9 Ways to Deal with Splitting the Party

Occasionally 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 provide Out-of-Character hints and ideas, 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 by talking into the ear of the other group. 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 on the odd occasion that the the single player sending their character running off on their own adds to the game and fits with the style of play, just use the above 9 techniques as normal. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t. Just be clear and consistent with the social conventions of “lone wolfing it” and poll the table if you’re unsure of what boundaries people would like set.

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

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