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Our campaign is off and running and is going really well. This is a large party, 8 in all. Things were going great until they got to one of the main cities.

Since they've entered, they've been given a few possible quest lines. Some of these are time sensitive. The party wanted to take the time to look around and shop. No worries, makes sense. Here's the problem, in order to make sure they had enough time and are still able to shop, the party has been splitting into groups of 1-3 and the last 3 sessions (3-5 hrs each) has just been the party members shopping and rping around town. I wouldn't mind this if they were in a group, but it has turned into a game of one at a time for up to half an hour and I can feel the other players getting bored. The problem is, since everyone wants their turn at the rp, no one really wants me to put my foot down and stop it completely.

I've considered having the various criminal elements of the city start to overwhelm lone parties so that they are forced to travel in larger groups, but was hoping to not have to resort to this.

Question: how have you pushed parties to stay together without significantly changing the storyline or railroading?

Edit - because people seem to think they are shopping for much needed upgrades, I'll give an example. Our wizard spent almost half an hour trying to figure out how many different varieties of soap there would be in the local market. He'd ask a question, I'd answer, ask another, on and on and on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you know why your wizard spent all that effort investigating soap? Is it just some quirk/obsession of his, or is soap somehow linked in with a major life goal? Is he on a quest that somehow involves passing an exam in soap? Are there rumors that soap is about to shoot up in price or become especially useful? \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Jan 13 '18 at 7:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ He wants to give each member of the party a distinct scent of soap then convince them to wash daily then figure out after the fact how he might be able to enhance his ability to smell enough to use this to his advantage because he doesn't trust them. He has seen at least one of them change their appearance, so he feels that it would make sense. \$\endgroup\$ – KingdomGnark Jan 13 '18 at 11:47

10 Answers 10

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In practice there is no good way to force them together. A little bit of it can help a little bit, but it only helps a little bit… and the more forcing you do, the less effective it becomes as the players fight the imposed action.

Even if you successfully regroup them, players are nothing if not unpredictable. As soon as you manage to get them together again, they're likely to figure out how to safely (or at least, so they think) split up again. After all, they have pressing business elsewhere!

So the trouble with forcing is that you end up taking away everyone's turn. Your players are putting up with the delays and turn-taking because it's actually better than the alternative.

(Never mind the problems that throwing something adversarial in just to shake things up can cause. In one game I was part of, the players were enjoying their different pursuits, and then the DM threw in a “oh no someone stabbed the bartender and now there are extortionist gangsters” thing, because he thought we were bored. It ended up actually killing off the campaign because we weren't interested, it squashed the fun RPing we were doing, and we couldn't get away from this uninteresting plot thread.)

Better even than forcing is giving occasional opportunities for the party to regroup, but don't arrange them so that they're obviously mandatory. “Hey fighter, the magic sword auction doesn't start until this evening. Unless you have any other business, might be good meet the party back at the inn to see what they think about your discovery.” But this only goes so far, so it's nice but it's not going to feel like it solves much.

The actual solution

Keep doing what you're doing! But recognise that managing spotlight time is a skill, and you only get better with practice.

What I've learned is that switching more often between different groups is effective at keeping everyone engaged.

But that brings the challenge of doing it smoothly and at the right time. There's no secret to picking good switching moments — that's where the skill comes in, and the practice it needs. You try, and you watch your own GMing patterns and practices, and you look for where you did well and where could have done better. You learn from the mistakes and from the successes, and you get more comfortable playing the Time Conductor who's flipping from scene to scene to keep the spotlight moving and focused on interesting things.

There is one small trick that I've learned though: there are many times where what you present to the players requires a bit of thought from them to figure out what they want to do. When you hit one of those moments, you'll ask “what do you do?” and the player will be unsure and play will stall. Normally in a full-party scene this is when the GM just sits back and lets the party chew, but when you have a split party this is an opportunity for a spotlight shift. “Cool, think about that and we'll come back to this in a minute. Meanwhile Wizardpants is at the School of Arcaneyness and…”

So to sum:

  • Present opportunities for the group to get back together, but don't force it. And don't force yourself either — do this when it makes sense and you have a good idea, not because you're desperate to simplify the situation.
  • Keep moving the spotlight around like you're doing.
  • Be patient with yourself. This is a skill that improves with use.
  • Learn to spot more kinds of opportunities to switch smoothly.
  • Treat player indecision as a gift that gives you a natural switch point.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, I would just mention that if not every player is in the shopping mood then it's not the same situation \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Jan 12 '18 at 9:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Treat player indecision as a gift that gives you a natural switch point." I think this is the single most important statement in this answer. While I never penalize a player for not knowing exactly what they want to do, if they take too long deciding on their character's actions, I say "Okay, think about it for a minute and I'll come back to you." I then switch to the next character and give them an opportunity to act. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyndrilliac Jan 14 '18 at 11:15
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I strongly endorsed and upvoted SevenSidedDie's answer. For completeness here it boils down to don't try to force them to stay together but give them frequent opportunities to regroup. For an experienced DM, this is the right answer.

