How the Game Master Can Split a Party
The top reason why I have heard parties should not split isn’t that doing so is deadly, but that it splits focus and detracts from the team working element of the game. In my previous post on splitting the party I covered what players need to do to safely split the party. In this post, the focus is on how a GM can split the party and still keep everyone’s focus and continue that feeling of teamwork. I will also talk a bit about setting up situations that require splitting, role playing and splitting, and how to salvage a bad split.
The three main tools a GM can use when the party is split is pacing, participation, and direction. By controlling the pace, or the beat, of the game you can ensure that the game stays exciting and engaging for everyone at the table. Controlling participation will help everyone feel like they are part of a team and satisfy that need to be part of everything. Lastly, controlling the direction will make sure that the split doesn’t last too long and keep people safe. Controlling these three elements isn’t easy though, especially if you didn’t plan on the party splitting, and if you are not paying attention to them you can find the game moving out of that fun zone.
If you didn’t plan on the party splitting, you can still control the game without losing players and their interest. Controlling the pace in this case is going to mean you need to set a time limit that you use to switch between the different groups. This would be a maximum time limit, not an absolute one, but you would still need to stick with it. Something like fifteen minutes will allow you enough time to pass on information and allow the players to react appropriately, but you can have longer or shorter times if you need. Be sure to stick to that time limit, even if there is a combat. Stopping in the middle of a combat to quickly ask what the other group is going to do will not only help keep people engaged in the game but will help build some tension in the fight. You don’t need to use the entire time though, as switching between the groups once an action has been resolved or a location has been reached are also good times to move to the other group.
Controlling participation and direction is a little harder for unplanned splits. If you have a monster or NPC that someone could run in a fight and you trust your players to not kill each other, you could ask them to run the combats. Having someone not in the combat track initiative, draw maps, or do anything else you would normally do that takes times can also help. In short, find something for everyone to do so they don’t go into the kitchen and bother you about Mountain Dew. As for controlling the direction, it requires you to improv a bit and possibly change things around. The best way to direct someone back towards their party is to make their side of the split boring and the other side exciting. If you can’t do that, make one or both sides impossibly hard unless they meet up again.
If someone does something stupid and their character is knocked out, don’t blame yourself. Find a way for the player to still participate and move on. You can help avoid these situations though, mostly by offering three clue to each danger before a player kills themselves. If you offered enough clues and the player ignores them, it is their fault.
One of the best ways you can actually challenge your players is by forcing a split. There are so many ways to do this that I would need more space then I have here to talk about it, so let us just focus on those three elements I talked about above. Forcing a split will add another level to the challenge because your players should be used to working together, and having them split will mean they need to learn how to work alone, sometimes without help they rely on to do their job. Done right, this type of challenge can allow players to shine in ways they normally can’t and have fun watching their fellow party members do the same.
Pace in this case no longer needs a time limit. Instead, in your preparation for this forced split you can rely on checkpoints to tell you when to switch focus. Checkpoints can be locations, traps, actions, or even encounters. Once a PC has reached a checkpoint, you move focus to the other group and focus on them until they reach their checkpoint. It is important that with some checkpoints, especially the bigger ones, that you don’t give a resolution to the actions. This can up the suspense of the game as each checkpoint becomes a cliffhanger. For example, the character turns a corner and triggers a trap. You can describe the spikes shooting out of the ceiling but not have any dice rolled before you turn to the other player and ask their next action. When a player asks if they need to roll anything, or how much damage they have taken, just reply that you will get to that later. Don’t do this too often though, as it can start to feel like you are being mean or your players will become desensitized to the suspense.
Controlling the participation is easier here too, as you can have character action affect the other characters. Pulling a switch might mean the traps in the opposite side of the dungeon are deactivated. Finding a map on a monster could mean one party can direct the other. Keeping one pressure plate down could have doors open for the other group. Be inventive and look to puzzle games for ways to increase participation in and out of game.
Lastly, direction is very easy in this case, as you can build in ways to direct the groups back into one party or ways to split the groups even further. Mostly, this is done by dungeon layout, but you can do it with traps or monsters as well. Chutes that all lead to the same room, teleporting traps, secret passages, or the huge boss monster that the requires the entire party are all great ways to control direction.
No matter how the party is split, you still control the game. Remember that it is your job to keep the game fun and engaging, so do your best when a player has an idea and runs off unexpectedly. Keep a tight control of pace, participation, and direction and you will find that you game will still run smoothly.
What are your experiences with splitting? What have you found to be a good way to handle it?