How to not split the party

I have to admit a little mea culpa.  On this blog I try to press the point that players have a duty to work together as a team in order to ensure a smooth and enjoyable session for everyone. What I struggle with is how to do that without diluting one’s own sense of fun and Role Play. In last week’s game I split the party. Not to be an egotistical jerk, but because the obvious actions to me was to uncover the nefarious plots of the highly-suspect king’s advisor by gaining his confidence. To do that I wanted to distance myself from the rag-tag bunch of troublemakers that is The Party. As we know from the Wizard’s website neversplittheparty.com, the motto of 4e is “never split the party.”

You might ask “Why, Mike, is that a bad idea?” Well, I’ll tell you. You might find your character in a situation where he’s schmoozing over at one inn and the rest of the party is getting into big trouble at a different an inn on the other side of the town. Or, at least, I certainly did. Our DM tried a few times to get my back into the plot, but I didn’t take the hint, and so with a heavy hand I eventually wound up at the right inn too late to save the party, but fortunately still able to do something. What that something was was to willingly go along with the kidnappers in order to the keep the party together and the story moving.

My first instict in that case was to fight off the kidnappers and single-handedly rescue the party. This kind of thinking is usually a bad idea for the following reasons (A) single character odds of surviving a combat built for 4 are low, and (B) It wouldn’t be much fun for everybody else at the table sitting around and watching me play (see below). For the sake of the story and everybody’s precious time I voluntarily went with the kidnappers (as bonus for cooperating I got to act first when the action started).

Overall this situation was dissatisfying because I made the GM work to provide a good resolution, when I shouldn’t have gone off on my own anyway. I think this a mini-case of the larger issue of information-gathering scenes in D&D. It’s pretty natural to split up for each character to talk to his personal sources; it certainly doesn’t make sense to drag the paladin to an assassin’s guild meeting. I find when we do all go as party to meet with a contact the scene goes quicker because the DM doesn’t have to divide her attention between five people doing five different things. However, only one or two people usually participate in the scene (and the others just sit around or perform actions that are unnecessary in context). Now that Charisma is no longer a dump stat, this especially leaves a whole bunch of characters that could do the same thing, but don’t do anything because it’s silly for everyone to do the talking. Dungeon’s Master did a great job describing this problem earlier this week.

So to summarize, I’m still searching for a good way to balance separate acts with keeping everyone engaged. One thing I just occurred to me about my example of the lone character in a fight would be to have the other players play the NPCs in the  brawl–that way they can take the frustration of not actively playing out on the person who’s fault it is.

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8 thoughts on “How to not split the party

  1. I have to admit to not doing 4th edition yet, so I can’t speak to it maybe requiring more party unity, but I can speak to many adventures in AD&D and 2nd Edition when our party split…sometimes into THREE groups.

    It worked for us because we had a spectacular DM (not to slight your DM, mind you) who was easily able to juggle the multiple storylines. Yeah, he would laugh sometimes and admitted he ended up having to wing a few things because we did some stuff he never expected, but I think the true gem of the game can be hidden in such strays.

    Oftentimes when the party split, those not involved in that particular scenario would resign to another room where there were cds to swap out, a supernintendo to mess with, or would step outside for a smoke or a beer or to grab a slice of pizza. Or maybe they would sit at the table and chat and goof around while the DM and the character engaged would step outside.

    Somehow it all ended up working its way back and it made for some great story twists over time. Yeah, sometimes we got into trouble, and yes, sometimes a couple characters died. But we took it all in stride.

    For us, and I think for others, it could be a very true statement that sometimes what’s best for the whole is to act separate.

    Just my d4 on that one. Nice post up.

  2. @Ameron,
    Thanks for that post, I can see how something like that could work for us. Did the DM use some kind of timer to move each of the stories along, or did each person get as long as he needed to explain his actions? About how many times did he go around the table to resolve the challenge?

    @Steve,
    Thanks for the comments. Our DM has been doing a great job. I should say the reason why having the group physically split up into other rooms won’t work for is us time. We meet about 3 out of 4 weeks and for less than three hours at a time, which makes it very difficult to break up the group.

    I agree from a story perspective splitting up can great, but as a d&d junkie I like the momentum of getting my weekly fix. Maybe my group can incorporate all your ideas and come up with something that will work for us.

  3. I will admit, I felt terrible when this situation came up and I’m still not completely over it. I’m just happy we found a way to get you where you needed to be for the big fight since I think you would have been upset to not be part of it and the rest of the party would have been hurting pretty badly if you hadn’t been there. You guys have been great as players, particularly with this being the first time I’ve DMed, and I just felt like I was letting you guys down.

    Overall, the problems exist because of a few difficulties of gaming as adults. Everyone in our group seems to be pretty busy, so getting the same group every week is hard. No one is willing to play another player’s character, possibly because no one wants someone else to play their own character. And, for the most part, we can only get about 2 hours in, maybe 3 at the most. This sums up to a situation where it’s hard to leave things mid-conflict (like a dungeon crawl) and fitting in a bunch of role playing and some fighting can be a bit difficult.

    However, I do need to get better about some things, including the possibility of groups splitting up, particularly during non-combat situations. I’m also hoping that maybe we can move some of the role playing we do to email, to free up more of our session time for the things you guys seem to like the most, killing creatures and taking their stuff.

    I put my own post about the situation on my blog. It came out a bit more ranty than I intended. I found Ameron’s Split the Party article while writing my entry and I really liked it.

  4. Mike, we had it pretty sweet, I guess. We met every Sunday night around 6:00 PM and would play until about 2 in the morning. Only holidays would either prevent our game or have us switch to a new night temporarily.

    Sarah, way to step up. DMing can be a real headache. Speaking for myself, as someone who has played and DMed, the only way your players will ever feel you let them down is if you give up. They may not like when a group slits and may feel that they aren’t getting enough face time but as long as you stay flexible and improvise, you can always find ways to maneuver the group back to where you need them to be. And it sounds like you succeeded in doing that with this scenario.

    As a DM, while I always had a story set from A to B, one must always allow for the wiggle room which will ultimately become necessary when the players decide to investigate that old farm house that you never laid out and only mentioned once in passing. :)

  5. I used to play in a group that would put people in a separate room when the party split up. Some would stay at the table and the ones who weren’t there would leave.

    …it sucked. I don’t recommend doing that with your group. One time we were in the back room for so long I started running my own D&D game.

  6. @by_the_sword

    Excellent point. I don’t particularly like moving some people away from the table (unless there are multiple GMs). Even if not every player is active, the assumption is they came over for d&d and still want to stay engaged in the story. I once had a DM that did the separate room thing b/c he didn’t want us to use out of character knowledge…

  7. It worked for us because we had a spectacular DM (not to slight your DM, mind you) who was easily able to juggle the multiple storylines. Yeah, he would laugh sometimes and admitted he ended up having to wing a few things because we did some stuff he never expected, but I think the true gem of the game can be hidden in such strays.

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