Never split the party. It’s one of the 4e mantras. Experienced players know that splitting the party often leads to disastrous consequences. D&D is a team game and as such the objectives almost always require a team to accomplish them. But just because the game is designed to be inclusive and keep everyone equally engaged, does that mean that there shouldn’t be opportunities for some players to split from the party and play to their strengths?
Sometimes circumstances will slightly favour one or two characters in the party. The most common example is to use monsters with vulnerabilities to energy attacks that the party has in its repertoire or have monsters attack using an energy types the party has resistance to. This may seem like a little thing but when it’s your character wielding the cold empowered bastard sword against the fire-based, cold vulnerable creatures it feels pretty great to have an advantage no one else in the party has. Likewise when your poison resistance lets you all but ignore the ongoing poison damage and shrug off a good portion of each hit from the poisonous serpents.
These kind of individual heroics are easy for DMs to place into encounters without throwing things out of balance and without excluding anyone (unless of course the entire party has fire resistance except for one poor soul). More importantly it doesn’t take any play-time away from other players. Everyone still gets their full normal turn, but in this kind of circumstance one PC may find that his turn is a little bit more exciting than his companion’s turns.
But what about a circumstance that favours one or two characters outside of combat? In a recent game the PCs were tasked with retrieving a lost magic item. They knew that the thieves had a hideout nearby and that if they acted quickly they could ambush them before they got too far away. The situation was designed for short, multiple combat encounters. However, the sneaky PC in the party (a Changeling Assassin) felt that stealth and subterfuge were a better way to accomplish the objective. He felt confident that he could sneak in and take on the appearance of a bandit. Once disguised he could then move freely about the small base, find the item, retrieve it, and leave without arousing suspicion or engaging the bandits directly.
The party agreed that the plan could work, but they were weary of splitting the party. If the Assassin fail one key check along the way and was discovered he’d face the wrath of all the bands alone. He’d likely be killed before any of the other party members could help him. He agreed this was a possibility but was willing to take the risk.
The group continued discussing the merits of this plan as well as others before finally abandoning it in favour of a combat-heavy assault on the hideout. They didn’t change their minds because they were worried the Assassin’s plan would fail; they changed their minds mainly because they knew that if the Assassin proceeded with the sneaky approach he’d have all the fun while the rest of the players would have to sit idly by and watch. The players abandoned a really good idea because of their out-of-game considerations.
This is not the first time I’ve run into a situation where a single PC has the means to accomplish an important story goal by himself with reasonable chance of success yet was dissuaded by the rest of the players for purely out-of-game reasons. It’s not something I intentionally design in my games but every now and then a player has a flash of brilliance and sees a short-cut to the goal. The challenge becomes where or not to let them try. And the answer – often reached by the player himself – is no.
Players have it so engrained in their mind to never split the party that they believe individual heroics should be abandoned. They’ll still kick around the possibility from time to time but inevitably the notation is almost always shot down (or at least that’s been my experience).
Is this a failing in 4e D&D? The game is designed for party dynamics and balance. There are four roles and parties with all of them represented will stand a better chance of success than parties that don’t. Encounters are designed to challenge five PCs and not one individual. In fact it’s almost impossible for one character to overcome a challenge designed for the entire party. Players know this and as such it hampers their creativity. They feel limited by the balance that 4e relies on to work.
When situations come up in the game where one or two players could potentially accomplish a goal by themselves, at the cost of other players’ participation, should the DM allow and encourage these ideas? Should DMs even go so far as to build these back-doors into encounters knowing that it will give one PC a chance to shine? Or should the DM encourage and enforce the team mentality above all else?
In the example I described above I thought that the Changeling Assassin’s idea of infiltration was brilliant. It wasn’t something I’d anticipated or planned for but I was willing to entertain the idea if he’d decided to go through with it. I realized that the rest of the PCs would be absent, but it was a great idea. It’s unfortunate that players do indeed limit their options when it comes to breaking away from the group.
In your games how often does one PC break away from the party to try something on their own? Does the DM encourage or discourage this behaviour? How do the other players react when someone brings up an idea that requires the party to split up? Have you ever abandoned a plan that required an individual effort because you knew it meant no one else would get to play while you hogged the spotlight?