Splitting the Party Successfully

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 23, 2012

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?

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1 Mike Karkabe-Olson April 23, 2012 at 10:31 am

I agree. Splitting the party can be a lot of fun and quite rewarding. I’ve had several instances in which it worked smoothly. And as you mentioned, the real problem only arises when combat originally geared toward a complete PC party ensues. I would add that it is often possible in these situations for the DM to tone the encounter down to compensate; he or she can even come up with story reasons as to why: villains can learn of separate efforts by PCs to act against them and so split their efforts as well, or villains can be so overconfident with their superior numbers that they make less tactical attacks, or some of the monsters can leave the area to investigate some other problem, etc. Or you can arbitrarily cut a couple monsters out of the encounter without the players ever knowing the difference.

I also think it is important to note that when PCs are splitting the party because it makes sense and it improves the role-playing experience that they should not be penalized for it. In fact, you can even give them advantages that will also offset this tactical choice. Just like in real life, splitting efforts should provide an opportunity for them to gain some type of advantage: perhaps it is easier for them to obtain surprise or to sneak around and avoid the encounter entirely (lower the DCs of such actions); or perhaps they have an opportunity to get a few NPCs involved on their side of the combat, or they can something they were attempting to do by splitting the party in the first place (like find information or an important map, etc.) to garner them advantages in avoiding combat or utilizing terrain features (traps and pits, etc.) against the enemy.

I have had a lot of fun with party splits. But if it is going to pose a problem or not make tactical sense I think it is also okay for a DM, out as an impartial observer, to point it out to them. He or she can say something to a PC with higher intelligence or wisdom, for instance, something like “your superior intellect leads you to realize that it may not be the best idea to split up in this case because….”

2 Jordan Quackenbush April 23, 2012 at 2:17 pm

I play a lot on RPOL, finding my D&D fix there while I wait for table-top days. In my heroic-level game, I recently split the 5 player party by pulling out their only controller. He was very interested in the skill challenge in disarming a certain trap, while the others didn’t enjoy it as much, so I took a gamble. Dice were in my favor, and to quote his reactions:

“Thanks for running an awesome scenario just for me, and for the generous rewards 🙂 I’m finding this quite entertaining!”
“It’s been an interesting and humorous challenge to RP! You’ve helped me develop the character a lot by playing into his neuroses, that’s for sure :)”

Now, I’m not so sure the other 4 players love me; they’re in a situation where they can’t hit some skeletons because they’re missing their area spellcaster, thus causing them to think outside the box. It’s not something I had originally planned, but by causing both sides to think beyond what their character can normally do, they all seem to have delved in more to their characters. The one player’s enjoyment has made it all worth it to me.

Now, this is all play-by-post…I think splitting a party in a table-top would yield to “what do I do with the players when they aren’t here?”

3 Philo Pharynx April 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I just had a session with some party splitting. The characters were in town, which reduced the danger somewhat. In most places a shout would bring guardsmen and bystanders to help. They had lots of plot hooks that they wanted to get accomplished. Cities are good for this as they can offer many draws for different characters. One technique for keeping people engaged is interleaving the differen tevents of the day, going between one group and another. This also keeps the timeline clearer. If somebody decides to find another party member, you know where they are and what they are doing.

4 The Unlucky Paladin April 24, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Lol I love the idea of splitting the party and having separate combats for each group or, even each PC should they be split up that way. However, there is one person at Hairy T – and my campaign on Fridays – that always sticks to the creed “Never split the party.” I’m fairly sure regardless of how many suggestions I bangle he wont ever bite at one. What are your suggestions for that?

5 Liam Gallagher April 25, 2012 at 1:06 am

If you think that he would enjoy getting split up despite his reservations then just don’t take no for an answer. Have him blown off the deck of a ship, or carried off by a big bird or something.

6 The Unlucky Paladin April 25, 2012 at 8:04 pm

@Liam I love those ideas… hehe… Right up my alley

7 Sunyaku April 26, 2012 at 1:19 am

I was really surprised that last week’s installment of encounters was actually written to allow the party to split up into four different directions. Conveniently, all four paths wound up at the same huge room, but it was nice to not feel “too” railroaded by the encounters program for a change.

Unfortunately, due to the math of our party split, we needed more successes to overcome the skill challenge, and we would have succeeded if the party had stayed together.

8 Philo Pharynx April 26, 2012 at 8:16 am

@Sunyaku, that’s why it’s good for the DM to be ready for splits, including unusual splits. Sometimes the wizard will take the fighter instead of the cleric. It will be an issue in skill challenges and in fights. Being ready to adjust things on the fly is a handy skill. If not, you should prepare for a few different options.

9 donalbain May 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

that reminds me of the time that the party all separated after we arrived in the city and then concquentily were all captured then put into the arena for the story i was hit by a crossbolt that paralyzed me for 12 hours but in the end when you completely destroy an organization it works out beautifully.

10 Pedro Rodrigues May 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm

I recently did a split party scene, due to a 2-part ritual that had to be shutdown at the same time.

Curiously, while only the part of the ritual being disrupted required splitting the party, and even knowing that both places would be guarded, they decided to confront both places at once.

This made the combat much harder, of course, but since i had scaled down the encounters, it was manageable, that is, until a twist, planned waay before they even knew about the ritual in the first place, sprang on them, in the form of a lv 12 controller (they are level 5), which ended up facing only 3 of the chars.

They would be dead, save for a few plot points:

– conditions i placed on the monster (dazed, bloodied, some powers nerfed)

– the ritual they were supposed to kill was of a teleportation kind, which allowed (with some difficulty), movement between both places.

Those conditions allowed for some of the others to make an extraction mission, which, to give them credit, they believed to be suicidal, but managed to pull through admirably.

11 Pedro Rodrigues May 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I also previously did a split party scene where they were supposed to investigate several areas of a city (but only some had clearance for some of them), so they split into two groups

The split should have been short and uneventful, but unfortunately one group decided to take a scenic view and afterwards look for trouble, which ended up giving them most of the spotlight for the session.

I managed to improvise and reunite them before all hell broke loose, but it was a failed experience, as the players of the other group spent most of the session looking without much participating.

12 Brendan January 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Going through this now, and it’s complicated my game thoroughly. Through a series of events a bit too protracted to list here, my party’s ranger has set off alone to infiltrate an organization, via the wonderful plot device of the rest of the party believing she has betrayed them. While she’s doing pretty well, she’s pretty much the linchpin of my campaign. I can cook up a good adventure for her to find the party again after her initiation/potential fact finding, but I’m having a hard time thinking up some way that when she does return, the rest of the party doesn’t attack her on sight… ATM I’m leaning toward having her find the rest of the party jailed, so she has time to illuminate discoveries that may reduce hostilities before effecting the jailbreak.
It seems to me I’m now working exponentially harder to maintain the same game world. These characters are rather unpredictable (5 players, and only one of them non-chaotic.) Just another aspect to consider for a DM considering splitting the party for more than a single session…

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