On Sunday, I ran a session of Dungeon World that I feel was amongst the best RPG sessions that I have run – at least from the GM chair it felt like the best I had run.
As I look at what I consider some my best RPG sessions, a common theme emerges: Splitting Up the Party.
Rarely is it my explicit goal to separate them, instead it is the players taking it upon themselves to split up – or maybe they are actively and openly working against each other. And in one case, the characters had not physically split the party, but due to the back-stabbing nature of things, they all started declaring actions via secretive notes.
I don't know if other players would agree that these are some of my best GM-ed sessions. But in looking at these sessions there are lessons to be gleaned:
I don't believe that splitting the party is the key to the good session. I believe it is the players identifying that their character does in fact want something. This manifests in the “Yes I want this for my character so bad that I'm willing to step out of the security of the group of PCs and push a personal agenda.”
However, it is often times a split party that has created some of my most memorable sessions – both those that I've run and those I've played. Done poorly, a split party is a abomination that should be destroyed with fire. Done well…it is something to explore.
Implicit to the decision to split the group is the player's decision that says “I am so eager and willing for my character to address a particular component of the game/story that I, as a player, am willing to wait on my GM to point the spotlight my direction.” In other words, the player is willing to sacrifice quantity of time for quality of time.
Some of the players, who didn't initiate the sundering of the party, may have what I have identified as one of the “oh shit” moments of parenting: The two parents and three fully-ambulatory children all at a super market. It is that moment as two adults when one kid runs off and the first parent gives chase. Then, while the first parent is still chasing the first child, the second child runs off in a completely different direction. All the while the third child refuses to budge.
The Apocalypse Engine's defacto question of “What do you do?” is never more applicable than that above moment.
From a player perspective, there are those that cling to party cohesion and watch the group of PCs dissolve into smaller units. Those who didn't split the groups may well inevitably say “Well I may as well do my own thing…”
I also find that there is a greater cinematic/narrative experience in splitting the group. Ideally the camera naturally and fairly moves from player to player. Though in reality, balancing when to cut from player to player is a delicate matter; I most certainly don't start an egg timer or some such non-sense.
Instead, I try as best I can to push each “scene” by identifying the current state of the game as experienced/identified by the player and trying to ask and have answered a handful of questions that build towards a greater question…then cutaway to a different character.
Ultimately I think I enjoy the creative challenge of synthesizing those disparate “scenes” into a coherent and cohesive unit (i.e. Balancing the time line of events as well as the narrative demands of each moment.)
Suggestions for GMing a Split Party
Try to keep the elapsed time of each character's scene roughly on the same scale; Don't let one character's scene be 10 in game minutes and another character's be 10 in game hours. If one character's scene is in minutes, then every split characters scenes should be in minutes.
Try to keep the scope of each character's actions roughly similar; Don't let one character haggle for bread while the other saves the kingdom. Instead one character is securing supplies while the other is securing a quality map and a third is hiring a guide.
Try to keep the elapsed time of players roughly the same; As you move the action around try to give each player roughly the same amount of time. At the minimum make sure you ask each player what their character is doing.
Try to keep the focus on each character concise and brief, moving from player to player. In this way you are implicitly asking the players to build on what other characters are doing.
Perhaps the players ignore it. Perhaps they run in a new direction with something happening out of their character's ear shot. As a GM, you can still step in and say “How would your character know this?” or “Sorry, but pretend you didn't hear this.”
When you get to a fantastic decision point for a player character, switch to another player character. That is to say try to end each scene with a player character on a cliff hanger.
Gently work towards bringing the characters back together by trying to have each of the solo character's personal goals require the combined resources of the characters. You may need to move from gently to forcefully, but ideally, see if you can get the group to naturally congeal.