May 22, 2013

Reader Tip Request: How do you handle split parties?

Reader Tip Request: How do you handle split parties?

split-partiesToday, I’d like your advice and tips on how to handle split parties.

Daniel S. writes:

“How can I make everyone happy when groups are split in their decisions for destinations and plans?”

One tip I have is to go around the table and give each split-off player or sub-group a bit of spotlight time.

GM them for a short period, then find the perfect moment and switch the spotlight to the next player(s).

What’s the perfect time?

At a cliffhanger, naturally. :)

Switch the spotlight just before:

  • An important dice roll
  • An important result from you
  • A key character decision
  • A key NPC decision or action
  • Revelation of a fact
  • Just after revealing a twist
  • Just after revealing a clue

All these situations have something in common: an open loop.

An open loop happens when a situation we’re interested in goes unresolved.

Our brains desperately want closure. It’s how we’re wired.

We have to know what happens – to shine light in dark corners – or we feel tension.

And our brains work overtime to resolve that tension.

Storytellers have known this for ages, and use it to keep their audience glued to their words.

Learn how to spot open loops and how to create them. Instead of telling a split player what’s around the corner, tell the player they hear a creepy noise, and then switch the spotlight.

In RPG, we are blessed with many opportunities to do this. Dice roll results, player questions, character actions.

Learn how to hint at answers and switch the spotlight smoothly.

This is effective with non-split groups too. Create temporary moments of tension, call breaks at such times and end sessions at these moments.

But with split groups, this open loop technique is also effective at keeping everyone at the table interested. Players without the spotlight want to learn what happens to the others and their unresolved loops.

Around and around you go until the party is united once more.

Over to you now. What tips do you have for Daniel on how to handle split parties?

Grant

I think the main concern for split parties is brevity: don’t spent too long with just a few players while half of the gamers in your house are sitting idle. This is especially true if you leave the room to talk to the split players in private.

Also be wary of rewarding players who regularly try to split off from the other PCs to do their own thing.

Kayet Lavate

The cliff-hanger is one good place, but it can be over-used. Another effective place to switch is after giving the character something to think about. This works really well with two or three groups, but also with individuals. Just make sure they know to write down their questions instead of asking them out loud as you are spinning the tale for another group.

Rob

If there is more than one player off on his own and he is with another PC, have them talk in character while the DM is working with the others.
If you’re playing a more strictly turn based game, then simply go around the table in turns; no matter if they are in two groups of three or six groups of one.

Ben

I like using the cliffhanger as a break, but it does not always provide the best way to deal with a split group. If the group splits with one player taking their character off on their own I see on reason to spend an equal amount of time on that single character as the rest of the group. There are times when a group is split by a trap or such and then I will spend a more equal amount of time on both groups.
One reason I don’t like spending equal amounts of time on the single players character is that I have had several players that have used the split from the party to add to their play in the spotlight time, and it took me time as a new game master to pick up on that.

    Johnn Four

    I can see how spotlight can be a reward resulting in more desire for spotlight. Good call.

    Spiralbound

    Two great ways to handle a player who is abusing “spotlight time” are:

    1) make their spotlight involve challenges which would have been fine for the whole party, but which are obviously too much for the solo character.

    2) make their spotlight extremely boring and non-productive, while the rest of the party achieves comparative greatness.

    Obviously, one shouldn’t use these techniques every time, but if a player is abusing the situation and deliberately engineering extra game time at the expense of their fellow players then there should be negative consequences for their negative meta-gaming.

marofthepixie

A simple tip which I find helpful when either, both (or all) groups are in separate combats:- use different coloured pens for taking notes. It helps to keep things easily visually distinct.

But perhaps more relevant to the original question. If players are divided in where to go and what to do, there are a few things to help.

One way is to split the party. If they are heading off to very different locations, it may be worth each sub-party hiring a few extra bodies (which the PCs of the other party can play). This can grow into running a two party game, which can create interesting issues when they do get back together, but it also lets the GM kill off PCs without discouraging the players as much.

Another option is to prioritise the choices and have a “to do” list. Sometimes knowing that their choice will be dealt with next makes people happy to go along with someone else’s choice first.

