9 Ways to Deal with Splitting the Party

2015-06-13-02-38-00Occasionally players will send their characters off in different directions to try to save time by accomplishing tasks simultaneously (at least in game-time).  Sometimes they’ll do this in response to a Game Master deadline.  Sometimes it’s hardwired into the game such as when a Game Master purposefully splits them up to make them more vulnerable.  Sometimes the player characters just feel like it’s a solid option regardless of Game Master nudging.  While this often sounds good in theory (get more stuff done at the same time, make people feel vulnerable), a split party has a lot of logistical issues that get in the way.

A split party often means that tense scene will need to be snappy or you’ll either bore the uninvolved players or potentially throw off the pacing by swapping back and forth.  If the players don’t pay full attention to what they wanted to do, the entire scene might take longer as they have to be brought up to speed time and again.

Uninvolved players are likely to get bored if too much time passes or frustrated if you flick back and forth too quickly. They might turn to mobile phones or flicking through rulebooks or gossiping among themselves if their attention span isn’t ironclad — even if your game is otherwise riveting.  So what can you do to off-set this?

In some games you can keep all of the players involved in any particular scene even when their characters are split off.  You could do some of the following:

  1. Some players are happy being the audience. This is more often true of small parties than large ones.
  2. Keep it snappy. Perhaps it only needs to take ten minutes before the whole thing is over.
  3. Prepare NPC roles and have one set of players roleplay them for the other.
  4. Allow one set of players to play ghosts, whispered fears, that affect the involved characters.
  5. Allow one set of players to team up with the other, providing those characters a tactical boost as a nod to those character’s skill-sets and intelligence stats as two heads are better than one.
  6. Provide comm-units so that both sides can stay involved. Bonus points if you use baby monitors and separate rooms so that one side has to struggle to hear what the other side is saying.  (Impossible if both groups are performing tense actions synchronously unless you have a co-GM).
  7. Put them in another room with a co-GM you have briefed earlier who can run them through the action.
  8. Sometimes a player can function as a co-GM if you have a series of rooms, traps and combat encounters written down. Be sure that all players are okay with this and take a break before leaping into the action so the sudden co-GM has time to go over the notes.
  9. Simply set the players up in two different rooms so they can chat out-of-character until you get back. This way they don’t interrupt anyone else and can often be safely left to their own devices for up to half an hour without too much trouble.  Note that lone individuals will feel more bored and isolated if left in a room Out-of-character on their own so don’t do so for more than 10 – 15 minutes.

Sometimes, if one player decides to do a lone wolf and run off from the pack, you might be tempted to let the lone wolf play through their inevitable demise and let the other players bear silent witness.  Don’t do it.  If the player had the best intentions behind their actions, then it’s not fair on them.  If the player was doing it to hog the spotlight, than all you’ve done is reward them.  Who cares if their character dies if they got to have an audience?  Worse yet, what if they miraculously survive?  Now they looked awesome doing it.

If a player problematically sends their character out on their own you should make their journey incredibly dull. Have all of the encounters, drama, and excitement occur where the others are and have that individual have a remarkable easy and boring route to the end that still takes about as much time.  Naturally if the single player running off adds to the game and fits with the style of play, just use the above techniques as normal.

So how do how do you deal with split parties?  Do you have any plans or idea?

Helping players out with Hard Mode Investigation

s-l640Investigation-based games are hard. You can’t just run up to the enemy and roll dice at them until they go away. No, you have to find the clues, understand the clues, locate more clues, understand them, then put together a picture and figure out what to do about it. Add a horror element and it becomes all the more brutal as mistakes can be lethal if the players don’t adequately search for clues before busting down that locked door to the room containing that shoggoth.

When these clue trails confuse and overwhelm new players it’s often frustrating for all concerned.

Introducing the Clue Token.

This handy little device can be rewarded for playing within the genre and can then be used to get players out of an intellectual bind.  You could reward them for looking before leaping, exhaustively searching the crime scene, making a point to interview witnesses in a productive manner, using ingenuity to solve problems, using teamwork to surmount obstacles, avoiding pain the way real people do, exercising caution rather than just trying to roll dice at a monster until it goes away, showing the strain of the horror situation in character, retaining excellent in-game focus, or anything else that really helps the game.

