I vaguely remember an old joke in which one listed out the top ten rules of roleplaying, and nearly every other one was “Don’t split the party!” – in other words, keep all of the player characters (PCs) together and in the same place at the same time. Recently I saw this guideline repeated in a gaming article for game masters (GMs) written by an industry author, and that got me thinking. Today we’re going to look at why this became such an important guideline, what value it still has – and what value it doesn’t have.
Why So Important?
There’s a good handful of reasons why so many players and GMs have come to see not splitting the party as such an important thing. I may not necessarily agree with this solution, but I can at least see why it became so popular.
#1. Strategy: When most of what your party is doing is dungeon-crawling, keeping the party together is simple common sense. In a maze of twisty passages, all alike, it’s terribly easy for characters to get lost and never find their way back to each other. And when they’re separated for any length of time, it’s much easier for monsters to kill everyone. This goes double in a game where you have character classes, and thus, not having a single character (the thief, who needs to find and disarm traps, or the cleric, who’s needed to heal people) in the right place at the right time can get you killed.
#2. For Ease of Play: Splitting the party can be a headache for the GM – he has to keep track of multiple separate groups, somehow figure out the relative timing of the groups’ actions, and just generally keep track of two or three times as many things at once.
#3. To Avoid Boredom: Splitting the party means that at any given time, only one group of PCs can be in the spotlight and acting. Other players are just sitting around and watching. If the players are good at entertaining each other, and if the GM is good about switching the spotlight around frequently, this isn’t necessarily a tragedy. But this can end up with bored players who are frustrated because they’re just watching the game, not playing in it.
#4. Party Coherence: party that splits up a lot is sometimes a sign of a party that lacks coherence, and that can cause other problems. If the party isn’t coherent enough, it can be difficult to get everyone involved in plots and keep everyone interested and excited in the game. (Note that you can have characters that backstab each other and do their own thing yet still have coherence as a party–unity and coherence don’t have to mean the same thing.)
#5. Planned Events: If the GM likes to plan events related to the plot, then having the PCs split up could throw a kink into his plans, particularly if he isn’t very good at improvising.
Reasons to not split the party
“Don’t split the party” makes a good general, loose philosophy. It’s good to remember that the party needs to act together in part in order to keep the game interesting.
If the party is doing a lot of “dungeon-crawling” and the like, then yes, it often does make good strategy to keep the party together. This is also the case in very dangerous game worlds where lone characters are more likely to get targeted for robberies, muggings, and the like. It’s also the case in most games based on narrowly-defined character classes, where characters can get killed just because they don’t have the right kind of character with them.
If the GM likes to run very tightly-plotted games with scripted story-lines and lots of planned events, and has trouble improvising when PCs leave the beaten path, then splitting the party unexpectedly is likely to throw heavy kinks into his plans. If his players enjoy that sort of game, then they might not want to split up too much. It’ll only frustrate the GM and lead to confusion and boredom when he isn’t sure how to react to what the players are doing.
If there are players in the game who have a tendency to “hog the spotlight,” and who tend to do boring things when they go off alone rather than things that would entertain the rest of the group, then trying not to split the party can help to keep everyone entertained.
When it’s okay to split the party
Despite all of the reasons why the “don’t split the party” directive came into being, some very good reasons for not following it have also come into being.
Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense for the group to stay together. A more sound strategy might involve sending a couple members of the party around behind the enemy. Or leaving two PCs to watch the tied-up spies while the others go to fetch help. A non-player character (NPC) might not want to talk to a horde of eight people at once, and a PC might not want to have a very personal conversation with an NPC in front of seven onlookers.
The moment games started to include character background and personal plot, it was inevitable that characters might want to do some things privately or on their own. Fighting against this is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – it’s trying to make these games into something they aren’t. Games set in the modern world are also harder to reconcile with the “don’t split the party” rule. After all, you don’t spend every waking moment of every single day with the same group of people, do you? (Okay, there are some situations where it works, but not many.)
There’s nothing wrong with splitting up the party, as long as it doesn’t keep the game from being fun for the players and GM. The players should make sure their characters have a good reason for going off on their own. They should try to make sure they’re paying attention to everyone else around the gaming table and thinking about their fellow players’ fun as well as their own. Let’s go through the “why so important” items one at a time here:
#1. Strategy: Well, strategy is rather subjective. Sometimes sticking together is a good strategy, and sometimes splitting up is better for whatever reason. Players should do what they think is best, but unless they’re good at entertaining the other players when off on their own, they should probably err on the side of keeping the party together when possible.
#2. For Ease of Play: It’s best not to split the party up for long periods of time, or split the party up into more than two or, at most, three groups. The more the party splits up, and the longer the characters spend apart, the harder life gets for the GM. Short periods of time apart, however, really shouldn’t be a problem. This one is highly dependent on the GM, however. There are GMs who can handle highly fractured games, and then there are GMs who get confused the moment things get complicated.
