Sit Back and Enjoy the Popcorn
Dramatic characters require dramatic scenes, often spotlighting one or two PCs or NPCs, but how do we do this when games are designed to be a group effort? It’s simple: just learn to let someone else be the star for a bit. This isn’t a new idea, so let’s go through some of the methods you can use to help your friends bring their characters to the forefront.
One of the most important skills you can learn is knowing when to move your character offstage. Stepping offstage is a theater/movie technique allowing your fellow players to be the stars for a while. If you think about it, we can all tell when a character is about to become the focus of a scene. When we're not in combat, we know when the face, the cleric, the pilot, or the lore master will be taking up the baton to solve a problem. In combat, the initiative roll can directly inform us who will be taking center stage. Watching for these cues will tell you when it’s time to fade your character out of the scene. In combat situations we can just freeze our character until our turn comes around. But since non-combat scenes don't allow for this, we need to be proactive and point out who is taking center stage when it happens. For instance: “While the cleric heals I will be making the campfire.” This indicates that your action will be going on in the background while the cleric player works out the healing.
Another way to look at it is through a musical metaphor: the concept of playing backup or rhythm. Maybe two other players stay on stage as a third character takes a more active role on center stage, and the actions of the first two characters help emphasize the scene being played out by the active one. Consider the audience with the King of Rohan scene in The Lord of the Rings for example: as Gandalf moves forward to challenge the possessed king, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli move behind, looking around, reacting to the danger the party is facing despite Gandalf’s bold moves. These characters’ actions were not center stage, but they helped to establish the mood and the stakes of the scene for Gandalf. If Peter Jackson had simply edited them out, focusing instead on Gandalf, you would see nothing more than a bold wizard striding up to beat on a weak king. Playing a supportive role requires that you establish your character’s actions as serving to strengthen the main character’s actions in the scene. In other words, although you're not performing the main action yourself, you still highlight or emphasizes the action of the “star” character. If you take away too much time or emphasis from the main action, you stole the scene. That’s bad.
You can also help the star by remaining out of character, by making suggestions. Of course if you are going to be handing out suggestions it's very important that you pay close attention to what's going on. Give the other player and the GM enough time to set the mood and theme of the scene before you step in. Any suggestions made should match these; otherwise the whole scene goes awry and all the work of the star character burns out needlessly.
Finally, when your character isn't center stage, you can just set back and enjoy your popcorn as your friend chews up the scenery. But this doesn’t mean leaving the game; watching the other players do their things is all part of the fun. This is where you learn about your friends' styles of play and witness the desires they've established for their characters. This in turn allows you to know what to do next time such a scene occurs, to help your friends establish their own characters' actions. If all you're doing is being a loudmouth as your friend plays, you’re damaging the game: not just for your friend, but also for yourself and the others at the table. You might end up missing out on half a dozen other stories. What a waste!
Over the last two years of writing on playing, a few ideas really stand out to me, and this is one of them. Stepping back and observing helps you to understand your role when you’re not the star. It's not just a chance to act up; there are many things you can do at the table when it's not your turn, and learning how to participate offstage creates a better game for everyone.