This week I thought I’d survey a few short tips for GMs to use in their games. But as I began writing my first entry about splitting the party I discovered I had a lot more to say than I thought. There is a lot of wisdom in the gamer adage, “Never Split the Party.” It can be boring for the disengaged players who are awaiting their turn while the other half of the party takes an active role in the story. It is also dangerous to split the party in places like dungeons because it doesn’t take much to tip the CR balance against the players if they’re not at full fighting capacity as a team. SO if you’re not trying to out-and-out TPK the party or bore your players why would you want to split the party?
When you split the party you can cut away with cliffhangers to increase the tension and drama. You can layer new discoveries so that the players can gain insights and revelations their characters won’t know until they can back together and compare notes…If they can get back together. And that uncertainty can be exciting!
If you are using a published module you may find the sections on scaling the adventure a helpful starting point in balancing out encounters for split parties. Feel free to try and err on the too weak side to start as your goal probably isn’t a TPK. If your encounters seem too weak, you can scale them up a little as you progress.
Intercutting between the two groups as often as reasonably possible is a good idea especially if you can time it so that at least one pair of combat encounters can sync up. At which point you can run the two separate encounters as one combat. Having each player and monster act on their turn in the initiative regardless of what room they’re in.
If you can’t sync up the monster encounters or the party splits outside the dungeon you can have the other players run monsters or NPCs for the other half of the party. Talk about this well in advance of splitting the party (such as during session zero) and again when it happens. Make it clear that none of this is personal and there should be no hard feelings. Enemy NPCs are meant to die in combat encounters and that still holds true.
Another thing you can do with these un-synced combats is to leave them with cliffhangers and return to the other half of the party. If the Big Bad scores a crit on one of your PCs or an attack might kill someone take note of the current round, initiative order, and damage inflicted but before revealing the damage you cut to the other group. If you are looking for great examples of cliffhangers the Glass Cannon Podcast* and/or Androids and Aliens* podcast (if you’re a Starfinder fan) are good resources.
You can also split the party on a smaller scale. Recently, I was considering doing something similar to some of the door puzzles in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Several times in the game you need to slide shelving units to gain access to various areas. In most cases, these units simply help conceal an area from view but at one point your character has to move some in one area run around a corner and move others into the now vacated space. Other video games have pressure plates or switches that multiple character’s need to stand on or pull. We can do similar things in our dungeon design putting parts of the party in limited isolation allowing for wandering foes to attack while the party is not at full strength at least for a couple of rounds.
Sometimes the payoff isn’t in splitting the party but in reuniting them. Imagine leaving one half the party with the cliffhanger when they stumble on a group of the Big Bad’s mercenaries gearing up for action. Later the other half of the party is hitting the room with the big bad himself instead of making the partial party who stumbled into the wrong room fight the big bad alone. When you call for initiative several of the apparent minions of the big bad unmask and reveal themselves to be the rest of the PC’s party. After the combat, you can narrate the intervening time detailing how the PCs joined or replaced some of the villain’s minions just prior to the final battle in a flashback scene.
Again, not splitting the party is often good advice but sometimes it’s advice worth ignoring.
*Parental Discretion is advised due to language and often adult content. The Glass Cannon podcasts are not all audience podcasts.
Featured Image is used under fair use and is copyright Warner Brothers Animation.