In my regular Sunday game two weeks ago, thanks to a teleport scroll that could carry too few people, we wound up with the party of four (plus a bunch of NPCs) (including two characters the party was kidnapping) (but in a good way) (well, for one of them) divided up into three groups, each about thirty miles apart. Now, that’s probably an extreme example of splitting the party — but as with a lot of such examples, keeping the game running when characters decide or need to go off on their own isn’t as insurmountable a task as many GMs and players think.
State of Play
“Don’t split the party” is an oft-heard refrain in RPGs, for two fairly solid reasons. First, in any game that focuses on combat, any subgroup of the party will have a tougher time dealing with threats than the party as a whole would. If a GM’s setup involves encounters balanced for a large group, things can quickly go sideways if a bunch of foes are suddenly surrounding a lone scout doing recon, or if an encounter that expects a full range of magic and martial prowess is suddenly being taken on with swords or spells but not both. And second, splitting the party creates logistical challenges in the way the game is run. It requires the GM to effectively run two or more scenarios simultaneously, as separate storylines spin out from the actions of different groups of characters.
The first point can be a challenge for sure. If splitting the party means that the GM of a combat-heavy game needs to rebuild encounters on the fly or run the risk of flattening characters without meaning to, that game can bog down or go off the rails quickly. And even for a GM deftly able to adjust encounters during play, doing so can break the sense of verisimilitude if what should have been a full squad of guards turns into a single sentry with no backup, or if a monster whose threat level the players know has clearly been scaled back to not overwhelm one or two characters.
Outside of combat, though, the challenge of splitting the party can actually be an asset to your game, as long as players and GM approach the process in the right way.
Making a Break
Part of the reason that splitting the party is a constant topic of conversation among players and GMs is that splitting the party often makes narrative sense. Breaking things up and allowing different characters to take on individual tasks can be a great opportunity for character development, especially when certain characters are typically overlooked in certain types of encounters and scenarios. When a party features a charismatic bard with a Persuasion modifier in the double digits, that character likely does most of the talking during negotiation or diplomacy scenarios. A warrior defended by plate armor and a ton of hit points likely always takes point in melee. So it can be fun to give the players of other characters a chance to take on a role outside those characters’ core strengths.
Splitting the party also makes it easy to add additional layers of complexity to a game’s narrative. When all the characters are in the same position to see events unfold and to glean the insights of exposition at the same time, the game typically advances as a single path with forks, with players and characters collectively advancing, making decisions on which new direction to go in, then taking up that direction collectively. But when characters have a chance to do their own thing, the story of the game gets to flow in parallel for a while, with different narrative streams advancing and complicating independently, and the players subsequently determining how to resolve those complications in ways more interesting than simply choosing whether to go left or right.
In almost all cases, popular vote among the characters and players is the definitive way to choose the best option for moving forward as a group. But sometimes it can be fun for a player to mess around with an unpopular option, and giving that character a moment of split-the-party spotlight does that. As well, the kinds of focused moments that splitting the party provides can also give quieter players a chance to step up that they might otherwise have trouble finding within a full-party scene. And under some circumstances, one or two characters working alone can make discoveries or come into possession of unique secrets in ways that heighten the presence of those revelations in the narrative. (But read on for additional thoughts on handling exposition in split-party play.)
Timing is Everything
It’s up the GM to keep a rough sense of how much time is being focused on each individual group when the party is split. In some cases — especially during fast-paced, high-tension encounters — shifting back and forth between short scenes of five or ten minutes can heighten the roleplaying experience. In other cases — especially when separate scenes might take a drastically different amount of time to play out — it works just fine to run a full scene with one group of characters, then run the other group’s scene next.
A conversation between GM and players is the best way to determine what approach feels right for a split-the-party session, and all players should feel free to speak up if one approach or the other is causing the game to flag. This can easily happen when short scenes aren’t providing enough time for players to really dig into what their characters are doing, or when long scenes cause players to lose track of what’s going on in their own side of the story.
When splitting the party, a GM’s first instinct is often to physically divide the characters, setting up in different rooms of a physical play space or in separate video feeds or chat streams online. Indeed, the old adage of “Never split the party!” is often trotted out in response to the complexity of running a game in two locations simultaneously, whether physical or virtual. But there’s another option.
In any split-party scene, let all the players take part — not just the players of the characters in the scene. Players whose characters aren’t present can ask questions of the GM and offer suggestions for the players engaged in the scene, just as they might for a scene in which all the party members appear. In the same way, the players of absent characters will watch the developments in the scene as they happen, even as their characters will learn of those developments only when they regroup with their comrades.
As always, the players whose characters appear in a scene can decide which questions are worth following up on and which suggestions they’d like to explore. Each player is always the sole arbiter of their character’s decisions and actions. But being able to consider the other players’ ideas can make those decisions more interesting.
When a stealthy rogue makes a solo incursion into a noble’s office in the middle of the night, any player can make suggestions as to which features of the office seem worthy of investigation, just as if their characters were there. When the paladin and the cleric meet with the temple high priest to try to convince them of the danger presented by a dragon cult, the players of the other characters can offer up suggestions about how best to make the party’s case, or even offer up pithy one-liners that the characters present might say.
This approach absolutely breaks dramatic realism. But it creates a better play experience by keeping all players engaged in the scene, and by giving the characters in the scene the widest possible range of options and decisions as they navigate the narrative. Under certain circumstances, if it’s important for only the characters in the scene to learn something, you can pass that information on as a note, a text, a private message in chat, and so forth. (And of course, never be afraid to pass a note or private message asking a player to pretend the note said something important, just to keep the other players on their toes.) But that approach should be the exception, not the rule.
Most of the time, letting the players interact regardless of whether their characters are interacting helps maximize the flow of ideas between players and the fun of the game. And letting everyone engage in this way also helps to ensure that the players who aren’t running characters in a scene remain focused on what’s happening in the scene, even as they’re thinking ahead about their own characters’ course of action for when the focus shifts to them.
An absent-character player who tries to overtly direct the other players’ characters is a problem in this sort of scenario, to be sure. But such players can be a problem in general if they fall into the habit of telling other players what they should do, whether providing unsolicited combat advice, suggesting another character’s course of action, and so forth. As such, talking to such players about where to draw the line on offering advice is the same conversation regardless of whether you’re in a split-party or a full-party scenario.