Another option I have seen work (but it can be risky) is to move the OOC tension to be IC tension. The leader of the party says “We do this” and everyone has to go along with it. They need to be mature adults and take their unhappiness as a player and make it unhappiness of the character. A fellow adventurer grumbling about the leader making the wrong choice can be fun to play. It can lead to some very interesting interpersonal roleplaying when it comes to a head.

Another option which is harder on the GM is to go the “we will work together… for now” route. The PCs may have different goals, but if they all benefit from an action then they can work together. It is possible (but a lot of hard work) to set things up so the group is always working together, but often for different reasons. ie Taking down a drug lord may give one PC a change to grab territory, another a chance to get revenge and another a chance to steal drugs and money. But even though the goals are different (territory, money, revenge), the means is the same (take out the Drug Lord).

hope it helps.

Hawk

I’ve had this happen more than once :)
Currently I have one player who can’t make it to the table; his character is a monk, so he chose to have the character enter a time of isolated meditation (the whole “hermit on the mountain” sort of thing). He and I exchange emails once a month to discuss things, and he gets a kind of “bird’s eye view” of the main game, to keep him in touch with the events.

Another player’s character has been uprooted from his home, and all he wants to do is get back – but the rest of the party is focused on recovery efforts in their own kingdom, which was ravaged badly. So, I have that character corresponding with the rest of the group as he does specific (but solo) missions that will move him closer to his goals. The player is happy with this, because he is enjoying the solo sessions – which are done on his schedule rather than the group’s schedule.

It helps a great deal that most of our game sessions take place via Roll20 website! With my husband unable to leave the house (disability), it has made some aspects of our games very, very flexible.

Telas

Depending on your group, another approach is to let the offstage players manage the NPCs in the onstage encounter. Give rewards for appropriate play, and let them know that the GM Fiat is running.

(As opposed to the GM’s Fiat, which is at the dealership again…)

Souliere

I usually take everyone in turns same as in combat. But lump the various groups together. Give each group time proportional to how many members it has. if main group has 4 people and subgroup has 2, then first group get 2/3 of the time other gets 1/3. When your time is up, middle of engagement or not, I switch to the other group. Try to keep time slices under 5 minutes. If someone in your group has to look something up, boom I go straight to the other group. One of our party members plays via video chat. When the party breaks into two groups, she does homework while waiting. Bad things have been known to happen to party members who split off without a good reason. The group can easily handle that wandering encounter, but one player by themselves, maybe not.

    Johnn Four

    That’s a fair method, Souliere. Give some thought to comboing with my open loops tip. That’s gets you compelling storytelling plus equal spotlight time.

TIm

I try to keep both/all groups in the same kind of scene: combat, conversation, or other (investigation/background/preparation. That way I can keep a similar pace across the table.
it also makes it possible to synchronize actions: in a multiple combat scene, I simply run all the initiatives on a single ladder, as if it were a single fight.
In investigation scenes, I jump-cut mercilessly, spending no more than a couple minutes (5 is way long) on each group at a time, even if it’s just to comment, ‘no, you didn’t find anything in the living room, where do you go next?’ before jumping back to another group.
Conversations are the slowest and easiest to handle, since they lend themselves to natural flow of interaction (I almost never run games where PCs aren’t openly sharing information, and the fun of roleplaying is to have an audience appreciate it). Then I just operate on my standard self-check of trying to keep everyone involved on some level.
(Side note; my gaming group is *big* – we usually have 8-9 people at the table, so splitting up is pretty common.)

