfactory and functional way without ever dealing with that sort of thing. [EDITOR’S NOTE: look for more on this subject soon.]

But, I LIKE that sort of thing mixed in with my killing things and taking their stuff. And my players do, too.

I’ve started to approch my prep for each adventure thinking about screen time for my players’ characters. The first two adventures kept them pretty equal for the most part. With last Friday’s adventure, I intentionally designed one that would primarily pull at Ja’el, the Cyran ex-soldier who has fallen from grace (though more in his eyes that others’, I think). It was drawn completely from his background and really could have been a solo adventure (plot hook-wise, anyway). But, we designed the campaign with the characters being involved together enough that they could/would say, “hey, here’s something that needs doing! Come along with me!” (but, you know, cooler than that) and the others would probably go.

I intentionally left the details a little vague so we could be as flexible as possible in the running of the game. I created some NPCs and some situations and let the players dictate how they dealt with them. The one major NPC I connected very closely to Ja’el. I actually took the description of the NPC from one of the Eberron “Steal This Hook!” articles on wizards.com. I went a very different direction than the hook pointed, but I used it as a starting point. Those “Steal This Hook!” articles are great idea-starters, especially when you’re pressed for time (as I was on Friday). [EDITOR’S NOTE: a post on how I’m dealing with prep — underprepping, overprepping, etc. — is forthcoming.]

I think the idea of the “spotlight episode” really worked well! Ja’el’s player really got into the plot and had some great roleplaying. He made a HUGE decision about what his character wants to do with his life now. Some things that were said and done could foreshadow Ja’el making a play at some later stage for the leadership of his house (House Deneith, for you Eberron fans out there). It was really well-played by Ja’el’s player.

Also, something I had worried about a little was how the other players would react to a plotline that centered around one character not their own. So far, it’s going fine. The other characters all got involved, even to the point of influencing some of the big decisions made by Ja’el as he worked through the tough choices.

So, I think the spotlight episode thing is going to work out well for this group and for me. I’ll update the story as the campaign progresses.

5 thoughts on “101 Days of D&D: "Spotlight episodes"”

  1. I encountered a Dragon magazine article a few years ago which went into the a lot of detail on how to run your campaign like a TV series, when I get home, I will dig-up more information and post it.

    It may help you out if you can locate the article, because it goes into theme, tone, continuity episodes, a series bible, and character spotlight episodes amongst other things.

  2. Its in Dragon #293 and its written by Robin D. Laws, I give a more detailed synopsis on the contents in the post on my blog.

  3. One of the pictures in the article is particularly good. It takes the half-orc barbarian Krusk from the D&D Player’s Handbook and puts him in the Dawson’s Creek pose on the dock and its titled “Krusk’s Creek”.

    By the way, keep up the good work with the 101 days of D&D.

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