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Recently I ran a steampunk themed one-shot where three of the five players were brand new to roleplaying. The session was successful, everyone enjoyed it and told me they'd like to play again.

However, I had a problem where the group kept splitting the party, which caused players to lose attention and slowed the pace of the game. The main issue though was that when they did split, it was for good reason which made it difficult for me to argue against.

This also happens in my main Traveller campaign, where players have said “why shouldn't we do it since it's a good idea?” In this instance, their PCs were under time pressure so splitting made a lot of sense, but it made it much harder for me having to think about two situations at the same time and managing two different time frames. There are additional issues when only three of the four players are present, as splitting leaves one PC by themselves causing in game problems and leaving them very bored.

The fact that my style of play is based on improvisation only makes this worse.

I know different techniques for dealing with split parties and I manage to use them, sometimes more successfully than others. My problem here though is that splitting occurs so often that their use is not always effective or possible.

Next time I play I will address this issue more clearly with my regular group, and hope that they understand how much of a problem I find it. With the less experienced players though, I fear this approach will seem rude.

What can I do?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've made some edits to your question that hopefully improve the flow and grammar a little without changing the meaning of what you are asking. If you don't like it though, you are free to revert back to your original. \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Apr 21 '15 at 16:22
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Talk to your players about your constraints as a GM

Ultimately this is an issue where the party as a group of human individuals playing the game will need to make concessions in their play approach to the limitations of you as a human individual GMing the game. In a perfect world you'd be able to respond to their decisions instantly, allowing you to juggle GMing the two separate groups simultaneously, but from your description this just isn't a possibility. Sit down and talk with your players in person, outside of a game session and explain that the overall quality of the game will be improved by you being able to focus your efforts on the party as a singular group vs. a bunch of individuals or two groups. Naturally the party will split when the need must arise, but you can specifically prep/plan story points where this is indicated (the engine room is on fire AND there are enemies boarding our ship) as a way to signal to the players that this is a split which you are prepared to handle GMing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't have enough for my own answer that would be distinct from this, but "Talk to your players" would also work if the group decides that everyone is okay with "when we split up, there will be some stretches of time where we (as players) aren't doing much while the GM deals with the other group". \$\endgroup\$ – sillyputty Apr 21 '15 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer, this is what I was going to do, but what about the open table one-sessions group? They're not always the same people playing and therefore I will have to do this explanation before every game session starts, possibly with brand new players who doesn't even know what am I talking about. \$\endgroup\$ – FraNe91 Apr 22 '15 at 9:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FraNe91 Maybe a sign that says, "No party splits" because if you are GMing at a con or something like that its totally YOUR table and you can set the ground. The first rule of my table is no party splits, the second rule of my table is no party splits... \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 22 '15 at 11:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ "In real life, the advantage of splitting the party is that it allows you to do more than one thing at a time. However, as a GM, I can only resolve one situation at a time, so splitting the party doesn't actually make anything faster, and puts you at a disadvantage if you come across situations where the missing party members would be useful." I've found this explanation helps prevent party splitting in any situation where there's not in-setting time pressure. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Dec 3 '15 at 23:31
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I really like Joshua Aslan Smith's answer, and it says at least 90% of what I would've said. That said, I feel that it's missing a couple of things I'd like to suggest:

When your players want to split up, ask them to think twice.

When something like an imminent party split comes up, it's perfectly fine to break immersion for a moment and say something like:

OK, that seems like a perfectly sensible thing for your characters to do, but please keep in mind that we've only got one table and one GM here. If you guys split up, I can only focus on one group at at time, and the rest of you will have nothing to do. That's going to slow down the game a lot, and it might feel kind of boring. Are you sure your characters can't think of some reason to stay together instead?

This is particularly important if you're dealing with new players, who might not be familiar with meta-rules like "don't split the party" or "do what your character would do, but not if it breaks the game" yet.

Of course, it might turn out that your players are fine with being out of the game for a while — maybe one of the groups wants to take a break and get some snacks while the others play their half of the scene — or they might expect the split to be only brief and temporary (in which case you might want to warn the players if you think it might not be, or adjust your plans to make it so).

If one player wants to strike out on their own, let them know they won't get as much stage time.

Asymmetric party splits are a special case. Obviously, if your party is splitting into a one-person and a three-person group, you can't and shouldn't give both groups an equal amount of time in the spotlight. At the very least, you should give the "lone ranger" no more than one quarter of the stage time — and arguably, it should be less, because the single character's actions generally won't directly affect the rest of the group, and thus won't directly drive the story forwards for the other players, nor build up any intra-party dynamics.

So when a single player decides to strike out on their own, that's a particularly good spot to stop and ask them to reconsider, telling them something like:

OK, you can do that if you really want, but leaving the party like that means that you'll probably have nothing to do for the next half an hour or so. I'll let you attempt <whatever the character set off to do> and narrate any interesting minor details that might happen along the way, but there won't be any epic battles or anything like that for you until you return, because a one-player battle would just be boring for everyone else. Or you could just stay with the rest of the party, and try to find some other way to accomplish what you want.

If the party really won't stay together, consider replacing some characters.

This is probably more relevant to longer campaigns, where sometimes a particular character just might end up in a situation where they no longer have any reason to stay with the rest of the party: maybe they've accomplished all they set out to do, maybe they've ran into an irreconcilable conflict with the other characters, or maybe they just suddenly find themselves with other priorities that make it impossible for them to continue the adventure.

In that case, the natural thing is to ask the player to "retire" the character as an NPC, and roll up a new character instead. For a one-shot game, you might have some spare pre-genned characters that the player can choose from, or just pick an NPC that's already present. You can give the player the option of roleplaying their old character whenever their path crosses that of the party, or possibly even having the old character re-join the party at a later stage, if they again have a reason to. (Of course, that generally involves some character juggling, since you really don't want one player to play two characters, at least not more than briefly.) The important thing is to make it clear to your players that the game focuses on the party; if their character really wants to leave the party, they can, but that means they're no longer a player character.

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You can always say no, but if this is happening frequently, look at your scenarios.

Joshua's answer is of course correct, though I think GMJoe summed it up even better with this script:

"In real life, the advantage of splitting the party is that it allows you to do more than one thing at a time. However, as a GM, I can only resolve one situation at a time, so splitting the party doesn't actually make anything faster, and puts you at a disadvantage if you come across situations where the missing party members would be useful."

However, I think it's worth examining why this problem occurs with such frequency in the first place. I can think of three reasons:

  1. Players aren't aware of the drawbacks. You can fix that by explaining your policy as above when you explain the game and your other table rules at the beginning of the session or campaign. Maybe add something about how it tends to be boring for whoever's off screen.

  2. Players know it's not a good idea, but think it's good roleplaying. Dedication can be carried too far if it results in My Guy syndrome. If your players argue that they need to split up because "that's what my character would do," remind them that for the purposes of the game, we all agree to certain constraints on our characters - they must be part of a starship crew, or must not kill fellow party members, or must all have some reason to seek the MacGuffin. These rules exist outside the fiction of the game world, but they are not obstacles to our fun, they are essential to the experience of having fun together, because without them the game falls apart. "Your characters must find some reason to stick together 95% of the time" is a common and reasonable restriction. In my experience, taking time to share your metagame expectations, and realizing that you can change "what my character would do" to match what you want to do within reason, are both incredibly freeing for all concerned.

  3. You're inadvertently suggesting it. You say the party is splitting up "for good reason", though not, it seems, for good fun. But whether your game has narrative rails or is a super simulationist sandbox, I would argue that you still have a duty to nudge things in a direction that will lead to the kind of play everyone will enjoy (including you). In any world, the PC's could plausibly encounter events, situations, or NPC decisions that suggest splitting up, or suggest sticking together; go for the latter.

For completeness, I offer exceptions for your consideration:

  1. If you know your players are committed to staying together but want to RP the drama of making that decision and testing their bond, you can arrange for such a conflict.

  2. If it would be cool for one or more PC's to split off for a bit, you can either resolve that quickly ("While you all wait for your next mission, Morgan goes up in the mountains and does a training montage"), or arrange to meet those players separately. (This works especially well if some people will be absent from am ongoing campaign - give the folks who show up a spotlight episode.)

  3. If you're confident you can pull off an awesome parallel-action climax like in e.g. Star Wars. But honestly, those have to be pretty carefully paced; as a fellow mostly-improviser, I wouldn't try it.

But yeah, if this is happening a lot, there's probably something either you, or your players with some prompting, could be doing differently to prevent it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Point of order, "Star Wars” (Episode IV) did not have a parallel-action climax. Those were in Empire, Jedi, and...that other one. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Jun 19 '17 at 1:44
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Stop giving them reasons to split up

You are the one that keeps presenting situations that encourage the party to split. Just stop doing that.

You admit that, “when they did split, it was for good reason.” So, what do you expect them to do — act against their own interests just to make it easier on you? You can ask them, but I don't think they’ll be very keen.

Simplify your adventures so that all the action is in one place. It can be a fun plot device to have multiple priorities pulling the party different ways, but right now it’s causing you troubles.

If you just really like presenting the party with multiple challenges under a time constraint, make sure their tasks have a required order and are nearby each other.

(If you do this, that's probably all you’ll need. But if your players need a little more motivation to stick together, read on.)

Give them cause to stick together for safety

Adding more challenging combat encounters will also encourage the party to stick together. Parties tend not to split if they think it will be dangerous.

Introduce Helpful Allies

It’s a little more heavy handed, but you might also consider introducing NPC’s who can handle tasks the the PC’s want done, without splitting the action. These might be additional (perhaps GMPC) party members who travel with the party, or they might just be friends who have the uncanny habit to show up just when the party is thinking of splitting up.

Use Temporary Characters

As a last resort, you can add temporary characters for the players to control when their PC's are off-screen. These could be robots or street kids - they should have enough abilities to keep a player’s interest for a while, but not as good as player characters.

This will keep players from getting too bored. Since they won't be pestering you to change the focus, it should make it easier on you, too.

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