As a Dungeon Master for D&D 5e, you’ve likely found yourself in the tricky predicament of managing a split party.
Picture this: your party is engaged in a thrilling combat session. Suddenly, a player falls through a trapdoor and is whisked away to a jail cell deep in the cult’s basement. Your mind races as you grapple with how long it will take for this player to rejoin the group, while also trying to maintain the momentum of the game for the remaining players. It’s a predicament that can leave even the most experienced DM scratching their head: should you adhere to the conventional wisdom of “never split the party” or are there scenarios where this rule can be bent or even broken?
In D&D, splitting the party means dividing players into smaller groups to achieve different goals. It can boost the story and efficiency, but should be avoided if it harms group cohesion or overwhelms the DM. DMs can manage splits with balanced encounters, focus shifts, and planning.
Navigating a split party in D&D can be a daunting task, yet it also opens up a realm of unique possibilities for narrative and gameplay. The central query to consider is: will splitting the party enhance the fun and engagement of the game? Despite the traditional advice against it, there are indeed circumstances where splitting the party can lead to more thrilling and intricate narratives.
Buckle up, grab your dice, and prepare to delve deep into the world of managing split parties in D&D.
Table of Contents
Understanding the Concept of Splitting the Party
My rule on splitting the party is simple: if I encourage it or do it, you’ll be fine, if you do it against my advice, you’re basically dead.Joel Graves (Youtube Commenter; Pinned for this video)
The term “splitting the party” in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) refers to the division of player characters into separate groups, typically leading them into different scenarios or locations within the game world.
In most TTRPGs like D&D, the party – a group of player characters – usually stays together to face challenges, explore dungeons, and experience the story. They pool their resources, skills, and abilities to overcome obstacles, making them more potent together than if they were separate.
Thus, when a party splits, it often presents both narrative and logistical challenges for the DM.
For instance, consider a party of four adventurers exploring a haunted mansion. The group decides to split into two pairs to quickly cover more ground.
One pair heads upstairs to investigate a mysterious sound, while the other stays downstairs to examine a secret door they’ve found. Now the DM must juggle two separate scenes, making sure each duo has an engaging and balanced experience while maintaining the game’s pace and cohesion.
However, it’s not always the players who initiate the split. Sometimes the DM might create situations that force the party to divide.
In a city adventure, for instance, the party could receive two urgent requests for help happening simultaneously at different ends of the city. The party has to decide whether to stick together and possibly arrive too late at one location, or split up to handle both situations simultaneously.
It’s important to understand that splitting the party can have significant implications for the gameplay.
On one hand, it can create tension, suspense, and a sense of urgency. It can also provide opportunities for individual character development and spotlight moments. On the other hand, it can also present difficulties in balancing encounters and maintaining a smooth narrative flow.
Understanding what it means to split the party is essential to properly manage it. It’s about recognizing the opportunities and challenges that come with this decision and having strategies in place to handle them effectively.
As we delve deeper into the topic, we’ll explore the potential benefits, pitfalls, and practical techniques of managing a split party.
When to Split the Party
Knowing when to split the party is crucial for both DMs and players. Here are some considerations and examples to help guide this decision:
Opportunities for Character Development
Splitting the party can provide unique opportunities for individual character development.
For example, if a character has a personal quest or a backstory element that can be explored separately, the party might decide to split temporarily. This allows the spotlight to shine on that character, giving them a chance to grow and evolve.
Always be mindful to keep it somewhat concise, and consider running it between sessions if the timing allows for it.
Storytelling and Narrative Purposes
From a storytelling perspective, splitting the party can also introduce intriguing narrative twists, like dramatic irony between the party. Be sure to watch for metagaming, since players often forget to share information. It can also be fun to literally split the group so that knowledge can’t just be magically shared.
Not only that, but it can create suspense, as different parts of the party uncover different pieces of the puzzle. The DM could also use this to set up dramatic reveals or cliffhangers, enhancing the overall experience of the story.
Tactical and Strategic Considerations
Sometimes, splitting the party can be a tactical or strategic decision.
In a situation where two objectives need to be achieved simultaneously, the party might decide to split into two groups—one going high, the other going low. Similarly, a party might decide to split to set up an ambush or to scout ahead without endangering the whole group.
However, it’s important to keep in mind the potential risks and challenges of splitting the party. What happens if there’s a cave-in that keeps them apart for longer than anticipated? What if, on route to their position, one group runs into a trap or trouble?
