Terrible Tropes: Never Split the party.


Likely one of the biggest Tropes of all RPG’s

This is where I will say something many wont. It may seem to fly in the face of reason for advice that most people would give you. Not only does it make the game feel more natural but it often makes perfect sense. May  veteran Game Masters will tell you never to split the party. Most experienced players will tell you the same thing. Bad things tend to happen when you split the party. More often that this is absolutely the case. But NEVER be afraid to let your party split or be nervous  about how to handle a party that decides to go in a few different directions.

Now please do not misinterpret this statement. I say if it makes sense that the party would split and  if you are comfortable with the idea then do it. Let’s be honest and look at a party much like life, In combat it is highly unlikely your players are going to split off and go do their own thing. Yet when out of combat or investigating why would or should a group be compelled to stay together? After all there is no need for the druid to head to the blacksmith shop to hang out with fighter while he crafts a new helmet. As long as you are well prepared you should be able to handle any split in party with little difficulty. There are just a few things to keep in mind when you split your party into groups.

It makes no real sense other than the GM does not want to run multiple scenes at a time or simply can not handle it. In fairness that said may Game masters can not handle it. Some do surprisingly well at it.  Others are hit and miss, some days your game will shine from a party split and some time your players will be left board.

So how can you prepare for when your party decides to break up and run to every corner of town to get 6 things done at once.  Well. Hopefully some of my tips will help you weather the storm and keep the games at your table running smooth

First as a GM never split the party. I know your thinking wait, what ? Did he not just say go ahead and split the party? I did, but You as a GM should as a general rule never split the party. Let your players decide when they want to split the party and then be ready to deal with the party splits.

This is a good rule of thumb for several reasons. First the players are knowingly breaking the group up for their own reasons. Often multi tasking so that the party can handle several things at once. Party down time is the most likely time you will see your party split into groups.

In games your players might split for one of several other reasons as well. Maybe one group is going to speak with one NPC while the other players research other information. This for your players feels natural and if they do not expect any combat it at least allows players who would have nothing to do but stand in the background during that scene feel like they are doing something. Even it is in a different place. Here are a few tips to help keep things running smoothly when the players do split and run off in separate directions.

  1. Do not panic, If the players have asked to split the party they likely trust you and know things are about to slow down a bit. So just take a deep breath and keep going.
  2. Manage your time between groups well. You can do this in several ways. Such as a timer, or jumping back and forth between scenes. I recommend mix between a timer and moving back and forth. This keeps the pace fast and the energy flowing. I would tell most players to run a 3-5 min between groups at most. Longer then that and you will begin to lose the interest of your players that are in holding. Also at 3-5 min that gives the players that are not active a few moments to talk about what they have just learned and have questions ready for when you come back to them.

Avoid combat but do not fear it. Also do not meta game getting the party back together just before a “combat” starts. My solution to keep my players from being bored during a party split where a combat would occur and they will not be able to be involved. Let the players that are not part of the combat play the monsters. This keeps everyone at the table rolling dice.

I would note in new systems like FATE and the Cypher System as well as Savage worlds and many other non traditional Fantasy settings this rule quickly falls by the wayside. With these systems almost all characters are self relent enough to be able to split from the party without the fear of loss of life and limb that is often associated with D&D. Where the power levels and class types often need one and other to synergies as a team to stay alive.

To wrap all of this up just remember. Have no fear of the group breaking up into smaller groups at your table. Because it will happen so just roll with and get use to running party splits. Get out there and play the games you love. Knowing that splitting the party is not as bad as you think it is. If in the end this still is not for you just come right out and tell your players. Please for the love of the gods in your pantheon. Don’t split the party on me.

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