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I've been running a pathfinder campaign for close to 4 years now. In my mind it has been quite successful and my players are generally active and engaged in the story. However, over the course of the campaign I have noticed a strange trend that I'm not sure what to do about. It is kind of strange but I'll do my best to explain it.

Group Composition

My player group consists of 4 (sometimes 5) players; my wife, my sister, my best mate and his girlfriend, another friend also plays but is currently overseas for a year. The age range is between 25-32 and the group all get on well. I love this group and want to see this campaign through to the end. Therefore splitting the group is an absolute last resort.

Campaign Details

I run a large scale open world campaign, with lots of sandbox play and opportunities for the players to explore. There are plots and threats throughout the world but where they go and how they deal with them is entirely up to the players.

Typically the party spend about 50% of it's time exploring or traveling; 30% in towns, shopping or interacting with NPCs; and 20% in dungeons or on specific quests. I would like to adjust this slightly to reduce the amount of time spent traveling, most of the time is lost to indecision where the party can't agree on a single course of action. More accurately they like to carefully examine every possible option before deciding, which takes a lot of time to reach a decision.

The Issue

Throughout the campaign there have been a few times when the party was split up, either for a scene or two, or for an entire session where I ran separate sessions for each half of the party. Most recently they encountered a pit trap that left the party separated in a dungeon. I switched back and forth between the parties until they could rejoin and it went quite well. Previously I've had two characters enslaved and forced to fight in an arena while the rest of the party worked on the outside to tilt the odds in their favour. These are just two examples from across a long campaign.

The pattern I have noticed is that almost every time I run one of these sessions the feedback I get is something like "That was the best session ever" or "best session in a while, I got everything done that I wanted to". Basically the players constantly seem to enjoy sessions where they are separated more than ones where they are not.

Some reason I think this may be happening:

  • Faster decision making in smaller groups
  • More focused narrative where they always have a role to play in their scenes
  • Having less options forces them to think more creatively
  • Something to do with how I plan/run these session, though I am unsure what.

My Question

I've struggled with how to formulate this as a question so comments are welcome but here is my current question:

How do I best utilise the knowledge that my players enjoy sessions with smaller groups to improve my game?

Things I have considered:

  • Regularly splitting the party - I feel like this is the only solution that can reliably achieve this. But I'm having trouble thinking of ways to split the party often while maintaining a reasonable narrative flow.
  • Request for additional feedback - I've already tried this somewhat but haven't gotten much that is meaningful. I can try for more targeted feedback with specific questions.
  • Changing the way I prepare my sessions - I think this is my preferred solution but I am struggling to identify what I am doing differently between the split and non-split sessions.

Answer types that I am expecting:

  • Advice on how to run for the whole group the way I do for the smaller group
  • Suggestions on what the issue with the larger group may be so that I can fix it
  • Advice on how to regularly split the party in a logical and narratively maintainable way.
  • Something I haven't thought of (that really the point of this I guess)

TL;DR

My party seem to enjoy sessions where they are split into smaller groups. How can I use this to improve my game overall?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Relevant video: One-on-One D&D, Running the Game by Matt Colville. He makes a similar observation you do: that players seem to overwhelmingly enjoy solo adventures because they are the sole focus of your attention for however many hours you play D&D for. It doesn't quite answer your question since you're wondering about 2 or 3 players, and it's mostly advice for how to run such sessions rather than how to set them up, but I thought I'd share anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast May 4 at 4:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this paralysis through analysis something that comes up in any one phase of the game more than others? E.g., in combat and dungeon crawls but less so in other phases? Or something different, or just all the time? \$\endgroup\$ – Novak May 4 at 8:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @novak the latter. Feedback is fairly positive in general but is noticeably higher after the particular session I mention. I'm not really try to fix a problem. More trying to use it as an opportunity to improve. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 4 at 8:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @novak the analysis paralysis is common anytime they have the time to make a decision and nothing to put pressure on them. Combat isn't usually a proplem. Nor actual encounters, I try to push them forward when I can but sometimes they really do just have time to stop and plan. I don't want to straight up stop them since it means they don't run head first into danger and do actually take things seriously. But I didn't want to get into details since it's not the main part of the question. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 4 at 8:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @falco the pairings have been at random throughout the campaign. At times I've had suspicions but testing them by splitting the party in a particular way has always proven me wrong. I think it is just a comulative effect of the entire party. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 4 at 14:11
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Actively moderate the discussion

