17 Tips On Handling Split Parties Well — RPT#582
Thanks to the following readers for their advice (I hope I have not overlooked anyone!):
Tom Stephens, Cory M, Curtis Stein, Nareth, Dan Howard, The Mighty Kobold, Andrew Quee, Blair, Blaise L., David Mortensen, Jeremy Brown, CBUG, Yosef, Josiah Bradbury, Istrian, Noah Portance, Kayet Lavate, Hawk, Telas, Will, Tronix, Souliere, Tim, Grant, Rob, Ben, Spiralbound, Mark of the Pixie.
1. Avoid Rewarding Splits
Party splits are great when it’s a fun roleplaying decision, clever GM tactic or bit of gaming efficiency.
However, the lure of exclusive spotlight time and one-on-one time with the GM can tempt players to split just for the attention.
Awareness is your first line of defence here. Note what players split most often. When they split next time, assess whether it was a good decision:
- Good in-character reason – “I am scared beyond reason and run away!”
- To help the party – “I’ll hold ’em off while you pull back the wounded.”
- To speed up gameplay – “Let me do a quick shopping trip for everyone. Give me your lists and I’ll apply my charm on the merchants.
“But if you feel the player just wants to hog the spotlight, put a stop to it:
- Ask – “Hey Bob, the game tends to go faster if everyone sticks together. Is it important that Krog splits off to explore the side corridor on his own?”
- Danger – “It’s trapped. Roll your saving throw. I hope you don’t fail because nobody is around to prevent your body from getting looted if you fall to this sleep gas.”
- Time – “No problem, Bob. To be fair to everyone though, I’m going to give everyone equal spotlight time. So for each minute I GM you, I’ll spend four minutes GMing the main party. Cool?”
2. Leave’em Thinking
An effective place to switch the spotlight between split PCs is after giving the player something to think about.
It could be a cliff-hanger, a puzzle or an interesting choice.
As you referee the other PCs, the player will be kept entertained mulling things over.
A great way to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn.
3. Stay In-Character
When two or more characters are split, ask them to chat in-character.
That’s a good table policy in general. Keep game-speak, out of character chatter and meta talk to a minimum by asking everyone to play in-character.
Offer a roleplaying award at the end of each session, or a party award for staying mostly in-character throughout the game. Perhaps you give a small XP bonus if they make no more than five infractions.
4. Colour Code
When split groups are in separate combats use different coloured pens for taking notes.
This keeps things visually distinct, so it’s easy to track the different fights.
5. Get Some Henchmen
If split PCs are heading off to different locations, it might be worth each sub-party hiring a few extra bodies. Let the players of the other party play these NPCs for you to keep them entertained.
This can grow into running a two party game, which can create interesting issues when they do get back together.
It also lets you kill-off (N)PCs without discouraging the players as much.
6. Keep A Quest List
To help your players prioritize choices and avoid potential splits, maintain a simple to do list.
Sometimes reaching consensus is just knowing your choice will be dealt with next. This makes players happy to go along with someone else’s choice first.
Make sure this list is visible so it’s top-of-mind and easy to review. A white board works great. So does a sheet of paper with priorities listed in big letters – pin it to the outside of your GM screen.
7. Use A Party Leader
Move out-of-character tension to in-character tension.
The leader of the party says “We do this” and everyone has to go along with it.
This requires player maturity and prior agreement on this type of party structure, lest players make their personal unhappiness character unhappiness.
That said, a fellow adventurer grumbling about the leader making the wrong choice can be fun to play. It can lead to interesting interpersonal roleplaying when it comes to a head.
8. Create A Common Goal
Another option, which is harder on you, is to go the “we will work together… for now” route.
The PCs might 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 for different reasons.
For example, one PC wants to take down a drug lord for a chance to gain territory, another PC just wants revenge, and third character plans to steal the drugs and money.
Even though the goals are different (territory, revenge, profit), the means is the same (take out the drug lord).
9. Stay Parallel
Keep split groups in the same kind of scene: combat, conversation, admin, exploration.
This will help you keep a similar pace across the whole table.
It also makes it possible to synchronize actions.
For example, in a multiple combat scene, run all the initiatives on a single ladder, as if it were a single fight. In roleplaying scenes, you can carry the conversation along a few minutes, reach a cliffhanger, and then do the same for the other sub-group.
10. Make It One Adventure
Try to make each sub-group’s actions have an effect on the other.
