I'm running a 4th ed game, but I don't think that makes a difference in this case. Last session my party decided to split up for a couple tasks. The hybrid bard/rogue and the avenger (affectionately known as Team Ninja) decided that since they were the only party members with stealth they should follow the brainwashed paladins and only call on the PCs if they were in trouble. After that they were the only ones present for an interrogation because they were the only characters with enough Religion skill to make the Discern Lies ritual worthwhile. All the while, the rest of the party sat around and waited.

From a strategic perspective, what they're doing makes sense. I know these players aren't trying to isolate themselves to take over the spotlight. The rest of the party agrees with what they're doing. But the rest of the party is also getting bored.

What I'd like help with is coming up with ways to entertain the rest of the party. I'm not looking for contrivances to keep the party together all the time. I actually like watching new party dynamics emerge as the players have to adjust to their strikers being away.

Here's the part I'm finding difficult. I can easily add tasks to their queue, that's not a problem. Adding tasks that have to take place at the same time is what's stumping me. What prevents Team Ninja from doing their scene and then rejoining the party to handle what's left?

The other troublesome part is that I did not plan for the PCs to act this way. They just started doing it on their own. Had they told me last week they were going to split up, I could have come up with something else to happen. Hell, had they told me that the second part would involve the same split I would have thrown trouble at them earlier, giving more play time to the reinforcements.

So what are some things I can do to keep everyone entertained when the party unexpectedly splits?

-- update --

Just to clarify, I agree that I need to pay more attention to the players who are off screen. Ideally they'll be able to tell me what they're up to. But, if they say their characters wait around for 6 hours, what are some examples of things I can surprise them with?

In a previous game I managed this really well. I wrote out a whole bunch of letters and communications. Some had specific destinations. Others had to be stumbled upon. When a player was bored, I handed him the next letter or came up with an excuse for him to intercept someone else's message. The difference is in that game, the players managed a castle. They were always in one place. In this game my players are on the move. I don't know where they'll be. And they spend most of their time in disguise. Messages from world events aren't likely to reach these PCs. I could start a new plot each time the players split, but (separate issue) they've told me they have too many open plot threads and would like to resolve some before opening anything new. Given that, I'm not sure what I should be throwing at players who are content to wait in the bar.


2 Answers 2


Four lesser options, one major one.

  1. Fast-forward the split party part. Don't dwell on stuff as much as you otherwise would.

  2. Snack and bathroom break time. Shoo the other players off. This will serve as a cue to the sneakers that they should include everyone eventually.

  3. Metagame, encourage the group to find ways to include people even when it's suboptimal.

  4. Spring stuff on the other party to keep them occupied. Sure, if they just get a lead, they can wait to follow up, so make the action come to the PCs - someone kicks down the door or otherwise looks to interact with them NOW.

  5. Give them all equal spotlight time. 5 minutes dealing with sneakers or interrogators, 5 with the others. They'll either start going to do stuff of their own accord, or they will, heaven forfend, roleplay with each other.

Number 5 is really my favorite. We've had plenty of great moments while half the party is doing something "important" and the other half goes to a bar and gets in trouble. All you have to do is give them the spotlight time, PCs are notoriously twitchy and impatient and will find ways to entertain themselves, "on task" or not.

My added thoughts based on your question edit.

You don't need to balance "in game" time. If one group went and did something for six hours, but real time that took five minutes, then you just need five minutes of spotlight time for the other group, even if that's five minutes of rousting a hobo and then 5:55 of "we go somewhere and hang out."

If they need ideas for what to do or you want to spring things on them - that's why God created random encounters, right? Either they self-motivate some mission oriented stuff, which you come up with, or they mess around in a tavern or go shopping, which you come up with, or they sit around looking glum till a land shark attacks them, which you come up with. You do anything you'd normally do to the full party, but ideally with slightly less kill. (Or not, if you want to dissuade them from splitting in the future.)

