Tucked away on the copyright page of the fifth edition Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons, the publisher writes, “Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, […] or saying yes when the DM asks, ‘Are you really sure?’” In dark dungeons that are designed for full-strength parties of adventurers, splitting the party almost always leaves the groups too weak or ill-equipped to combat any monsters and hazards.
Splitting the party can be dangerous to the player characters, but it represents another deadly threat to the players themselves: boredom. When you split the party and focus a whole chunk of game time on one group of players, a game master risks having the ignored group lose interest in the game. GMs who want to maintain all the players’ interest and engagement can do two things: first, involve the uninvolved players, and second, resort to structured time in a pinch.
Let Everyone Play a Part
One way to immediately mitigate the problems of a potentially split party is to hand out roles to the players who would otherwise be sitting out the encounter. These can either be roles in the narrative, such as NPCs and monsters, or they can be roles designed to facilitate gameplay: initiative tracker, map drawer, rules lawyer, etc.
When handing out NPC and monster roles to the other players, beware a few pitfalls: First, you must trust that the player is going to portray the NPC according to that character’s motives and traits, not according to what would most benefit the other party members. Second, you need a group that is okay with players taking on temporary adversarial roles. Third, you should be prepared to give the players the details they need to play the character, which might mean creating handouts in advance.
If these aren’t problems for you or your group, then everyone can be involved in an encounter even when the party has been split. Here are some criteria for selecting which NPCs or monsters would be best suited for temporary adoption by the players:
- Which NPCs have goals that they can pursue during the scenario? If the NPC doesn’t have one built in, the GM may want to consider devising a new objective for the NPC appropriate to the encounter. A goal not only serves as a sort of prompt to guide the player’s portrayal of the NPC, but it gives the player a temporary win condition as well. Even if the party fails to charm the NPC played by one of their party mates, one player still gets to feel victorious.
- Which NPCs are ignorant of major plot spoilers? Although many people like spoilers, players consider unraveling mysteries to be part of the fun of roleplaying games. When trying to decide whether one NPC knows too much, I consider whether that knowledge might enrich the story through dramatic irony, or whether it would cause any ensuing investigation to be too easy.
- Which NPCs matter to the PCs? If one NPC played an important role in the background of a PC, that makes the NPC especially appealing for adoption by a player. When a player takes on this character, their knowledge of how any given interaction could be important to specific members of the party imbues any exchanges between those characters with additional meaning.
- Which NPCs possess personality traits that specific players would enjoy roleplaying? It helps when you know the preferences of the group you’re playing with, but letting certain players adopt roles they normally don’t get to during the campaign can still enrich their experience.
By having players adopt the roles of NPCs, they are forced to empathize with the NPCs and take on some agency in those characters’ portrayal. I’ve found that this makes an NPC mean more to the player controlling them, and potentially mean more to the rest of the party, because it’s the players’ take on a character. What might have been a throwaway NPC suddenly becomes more realistic and more interesting when there’s a human intelligence backing them.
Make Liberal Use of Screen Wipes
Alternatively, if a cinematic action scene that cuts between two (or more) groups would feel better—or if the scene doesn’t call for a cast of NPCs—you can still split up the party and move into structured time instead. That is to say, the GM can run both encounters at the same time using a single initiative track.
Each time a PC’s turn comes up to act, the “camera” switches to their scene. If rounds and seconds really matter, such as during combat, you can limit the players to the normal action economy. Otherwise, as long as all the PCs in the same group are given roughly the same amount of time during a round, you can allow players to interact as though they were in narrative (unstructured) time. The initiative tracker is just there to keep everyone involved despite the different groups’ in-game distance. The different groups/scenes can even move at different paces or take different amounts of time, so long as you sync up the timing again when the scenes are over.
When allowing the PCs narrative time in an initiative order, I make sure to end their turns on a cliffhanger—i.e. during the most interesting/tension-filled moments. For example, if a PC has been discovered by the monsters and is about to make an initiative check, or a PC misspeaks during conversation and offends an important NPC, that’s the moment when you jump to the next player’s turn. That way, you heighten the tension at the table as everyone anticipates the next initiative round when they get to find out what happens next to their fellow party members.
What are your strategies for dealing with a split party as a GM, or do you avoid split parties entirely?
Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast