How To Handle A Split Party In 5 Easy Steps

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on January 7, 2011

It happens in every campaign, one player decides to go off and pursue an agenda or lead that only they understand. The player is totally focused on their objective, nothing else seems to matter. No one else at the table understands it. The DM is at his wits end to contain and control the situation. The other players are slowing losing interest and the entire adventure is about to be waylaid.

If you’ve ever sat at a table where you weren’t the player things were focused on, you know the boredom that soon sets in. The frustration at wanting to move forward, but not being able to due to the indulgence or poor planning of the DM. If you haven’t lived through this eventuality you likely haven’t been playing D&D very long, but don’t worry I’m sure it will happen to you soon enough.

In order to make this eventuality less painful for everyone, here are five steps that provide some straightforward advice on how to handle things if one or more players decide to split the party.

  1. Provide an equal amount of time for each player. Nothing builds resentment towards other players than one player hogging all of the gaming time. While turns in combat will invariably differ in length depending on what options a player selects, the same is not necessarily true outside of combat. Yes, some players will want to do more than others on their turn. Do your best to limit how long each player acts and provide an equal measure of time to everyone.
  2. Keep it interesting for all players. Often the separation occurs because one player wants to pursue a particular objective. This is fine if the separation will only take a few minutes to resolve itself. When the objective requires more time develop plot lines for the remaining players at the table. There is nothing worse than having four players sit around bored while a fifth delves into a plot line that only they are involved with. Make sure you keep everyone involved or you’ll hear about it after the session.
  3. When the party separation occurs incorporate a skill challenge in to raise the stakes. Many DMs running 4e don’t like skill challenges or simply don’t get them. By adding a combat encounter when the party separates you raise the stakes and encourage all players at the table to participate. For more assistance with spontaneous skill challenges chectout Skill Challenges On The Fly.
  4. If combat occurs, keep it small and well contained, but don’t diminish the stakes of defeat. Party separation doesn’t mean “no combat” or “only role-playing situations.” Feel free to include a small combat for one or two of the players. There are two ways to handle combat in these situations and you’ll likely know which way to go based on the scenario. One is to have a combat encounter that has serious repercussions and could result in the death of the character. The other is to allow the player to enjoy the combat and feel really powerful. You’ll know which way to go, so trust your gut and have fun with it. If you are looking for more advice on handling combat this way, see how we Split The Partysuccessfully in our campaign.
  5. Ensure that all avenues of pursuit provide something meaningful for the game. If the party separates so that everyone can go and purchase new gear and one player really wants to role-play it out and negotiate for a better deal, ask yourself one question. What does this add to the game? If the answer is nothing, nip it in the bud and move on. This doesn’t mean don’t entertain the novelty of the idea, just don’t let it distract from the overall adventure. A DM who allows one player to dominate the table for an hour just to purchase new gear is asking for trouble.

Has your party ever split up? How did you handle it? Did one or two players hog the limelight? What other steps would you offer a DM faced with a party that splits up?

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1 froth January 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

i actually have an adventure worked up that kicks off with a riff on yalls skill challenge where the players are getting drugged in a bar. some of the pcs will fail endurance checks while others will realize and be able to escape while their teammates are captured. the captured teammates are taken to town on the outskirts of civilization and forced to compete in arena fighting, while the other pcs try to infiltrate and rescue them. i have it pretty well coordinated and think it will be good. it is kind of like the end of the movie ‘stir crazy’ where some pcs are working on the jailbreak at the rodeo while others are participating in the rodeo

2 Adam A Thompson January 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Great article. That’s some good advice – espically the first item – keeping everyone’s turns about the same length. When we play we generally circle around the table when not in combat to make sure that everyone gets a turn. And when turns are going long, as they often do when one player wanders off alone, we use a three-minute hourglass to keep everyone’s turns a reasonable length. It really helps our group keep having fun even when one player goes on that wild goose chase.

In addition, and this is a matter of DM style, when one of my players wants to roleplay a trip to the shop I’ll try to play the scene out with them. If they’re clearly trying to accomplish something I usually try to steer it towards a one-check skill challnage. As above, try to give the player a chance to do what they’re trying to do but keep it reasonablly short. In the example of a PC trying to negotiate a discount make it a quick single skill check and a small discount if they succeed.

For another encounter that deliberately seperates the party, check out:

3 DarkTouch January 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

Yeah. We had someone recently join our group who really couldn’t wrap his head around this. His character was always going off on his own and even when wih the rest of the group the player required an extra share of the GM’s time. In the end we didn’t try all of those items listed above though we did try a number of them. Finally the GM had to uninvite him from the game.

4 Wimwick January 8, 2011 at 8:57 pm

@ froth
Glad to hear you are using one of the skill challenges we created. Let us know how it works out.

@ Adam A Thompson
I love it when the party splits and everyone gets into a seperate fight. Running it as your group did adds a very high level of excitement to the game in my opinion, creating some truly memorable encounters.

@ DarkTouch
Some times certain players just don’t get it and in those occassions you are usually better off letting the player know that their play style doesn’t fit with the rest of the group.

5 Telfron January 29, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Great article, best advise I can give is to keep everyone involved in doing something when it happens, cause it certainly will happen. Particularly if folks actually role play their characters as they should. we ourselves often go off on our own, and our PC(S) should be no different. The real difference in wether or not this succeeds is in how you and the Dungeon Master handle it.



6 Jenny March 18, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I’ve never run a game, but as a player, my friends and I have learned to spend time where the party splits up to plan what we’re doing next, or have character interactions that we can briefly fill the GM in on. This can be facilitated (and sometimes is) by presenting the next challenge before helping the other half of the party.

7 Magicnation May 23, 2016 at 5:12 am

Not too long ago I actually knew in advance that one of my players intended to search for the man who helped save his life before he joined the party, so in addition to planning out his very personal encounter, I drew up another encounter for the rest of the players- one that was also very personal for our Rogue. While the Fighter went solo in search of the Ranger who taught him to survive on his own, our Rogue, Wizard and Paladin had to rescue the Rogue’s mother from a band of Orcs who were holding her hostage until the family vacated their living space for the Orcs to use. The Rogue isn’t usually a big role-player, but I thought I hooked the group encounter nicely by having his father personally come begging for help.
Both encounters had about the same amount of time for each turn- about five minutes, I would say, and I would cut each off on a relatively dramatic note to maintain interest. Each encounter also had its own separate combat with a very different flavor that was suited directly to each group’s style. All in all, it was fun, dramatic, engaging and relatively easy for me to run.

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