Split the Party

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 19, 2009

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t split the party. Sure, it might make sense based on the situation the PCs are in, but it’s a nightmare to play it out. What usually ends up happening is that half the people at the table can’t do anything but watch while their companions go left and they go right. It’s extremely difficult to keep the people not in the “active” group focused since PCs not in the scene can’t offer suggestions or actively participate. When I’m the DM, I do everything I can to discourage splitting up.

But an interesting thing happened this weekend during my Sunday night game. We split up and it worked spectacularly. My hat is off to Suddry, that evening’s DM, for taking a usually disastrous situation and making it one of the most memorable nights of D&D we’ve had in a long time. Here’s how it played out and what we learned from it.

Setup

The four PCs were facing a difficult skill challenge. We needed information and had very little idea of how to find clues. Keeping in character, we started kicking around ideas. Most of them had real merit. But the ideas were very much tailored to fit the PC who came up with each idea, and no one’s idea was suitable for the entire group. After some debate we decided to explore our own angle for gathering information individually.

We all knew which characters were good at which skills. Usually this kind of skill challenge has the talkers doing most of the work and the muscle doing a lot of assisting. This routine was getting boring. The DM knew this better than the players so he did something about it. He encouraged the players to be creative.

Rather than spoon feed us, the DM left things very wide-open. He gave us the broad strokes and it was up to us to determine a course of action. This wasn’t the usual situation where the entire party is ushered into an audience chamber and suddenly the encounter begins. We had time to plan. It allowed each character to play to his strengths. And the best way for that to happen was to split up.

Embrace Individuality

Once we decided to split up the DM laid down these two ground rules.

  1. If your character is not in the scene you cannot participate.
  2. Everyone gets to pursue one avenue of investigation and then we move on.

Then the DM went around the table asking each of us what we wanted to do, how long we needed to do it, and what skills we felt were most appropriate.

Playing To Your Strengths

Like most skill challenges, we each came up with ideas that played to our best skills and we had little trouble making the rolls to earn successes. In most cases the roll was even easier because the PC was alone. The Rogue was able to infiltrate the seedy underbelly of the town successfully since he wasn’t seen in the Paladin’s company. The Paladin was able to mingle with the upper echelons of society without having to apologize for his gruffly and extremely uncouth friend, the Fighter.

Pacing

The reason that splitting up worked so well in this situation was the pacing. Each player got a couple of minutes to briefly play out their scenario. At the end of their turn they attempted to earn a single success. After the roll was made and a success or failure occurred the scene would shift to the next player. In many cases this left the PC who just acted in a mini-cliff hanger.

Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen next. And this engagement by the other players in a storyline that didn’t involve them directly helped keep them focused. Everyone wanted their story to be the most exciting so everyone dug deep and flexed their creativity, while still keeping in character. The result was great role playing, great pacing and a very fun skill challenge.

Chronology

Since each PC was acting alone, it was important to determine how much time had passed between stories. In one case the PC needed a week to adopt a trustworthy persona, make friends and gather key pieces of information to earn success. In another case, kicking a few butts and intimidating a few thugs revealed success in the course of one evening.

Successes and Failures

Even though most of the PCs uncovered the same information as the previous player, each individual success counted towards the overall success of the skill challenge. Since each approach was different and almost always used different skills, each piece of new information counted towards overall success.

Bringing It Back Together

After each PC had a few turns at earning a few successes in the overall skill challenge the DM was quick to rein us is. As I mentioned at the outset, splitting up can be disastrous. Our DM knew that the time for acting as individuals was done with and it was time to bring the PCs back together as a party.

This ended up being one of those rare occurrences when splitting up worked. How often do characters split up in your campaign? How is it handled? When has it worked? When has it failed? Please share your experiences as a DM or a player.

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 skallawag March 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I think the worst gaming session I ever had was when the DM put me in a cage at the beginning of the night and the point of the whole evening was to rescue me. I was sitting around doing nothing and I don’t think I came to a few sessions after that.

I would condone splitting the party at all costs as it never ends up with a good result in the end.

2 Ameron March 19, 2009 at 4:55 pm

@skallawag
I remember how poorly that game turned out. It was the last time I toyed with the idea of letting the party split up. Which is why I was so impressed when splitting up worked so well in the example above. Splitting up works so rarely that I’d rather not encourage it then take the risk that it might work. My apologies skallawag, that adventure idea blew up in my face and taught me a valuable lesson as a DM.

3 Rook March 19, 2009 at 9:28 pm

I’ve been fortunate in that my groups are usually very weary of splitting up. I think they’re scared of what I’ll throw at them while they’re fewer in numbers. In the few times they have, I’ve made it a point to flip back and forth between groups as often as possible so that no one is out of the action for too long. This is particularly important with young players with short attention spans.