The Mighty Kobold

I GMed an unwieldy Scion campaign once. More and more people became interested in it as I explained the concept of the game and had 12 people show up to the first session. Though this isn’t exactly what the question is asking, since here they are referring to one group around the same table having adverse priorities, it ended up being a challenge where I had to deliberately send them in opposite directions so I could break the group up into two smaller sessions, we’ll call them Group A and Group B. The groups met on alternating days: A then B, B then A, four sessions a week. Each group had to find a sacred artifact for the patron gods and after a couple sessions, both succeeded and I had another large group session where it was revealed that, of course, Loki had betrayed them and was using their artifacts to wake and ally with the titans. I let each player make a public declaration and private declaration of alliance to either the Gods or the Titans. Once again groups were formed, this time with possible traitors in both. As Scion is a game with world breaking possibilities, I played the groups against one another, having the choices of A affect B and vice versa as they collected weapons for their, treated for allies, or even killed opposing godheads. Over all, it was a grand summer campaign and well worth the exhaustive energy on my part to keep 12 players interested and involved. The real key to me was always having somewhere for the two stories to intersect, ripples that would affect the decisions of the other group. A group around the same table would have to fight the metagame but they would know how or why their decisions were affecting the other team and how or why their team was affected.

Noah Portance

I work primarily with online (forum-based) RPG groups, so for me splitting the party is as simple as starting a private message chain. However, one thing I like to do is to try to have the different groups’ actions have an impact on each other–even (or rather, especially!) when they won’t realize it.

As an example from a campaign another GM in our group ran: the Heroes were stripped of their gear and imprisoned by the villain. When they finally tried to escape, the players discovered that they would lose health every time they moved through a certain number of corridors in the catacombs of the villain’s lair (I think it was 5 HP for every 5 corridors, but don’t quote me on that). As they continued, they were eventually forced to leave a party member behind in order to get past a certain gate. Unbeknownst to the main party, the solo party member hooked up with a pair of NPCs and embarked on a side quest of their own–the catch being, the solo party member’s movement and the main party’s movement both increased their COMBINED “corridor count”, resulting in no small amount of panic for both groups as the numbers seemed to go up for no reason… >:)

As another example from another GM, one character in a party of three had to split off from the others because an NPC crucial to their investigation was afraid of them. He ended up just wandering around on his own instead of waiting for the rest of the group–which was fortunate, because he ended up in the right place at the right time when the character the party finally decided to arrest managed to overpower the main duo and ran for it, only to wind up running right into the solo hero’s grasp.

My rule of thumb basically boils down to: “There are two parties…but it’s still one adventure.” ;-)

Blair

For me, one of the biggest concerns is keeping the players engaged as much as possible. Having NPCs at hand that the missing players can pick up is important (as is rewarding their roleplaying with xp, to keep them working!).

If the missing characters are doing exploration or investigation, I would try to keep that going via written notes. I’m between campaigns at the moment (taking my turn as a player), but one option I’m going to consider/attempt is having the “non-active” players use tablets or notepads to ‘virtual’ play without having to leave the table.

Istrian

Depending on the motivations and goals for the split to occur, I handle it in three different ways.

1) When the group splits for a short time, such as to collect information on various topics or when talking to different NPCs, I usually ask each player to state their actions and goals, and then handle it in turn, switching back and forth if some players need to think about their actions. Usually I keep these splits short before the party regroups to share information and eventually split again.

2) When it’s a long and plot-related split, with possibly multiple adventures on each side, I ask the players to form multiple parties (possibly with one player each). Then, for each plot, I ask uninvolved players to roll side characters who will participate in the subplot. Then I usually dedicate one or more sessions to each party until the main characters are able to regroup again.

Most of the time my players like being able to try new concepts without endangering their main characters. At the same time it gives me NPCs to reuse for later and gives the feeling of a living world.

3) When it’s an interlude where each player pursues their own goals, I usually like to handle it away from the gaming table, usually by e-mail. In some cases I dedicate a whole session for that at the gaming table. In this case I usually play out only the tense parts, such as a quick negotiation, or a roll. The remainder is kept in narrative form with a lot of player input. It also means switching from player to player.

Nareth

I basically do the same thing. I try to limit the options so I don’t get 6 players going in 6 different directions. In a dungeon, I’ll give one group a few minutes, and switch when they are opening a door or rolling initiative. It’s not always possible to give equal time, but if you’re close and both groups are advancing things, you’ll be fine.

I’ve had parties do things like walk through the Caves of Chaos, and end up on opposite sides of the same door. Nearly got them to attack each other too, as neither side could make a perception check. Little things like that get talked about long after the game is done.

