Monday, September 8, 2014

Split The Damn Party

I'm off to a bang up start this month on my plan to post more, aren't I? Yeah.

Oh, well.

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 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.

That said...

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.

Some thoughts...

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 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 talk. 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 30 feet from 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 there were invaders on the way. 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 reassemble 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.

Barking Alien


  1. I have always understood the trope as an advice to GMs as well: managing several groups is harder and increases downtime for the players. It is easy to get half the group distracted because they aren't participating in the action. It is less so in modern or futuristic settings where there are communication devices available, but a definite problem in dungeon crawling or historical games.

    That said, I have some nice memories of those Vampire games where the GM would take one of the players to another room to play a scene "in secret". The rest of us weren't playing anymore, but it allowed for some great surprises in the plot. Not exactly what you were talking about, but also an option to consider.

  2. Agreed. Although as you note, the private discussion scenario is a bit different.

    I do have some practical advice for GMs on HOW to make it work, which I will cover in a follow up post soon.

  3. I think part of the "don't split the party" of early D&D and similar games was that the party was really sort of a gestalt, single entity, an entity who fights, engages in skill-based activity, magic, and heals itself. You even had a "party caller" who would say to the GM what the hive mind was actually doing.

    Lately my home group has been splitting up more, just because the group is so damned big. It is hard to imagine six or seven people sneaking in someplace together, or talking to a single person as a group. It also gives the quiet players more time in the spotlight.

    1. I have to disagree with the first part of your comment Robb. Not to say it's not correct, but my experiences have painted something of a reverse picture.

      A dungeoneering party in D&D is a collection of individuals with some shared goals, most often treasure, power, and glory. It is not a team. Certainly not a group that initially fights as one.

      Right from the first moment they meet a bar, they are thrown together by chance, choice, or fate (perhaps all of these at once) and a mutual desire to explore a dungeon for fun and profit.

      I don't see that as a single entity at all. Isn't it fairly common to for the Thief/Rogue to try and rob from his or her fellow party members, the Wizard to run away because of low hit points and poor armor (leaving the others to fend for themselves), or someone to ditch a 'friend' and 'ally' in need because they chose to be Chaotic Neutral and they're 'Just Playing Their Character'.

      That doesn't happen in Star Trek, and rarely in Superheroes. In these games, the PCs are part of a single entity, such as Starfleet or The Justice League. They are representatives of a larger, shared ideal. Because of this, it's easy to split them up. The Officers on the bridge of the Enterprise do not have a different agenda than the ones on the surface of Altair IV. The Chief Engineer has no intention of stealing the Chief of Security's weapon because the Security Officer gets access to a better Phaser.

      Likewise the Legion of Superheroes is made up of numerous heroes, with numerous backgrounds, personalities, and powers, but when they show up they are never call out individually by their allies and enemies. No, it's always 'The Legion has arrived!', or ,'The Legion has saved the day!'.

      In my opinion, and prior experience, this makes it much easier to split up teams like these. They are separated, but still unified. They are watching out for each other, not just the enemies, or the spoils.

  4. The only reason to split the party is so someone can make a pizza run. "Otherwise it just turns into "You lot sit about doing nothing while I go into the kitchen."

    1. I've got 99 problems, and splitting the party ain't one.

  5. I don't totally disagree with you but sci-fi/modern games tend to be quite different, not the least of which is the ability to stay in constant communication with one another, which the typical D&D party lacks. There's also the ability to teleport to someone's aid (possible with both Trek and Supers) or to simply fly at ridiculous speed to wherever something is happening. Fantasy characters may have some ability to do this but it's not usually as easy as it is in other settings.

    Miguel's comment about keeping all the players interested has some merit too.It's the old decker/hacker problem from cyberpunk games if you let it go on too long.

    1. Ah, but if you look at my example above with the Protectors, if you are doing it the Decker/Hacker way, well 'you're doing it wrong'.

      It isn't about having one or two people doing something interesting while the rest of the group waits. It's about having several interesting things happening at the same time. Each group of characters in the split party should be busy. No one is waiting more than a few moments before you engage them again.

      Done well, the players who aren't active at the moment are listening intently when their cohorts are up, as the pace and content of each sequence interrelate.

  6. Very nice post. I see what you meant in your comment over at my post regarding system and type of game now. It's true that if you have PCs that can communicate with each other when split, and/or who can get to each other very rapidly, then splitting is not at all the end of the world. Like you say, it's far more of an issue in games that are combat-heavy and/or where large numbers of baddies can come out of the woodwork and suddenly hit you when you least expect it.

    It seems to me that PC communication is the key. Where that's not possible I'm not sure that splitting the party lets a group cover more ground in terms of what gets accomplished in a gaming session, since the GM can only describe things or play the roles of NPCs for one PC sub-party at a time. In other words, in "out-of-game-real-life time," splitting the party is not inherently faster or more efficient than keeping the party together and moving to different locales one at a time. Of course it's definitely faster in "in-game" time and would be a darned good reason to split when there's an in-game clock ticking on objective completion.

    What I really like is your point that, with splitting, "the quieter player gets to be the star in their own mini-scenario." That's a really great point that brings the social inclusion aspect of gaming to the fore and that may be the most important thing of all.

  7. Thanks for coming by Chris, and for your comments.

    You make two really good points.

    The first has been mentioned by several people here, and on your blog as well I believe, which is the issue of PC communication. In modern to future settings it is far easier for the PCs, and their allied NPCs, to stay in touch and coordinate their efforts and information. What if that wasn't the case?

    The second point is how long it takes in 'real time' to facilitate the activities of a divided group.

    I will be addressing these concerns in a follow up post. They are completely valid, but from my point of view and experience, not impossible to overcome.