What are the best ways to handle splitting the party up – especially over the long term?

Ask the gamemasters

An interesting question was asked of us recently:

I’m planning a pretty good science fiction game that will most likely involve party splits during a good percentage of the game. While this seems like it may be a bad idea, is there any way to make party splits work without ruining the game for the players?

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer

The Ghostbusters (who the title of this ATGMs misqoutes*) were right – splitting the party can do more damage – to the campaign, to the GM, and to incidental nerves. But, if handled properly, it can be a definite aid to gameplay, and practically indispensible.

There are different answers to the best techniques to employ, depending on two major factors: the frequency and duration of splits. Our enquiring GM has described a situation in which either or both will be high, but because we like to be thorough here at CM when we look at a question, we’re going to cover the whole range of possible situations and the solutions that best fit them.

Side-note: I titled this blog as I did because, for many years after the movie first came out, and even today on occasion, these are the first words out of someone’s mouth whenever the party decides to split up….

Occasional, Short Duration, Seperations

If the party is only going to be apart for a couple of minutes – long enough for one conversation, say – there’s no problem. Take them aside. Go outside for a cigarette, go upstairs for a cup of coffee, or whatever. There’s no problem making the other players wait under these circumstances.

Periodic, Short Duration, Seperations

Things get a little more serious when you have to keep taking the same player or players aside for a few minutes in scenario after scenario. When this happens, it’s better to deal with events at the table most of the time, even if it means secrecy is lost. Notes might preserve some measure of privacy but they are generally a short-term solution.

Regular, Short Duration, Seperations

…And when it starts happening several times a game session, every game session, there is no serious option but to handle it at the table. Notes between players and GM may also work here, but are even less likely to be good enough in the longer term.

Occasional, Medium Duration, Seperations

So much for the easy answers; now it starts getting trickier. Medium duration means up to an hour or two.

When it’s a rare event, it’s my preference to time the events to occur between game sessions, or over a meal break, so \I can take the affected player(s) aside and deal with the situation. If that means \things have to be a little more abstracted than usual – no miniatures or props – well, that’s just bad luck, we have to put up with that.

Periodic, Medium Duration, Seperation

It’s when it starts happening more frequently that real problems set in. When this is the case, I’ll make sure the seperation is at the end of a game session, and I’ll also make sure there is something for the other group of characters to be doing at the same time. At the end of one session, I’ll deal with one group of players, and before the start of the next, with the other, keeping both game-time and real-time as closely-matched as possible. This ensures I’m not singling out or demonstrating any kind of favoritism for either group of players. What’s more, I’ll also try to ensure that the opportunities to earn any sort of rewards are also equal on both sides of the game; little poisons a game faster than one or two characters who not only earn a full share of the party’s rewards, but also gets rewarded for gaming on the side.

This mandates planning specifically to accommodate these needs during game prep. You not only need to prepare for the side-quest, you need to prepare something for those who are not involved – and that’s often the harder task.

It’s also worth noting that combat chews up a LOT more playing time than in-game time, and that needs to be planned for as well.

Regular, Medium Duration, Seperations

This escalates the problems, and solution, identified in the previous category into a structural component of the game, and I would actually define it as part of the standard pattern of play for the campaign: group one plays for the first two hours (or whatever), plus the party section of play; group two plays the party section of play, and gets the last two hours of play (or whatever), (in theory) taking place simultaneously with the opening passage of the next session of play. This is not dissimilar, in many respects, to the approach taken by the long-running Law & Order series – the first half is police work, featuring the detectives, and the second part is the courtroom, featuring the lawyers, and only when you put the two halves together do you have the whole story. However, where that series has very little overlap, in this case the overlapping game time would be the dominant feature.

This graphic illustrates what I'm suggesting

This graphic illustrates what I'm suggesting

This is the first category of answer which I think might fit the circumstances of our enquiring GM. I must emphasise that I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I can’t state as a fact that this will work; but I see no reason why it wouldn’t – provided that the arriving members of Group 2 don’t disrupt play with side chatter. (If they do, the departing members of Group 1 can get their revenge at the end of the day’s play!)

Occasional, Long Duration, Seperations

Now matters are getting serious indeed. By long duration, I mean a full day’s play or more – sometimes a little less, sometimes a lot more.

