Thursday, November 15, 2012

Split Parties Made Easy

The words every Storyteller loathes to hear: “All right, so we have a plan.  We’re going to split up.  Zephrox and Anaphriel will go to the mall and look for witnesses.  Zahaviel, Ishad and Zaphrox want to go over to the suspect’s house to search it.  Jhoriel will hit the books.  This way we’ll waste less time....”

Waste less in character time, maybe.

There’s a lot of out of character time that gets wasted in split parties through summarising what happened before, transitioning between the swaps, dealing with out of character comments from the neglected half when they spill over into out of character conversation with those currently in action, regaining the neglected half’s attention and otherwise keeping your own head together.

So how to deal with it?

First, consider any players who aren’t involved in the game at the time to be neglected even if they’re happy with the situation.  Just like neglected kids, they’ll get bored quickly and start doing other things that may even be disruptive (like chit chat that lures in active players).  This doesn’t mean they want to be disruptive or problematic.  They likely keenly want to be helpful.  It’s just hard to ask a group of people who came for a game to sit and twiddle their thumbs for an unknown length of time.

So here’s some things to make it work.

Keep it snappy.  If you swap from one side to the other within five minutes, apathy won’t set in and the players will have to be on their toes ready for you to come back to them.  The quick pace means you can swap away the moment they start discussing their plans or predicament and their own conversation may continue in character when you cut to the other group.

Treat it like a down time.  Maybe there doesn’t need to be conversations played out between the various individuals.  Rather than having the characters go through the suspect’s house room by room you could just describe the house, find out how they’re breaking in (jotting down any clues THEY leave behind), and making them roll to see what clues they find.  Then you simply deliver them the clues in paper form (Hey Presto!) and return to the other side to quickly summarise their encounters and pass out what they overhear.  This is a great option where pacing is at a premium and where they’re not getting involved in key scenes.

Get the Nothing To Do Players to help.  Okay, so they’re not going to be prepped and briefed to do something complicated (more than likely) and some players just aren’t comfortable with running NPCs on the fly.  However, if Zephrox and Anaphriel split up to question different witnesses, you might be able to get Jhoriel’s player to stone wall Zephrox with a bored conspiracy theorist while you give Anaphriel the information through another NPC.

Write the clue information down.  Not just props but what those props mean.  This can also cut down on the “What she said....” that inevitably follows when you explain the meaning behind all of that laboratory apparatus.  If you can write it down and pass it to the player in question you can kill some time with them explaining it all in character while you swap to the other side of the split party.

Keeping them in separate rooms helps ... ish.  The neglected players will probably drop out of character the moment you leave the room even if there’s more in character discussion to be had.  It also makes it more painful to swap between the two groups as you have to bodily move yourself and any information and that can take time.  You also might not have two spaces.  Still, if there’s likely to be a large chunk of time spent between transitions or if you have secret information to deliver to one group this is often best.

At the very least, shuffle them around the table bodily so that those who are in the separate teams are sitting next to each other.  That way they’ll disturb people less as they won’t have to talk over and around people to discuss things with their own team members.  Making them move themselves and their sheets every time they split the party might well make them more judicious about doing it.

If the mall run is going to lead into a mini-adventure all of its own and the search of the suspect’s house will take barely any time at all, try to give them in character reasons why it’d be best to go to the mall together.  Give them Idea or Intelligence rolls or a gut instinct that it would be a bad idea.  There’s also nothing wrong with reinforcing this OOCly: “The mall will take a lot of time and some of you will be bored if you continue with this plan.  Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider?”

If you have a co-Storyteller and a really good map with descriptions of areas you could deal with split parties quite well in the modern era even if they’re both in the same building.  A smart phone could let you easily and relatively covertly message them to let them know when a clue has been picked up or if there is a noise they would hear from the other side.  The players won’t know if that scream came from a colleague or someone else.  You don’t necessarily have to track which room they’re in unless they’re there for quite some time as you can always pretend that they just missed each other.  In character time and out of character time never quite match up as it takes longer to describe a corridor than to see it.

So there you go.  A bundle of ideas.  Hopefully you’ll be less perplexed and anxious when your players split up on your next time.

Next week I’ll do a post on how players can help during a split party to make it as painless as possible.


  1. This happened to me a couple of days back. Two players peeled off to do some investiagtion while the other four had a job to do. I just split the group of players, actually shunting them away a table, and tole them I'd be with them soon and to plan what they were doing. Five minutes later, I informed the larger group that I needed to check in with the others, and to think about what they wanted to do when I got back. I did this a few times, no longer than ten minutes with each group, until the smaller group had accomplished everything they wanted, but the larger lot still had stuff to do. I invited the two lads to hover and observe, just to save explaining it all back to them later - meta gaming a little, but it did no harm - and it also gave them something to do.

    About twenty minutes later, the two groups were back together, but because I had been constantly switching between the two, and setting up the expectation that they should be talking about the game, it went off without a hitch.

  2. Nice. It's always good to hear a success story.

  3. This is one of those things that I always hear cause problems for other GMs but which my group just takes as a natural extension of how we play the game.

    I think it's basically because our group is quite small, quite close-knit, and very happy with metagaming. As a result we don't really see much difference between a scene where the players are all in one room and taking it in turns to interact with the same NPCs, and a scene in which the players are all in different rooms and taking it in turns to interact with different NPCs.

    If there's one "trick" I use for this kind of thing, it's to use cuts between groups as a pacing aid. Rather than doing "the scene where A and B break into the house" followed by "the scene where C and D go to the library" I'll do "A and B approach the house and look for a way in / C and D start poking through the stacks / A and B find themselves in a spooky basement / C and D find a mysterious book" and so on. Instead of playing through the entire conversation with NPC 1, for the first group and then the entire conversation with NPC 2 for the second group, I split between them just at the point when the players *really want to know* what NPC 1 or NPC 2 says next (this also gives me more time to think).

    I think a lot of this comes down to group culture, if your players hate to mix in character and out of character knowledge, then they might feel obliged to sit quietly and pay no attention while the other group is acting, if they're more causal about it then a lot of barriers simply disappear.