For an inexperienced DM, some other options might be worth considering.

Let such downtime activities happen swiftly in the background

Unless your city is extraordinarily dangerous or you use some method to keep them them together, it really makes sense for them to split up somewhat to handle mundane business. Let them, but let such activities happen fairly quickly with minimal fuss. Everyone gets a little bit of spotlight and a little in-character time to handle business, but then start dangling the calls to adventure which are best tackled by the group and thus encourage them to get back together.

This does downplay some of the socialization, which can be unfortunate if the group likes that, but it generally provides a happy medium.

Have it be part of the social contract

For an inexperienced DM its not wrong to say "I am having some challenges managing everything when everyone splits up. At least for the next few sessions I would appreciate it if we assume everyone is together most of the time." This is heavy handed in a way that goes beyond most railroading, but should simplify things at least until everyone gets better at the game.

Provide a gentle nudge to keep everyone together

I travel for business semi-often and our groups mostly stay together for one reason: cars. To save costs we tend to have about 1 car per 4 people roughly. People still break off for solo activities by walking or getting other rides or arranging pick up and drop off, but it is far less common than it would be if we each had our own car.

Cars don't exactly fit in D&D, but if there is one carriage for the group or if they have item that is actually useful in social contexts but requires them all to be together to use, it will nudge them to stay together.

You can also introduce enough danger in reasonable ways to encourage them to stay together. Even experienced adventurers might prefer to travel in groups of at least 2 to watch each other's back if skilled pickpockets are common. And if they are engaging in gray-market activities like exchanging large piles of gold of precious magic items, the other party is likely to have body guards for the exchange. Knowing that ahead of time might encourage even a skilled adventurer to bring backup so the other party isn't tempted decide he's better off using those bodyguards offensively and walking off with both gold and items.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1: I, too, like a lot of SSD's answer, but feel that you're right to point out that the OOC/social contract part of it has bearing, too. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 12 '18 at 1:44
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You have a few options.

One option is to have your players write down what they want to buy on pieces of paper. If you see any rare items, possible story points, or opportunities for a genuinely interesting roleplaying experience then definitely roleplay it, but otherwise write down a price and hand it back to them, having the shopping take place off-stage

Another solution is the super merchant, one who carries a little of everything. This can be the player's one-time-stop for all of their shopping needs.

If a player insists on going alone, simply have some children "bump" into them, stealing their purse. No combat required, and they may not even notice until they reach their destination.

These may seem over-simplifying or even cruel, but I think roleplaying should be saved for important or relevant points in large groups. Do consider simply asking your players to travel in groups.

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One thing that works for me that I've not yet seen mentioned is physically splitting up the players. I found that when the party split but all players stayed at the table a lot of information that shouldn't have been available was used. Players used very poor justifications for their characters' sudden decisions to rejoin the party at times that were extremely convenient to the action. They could parallelise with near-perfect knowledge and near-zero risk, and they loved it.

So housekeeping stuff goes through on the nod, as Tim Wiseman suggests (thus speeding up boring paperwork, yay). Shopping (at least in civilised areas where law and order holds sway) is very quick: they can have anything they want from the PHB at 50% over listed price (the markup reflects not haggling, plus they look like they've got money). Risky, speculative, or role-playing stuff, however, requires physical separation of the subgroup. If it's one or two players, I'll pick up what I need to resolve the immediate issue, and ask the players to join me in another room. If it's more than a couple of players I'll ask all the other players to leave until called for.

Firstly, this imposes real information separation. I ask the leavers how long they're planning on being away as they leave, and they won't have any opportunity to participate in anything but their own subgroup's thread until then, unless there's a valid in-game reason. I run the other subgroup's thread forward until they decide to rejoin / I need to know if the other group have done something in the interim / that in-game time is reached, then those in the room leave, those outside return, and we run their thread forward until a similar breakpoint is reached. Often, this leads to unforeseen plot developments, and consequent in-game tension ("The wizard told us to meet her at the soap stall at dinner time, and when we got there the stall was a smoking ruin surrounded by a four-foot high wall of bodies. What did she do?"). The players are genuinely wrong-footed, confused, scared, and consequently excited and fully-engaged with the plot.

