Experience teaches player to never split the party. However, there are times when it doesn’t make sense for the party to remain together. This might be because there are many tasks to complete in a limited amount of time or it might be because some party members have skills or powers that make them uniquely qualified to handle a task alone. Yet when presented with any opportunity to split the party, no matter how logical it might seem to do so, a lot of players insist on staying together. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that is not founded in any rational assessment of the situation. It’s an instinctual response based on a previous disaster and a slogan ingrained into them by the Wizards marketing department. Players need to take a deep breath and repeat after me: Sometimes it’s a good idea to split the party.
My gaming group has actually had a lot of success when splitting the party. It’s not something we do very often, but we are certainly open to the possibility when it makes sense. Most often when we split up each group or individual ends up with their own mini skill challenge, but every so often the DM has something else in mind and combat occurs while the party is separated from each other. We’ve found that there are ways to make combat with a split party work. It’s definitely challenging, but our approach to these situations are always fun and rarely result in anyone being left out while their character is off screen.
Splitting into two groups
I’ve playing in many adventures when it’s made sense for the party to split into two groups. The intent is to complete objectives that have minimal likelihood of leading to combat. After all, the main reason PCs don’t want to split the party is because they know combat is more difficult with three PCs than six; especially if the leader is in the other half of the party.
Yet there are times when the course of events leads to combat when the party is divided. In some cases it’s because the PCs have made poor choices, in some cases it’s because they made poor rolls, and in some cases it’s because that’s what the DM had planned all along. Regardless of the reason, don’t panic when this happens. Unless the DM is trying to make a point about the dangers of splitting the party you should have a chance of surviving.
When a group is divided combat can be problematic. Not only is it dangerous for the smaller than usual party, but it can be boring for the players whose characters are not present. When this happens at my gaming table any player whose PC is not present is drafted as assistant DMs and gets to help run monsters. This is a chance for the players to basically fight one another. It’s a great way to keep everyone involved and in some cases it’s a good way to elevate tensions that might be mounting within the group. Having the PCs fight one and other is usually a bad idea, but letting the players run monsters and than having those monsters beat up on the party is perfectly acceptable.
After the combat is over and the scene shifts to the remaining PCs it’s time to switch hats. These PCs who just got clobbered by the DM’s assistants should now have an opportunity to return the favour. This also reminds everyone that what goes around comes around. The players running monsters may focus on the PC run by the guy who, in the previous fight when he was running a monster, was particularly brutal on the PCs. This is the one time when us vs. them mentality is actually encouraged.
All PCs on their own
In the rare circumstances when everyone goes in a different direction to do their own thing only a particularly vindictive or sadistic DM will initiate individual combat. However, if the circumstance demands combat happen while everyone’s separated there are ways to make things play out smoothly.
In my recent home campaign the PCs were enjoying some down time after the end of the last adventure. They’d all gone their separate ways and were enjoying a well deserved vacation. Unbeknownst to the PCs, one of their enemies hired assassins to carry out a coordinated attack on each of them simultaneously. The result was all five PCs engaging in their own individual combat.
Playing this out in the traditional way would be long and boring. So instead the DM decided to try something different. Each PC faced three assassins which meant the DM had to keep track of 15 monsters. However, rather than run 15 different monsters over five different combat scenarios, the DM wrapped everything together into one fight. Rather than have each PC’s Assassin #1 make separate attack and damage, the DM attacked once, rolled damage once and then moved on. This one attack represented Assassin #1 in each of the 5 encounters. The DM still had to keep track of hit points for 15 monsters, but he was only rolling three attacks per round instead of 15. Each PC faced his own set of assassins and as they started killing them off those PCs could ignore the DM’s corresponding attack rolls.
The result was a really interesting and fast-paced combat encounter. Not what you’d expect when you split the party. The encounter still played out like a regular encounter. Normally when you split the party some players sit around while others are in the spotlight, but by combining the mechanical aspects of the five individual combat encounters no one was left out. It still felt like a normal encounter, but each player still had the thrill and danger of individual combat.
Story first, mechanics second
It’s unusual to split the party in D&D because it’s unusual for DMs to create situations where the PCs would even consider splitting up. But when those situations do arise remember that there are ways to split the party and make things work. Don’t tie yourself down because you’re worried about how the mechanics will play out. If there’s a compelling reason to split the party, consider the possibility and don’t just should out “Never split the party!” when the DM dangles multiple options in front of you.
I’m sure a lot of us have horror stories about splitting the party but I’m interested in hearing about times when splitting the party worked for you. What did the DM do to make the situation a success? Did players not in the scene participate or did they wait patiently for their time in the spotlight?