Individuality vs. Group Dynamics

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 15, 2012

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?

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1 Saxon February 15, 2012 at 10:56 am

We have a player in our group who will just take it upon himself to split off from the group and make the rest of us choose whether to follow after or leave him be. The DM is trying to make everyone happy and lets the wayward player have his fun but I feel like it’s at the expense of the rest of us, seeing as how we have to choose whether to follow him or to continue doing what we were doing and risk missing out on a fun encounter. The DM is loathe to kill anyone off, so I feel like the party-splitting risk isn’t there.

I turned it into a big deal when it happened last week, as there was something my character would really want to do in the opposite direction of where the rogue snuck off to without informing the rest of us. Half the party went with me and the remaining two, upon noticing the rogue went missing, went off in search of him. That lead to a three-way split for about a half an hour, resulting in him angering a large mob of baddies, then retreating until he found the rescue party. This started a battle that the other half of the party who was in the extra room was very late in showing up for. The DM made us go around the table in initiative order, but while the others were fighting we were poking around in trash since we didn’t know any better. :-/

When we confronted the rogue (in person), he accused us of wasting time in the extra room while he was making progress. I really want to try and see it from his point of view, but my own frustration at having to choose between what’s best for my character and what’s fun for me personally keeps getting in the way. I partially feel like it’s the DM’s fault for making splitting the party so rewarding, but I know he wants to make the game fun for that player, too.

2 Thorynn February 15, 2012 at 11:41 am

Splitting the party is generally a bad idea, but in the instance you provide, and several I have witnessed, its up to the party to play to their strengths and support a really cool plan. Thief wants to sneak in and infiltrate? Cool. Have the cleric with really high perception serve as look out. Have the fighter cause a distraction out front to give the thief a bonus to get in. Have the wizard back up the fighter, or come up with a way for the thief to signal the rest of the party if he is in trouble. That way everyone can be engaged, but the thief still gets to do his thing.

3 Saxon February 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Also I should say that I’m not opposed to splitting the party so long as it’s agreed upon by the group and its handled quickly. If I drove an hour out to play a game somewhere I don’t want to sit and wait for the assassin to infiltrate a dungeon by himself. On the other hand, if the party is willing (and everybody gets their fair turn in the spotlight at some point), it can be really creative and fun.

In the event the party is split, how does everyone handle it? Do you take turns? Or do you let the whole bit of action play out for each group before moving on to the next group? Does the cleric on guard duty get a turn for every turn the assassin sneaks around?

4 Steve February 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm

As a player or DM, my opinion on separating the party varies with the situation. In general, I am comfortable with the split if the party is involved in a narrative part of the game. I prefer not to split if we are in an environment likely to lead to combat.

In general, I would prefer not to divide the party during a dungeon crawl(or similar)unless it serves some plot purpose like capturing one part of the group to incentivize the other part. In this case, I would plan the challenges for the splintered group accordingly. Overall, I don’t like a split in this part of the game because combat does take time and focus to run. I don’t want to be a bored player and when DMing, I don’t want to leave people out for an extended period of time.

During the narrative part of the game, I don’t really have a.problem with splitting the group. It makes.sense to me that a party would divide up tasks in a town according to their individual skill sets, do them on their own, and just meet up with each other after the work is done. As a DM, I try to make sure each of the individual interactions is entertaining for the people who aren’t participating. Also, if any one interaction is going to take longer than 5-10 minutes, I make an effort to ensure I am moving the spotlight around the table.

All in all, I am in favor of splitting the party during narrative because it gives each player a.chance to.shine and develop their PCs personality all on their own. This is especially useful if you have some players with a.strong story/problem solving focus, as I have found it makes this player more likely to focus when combat comes up since they have already had their part of the spotlight.

In combat environments, I don’t like it because the party is a team after all. I want to reenforce that the world is dangerous and that they need to cooperate to survive. Also, it’s an adminiatrative headache as a DM to have to juggle combat and non-combat at the same time. I can do it, I just don’t want to do it.

5 Ameron (Derek Myers) February 15, 2012 at 3:07 pm

On those very few occasions when the party splits up I have the players whose characters are not present help me by running the monsters. It’s a good way to keep all the players involved. It also lets the players fight each other and it makes for very interesting combat. The risk is that people want to play their own character. If they drove an hour to get there and end up playing a monster, there could be a real sense that the session was a waste of their time. When I’ve had the chance to play monsters for the DM while my character isn’t front and centre I’ve really enjoyed it. But I know all players will see this situation differently.

6 Alton February 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Splitting the party is not a good idea in 4th edition. 3.5 edition was acceptable.

I find that 3.5 was designed to play individually or cooperatively, no one role was needed to complement the other.

4th edition is an extremely cooperative game. It is harder to play when you are missing one of the roles, but I do understand one can make do.


3.5 – CR9 black dragon (152hp) vs 10th level fighter (126hp). Black dragon average damage during full round of attacks assuming all hit (approx 42hp) and the fighter during a full round of attacks assuming all hit( approx 36 hp and up) Close fight if you ask me.

4th – 4th level solo back dragon (208hp) 10th level fighter (88hp). Black dragon average damage assuming all hit (23hp/round), 10th level fighter average damage assuming all hit (36hp/round). Still a tought fight for only one character. The monsters were created assuming 5 players, 5x damage per round)

This signifies cooperative. I am not bashing one edition or the other, just using examples to illustrate the differences.