It can be fun to play with the situation, especially if you are the type of DM who has everything pre-established in the scenario (many of us just bluff and add stuff as it seems doable and interesting).
Balancing the Difficulty of Encounters
When the party is split, the DM must balance the difficulty of encounters.
A group of characters separated from their companions may face challenges designed for a full party, which can potentially lead to dire consequences. Therefore, the decision to split the party should be made carefully, considering the possible encounters that each group may face.
Depending what kind of DM you are, you can have it so that some of the creatures are asleep or otherwise distracted. But if you’re more of a “concrete world” that is set in stone, maybe it’s a good time to teach your party a lesson about retreat and caution.
Either way, I’m a fan of modifying things slightly toward where you want the difficulty to be. Maybe an appropriate challenge is in front of them, but reinforcements will soon arrive.
It’s always good to maintain a degree of tension, and keep things just difficult enough.
Maintaining Narrative Flow
Managing multiple narratives simultaneously can be challenging, but rewarding with a bit of practice.
You, as the DM, must ensure that each group receives equal attention, keeping the players engaged while maintaining a smooth narrative flow. This can be particularly tricky if one group’s actions significantly affect the other’s situation.
This is where I like the “rotating spotlight” mode for players, moving from player to player. You give them 1-3 rolled actions or a decent verbal exchange, then you hit pause and move onto the next character. Feel free to jump between scenes and assume this is all happening simultaneously.
Knowing when to split the party involves evaluating the potential benefits and drawbacks. Now, let’s look at some pitfalls and situations to avoid when
When Not to Split the Party
Despite the potential benefits, there are also times when splitting the party is not the best course of action. Let’s explore some circumstances:
Inexperienced Players or Dungeon Master
If the players or the DM are inexperienced, splitting the party can quickly become overwhelming. Managing multiple storylines, encounters, and character dynamics simultaneously can be challenging even for seasoned DMs.
For newer players, dealing with the increased spotlight and potential danger of encounters designed for a full party can be daunting. In these scenarios, it’s usually best to keep the party together until everyone is more comfortable with the game’s dynamics.
For the DM, in lower stakes situations, you can practice it. Try pushing an event in town where they have to split, and use it as an opportunity to switch between parties and judicially give the spotlight. Just be mindful of grandstanders and be sure to give the more introverted friends a fair shake. You know your players better than me, and it’s a matter of giving them a good balance of what they want.
Potential for Character Death
Splitting the party can significantly increase the risk of character death. Encounters in D&D are typically designed with the assumption of a full party. Therefore, a smaller group may be ill-equipped to handle the same challenges.
This could lead to situations where one or more characters face overwhelming odds, potentially resulting in character death.
Disrupting Party Balance
Every D&D party typically has a balance of different roles – healers, damage dealers, tanks, and more. (Though 5e isn’t big on healers and doesn’t really require them by design.)
Splitting the party could disrupt this balance, leaving one group without crucial capabilities.
For example, if all the squishy magic users end up in one group, they could find themselves in a tight spot during combat encounters if they get swarmed.
Slowing Down the Game
Splitting the party can often slow down the game. As the DM has to juggle between different narratives, players may find themselves waiting for their turn more often than they’d like.
This could lead to boredom or frustration, especially if one group’s storyline is less engaging than the other’s.
To avoid this, consider taking a break or timing the splits so that they take place at the end of a session. Then you can run the scenarios with each group outside of the session and bring each to a point where they are likely to meet again for the beginning of your next game night.
Encouraging Lone Wolf Behavior
While D&D allows for a wide range of character concepts, it is fundamentally a cooperative game. Encouraging splitting the party too often might lead some players to adopt a “lone wolf” mentality, which can disrupt group dynamics and cohesion. We’ve written about this kind of problem player here.
In general, I’m not a fan of lone wolves because this is a cooperative, social game. Players who inhabit characters that don’t like people or try to do their own thing are playing the wrong game.
While splitting the party can add interesting elements to the game, it’s not always the best choice. The key is to evaluate the specific circumstances of the game and the comfort level of the players. In the next section, we’ll discuss strategies for effectively managing a split party.