I’m actually going to be facing this situation in the near future in my “Fumanor: One Faith” campaign, simply because it’s been designed around one PC and others have joined in since. The solution I’ve come up with is for the players who own a PC who is not present to take on another role in the affected scenarios – in effect, taking over an NPC who has been built into the plotline.

Any experience they earn stays with the NPC, but (as a reward), half of it also goes back to their “real” characters – if I judge that they’ve played the NPCs sincerely.

Furthermore, after each scenario revolving around Group 1 (in which the members of Group 2 are playing other characters as PCs), I will turn the tables and run a scenario detailing what the members of Group 2 were up to at the same time as the first scenario was taking place; the players whose characters were tied up in scenario 1 now have to take their turns at running secondary characters. (It is also my intention to permit the players to contribute to the design of the secondary characters that they will be playing).

This approach works in any case involving covert missions, and in fantasy games where communications technology is fairly primitive; it is harder to implement successfully in modern games where one group of characters can “get in touch” with those who have been left behind at the push of a button or the dialling of a number. When I don’t think this technique will work, for this (or any other) reason, I will implement a more extreme solution. Stick around, things are going to get interesting!

Periodic, Long Duration, Seperations

Now that we’re surmising a repeated pattern, it’s time to take the next step, with a technique stolen wholesale from Ars Magica: In addition to each primary character, every player also puts together a secondary character. It’s up to the player to nominate which of his characters goes with which group when they seperate. This is the best technique when characters are apart more often than they are together, as not every player can cope with playing multiple characters at once.

For this to work, it’s best if the GM lays down some ground rules – the two characters must be different in class (if the system has them) or in function within the group (if it does not); they should have clearly different social standings, goals, and so on. Each group should have some reason to be cohesive – perhaps all the members of group 2 (bar one) are vassals or henchmen of the lone exception.

Once you have the characters sorted, it’s time to make another decision: you can either alternate play between the two groups, either game-session-by-game-session, hour-by-hour, or whatever; or you can run temporarily completely seperate campaigns. Or perhaps 4 hours of one group followed by 4 hours of the other (assuming an 8-hour playing session). The objective is to try and keep the two groups somewhere close to synchronised.

Another approach is one-game-day-at-a-time – and if that means one hour with group 1 and seven with group 2, then that’s the way it is. Since every player has a character to run, regardless, it doesn’t matter.

This approach was used fairly successfully by another GM I know for his “Star Trek” game – everyone had a member of the bridge crew, and a member of the ship’s security detail. Most of the bridge crew stayed put on away missions, leaving everyone except the exceptions to fill out the landing party with generic red-shirts.

I would solicit opinions from my players as to their preference, and then vary from that baseline to fit the needs of the plot, so as to avoid anticlimax. If you can handle it, ending each group’s activities on a cliffhanger is always an excellent approach, but it doesn’t always fit a GM’s style or the circumstances – and if it doesn’t, don’t try to force it, as it will come across as melodrama for the sake of melodrama.

Regular, Long Duration, Seperations

Now we’re into a situation in which it is going to be quite rare for the entire party to be together. In which case, I would seriously contemplate a more-or-less permanent seperation into two entirely different campaigns. This has happened to me – it’s the reason why I’m running two different Fumanor campaigns at the moment. The characters in each have never met, though the two have several players in common. But it is planned that the two groups will be tackling different aspects of the same problem at the same time in the big finale (years away).

There are some serious advantages to this approach – so many so that it’s worth saving the details for another blog post (makes note on list of future blog topics). For example, you can start plot threads in one as a minor subplot that goes nowhere – but that turns up in the other campaign as a featured plotline. You can have mysteries in one campaign that are solved in the other (why did that happen?). You can induce paranoia by having different NPCs in each of the campaigns give the players two different answers to the same question in an authoritative manner (“The master villain behind it all is ‘X’, and ‘Y’ is our only hope…” Sure, they know one of them is lying, but which one?

I’ve even seen games like this run in which the two factions ended up on different sides of the same war!

The objective with this solution is to transform a liability into an asset.

