Lots of blogs all over the place mention that a good GM can control the spotlight so that mechanical differences in the characters don't matter. It is often the argument that goes along with phrases like "mechanical balance doesn't matter," and "let the players build the character that they want to play." The thing is, I haven't seen very many blogs tackle some of the methods for just how you control the spotlight in those situations. Today, I want to talk about that.
Method 1: Find Their Niche
Thing is it is very hard for a character to be the worst at everything in the group. Even the most mundane of characters often has an area where they excel over the other PCs mechanically, even if it is just at being the more normal person. Look over the characters, find where the person being outshone is actually the front runner in ability, and bring that up. Sure, maybe someone else can do it too, but they're not as good as this person is. When it is important to the plot, this then puts that character into the spotlight. Sometimes this is easy, like when the Bard is being outshone so suddenly you have their ability to play an instrument be important. Or the mage who is being outshone is able to lend their mystical expertise to help solve a problem. Other times it can be harder to do, especially when the outshone player is being outshone by someone in the same class.
Method 2: Backstory Exploitation
Method 1 is easy, but also obvious. Method 2 is also obvious, but not as easy. Chances are your characters have back stories. Even your outshone character. So, talk to their player and find out about the characters backstory. even if you never had one submited you can still start talking about it. Collect some notes on where everyone things their person came from. Then, have elements from those backstories come up. Maybe the outshone PC's old neighbor comes looking for help. This gets that player in the middle of things and at least the focus of attention. It also gives a chance to make them the spotlight for a bit as the group does something that revolves around their back story.
Method 3: Child of Prophecy
I call this the child of prophecy, but it doesn't actually involve a prophecy. This is the hard and fast way to do it. Namely, you make there be an obstacle that only the player who is going to get the spotlight can do. Other players, no matter how hard they try, will fail at this. Maybe it is landing the killing blow on someone - which you can do by fudging points and rolls - or some other challenge, but essentially you just force it. You want to be careful here though because if people realise you force it then it takes some of the power away. No one likes to hear that the reason Tom got the last hit on the Dragon and not them was because you artifically left the Dragon at 1 hp so Tom could have the moment. Tom also isn't going to be too keen on this since it kind of taints his moment, and any play that comes off of it.
Method 4: Mistaken Identity
I've only done this once before, but it was a lot of fun. PCs are generally prone to traveling around the world. Next time they enter a big city have the guards grab the outshone PC and arrest them for "crimes against the throne" or some other similar thing. This can then lead to an adventure where the PCs find out who is framing their companion, or who the look-alike is, and solve the problem. It generally pushes the outshone PC front and center because it is them who is being mistaken for someone they're not. Even if they don't perform better during the adventure, there is still a lot that rests on their head here, and that can be enough to get them going.
Caveat: Take care
Just remember when you do this that you want to be careful. Some players let themselves be outshone because they get nervous in the spotlight. Maybe they're just feeling this character out still. Maybe they're not sure about role playing in general. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by the RP the rest of the group is doing. Whatever the reason, sometimes people like being the quiet wall flower and watching what happens more than being the center of attention. Forcing them into the spotlight can just cause problems for them.
Because of this you want to make sure the player wants the spotlight, and to more give them the opportunity to step forward rather than just shoving them there. If they go for the light then immediately run back for the shadows, let them. Ease them into it if they want to try it, don't rush it. No one wants to be anxious, nervous, and the center of attention. Especially not in the close knit circles most gaming groups form.
We've got a lot of great GMs that read this blog, so how do you handle this? What tricks do you employ to bring the lesser seen characters to the front and center? Sound off in the comments.