Running Parallel Groups in the Same Campaign

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0788

RPT reader Scotty B. asked me for tips on how to run two parties in the same campaign. He wants two different groups of PCs to be in the same game world at the same time to set up an epic good & evil plot.

With his permission, I’ve provided you with his campaign premise. And then I provide some advice based on a couple campaigns like this I’ve been involved with.

I am currently running a campaign that I’m enjoying very much. The villain (put together using your NPC Essentials) believes his purpose in life is to guide the PCs to their place in destiny. Once the PCs are the heroes they are to become, a new age will dawn on the realms.

He believes this so much he killed his parents and became a lich (courtesy of the dark powers that have been whispering in his ears all his life). He has then intervened in each of the characters’ backstory, helped in a situation, infused an item with magical powers, checked on the child in the orphanage, etc.

Currently, he is masquerading as a young prince whose parents have been killed. The PCs have been hired to transport him to his home kingdom to take the leadership. While the party is travelling, the players are falling in love with the young boy, teaching him to be a man, fighter, and good person. They have also been very protective of him.

At night, characters have been getting nightmares all ending with the promise of power, protection, or whatever a PC needs for motivation if they’ll join the mysterious entity of their dreams.

The boy will reveal himself to be a powerful lich in a battle where some other villains want to “kidnap” the boy in a grand surprise. The lich will ask the PCs to join him and receive the promises of their dreams. He’ll explain that he has been watching out for them and his purpose is to cause them to fulfill their destiny. Some of the PCs (as it seems now) might actually join the lich, while others will vow to fight against them.

This is setting up for what I call my dual campaign. Each of the players will have two characters: “good” and “evil”. One group will be trying to stop the lich’s plans, while the other group is used to help other plans. In this way, the groups serve as reoccurring characters, and possibly, rivals. The two parties will not usually meet, as there are different story paths for both groups.

The end game is a moral choice for the good party. The lich, because of the whisperings of the dark powers, has built a powerful machine he believes will bring in a new age for the realms. This machine has been powered by the blood of many murdered people. When it is activated thousands more will die.

What he doesn’t know is the park powers (Ravenloft mists) have been lying to him. If he turns the machine on, thousands will die, but he’ll be imprisoned on the Domain of Dread, and away from the Prime Material plane. The good PCs will learn of the trade-off. They will have the choice of allowing it to happen so the lich is imprisoned in a different plane but allow many to die, or stop the machine and keep the lich as a villain still in this world.

What I was looking for was any feedback on the dual campaign, or running two parties in the same campaign. I have done it successfully twice before, but I am always looking to improve my game mastering. Thanks for what you do. Of course, any feedback on the whole premise is also welcome.

This is a cool campaign premise, Scotty. I like the twists and turns you’ve got running through the plot.

Your situation is a bit different than my experience. I’ve been involved in campaigns where the two groups of PCs in the shared world and timeline are run by two different groups of players. Your setup has both PC parties run by the same players. So there are some nuances here, which I’ll get into.

But first, three general tips for parallel group campaigns.

Create A Geo-Buffer

Put one party on one side of the world and put the second group of PCs on the other.

You want to avoid the PCs meeting each other except in special, planned awesome events.

When PCs meet, you’ll need both groups of players present. That’s a lot of cats to herd during a session.

You also want the meeting to be special. A huge event both in the game and in real life. Perhaps make it a social occasion like a BBQ or party, and then grab people as you need them to sit down at the game table. Meanwhile, everyone else can chat, play games, hang out.

So ensure both PC parties are separated by distance to avoid unnecessary and unexpected meetings. Give them enough territory each to explore the world and walk your plot without bumping into the others.

Create A Time Buffer

You probably want the actions of one group to affect the other. This creates a compelling dynamic of living forces in the campaign.

Whether the parties are collaborating or in opposition, the consequences of their actions could affect the others.

This is awesome when pulled off well. Especially when you show and don’t tell. Group A does something that sends ripple effects over to Group B. Group B experiences those effects but doesn’t know for sure the root cause. You don’t tell them Group A is making their life miserable. They have to figure that out on their own. And you don’t reveal to Group A how Group B foiled their plans.

However, just as you want a geo-buffer to keep the groups fro stepping on each other’s toes and creating logistical nightmares for you, you want to buffer your timeline and response times as well.

If action-reaction happens too fast, then Group A will quickly get too far ahead and trigger necessity for Group B’s response. You either have to end sessions early, fudge it, or stall. Not good.

