Thursday, September 11, 2014

Splitting The Adam

Hey Gamemasters, can I talk to you for a sec?

Don't worry, there aren't any players around. It's cool, it's cool.

Can we talk frankly? Chill. It's totally off the record here.


It's about the whole 'Split the Party' thing I brought up recently.

Let's face it, the issue with splitting the party isn't the party's problem. It's ours. Yours, and mine.

We don't like when they do it. It's a pain in the butt. It slows things down, it's hard to keep track of what's going on, and everyone is hearing what's happening in the different locations even if their characters aren't next to each other.

It just isn't worth it, right?

Well...what if it was a bit easier to pull off? What if it wasn't such a hassle for you? Would you be more inclined to do it then?

OK, OK. Fair enough. Why should you do it? Sure it gives the quieter, less experienced players a chance to have their moment of glory, sure it let's different characters stand out in different situations that require their PCs specific set of skills, but really, that's for the players. What's in it for us?

It increases our Mojo. You heard me.

Are you seriously telling me you don't know what GM Mojo is? OK, it's like this; GM Mojo is what makes players want to comes back and be in one of your campaigns again and again. It's what makes them tell people stories about the games they were in that you refereed. Ever have someone you didn't know want in on one of your games because a mutual friend told them how awesome you are as a GM? GM Mojo.

Seriously gang, pull off the 'Split The Party' thing, and they'll think you walk on water.* They'll be bringing the chips, dip and soda to you!

Now, here's the plan...

Buddy System

If the size of your PC group is really small, say 3 people altogether, splitting the party doesn't really make much sense. If you have 4 or more however, it becomes much more feasible and useful.

Why? Simple. The Buddy System.

When splitting the party, I usually try to give the players a general sense of how rough things are going to get, and make sure they have a clear idea of what they are going to do (more about that below). This way, though they may split up, they are unlikely to send one person down a long, dark hallway alone to their inevitable death. Rather, they will (hopefully), take the total number of PCs, and divide it by the number of tasks. If the number of any of these elements are uneven (don't divide perfectly), then it becomes a question of whether to beef up one group and/or thin out another. Either this, or they will assign various party members the tasks they are most adept at. The members will then form small 'groups' (like in school when we were all divided up for group projects).


Fantasy Party: Two Warriors, a Ranger, a Rogue, a Wizard, a Cleric, and a Warlock (or other specialized Magical character).

Scenario: In order to escape the dungeon with their booty, the PCs must pass through a cursed doorway. Solving a riddle/puzzle will negate the curse. Meanwhile, a horde of undead monsters are rushing the hallway that leads to the exit. Finally, clues point to a secret room off to the side of the hallway that might hold the one item they were sent into the dungeon to find, but never did.

Saying, "Crap guys, there are A LOT of undead coming. A ton", or "As the undead pile in...there aren't really as many as you thought. They do look tough though", gives the players an idea of who to put where and how many. Also, nonchalantly asking, "Who's good at puzzles? Stephanie, you're pretty darn good at them if I recall", is a way to hint that maybe Steph should be in whichever group is focus on cancelling the curse on the door.**

In the end, the party goes with the following breakdown:

Group 1, consisting of one Warrior, the Cleric, and the Warlock will face off against the monsters at the North end of the hallway leading to the exit. The Warrior can fight, the Warlock has some cool damaging spells, and the Cleric can fight, turn undead, and heal.

Group 2, consisting of the Rogue and the Ranger, will investigate the secret room at the South End of the hallway.

Group 3 meanwhile, consisting of the Wizard and the other Warrior, will try to solve the door puzzle, as the Wizard has knowledge and the Warrior's player (the aforementioned Stephanie) is good with puzzles and riddles.

Separate Into Groups
If you know who is going to be going where, and with whom, forming the groups mentioned above is easy. If these 'team ups' occur on a regular basis, take note of them as GM. When I was a player in Champions, using my character Starguard, I would tend to team up with my friend Pete's character Arctic Fox/White Wolf***, and was never to far from my friend David's character Omni. So...

When it came time to play, I made sure to sit next to Pete and/or David. This simple act, the GM would later tell me, helped him immensely. It made it easy to look over at the end of the table and see the same people sitting there are were there in the same scene in the game.