Bonus points if you can do this without your players realizing it.
For example, one side makes noises the other side hears but can’t yet identify.
Ultimate bastard GM points if you trick PCs into attacking each other.
“Ok, I listen hard. What do the sounds seem to be?” [rolls poorly]
“The echoes seem to be distorting things too much. But it sounds like weapons being drawn….”
“Oh boy! Fireball coming online. Stand back, this thing’s gonna blow!” [rolls well]
You return to the other players who are waiting patiently in your kitchen.
“You run towards the light. Suddenly a massive furnace of fire scorches the air all around you. Make your savings throws….”
Oh yeah, that thing is gonna blow alright.
Noah Portance phrased it well: “My rule of thumb basically boils down to there are two parties…but it’s still one adventure.”
11. Switch Play To Between Sessions
If a PC goes off solo and it’s going to be a long, drawn out affair, take things offline.
Ask the player to fill in as an NPC or roll up a henchman or sidekick character.
Then work out the PC’s actions after the session. Use email, phone, one-on-one session, virtual tabletop – whatever works easiest.
Keep careful track of game time to avoid synching issues with the main group.
This approach might also deter splits. Sure, the player gets the GM all to himself, but the dynamic is different and maybe poorer (i.e., email is slow and brief) and he doesn’t get to play his cool PC with the others.
12. Lethal Objection
Andrew Quee offers this advice:
“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.
“We even refer to this as Rule of Gaming #1.
“While this can lead to some Joel Rosenberg/1E D&D-style old school play, we’ve found it simpler and less troublesome to never let it happen, GM plots and 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.
“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.”
13. Turn It Into A Game
If each side is doing something that should take the same rough amount of session time, bring out your chess clock.
Give the fastest side a reward when their actions or encounter concludes.
Use a real chess clock or a virtual one. A little competition will speed up gameplay and make players more efficient.
14. Throw Them A Bone
To reduce the number of splits, use your GM plot powers to motivate unity.
Find ways to make the current part of the adventure relevant to the players 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 plotline.
Feed them more information that makes the direction you or the majority want to go more desirable to the dissenting players/characters.
Do this through in-game encounters and information gained as the PCs pursue other goals, so when the big final decision comes up, the players are all leaning that direction.
When these conflicts arise abruptly, however, you might need to be less subtle about feeding unifying information to players.
15. Enable Communication
Give PCs the ability to talk with each other at a distance.
This way, if the party splits, players can stay involved and pitch in with ideas, roleplaying and advice.
This also eases the problem of in-character knowledge versus out-of-character knowledge created from everybody sitting around the game table listening in.
In fantasy games, use magic or psionics. In one game I gave each PC a magic ring and a cool backstory to go with it that allows the PCs to communicate.
In other genres, you’ll probably have tech to help you out.
In any genre, line of site lets signals pass between groups.
16. Send An NPC Instead
When a PC considers going off to accomplish a mundane, simple or non-risky task, send an NPC.
Have one volunteer if the players don’t come up with the idea themselves.
This is a good reason to keep henchmen and sidekicks around.
Lately, I’ve gotten out of the habit of having NPCs accompany the party. But that’s because my last campaign was urban, so lots of NPCs around.
I even created a messenger guild to help ease travelling and logistics. PCs could pay a silver to deliver a note or meeting request to NPCs. They could pay a gold for a guarantee the note would stay private. 😉
17. Tell A Story
Narrate what happens with the split PCs and get them back together again fast.
You can use a few dice rolls to decide things at a more abstract level, if you like.
In your narration, though, try to make a story of it. What’s the situation? What is the risk or conflict? How does it turn out?
You might also ask a player to do the narration. Give them a rough guide of how things turned out (perhaps via whisper so the other players remain in suspense) and have them make up the details.
Brief Word From Johnn
This week’s issue is a bit late because of the Gamer Lifestyle re-launch I’m currently doing.
If you’ve ever wanted to publish your RPG work and get it into the hands of happy gamers, this is the perfect time.
I’m running an early bird discount for reasons outlined on this info page:
Anywho, today’s tips are inspired by a recent tip request about how to handle split parties.
Lots of readers chimed in here: Reader Tip Request: How do you handle split parties?
As an experiment, I’ve summarized the comments into an article, thinking it might be faster and easier for you to glean all the great advice from your fellow RPT GMs.
Let me know if you liked this approach, or if you prefer just reading the raw comments on the blog and leaving things at that. Either way is ok with me!