Everyone who plays roleplaying 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.
In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the 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.
Never split the party started as a 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.
Typically though, groups split to tackle roleplaying, stealth, and investigation challenges that seem unlikely to lead to fights.
If half of a split party lands in a fight, DMs can adjust the difficulty of the foes, but leaving the opposition unchanged may play better. Players who split up despite perilous situations know they’re taking an extra risk and they feel a greater sense of peril, especially when their own decisions lead to danger. 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. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions. (See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.)
2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.
By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives. But splitting attention between two groups can play well as long as each of the smaller groups faces their own challenges. The trick comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group thinking.
When a subgroup needs time to plan or plot their next move, cut from their scene to a scene featuring players ready for action. With a full group, planning means waiting for a decision while you as the DM worries that the idle time creates a slow place. With a split group, the game hurtles ahead and the subgroup facing a choice can plan without feeling rushed. The session feels brisk and pacing feels effortless!
Usually, game time between the subgroups can pass at different rates as long as the players in real time feel engaged. D&D scenarios seldom rely on precise timekeeping anyway.
The troublesome situations come when one party member wanders while the rest wait. A short scouting mission can give some players a break to grab a snack, but when reconnaissance takes too long, restless players start wondering why they showed up. For advice on handling scouting, see 4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon.
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. But unexpectedly, splitting the party can make players feel more active. In a smaller subgroup, each individual gains a greater role. And as the DM cuts between subgroups, the inactive players can stay busy planning their next move.
Even when the entire party faces a roleplaying scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes the player with the most charismatic character serves as the face with the highest bonus. Often the player with the most forceful personality does all the talking.
But when a party splits, soft-spoken players gain time in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents. So the wizard finally gets to cast Sending and the thief gets to sneak without some armored clod making a racket.
Instead of avoiding challenges suited to split parties, look for situations where dividing the party gives everyone a chance to show their talents and to roleplay.
Typically, time pressure leads groups to split up. If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then 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 help. Forcing a party to divide and conquer invites everyone to contribute.
If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table.
Cut from one group to the next every few minutes. Some DMs even set a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track of time, then a countdown helps.
The best moment to switch subgroups comes when the active group faces a choice. While players debate their next move, cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Such decision points typically come after the group makes a discovery or when their situation changes. These situations make players wonder what happens next, and that curiosity keeps them engaged while they wait to regain the spotlight.
If you can’t switch scenes on a decision point, switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.
A split party invites some techniques that help one keep everyone busy.
If two subgroups land in a fight, run both battles on the same initiative count. This keeps everyone busy while using a familiar game mechanic to cut between scenes. The technique works so well that, as a DM, I feel tempted to start a second fight whenever half of a split party buys trouble. Time to roll a random encounter behind the screen.
Delegate the non-player characters and even monsters to the idle players. For groups who particularly enjoy roleplaying and collaborative storytelling, write down a few quick notes about NPCs on a card. When the NPC enters a scene, give control of the character to a player.
Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might also 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.
Separate the players into their own rooms. Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the DM 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.
Occasionaly 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 separate players, frequent switches become more important, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.
Go ahead. Split the party. For a DM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players to defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.