“Let’s split up, gang!”


It is said to be the bane of GM’s everywhere, the words “Let’s split up, gang!”. A GM already has to have at least five ideas in their head at once, so the idea of dividing that into two can lead to a bit of a headache. Or so it is reputed to be. Even though I’m still a Level 1 GM, I have managed to find a way to split the party without going insane and without it being boring for the players (well, most of the time). One must be methodical.

Firstly, let’s look at why there’s so much against this.

No Divide and Conquer

Gnome Stew recently published an article on this very subject. Rather than reply on my own methods in a rather lengthy comment, I thought that i would post it here instead. What they say against splitting the party is rather good:

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!

Both points are valid. In both D&D and Star Wars the party’s combined forces make up a certain average called the Challenge Level (as defined in Star Wars, I can’t recall what it is called in D&D) which the GM uses to determine the difficulty of the encounter. If their numbers are less, either due to a split party or missing players then the encounter may be too challenging for them and it has to be adjusted, changed or even scrapped.

With a party split, you have an additional level of complexity. You have a group of people at the table who are not playing, just sitting there and waiting. And as the gnomes pointed out, this can get boring. To the point where they start metagaming in the way they will yell suggestions across the table. You can’t allow this all the time, but you can handwave it in Star Wars due to comlinks.

So how do you work around this when a situation actually calls (according to your players) for the party to be split? And a crazy thought: is there any reason a GM would actually want this to happen? Like most things with learning how to GM, I stumbled on this by accident.

Setting up Limits

First thing, splitting the party efficiently calls for tighter and quicker gameplay to reduce boredom on the part of the players currently not participating. After proposing the split and the players have defined which sides they wish to go with and moved seats accordingly, I lay down the rules which are slightly different if this is for encounter or for roleplaying.

One more thing: the other “team” are usually free to take a break when it is not their turn, providing they are away from the table and don’t distract those still there. As splitting the party usually happens in the middle of a session rather than the end, this works rather well. The players return to the table more focused when it is their turn and the other team gets the break.

Now, my rules. I strictly limit how much each player or team can do in a turn. If it is for roleplaying like shopping, players are allowed to do five actions before it is someone elses turn. They need to be prompt with these, and if they aren’t their turn is skipped. If it is talking in roleplay, then I’ll have that group until I get to a certain point in the conversation and then switch, rather film like with cutting between scenes. Sometimes this is actually goes on for longer, such as when the other team is late getting back from their break.

If it is for party split during an encounter (which does mean that I running two encounters at once), then the game is tighter still. Each encounter has one round of game play, then it switches over to the other. I thought that I could run it with the five round and then switch, but mid-game found that one round each was much more efficient. For this you would have to forgo breaks, as the next team needs to be ready for their actions when they are called on. This was taken to another level the last game I ran, when a player ran from one encounter to the other (they were only a short distance apart) to save the players who had been captured when the dice rolled against them.

To be honest, I have only tried this in Star Wars Saga which is a faster and tighter (and I could add better) system than Dungeons & Dragons 4E. So I don’t know if it will work or not with another ruleset, but if you remember to keep your head it could. Though the classes in D&D are really so different to each other than from Star Wars, and some of them can’t hold their own without support.

In Brief

So, here are my tips for a party split:

  1. Establish your ground rules for this situation so that this can be done with maximum efficiency and speed
  2. Remind the players of these every time there is a split and stick to them
  3. Vary them slightly to the situation, such as roleplaying versus encounters and give the other players a break if it will work
  4. Don’t go in over your head, if you are not comfortable with two encounters at once, don’t do it and tell the players this.

So, there is no need to panic next time your players want to split. Unless, they all want to go of in their own direction in parties of one.

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~ by katanageldar on July 12, 2010.

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