Moderator is a role I usually employ as a game master whenever the group starts spiraling into discussions. I've learned from my workplace that unsupervised meetings usually take forever, run in circles and don't result in any clear actions/decisions. In a business meeting I usually just take the role of moderator and start summarizing the current state of the discussion. If the situation is complex you can also write down the important questions/choices on a board, or create a list of pro and contra. Just actively help them by presenting their unstructured information in a clear and concise manner. Then help them to reach a consensus.

This may feel like an act of manipulating the ingame world from the outside, since the moderator and the whiteboard are not present in the game world. But remember the characters usually have hours to discuss the topic, probably over lunch and also have nothing else on their mind right now (unlike the players, which also have their actual lives after the session). So the characters in the game world will probably reach a much better decision in 3 hours than the players can on their own in 20 minutes. - This is why you can help them.

Help with character knowledge

You can also help the group by throwing character knowledge into the discussion. If the players start discussing complex solutions for a very easy problem, you can always provide them with hints which their characters would know. Again remember their characters have nothing else to do all day and know their own world far more intuitively than the players ever will. (If the information feels to relevant, you can always ask for a knowledge roll, so the players will not feel like they got the information for free)

Example: The players discuss how to get into the palace. Before this gets to convoluted you can tell the noble-born character, his character knows he will probably be able to attend any official events/balls at the palace. - Far more interesting will be, how they will get into the secret chamber once they are in the palace.

Example2: The group keeps discussing how they can ambush the bandit camp in the woods. And you remind the fighter of the group, that for all they know there are only three bandits which are also scarcely armed - so the fighter might feel very confident he can easily take two of them head on. If the group still wants a complex plan they can do it, but this way they know the stakes like their characters would perceive the situation and can probably go with an obvious choice they didn't even think feasible (just walk to the camp fully armed and take them head on)

Minimize unnecessary fears

Sometimes players are paralyzed by the fear to forget something. This wouldn't be a problem for the characters in the game world, because they can check every bag three times and go over the plan for two hours.

To take this burden from the players, you can always let them roll on some matching skills - or just narrate their process and skip over little details. "You have bought all the gear you might usually need in the woods. The experienced ranger (a PC) has checked everything twice and is sure you didn't forget anything obvious." - In some cases I don't even list all the details of the gear or preparations if I know they will not play a big role in the upcoming part. If the game master promises they have everything they need, they don't have to fear forgetting something obvious and can focus on the important steps.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 particularly for your last point. That isn't something I have tried. Thinking back I have possibly been a tad harsh on them forgetting things. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 4 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I hope it helps - I knew this behavior from a group where the GM was very punishing for forgetting little details. This did lead to endless checking and discussions if we had forgotten anything and whole sessions were just planning without doing anything. - We talked to the GM about this being no fun at all and replaced a lot of this detailed world-knowledge by some rolls on the characters knowledge skills, since the puzzles were more fun when we had all the tiles. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco May 4 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ to fight the last issue you can also encourage some out of session planning, My players often come to the table with a short list of what they want to buy. I do this by making sure they have an idea of what they are doing next, either because I tell them or because they have made a decision, before the session ends so they can do some individual planning. cliffhangers can be fun but they also force everything into session time. \$\endgroup\$ – John May 4 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @downvoter care to comment, how I could improve my answer? \$\endgroup\$ – Falco May 15 at 7:05
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I don't have an answer. But I have ideas ...

The core of a RPG is the structured dialogue between the GM and the other players. D&D 5e describes it like this but it's equally applicable to any RPG:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

When this cycle hums, progress is being made and you have a good session. When it doesn't, you don't.

