Today’s guest post is by Michael Headley, and he tackles the idea of splitting the party as a starting tactic. – Split Decision John
Splitting the party is associated with tactical nightmares and GM headaches, but it can actually be a fantastic way to start a big campaign for a group that really enjoys role-playing. Used properly, it can create a dynamic player experience and increase the verisimilitude of your campaign.
Starting with split parties means dividing players into two (or more) smaller parties, and for each of them running their own character creation session and introductory scenarios. The payoff to running double the introductory scenarios is that it can improve the role-playing of the group. With a tight scenario and fewer characters to interact with, players can figure out the personality of their character, and how they play off other players. When the party finally all meets up, the characters are actually meeting for the first time, and it becomes a much richer experience than the “Name-Class” shorthand that players can fall into at the beginning of a game.
Tips to Make it Work
There’s a bit of extra work to starting with a split party. Here’s a few tips to help get the most bang for your buck.
Relationships Matter Even More. Players often have NPC relationships, but these become even more important in a game with a split party. Take notes of all of these NPCs. Feel free to have NPCs for someone in one party show up for the other. And those relationships need not be entirely cozy. It will make the future meet up all the more interesting.
Make Your World Round. Give one party a name to an NPC that the other actually meets. Give one party rumors, and the second party different rumors. Did one group hear, in passing, about a fire that burned down the mayor’s house? Imagine the glee when they meet the characters who tossed the torch. Also take the chance to give each set of players some different tools, locations, or relationships that they can take advantage of later.
If you give the players a different knowledge base to start from, when the party meets up the characters will have to sincerely communicate their different experiences.
Have a Plan for Meeting Up. When it comes time for the meet up game, I suggest picking one of the groups to use as the POV. I tell the other players some kind of signal I am going to give them so that they know when to step in and introduce themselves. While you don’t want to overdue it — half of the players are just sitting — this can work for a short duration because everyone will be wondering when they will actually meet. The party that’s waiting to be introduced gets excited as they try to figure out when their character is being spotted.
And when the characters actually meet? Step out of the way. Let the characters talk, interact, tell stories. Don’t rush that interaction.
How it can go wrong
There’s also some common pitfalls to this approach, and they can undermine a campaign. Here’s some things to avoid.
Players that don’t get along. This can cause a game to sour in a hurry. To prevent this, make sure you have a general meeting before any character creation so everyone can meet and agree on the tone. You don’t want one group to really want to play a dark and gritty fantasy while the other group is just running around making slapstick jokes. Those sorts of contrast in tone don’t jive together.
If you do find one party has a very different tone than the other, typically there’s one player pulling the group in that direction. Talk with the player directly about it after a game, and make suggestions for things they can do to be more in line with expectations. And if that player keeps causing problems, go ahead and give them the boot.
Introductory Scenarios that Streeeeetttch. Keep these succinct. It’s okay if they take more than one session, but try to keep it as succinct as possible and try to keep all of the introductory scenarios the same number of sessions. This keeps rewards roughly similar, and avoids a situation where one party is waiting two months for you to finish that “other” game.
Not Taking Enough Notes. Notes are important for every game, but with one party it’s easier to fudge and improvise. With two parties, there’s less flexibility: you need to keep the same NPCs consistent across different characters. Poor planning will also cause you to forget exactly what each group knows. The good news is that the more notes you take, the more connections you can draw between the groups to make the world feel more round.
Not Having a Plan for the Meet Up. Things can also go wrong if you don’t have a clear plan for the different parties to meet up. The last thing we want is one party to decide to attack and loot the others. Personally, I find using either a mentor, a common organization, or a common mystery is a good way. Maybe the mentor is seeking out the heroes and directing them to meet up, or the organization is hiring them all to work together after they’ve proven themselves. This will make the meet up game actually easier to run and ensure that characters have a motivation to start working together organically.
What do you think? Have you experimented with a technique like this? How did it go?