As a player, one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in roleplaying is exploring a story which your character has a personal stake in, and which is tailored specifically to your character. It’s one thing to raid a tomb full of undead with your pals, but it’s entirely another to explore the tomb of your ancestors, fighting the spectres of long dead family
members and searching for a priceless heirloom.
Engaging individual characters within the party can be a fantastic way to develop characters
and make players feel badass, and these personal storylines can often develop into entire
plot arcs and adventures. However, the logistics of keeping the whole group entertained
while your game focuses on one character can be difficult. It’s often difficult for people to
find time to game together, and the last thing you want is for people to show up and then
spend the whole session watching somebody else play the game.
To help you explore the stories of the characters in your game, here are some tips to keep
the whole group engaged while one character is in focus.
The simplest strategy is scene switching – if you have characters in different places doing different things, make sure you swap focus regularly to keep all the players in the game.
Even if some characters aren’t doing anything exciting or relevant to the story, always give
them an opportunity to play their character and try not to make them feel like they’re in the
Something I see a lot is parties being split up for combats or other exciting moments in the
game. Sometimes this will just naturally happen and you roll with it, but there’s nothing
more boring for a player than to sit and watch someone else do a combat. If part of your in-
focus character’s story involves a fight or some other challenge, try to make sure the rest of
the party is there for it. Maybe the party gets ambushed by bounty hunters searching for
one of the characters, or the character needs to attend a shady meeting and asks the party
for backup. Having the whole party helping a character achieve their own personal goals can
develop character relationships and provide some really interesting roleplaying, so try to
give other characters an incentive to come along – sometimes just xp and loot is enough.
Following on from this point, create some opportunities for the other characters to
meaningfully assist the in-focus character using their unique skills and abilities. The
character might be exploring a personal story arc, but they’re part of a team and it’s likely
that someone in that team can help them out. Maybe the rogue can tail a person of interest
for them, or the spellcaster can help them understand some ancient runes.
Don’t undermine the importance of the in-focus character, but acknowledge that others can assist
Storytelling techniques like letters and notes, voices in characters’ heads and the like are
great, but the group can feel alienated if the GM keeps passing notes or taking a player
aside for secret discussions. While sometimes it might be dramatically appropriate to
privately give a player some information, try opening up more of your communication with
the group. Even if the characters are unaware of what’s going on, it can be cool for the
players to hear what’s happening and be a part of an awesome roleplaying exchange
between the GM and the in-focus character.
Something I’ve tried recently with great success is a technique suggested by Scott Garibay, allowing your players to run NPCs if their character isn’t present in a scene. When used with
tact this one can be heaps of fun, and players will inject some great personality into NPCs
that you might have otherwise glossed over. Obviously it’s wise to limit their interaction
with the story and not to give them anybody too important, but just letting your players
interact with the world from a different point of view can be great, while keeping them
entertained when their character is out of scene.
Finally, usually as a last resort, you can always run some out of session roleplaying with the
player of the in-focus character, over email or phone or what have you. This can be handy to
discuss the character’s plans between sessions, and to help you as the GM to prepare for
what might happen in the next session. You can roleplay scenes involving just the character
like this, but I prefer to keep all of the serious roleplaying at the gaming table where
everybody can be a part of the experience.
Hopefully this will help all you GMs keep the whole group happy while you explore personal
stories, so get out there and create some awesome moments for your characters! Until next
time, stay nerdy.