Split The Party!

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“Don’t Split The Party.”

Anyone who’s been in the hobby for a while has heard the term before. It’s been around long enough to become a de facto rule for many GMs. And while there is some credence to the rule, titles like Tenra Bansho Zero, Powered By The Apocalypse Engine, 7th Sea, and Star Wars d6 have shown that breaking this “rule” is not only an option, but can lead to great gaming experiences.

By ignoring the “rule”, you open yourself up to many new gameplay opportunities: it allows you to form more complicated, tangled stories with multiple threads; it facilitates “soft” Player-vs-Player conflicts where they work against each other (whether they know it or not); and it sets up those important, personal moments that really bring out a character.

I’ve mentioned my Urban Shadows game in the Undertale article. The game had a rule where, at the start of every new adventure, every player would give a rumour then roll to see where they placed in that rumour. Every new adventure, my players would end up split up and disjointed. They’d have numerous, seemingly unrelated goals and agendas and interact with their own cast of NPCs. By the end, though, this tangled mess would usually unravel into a cohesive conclusion, and everyone got their chance to shine, to influence the story, and to be the star along the way.

Facilitating this type of play can be difficult. The “rule” comes from the fact that, in classic DnD-style games,party separation often leaves individuals alone, weak, and unable to deal with the problems ahead. To avoid this, the system itself must ensure that every player is neither mechanically more effective or less effective in a group. Players may be specialized, but they all need a solution to the problems that come their way (even if it’s not the best one).

By giving every character access to the same set of basic abilities (like PbtA’s basic moves), players know their chance of success beforehand as well as what challenges lie ahead. These abilities should have easy to understand outcomes and known, if vague, results. This gets compounded by their own set of specialized abilities. By knowing the score before heading out, players know the solutions they can handle, but also know they can solve any problem: just not always cleanly.

Some players may find being out of the scene boring.

One alternative is to get those players involved as the scene’s “audience.” When the GM proposes a scene that only some characters will attend, the rest can fall into the scene’s audience, awarding rewards (such as experience, fate points, or etcetera) to players in the scene for playing to their motivation, doing something really cool, or even just being entertaining. The GM could offer these rewards to an audience member to enter the scene as an NPC: if they accept, they get the NPC’s character sheet and can earn rewards just the same. Finally, an additional mechanic, such as spending a fate point, for a PC to enter the scene, in case that audience member feels the need to become more personally involved in the action

Obviously, these mechanics won’t work for every game or game style. A straight dungeon crawl could turn even more lethal with these mechanics. Tactical combat would be a mess to run, or it may  simply takes too long to resolve1. Even worse, some players will just feel that if they’re at the table, they should be playing the game. If your group feels that way, don’t split the party.

Closing Thoughts

While this notion doesn’t work for every game style (dungeon crawls, tactical combat, Paranoia, etc), splitting the party can be a great way for GMs to experiment with new gameplay ideas and achieve a more personal, character driven adventure. Worst case scenario is that you don’t feel it works for you and your group after a session and you move on.

For designers, a presumption of splitting the party can be a new avenue of design that might really give your title an x-factor on the busy, digital market shelves. Many titles on the digital market place are very same-y and, in my experience as a customer, it can be hard to decide what titles to purchase. Having something unique that shows you’re willing to take risks would make me more likely to considering your title over the myriad of competitors.


1 A lot of the length comes down to individual judgement, but a good rule of thumb is to keep split scenes to around 5-10 minutes. 10 minutes being an absolute cap you don’t hit often.

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