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.
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.
Once we decided to split up the DM laid down these two ground rules.
- If your character is not in the scene you cannot participate.
- 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.
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.
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.