Ask The GM: Should I Let The Party Split Up

By John Serpico on

 

CJ asks – I’m running a campaign that’s about ten sessions old and two of the players want to split off and hunt down an artifact that I kind of mentioned by accident. Is the whole “never split the party” thing good advice or should I let these two go on their search?

CJ, yours is a common apprehension. Plenty of GMs feel like they must keep the party together, regardless of what the party actually wants. Plenty of players do too, for that matter. I believe this mutual concern is born of a numbers of reasons, some rational and some not.

From the GM perspective, splitting up the party can lead to a more complicated gaming session. A GM potentially needs to keep track of twice as much – twice as many settings, twice as many NPCs, twice as many puzzles, and dangers and everything else. And on top of that, the GM must switch between groups of players at dramatically opportune moments, all while trying to balance all the players’ “screen time.”

For players, splitting the party means vulnerability. If the mage and the cleric wander off, that obviously means that the warrior and thief are going to die in a hail of magic missiles. Or if a thief is in town running errands, every room the rest of the players walk into will be full of traps. Or so the thinking goes.

While I agree to some degree that a split party requires more effort on the part of the GM and leads to a less well-rounded party of adventurers, I also believe that splitting the party can often be the best possible thing to do in a given campaign. There are times when either the plot calls for it, or individual character circumstances call for it. So when the need arises, as a GM, it is your responsibility to let that happen.

Let’s imagine a scenario. The party just heard that the nefarious villain they’ve been chasing is heading north, either by way of a trade ship or in a well-guarded wagon train. The wagon train will be heading towards a farming town where the mentor of one of the characters lives and the trade ship will be leaving from a coastal city in which another character can get a precious artifact appraised. Both routes eventually lead to a village in the north. So, in that scenario, what makes more sense – keeping the party together and disappointing at least one character or letting the party split apart to cover both routes and get to the same place in the end?

Yes, you as a GM will need to do some pre-work for each route and switch the focus back and forth between groups. But the upside is likely greater than you think it is. Splitting the party allows for great interpersonal interactions between smaller groups. Those characters can talk among themselves and NPCs in a way that represents a very different social dynamic than “the paladin always does the talking and everyone else stands around quietly.” Also, different subsets of characters lead to different ways to approach problems and hurdles. Getting through an advanced border crossing full of passport scanners and customs officials without a hacker or getting past a wooden fort full of orcs without your berserker will involve creative adventuring. And, after all, that’s the point of gaming to begin with.

Also, the more the party splits up and has a good time, the more they will be inclined to do it. From the player perspective, there is strength in numbers. But you can make sure they understand that there is glory and intrigue in fewer numbers. And you can also make sure they know you’re not going to punish them arbitrarily.

So yes, split the party and plan for twice the fun.

Happy GMing!

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