They can collect up to three of these little babies and then use them to get a free hint to do with the situation at hand. The hint could range from reminding them of their ability to search scenes, pointing out a connection between clues that went unnoticed or telling them that certain clues can be used as leverage against certain NPCs. It could even be used to negate a bad roll that meant they overlooked an important clue.  Maybe there’s something the character should know but the player doesn’t and it gives you an excuse to point out some skills on thiir character sheet.  Sometimes if the clue trail break down has reached a brick wall it might mean that you create a new clue entirely that helps the game move forward such as having the password to that computer written down on a post-it note tacked to the side.

I trialled this system years ago with a group of players who had little to no experience in the investigative genre of game and it turned out to be really effective.  I used the clue tokens from the Arkham Horror Board Game to represent them so that the players had a physical reminder at hand.  I gave them a single free clue token at the start of the session and told them that this freebie will disappear at the end of the night in order to encourage them to use them rather than hoard them. Otherwise they might have hoarded it and never learned the value of using them.  Later tokens could be carried over between sessions.

Do you have any hints or tricks to help out players with a difficult investigation?

10 Ways to Clue in Characters as a GM

Twenties GuySo you’ve created a brilliant piece of investigative adventure write up which has a list of interesting plot points that all lead inexorably to the ending fact – a fact that will shake the foundations of the character’s reality. You pull out the dice. You hand out their sheets. Everyone takes a seat. It’s play time!

One flunked roll or neglected clue later and the characters are all scratching their heads and having a drink down the pub with no idea where they should go next. No problem! You introduce a handy NPC who’s figured out the clue and the team go to the next location only to completely misinterpret the next clue and run off on a wild goose chase.

So what do you do?

Well, here are 10 methods to seed your clues so the characters get the point.

1. The more the merrier. Plant at least two independent clues for every bit of important plot information.

2. Diversity is the spice of information gathering. Vary your clue sources (behavioral, written, forensic, timeline, spoken) so that if characters fail to interact with the NPCs or search the surroundings, they won’t miss out on all of the clues.

3. Recognise the value of bread crumb trails. Include small, more numerous clues to point to major clues so that characters are more likely to find them yet still feel clever for piecing them together.
4. Vital news should be unavoidable to learn. If there is a critical clue upon which the adventure hinges, then don’t ask for a dice roll for them to locate it. Make it obvious. Paint a big arrow of bread crumbs toward it. Ensure they’ll trip over it.

5. If you make it, BY GOD they should get it. If you’ve went to the trouble of making a hand out, invent a few reasons for them to end up with it. That way if they don’t bother visiting the newstand, they can still see that front page article on the folded newspaper in their mother’s house.

6. Consider creating a timeline. Many investigations that have multiple suspects are solved by a process of elimination. Who couldn’t have done it? Who wasn’t there? If you don’t have a timeline, your PCs can’t use this technique.

7. Brochure of investigative techniques. It helps to give the players, and their characters, a little reminder by having a mentor, brochure or even official class pointing out useful techniques that come up in later sessions. If you have their mentor test their ability to shadow people, or door knock the neighbours to find out information, you can bet your bottom dollar they will remember that technique and use them again.

8. Reward ingenuity. When players / characters get stuck, they will often try a few random techniques to try to find a handhold to help their climb to the truth. If their first few attempts turn up nothing, they’ll get frustrated and stop trying. Give them something – even something small – that can be used to help them.

9. Roleplay deception. Just because the NPC is doing their best to be the perfect liar, doesn’t mean you should mimic them. Remember that as a GM you are constantly making stuff up so players will typically overlook the minor incongruities (you said 6 o’clock when it was 7 o’clock) and body language tip offs that you’re lying (because you are, constantly, none of this is real). Therefore you could dial up the hints by making it just a little more obvious. Check out L.A. Noire for some examples of actors giving hints that their lying to players.

10. Know your facts! Characters won’t jump on incongruities if the players aren’t sure if they were a GM error or an NPC mistake. The more you know your story, character motivations, timeline and situation, and the more reliable you are in remembering them, the more likely characters will jump on incongruities in the information put before them.

Can you add any more techniques to this list? Or have any amusing anecdotes of players missing the point?