“Never split the party!”
When the party decides to split up all kinds of problems arise. A DM has to juggle focusing on two groups interacting with two different environments or NPCs. Maybe characters struggle not to die as an encounter meant to face six players gleefully wallops its way through three players. The DM might feel they have to fudge, adjust, or improvise their way though it and hope the party either comes to their senses or reunites quickly…
What I’m really saying is when the party splits, and you’re not prepared, its a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, if you are prepared, a split party can become a memorable game session instead of a DM headache. A planned split an great way to give your players a change of pace, allow some players to shine a bit more, or focus your game on something that might otherwise get only passing attention.
Despite the adage not to, it can actually be fun and intriguing for your players to split the party – in a carefully planned and creative way.That means either anticipating beforehand that the party will split during the session or ending a game with the party’s intention to split being clearly announced. You might have intentionally manipulated the party into splitting, or they may have surprised you with their announcement. That’s okay, as long as it gives you time to prepare. If you are ending a session on a split announcement, be sure to solicit a clear mission statement – how is the party splitting and what is each group hoping to accomplish? You’ll generally have two kinds of splits: Idle splits and Active splits.
Preparing a Planned Split
Lets talk about homework. Preparing for a planned split is much like planning any other session. Skill Challenge? You’ll need to account for the skills of whomever will be present. Don’t punish one side by requiring a success for a skill that only someone on the other team has trained. You’ll also want to dial down the complexity – fewer people will take longer to reach the required number of successes. Combat? You’ll need to tune the encounter to the new group size, and pay attention to its composition. If the defender and the melee striker are on Red team but the controller and the leader are on Blue team, you probably won’t want to mob dozens of minions at Red team, or drop a pair of brutes on Blue team. Otherwise, planning for a split is very similar to planning for any regular session.
This is of utmost importance in a split party and, aside from other disadvantages, the main reason why splits are avoided. You run into this: the fighter wants to drink ale, the wizard wants to study his spells, the cleric wants to spend the day fasting and praying. The rest of the party wants to go do SOMETHING! Now you have half the players having a great time and the other half are bored – and therefore aren’t paying attention to whats happening. They have given themselves nothing meaningful to do, so they impose their own distractions since they can’t meaningfully contribute.
A bad split is about players with nothing to do – a good planned split has everyone sitting forward, focused and participating even if in only nominal roles. Give your idle players something that will contribute to the session. This is the part of preparing a planned split that can be the most challenging. Put these idle players to work! If the session is combat focused, the easiest answer is prepare NPC or monster stats and hand these to your idle players. More than just tracking initiative or puppeting dumb monsters, include instructions for tactics or a general plan for conversation. You may want to keep it simple unless you know the player can step up to a complex role. If you’ve got a confident or especially trustworthy gamer as an idle player, consider giving them free reign – tell them to improvise or roleplay the NPC however they feel is appropriate.
Active Split n’ Flip
Your party didn’t split up because half the group was lazy – but because half the group is doing something equally exciting or useful. The tables turn, and now you need to focus on the other half of the adventurer’s group. Time management is important and you need to make a decision how you want to divide your time. You should ask yourself if you want to do both groups with half the session devoted to each, or one half of the group in one session and the other half in the following session. Consider your session length, how long you’ll need to resolve half the party’s encounter (skill, combat, or otherwise) and how much focus you need to put on a particular aspect of the group or their actions.
Just like an Idle split, you’ll need to plan roles for the players of characters not present in a particular encounter, and then flip the roster and plan for the second encounter and new roles for the other half of your group. This is a lot of work, and one good reason why active splits should be avoided unless you’re positive you’ve got the time, inspiration, and energy to plan for this many roles and changes. Handouts will help facilitate changing roles from player character to NPC. Have the player set aside their own character sheet to keep them focused on what is going on in front of them now.
Example: Stolen Goods
While half the group is interrogating an NPC, the other half thinks they already know where the stolen goods are and they want to break into the warehouse. You’re planning on a combat as they fight the thugs guarding the warehouse. There’s lieutenant of the guards, his trained attack dog, and various other lackeys. You provide stat blocks to your idle players and instruct one player on the lieutenant’s tactics. He always orders a full retreat when more than half his men are downed — unless someone kills his dog and then he relentlessly attacks whomever struck the killing blow.
Active Flip: Interrogation
Your group already captured a key NPC and want to interrogate him for information. You’re planning a Skill Challenge, so you could provide a bullet list of DCs and info bits for your idle player to provide or simply tell the player to look to you for a nod and have them go down the list in order. Otherwise instruct the idle player to roleplay appropriately and let the session play out naturally. Another idle player could represent a local authority like a constable or local paladin, or an interested NPC with a reason to be there. These NPCs can be the counterbalance to the party – if the party is being moderate in their interrogation, the merchant of the stolen goods might urge more severe methods. If the group is being ruthlessly brutal, a good NPC might protest harsh treatment of the captive.
Like in any session, you have to try to anticipate the unexpected and prepare yourself for the unexpected changes your players will make to the session. The best thing to do is to accept these changes even if they work against your original plans. Resist the urge to correct a player for playing an NPC differently than you expected. Try not to invalidate anything that happened in the planned split simply because it didn’t work out the way you planned. If you criticize how an NPC was played, you undermine that player and you undermine yourself – you are the DM that told them to play the NPC in the first place. Take note, gain insight, and figure out how it affects your campaign, and take it as a lesson to plan how to better convey motivations for the NPCs next time. The important thing here is to focus on the players’ investment to the session.
I was surprised when the player I asked to play as an enemy warlord portrayed him as a more evil and ruthless NPC than I had ever imagined him as. I had never directly shown him being very ruthless, the party simply assumed he had to be vicious to have survived the climb to the top to becoming leader of a massive undead army. Information about the NPC’s history had unconsciously influenced my expectation of him but my players had no such metagame knowledge. The result was I took that lesson from them and the NPC grew and changed in personality – and he became one of the most memorable (and hated) BBEGs in that campaign.
A planned split takes a little more work to prepare for but can be as easy as a regular session, and often more rewarding. The next time the party mentions splitting, consider what you could take advantage of in a planned split and give it a try!