Taking Spotlight Responsibly

(Featured Photo by Jesse Robert Gifford Stuart. Models: TJ Coppola and Ericka Skirpan, Eskhaton Larp, Reverie Studios.) For most of their lives, responsible and generous larpers have been told don’t be too much in the spotlight. Share the stage. Play to lift others. It’s not about you, it’s about EVERYONE. We spend so much time coaching generous play, it’s given most of us a complex around those times that we do enter the spotlight. However, every story needs a hero. Most good tales have main characters and supporting roles. Just because you are taking the spotlight in a story, doesn’t mean you can’t be a supporting role to someone else’s. Even more so, in a good larp, there are so many stories going on that there is room for MANY people to be in the spotlight at any given point in time. It’s important that we stop chastising ourselves for taking up attention while in scenes in at a larp. Spotlight play, done respectfully, can help enhance everyone’s game and not just your own.

I’m not talking about the players who shove themselves to the front of every plot or complain about favoritism every time a story focuses on someone who isn’t them or their friends. We all know the unhealthy star players: the people who will push others out of the spotlight or story consistently just so they can take up room in it. They are the people who hoard plot and put others down to make themselves look good. They are the ones that surround themselves with ‘the cool kids’ (and ONLY the cool kids) so they get attention, photographs, and the most time from staff. We’ve all seen them before and that’s why so many of us are scared of turning into one. But I’m not talking about those players.

I’m talking about the players who are charismatic, emotional, plot driven, and generous. The ones that know how to light up a scene and then reach their hands out to bring three other people along. The ones that go off and take big risks to help emotionally drive a story when others might be a bit too shy. You also know the kind of player I’m talking about. Don’t be scared to be that kind of player. Being that kind of player teaches others how they can better engage in story. Quiet scenes behind closed doors rarely brings new people (or shy folks) into plot. A big piece of drama out in the open done by someone who is willing to rope in anyone who shows interest, that creates wildly engaging story.

I’ll admit this has been something I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. I’m a spotlight player. I know I am. I’ve been asked to come into larps just to take characters who need someone loud, driven, and generous behind them. Because of a mix of emotional sincerity, high stakes play, and genuinely supportive characters, I’ll often fall into being some sort of central figure in town during the long running games I play. I’m not good at staying in the shadows. I still struggle with guilt over “Am I being too much?” or “Am I a diva when I’m playing?” But after some hard examination, I realize that spotlight play can not only be done responsibly, but done in a fashion it’s HEALTHY for a game and the stories you are telling.

How Spotlight Players Support a Game

Setting Examples: It’s often hard for less certain or newer players to know where their limits of play are in a game. Less confident players will take less risk and less agency for fear of stepping out of the box or getting something ‘wrong’. A spotlight player who is willing to take agency in telling stories and emotionally express high stakes roleplay will set a good example for others about how big (or how deep) they can go with their own stories. I had several people come up to me after Eskhaton and say how much they appreciated how emotionally high stakes I played, because it let them know they could be very emotionally expressive and wouldn’t be breaking the style of this environment.

Driving Plot: A healthy spotlight player can help drive plot and pick up a lot more people along the way. Whether it’s a story that was dropped, something which needs to be explored in a certain direction, or just an investigation that needs picked up to carry on with the next stage of the plot, a spotlight player will sink teeth in deeply and gather as many people as possible to go along on the ride. We use spotlight players to this advantage in both Dammerung and Velvet Noir, where our directed cast are specifically sent out with plot they are supposed to pursue and motivate others to follow along the ride. Sometimes, it just takes one driven person to get a dozen people or more involved in a story.

Engaging Shy Players: Not all larpers are outgoing drama queens. If someone is particularly shy, unable to engage in plot, or unable to express emotional story, a good spotlight player can reach out to them and help get them caught up without forcing them into the spotlight. As long as the spotlight player calibrates, they can see if that other player just wants to be kept up to date on what is going on and quiet looped in on the investigation, or the spotlight player can take the limelight and then step aside to offer it to that other player who isn’t often able to engage in such a manner. If you are generous with your spotlight, once you have gained it, you can truly help it shine onto others who don’t normally have it!

Reinforcing the Sandbox: A healthy spotlight player knows their game and their genre inside out, upside down. They should be a sterling example of what the game is supposed to look like, the games themes, setting, etc. If a player is pulling spotlight and they are an excellent example of your setting, it’s easy to point to them when people are newer to the game (or coming up with plot/character ideas that are way off base) and say: “Look at XX, they’ve gotten into a lot of deep story and are playing this type of character and perfectly to their class/themes of the story.” They can also help coach people in and out of character how to better fit in the sandbox of your story because they know it so well and are setting such a public example. I’ve done this in a lot of games by teaching in character, in genre dance lessons, creating in character groups (hello, sewing circle ladies from Dead Legends!), learning a strong piece of the setting’s lore and then teaching it in character, or helping people form INTERESTING backstories which are clearly in the bounds of the game through good character ties.

A man in viking clothing holds the hand of an unconscious, bloodied woman on a table as their religious adviser looks on.
(Photo by Erin Pierce. Jarl Halvdan, his dying wife, and the Nordvik Osthaler. All lead characters at Dammerung. This scene fueled hours of larp afterwards.)