After that, I used to request that my players sit closer to, or across from, the other players whose PC's they would be interacting with the most. What a head clearer and a time saver! Seriously, give it a try.

Cliffhangers and Council Meetings

Each time you finish talking to a particular part of the party, you should leave them with either a 'Cliffhanger' or 'Council Meeting' before moving on to the next group.

A Cliffhanger is exactly what it sounds like. Have the enemy just about to attack. Have the trap go off, and as one or more of the PCs plunge into a pit below, cut to the next group. Leave them with a moment they are dying to get back to (sometimes literally), while simultaneously giving them a few moments to figure out what to do next.

A Council Meeting is the social interaction or tactical planning equivalent. Leave the players with their PCs having discovered some major piece of information, a huge clue, a secret, something they are going to want to discuss among themselves. The players won't notice the lag time it takes to get back to them if they are neck deep in conversation with each other about the game. Let them plan, scheme, argue, or whatever, as long as they are still entertained and you can focus your attention on the next group.

Round Robin

Keep it moving. Armed with the above tactics, and an awareness that letting any one group grab the spotlight too long means frustration for the rest, keep the ball rolling. Time yourself if you have to with an egg-timer, or a miniature hour glass (the minute ones). Maintain your pace and you maintain the interest level of your players, as well as giving the whole game a sense of timing and urgency.


These are the key elements that assist me when it comes up in my games. As I've noted before, I've been doing it for a long time and practice and experience make a big difference as well. I am also mildly obsessed with 'timing' as I mentioned on this blog a long while back. I watch a lot of old talk shows (specifically Johnny Carson, but also Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan and the Jimmy Dean show), and comedies where comedic timing and direction are key (the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Monty Python). I think analyzing these for their timing, pace, etc. really help give you a sense of control over the flow of your game.

Barking Alien

*You don't do it for the kudos, I know that. Neither do I. We GM because we love it. It's a calling, a creative outlet, and something that deep down we know we HAVE to do. That said, it's nice to be appreciated.

That and yeah, we do it for the kudos too.

** When helping in this way, be sure not too give away to much, and certainly be subtler than the example I illustrate here. It can be tricky. You don't want to railroad, or force them to take a particular action, but you want to guide them in a way that gives them the fighting chance to use their wits with regard to their situation.

***Don't want to get off top, but damn, I loved this character. Arctic Fox was the Wolverine of a parallel Earth, who remained a member of the Alpha Flight-like Canadian superhero team, The Northern Lights. He became trapped on our Champions Earth following the Dark Trinity Incident. Once there, he tried to fit in, but didn't know anyone, and the world and it's history were completely different. He himself did not exist on this new Earth.

Taking a leave of absence from the superhero team, Arctic Fox travelled to the Canada of this world in hopes of finding himself and his place in the order of things. There he went on several personal adventures, often assisting a half-Caucasian/half-Inuit rancher and his daughter. Arctic Fox fell in love with the daughter, and vice-versa, and the old rancher revealed himself to be a retired Golden Age superhero, The White Wolf. Accepting Arctic Fox like family, he gave him one of his old costumes and told him he'd always have a home at the ranch, but this world needed him. He returned to the team in a modified version of the costume, now referring to himself as White Wolf (II).




  1. I'm really enjoying this particular topic when it comes to gaming, not the least of which because I've given some thought myself to dictating (or at least encouraging) a particular seating arrangement around the gaming table.

  2. And how has that worked for you? I'm curious to see what experiences others have with different approaches to the game.

  3. Great Post: Your initial comment over on my blog has had me thinking about this a lot, and I'm digging a lot of what you're saying (and learning quite a bit in the bargain).

    It's interesting about the numbers you mention – "3 people altogether, splitting the party doesn't really make much sense. If you have 4 or more however..." – most of the groups I've played with have been right on that borderline (as often as not on the "3" side of it) and that has no doubt colored my thinking regarding party splits.

    Your council meeting idea seems like an excellent time-saver, which hadn't occurred to me – this is where I can really see a group as a whole getting more done in a session, because stuff is going on with group B, while group A takes time to figure out their next move.

    Thanks for sharing these ideas!