If you’ve played any tabletop roleplaying game, such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, chances are good that you’ve heard the age-old advice, “Never split the party.” It’s such a popular idiom that’s it’s made its way into popular culture, thanks to television shows like Stranger Things. But is it really good advice? Absolutes rarely are, but let’s dive in and find out why.
Today we’re gonna see why you might want to split the party, how to keep characters alive when you do it, and how to make sure that everyone at the table still has a good time!
As always, you can get all the information from the video below, or the full article below that.
Split the party, please!
There are numerous reasons why you might want to split the party in a tabletop roleplaying game.
- You’ve got an awesome scene in mind that requires everyone to be in different places at once.
- You’re down in a dungeon and there’s a puzzle that forces you to split up in order to solve it.
- Everyone wants to do something different.
- The enemies are threatening multiple high-priority targets at once.
Before the party splits up, though, you need to ask one simple question: “Will this lead to more fun at the table?”
Having fun is the point behind everything that we do. If whatever the party is planning to do separately doesn’t seem like more fun than what they would do together, then don’t split the party. Otherwise, make like a banana and split!
Knowing players, however, things won’t go according to plan. In dire situations, the job of the dungeon master might be to save the players themselves, and keep the party alive.
Avoid a TPK
A lot of groups these days want to avoid a total party kill, or TPK, if at all possible. They want to play their characters and enjoy the story that they’re unfolding. If your group sounds like that, then you may want to give them a fighting chance at survival when they split up. This is particularly challenging if they’re tackling content that you planned for them to handle together.
If you have a dungeon already laid out with encounters that are perfectly balanced for your party of six to tackle together, and then the gang splits up, what do you do? You probably can’t leave everything as-is, or else they’ll all meet their grizzly fate as an extra coat of red paint on the dungeon walls.
You’ll need to make on-the-fly adjustments during the game (or before if you’re blessed with prep time).
Unfortunately, adjusting encounters to fit group size is more of an art than a science. For all that the rules go on about Challenge Rating, it’s really a rule of thumb rather than a hard-and-fast calculation.
In order to balance encounters, you have a few options:
- Reduce the number of enemies.
The action economy is king in D&D, and while ten goblins might not be a huge threat to a part of six, they can be deadly to a part of three. If you feel like the action economy might be a split party’s biggest enemy, go ahead and reduce the number of enemies in an encounter.
- Reduce enemy hit points.
Sometimes it’s not a whole bunch of small enemies, but a few big ones that are posing a threat. Characters can only chew through so much of the enemy’s hit points every round, and you A.) don’t want those enemies to outlast your party, and B.) you don’t want combat to drag on forever. You probably don’t want to run a three hour combat session for one part of a split party, while the other part is off doing god knows what else. If you think the enemies might have a bit too much HP for your split party to chew through in three or four rounds, go ahead and adjust their HP down—on the fly during combat, if need be.
- Let someone run away.
Running away is a great tactic for both player characters and NPCs. It’s entirely possible the enemies your split party is engaged with could decide that the fight isn’t worth their time and skedaddle. Maybe their leader was killed and they’re routed. Maybe they hear something on the other side of the dungeon and rush to aid their own allies. Any of those instances can help keep combat short and sweet, and maybe you can encounter those remaining enemies when the whole party is back together again later on.
While you’re avoiding a TPK, be sure to keep in mind the pacing of your session with the split party. Because while a TPK might kill all of your player characters, bad pacing will kill the vibe of your split-party D&D session.
Don’t Bore Your Players
Pacing is what’s going to make or break your split-party session, so it’s important to get right.
First let’s take a look at bad pacing. We’ll use an extreme example.
If you’re running a four hour session, spending two uninterrupted hours on one half of the group and then switching to the other will lead to a bad time. Imagine sitting on the sideline for the first half of the game, knowing full well that your turn is not coming anytime soon and you can’t contribute to what’s going on; you’d be miserable! Now, imagine being idle for the second half of the game, wondering if you should just go home.
To see examples of good pacing, look no further than television and movies—thrillers and action movies especially—where several characters are in different locations at the same time. The action focuses on a single character for a short amount of time, reaches a point of rising action, and then cuts to the next character. In your game, that point of rising action could be the start of combat, or a pointed question to an NPC, or the character opening a mysterious door.
Whenever there’s about to be a reveal, or something’s just about to happen, shift focus to another character. Rinse and repeat and go around the table, moving each scene along to the next cliffhanger. The job of the game master here is a lot like the director of those movies or TV shows: they have to keep things moving along at a satisfying pace, and shift focus when it’s most dramatic to keep everyone on the edge of their seat.
Another way to keep all players at the table engaged is to use any NPC allies you have in combat. If a party is split, but each party has its own set of NPCs trailing behind, then those NPCs can simply be given to the players not in the current group. They’re engaged in the current events, they can still participate in the fight, and they can help push the narrative along using the retainers, mercenaries, or whatever Kevin has dragged along.
Find the right mix
Adjusting encounters and keeping everyone’s attention isn’t all that goes into a good split-party session.
When you’re splitting the party, and you have a say in the party composition, consider the personalities of the people in each group. If you have a player who is more reactive and they’re left alone, nothing may happen when they’re in the spotlight because there’s no one for them to react to.
To avoid that situation, make it a practice to have proactive players team up with reactive players so that there’s always someone who can get things moving.
… But try to stay together
All that being said, it’s important to remember that splitting the party should not become the norm. Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games are collaborative, cooperative, and social games—not multiple single player games tied together by a game master. Try to play together as much as possible.
Sometimes, splitting the party is just a terrible idea. If you’re escorting a noble who is the target of an assassin, it’s probably best to stick together and protect them. If you’re in the middle of a trap-infested dungeon with roving monsters, you should probably stick together and protect your behinds.
No matter what, always remember that FUN trumps everything else. We win when we have fun, and if splitting the party or not splitting the party leads to that victory, that is all that matters.