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Splitting the Party

“…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

According [1] to a number [2] of experts [3], this famous grammatical error is actually perfectly acceptable English. The infinitive may now be added to the short but growing list of things that can be split: hairs, firewood, and the atom.

Going even further, I submit that many things traditionally considered unsplittable may actually be split, including the adventuring party.

Conventional wisdom in RPGs dictates against splitting the party. In-game, the synergy of an adventuring party is stronger than the sum of its parts; this is especially important when danger lurks nearby. Above-game, parties remain unsplit largely because some players get ignored while others get GMed, and then vice-versa. Bo-ring!

But a split party should not not lead to bored players. With a little extra preparation, almost any GM can recruit idle players into a scene or encounter.

  1. Discuss the possibility with your players. Give them approval and even encouragement to split the party if they feel that it will help their mission. Offer rewards for good NPC roleplay, if the system supports it.
  2. When the party splits up, call for a brief break. Conscript a spare player or two, and draw up quick and dirty character sheets for the NPCs, with only what they need: motivation, personality, information, etc. It can be something as simple as a book opened to the critter in question and a few words on an index card. If you can, do this before the session.
  3. Give the NPC sheets to the players whose characters are off-stage, and game on.
  4. Let the players run with it. Exercise your “GM Veto Power” only if absolutely necessary.

That’s about it. Start small, and keep the meatier NPCs to yourself (especially that one with the Deep Dark Secret). There’s no reason your players can’t play the extras, bit parts, and supporting cast, instead of just the lead roles.

I’m can’t be the first to think of this. If you’ve tried it, then sound off in the comments and let us know what you learned; if not, then sound off let us know what you think.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Splitting the Party"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On June 24, 2010 @ 4:04 am

OK, the last time my party split was in Castle Whiterock. The stealthy half of the party ran while the stalwart half fought and were captured. I just switched back and forth between them, using cliffhangers. Would this have worked there?

* When the stealthy party listened at a door, knocked, and crossbow-bolted the first thing they saw:

I could’ve told one player “You’re Findle, a gnomish gemcutter forced to work for the orcs because your sister is captive elsewhere in the mine,” and “You’re Chu-Thuk, a half-orc sorcerer, here are your spells.”

Would it have worked? The part where the PCs accidentally shot Findle because he was the first one to come to the door would’ve been hilarious. The part where the PCs held up the orc with a crossbow bolt in the back and then sneak attacked him would have been more dynamic. This would’ve been a great encounter for that because the NPCs didn’t have a lot of tactics planned or secrets — it was just a room.

* When the stalwart party tried to bargain their captor into letting them go:

I have no idea how this would have turned out. If I described “You’re a duergar bookkeeper whose job is collecting information from slaves and sending them down to the next dungeon level”, would my players have a) played true to character and sent the PCs down the river? b) agreed to let the slaves free after some very weak roleplaying and a diplomacy check, because I thought it would be more interesting, like I did? c) had a more convincing bargaining session and driven a harder bargain than just ‘immunity’?

There were a couple more scenes I could look into, but basically I think that session ran better under the control of the DM. The reason is that none of the encounters played out like they would if you handed the players the room description and asked them to play that: I tweaked all kinds of things on the fly to keep the party alive and eventually get them back together. Like the friendly-but-faking ogre becoming truly friendly to give the stalwart characters an ally. Or the monks who captured half the party and got one ear bitten off in an escape attempt repaying it not with death, but an ear-for-an-ear revenge ceremony right near where the other PCs were holed up.

My players don’t have that kind of concern for the plot, especially the ones who don’t DM, so I think the encounters would have played out more predictably and thus disastrously. One half of the party gets sold down to dungeon level 10, the other half escapes to the outside and never adventures again. Maybe role-playing only party splits like in town are a better place to try this technique.

#2 Comment By shadowacid On June 24, 2010 @ 6:08 am

I’ve successfully worked with split parties before. I find that I have to make sure that I pay attention to each group and that each group has SOMETHING to do. Even if I have to pull a “kick in the door” moment for one of the groups.

I then look for dramatically appropriate moments to switch between the two.

#3 Comment By Dunx On June 24, 2010 @ 7:10 am

My party splits as a matter of course during the investigative stages of the CoC games I run. I usually round robin around the table to give each party fragment GM time.

I am not sure that handing NPCs to the unengaged party members would work, though, for similar reasons to Nomenon’s concerns over plot: since having critical NPCs under GM control is always necessary, handing an NPC over to a player to roleplay is sending a signal to the team that I don’t want to give: this character doesn’t know anything.

So party splitting is fine, but player play of NPCs doesn’t seem viable in mystery games.

#4 Comment By Vance On June 24, 2010 @ 7:46 am

I did recently split my party (into three portions!), but it was during a role-playing scene, not combat. The Paladin and Cleric spoke with the King, while the Wizard and the Ranger were pulled aside by the Queen to ask a favor. All this time, the Rogue was sneaking around the hallways of the castle tracking a suspicious noble.

I went back and forth between each group, and since each group was gathering information important to the entire party, we had no issues with boredom. Every PC eagerly wanted to find out what each group was discovering. The scene didn’t last that long, either, so that helped…and we didn’t use dice but maybe once or twice the entire time.

