Splitting the Party

A good, though old, discussion about the histrionics and misconceptions that surround ‘splitting the party’ in gaming sessions.

Are you even really getting less spotlight time? Think about it for a moment – there’s still only one GM, either way. He can only shine the spotlight for 60 minutes each hour. And even when the PCs are dialoging, the spotlight is switching back and forth between players. The total number of minutes is the same when playing “split.” In party play, you feel a tad less engaged when your character is not in a scene, because you know you won’t be able to be called upon to do anything. But everyone has experienced in party play where they’ve been in the room, but really not involved in the action going on, right? So is that possibility that you might be called on really all that much less engaging than just watching?

I like having characters who feel comfortable with doing their own thing — this is the kind of play supported in a lot of the game I’ve played (Amber) and play (anything current).
What’s great about this discussion is that is dissects the reasons behind player/gm reluctance to split the group up — where it comes from, why it continues — and shows how to make those boogiemen go away.


  1. I haven’t read the article (yet), but it seems to me, as a player, that while the GM can only focus on one person at a time, when the party is together my player can grab that focus (or have it thrust on him) at any given moment, somewhat under my control, whereas if the party is split and my group is off-scene, that’s not possible, short of being fairly rude.
    I do think there’s a balance involved, as with most things, and certain party splits make sense, for a certain duration, while others don’t. A case by case basis, no doubt.

  2. Part of what comes up in that thread — the conversation, if you will — is getting players (both those already in the scene and those not in the scene) “okay” with an off-scene player saying “can I show up there?”
    Maybe it’s a meta-game-currency cost (spend a fate point to show up) or maybe it’s just social contract, but for this to work, it needs to be okay with the group as a whole.
    There has to be trust in the group (duh) that whoever wants to join in isn’t just doing it to hog the camera.
    Also (and this is the thing we DON’T really do or think about as much in our games) there are lots of ways to contribute and participate, enjoyably, as game-participants without being PLAYERS at that moment.
    What I mean is table-talk, input, and advice on the current scene from other players. So when someone is being all cool a huge combat, the other players will start calling out extra ideas for props or visual themes for the active player to use, or (to use an example from Heroquest or Spirit of the Century) suggesting Attributes (HQ) or Aspects (SotC) that the player might be able to bring into the scene in a cool way.
    Or it could be that the non-scene players are speculate about the motivations of the characters in the scene, or jump in to add some characterization to an NPC that I’m not playing to their full potential.
    Basically there’s just a lot of sharing going on.
    In other words, it’s not “split play.” There’s no waiting around for your chance to make a contribution to play, you’re contributing constantly, whether your character is ‘there’ or not.
    The question of who has a character in the scene is not unimportant, they are getting the spotlight shined on them more, yes. But it’s nothing like a binary, “I’m going now”, “I’m waiting now.”
    Caveat — the one problem with these kind of contributions that I’ve run into in the past and even more recently is when one player is consistently contributing something ‘sillier’ or ‘darker’ or just in a different MOOD than what the current ‘spotlight’ character LIKES. In those cases, I get a lot body language from the ‘main’ character’s player that say “Quit trying to make me silly.”
    I have more to say about that, but maybe not on the blog.

  3. there are lots of ways to contribute and participate, enjoyably, as game-participants without being PLAYERS at that moment.
    While sometimes participating this way means to SHUT UP and let the person who IS in the spotlight figure something, I think that a lot of people forget this very important piece.
    I’m trying to convince a friend to use Dogs as a basis for the campaign she’s running because the back-and-forth conflict resolution will really help some of her “problem players”* focus on what they want to happen, but one of the reasons she’s nervous is that she thinks it will “bog things down” to have that almost one-on-one time with someone. I’ve pointed out the two things I think rebut it: 1) as co-GM I’m going to keep things going anyway, and 2) as the above points out, this is a perfect time for assistance and suggestions from the other players that still gives that “problem player” the chance to control the real input.
    Really, I can almost point to the page in the DMG that does the damage, though: it’s the one where they suggest every party should use the character/player with the highest charisma to be the “group spokesperson/leader.”
    * “Problem players” in this case are the ‘coasters,’ the ones who are there but never make any decisions except “go along with the group.” I’m trying to challenge them so we can decide if it’s boredom, lack of interest apart from that, or just ineptitude… ahem… shyness.

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