If they are content to wait in the bar, let them wait in the bar. Have fun bar things happen. People hang out in bars in real life, it's fun. And sometimes good and/or bad things happen, hence the larger than usual incidence of hookups and cop interventions in bars. All you need is for them to all be having fun and getting roughly equal "spotlight time" (time they get to actually do something at the game table).

Not everything has to be mission related or be a "subplot." They can just find out interesting things about the world they're in. If every story everyone ever tells them is a "subplot," then you get into a bad rut where their expectation is that anything that happens in the game world is FRAUGHT WITH MEANING, and it can't just be some guy BSing about how he fought a troll armed with a spoon once.

In my campaign, I make sure there's a healthy amount of "the world doesn't revolve around the PCs" stuff going on. Not only does it make for a realistic feel, but then when someone wants something to do, they have the expectation that "Hey, I can just go out there and go shopping, or find a bar, or find something to do - I don't have to be 'working through a plot element'" every damn minute of every damn day.

In my Pathfinder campaign recently, the party split. One half was going to do something on task and important. I don't even remember what it was and they probably don't either. The plan was to meet up at a known bar later that day. The other half of the party decided "we'll just go wait at the bar now." I roll a random encounter - giant cockroaches. They get to the bar, and the owner, "Ball-less Bill," an old ex-pirate with one leg, one hand, one eye, and apparently less then one thing down below, was standing outside the bar holding the door shut. "What's the problem?" "My basement flooded and there's these big ol' cockroaches running around in there! They're as big as dogs!" "We can take care of this! Stand aside, Bill!" The two PCs bust in and the cleric casts Call Lightning. The cockroaches are like CR 1/4, so they run all around and out into the street as the cleric blasts lightning holes in everything in sight. The fear of God is put into the local yokels, and the cleric gets an Infamy Point (the equivalent of a Hero Point in my pirate-oriented campaign). They yell "Wooo!" and go in and drink for free.

The other half of the party... They did something on mission. Got some information or something. Who cares. No one remembers that, but they remember the Great Roach Holocaust.

If you have proactive players, this shouldn't be a problem. If you have reactive players, then don't treat them like proactive players and give them 'things to follow up on.' Have the world turn, and its events happen around or to the players. If they decide to just go find another bar rather than chase out the giant cockroaches, fine, then make them choose whether they're drinking "bloodwine or dwarven grog" and go back to team A. Seems to me like you're overthinking this by requiring all events to be part of some big Mythic Plotweb.

  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ #5 is actually a really good point that I should keep in mind. I don't necessarily have to come up with something for the rest of the party. I just need to remember to ask them what they did while the others were out sneaking all night. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 3:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ #5 for #1 ! Put the onus on the party, they'll help out. Some of my best moments as GM have come from split parties and switching the spotlight pretty rapidly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pat Ludwig
    Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 4:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ #5 was always my default. as for #2 - if the split is long enough you can have a whole session with just two players in between your normal meetings. \$\endgroup\$
    – naugtur
    Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 9:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Be a little bit careful with #5. Some types of players get frustrated if the GM is looking at them but they have nothing they want to do. It makes them feel like they're missing something. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 14:08

What prevents Team Ninja from doing their scene and then rejoining the party to handle what's left?

You. Pacing is an important—and for split games, vital—skill for a GM to cultivate. It doesn't come naturally, but the first step is recognising that pacing the action is entirely the GM's responsibility and right.

Don't let the players dictate the pacing of the action. One set of character should never be able to go and do something, finish, and return to the group unless you have decided that's how the game is going to go.

Interrupt the players. Create mid-session cliffhangers. Cut back and forth between character groups in the middle of PC-NPC conversations to create suspense and maintain everyone's interest. Suddenly ask, "And meanwhile, what are you two doing?" Ask player if they have anything they want to get done in the meantime, get it rolling, and then cut back and forth between the two areas of action. Essentially, any time you look around the table and see someone looking bored or stacking dice, hit them with a question about what they're doing and focus the game on them for five or ten minutes.

It's a skill that takes nurturing and practice, but once you've got a bit of it you'll be able to keep a game going at a nice clip, with everyone paying attention even when it's not their characters in the camera eye.


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