So in my opinion separating the party is a no-no in 4th edition.

7 Philo Pharynx February 15, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Sometimes not splitting the party is very metagamey. In some games it’s like the whole group is connected at the hip. Yes it means some people don’t get to play for the whole game. As long as everybody gets some spotlight, then that’s not a problem.

This is one of the arguments we have for having computers at the gaming table. Our rule is that if you’re in a scene, don’t let the computer distract you. But if you aren’t involved, it gives you a way to not just sit around if you aren’t in all of the scenes.

8 Rwaluchow February 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I think it is very much dependant on the DM and the players sitting around the table. It happens periodically at my table, but everyone tends to have a good time of it. My players tend to really work together and be fully involved with each other’s actions. When the rogue splits off to do some sneaking, the other players at the table are fully engaged and feeding him advice. Although their characters aren’t there, I allow it (I’d rather have everyone involved and interested in the outcome).

As long as its not used as a forum for a player to hog the spotlight, and the DM is cognizant of the other players, I think it’s a great thing. It allows the characters to interact with the game world in a more natural way, not just the encounter grind that 4e games can easily become.

In one of my games a player slipped away from a RP-heavy dinner party to do some snooping around the local temple. He stumbled into a conspiracy of Asmodeus cultists. He was charmed by a succubus and captured. When the rest of the party came to find out what happened, they did battle with the cult. While this melee was going on, the captured PC managed an escape and joined the fray. All-in-all it made for one memorable adventure:

9 Camelot February 15, 2012 at 10:38 pm

If the group is not splitting up because they think they would be bored, then something is wrong. My group splits up all the time; sometimes only one PC is suited for the situation (like your assassin scenario), sometimes they have a long agenda and are splitting up to get things done faster. Usually, both groups will have something to do, so we switch back and forth until they meet back up. When the focus is on one character, though, nobody is bored because the game is as fun to watch as it is to play, and they can made comments (usually snide) or jokes to stay involved.

If players are bored when this happens, then it could be one of two things (that I can think of). One, maybe the DM isn’t making the game as fun as it could be, and the players are picking up on that and becoming bored unless they have a way of making the fun themselves. The DM should try to let the other players have more input, especially to help out with any improvisation, or just make things funnier and more entertaining. Two, maybe you have some players who make themselves bored unless they can be the spotlight. They’ll likely make sure that the DM can visibly tell that they aren’t having fun, like slouching, stacking dice, or just pouting. There’s nothing really a DM can do about them, without a talking-to.

10 Dave February 16, 2012 at 9:58 am

In my experience as both a player and GM it seems that the best way of handling a split party is having a GM who focuses on keeping everyone involved and can handle the mental gymnastics of doing this.

My usual approach as a GM is to handle it like one of those scenes in a movie that’s constantly switching back and forth between characters in different locations. Ideally, scene-switches are made frequently. I try to switch scenes right when something exciting is about to happen for three important reasons:
1) Enhanced dramatic tension.
2) When coming back to a scene, it’s easier to remember what was happening if something exciting was about to happen.
3) Players tend to play faster when they’re interested to find out what’s about to happen to their friends.

11 Sunyaku February 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I do think this is an issue for 4e DnD, but I’m not sure how to fix it. When the battlemaps come out, the DM allows the players to look through an “orb of reality” into this one place in time where their characters engage a challenge. In implementation, I don’t know how a DM could manage splitting the party without also simultaneously managing several of these “orbs of reality”.

There are some scenes where I think it could work though… for example, PCs trying to stealthily trying to invade a keep and assassinate someone. In this scenario, a couple noisy PCs could try to sneak in with some cargo, a couple stealthy PCs could take out the gate guards and let others in, etc. etc. I’d give the different groups their own “areas” of the map with dungeon tiles to keep everything separate. It can be tough, but I think there are situations where it is manageable.

12 Lilly February 19, 2012 at 3:09 am

I’ve only DMed a 4e game for a short time (about 3 sessions), but I have played it practically since it came out. The game really does seem balanced around the group; however, 4e is balanced around a small group. When the DM is faced with upwards of 10 PCs, splitting the group becomes a necessity to keep the game rolling. Battles or snooping takes a VERY long time when we all stay together. On any given night, our DM plans about 3-5 things to happen in one location. This gives our party a chance to break off into “specialty groups”, engage in a situation or two, and then reconvene to trade information before we all head off to fight the “end boss.” Even in a dungeon crawl, he plans for everyone, and sometimes we split in the dungeons (by force or by the players).

It really all depends on the size of the groups. If you have a “normal” sized group, 4e will generally punish your players for splitting up. If you have a group larger than six, you will find running parallel “dungeons” far more effective, fun and engaging.

13 Tom Mueller February 20, 2012 at 12:28 am

No matter the edition, PCs going off on their own is dangerous in D&D. But if the story isn’t likely to involve combat, then splitting up is matter of DM skill and player patience. I’ve had PCs split up to conduct investigations in a town (Scales Of War AP), find different quality inns for a night, research rituals, and negotiate with NPCs, in addition to scouting. And sometimes a lone PC will end up in a fight – and those scenes are quite exciting, not just for the endangered PC but the others sitting around observing. 🙂

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