It’s a maxim that every D&D player knows: “Never split the party.” In fact, when faced with a scenario where something will go faster by splitting the party (say, an investigation) most groups will still opt to stay together anyway. And that’s fine. There is safety in numbers, and no one would want to get caught in an encounter designed for five or six PCs with only one other PC, however min/maxed that other PC might be. Which is where, I believe, the saying began.
But let us go back to the grandfather of the game, the template upon which the collective D&D imagination rests: Lord of the Rings. There came a point in that story where *gasp* the party split up. So could there be a place for such a scenario in our games? Let us explore.
First, let me say what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about an accidental splitting of the party, where, by some unintended turn of events, the party is split into two or more groups. I’m also not talking about a voluntary splitting of the party that is a surprise to the DM. This usually happens when the characters (or players) have a disagreement, and decide to go their separate ways. So, what I am going to propose is actually a very specific scenario.
Imagine this: there is a nuclear missle about to be launched, and the only way to disarm it is to turn two keys simultaneously. Unfortunately, the keys are too far apart to be turned by one person. You need two people on opposite sides of the room to turn the keys. Classic? Yes, of course. Do we use it? No. And not just because there are no nukes in D&D (ooh! a new maxim!). How would this translate into an adventure where the party needs to split up? First, you need pressure, and second, you need multiple objectives. Time is the easiest pressure to use, and the objectives could be anything that fits into your campaign at the moment. You simply need to create a situation where the PCs need two different objects (or to complete two different tasks), and don’t have enough time to get (or do) both. An example off the top of my head: a wizard needs two components to cast a ritual that will close an arcane portal. On the other side of the portal, an army is massing and will invade by the end of the week. The two components are three days travel away in opposite directions; there is no time to get them both. Or, a more mundane example might be the retrieval of two medicinal herbs to heal a dying NPC. And, as mentioned before, you can easily substitute “get a thing” with “complete a task.” You can also substitue the “time” pressure for a “simultaneous action” pressure, as in the nuclear warhead example above. Feel free to drop hints that splitting up is the best way to go because “never split the party” is pretty well ingrained in many player’s heads. They will most likely search for the “solution” to the “puzzle” they assume you’ve presented them. They will think, “I’m not sure what the solution is, but I am sure it is not to split the party…”
Once the party has decided to split up, you have a problem. There are now two independent groups doing two independent things. You’ve essentially created a game where you’re trying to run two adventures simultaneously. What were you thinking? Actually, since this is a problem you’ve created, the answer is pretty simple. You need to time the decision point to happen at the end of the gaming session. Then, when the party decides how they’re going to split up, announce that the two groups will be meeting separately once or twice. This may mean that half the group will miss a week of gaming, or it may mean that half the group will meet on a different night. Either way, assure the group that it’s temporary. In fact, the gaming sessions should be part of the time limit. Make it clear that if the objective isn’t met within a real-world time frame (one gaming session), then the mission is a failure, with appropriate consequences. Meeting with each group separately insures each group gets equal attention, and that no one is sitting around doing nothing. Quite the opposite – since the split groups are going to be small, it means more attention and less sitting around.
Excellent question. Why bother with this? Meeting separately, disrupting the gaming schedule… it seems like a lot of work, I agree. Let me answer the question with one of my own. How many times have the rogue and ranger attempted something stealthy when the noisy fighter or the dumb barbarian completely gummed up the works? How many times have the bard and cleric rolled for diplomacy while the rogue announces that he’s going to “pick the NPCs pocket,” gets caught, and completely ruins any chance of friendly negotiation? The fighter vaults easily over the compound wall, but the wizard struggles. I can keep going… If your party is at all typical, the skill sets and character personalities represented are often at odds with one another. And that’s good, you want diversity. So why not play to that every once in a while? Set it up so that there is a stealth heavy track and a bash in the door track for the two groups to follow. Or a “talky” one and a “we need an arcanist” one. This is your opportunity to tailor an adventure geared to the different subtypes that are represented by your party without anyone having to worry that the weaker characters are going to drag things down.
Of course you shouldn’t do this all the time. Once or twice a campaign is enough. Once per tier, tops. Try it. I guarantee your players will be talking about it for some time to come.
Has your party ever split up? How was it handled?