One cool thing we did earlier that night was to actually split the DM. I brought in a good friend (who DM’s a game I’m playing in) to take charge of one battle. We had an insane, maniacal “brain in a jar” controlling am entire horde of zombies attacking the PC’s. He’s really good at the acting portion, so I gave him free range to taunt the PC’s, attack, move, and turn invisible. He didn’t even tell me where he was on the battlefield. I simply played all the zombies (13 of them!!), so I had plenty to do already. It was much more memorable because he was free to act crazy and run one enemy, and I was free to control the rest of the horde. I did keep track of his HP, but that’s it. We all enjoyed it so much that I’m looking for other opportunities to do it again!

#5 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On June 24, 2010 @ 10:20 am

Zomg, that gave me an idea for a series of encounters!

Thank you again, Gnome Stew. I say that for myself, as my players may not necessarily do so!

#6 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 24, 2010 @ 11:10 am

I’ve overseen my share of split party sessions, especially during Star Wars campaigns, where the frantic pace lends itself to characters getting separated in the middle of action sequences. And while a good party-split can be tricky to manage in a traditional D&D campaign, it’s possible in many settings to just keep rolling right along without ever breaking the rhythm of the game. The two key management issues to keep in mind for pulling that off are character-knowledge (information gained by one group spilling over into the other before they have an in-game chance to share it) and pacing (where you deal with the risk of neglecting one group while the other gets to do cool stuff).

The character-knowledge issue is easily sidestepped in any game with 21st-century tech (or better). Give your characters headsets (maybe even implants) and they can rock and roll, keeping each other in the loop across vast distances. In fantasy games, you can always conjure up the magical equivalent if you want to pull off that same side-step. For a solo D&D campaign, I once used the “telepathic bond” excuse to sidestep character-knowledge limitations to help the one player run a viable dungeoneering party through my collection of old modules by herself. It would work equally well for any FRPG you wanted to facilitate regular party-splitting in.

As far as pacing with goes, for running split groups without interruption, you’re looking for fast and punchy. Just like that movie trope when someone bursts in with a crisis to thwart the romantic leads’ first kiss the instant before their lips touch, it’s crucial to our own particular brand of storytelling to break up any plot development that will turn half of the players into spectators. So cut short that chess match, tearful family reunion, or extended shopping trip by having a squad of storm troopers burst through the door or a red dragon set fire to the tavern. ANYTHING to pick up the pace. You can always figure out why later.

Once things are moving quickly, you can handle it all round-by-round, character by character, calling for and resolving actions as naturally as if they were all maneuvering around the same battlefield. True action scenes are easiest to manage this way (like any of those great Star Wars sequences where they kept cutting between main characters; while they might have been on entirely different levels of the Death Star, the clock was ticking for all of them), but the point is simply to make sure each group is dealing with problems that can be broken down into quickly resolved moments.

#7 Comment By Noumenon On June 24, 2010 @ 11:29 am

Giacomo, are you saying you try to get the whole group in combat on different battlemats and then go around the table “round-by-round, character-by-character” just as though they weren’t separated?

#8 Comment By evil On June 24, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

While I’ve always been a fan of split infinitives and hanging prepositions (as a linguist), I’ve never been a fan of split parties. I try to only do this in safe situations, where social situations are happening but combat is not. Usually if I do this, it’s a situation where players cannot share knowledge between the two or three groups (usually it’s a mystery game or a game where players have different individual goals). In these cases, I tend to offer a deck of cards and drinks to one group and send them out of the room. When the first group is done, they get the same treatment.

#9 Comment By Nojo On June 25, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

My evil players tend to take any NPC I give them as a Red Shirt, and proceed to get them whacked in the most extreme way possible. It’s almost like a competition for them, and the most graphic and disgusting death is considered the goal.

#10 Comment By Nofka On June 27, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

In every game I run, my players all start off by waking up in completely different spots. What I’ve discovered about this style of game play is that the players don’t immediately go looking for each other, but rather try to follow their own paths. Even when they do come in contact, they are usually so immersed in their own game play that they brush each other off as if no one else mattered but themselves. Talk about not meta-gaming!

Just let the players out of turn sit and listen to their fellow gamers turns. Use cliff hangers, and co-inciting events (like shooting stars, or the weather, or explosions) to remind them they aren’t alone. It also works better to make their final goal the same, this makes the players build with anticipation to finally meet in game and all work together to end the same way.

Split games work.

#11 Comment By BryanB On June 30, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Our old group D&D motto was, “Everyone split up, we can do more damage that way.”

No wonder we had TPKs so often. 😀

#12 Comment By DMN On July 14, 2010 @ 10:05 am



I believe that is exactly what Giacomo indicated. I was recently in a game where we did the same thing. Essentially, we identified that we needed to split up into three groups to obtain three artifacts to battle the BBEG.

We planned the travel time to and from each location, and where we would meet and how long to wait before tackling the BBEG without full strength. We all went our separate ways…GM waved travel time (and we arrived at different in game times)…then we all took stock of the individual situations at the same time…and we rolled initiative.

The GM then proceeded to run it just like 1 big combat based on initiative roll. We all survived, got back to our meeting place on time, and proceeded onward to the BBEG’s lair.

It worked really well.