Secondly, my players now expect this, and don't always like it, so they are incentivised not to split the party unless there's a really good reason to do so (of course, I can still decide to split them!).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Physically splitting the party or "You guys go to the kitchen" or "You guys come with me to the side" works surprisingly well because the players WANT to come back together and share or learn what they miss. Of course, I try to keep such splits short (under 5 mins) \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau Jan 12 '18 at 13:43
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I had a similar situation come up recently in a group where I'm a PC. At the end of the first session like this, our DM pointed out that we had spent 3 hours walking around town trying to haggle with shopkeepers. He pointed out that if we wanted to continue that, it was fine, but that his assessment was that we weren't having fun when it wasn't our turn. He challenged us to remember that we were there to have fun, and that we looked like we weren't. We figured out between that session and the next how to finish everything up in the first 30 minutes of the next session.

In this case, we the players didn't realize that we were responsible for dragging on something that we didn't actually find fun, and we didn't actually want to be doing. This may not be the case for all of your group, but it may be for some. It's possible that asking them if they are enjoying this will make them think harder about it.

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Here's the problem, in order to make sure they had enough time and are still able to shop, the party has been splitting into groups of 1-3 and the last 3 sessions (3-5 hrs each) has just been the party members shopping and rping around town. I wouldn't mind this if they were in a group, but it has turned into a game of one at a time for up to half an hour and I can feel the other players getting bored.

Your problem is that your players collectively made a decision that might've made sense in character, but not in the context of the game being played.

Specifically, while the characters might save some time by splitting up, the players won't, since you still have only one DM and can thus manage only one group of characters at a time. Instead, it's just making the game more boring for the players who are not in the group that currently has your attention.

The solution, assuming that you want to stick to the face-to-face single-DM play format, is the same as it almost always is for group dynamics questions like this: talk with your players and let them know that, while splitting up could've been a reasonable in-character decision for the PCs, you can't actually DM more than one group at a time, and so it would be more fun for everyone if the characters just stayed together. If necessary, you may even want to explicitly promise that you won't punish the characters for such inefficient behavior, and will grant them extra time to get things done in a way that is more fun to play even if it's not perfectly optimal in-character.

(The term "my guy syndrome" might be sort of relevant here, although, as with any catchy term for a complex spectrum of social interactions, it should be taken with a reasonably sized grain of salt. There's a lot of different behaviors and motivations that could be lumped under a broadly defined term like "my guy syndrome", but the general aspect of players making decisions that lead to poor gameplay and lack of fun because "that's what their character would do" does seem to more or less fit.)


Note that there are ways in which you could change your game to try to let multiple separate groups play at the same time. For example, you could try to find someone to act as an assistant DM or, if your trust your players to handle it reasonably, even tell them to split into smaller groups like their characters did and run the game (mostly) DM-less until they meet up again (with the understanding that what they'll be doing is mostly stuff that won't really need DM adjudication). Or you could move the game temporarily online, where you can have multiple chat groups or email threads or whatever going on at the same time.

If you (and your players!) would prefer to focus their time on dungeon delving and other more "adventury" aspects of the game, you could even consider just handling things like shopping for gear in town as off-stage downtime activities, where the players describe what they want to accomplish during this visit to town, and if it seems reasonable, it just happens (or it happens, but needs some additional input from the players, like which of two available choices they prefer). If there's something that you feel should actually be played out, like a tense negotiation or a surprise fight, you can fast-forward to that part — and at least strongly hint that it would make sense for all of the party members to be present for it.

Whatever you decide to do, you will need to get your players to buy into it, especially the ones who are still waiting for "their turn at the RP." But in general, "this just isn't sustainable and it will drag the game on and on" is a pretty good argument. Do make sure to listen to your players, though: you might suggest skipping the boring social stuff and shopping and getting on with the dungeon delving, while your players might actually want more social stuff and city exploration. Which is fine, as long as you feel you can run it, but you can still suggest that your players should at least do it together as a group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Pointing out that the characters would save time by splitting, but the players actually don't is an excellent point. This is something that I (and everyone else present at the time) personally required a DM pointing out before I realized. It's easy to miss this fact. \$\endgroup\$ – M C Jan 12 '18 at 16:06
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I'm surprised no one has mentioned letting players role play some of the NPCs they meet. This is pretty situational, but sometimes I've given a player a quick outline of what an NPC's motives and situation is, and let them run the roleplaying.

