Thursday, July 27, 2023

Splitting the Party

Within a few years of my entrance into the hobby, my friends and I were playing a wide range of different RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons remained our staple, of course, but we also regularly played other games. Playing those other games not only cleansed our palates genre-wise, but also medium-wise. For example, Champions and Marvel Super Heroes, being inspired by the medium of comic books, both included game mechanics intended to emulate the kinds of things you'd see in the sequential storytelling of those four-color magazines. Consequently, when we played those RPGs, we made an effort to do so in a way that mimicked the action we'd see in issues of our favorite DC or Marvel titles. I'm not sure we did this consciously. More likely, it was simply something that seemed right, given how clearly (and explicitly, in the case of Marvel Super Heroes) these games modeled themselves after their source material.

This mindset carried over into other RPGs, too. One that sticks very firmly in my mind – and that's relevant to the larger topic I want to discuss in this post – is Star Trek the Role Playing Game. As I've no doubt said too many times before, Star Trek was my original fandom, the gateway through which I entered more solidly into the wider world of nerdery. When FASA published their RPG adaptation of the TV series in 1982, I snapped it up immediately and ran the game almost non-stop over the course of several years in the mid-80s. Though the rules of the game made some effort to model the conventions of the show – the starship combat system is perhaps the most successful instance of this – they weren't as strongly wedded to emulation of that kind as were the superhero roleplaying games I mentioned above.

Even so, my friends and I, as if by suggestion, tried to replicate the beats of the 1966 Star Trek series as best we could in play. One of the ways I attempted this – I say "I," because I was almost always the referee – could be seen in my handling of landing parties. In our sessions, as in the television program, characters would sometimes split up, with some of them remaining aboard ship, while others transported down to the planet it was orbiting. The two groups would stay in communication with one another, conveying useful information back in forth, but there were often times when they were out of contact for short or extended periods of time. Occasionally, the lack of communication between ship and landing party was a major plot point, with each group of characters having to deal with a problem in isolation, with only part of the overall picture available to them. 

This set-up makes for good drama and I thought it'd make for good roleplaying too, especially since my friends and I were all fairly committed to bringing our sessions in line with the TV show. In those days, we regularly played in the basement of the home of two brothers. In sessions where one group of characters beamed down to a planet and another stayed in orbit, I'd physically separate them, sending one group upstairs to the living room or kitchen, while leaving the other in the basement. I'd shuttle back and forth between each group, handling their current situation in isolation. When they communicated with each other, I'd allow a player from one group to go to the other and they'd exchange information, as if they were using a communicator. This approach, while it slowed down play and involved a lot of running back and forth on my part, was often quite effective. I can still recall several sessions where the ignorance of one group of characters about the activities of the other led to memorable moments of roleplaying (and humor). Nowadays, I could probably handle this much more easily and effectively with technology unavailable to us in the 1980s. 

Ironically, in my House of Worms campaign, the characters recently found themselves in a situation where I could have made use of a technological solution – and I didn't do so. While exploring a mysterious location, the characters came across a large, pillar-like object with multiple open apertures leading inside. After some experimentation to determine that it was probably safe, several of them entered and all found themselves in a different place. As some of them eventually discovered, the pillar was a device of the Ancients called a superposition enclosure and it was being used to hold an Undying Wizard called Getúkmetèk prisoner. Each of the characters who entered found himself in a separate reality in which he experienced a possible past/present/future where he had achieved some goal he greatly desired. Meanwhile, there were several characters outside the superposition enclosure, none of whom had any idea what was going inside it.

Bear in mind that House of Worms has been, since its inception in 2015, an entirely online game. We use Discord for voice chat and the campaign's server could easily accommodate separate voice channels into which I could separate all the characters so that their players would have no idea what was happening elsewhere. I didn't do this, however, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it, I suspect, is that I was simply lazy. Unlike my teenage self, the thought of popping back and forth between voice channels seemed like too much work, even though the end result might have been dramatically effective. Part of it, too, is that I worry about players losing focus while I tended to a player segregated in his own channel. As I have been running it, all the players have the chance to hear what's happening to their comrades, even if their characters do not. That keeps everyone engaged and, more than once, hearing the reactions of the players to things their characters do not know was positively delightful.