Andrew Quee

You probably don’t want to hear this, but here’s the other side of the coin.

After multiple TPKs/wipes, some involving campaigns that had gone on for years… we have a verbal agreement with each other that we will NEVER EVER EVER split the party. In fact we even refer to it as Rule of Gaming #1. Every successive rule of gaming we have refers to Rule #1. While this can lead to some Joel Rosenberg/1E D&D-style old school play, we’ve found it to be simpler and less troublesome never to let it happen, GM plots/story aside.

…and you know what? In pretty much every case the rule has been broken that character has met a sticky end, been possessed, imitated, cloned, etc etc. We just decided we weren’t having it anymore. To the point where if someone decided to go to the crypts at Midnight by themselves and came back okay, we were almost positive they _had_ been replaced, cue dissension and suspicion.

To come back to the question, I think pacing and balance is all-important. You don’t want players getting bored and getting distracted from the game. Give them a task to do among themselves while you’re busy: planning, roleplaying, logistics, spell/power synergy setups, whatever.

If possible deal with both groups at the same time, and switch back and forth quickly, forcing people to stay engaged.
“Ok you, what are you doing in the belfry?”
(Cue some action)
“The people in the courtyard below hear muffled thumps and groans, ending in a high-pitch scream of agony. What are you doing?”
(Resolve and switch back)

The idea is to keep the game alive and keeping up the pace, not slowing it down.

Cory M

My favorite way to do this is to have them solve a puzzle together that will ultimately split them up.

A pressure plate needs at least 2 party members to hold down while the rest make their way through a raised gate.

A solved puzzle unleashes an earth digger that causes a cave in, splitting up the party however you like (a little more control on your part, since you can adjust the sides as needed “once the dust clears”)

A powerful creature forces some party members to stay behind or take a different path for some reason – could be only certain alignments can pass, or whatever arbitrary reason you come up with (powerful creatures often ignore the laws of arbitration anyway)

A poor work of craftsmanship makes a gate or door collapse while the party is underneath, splitting them up.

A ghost or other scary sight makes some party members flee in a random direction

So on, so forth. Hope these help!

    Cory M

    Almost forgot the important part – what happens after the split!

    Have the party both focus on a common goal. If they solved a puzzle to open a door, have the group that made it through the door need to find a way to let the others continue as well. It keeps group dynamics and has them be aware of each others presence.

    Also, a scary setting is great for suspense.
    Imagine a character walking down a deserted street… thin fog in the air… a light wail on the wind, the turn a corner and SUDDENLY
    *turn to the next group*
    So you guys are sitting at the tavern, talking when you hear a shriek from outside. It sounds almost like *party member who was just walking*

    This gets both groups interested at once – they are both involved in the same plot off the bat so you know you can combine them later as well.

Curtis Stein

Those pesky players!!! Just like bread falls butter-side down EVERY SINGLE TIME they’ll do the darndest things at the darndest times. The advice that I have for split parties: keep in mind that the characters are seperated. The players can make all the comments that they want, but if their character isn’t present in the other group, 1) disallow any actions taken based upon “other group” suggestions, 2) keep your GM stopwatch in your head ticking and devote equal time to each, 3) NEVER be afraid of offing a party member (it was usually their own actions that split the party: oops, guess that was stupid!) and pointing out that there is strength in numbers and lastly where you make the break is where you make the break, cliffhanger, dice roll, clue, fact, rumor doesn’t matter. Make the break for YOUR convenience and let the party stew a little bit. They’ll (mostly) take it like adults.

Tom Stephens

I guess I read the question differently than all the other responders. As I see it, the question isn’t about what to do when the party is split up into two or more groups each doing different things, but rather what to do when they can’t come to a consensus on what the party as a whole should be doing. While this may lead to splitting the party into multiple groups if not resolved, I felt the question was more about how to resolve the intra-group differences of opinion before the split occurs.

I’ll admit that no standout experience comes to mind where I had to deal with this, either as a player or GM. Of course that is probably because much of my playing was years (decades?) ago and my memory is dim. But mostly I think it was because the party had a strong leader that everyone deferred to when making the final call or it was usually very clear what the next step should be. The real question is, how do we, as GMs, get the latter to occur.

