Always split the party

The most common advice I heard on RPG boards for awhile was “Never split the party.” The reasons for this on both sides of the screen are compelling. As a player, separating the party weakens and exposes you to dangers. As a GM, it makes your work much harder, trying to manage all the separate strands. This makes it great advice for new players or GM’s.  If you aren’t new though, it limits you in what you can accomplish in terms of telling diverse stories or enacting cunning plans.

Lets start from a player perspective. Always being grouped together means you can’t really pursue individual goals or stories. Think how much less epic those Vader Luke fights would have been if every time Luke was backed by a wookie, smuggler, two droids, and a princess. Hardly the climatic showdown we all wanted. Or imagine trying to flirt with your first crush with all your friends hanging behind you yelling advice. Some of you don’t have to imagine because you’ve had the terrible expedience in high school. I’m sorry for you.

So you can see that there is definitely good story reason to let the party go. But lets say you’re of a more tactical bend. You don’t want to be caught alone, always want friends near by to to gang up on any enemies or put heads together to solve puzzles. Well, that’s great, but it’s real defensive. If you want to really hurt an enemy hit, them on multiple fronts. Fighting the Karost the Temperamental Lich’s undead army? Send your cleric and pally to hold down the front line, while the bard and barbarian go convince the Orc tribes north of the battle to come in and sweep down from behind. Meanwhile your wizard goes to his tower to research and scry where Karost  has hidden his phylactery and engages him in a duel of magic to let your rogue slip in and steal it. Far more effective and efficient than trying to put everyone together at each task. While you’re getting your Orc allies, Karost will conquer your homeland. While you’re fighting his front lines, he’s raising a demon to guard his frozen life force. Got him at all sides at once.

As for GM’s, I understand the plight. You want to focus more on individuals, make the story personal, really give them the spotlight to be awesome, but you’re afraid everyone will be bored. Don’t be. First off realize that splitting the party will give your players far more engagement, whether done on the tactics battle map or in the fluid story period of the game. The loss of time playing will be made up by the richer experience. All the reasons listed above should be enough to convince you. If not, think of how you can use splitting the party to emphasize challenge and drama. The party is walking down a corridor when a net trap springs trapping the last member. He’s dragged kicking and screaming down a hidden passage as kobold warriors stream out of hidey holes to harass the rest of the party. He’s now panicked cause he’s on his own and the party is working hard to plow through these enemies to come save him. Tactics have to change as a key member of the group is missing and the captured player has to rely purely on himself to get out. That will be a memorable encounter guaranteed.

Want some less violent drama? What’s more powerful? The party walking into the paladins order to be told the lord commander is dead and handed a note with his last words or the Paladin coming home to his order to brag about the evil he’s vanquished, to be met with silent gazes and somberness before a page rushes him to the commanders chambers where he is given a final task, a firm embrace, and the whisper assurance that he was loved as a son?  Putting people by themselves strengthens dramatic moments and will really drive home those tear jerker scenes you have planned.

Of course, none of this gets rid of the management problem. How do you handle 6 different protagonists if they aren’t in the same scene together? Follow my rule of blow shit up.

The blow shit up rule goes like this. If nothing interesting has happened in the past 10 minutes, blow something up. Sometimes that literally means something explodes but usually it’s just a large exciting scene changing things happens. So, if you’ve been focusing on one player for 10 minutes, that means another player has had 10 minutes with nothing happening, Quick switch over and bring up something exciting going on in his scene. Personally I try to keep this down to 5 minutes, but 10 can work too.

You may think this destroys anyway to have deep scenes, with powerful emotions, because they can’t be extended long. You’re wrong. Most tv shows and movies will have multiple deeply emotional scenes being broken up by smash cuts to different scenes. You can do this too. In general you won’t have two of those going at a time, so when you switch from deep RP with one player, go to the next player, do a quick task resolution action, than switch. If you are coming back regularly and quickly enough they will still stay engrossed in the action their character is doing.

So, with that in mind, go out and split the party this week. See if it doesn’t improve your game.

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6 thoughts on “Always split the party

  1. Personally, I don’t mind focusing on one or two characters for up to half a session. The others don’t get bored or wander off for one very good reason: they pay attention. I am blessed to have a group of players that is consistently respectful of each other, and allowing oneself to be entertained by the exploits of a team member is a key part of that. For that reason I am not worried about keeping the focus of a session divided evenly between the players. When they split up, the ones back at the inn are still engaged because they care about what happens to the other characters. They take joy in the triumph of their fellows, and mourn their losses.

    In fact, I’ve had players sick around for the last round of combat even though it was past our usual end time and their characters weren’t involved. But the players were. They were invested in the team and in the game, not solely focused in their own agendas.

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    • Man that sounds amazing. Can I come play in your group? 😉
      My group is getting better and better about this but I still understand tuning out. I’m highly ADD and even a few seconds waiting for an elevator or red light and I want to be doing something, consuming some form of media. Getting players invested in each others stories is a great way to make it happen and will really bring a game to life, but I think that in general it’s going to be the exception rather than the rule. And that’s ok. Good games can still be had with a more selfish focus on story and attention. We can still enjoy each others company and the game but tune out for the flirting love scene between two platonic friends bout without any real acting chops. There are moments where most people are gonna switch off. Being able to handle that is key in my opinion to running a good modern game.

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  2. Reblogged this on R.P.G. (Runkle Plays Games) and commented:
    I find myself with the Blogger on this one. Shocking as most readers will find it a well run game can handle a split party and the game with thrive. But the execution rests on the GM.
    This advice is not taken lightly if you are not confident that you can handle the party breaking up tell your players. Be honest with yourself and your fellow gamer’s. If you can no handle a split party you will lose your players fast and it can easily make a great session a boring or even bad session.
    Myself I am very confident and comfortable splitting my party. To the point that often the moment my players hit the safe location they scatter to the four winds. Nine times out of ten I handle it like a champ. Some nights rare as they are it is an utter failure. And I have been at this for nearly 30 years !
    But my advice do it anyway! your players will thank you for it in the end. Those moments when you pull it off and allow your players to play to their individual strengths and develop. Far outweigh the occasional slow moments.

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    • Some nights rare as they are it is an utter failure. And I have been at this for nearly 30 years ! But my advice do it anyway! your players will thank you for it in the end. Those moments when you pull it off and allow your players to play to their individual strengths and develop. Far outweigh the occasional slow moments.

      To add to this, Sometimes you fail to be interesting even when the parties together. Part of RPG experience is knowing that you aren’t going to get HBO dramatic series quality drama and action every time. Some days you get TNT or Lifetime. Some days you get high school theater troupe. So take risks, take chances. The whole point of playing is having an adventure and whats an adventure without risk?

      Liked by 1 person

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