For sure, it is important to leave each group with a “mini-cliffhanger” as you called it (I like that term), usually a decision to make or a “surprise” development for them to chew on. So yes, while splitting up isn’t desirable, it is doable with the right approach.

4 skallawag March 19, 2009 at 10:44 pm

It’s actually pretty amusing that you have this blog post right before the release of Player’s Handbook 2. Just looking again at the slogan of Dungeon and Dragons of “Never Split the Party,” I couldn’t help but chuckle. They even have it built into the URL http://www.wizards.com/dnd/neversplittheparty/index.asp

5 Ameron March 20, 2009 at 7:06 am

@Rook
Pitting an encounter designed for the full party against a smaller group that’s opted to split up is nasty. I love it.

I think you’ve come to the same conclusion as my group: if you’re going to split up then both groups need equal play time and the focus should shift back and forth frequently until they meet up again. Thanks for your feedback.

@skallawag
Titling this article “Split the Party” was no accident. I found it an amusing coincidence that I’d have this positive experience about splitting the party so close to the release of the PHB2 given their slogan “Never Split the Party.”

6 Hayden July 27, 2010 at 6:02 am

Wow, i’m shocked! In my eyes, splitting up has always been a GOOD thing. I can hardly remember a gaming session where it did not occur. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate by having a good DM, but man, I feel that some of the most interesting events can happen when splitting up.

For instance, I played a fighter in a campaign where we were sent into the Medical Springs Sanitarium which was currently haunted and being used as the site for the Devil’s summoning. (the old owner’s obliviously sat at the front desk thinking that it was being “remodeled”)

Anyways, the place was really creepy, and as we were walking along a carpeted hallway, the carpet entangled me and sucked me underneath to a lower floor. I faced an evil girl at the end of the hall who had her back to me, and my god, my fighter has never been such a wuss in the entire campaign! I had to find my way back to the party, meanwhile they faced threats of their own.

I think it may be because in all of my games, fear is a factor. I’ve adopted my uncle’s (my previous DM) technique of using fear and separation to help with the pacing issues of splitting up. Also, cliff hangers within the game can be created while split up. One player decides to split up and find a girl he saw earlier. While he’s away the town bell rings and the rest of the party sees the girl, while the split up player was just told that he sees a familiar looking lady with her back turned to him and he just instructed me that he spins her around and kisses her. Oops.

I can see where splitting up could become problematic, but if it’s done right I think it is actually beneficial and rewarding. I mean, its like combat. Players are sitting waiting for there turn, right? Thats how I treat split-ups, as combat instances. As long as there’s the excitement of battle, or the excitement of SOMETHING for all the players to watch or enjoy, they won’t notice the absence in waiting. Trust me!!!

7 Chaosmancer August 15, 2011 at 1:52 am

We’ve had nothing but trouble with splitting so far. Actually the first time it happened was by accident, the guy playing the warlord was quite obnoxious (in character I’m hoping but he got worse and worse as the game went on) and let spill some secret information. So our Ranger tied him to the back of one of caravan beasts (we’re in dark sun so I think it was a melacott). Anyways we forgot him when we headed inside to avoid a sandstorm. When we realized my character (Genasi Sorcerer) rushed outside to save him, just in time to see him taken away by some evil presence. With no way to track him our DM convinced us (not very hard for most people) to leave him behind though I was actually suspected of murdering him.

Later there was a gathering of ominous magic energy and we knew out of character (and suspected in character due to a running gag) that that was were he was. The party ended up splitting a second time when our ranger and rogue refused to leave the caravan we were protecting to investigate so me, the warden and barbarian left and promptly got mauled by some undead creatures.

Actually thinking on it, I doubt we had the whole party together since that day, with either me dead or someone else missing. Maybe that’s why we always seemed to be on the edge of a TPK

8 Rooth May 17, 2013 at 10:22 am

Although it was a different system, we had a party split in our last gaming session. Our party was rallying defenses in a town that had been sacked a couple of years back, and was about to be again. The bad guys — who were carrying plague — had the town surrounded, and were waiting for something, but we didn’t know what. A contingent of our reinforcements was spotted on a remote hillside, and had sampled the bad guy’s forces with a hit-and-run, but they didn’t know about the plague. My character (the stealthy healer) had to go out and warn them about the plague using stealth to get through the enemy lines, and do a little recon along the way.

The way the GM handled it was to have me show up to the next gaming session early. He ran my character through the the RP of exfiltration, recon, and rendezvous before the rest of the party arrived. The rest of the party had to deal with a wave of bad guys testing the defenses of the town. The GM had me run the bad guys, but knowing the PCs would just slaughter them, he gave me my own bad guy goal: to infect the wells and food stores with plague.

We all had a pretty good time, and though I did get more face-time with the GM, it wasn’t an imposition on the other players since it was handled out-of-schedule, and I didn’t get any extra in-game bonus for it, so it worked out very fair and fun in the end.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: