This post is based on a conversation I had with Ben L. in response to his recent post over on: http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2023/07/the-problem-of-spotlight-management-in.html
Ben's post proceeds from what I understand to be the orthodox view of "spotlight" in RPGs, which is that of a player management technique. This threw into relief for me the fact that even from my earliest, most uninformed days as a DM I seem to have understood spotlight in a heterodox fashion, as when I've used this practice I've used it towards managing the amount of attention player characters receive during the session, such that hopefully all or most get their chance to shine. I think this approach actually might be more conducive to OSR style play and address many of the problems Ben grappled with in that post, and does skirt around the cases in which putting a human being "on the spot" at your table and demand they perform as well as maintain an equal level of attention and engagement at all times; though as I hope to show, engaging characters dovetails with engaging players more than you might think.
As Ben notes, the tabletalk portion of an OSR session generally involves the entire real-life table chatting and deliberating about a way to engage the given problem at hand, before relaying the decided course(s) of action to the GM. In my experience, there's a sort of shared ownership of everyone's characters in this phase, where the capabilities and resources of all the given characters in the fiction being offered and suggested rather promiscuously, but once a plan it settled in, its usually the responsibility of the specific players of those characters to actually "lock in" and perform those actions, as it were, whether that be by rolling dice and/or narration. For me, what this means is that for several reasons, even in the ideal case where all players are actively participating in tabletalk and contributing to conversation, if the game is in a state where only a few or one of the characters performs every action in the fiction then the game is in an unengaging state.
If there can be said to be an orthodox OSR answer to the question of the role of narrative in RPGs, its that narrative occurs post-hoc to the game itself rather than being created from the mechanics and procedures of the games. The stochastic interactions of systems for encounters, resource depletion, and movement coalesce after the fact into a picaresque series of anecdotes and vignettes attached to the larger context of the campaign milieu, materialized as repeated stories and session recaps; when we encode memories of a game, we do so by and large via this post-hoc narrative of events for the most part, rather than the specifics of real-life conversation and deliberation that occured at the table. From this narrative point of view, a session in which every problem was solved by Billy Bob the Wizard casting a spell appears to as dull, uninteresting, and unmemorable.
Even if we were to dismiss the idea of aiming to create memorable gaming narratives as a worthwhile goal, I'd argue that this leads even to poorer gameplay in the context of a long-running campaign; the narratives that emerge out of a session are, in my experience, the bread and butter of a Referee in creating an emerging, dynamic, reactive sandbox world, drawing connections between events past and future to mine for interesting potential for adventure. Games in which few characters are robustly expressing their agency within the world become anaemic in their ability to respond and hook characters and their attendant players into adventure and shenanigans.
One approach for an OSR ethos of spotlight management, then, would be leaning into the traditions of adventure design, crafting our adventure sites to allow for and necessitate variegated approaches such that different characters and their toolkits have their moments of relevancy (not unlike how levels in immersive sim videogames are built to accommodate combat, stealth, social, etc. approaches).
Does this actually solve the issue of engaging players who are, for whatever reason, reticent or disengaged at the table, however? Is not the inverse state of affairs, for example, where only a few players are talking and directing what actions many player characters should take, not equally as undesirable? Reader, these are rhetorical questions you know I am going to answer with "no."
Lets circle back to our "session recap lens" while keeping in mind the point that generally the player controlling a character has to actually enact the decided-upon actions in the game space, regardless of whose idea those actions actually were. This would mean that 1) at least for those moments, that player would by necessity have to be speaking/participating and 2) both in the moment, at the table, and at the moment of narrative formation (e.g. the recap) narrative agency is being ascribed to that player. Regardless of who comes up with the idea of Billy Bob fireballing the room full of goblins, when Joe the player is making the damage rolls we're all watching him with bated breath, and him we gas up when all the goblins burn up in a crisp, or commiserate when they make their saves and come out barely scathed; and when the story of that session is told, its always "Yeah, Joe did that and it hilarious/awesome/tragic!"
The ideal outcome I guess is that through repeated instances of narrating character/player agency in these ways, of reputation & renown growing in-game and out from being a name on the lips of many, that a player it might actually inculcate greater engagement from that player as the campaign goes on, kind of a longer tail approach to fostering player engagement rather than the "put on the spot each session" style. In the case of a disengaged player who perhaps lacks game knowledge, maybe enacting out plans and suggestions from other players provides a less stressful avenue towards contributing to a session while gradually familiarizing them more with their capabilities, allowing them to begin contributing more as they understand more what they can offer.
There are a few rhetorical tricks that can be used to nudge towards these outcomes:
1. Making a point of directly addressing the player whose character is doing any given actions at that point with regards to asking for or making clarifications, working out specific and fine details, resolving ambiguities, and specific commitments and adjustments. As well, asking them to narrate in their own words how their character enact any given action(s), even if a detailed plan has been heard from someone else.
2. After the chaos of deliberation, take a moment to recap and ascribe actions to associated players and/or characters: "Ok Joe, so Billy Bob is going to throw a firebomb from the ledge above? And Dave, Sir Pouncealot is going to be greasing all the exits out of the room before that happens? Got it." Alternately, ask the party to recap their plan one by one with everyone explaining their part in the action.
3. Semi-ironically, I used to tell my players I wouldn't refer to them by their in-character name until their character had survived to level two, so as to not get overly attached. I do find that I end up organically referring to players by their actual name during the deliberating tabletalk phases of the game or pre-action resolution, and by their character name in more social situations or post-action resolution. I think that being judicious about when to conflate player with character vs when to disjunct them is important when it comes to tying together character spotlight to player spotlight.
4. There's a reason "how do you want to do this?" has become the iconic phrase for Critical Role. Its entirely mechanically meaningless but its a moment in which narrative agency is handed over to the player and they are invited to leave their mark on it. What Mercer does here is tactically deploy the second person pronoun in order to encode agency. Inversely, I'll often will narrate generic inputs from players in flourished up ways, especially if it's the result of a good roll. Take "yeah I attack it with my sword" and turn it into "ok, yeah, you duck under it's swing and slice upwards, lopping off the spiky tips of its tentacles. It's rearing back, you definitely really hurt it, good job." This in general often results in the players feeling gassed up; it feels like a way to give a compliment through Refereeing, a way to gift engagement rather than demand to receive it.
As a little coda to this post, all of the above still presumes a view of engagement at the table as being primary. But one thing I think the "session recap lens" is helpful for understanding is that not all "engagement" happens during the session, a lot of it is before or after. I imagine as a player that if I come to the end of a campaign, even if I wasn't the most active participant during discussions of the session, if I look back over the course of events and see how integral my little avatar was to the journey that unfolded I'll feel a meaningful sense of investment/ownership of that game.
More so than that, players engage before, after, and during the game in different ways, whether it be excited chatter in the group server, tinkering with character builds or custom spells to research, drawing maps, taking notes, doodling or sketching characters all become part of the shared archive of memory for the campaign. Even things like the sense memory of food or decor or music someone contributes to hosting a session are ways of engaging with the game.
The art in this post is from my friend Kim Cuthbertson, who I played with in a 5e game many years ago. That campaign still remains one of my most memorable, and a large part of that is due to the sense of attachment and visualization Kim's art, from detailed character portraits to quick doodles, contributed.