The cycle can break down at any of the steps:

  1. The DM is not giving the player's the information they need to decide on what they want to do. Either they are so parsimonious that the players can't see the options or they are so verbose the players can't find the options. Do you do something different between the small group sessions and the large group sessions? For example, offering fewer options is generally better than more options.
  2. The players can't decide what they want to do.
    1. There are a lot of reasons for this and a lot of ink spilled in psychological and business journals about it. Start here and think about what's different between your small group sessions and your larger group sessions.
    2. On a group dynamic level, there is nothing worse than being in a meeting without a chair. The role of the chair is not to make decisions but to manage the process of making decisions - without that type of leadership, small groups can go round in circles. With very small groups, one personality may be dominating the others which pushes the decision - this is not necessarily a bad thing. For your larger groups consider making one person explicitly responsible for driving the process and that person communicating it to you. Early editions of D&D called that person the "caller".
  3. Action resolution with 2 or 3 characters is always going to be quicker than with 5. How can you speed this up, particularly in combat?

Further, when you run split parties at the same table, the group you are not focusing on doesn't have to remain as engaged. This may be allowing them to be entertained by being carried along without the responsibility of achieving progress themselves. Then when it's their turn again they are refreshed and ready to go.

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Foreword

Let me start by saying that you know your group better than I do. I have some suggestions, but ultimately its your and your players' game, and you'll have to figure out what works best for you.

On that note, keep in mind that improving your game is a team effort. As the GM, you have more options for tweaking the game than your players do, but some improvements may require effort from the whole group rather than just you.

Speed of Play

Your players might enjoy these sessions just because the gameplay is faster - with fewer players, their turns come around more often. Most players can do things to speed up their turns and make the game play out faster. Some of these are pretty straightforward:

  • Plan out your next turn before it comes around. If something throws off your plans, take your time, but start thinking before the GM calls on you.
  • Roll attack dice and damage dice at the same time.

Others can take more effort or involve spending some money:

  • As modifiers are applied, write down the new totals for your primary dice rolls (e.g., attacks and saving throws). It's a lot faster to calculate 1d20 + 19 rather than 1d20 + 13 BAB + 4 Dex + 4 Favored Enemy + 1 Point-Blank Shot - 4 Deadly Aim + 1 Haste every time. If it helps, keep multiple character sheets for common buffs, or use apps like Hero Lab to track modifiers for you.

Some GM-specific things to consider:

  • Roll what you can ahead of time. For example, there are two guards in front, and four more who will come running if they beat Perception DC 15 to hear fighting. If you roll the Perception check before the game and fail, then you can make a note that says "three rounds into combat, the first two guards realize no one is coming and retreat". One less thing to think about on the spot.

Last point - running a faster game generally takes more effort, both from you and the players. Some people prefer a more relaxed game and don't want to be pushed to keep things going fast.

A Chance to Shine

It might be that your players are responding to being thrust into the spotlight. With fewer PCs around, more depends on them making the right decisions, and they have to make more creative use of their abilities. For example:

"If the wizard were here, he'd fly up there and hit that switch. Good thing I put those ranks into Climb...."

Or it might just be more exciting because they have to hope for high rolls:

"Oh, man, Therendal needs help. Rickard could jump that gap easily, but I'm in medium armor! I need a 13 to succeed. Here goes nothing...."

In some cases, you may be able to create the right effect by making changes other than separating the party. For example, crossing a river is easy if you can take your time and use ropes to pull people to safety. Crossing the same river while under fire from enemy archers is a whole different experience.

Sometimes, you can "separate" the PCs without fully splitting the party. For example, if the PCs have to defend a 200 ft. long warehouse with multiple entrances, that might be all the distance you need. It can all play out as part of the same combat, but if it takes two full moves to get from one side to the other, in a lot of cases it might as well be two separate combats.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I choose to award the bounty to this answer because it most directly addresses the question within the frame. It also did exactly what I asked in the bounty in the first place. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin May 12 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @linksassin Thanks, I hope it helps. I have more to add to this, but it's taking a little while to get it written up. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben S. May 12 at 5:10
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To curb long discussions during gameplay, I can offer 2 pieces of advice. Advice for running faster combats etc. has been given already.