How well it works depends on the players involved, and on things like whether you have a situation you can quickly explain to the player(s) running NPCs without giving them spoilers. Also, some players aren't comfortable with this, or will meta-game in an aggravating way, or will try to have the the NPC do something that favors the player.

I think you would be probably be pretty safe in letting a player handle running shopping for soap.

So, it's a very situational solution but something to keep in your GM bag of tricks. I have on occasion had it work so well that it led to adventures (resolving events in the campaign) in which the players all played a different NPC (that they already knew) just for a one-shot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for press-ganging Players to assist with RP for trivial NPCs. I also have the Players collaborate to voice an NPC if, for instance, they all want to have an NPC ally speak for them to another NPC that isn't allied (played by GM still). I've been told by my Players that they feel this really helps keep everyone engaged. Just make sure if the NPC convo topic is pivotal that you step in to deal with Player-unknown Meta-knowledge as it arises. \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag Jan 12 '18 at 20:42
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I do the following things:

  • If a player wants to do a downtime activity that seems likely to take some time, I ask them to resolve it outside-of-session via email to the group. This encourages engagement outside of the session and it also keeps the focus of the game on full-party activities.
  • If the party tries to split up during the game, usually it's because they think there is time pressure. I tell them: "rather than have half the party do Thing A and half do Thing B, let's just assume you all tag along for Thing A and then you all tag along for Thing B. You have time to do both." That way I don't feel as guilty if I need to start a combat with only half the party present, and if a player wants to interact with something I never have to tell them they can't do that because their character isn't present.
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It sounds like you are playing different kinds of games. You want an action packed adventure, they want a social conversation game. You need to talk to the players about what they are expecting. Maybe if what they want to do is talk about soap, you should consider switching the the FATE system, where a conversation about soap can play out every bit as action packed as a physical battle. There's a wonderful example of this here

Alternatively, have you considered delegating the DMing? If Tim wants to go soap shopping and Bob wants to go candle shopping, why don't you separate them out: say, Bob plays the shopkeeper for half an hour talking about soap, then they switch and Tim spends a half hour talking about candles with bob.

Since they aren't doing anything that would have any effect on the rest of the game or players, they can go off and do their own thing for as long as they want and it doesn't matter if your attention is elsewhere. You can play out the climactic battle with the corrupt city guard while bob and tim go shopping.

But seriously, d&d is not a shopping simulator. You need to have a conversation with your players. Maybe use a one-page tool.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem is, they all want to get back to the action. They just want to get their bit of stuff done first. But every time someone else does something they think of something new. I'm going to limit all interactions that don't include at least half of the party to 5 min at a time unless it is developing plot. \$\endgroup\$ – KingdomGnark Jan 12 '18 at 14:43
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Start attacking the weak ones with medium to hard encounters for your party size. They will run away or barely survive the encounters, figure out they need help and rejoin each other. if you think they'll die in the encounter and you don't want them to, you can simply have the NPC be distracted/confused/scared by something and bam, saved your horrible PC.

Sounds like you need to railroad them at least to a place where you can intro your first plot arc. I mean 30 minutes talking about soap? Whoa.

If all they wanna do is play medieval shopping simulator then have bandits raid the town and make the shopkeepers close their shops, boom -players ejected from being stupid.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What if the players want to play Medieval Shopping Simulator, because that's what they find fun? \$\endgroup\$ – M C Jan 12 '18 at 16:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was considering having a few of them kidnapped, thus the others would have to try to save them. That way I can put them in a losing fight, but it would be plot driving. \$\endgroup\$ – KingdomGnark Jan 12 '18 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MC if that's what they wanted then there really isn't anything to do. if that's what they and the DM signed up for then he's fine, he'll just continue to spin wheels. I'd suggest getting auto generated lists of items so spead up the process a bit. I don't think he wants that but, hey, you do you. \$\endgroup\$ – David Hunsicker Jan 12 '18 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KingdomGnark I wouldn't necessarily kidnap them because one of the true rules of DM is don't take agency away from yoru players, you need to plan very carefully for that. IF you attempt it at all. \$\endgroup\$ – David Hunsicker Jan 12 '18 at 18:34

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