For the sake of being answerable, I will state a specific scenario that happened to me some months ago while I was DMing. I would like to note that broader answers, that give general advice that applies to more situations than the one stated, will be gratefully received.
My Style of DMing
I am a DM that usually goes by the idea that every character and player should have their individual moments in the spotlight in order to feel important. During a session, I will try to give my players an opportunity to use their skill, that every optimizing guide said sucked, but they wanted to try anyway. Sadly, encouraging 'individual spotlight moments' usually means there will also be times when their PCs are in the shadow. Nonetheless, I think that deliberately encouraging 'spotlight moments' is a fun way to play the game. That said, I am open to answers suggesting how to provide the party with a more shared spotlight.
So, I was running this homebrew campaign with a 4-PC party. They had their Skill Monkey Face Bard, who was there for role playing and social interactions (in-game). Every time I said "You see a city", he would smile and think about all the talking he would get to do with every NPC I'd throw at him. He would make me create a name for every damn hobo in the city because he would talk to every single one. I was fine with this.
And then there was our Barbarian. I don't remember his stats accurately, but it was probably something like 8 CHA, 8 INT, 16 STR, 16 CON. Every time I said "You see a group of apparently hostile creatures" he would thank God he was playing D&D instead of watching a movie with his GF.
Here is the problem: the Barbarian (the player, not the PC) would get extremely distracted during the social interactions. And the Bard would get bored at every combat, most of the time just saying "I shoot my crossbow" - even when I was calling for him because he was supposed to write down his loot. He hadn't even realise that the combat was over, lol.
The Player's POV
I tried to talk to them, and both gave me a similar answer: They felt like there was nothing they could do. I tried to explain that in every situation there is something they could do to help the party, even if it is slightly OoC, I wouldn't mind if they were having more fun like that. But, I feel like I failed miserably explaining this to them. The Barbarian would keep feeling useless everytime we would do a role-playing section and the Bard would feel useless everytime we would do dungeon crawling.
Honestly, I feel like it is my fault that they were feeling useless. Maybe I was putting too much importance on rolls during social interacions, so yeah, the Barbarian would feel frustrated failing every attempt to do something. Maybe, during combat, I didn't give the Bard ways to explore his social spells in a fighting style.
Anyway, the general question is as the title: "How can I help my players not to feel useless?". Suggested sub-questions that I believe would help me are:
- How do I avoid creating scenarios like this, where my players feel frustrated or useless?
- How do I (or can I?) make my players understand that their characters can't succeed in everything, but that shouldn't stop them from trying to help the party the best they can?
- What can I do, if my players already feel useless, to better fix things?
While similar to this question, it focuses on players that have different playstyles. In my case, the different preferences from the players actually came from the way they built their characters, and the feeling of being useless came when they were in a suboptimal situation for their characters. The same Barbarian played a Bard in another campaign and would happily go to cities. I obviously would not like (and my players probably wouldn't like this either), all the PCs to share the same strengths and then just to focus a campaign on that aspect of the game (eg. if everyone played charismatic social PCs and we only did social interaction and role-play).
Also related to this, but the system difference might make it hard to translate the answers (mainly, because I know nothing about the mentioned system). Specifically, I need a little more on the how, since I feel this is system-related.
Related to this and this question, but from the perspective of the DM, not a PC, and not limited to just combat, though combat is applicable.