Friday Favourite: How To Handle A Split Party In 5 Easy Steps

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 17, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From January 7, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: How To Handle A Split Party In 5 Easy Steps.

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 Ironblaze May 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Last time the party split, the Tiefling Invoker ended up getting turned into a wererat. I think they won’t split the group between the melee tanks and the ranged folk for quite awhile now!

2 Hawke May 17, 2013 at 1:51 pm

This comes up from time to time, and as recently as this past week. 2 party members were separated by a horde of orcs from the other 3 party members. They ended up separated for days (everyone had to flee to survive), and they were in wilderness peaks, with no pre-arranged meeting point if separated.
We actually ended up having a great session despite the separation. Sometimes I alternated just like they were together, each taking turns based on their initiative, and limited to just a few minutes. Sometimes it would be a little longer for one group, because they were traveling and overcoming obstacles, while the other group was making camp for a few hours.
However, as the tension built as they slowly tracked each other down through the wilderness, while dodging multiple large groups of orcs, and in some cases killing a large group with a created avalanche. The group begged to go into overtime since they knew they were getting close to reconnecting. When they did finally join back together, there were visible and audible reactions of relief, and they reported “that was a great session!”
I guess what I do is attempt to make the group feel their lack of “wholeness” when they are not together. Each group segment kept coming up against obstacles that they would have much more easily addressed if the other party members were with them, so they really increased in their appreciation of the missing members.
Just some thoughts and observations from a recent experience (that went well).

3 Geoff May 17, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I ran into a really weird version of this recently. My players were trying to infiltrate a hobgoblin mine. At the heart of the mine where their objective lay, the non-sneaky PCs basically told the sneaky PCs, you go take care of it. We’ll hide over here and wait for your signal if something goes wrong. Half the group was essentially taking themselves out of play!

I handled it as best I could, having the hiding group making listen checks when things started to go south for the infiltrators, but they STILL didn’t jump to get involved until the actual signal was given… then, a couple of them were a bit grumpy at having been sent upstairs to hangout and chat until I could work them back in. You kept us waiting too long, even though splitting the party was our suggestion!

Geoff at ROFL Initiative

4 crossieth May 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I usually handle a split party by making both storylines foreshadow some great evil that they will have to be together to defeat. Thus making them come together again faster.

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