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I've ran into a bit of a dilemma with a 5e campaign that's soon coming to a close. It's been running for about a year, and one of the primary goals that I had when I started the campaign was to focus as much as possible on the journey of each player character in my party. Unfortunately, as story arcs are completing, it's become clear to me that this approach has only really worked for a single character out of four. Let's call him Carl.

Why has this only worked out for Carl? The reasons are varied, but they basically boil down to this.

  1. Carl invested a significant amount of effort into developing a compelling backstory hook for his character. He is also by far the most talented performer and experienced D&D player out of the group.
  2. One of the players has strong roleplaying ideas and a highly developed character but struggles greatly with improvisation, leading to moments falling flat as he searches for words.
  3. Another player is highly engaged in roleplaying moments and reacts realistically and appropriately to his character, however he hasn't established a compelling backstory or strong character motivations.
  4. The last player is simply is not interested in "immersive" roleplaying (i.e. he enjoys roleplaying from a humor and shenanigans standpoint but has never responded to or made attempts to delve into exploring emotions, motivations, etc.)
  5. Carl is the only player that takes an active approach to roleplaying his character. He's constantly seeking to advance his storyline through his own actions, while the other players have only really shown a capacity to react to events.

Unfortunately, from a story-telling standpoint, this has resulted in a storyline that seems highly Carl-centric. I've frequently found myself writing long sequences purely focused on Carl's story arc, and I'm beginning to worry that he's become the "main character" in a campaign that was supposed to focus on the entire party.

Of course, I've made efforts all throughout trying to include the other characters and trying to solidify their storylines, however after seeing these attempts fall flat (for various reasons, like characters forgetting their own backstories, failing to respond in a way that feels logical or genuine) I found myself getting discouraged and sort of giving up on trying to create more character moments for them.

That said, I'm left with a bit of a troubling question in retrospect:

How can I ensure that everyone feels involved when only a single player is driving the story?

As we draw to the end of the campaign, I've been able to sense that some of the other players grow disinterested when we arrive yet-again at another crossroads in Carl's story. These moments, in my opinion have been the most interesting and compelling moments from a story-telling perspective, but I'm worrying that they might feel like they've been neglected all this time.

Have any of you had experience with this kind of problem? Is there something that I could have done differently?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have the other players commented in or out of character that they are not enjoying the game as structured currently? Or resent the focus? \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP Jan 10 at 18:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JohnP no. The main thing that worries me though is that half of them just kind of sit around saying nothing as Carl takes center stage for roleplaying. With that lack of engagement it's hard to feel good about it in a game where everyone is supposed to be equally important. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Jan 10 at 18:56
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Step 1: Communicate with the group

I know, it's cliche here on SE. But it's really the best way to handle these things. Although you may feel they are disinterested, there could be various reasons for their behavior. Sometimes at a session I had a rough day at work, and it's just hard to focus on playing. I still enjoy it, but probably doesn't seem like it to anyone else. There are an infinite amount of reasons that could be a cause for this feeling. So... Talk to them, just simply ask them how they feel about the story. If you want to do it privately with each one to avoid them feeling like they're walking on eggshells around Carl, then do so. You won't ever really know how everyone feels until you ask. It sounds like the guy who doesn't care about backstory enjoys what they're doing as long as they're playing. Figure out likes and dislikes from the whole party, and ask what they would like to be done differently. But make sure they understand you're getting the pulse, not trying to make wholesale changes yet. It's ALWAYS a good idea to hear the players thoughts once in a while. And people will be more honest in 1 on 1 conversations. It might be best to do 1 on 1's first, THEN bring the group in together for a discussion.

Step 2A: Your group is fine with how things are going

Yay! You don't need to really change anything. Turns out they just ate a bad lunch and their stomach has been upset. Once it has been verbally communicated that there aren't any issues, you are free to continue with your story. As long as everything has been discussed honestly and to the full extent, there should no longer be any doubt as to how they feel.

Step 2B: The other players are feeling excluded, time to make a change

This will be a harder one to deal with. Although the easiest solution is to stop writing party quests for specific characters, that might not be in the cards right now. What other ways could you change the game that would make them enjoy it more? I would try to identify specific things in sessions that these players love doing. Although it is a Carl story, it could still be an adventure tailored to the rest of the group. Maybe they're super into combat, not so much RP. Make the sessions combat intensive, with some tidbits of lore and story for Carl. Being able to hone in on what they enjoy might be what they want. They might be bored with listening to Carl doing all the important RP while they sit idly.

Some other things to consider:

  • Make it where Carl CAN'T do things without the others help. Not everything, but maybe some important things can't be moved forward without asking for help. This makes the other party members feel important, whether or not the story is about them.
  • Write story-lines and quests that impact the world itself for future campaigns, not specific characters. This way everyone's involvement and impact is the same.
  • It's also possible the players just are getting burnt out. Although unfortunate, it happens. This hopefully would be discovered when talking to them. A year of playing is a long time if you play weekly.
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Is this a problem?

Obviously, this is reason for concern. In some groups, it will be a problem. The only way to know for certain is to talk to them. But some groups will not see it as a problem and will not want much to change.

But before you take drastic actions, stop and ask if this is really a problem in your actual group. If everyone is happy as it is, then perhaps the answer is not to change much.

