Is It Okay To Split The Party?

I started a thread on the Paizo forums about my recent articles on romance in RPGs, and a conversation developed on the issue of the amount of time that needs to be spent with just one or two players to play out a romance. The conversation took a slight tangent, veering toward the question of whether the party should be split to deal with any individual story (not just a romantic one). Some were of the belief that the party should be split as little as possible, and when it is, the roleplaying should be brief and not overly detailed, so as to bring the party back together in quick order. Others felt that splitting the party is a necessary part of the game that adds realism, and makes more sense than all eight adventurers sticking together at all times.

Whether it’s a flirtatious scene between the sorcerer and a local noble, a recon mission by the rogue, or a diplomatic visit by the paladin, something happens in almost every game session that doesn’t truly need the whole party’s involvement.

Should you split the party? I say yes.

You Go That Way, I’ll Go This Way

Say you and a group of your friends pile into your Mystery Machine van and head to the big mall a few hours’ drive away. During your travel time, you stick together. One person drives, one or two people read the map and help with road signs. If one person has to pee, the whole group stops and takes advantage of the opportunity to stretch their legs and buy another bag of Corn Nuts.

When you get to the mall, if two of your friends want to go to Hot Topic, do the rest of you go even if you don’t want to? Probably not. But does that mean the rest of you tell them to hurry up, and just sit idly in the food court, wait for them to come back, and then let the next two go off to do what they want? No way! A few of you head off to Barnes & Noble, a couple go to the music store, and the rest go to buy shoes. You agree to meet back in the food court for lunch. If the two who went to the music store are late getting back, you might start to worry and go looking for them.

Let’s go back to the game table. When your party is traveling, it makes sense for them to stick together. Sure, the ranger and the rogue may scout ahead, or they may go off on their own to hunt, but for the most part, everyone keeps everyone else in range of sight. But once you’ve reached your destination, the characters don’t need to remain attached at the hip. If the cleric wants to check in at the local temple, the others don’t have to follow her, but that doesn’t mean they have to sit and twiddle their thumbs at the inn, either.

As a GM, it’s your responsibility to make sure no one just sits at the table with nothing to do. If the cleric announces her intent to go to the temple, and the fighter chimes in that she’ll go there too, turn to the other players and ask, “And what are you guys doing while they go to the temple?” Once you’ve established where everyone’s headed, focus in on one player or group of players and work with them. Keep an eye on the rest of the table. If anyone is starting to look bored/fidgety/frustrated, tell the ones you’re working with, “Alright, let’s hold there,” turn to the next group, and play with them for a while. Then move to the next pair of players, and repeat as needed. Yes, this means you have to switch gears a lot, but it also means you keep everyone involved and on their toes. It also means there’s less of a “hurry up” factor. If a specific scene or encounter is taking a while, you can find a nice place to pause and move to the next sub-group instead of rushing things. More things get accomplished, because the characters are doing their tasks simultaneously, and can then all regroup and report in.

As a player, it’s your responsibility to entertain or occupy yourself while other players have the GM’s focus. You can watch and listen to what’s going on with the other characters, but if you worry about learning things your character shouldn’t know, turn your attention to something else. You’ve already declared what your character is going to be doing, so be prepared for your turn with the GM. If another PC is going to be with your character, you and that player can (quietly) discuss your plan of action, IC if you wish. Take advantage of the downtime to plan out what feats and spells you’ll take when you level up next time. You can even bring a book or a knitting project along in case the downtime is long, just don’t get so engrossed that you can’t get back in your character’s mindset.

Play Nice!

The world would be a better place if everyone followed the Wil Wheaton Rule: Don’t be a dick. That applies here too.

GMs should be careful to not let one sub-group of players dominate the entire game session. That’s not fair to the others at the table. Also, don’t be a hardass and insist that the other players just sit and look while your attention is focused elsewhere. So long as they’re not being disruptive, and are ready to roll when you turn to them, let them do something to occupy themselves.

Players should be respectful of the fact that others are involved with something, even if they’re not. Don’t make loud phone calls or crank your iPod up to 11. Don’t sigh dramatically and drum your fingers on the table because you think it’s taking too long for the GM to get to you. I know you want to kick some ass right now, but have patience – your turn will come.

Sometimes, Bad Things ™ happen when the party is split. The wizards find themselves in a nasty bar fight, while the rest of the party is blissfully unaware at another tavern across town. Wouldn’t it have been better for the whole party to have stuck together? Maybe. Maybe not. True, if all of the party members had walked into that bar as a united front, the thugs from the corner table might have reconsidered starting a brawl. But, a large group of well-armed adventurers may not have seemed as friendly to the bartender, who was happy to tell the “harmless” pair of spellcasters where the head of the local merchants’ guild lives, and that the rumors that he’s keeping slaves are the gods-honest truth. Roleplaying opportunities would have been lost, and information would not have been gained.

Don’t be afraid to split the party. It may make a little more work for the GM and a little more downtime for the players, but overall it will benefit the game.

What methods do you use for splitting the party?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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