However, if one group lags too far behind, then it forces the other group to slow down. Same GMing trap.

So consider three time buffers here.

First is create a delay in communication between parties. Whether the groups can communicate directly or just experience each other’s ripples, ensure there’s a good delay you can speed up or slow down.

For example, the parties might have messengers or spies. You control response time here so you can speed up or slow down information to align with the current pace of play.

You might also have to remove certain spells and other means for players to communicate directly or fast so you can manage the buffer better.

Second time buffer is plot pacing. You control the speed of cause-and-effect of PCs actions. You also control NPCs and how fast they react. You also have great influence how fast PCs progress through the Core Story encounters.

In this way, you can keep both parties roughly in synch during sessions so one group does not get too far ahead in the timeline.

Third time buffer is session flexibility. Despite your best efforts, the group might drift apart in the timeline. This makes it too hard to maintain plot integrity. Logic bombs and railroading lie in wait.

Work out in advance with each group how you want to handle this. One option is to running the laggard group in consecutive sessions until you restore timeline parity. (And if one group seems to always play slower, you might want to run them ahead a bit on the timeline.) This option means the faster party misses a session or two here and there.

Another option is to run make-up sessions outside the normal schedule. This means fewer interruptions on the faster group, but more time commitment from the slow party.

A third option is to make sessions episodic. You control downtime and next session’s setup, giving you some plot compartmentalization maximum timeline control.

Create A Comms Line

You want the groups to communicate with each other.

This helps you keep the parties in synch as the players help each other along or keep each other in check.

It also makes the game a lot more fun for the players. Whether it’s trash talk, sharing information, or collaborating over puzzles, they’ll love the interaction and roleplay.

Dreams make a great comms device. Perhaps you allow each group to send the other one dream per session. You edit and describe the dreams as you see fit. This lets the groups communicate but not at a rate so fast or with such fidelity that it foils your buffers and pacing.

For example, you might let each group trade five images each session. Gather up image links and send them along for study and speculation.

Make Each PC Awesome

With the same players running both good and evil PCs in your campaign, Scotty, I worry about players favouring one of their PCs over the other.

Avoid this by working closely with each player on both PCs to make both characters a ton of fun to play.

  • Get clarity on goals and rewards
  • Help create compelling personalities to roleplay
  • Ensure both PCs have vital roles in their parties
  • Ensure both PCs fit in well with their parties

And talk to each player often about their PCs. Take corrective action if a player starts disliking one of their characters. Because you will be making them switch characters as you GM each group, and it will feel oppressive to be forced to play a character you aren’t excited about.

Stay Organized

If I were running a shared-world or dual campaign today, I’d use Campaign Logger to make logistics a lot easier.

Each session I’d be sure to datestamp log entries of character actions and campaign events with the Calendar tag.

I’d make a separate Campaign Log for each group so I could keep their timelines and game details localised for easier reference.

Then I’d make a third Campaign Log just as a combined timeline reference. After each session for both groups, I’d export the Calendar-tagged log entries and import into my unified timeline.

This would give me an instant and valuable shared-world calendar. I could see what’s coming up for the group that’s slightly behind in the timeline. And I could easily reference the historical gameplay timeline, all sorted chronologically, to mine for ideas, encounters, and plot guidance.

Watch for Scripting

I love your plot. It’s got a great villain, a setup generated through gameplay (you’ve shown, not told), and some good storytelling devices via dreams and NPC relationships.

I’ve highlighted two places in yellow. These are future pivotal moments in your campaign. I worry you might be imposing the choice on the players or have not factored in different possibilities. This runs the risk of scripting. For minor situations, scripting is ok. But for pivotal moments, I always want to be careful I’m not creating a GM trap for myself or forcing the plot onto the players.

(It could be you have thought of alternatives but omitted them to keep your email to me as short as possible, so apologies in advance if that’s the case.)

In the first section I’ve highlighted, I’m wondering what will happen if a PC choose neither to join the lich or vow to fight him. How will you handle the third choice or apathy?

In the second section highlighted, the climactic dilemma, you’ll have to protect the machine.  That makes your plot a bit more brittle. You have to hide or guard the machine so the PCs can’t whack it or fix it somehow prior to the dilemma moment.

Dilemmas are best created from the result of prior PC actions. Here you’ve scripted it in advance. So I just wanted to flag that out for consideration.

Those are my thoughts, Scotty. Thanks for the question and for sharing your campaign premise. You mentioned running two successful dual campaigns before. That’s more than me. So if you have any spare time, maybe you could send me your tips based on your experiences!