“We’ll investigate the crypt while the rogue sneaks into the baron’s study.”
Not one of a GMs favorite things to hear. Do your players split up? Mine do–almost perversely often. Sometimes I think they’re just trying to make my life difficult. GMing a split party can be difficult, but thanks to the recent practice provided by my players, I have some thoughts to share.
Embracing the Split
When first faced with a party that wants to split up, one is tempted to discourage it. Resist that temptation. Curtailing your players’ actions damages their sense of your world’s being a real, living place; and in this case it’s unnecessary–you can handle this.
So if you’re not going to discourage splitting up, you need to decide how to deal with it. What you don’t want to do is keep one side of the table waiting too long. After all, these guys drove to your place, took time out of their lives to be here, maybe even brought snacks and remembered their character sheets. Your end of the deal is to provide a fun game.
To deal with this, I’ve been using “cut-scenes”. Basically, I spend some time with one group–not more than a couple minutes, sometimes considerably shorter. When I get to a good point or my time with that group is running long, I cut over to a “scene” with the next group. Think of this as analogous to the attention given a player when it’s his character’s turn in combat. He gets his bit of time, and then the action moves on to the next player. Unlike combat, where the player’s turn ends according to some game system prescribed set of actions, you have to look for the boundaries of a player’s turn when employing cut-scenes. Sometimes, there’s a natural breaking point–essentially the end of a scene. If I don’t hit the end of a scene naturally quickly enough, I steal another page from TV and use a “commercial cliffhanger”–I switch scenes at some crucial point. I’ve found that if you keep the scenes short, the cliffhanger doesn’t bother the player whose scene it is. It helps everyone remember what was going on in that scene when the player’s turn rolls around again, and it seems to amuse the other players enough to keep them interested in other players’ scenes. The key is to keep moving briskly enough that players don’t “lose their place”, forgetting where their part of the story left off. That’s why I recommend that you really try to keep each scene down to a couple minutes of real world time.
Managing battles involving split parties is actually easier than I’d expected. Essentially, I lay everything out on the battlemat, just like always. I handle initiative and arrange the combatants on my trusty Combat Pad, just like always. The only difference is that the characters are in different places, so there’s a gulf between clusters of minis on the battlemat. On a virtual tabletop, this can work even better if your VT supports multiple maps at once. With EpicTable, for instance, each map is on a separate tab, so as the GM, you can just flip between tabs.
In practice, this has worked quite well. It keeps everyone involved, rather than sorting out one encounter and then the other. The physical gulf between groups of combatants on a battlemat (which can be marked by a line drawn with a wet-erase marker, a ruler, a die, whatever) prevents the unintentional mingling of combatants in separate places.
Where this all starts to break down a bit is when one encounter runs longer than the other or where very different encounters are occurring simultaneously. For instance, the bard is chatting up the reputed guildmaster while his friends are fighting a group of owlbear ninjas. (It’s my example, and if I want to use owlbear ninjas, I will.) When this happens, I often revert to the cut-scene approach–two or three rounds of combat with the owlbear ninjas, followed by a couple minutes of dazzling verbal fencing with the guildmaster.
Another challenge, depending on your group, is separation of player and character knowledge. It’s sometimes hard for players to watch a character being killed and not be able to leap to his defense due to their characters not knowing it’s happening. It is my good fortune that my players are content–almost gleefully so–to watch a character die a horrible death while theirs are failing their listen checks, blissfully unaware of their comrade’s demise.
I’ve not yet worked out what I want to do with player vision when their characters aren’t on the map. In EpicTable, players see what their characters see–which normally is very nice, but in the case of a split party, players still want to be spectators of the combat that their characters aren’t involved in. Of course, you may like that your players can’t see combats that their characters can’t see–especially if your players aren’t good about separating player knowledge from character knowledge. In fact, virtual tabletops have a distinct advantage in that you can keep your players in the dark with respect to events that their characters can’t observe. Sometimes, you want the fact that the paladin was done in by a beholder waiting in the next room to be a surprise….
These approaches aren’t perfect. It’s not as easy to balance the “on-screen” time of each player as when the party is together. It’s not as bad as I’d anticipated, though, and allowing the party to split up really pays off in terms of the players’ sense that your world is real.