Splitting Up the Party

In the first tabletop campaign I ever played – actually, the very first session now that I think about it – we ended up in a situation where we had quite a few separate locations to investigate. The group agreed that staying together seemed to be the best idea, except for one guy who wanted to investigate by himself. His character was something of a lone wolf and had the power to become effectively invisible in darkness, so he had the ability to handle himself. But we all thought it was a bad idea to split up. Still, he insisted.

Those of us who stayed together ended up investigating a house that had some valuable information we needed. As for the guy who split off by himself, he ended up chasing a red herring that was a total waste of time. “Ugh,” we all said, “why did you go off by yourself? That’s always a stupid idea! Never go off by yourself, you goofball.” We teased and made fun of him for daring to split from the rest of the party, because his whole quest ended up being a waste of time.

It would be a long time before I realized that it was the GM, not the player, who made that solo mission a waste of time.

The concept of not splitting the party is very prevalent in the tabletop world – so prevalent it even has a TV Tropes entry about it. For players, it’s a safety mechanism: they want to stay together because nothing bad can happen when everyone is in a group. For the GM, it’s a housekeeping issue: it’d be a pain to run separate scenarios for everybody, so let’s just keep the group together so that there’s only one thing to keep track of. Both sides of the table enforce the idea, and when experienced tabletoppers initiate new ones, those new players will imitate what they see. So the concept of not splitting the party continues to be passed down.

When my friend split the party in that very first session, we all railed against him because his mission turned out to be a red herring. It wasted the rest of our time, we didn’t get to play as much, yada yada. But that wasn’t his fault. He chose to behave in character. It was the GM who chose to punish him for doing that. What would we have all said if he’d gone off on his own and found a weakness for our coming enemy? Or ended up evading capture so he could show up later and free the rest of us from a supervillain’s dungeon? “Great idea! I’m so glad you split up from the group. That was super cool!”

When I ran my very first campaign, I felt like I needed a narrative trick of some kind to keep all the players together. They had different personalities and goals, so obviously nothing would make them work together unless I somehow forced them. My solution? I decided that the main villain would bond all of their lives together with a spell. If they ever went separate directions, going a certain distance apart from each other, then they would be punished with death. When someone tried to test me, I told them their character felt twisting pain and had their strength drained the further they went from the group.

“Haha,” said I, “I have trapped you all together. Now I never have to worry about the party splitting up!” It’s embarrassing to look back and think about how I thought that was so clever.

The first time someone couldn’t show up to a session, someone asked me why the curse didn’t kill them for not being on that mission. “Uh, the curse knows that their character has something else they have to do, I guess.” It was a pitiful explanation that fell apart the second someone challenged it, and it kind of messed up the fiction a little bit. I didn’t know what to do. I thought splitting the party was a cardinal sin and I wanted to prevent it at all costs.

Now there are definitely some legitimate concerns when it comes to splitting the party. For one, some players want to try to be Batman and go on every mission by themselves, beat the biggest bad guys without the rest of the group, and be the main character of the story instead of being part of a team. Additionally, if the party splits and the GM doesn’t give both groups something compelling enough to keep them busy, half of the players become bored because they aren’t engaged.

So when splitting the party can lead to hassle, but being too scared of splitting can cause fictional problems and stifle creativity, what the heck do you do?

It all boils down to how you split the party. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always do this right. Many of my past campaigns are littered with either very poor methods of keeping the party together, or very poor attempts to keep everyone engaged when they weren’t together. Recently I’ve gotten better at it – my group spent the entire session separated at our most recent session because the fiction demanded it, and they absolutely loved how I handled it. So let’s go over some tips and tricks on splitting up the group in a way that works well for everyone.

Say the characters decide to split up and some of them end up in an area that you didn’t intend to be significant. It’s going to take a little improv, but you need to make sure that there is something significant to do there. Even if they just stumble into a trap and have to get out of it, or maybe they find some old tomes with information that will help them on their quest. If you make their tasks a waste of time, either they’ll be frustrated, or the people who missed out on real action will be.

Using the power of a cliffhanger can be really helpful in keeping your players engaged. Say you have two groups that are engaged in combat situations. One group is battling a huge ogre, and a bad roll puts one character on their back. The ogre steps over them and brings his club swinging down to crush them – and then you switch. That player is going to be engaged the whole time the other group’s combat is going because they’re ready to find out if the ogre is going to smash them to pulp or if things are going to work out for the best. You can use this technique in non-combat scenarios as well. Maybe just before an NPC reveals valuable information, you cut to the other group and have them talk or solve a puzzle or whatever. Then right when something really interesting or important is about to happen to them, jump back to the first group and reveal the information they wanted.

Just because some of the players aren’t the focus of the narrative doesn’t mean that they have nothing to do. During my session the other night, I had two people competing in a tournament while two other players were on their own quests in different places. The people in the tournament had the least to do – no exploring, no puzzles, no rolls other than combat. So while the other two were involved in roleplaying, I’d have the two in the tournament decide which teams were winning the other matches. I gave them some info on what each team was capable of, told them which ones were facing which, and then let them debate while I told the other players what challenges their characters were facing. The two tournament players were busy the whole time even though they weren’t “technically” playing because they had to debate on who would win the other matches. They were busy even though they weren’t actually the focus of the narrative at the time.
You can do this in a lot of ways. Present one party with a puzzle to figure out and then let them work on it while you put your attention on the other group. Have one team prepare their battle plan while the other disarms a dangerous trap. If the players have something to do that is related to the game, they can talk among themselves while you give your attention to another group for a short time.

These techniques should help you out when you’re splitting up the party. If done well, splitting the party can actually be a refreshing change or a cool technique for spicing up a session rather than some horrible thing you should avoid at all costs. Like any good GM technique, you shouldn’t overuse it – keeping your players on your toes is pretty important to keeping them entertained over the course of a whole campaign. But when the fiction demands that the group go their separate ways for a time, you can be confident that you won’t ruin the game by giving the players different tasks to do.

If you’re an experienced GM and have any other advice for splitting the party, feel free to post it in the comments. I’m sure the other adventurers will be glad for it – and I’ll probably steal it for my campaigns as well! 😉

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