Does anyone reading this have any experiences with this sort of thing? Have you ever split up players in this fashion and, if so, how did it turn out? I'm quite curious to know how others have done it.


  1. Back in the day we always physically separated the players into other rooms when the party split. It definitely adds to the tension and realism, but it can be brutal to a player who spends 45 minutes out of the action. Gets 10 minutes of play then 45 more back sitting and reading.

    I remember one memorable session where my lone PC completed the horror scenario by himself after he got separated. Fun for me anti climactic for the rest of the party.

    Nowadays I would just let everyone stay. But I'm not as dedicated.

  2. Back in the day, we handled this rare event by having different sub groups play on separate days. The DM would convene group A on one day and then group B a few days later. Soon after, we reunited and shared stories.

  3. I had a DM who physically separated us - to a space where there was nothing to do, and no desk or table space. It was boring as hell. I prefer to let people stay at the table, and ask them to compartmentalize as best they can.

  4. Yea, I used to do physical separation. These days with online play, I don't bother. Back in the mid 2000s when I was doing in person gaming, at most I would take a player aside to give them private information.

    I am also reminded of the time I joined one of my players at her housemates to play test someone's Fudge scenario. Near the end, she somehow got off by herself and she and the GM stepped into another room for a good long time and they came back and announced the scenario was resolved. It was a total letdown, especially after an earlier encounter where the fact that the GM didn't use a structured turn order left my PC doing nothing despite being present in the situation and having capability to respond. That scenario was the trigger for me abandoning Fudge (though I MAY have run Another Fine Mess for a couple friends after - that IS a fun scenario but totally a standalone one shot).

    Anyway, these days, I'm much more in favor of not separating players and trust players to be good role players. I also have a preference for minimizing the disruption of splitting the party.

  5. In the early 90's I used to sometimes separate the group but I think we can all agree that downtime, for those who wait, is a real mood killer.

    What we did more often was to single out a player per session and give him 15-20 minutes to develop his/her character's personal agenda before the session began. That could bring some interesting nuances to the table without stealing too much time from the overall campaign.

    Another thing i did and paid off quite nicely was to split the group in two and have them play on separate nights, often blind to each other activities but woking for a common goal (once two players had to infiltrate an organisation, while the others had to deal with other related tasks). Nowadays I tend to avoid it as by getting older we have less overall playtime and also time dedicated by players to even think about the game off game-night has become zero.

    1. In college, when I had 24x7 access to my players, we did sometimes do individual sessions or maybe one or two players. I also did a tiny bit of blue booking.

      These days, even with a Discord Server for my gaming, it's hard to get people to do more than chargen offline...

      I'm going to push more of that with my Cold Iron campaign as converting treasure into magic items can take a bit of time and is an ideal activity for chat.

  6. Don't play except face to face unless forced to by COVID. Physical separation has always been a thing that happens now and then, and it's far less annoying than it once was owing to virtually everyone carrying something to keep occupied at all times. You really probably ought to be spending your "down time" planning what you want to do when the GM gets to you, but it never hurt to bring something to read in the old days and phone apps are a thing now.

    I've also been lucky enough to have a fair number of groups where an assistant/co-GM was a thing, so splitting didn't mean that half the party was stuck waiting for the GM to get done with the other sub-group. That seems to be an uncommon thing for most folks I've met, so as I said, just my good luck, I guess.

  7. Like so many in this thread, I've split the party.

    Would not do again.

  8. A similar problem can arise when a single player is under an illusion or compulsion (Led Zep voice on: "does anyone remember geas?"), or has a psychic event/encounter that no one else could or should be witness to for game plot purposes.

    No DM I knew growing up was ever able to pull this off except by going into a separate room (which of course would alert everyone 'something was up'), but a few years back while running weekly RPG sessions in a bar, I found that offering to buy a player a drink — or *ahem* remind them they had offered to buy the GM a beer — made for a convenient excuse to have a quick sidebar with the character in question.

  9. I pretty much always let players stay and observe what's going on. The downsides of removing players seem much bigger than the upsides, to me.
    I see complaints that GMs shouldn't kill or incapacitate PCs because then the player can't participate. Stopping players from even observing seems much worse to me.