Different people come to role playing for different reasons. Some may love the story and be very interested in the character arc for their personal character. They of course want GM support in developing the arc.

Some may be there mostly for the combat and tolerate the character building stuff others do while waiting for the combat. In that case, they may avoid too much character building themselves so they can get to the combat.

Some may be there mostly to hang out with friends and may not care too much about the game itself one way or another.

If necessary, very specifically rotate the spotlight

As the GM, you can deliberately shine the spotlight on a character on a rotating basis if you need. How you do this will vary, but in a diverse party it shouldn't be hard.

In D&D for example, if you fill a place with mundane but deadly traps the rogue is likely to shine. If you toss out social challenges it is likely that either your bard or paladin will step to the fore-front.

More broadly, it is possible to send out calls to adventure to a specific character by name if necessary. A lord might summon a specific character to aid them by name but allow the rest of the group to assist.

At the risk of repeating the above, you might want to make sure this is the type of attention the players want though. In addition to what I said above, let me induldge in an anecdote. I initially got into roleplaying because of an older cousin and we mostly played with his older friends. I enjoyed it, but especially at first I was mostly passive outside of combat (and often mad ea mess of things when I did try to be active). If the DM had started calling out my character too specifically at that time, I would not have been comfortable with it. That changed later of course, but at that time letting me take on a mostly observational role was the best thing they could have done for me.

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    \$\begingroup\$ ^^This. All of the characters made a backstory? You could pick an element of each of them and set up random encounters. Especially if the campaign is coming to a close, the PCs have become renowned and this is the perfect time for their (probably forgotten) history to come back to haunt them. And, if nothing else, it will give your less experienced players the incentive to think a little harder about their backstory the next time you play. \$\endgroup\$ – Geoff Atkins Jan 10 at 21:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GeoffAtkins the OP said that they have tried things to incorporate their backstories that fall flat every time \$\endgroup\$ – Just Another Guy Jan 10 at 21:19
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Tie character spotlight moments to in-game events, not out-of-game ancillary information

The existing answers are good and rightly point out that communicating with your players is the best (and perhaps only) way to really address the issue and make sure everyone is getting what they want and expect from the game.

But an angle which I think could be emphasized more is that even if all players want their turn in the spotlight (not always true), not all players want an involved storyline for their PC to intersect with the campaign plot. Some people are pretty into that, and some systems really encourage using backstories to link PCs to the story (as an example, think of the Bonds in D&D 5e).

This requires extra work of players, to learn all of that information well enough to have all the details to hand when things come up in the game. And that work has to be done upfront, with no clarity on how much of it will be useful or important, and putting it off makes it less worthwhile if they ever do get around to it (the last session isn't enough time to develop much plot). So while players that are into that sort of detailed immersion won't have any problems getting onboard, players that aren't probably won't engage with the game that way no matter what you do.

But you aren't limited to backstories and single-character plot arcs to give PCs the spotlight and relevance to the game. For players that are more interested in what happens in the course of playing the game it's effective to design events for their specific PCs to deal with-- they get to shine in the moment, rather than gradually developing details that don't interest them as much.

As a simple example, if a game has a single PC that can see in the dark, designing a sequence of events where that ability is pivotal or at least very beneficial (maybe it leads to advantages over the session's enemies, or leads to bonus treasure, etc.) lets them take the spotlight when that sequence begins. No amount of Carl's fleshed-out story will help with that!


My favorite technique for making players feel integral to the story: put pivotal information, decisions, or opportunities entirely into individual players' hands.

The key element of that is that player relevance can be forward looking, in the sense that players choose things that interest them and then see how those affect the plot, rather than only being backward looking, to see how an existing backstory might have become relevant at any given moment.

In a game I'm currently running, one PC has a very high Passive Perception score. The major plot developments specifically for that PC are still weeks away, so I wanted to give him something meaningful sooner to keep him engaged.

I arranged their (otherwise unspecified) walking route such that they passed by an area of some significance (but not integral to the main plot), which only that PC noticed. I pulled the player aside to relay that to him, and made clear that it was 100% up to him to reveal that information to the other players or not. He chose not to, and so while it wasn't a moment that deals with the PC's backstory at all, but the PC's stats produced a situation where that player got to choose how the story progressed-- the spotlight moment here being that he wasn't developing information which already existed so much as deciding what the story would be going forward.

Another PC in that same game has iteratively changed details about their backstory over time (filling in gaps), to the extent that I had to change a lot of the content I'd planned for that PC's spotlight moments. It's clearly led to less engagement from that player, so I brought the PC into contact with an NPC that finds her exotic and fascinating (at least superficially).

That NPC looks down her nose at the rest of the party, but this particular PC can influence her much more easily and gets to drive the story when the NPC is involved. Better still, if the player wants to be more engaged with the story she can (and has) worked out plans which involve that NPC. She knows her leverage, and can enjoy the spotlight by thinking of ways to use it. But even if she doesn't seek out those opportunities, I can still give the PC spotlight moments by involving that NPC in events the party is dealing with and provide moments where the PC's unique capabilities are of use.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Fantastic examples here. I ended up accepting another answer as the communication answer is probably the most direct way of addressing this problem, but the examples here are a great way of tackling the problem from a practical standpoint. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Jan 12 at 19:58

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