Here is a post I've been thinking of making since, oh let's see now, roughly 2009.
Yep, since I started this blog pretty much.
Warning. It's a long one.
I know I've talked about it here and there before, but a recent post on Chris C.'s blog, The Clash of Spear on Shield, got me thinking about how common a trope it is in gaming, and how my personal view of the concept is so different from most peoples. Kind of the polar opposite of the default assumptions actually.
Doing a Google Search for 'Split The Party' results in the following...
Let's see now...Never do it, Don't do it, a song about Never doing it, and something about Republicans (which is also pretty negative, and rarely results in anything good these days).
This 'Splitting the Party' thing; this is a bad thing. This really doesn't sound like a good idea. I'm scared. Hold me.
Whatever you do...don't let us get separated.
Screw that noise! You're all big boys and girls ain'tcha? You put on your undies one leg at a time, all by yourselves right? You've got a lot to do and not much time to do it in. You go that way, I'll go this way, and we'll meet back here in twenty minutes. Go!
Now, we all know why you shouldn't Split The Party, right?
As far as I can tell, the main reason for the existence of this trope lies with the granddaddy of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons. If the thief goes left and the fighter goes right, than the wizard is left alone to...to...um. Hmmm. To get picked on by the GM I guess. I mean, if you walk down a side hallway, and everyone else is 50 feet to your right, and then you walk back to them, or they walk over to you, there really is no danger inherent to that scenario by itself. It only becomes an issue when you (conveniently) go too far away from the rest of your party, and are (conveniently) attacked by boogies that came outta freakin' nowhere.
Now granted, there is safety in numbers. That's not a cliché, it's a universal truth. A simple fact. Five guys are going to trounce one average fellow who's on his own, but it's not going to be so easy for them to take down an equal group of five, or a larger group of seven. It's basic mathematics you see.
It makes sense from a survival standpoint. Someone on their own in the woods, in a desert, or some other wilderness terrain, is in much greater danger, and is less capable of surviving their ordeal, than they would be if they had a companion and ally to help them.
RPGs where basic, day-to-day survival is a factor, such as Dungeons & Dragons (and other Medieval Fantasy games of the 'Dungeon Crawl' type), Gamma World (and other Post-Apocalypse games), and most Horror RPGs, benefit from this approach and mindset. Even Traveller and other Science Fiction games where combat is both common and deadly, could foreseeably have situations where splitting the party is a foolish way to go.
I personally can't recall a campaign, dating back to my earliest days in the hobby, where we didn't split up on a regular basis.
I recently retold the story of the death of my very first character, and it involved the party getting split up, but the PC didn't actually die because of that. In fact, A) he didn't die until the group was reunited, and B) he found out vital information by separating from the rest of the team.
I often read, or listen to, session recaps by various people, and I'm constantly amazed by how little gets done in comparison to my groups' game sessions. Granted, a four hour session seems standard these days and we do eight [hours], but it's more than that. In splitting the party as we do, we simply cover more ground.
By way of example, let's take a look at a typical Superheroes session:
The Protectors (one of my first Superhero RPG teams ever - Villains and Vigilantes, 1982-83) are mostly at their new headquarters, still under-construction.
Intrepid (High-Tech Armored Guy), and Mutant Man (Mutant whose body changes to adapt to different situations) are working on getting the place up and running. Saint Patrick (GM NPC - Me - Think mystical, green, Human Torch) is on monitor duty. The Blue Paladin (Also just called Paladin - A time lost medieval knight with a magic sword, shield and armor) is also at the HQ, trying to adapt to life in the 21st century.
Striker (Low-grade, martial artist Superman who can increase his power level by absorbing kinetic energy through impacts) is patrolling the streets of downtown Center City. Snowblind is in her secret identity, teaching art and dance to blind kids. Her school is not far from where Striker is flying around.
The Monitor alerts St. Patrick that various space agencies have tracked an unidentified flying object, currently hurtling toward the Earth. It is likely to crash in upstate New York within a hour or so. He contacts the available team members, and Intrepid and Mutant Man fly North to investigate (Mutant Man grows wings in order to facilitate a rapid response to the situation).
Meanwhile, Striker comes across some of hoodlums harassing a young, strange looking boy in an alleyway. He overhears the thugs calling the kid a 'mutie' and a 'super-freak'. Striker is a mutant himself, and doesn't take kindly to that sort of thing. As Striker moves to protect the boy, and possibly bust some heads, the youth lashes out, releasing a wave of psychic energy that blows everyone back with hurricane force!
The gangbangers are scattered, and even Striker is having trouble getting any closer than within 30 feet of the distraught lad. Knowing he is no good at dealing with kids, Striker calls on Snowblind for help. Luckily she is just about to go on her lunch break, and tells him she'll be right there.
At that point, a three part story began, all interconnected. Intrepid and Mutant Man made contact with the UFO aliens and a theretofore unknown, extraterrestrial 'superhero' who insisted they were invaders. The young mutant boy Striker found was actually an alien as well. While Snowblind and Striker try to convince the young alien they are trying to help him, a black ops government agency tried to infiltrate the Protectors' base, only to face St. Patrick and The Paladin.
Not only was this, if I do say so myself, very comic book like, it also gave each of the players, and their PCs, the chance to show off their particular talents and areas of skill. Each team learned something about the overall plot of the story, expanded their knowledge of the setting, and had the chance to move the game forward in their own way. At the same time, they coordinated their information and abilities in the end to resemble as a team and solve the situation as a unified group.
As noted above, a major benefit to splitting the party that sadly few GMs see fit to focus on (as this came up in a recent conversation I had with another Gamemaster) is that doing so gives multiple players a chance to shine. If you are playing in a system with classes, or other distinct role archetypes, it is not unusual to end up with two combat types, two rogue types, or two of any particular class on your PC team. Some players, especially those a bit more reluctant to speak out (Shy by nature, less experienced as a player, or what-have-you), will be less likely to do their thing if someone else is doing in a more overt manner.
By splitting the party, the quieter player gets to be the star in their own mini-scenario, more focused on them. If planned right, with a combination of player and GM input, a more experienced player can be teamed with a newer player as well, giving the rookie the spotlight while being expertly assisted by the veteran.
Don't worry ol' pro, you'll get you're moment in the sun soon enough. I mean, don't you usually? You're good at this. Give someone else a chance to shine, and I promise, you'll still glow just as much as always. In a way, probably more.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, but this bad boy is running long already. I'm sure to revisit this again before long.
In the meantime, I happily quote from one of my favorite films:
Dr Ray Stantz: I think we'd better split up.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Good idea.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yeah... we can do more damage that way.
Split the damn party people.