Concluding thoughts

That’s the whole secret to coping with the situation asked by our Enquiring GM, really – if you’re faced with a situation that could harm the campaign, either find a way to turn it into an asset instead of a liability, or find a way not to do it, even if it means some players can’t have the character they want.

Don’t think of it as a problem: look at it as an opportunity, and then ask yourself, “an opportunity to do what?”

Answer that question, and the optimum approach from amongst those I’ve listed – or one of your own devising – should become obvious.

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer

I have a couple tips to add to Mike’s usual thorough analysis. I’ve done the same things as Mike, except my branched campaign didn’t get off the ground the one time we opted to give a split party their own campaign, so thumbs up on all his advice. In addition:

Round robin with a timer

This is my preferred tactic based on the situation you’ve described, Enquiring GM. I go around the table, one player at a time, and give them the spotlight for X minutes. The length of time is based on two parameters: number of PCs in the split group and pacing.

Group numbers

Sometimes every PC will be apart. In this case each player gets X minutes. I GM them based on what they want to do. When time is up I switch to the next player.

Other times the party won’t be split evenly. Three PCs might be in one sub group, two in another, and a single in a third, for example. For short splits we carry on with the table seating as-is. For longer splits players change seating so they’re beside each other.

For timing, I’ll cut time by 50% for each player in a sub-group.

For example, a single player will get the full X minutes. Two players will get X + 1/2X minutes. Three players will get X + 1/2X + 1/4X minutes, and so on. This is because each group represents one scene and current timeline, and this keeps game timeline simple and roughly concurrent. It also encourages players in sub-groups to coordinate, communicate, and act as a team during their time slot.


The other factor is how fast do you want the game to feel to players? A good pattern is fast for when stakes are highest or the situations are the least interesting. Other times you can slow pacing down, especially if there are moments to relish.

With a countdown timer on the table there’s already pressure on players, which adds additional drama and tension, even if there’s none in the situation. (Note, if this becomes bothersome, relax on the timing and put the timer behind your screen.)

If you want slow pacing make X 2-5 minutes. For fast pacing make X 2 minutes or less.

These are general figures and should be modified based on game complexity, your GMing style, and player styles. For example, you might make X 15 minutes, so a full turn for a group of four players is one hour. We like fast and choppy, but that’s a preference, not a rule. (Fast and choppy is our combat preference too, lol.)

Use a public timer

I’ll put a timer on the game table so everyone can see their countdown clock. I purchased a set of three sand timers that have different times, so I can just pick the timer based on X. I also have a digital timer for other timing needs. I’ve often wondered about getting a bunch of chess clocks and running split games that way, but those are expensive and I’m not sure how I’d even out faster times.

I’ll allow time overage if it would help logistics or gameplay out, but not much.

While waiting, as players normally would in games, they can plan their next questions and moves so they make maximum use of their allotted time. This is where seating players next to each other comes in handy – less noise at the table. alternatively, I’ve had groups go into other rooms and them comes back to the table when it’s their turn each time.

I don’t use this method with my current group, as we are playing a beer & pretzels style of gaming right now, and the party sticks together based on tacit player agreement, as split groups are generally deemed less fun. It’s less realistic, but realism is a spectrum and we’ve found our happy niche.

Leverage skills

Something else I’d like to add to Mike’s great advice is plan to make good use of PC knowledge and skills. In a sci-fi environment comms should be plentiful unless you have FTL lag or some other issue. PCs should be able to patch into other PCs with ease to get advice, bounce ideas off of, and tap unique PC abilities without disrupting players’ own turns. This helps everyone participate in each other’s scenes.

Virtual should give PCs another avenue to join in on the action during split times. Perhaps while the physical reality PCs are doing their thing another PC is querying databases and hacking foes’ smart equipment, another PC is controlling a virtual-enabled piece of equipment, and the remaining player is doing tactical or trying to communicate with foes or hacking environmental, etc. Due to the extremely short length these actions can take, this won’t interrupt a player’s true turn during split situations.

Play NPCs

If Mike’s solution of multiple PCs per player isn’t possible or doesn’t suit your tastes (some players prefer to only play one PC), then allow PCs to play NPCs. In sci-fi you have even more opportunities to add NPCs into the fray, such as smart equipment, AIs, remotes, etc. Allow technology to have personalities and you have fun NPCs to play.

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