DM Tips for Handling Split Parties
Managing a split party can be a challenge, but with the right strategies, you can turn it into an exciting aspect of the game. Here are some tips to help you handle split parties:
Balancing Encounter Difficulty
When the party splits, DMs must ensure that encounters are still fair and manageable, or else they may not be fun. Sometimes punishing reckless behaviour has its place (see the quote near the start of this article).
But if you don’t want their stupid choices biting them in the butt, this might mean scaling down enemy numbers or strength, or designing encounters that can be overcome with the skills of the characters in each split group.
Remember, the goal (generally) is to challenge players, not overwhelm them.
Switching Between Groups
To keep all players engaged, it’s important to regularly switch between the groups. This can be done after a set amount of time, at dramatic moments, or at natural breaks in the narrative. I’ll mention it again: it’s the “wandering spotlight”, going from person to person, scene to scene, to give everyone the opportunity to take part.
Make sure no player or group is left inactive for too long, unless they’re repeatedly and purposely passing their turn.
Building suspense by shifting focus at cliffhanger moments can make the split more engaging for everyone. Perhaps you can have them roll the dice, but not reveal the outcome until the spotlight is back on them!
This is particularly funny if they rolled very high or very low.
Communication is Key
Transparency with your players is crucial when dealing with a split party.
Make it clear from the start that splitting the party is an option, but it will require patience and understanding from everyone. Always ensure that players understand the potential risks and challenges of splitting the party—at least the first few times they do it.
If they make a habit of it after knowing the risks, then they’re playing with fire.
Using Tools and Aids
Various online and physical tools can assist in managing a split party.
For instance, using separate maps or miniatures for each group can help keep track of everyone’s position. Online platforms often have features that allow DMs to manage different groups more effectively.
I’m not a pro on this particular aspect, but what has worked for me:
- Discord: You can deafen and mute people in the audio chatroom so you can speak only to those you wish to hear. Alternatively, you can simply disconnect them.
- Roll20: I just learned this for this article, but they have a split the party function!
- Theater of the Mind: To ease up on prep, it can be easiest to simply describe things that are happening and only include maps when it’s pertinent for combat.
If you’re playing in person, it can be as simple as going into a separate room or asking people to go for a walk.
While the party may be split physically, it’s essential to still encourage cooperation among players. This could involve puzzles that require input from both groups, or situations where one group’s actions directly affect the other. This reinforces the idea that D&D is a cooperative game, even when the party splits.
As well, players may have useful spells, like message, that can help facilitate coordination, though it has its limitations.
Prepare in Advance
Lastly, if you anticipate that your party might split, preparation is key. Having ready-to-go encounters, NPCs, or subplots that cater to smaller groups will make your job much easier when the party does decide to split.
Sometimes this can be as easy as adjusting greater or fewer monsters for an encountered.
While managing a split party is more complex, it can also be an opportunity for unique and engaging narratives. With careful preparation and flexible execution, DMs can enhance their D&D sessions by effectively handling split parties.
Now for a recap:
- Splitting the party in D&D involves dividing the group of player characters to pursue different objectives simultaneously. It’s a controversial topic with potential benefits and risks—many say never do it, but it will happen.
- The concept of splitting the party means that player characters operate in separate locations or undertake different tasks. This allows for diversified narratives and the chance to explore character backstories and skills in depth.
- As a DM or player, keep in mind Joel Graves’ quote: “My rule on splitting the party is simple: if I encourage it or do it, you’ll be fine, if you do it against my advice, you’re basically dead.”
- Splitting the party can be beneficial when it enhances the narrative, allows for efficient task completion, or provides opportunities for individual character development. For instance, if a rogue character wants to scout ahead or if the party needs to be in two places at once to beat a time crunch.
- It’s advised not to split the party when it undermines group cohesion, exposes characters to undue risk, or creates challenges for the DM in managing multiple narratives.
- Dungeon Masters can effectively handle split parties through various strategies:
- Balancing encounter difficulty to match the capabilities of the divided groups.
- Switching focus between groups regularly to maintain engagement.
- Communicating transparently about the challenges and risks of splitting the party.
- Utilizing tools and aids like separate maps or online platforms to manage the split party.
- Encouraging cooperation between split groups, even if they are physically apart.
- Preparing in advance for potential party splits with ready-to-go encounters and subplots.
Splitting the party in D&D is a nuanced decision, requiring consideration of the specific circumstances, players’ preferences, and the DM’s ability to manage increased complexity. However, when executed effectively, it can open up exciting narrative possibilities and new dimensions of gameplay.