“Don’t split the party.”
The very phrase seems to be known by every adventuring party ever. If ever a character starts making plans to go off in a separate direction, one of the players is guaranteed to shout this from across the table. If you ask the internet, it won’t hesitate to chime in and let you know what a mistake it is, citing personal examples of character death and misfortune. Scooby Doo’s “Let’s split up, Gang” does not apply when it comes to D&D.
The basic understanding here is that there is strength in numbers. If the GM throws the big bad at the characters, they’ll have an easier time dealing with it if everyone is together. In a game based on random die rolls, bad things are bound to happen when it is most inopportune. Praying to any intangible gods of luck won’t save players from the game master’s wrath when characters go separate ways.
There is an even more meta aspect at play as well. Many comics and memes have painted Game Masters as vengeful gods who only exist to punish players. The trope exists for good reason, as those types of GMs absolutely exist. Splitting the party means you’ve made the game more difficult for the GM to run and their vengeance shall be forthcoming. It’s not IF that big bad comes when the party splits, its WHEN, because the GM will make sure that it does. This isn’t a GMing style I endorse, but we’ve all seen it.
There is a third reason I’d advise against it, and one that is not often considered. Splitting the party has the very real potential to make the game less fun. By doing so, you’ve taken one game and essentially made it two. That means that whenever one half of the group is playing, the other half isn’t engaged. They are no longer part of that story. Sure, some players will still hang on every word, but many more are going to be going to their phones or having disruptive side conversations. That’s not really their fault, however. They came to play a game, not watch one.
As a player, when faced with the option to split the party, I’ll generally try and take a read on the GM and see what they think. Barring a glance from them that tells me otherwise, my inclination is to stay put. There is always a way to rationalize it in character. It keeps the game together and fun for everyone, which should be the main point.
From a GM perspective, however, splitting the party can be a great engagement tool if it’s done right. There are times when every player is at work doing something different. Each one has their own little aside in a separate area. It seems unavoidable. When it happens, I focus on two things: length and cliffhangers.
Keep each player’s turn short and sweet. That way, no one is waiting too long for the lens to shift. That doesn’t mean you have to finish their task; just the opposite, really. Give each player just a snippet at a time, with the knowledge that you are going to come back to them. This lends itself really well to the second technique.
Whenever you can end one of these snippets on a cliffhanger, do it. These don’t have to be huge. It’s almost better if it is not, as a major happening every moment feels a little soap operaish and cheapens the impacts you want to be larger. Did they open a chest? Let them wait until their next turn to see what is in it. Maybe an NPC asks them a deep or unsettling question.
“UnQuat stares at you menacingly, his jagged smile unnerving you by its very presence. ‘The Dark God comes,’ he says. ‘She demands a sacrifice. What will you give her?'”
That would be a great time to take a break and move onto another character. Its a big question and deserves a big question. Any players not involved in the scene listening in will be on the edge of thier seat. The player in the scene in question gets time to think of an epic reply, which can only help the story. If it works out, it keeps everyone engaged and active in the story, even when it isn’t about them.
There is another time when splitting the party can be a great resource for the GM. An extended split can do some great things for storytelling, role playing, and character development. I’ll cover that in the next article, “It’s Been a While.”