1. Make the players discuss their target for the session before scheduling the session. The creator of the original West Marches campaign did this, I do this, and it works wonders. Basically, you contact the players before you agree to a game date to agree on what they want to do during the session. No plan, no game. It's that simple. Until you get a coherent idea from the players, where they want to go and what they want to do, you won't agree to a game session.

They are required to plan this before the game using email or whatsapp or whatever. You can use this information to prep the corner of your sandbox the players want to go to.

Inform them that you will use their plans to prep the session, so they need to do what they agreed to do, not switch gears at the last minute. This helps against the big discussions what to do next, but obviously not about being undecided which way to go in a dungeon. That's what ruthlessly enforced random encounters are for (I recommend AngryGMs Tension Pool mechanic, it works pretty well).

2. Designate or call for a vote of a shotcaller player per session. Basically what the other answers tell about moderating a discussion, but do not put the load on your shoulders, but on the shotcaller. The player is responsible for communicating the group's plan to the DM if the DM asks for it. The role is similar to the team captain of a football/soccer/rugby team - communicating with the referee, going to the coin flip, shaking hands with the other team etc.

The shotcaller IS NOT the boss of the other players, but if there is no decision when asked for, the shotcaller needs to give you a decision. You as the DM can then, if the discussion takes too long, lay down the facts on the table one more time (because the DM usually has all facts in his head), and then say: "Shotcaller, what does the group do?" and then watch him collect the votes or whatever he organizes. If the group can't agree to anything, the shotcaller gets (and has) to decide what the group does next.

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First of all, english is not my main language, so sorry if something that I say sounds somewhat strange ^^U

I think that other answers cover pretty well the basics and generic solutions that everyone tends to forget, some of which I'm taking note right now, but I want to give muy own point of view:

  • The additional feedback is very important. As a DM you seek to have a good time with the group, so individual opinions matter.

  • If the group enjoy being separate, let them be. try to take light notes of which groups seem to be better when they split, and/or how do you force them to split, so you can favor some compositions but don't rely on pitfalls every single time.

  • Keep in mind balancing encounters if the party don't stay together most of the time, though you may be doing this already if the group is having a good time. You might be on the right path already.

With all that said, the course of action I'd recommend is to talk with them in the open, both individually and as a group, but before that, and if you need some more data, sometimes I ask my players to write something like a small essay of the sesions, in which they have to rate it, explain what they dis/liked with concrete examples (the whole session, even if their characters weren't in some scene), and narrate lightly what their characters had felt and done that day (only the scenes where their characters participated)

If you need some ideas, I can think of these ones:

1) Tell your group to split by themselves. Maybe give them 2 or 3 tasks at a time that needs to be done ASAP so they have to split (go tell the guards there's an arsonist while you stop the molotov guy, talk to the baron while you are buying groceries...)

2) Keep relying on traps, or even portals, so you can randomly make them take separate ways.

3) Design a collaborative dungeon. This dungeon have two entrances, and to open the door in the middle of the first corridor in path A you need to pull the lever in B, but the closes the door of that room... something like that. They should still be able to comunicate (maybe by a spell, a special magical tatoo that only appears in the dungeon, some hocus-pocusy phone cabin...) and some linked rooms where they can rearrange the party with some clues to send the cleric against the zombies or the rogue to the poisoned chest...

I hope this give you some insight or at least some ideas, but for what you say, I think you really are doing pretty well right now.

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I like the excellent ideas above.

Here is the best way I have experienced "on both sides of the screen/shield" to keep the game moving. If PCs are having trouble deciding, the GM can increase a sense of urgency by simply rolling dice. Nothing has to be said. Just the sound of the GM rolling the dice and the knowledge that something is coming creates the need to make a collective decision with urgency. It is amazing! I am not advocating constant interruptions to the meaningful collective storytelling we all enjoy in RPG. However if the story is stalled the GM should always have another plot option to throw in to challenge the characters. Decisiveness should be rewarded.

Indecisiveness can be trained out of your PCs in this fashion as they will learn that when they don't make collective timely decisions: bridges will deteriorate, advantages of stealth will be lost, storms will roll in, reinforcements will arrive, etc. As I have posted recently, I tell my PCs that "choices have consequences," but so do NON-CHOICES!

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