I’ll assume that one of the options/goals being discussed is the preferred direction the GM wants to take the game. Or maybe it is just the way most of the players want to go and there are a few dissenters. Either way, I think the best way to try to reach an end to the dissension is to find ways to make that part of the adventure relevant to the players that are wanting to go a different direction. Look to their character background and experiences within the campaign and find things that could hook them into that plot-line. Feed them more information that makes the direction the GM or majority want to go more desirable to the player/characters.

Ideally, this can be done through in-game encounters and information gained as they pursue other goals so that when the big/final decision comes up, the vast majority if not all the players are leaning that direction. However, when these conflicts arise on short notice with little or no gaming between when the discussion starts and when the decision has to be made, that can be a little harder and the GM may have to be a little less subtle about feeding information to the players.

Another option is compromise. Especially when both/all options are valid and viable, maybe the party will do all of them, then it’s just a matter of prioritizing. This is a more viable option when the items are small (say taking only a session or two to resolve) as the party doesn’t get bogged down on a long arc that many aren’t happy about. This way everyone knows that they’ll get to their plot point fairly soon and may make them more willing to go on the other plot arc.

Those are the thoughts that come to mind off the top of my head. Regardless, it’s never fun when the players are at odds with one another and anything that helps resolve or lessen the conflict is going to help make it more enjoyable for all.

Will

One good trick is to have players whose characters are absent contribute to the scene in other ways, like describing minor details or deciding what an NPC should do. This assumes that there are elements of the scene that the GM doesn’t really care about one way or another and can put in the hands of players, and so it works better in games that already feature this sort of mild improv.

—–

I’ve also found it useful to give the PCs very reliable communicators or party-wide telepathy so that they can still talk, plan, and cooperate even when split up. This is practically required in any sort of spy game or stealth scenario. In this way the party isn’t really “split” since they can still interact even if they are far apart.

Tronix

When I run split groups, which I often do, I try to keep everyone on a common goal. One half of the party maybe off in a dungeon and the other in town negotiating, but they are both trying to muster forces to fight the GEKTOM (Greatest Evil Known TO Man). Party unity with the ultimate goal can be maintained this way, and when I combine it with John’s “open-loop” methods, then it feels organic, like when it happens in a movie. Afterall, the holy grail of fantasy, LoTR was basically a split party campaign the whole damn time.

If I had party member completely doing their own ass thing without following the main plot, I would think its time to revaluate the plot. Obviously something isn’t interesting enough for Rob Yooblind the Rogue to tag along with Sir Righteous the Paladin and his Hairy Merry Men. Since I try to run my NPC’s as organic as possible, such “player issurections” can be responded to organically. Afterall, if Sir Righteous wants to attain glory in killing the GEKTOW, and the Rouge just wants moolah, the GEKTOW would be absoultley certain that the rouge would be more than venal enough to be rid of his Paladin “friend”. Then, the rouge would see a golden opportunity shining like a chest of jewels: become a “minion” in the GEKTOW’s regime, steal all kinds of loot, wait till the Paladin distracts the GEKTOW, and stab the sin out of him mid-monologue. Either way, party gets reunited.

Dan Howard

#1: Send a NPC instead of a PC on the mission that would split the party.

#2: Do a two-minute narration instead of playing minute-by-minute through both parts of the party. Resume the game at the point where the split party merges back together. For fun, each separate group rolls a d20: 1 is total disaster and 20 is mind-blowing success.

#3: If you play over IM, use the “whisper” function to run both parts of the party simultaneously and in complete secrecy.

#4: Follow only one group and let the other group shout suggestions out-of-character. Either role-play the other group later or do narration to skip to the place where the party merges back together.

#5: Find some way, via telepathy, smoke signals, radios or whatever, that the parties can communicate and coordinate. Just run the game as normal.

#6:

Rob

I find myself frowning at some of the notions of ‘never split the party’ or introducing mechanics to avoid it.

