A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


16Mar/11Off

Splitting the Party

"Order of the Stick: Don't Spilt the Party" Volume 4 available at Giant In the Playground (click on above image)

Everybody says "don't split the party"... Most of the time the reason they give is "bad things will happen", which they inevitably do. The real reason is that it's a potential nightmare when it comes to doing it in a table top session. It doesn't always go over well when you tell half of the group "I'm going to ignore you for a while."

As I've stated many a time, all my campaigns as of late have been "play by post", so it's actually rather easy to split the party: just make two separate threads. Short of cloning myself, that's not a readily available option at the table.

In my campaign there are two specific instances that I can think of where the party will be split. One of them is a skill challenge scenario so it's not that bad to handle (it's basically a skill challenge in which you can't see each other), but one is the single most complex encounter in my entire campaign. And it's an encounter that I, quite honestly, really like. In fact, it's probably my favorite encounter in the whole campaign.

So when it came time to write up that encounter for the module... what do I do? I already ran the encounter once in a PbP forum and it went rather well, but looking at the original design I have to wonder how would such an encounter be managed in a table top scenario.

Here are the elements, described in the most generic sense so as not to spoil anything:

  1. Five PCs.
  2. Around 20 NPCs, most of which are neutrals and/or minions. Only one or two would qualify as true allies, and that is compensated for by the encounter strength.
  3. Short of a better way of describing it, one "environmental effect" that has a broad scope and affects everyone in a large area (categorized as an "Elite Hazard", if you must know).
  4. Two areas of potential combat that are divided geographically. That "division" involves a good two to three hundred feet, the areas do not have line of sight or line of effect with each other, and there is some blocking terrain features between the two.

Everything is peachy until that last one, and then the whole table top scenario falls apart. And it's not just a matter of mechanics, but of "fun": there is only one DM after all, so certain players might begin to feel ignored while the action occurs in an area they're not even aware of. And trying to run both encounter scenes at the same time might be a rather confusing experience; heck, I had a hard time doing it using the MasterPlan encounter manager (I had both groups in the same set).

I find myself forced to redesign my favorite encounter to make it one area. I'm not thrilled at the idea, but the whole point of creating this campaign is so that others can run it. And I don't want to create encounters that are simply not usable at the table.

So has anyone out there ever split the party? Any suggestions on how a situation such as the above would work?

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  1. I split the party in my TTop games whenever it seems reasonable to do so. The best technique that I have seen is to trust the players not to use out-of-character knowledge and treat them as though they were all still together, going around the table and advancing the plots sequentially a little at a time. When there is unusually high risk of knowledge being acquired by one sub-group that would affect what the others were doing, I briefly take them aside to impart the information and get some notion of how they are going to react. The others are free to take a break, get snacks and drinks, etc, if this is going to take more than a minute or two. At the table, when a player feels that his actions might tell the others more than they should know, they will occasionally resort to passing a note to me. They can also pass notes to each other so long as they all pass through the GMs hands for review en route. They may ask a question by note, and I will write the answer on the note. I will also prepare notes in advance where that’s important or useful, for example when there are significant differences in what their characters see.

    We normally play at two medium=sized tables put together side-by-side, but on one occasion (similar to the situation you describe) I deliberately seperated the two tables and sat in between them with the chair sideways. One group sat at one table and the other at the other. I used A GM Screen on one table and a stack of reference and rule books on the other so that the two groups did not have a clear line of sight of each other after they seperated. While this may not be possible, depending on the physical layout of your gaming space, if feasable, it works.

  2. These articles might also be helpful:

    Ask The GMs: “Let’s Split Up.” – “Good Idea, we can do more damage that way!”
    http://bit.ly/14giGu

    Ask The GMs: How to GM solo PCs (especially in combat)
    http://bit.ly/bsFO5Y


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