#3. To Avoid Boredom: Again, unless you have players who are particularly good at entertaining others (or you have something very fun for people who aren’t involved to go off and do), time apart should remain relatively short. Individuals shouldn’t hog the GM’s time and attention for extended periods of time; they should give him a chance to switch around between groups frequently enough to keep everyone interested. (Along those lines, they should try not to go off and do things while other characters are asleep or out of the action if they can avoid it. That keeps players sidelined for longer.) Players should try to be entertaining and engaging about what they’re doing, if possible; keep boring actions to a minimum. Characters should have a good reason for going off on their own, rather than doing it just because they feel like it. They should also get back with the rest of the party as soon as they can. Players don’t have to go to extremes here, and (as with most of these suggestions) the specifics are dependent on the personalities involved, but players should at least keep each other’s fun in mind.
#4. Party Coherence: Players should design and play their characters in ways that encourage party play. Characters should have reasons to work with the other members of the party; they should not be loners (note, however, that this is subjective; a character can have a “loner personality” yet be built to depend on having other characters around). Characters should have reason to be interested in other party members’ activities and plots. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t have personal plots and personal interests – they just have to be willing to share these things with the rest of the party after a certain point. Note that, as mentioned before, party coherence doesn’t have to equal party unity. There can be plenty of disagreements and betrayals as long as there’s generally reason for the PCs to hang out and do things together.
#5. Planned Events: Players can’t necessarily anticipate a GM’s planned game events. As long as players keep their party together when feasible and reasonable, then the rest should be up to the GM. Learning to improvise while GMing isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds; here are a couple of articles to help:
Here are a few additional guidelines, thoughts and details to help you make all this work.
Number of players
Splitting the party tends to be easier on very small gaming groups. If your game only has two players, it’s easy for the GM to keep track of both and switch back and forth between them often. If your game has twelve, then it’s harder to keep track of groups that splinter off. And since six sidelined players are much more likely to start chatting and getting distracted than one player is, you have a much higher risk of failing to entertain the other players. The more players you have in one room, the more you need to try to keep them together when possible.
An exception to this is the GM who feels comfortable breaking one large group in to several smaller, coherent groups and running a game that way.
Splitting the party is easier and more fun if there are things for everyone to do. If one group of players can go into the kitchen and brainstorm their next move or plan battle strategy while the other players are having their conversation or searching a building, then you don’t have to worry so much about bored and frustrated players. Another possibility is to allow the players of sidelined characters to play NPCs and monsters who are currently on-screen.
A few guidelines for players
You might as well try to keep the party together when there’s no good reason to do otherwise – it makes things easier on the GM, and decreases the amount of time that other players spend sidelined and bored.
Do try to pay attention to the players around you. Do they look bored? Then try to draw them into the action more. Make sure you’re taking the fun of everyone else into account, as well as your own fun. Slant your character’s actions.
If you’re playing a game that calls for personal plots and characters with depth, then do allow yourself (and others) to have personal moments away from the other characters. As long as it isn’t carried to a boring extreme, or used to keep other players out of the action, then there isn’t anything wrong with this.
I’ll put all of this in a slightly different way now: If I say that in general it’s a good idea not to split the party, I mean it in a conceptual way. I don’t mean that literally every member of the party should stick together in the same space at the same time, doing the same things. As long as everyone in your gaming group is enjoying themselves, the things they’re doing are connected in some way, and they aren’t bored or resentful of other players, then in spirit you haven’t split the party. Only worry about doing more than that if you’re running into problems.
I’ve seen games carried to both extremes. I’ve seen games where the party was practically a gestalt, with few individual feelings or interests, because that would (horrors!) lead to situations where the party might split up. By and large, those games weren’t incredibly engaging and didn’t really pull people in. (Although if you really enjoy party-oriented hack-and-slash gaming, there’s nothing wrong with that. If everyone’s into it, it can be a lot of fun!)
I’ve also seen players wait until other players’ characters were asleep, then go off and spend two hours of the game night doing boring things that they had no reason to keep to themselves, resulting in everyone else feeling frustrated and resentful.
As in most things, the key is moderation. Allow PCs to have their personal moments, but remember that a game is about a group of players and their characters, not about individuals. Take advantage of all that neat character background, but remember that you’re playing a game that requires certain conventions to be followed at least minimally in order for all of the players to have fun.
Roleplaying is a social activity, and you need to take that into account. If you want to play solo, then find a GM who’s willing to do that – don’t shanghai someone else’s game and try to keep it to yourself. If you’re a GM who’s afraid that any split in the party could ruin your carefully-planned plot, then learn more about improvisation and the creation of adaptable material – and, like your players, remember that everyone’s there to have fun. Create some dramatic personal moments for players’ individual characters and they’re likely to feel more personally involved with the game. Also learn tricks like shifting the spotlight around and making conversations dramatic so that people can have their personal moments without boring the other players.
In other words, go ahead and split the party – with care.