Picture this rather cliched scene:
You've been Storytelling for nearly three hours. The agile grey-eyed Malkavian (whose personality split developed through her love for her sister) is in desperate conflict with the family solicitor. The Nosferatu waits tensely outside, but considers breaking his promise not to interfere, as he watches the silhouettes struggle through the window. And, as for the two Ventrue ... er, well actually, ... they've been sitting in an (upmarket) club since the game started. OK - you've played a few interactions out with the solemn barwoman and the nearest doped-up couple - but frankly they've had nothing to do all session.
Now, there is a standard excuse - the 'in character' excuse - the idea being that any role-player ought to be of a high enough standard to stay 'in character' for any length of time. Additionally, they should enjoy this interaction as much as or more than the rest of the game. The 'in character' argument is fashionable. After all, no-one out there wants to say that they can't stay in character - it's a little like admitting you don't know who Neil Gaiman is.
But I feel it's a poor excuse for any half-decent GM.
Character interaction is part of any game - I agree. But so is atmosphere, action and, most important to me, plot.
In my view interaction, action, atmosphere and plot should be shared amongst the players. And it's not always an easy thing to do. If the party splits it's not always possible to divide the game up evenly and they may stop you from succeeding.
Looking at what I've just written; I could be suggesting that to have everyone roughly in one place is the only solution; or that in itself it's good enough. But that's not the case. The players have to be getting, or feel that they're getting, equal treatment. After all, if they're actually happy sitting back and playing out character conversation then let them go right ahead.
However, whilst you may not always be able to stop the players from walking away from the action you should be careful of the feedback loop.
The feedback loop is simply this: A character may be more active than fellow party members and therefore command GM attention to carry out interesting subplots and solos -> the GM is tempted into working through these new ideas as they add more interest to the game devoting more time to the active player -> the active player has more GM attention which they can direct towards more subplots and solos.
There are two ways out:
It's also worth remembering that subplots and solos are like secrets; in fact usually are secrets.
What about secrets anyway?
I'm not a great fan of secrets. This dates back to a game many years ago when two players would hog the GM's time and play out scenes outside the door. I got very bored; I felt isolated from that part of the plot (I was isolated from that part of the plot). And when I finally heard what it was all about I felt that there was scant justification for not speaking in front of the other players and telling them the knowledge was out of character.
Having said all that, I will admit that secrets, which are essentially personal plot, could be used to balance a game. A secret could be given to a non-physical character to make up for action loss. But I will add that, in my experience, secrets are usually the property of players who hog GM time anyway.
Besides, everyone can share to some degree in events which happen around them and, although to a far lesser extent, appreciate the subtleties of a secret discussed in their player's hearing. But secrets, especially the favourite outside-the-door variety, are selfish and essentially extra time for the person concerned.
But - what if, by trying to balance party time, everyone is being given only a few minutes because there are six players in different locations?
Player numbers are to me another big problem. Not for the GM - in fact I find that the more players I have the easier it can be as there is (inevitably) more party interaction. However it can be a real problem for the other players (I've been a PC in a party of eleven - believe me - it's really, really boring).
I think that the problem is that GMs rarely consider players in terms of what they bring to (or get from) a game. Instead groups of friends are invited and games tend to grow in twos and threes.
Far better to look at each character as they are developed (or person if you have players who role-play in a particular style) and decide what part they will play. In a Vampire game - do you really need two Brujah? How will their roles differ? The most upsetting part to play in any campaign, in my view, is to feel that someone else covers all your specialities (fighting ability, disciplines, mage spheres, etc.) only better. There ought to be a niche for each character.
It's better to be ruthless. If you only really need three or four players before you start duplicating their place in the plot/game then stop after three or four. Having seven players doesn't make you a real man/woman/small furry creature from Alpha Centauri.
OK; so, supposing I've developed a nice cosy group of four and I've made strict rules about secrets - what next?
Think about encounters and characters carefully.
Back to the example - the Malkavian was always really going to chase the solicitor as it's her family. She's also spent most of the campaign being a bit of a loner (apart from slight interaction - mostly tensions - with the dominating Nosferatu); it's very guessable that she wouldn't take the others. The Ventrue have been to the bar before - it's very guessable that they would go there. Therefore if there's nothing to do there it's my fault.
The easiest way to spot player preferences is to have GMed them (or PCed alongside them) before and noticed what they tend to involve themselves in. I think that most like a mixture of all elements but there are some who are totally uninterested in action and some who seem indifferent to plot. You can't always second-guess the characters (and if you could you'd be very bored), but you can predict further than some GMs would have you believe.
I would add that 'Fair Play' is also a criterion which relies heavily on improvisation.
OK, those miserable gits have stranded themselves in a club. What happens in a club anyway? They might get picked up (not the most inventive of ideas, I'll admit) or sold drugs. They might get hassled by someone. Also, they're unlikely to be the only vampires in the city's most expensive club. It's possible that they'll be asked to do a little favour for one of the Primogen; or perhaps fall foul of a rather bored Malkavian with a poor sense of humour. I would say that carrying out even the worst of these choices is rather better than just leaving them there to get on with it.
If you are a PC there are also various ways of changing the game:
If they tell you to f*ck off, I suggest you do. Oxford has plenty of good GMs. You don't have to hang around one unhappy game.
(As a GM receiving this request - consider it - most people wouldn't raise the subject unless they genuinely felt strongly; but you may feel it's simply their perception rather than the true state of things. If the latter, try to explain why it is balanced. Whatever you do don't fall back on the 'in character' excuse.)
If you don't want to do that or feel it will not help; consider inventing your own subplot (preferably involving anyone else getting little attention). You may even want to consider coming up with a joint idea with another PC. You could even go outside the room to discuss it - you'll get the GM's attention fast enough, they hate thinking that there are bits in a game that THEY don't know about !
Lastly, you may want to consider chasing other game elements even if it is "out of character". I recommend this with some reluctance as it is exactly the reverse of what I would want players to achieve. After all, character development is all about leaving the D&D 'bash everyone regardless of motive' element behind. But ultimately I would say that enjoying a game is more important than character purity.
The point I'm trying to make is that anyone can attempt to change the game structure, although it is far easier for the GM.
I'm not saying that there isn't a place for character interaction. I know that there is and also that the players sometimes prefer being left to it. However, if an argument seems to be leaving some people out, or (most commonly) getting rather repetitive (Why can't we kill him? I told you - he's a prat not a murderer. So? etc.) then move on to something else.
Besides, if interaction is all you think they should be doing then why are you sitting there? They'd be better off with a kettle and a coffee jar than a GM !