Entertaining Others: In traditional American campaign larps, storytelling staff sends out mods/plot. There is never enough plot going out to entertain every single player every hour of the day. The NPC to PC ratio is simply too small. Therefore, a good spotlight player can help entertain other characters just by existing in the world, or by creating personal plot and then looping other players into solve it. As mentioned above, I run a group called ‘Sewing Circle’ in Dead Legends. It’s a group of women that get together to talk about women’s issues, sexuality, politics, and other things in the sometimes conservative historical setting of 1881. When storyteller driven plot comes to sewing circle, we almost all tell it to GO AWAY WE ARE BUSY. This group has become self entertaining and important to the game setting without ever needing a plot or NPC to visit us, and it all happened because I decided to be bossy on a back porch one morning.

How to Be a Healthy Spotlight Player

Take the Spotlight, Not the Shadows: If you have fallen into being a spotlight player, or you are directed cast, make certain you are in the spotlight. If you are going to have a big scene, a secret reveal, talk about plot or adventure? Do it publicly and loud. I know your character might be a bit more secretive, but having access to such plot and attention gives you a responsibility to share it around. Steer into doing things publicly as MUCH AS YOU CAN so you can engage others in the story and set a good example along the way.

Bring Strangers Along: Getting to go out on a cool plot or telling a big dramatic climax? Pick up a few strangers along the way! Find someone new into town and make an excuse to engage them in the spotlighted story you are getting to tell. It doesn’t even have to be staff written plot, but the personal things you are doing, the lessons you are teaching, the groups you are forming? Open them specifically to strangers and new players as a way to get them acquainted with the setting and other players. I make a specific goal to invite as many new faces to sewing circle as I possibly can at Dead Legends, because it’s a good, safe space to get to know other characters in a setting that feels special.

Exposition, Especially for Newbies: If you’ve managed to get into the spotlight, it probably means you know a fair bit of what is going on. Either, in a one shot, you are playing some sort of important plot/faction centered character, or in a campaign you’ve been central to some story. Now, use that power for good! Tell stories of what happened and help new players understand the background of what is going on. Explain your faction to others who might not understand it. In your faction? Debate the intricate details of things that different parts might totally agree about, or wax poetic about your faction’s history so people better understand what they are playing! Don’t hide that knowledge you have, use it to engage others and help them better understand the sandbox you all share.

Make Background Ties: I watch the Facebook groups and boards for many of the games I play where I’ve got a spotlight character. When someone new, especially a newer larper comes in, I try hard to offer background ties where I can. Because a spotlight player is already pulled into plot and knows a lot of story, giving a brand new player background ties is a short cut to helping pull them into story when, often, new players can struggle on the outsides of plot for several games before figuring out their place in a narrative.

Is This Plot for Me?: Sometimes, being a responsible spotlight player means looking at a plot and REALLY EVALUATING: “Is this plot for me?” then deciding: “No, it isn’t.” A good spotlight player knows when to step back, bow out of doing a plot, or hand it over to others even if it seems to be coming in their direction. One of the biggest rules of being a good spotlight player is making certain, at times, you do hand off that spotlight to someone else.

Make Excuses to Fall: However, if you DID go on that plot? If you’re at the climax of your journey, a long narration, or a deep plot with many others? Find an excuse to fall and need others to help you finish. It creates good drama and ropes other people into feeling important/productive when they helped the hero finish their journey.

Teach: Don’t sit around bored. If nothing is happening: Teach. Teach the story’s exposition (see above), teach skills, teach dancing, teach setting history, teach real world history, teach SOMETHING about your character or another character. When you can rope other players into learning, do so. I even do this through counseling roleplay at Dead Legends. If someone is coming to Moira for psychological support, I ask them if they wouldn’t mind doing some sort of ‘group’ therapy, because then they learn they are not alone in their troubles. Then I rope a few others in who are having similar issues and at least one other person in who wants to learn the counseling skills in game. Suddenly, what could have been a very quiet two person scene has turned into an eight person group therapy session and I have a co-counselor helping me lead discussion. Everyone learns about each other’s characters and I’ve helped coach another player in how to lead bigger scenes like this in the future.

Take Agency: Learn how much agency the game you are playing will let you take and then don’t be afraid to take EVERY SQUARE INCH OF THAT AGENCY. If you can create story, background plot, town actions, or anything that will help drive the actions of you and other people? Do it! Being willing to take agency and rope other people in on what you are doing helps entertain a lot of people when story staff can’t be everywhere at once. Yes, there’s a lot of old fashion games where players have been chastised for doing this, so check in with your story staff first and get a sense of what your community supports. But most games i play nowadays are happy when players are willing to take agency of their own stories (in the genre sandbox) and create plot without the need for NPCs. If you are in a place you can do this, absolutely do it. It’ll make everyone else’s experience better.

Now that we’ve discussed not only how these types of players can help a game, but how to do it respectfully, hopefully some of you can feel a little less guilt when you find yourself in such roles. And those who were worried about stepping into the spotlight? Read over the ways to do it responsibly and then GO! Take RISKS! This is what storytelling is all about, driving our own stories and helping rope other people in while they are driving theirs. I’d love to hear some stories about the times you were the hero without feeling bad because you took some initiative. Every story needs a hero. Go, for once, be a main character. Just do it with grace. I have faith that we all can.

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