Let the party be separated if the story leads there. Can’t communicate, can’t see each other, no idea what the others are doing (no metagaming!). Take turns and no one is left out.

Blaise L.

I use two main techniques to handle this issue:
#1 Planning, I leave one group with something to plan (taking a fortress, killing a public figure, etc.)
#2 Impersonnating NPC, I give some NPC to play to the group who isn’t playing, so they can help me. The NPCs may be major or minor, with or without indications how to roleplay them.

David Mortensen

My group never splits.

The few times they did, I let half the party meet a full power planned encounter with the expected fatal results. In one spectacular scene, a PC was spattered all over the landscape while the cleric was in the other group.

Now, whenever someone suggests splitting the group the inevitable reply is “Let’s split up, we can cover more ground that way” and, remembering poor Phred, they stick together.

Spiralbound

While I’m loving the tips shared so far, I’m not sure the current interpretation of the reader’s question is correct. I didn’t read their question as, “what to do when the party is split into different locations”, so much as “what to do when the party members are split on deciding on what locations to go to next”. This is also an interesting question.

My answer to that question would be to head it off before it happens by appointing (or preferably getting the characters to choose) a party leader who when such debates come up, would listen to all suggestions, and then decide the best course of action.

Johnn Four

From Jeremy via email:

Johnn,

The open loop technique is the best one I’ve found for keeping everyone at
the table. I’ve seen two other methods used, sometimes more and sometimes
less effectively.

If the players are the self-motivating sort that realize their GM isn’t
trying to cut them out of valuable game time, then you can use the method
my group has done several times. We physically split the game table up.
People who are not involved in the action go play with the kids, read a
book, knit in the other room, etc. This takes some of the gee I have to
get back to the rest of them pressure off the GM. This is good in some
ways, but it slows down the action and does sometimes take as long if not
longer. The advantages to it, as I have experienced them, is I’m not
trying to balance two, three, four, or five separate sets of circumstances
in my head at one time. Also too, some split party situations are
different. One party is in the midst of throwing down with the local
thieves’ guild because they went looking for a fence in the wrong area.
The other group is merely questioning a bartender about rumors. The
bartender portion is less dramatic, less tension, less interest, and
usually over quickly. The other is the antithesis. This allows more
weight to be given to the dramatic.

Alternatively, if your gaming group is flexible as to times when they can
meet, you can have separate parties meet on separate nights. This takes
the urgency out of the situation, allowing the GM and players to take
their time. NO one is sitting around bored.

The other way I’ve seen split up parties managed is through notes and a GM
trying to run all portions as close to simultaneously as possible. As a
player I personally hate this method, and it seems to slow down the game.
I can’t speak to it as a GM because as a blind GM I can’t read their
notes:(

CBUG

Mr Sugden question seem to imply that the PCs did not actually split but might split because they disagree about where to go or what to do (unless I misinterpret the question.) In that case, just throw something at the group (they should bond against a common threat and forget their previous disagreement.)

However, if they do split, my group often use a simple trick: let the players play the role of NPCs within the split group inshead of waiting for their turn.

Finally, you may ask the idle players to do some work while the other are playing (ex.: check the rulebook for clarification, revising spells, write down a character diary, etc.)

yosef

I’ve actually had a sound system where I could split the party into sound environments and flip back and forth and talk to each party. Put another method I use prior to having that equipment was to make a recording that one party would listen to while I dealt with the other party and in reverse dealing with the other party and letting the other party listened to yet another tape. I also made dream sequences when a player character was unconscious always had a dream sequence for player that got knocked unconscious they would put on their headsets and go on a journey which usually gave of information that help them in a future adventure

Josiah Bradbury

I just had some success last night with a split party, granted they were exploring a complex and the split was mainly a separation of a few rooms. but I added some indirect interaction with the groups.

they all were interacting with the AI of the complex and on group had the AI reboot, and then I switched to another group. played with them a bit and just as they were about to accomplish a goal the AI said ‘Goodbye’ and rebooted.

there were a few more examples but the main idea was that the actions of one group effected everyone but not always instantly.

TL;DR, sometimes having the groups effect each other in unexpected ways can keep everyone on their toes.

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