Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.
In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.
In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.
Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.
Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.
Why split the party?
In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.
Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.
Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.
Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.
One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.
If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.
Why keep everyone together?
Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.
1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.
Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.
But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.
2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.
By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.
For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.
So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.
3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.
A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.
Cut between scenes
Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.
Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.
If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.
Delegate the monsters to the idle players
Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.
If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.
If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.
Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.
Splitting the room
Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.
While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.
Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.
If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.
Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.
Split the party
So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.