Treasure Tables is in reruns from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month, and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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Splitting the party is something that every GM will have to deal with at some point. Sometimes it’s a pain in the butt, sometimes it goes smoothly — and there are 5 main ways that you can handle it.

Let’s discuss all of them: 2 lousy approaches, 1 neutral approach and 2 good ones.

Splitting the Players – Lousy Approach #1

When half of the party heads down one fork in the road, and the rest of the PCs take the other path, you physically split up the group: Half the players leave the room, the others stay at the gaming table.

This is a terrible way to handle splitting the party.

In my experience, it always takes longer than you think it will, and boy does it kill the game’s momentum — especially for the players that aren’t actually playing.

Sometimes it seems like the only thing to do, though — like in games with a lot of intra-party conflict and intrigue (Vampire, for example). For me, part of the pleasure of gaming is in separating player knowledge from character knowledge, and I trust my players to do this. I’ve learned that even when splitting the players up sounds reasonable, it’s not the way to go.

The Exception: There’s always an exception, right? Splitting the players can be a great way to build tension and sustain a sense of mystery (“What were they doing in there?) — but only in small doses. Use with care.

Cut Back and Forth Occasionally – Lousy Approach #2

I’ve seen this so often that I think of it as the default approach (and it’s very easy to fall into — I’ve done more than my share of it!): Keep everyone at the table, and cut back and forth between the two groups of players periodically.

And that’s really the problem with this method — the “periodically” part. Many players get bored when they’re not involved in the action (understandably so), and even if everyone stays interested this approach can still be a big momentum-killer.

(The trick is to cut back and forth much more often, and that’s our fourth approach.)

Just Don’t Do It- The Neutral Approach

One way to handle splitting the party is to never split the party. I view this as a neutral approach because you’re really just sidestepping the issue, but at the same time it does work quite well.

The best way I’ve found to handle this is to make it a social contract issue: Before the campaign begins, discuss it with your players.

Explain that splitting the party is often really frustrating for everyone, and that you won’t put the PCs in situations where it’s the most advantageous thing to do. In return, ask them to avoid splitting the party unless it’s absolutely necessary. In my experience, this works like a charm.

You could also just make it a hard-and-fast rule, but that’s too dictatorial for my GMing style — I prefer dialogue to ruling with an iron fist. (Your mileage may vary, of course — and in a convention game, this might not be a bad idea at all).

Cut, Cut, Cut – Good Approach #1

No matter how hard you try to avoid splitting the party, it’s going to happen — so what do you do?

Cut early, and cut often.

Handle a minute or two of what one sub-group is doing (with the other players still at the table), and then cut away to the other group. Another couple of minutes later, cut back. Repeat until the party is back together.

Think of this as the two minute rule — when in doubt, cut every two minutes.

This keeps everyone engaged, you won’t lose momentum, each sub-group gets time to think about what to do next (and enjoy watching the other players) and no one will be tempted to go get snacks, start watching TV, etc.

Try to cut on mini-cliffhangers, too — this works wonders for keeping things moving.

Get a Sidekick – Good Approach #2

The fourth approach is to bring in a co-GM — someone who can take over GMing the other half of the party. That way no one gets bored, and as long as the two GMs communicate regularly the game should stay on track nicely.

I’ve never tried this myself, but there’s some great advice on the topic in this thread: How do you run a two-GM game?

Other Approaches

Several TT readers pointed out methods of dealing with a split party that I didn’t think of, or that I folded into the “big 5” (thanks, everyone!).

The No-Cut Variant: Lebkin prefers to keep everyone at the table, but handle each sub-group’s activities all at once — no cutting involved. He recommends this technique for short separations, and notes that it has its downsides. (I think of this as a variation on #2, above.)

Troupe Play: Crazy Jerome brought up Ars Magica’s approach: Every player has more than one PC, and splitting the party is very much the norm, not an exception. This comes back to social contracts and expectations — Ars is built explicitly for this kind of play — but it definitely stands on its own.

Run Two Sessions: Got an extremely long split on your hands, but you don’t want to sidestep it? Alan Scott recommends running two completely separate sessions, one for each sub-group — this is a pretty nifty idea.

Have I missed anything else? What do you do when the party splits up in your game?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post, and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums?