Split the party.

Started by oculusverit, July 06, 2010, 01:22:15 AM

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Hello everyone,

I have to admit I have read a lot of different posts and been familiar with Ron's theories for quite some time, but I have never posted to the Forge yet. I was writing to see if anyone has any thoughts on the following.

I have been a GM for about 6 years, and I have to admit I like games with GM's (even if they are GM-light). Personal preference. So with that in mind...

Considering the great adventures in fiction, a certain pattern develops. A group of adventurers (the Fellowship of the Ring, for example, or the Stark family in A Song of Ice and Fire, or the wizard students in Harry Potter) start out together, usually from a point of innocence (read: low experience). After a number of adventures together, however, a point of trauma develops that splits the party. Each adventurer, who has proven strong in certain areas, must now accomplish separate goals and meet new people. This accomplishes two goals story-wise--it allows each adventurer to prove their worth as a leader rather than always fitting the same role in every adventure, and it allows the audience (the reader, in the case of fiction, but for the sake of the analogy I will paint the gaming group with GM included as audience) to explore the rich fantasy world in different areas at once.

All mainstream games, and most indie ones, however, assume that the group of protagonists either gets to interact with each other (PCs) or characters portrayed by the GM whose responsibility it is to bring the entire rest of the world to life. This includes antagonists, allies, neutral parties, bystanders, etc. In my time running these mainstream games, I've encountered several instances where I have wanted to either explore the world or help character development by splitting the party, but it invariably ends with me having to provide most of the interaction for one or two players while the rest of the group sits by, watching or using the time to go to the bathroom.

I think it would provide a better experience if players could take on the roles of the new allies or even the new antagonists encountered in these episodes where the party is split. This way everyone would feel involved, and maybe even have a chance to branch out into new roles. Are there any games that do this already? If so, what are they? And if they exist, do they provide a GM (even GM-light) experience, or would they be considered "way out there" in terms of style of roleplay to mainstream players?


I was in a game last week where the gm did exactly that - told the players who weren't in the scene to play the parts of npc's.  I'd never seen that done before and it was fantastic.  (having the one woman player playing all the female npc's helped the illusion too.). But it was a homebrew system of the gm's, so no help there. Still, I don't see why you couldn't do it with any system.

Moreno R.

Hi oculusverit (? can I call you with a normal name? At the Forge there is the tradition of using our first name as user-name or in the signature)

What you are asking for is problematic and more than a little contradictory: you want to play games where the character have to work together as a group (when a lot of indie games did throw out the concept of the "party" a long time ago), and then you want to split them up at the time of your choice. This would (and will) require railroading, and a lot of it (or at least a lot of illusionist techniques). And, as you saw yourself, doesn't work very well.

I suggest that you simply use games that doesn't assume that the PC will for a fixed "party", and avoid this contradiction. And let the players decide when they want their character to travel together or split up, without forcing the choice to mimic some other story that isn't the one you are playing.

Talking about techniques, these are a few to allow the players to avoid being "out of the action" for too long even if their PC are not together:

- "Troupe Play": this was introduced by the game "Ars Magica" in 1987: to tell it simply, in every scene where you don't play a PC, you play a NPC. The setting of the game and the way the characters are build help in this (every player play a Magus with lots of bodyguards and servants that the other players can play when their Magus is not in a scene), it could be more difficult in a game where the PC are "lone wolfs" that often travel alone.

- Games where the PC are not in any "party", Frame aggressively, short scene, right to the point, and this work very well, Hundreds of games now work this way, even with a fixed GM. So allow the players not present in a scene to help (or hinder) in some way, to encourage participation in each other's scene.

There are other techniques, based on messing with the character ownership, but they are usually used with a less traditional split between Players and GMs.


(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)



Quote from: Moreno R. on July 07, 2010, 12:08:53 AM
What you are asking for is problematic and more than a little contradictory: you want to play games where the character have to work together as a group (when a lot of indie games did throw out the concept of the "party" a long time ago), and then you want to split them up at the time of your choice. This would (and will) require railroading, and a lot of it (or at least a lot of illusionist techniques). And, as you saw yourself, doesn't work very well.

Why, Moreno?
I can imagine a game that simulate this dividing the play in two parts, with the passage activated by some kind of pre-declared mechanic: "When the Trust Track reaches 0 the party will split" or "When a character resolve his Contradiction the party split" (Trust and Contradiction being stats of these hypothetical games). That event can be more or less player driven... a sort of end game mechanics in the middle of the game, or a passage like the one in Polaris.

Obviously, the literary topos of the "splitting party" can be used in a lot of game, from The Mountain Witch to Solar System, without forcing it and using it only if it's really necessary and cool. We can even play a lot of games STARTING with a split party: we pitch and assume that the characters know each other well, but we are really interested only in what they do after they part, not in their previous adventures.

What I fail to understand is why this topos cannot be a feature or even the focal point of a fully coherent game like many other topoi and what are the problems with a game that force it as a matter of design.

Think about Polaris. "The fallen knight" is a time-honored cliché and is central to the game. You cannot avoid the fallen, it's an essential part of the game.
Why we cannot use "The splitting party" in the same fashion?
Ciao, I'm Ezio and I'm Italian.
And I'm sorry for my bad English, I'll keep studying ;-)

Moreno R.

Quote from: Aetius on July 07, 2010, 01:11:44 AM
Why, Moreno?

Because what you are talking about is not what "oculusverit" was talking about


Quote from: oculusveritAll mainstream games, and most indie ones, however, assume that the group of protagonists either gets to interact with each other (PCs) or characters portrayed by the GM whose responsibility it is to bring the entire rest of the world to life. This includes antagonists, allies, neutral parties, bystanders, etc. In my time running these mainstream games, I've encountered several instances where I have wanted to either explore the world or help character development by splitting the party, but it invariably ends with me having to provide most of the interaction for one or two players while the rest of the group sits by, watching or using the time to go to the bathroom.

Anyway, this is his thread and he will say if he could be interested in a solution like the one you prospect.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)


First of all, an apology to all. My name is Kinch, hello everyone and thanks for your replies!

Moreno was right in the fact that I seem to have misrepresented myself as the "railroading" type of GM who wishes the story to go his way and no one else's. I try not to railroad when I GM, though, and that's definitely why I am very open to GM-"light" games where a lot of the story is character and/or player driven. My principal goals are as follows: for there to be a cohesive storyline that at times surprises players, and that they feel that there is a lot of player and character control over the storyline. My goals in regards to this thread are to add a particular type of player experience to the mix by starting with a group of characters that support each other, and then the party splitting based on one or more of three possible reasons:

a) Character decisions
b) Player desire
c) GM design (only for short term splits, rather than long term)

Does that mean that I want one game that provides means for all those reasons? It would be nice, but even a game that allows just a) or just b) would be a great experience.

I'm slightly familiar with Polaris, but haven't read it. All I know is that it does have different players playing antagonists and allies to the "protagonist" with the protagonist rotating, but don't know how it mechanically does that. Is it something that could be adapted to what I'm talking about? I am interested in exploring mechanically mandated party splits as well, so thanks, Aetius.

As for the mechanic in Ars Magica, I was unfamiliar with it. Sounds like it could be worth reading.

What sorts of games are you referring to by "games where the characters aren't in any party" that you're describing with your "frame aggressively" statement, Moreno? I'd like to hear more about that as well.



Oh, by the way, I also wanted to define "the party" for this thread's purposes as any group of characters that share common goals and/or best interests. Usually that means they meet to discover they have these goals and best interests and thus pursue them together, but by defining it this way they can choose at some point to split up in order to best achieve or pursue them.


Moreno R.

Hi Kinch!

With the specifications you added in your last posts, I think that your problem is at least partially solvable.

First, about Polaris: Ezio was talking about a value called "zeal" in the Polaris character's sheet, that goes down when the character get increases in experience and increase his abilities. When "zeal" goes to zero, it become "Weariness" and start increasing again. When Weariness goes to the original value of Zeal, the character (who is a knight of a sacred order of defenders of their people) betray his order. (it's more complex than this, but this should give you the general idea). This is because Polaris is about tragedy, and characters are expected to end only in two manners: betray their ideals, or die heroically BEFORE their weariness goes to that point.

So, Ezio was talking about having some point during a game where, by design, the party HAS to split. I was saying that from your initial message this wasn't was you were searching for, and I think that your following post confirmed this, right?

There is another sort of technique that permit the GM to split a party using Force that it's not railroading: it's when the rules of the game assign a cost, paid in some sort of game currency, to do so, so the GM can't do it at will and have to "pay" for the privilege.  For example, a game could give the GM the possibility to change a "dial" of a character from "in group" to "alone".

But all this is moot: from what you say, you simply want the player to be able to split the "party" when the story conditions make it the best choice (or simply if they want to) without having half of the group sit apart waiting for a lot of time their turn to play, right? It's not so much "how can I split the party" as "how can the party split without ruining the game to the players", if I did understand correctly your problem.

The oldest solution I know is the "Troupe Play" from Ars Magica.  It's based on a lot of assumption specific of that game: the PC are not "adventurers" but they are powerful mages, with a fixed base (a castle, fortress, hidden cave, mystical forest... it can be really a lot of thing, but in any case it host not only the Mages, but  A LOT of servants, men-at-arms, specialist (spies, torturers, physician, etc.), guests, etc.). So it's not so much a way to "split the party", as a way to have rich and complex stories involving really a lot of minor characters, with the players always (or almost always) involved in every scene

What is the problem with troupe play? Well, first that it depends on a kind of setting that give a lot of people "from the same side" to play in almost every scene (so, Mages who never go outside without a group of men-at-arms to protect them, for example), but the biggest problem is that in Ars Magica is proposed as a "way to play if you want" without any systemic help.
So, it works very well....  if all the players want to play like that because they like to play a lot of minor characters! And I really mean "ALL".
When I played Ars Magica, most of the players enjoyed it very much. If I would have done a survey, it would have been probably the game with the better votes in years in my game group.  But I had two persons (in a group of 7) who simply didn't see any sense or reason in playing "not their characters", so they simply played always the same character, in every scene, and when they couldn't they simply didn't engage with the game. And this caused enough friction (having two player playing their mage in every scene meant than the other players could almost never play theirs) to stop the game.

If you want to try, you can download the 4th edition of Ars Magica for free following the links on this page. It's not by far the best edition (the best in my opinion is the 2th, followed closely by the current one, the 5th.  Almost everyone agrees that the 3rd was terrible, but the 4th it's not so bad... until you try to fight without using magic..) but it should give you an idea of the setting and kind of game without having to spend money.

The second solution I talked about is, in my opinion, much more applicable in general, doesn't require some specific kind of setting or characters, doesn't require in general to play more than one character (but it's possible if you want) and in my experience works very well. The biggest problem in its use is that is something that the GM has to learn to do, it's an acquired skill, and no "traditional" game that I know of teach it: Aggressive scene framing.

To put it simply, its the skill of framing scenes very fast, very quickly (but still giving enough information about what the character see and hear, and smell, and touch, etc.) jumping from a player character to another so fast that you can easily play with 2, 3 or even more groups of PC in different situations at the same time.
Obviously, you need a game system that allow you to do this (if a single fight take 30 minutes to resolve, your framing will never be fast, the scene will drag for at least 30 minutes, and you risk having the other players bored to sleep waiting for their turn). Some game systems allow the players not in the scene the chance to interact in some way, with some currency of their own (for example, in the game Primetime Adventures, the players can spend a currency called "fan mail" to help or hinder the character of other players, and to win the chance to narrate themselves what happen to that character...) or use some other way to keep the other players interested.

I would like at this point to direct you to some article or free game that explain this method better than I did, but i have not the links at this time...  I will post some link in the next post if you are interested, but if anybody has the link to some good article about these matters, it could be very useful.

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)

Marshall Burns

Hi Kinch!

I know of some techniques that might help.

Your central problem is one of screen time, yes? Like, players who aren't in the scene aren't doing anything. This leads to them feeling like they don't even need to *be* there, or, indeed, even pay attention. Which is almost certainly universally undesirable.

Beyond the suggestion already provided regarding having players whose PCs aren't present in the scene play NPCs, here's something other things to consider:

Ok, you've got a PC in his own scene without other PCs. What you do is you play it like normal, up until you reach the point where it's time to roll dice (or, y'know, use whatever resolution mechanic you've got going on). When that happens, STOP. Freeze frame, cut away to the next PC's scene, before you even get it hammered out what the guy's gonna try to do, what stats are being rolled, all that jazz. Then, with the next guy, do the same thing: play up until the conflict point, freeze frame, cut away. Do this until you've covered all the players.

Now, get each player's course of action for their PC and their opposition hammered out, in turn. Then have everybody roll their dice at once.

What's going on here is that the players' interest is better held because, a.) they don't have to wait long for their turn, and b.) while they're waiting they get to think about what their guy is about to do in response to his personal cliffhanger. Plus, c.) they can always weigh in on each other's problems, if that's germane to your game.

To my knowledge, this technique was first written about by Ron Edwards in Sex & Sorcery (although I, and probably plenty of other folks, developed it independently before encountering Sorcerer or Ron). I think he's since coined a cool name for it: flashpoint.

The next two techniques are as old as fiction, but not bleedingly obvious. The terms for them were, again, coined by Ron in Sex & Sorcery.

The Cross: this is where you take effects and consequences from one character's emerging plot and introduce them into other characters' scenes. For instance, the fire that Bob inadvertently started spreads to threaten something of import to Steve; the guy who got his ass kicked by Steve shows up at Lucy's door, seeking aid and succor; the messenger that Lucy sent is waylaid on the road by bandits just as Bob rides up by coincidence. Or, Merry and Pippin manipulate the Ents into laying siege to Isengard, which prevents all the folks at Helm's Deep from being inevitably wiped out.

What this does is incentivize the players to pay attention to each other's scenes, because the stuff that happens might become directly relevant to their own characters. (Plus it makes the story interesting and exciting in a Dickensian kind of way.)

The Weave: this is where you frame scenes and conflicts such that PCs directly cross paths. This could be a chance for them to band together momentarily, or it could pit them at cross purposes, or it could just be a chance for a crucial exchange of information or resources; whatever. This is a bigger deal in games like Sorcerer where the default is that the PCs aren't a party of any sort, but it's still a useable technique outside of that framework. To return to Tolkien as an example, Gandalf constantly weaves in and out of the other characters' paths.

These three techniques are REALLY powerful when you use them in synergy. I mean, which is more engaging: the way that Helm's Deep is narrated from start to finish and then the siege of Isengard is narrated in flashback as in the novel, or the way that the two conflicts start, get developed, and resolve concurrently as in the film? That latter is flashpoint + cross.

Does any of this help?



As a player I have mixed feelings about playing one of the DM's NPCs.  I don't have the same emotional attachment to it as I do my own character, so I'm not inclined to play them as well as I would my own.  Plus that sort of thing can, at times, require that the DM tell you what to say or do.  Which further lessens my interest in playing an NPC.  The flipside to that is that the rest of the party leaves the room and turns on the Xbox, starts surfing youtube, etc.  Which is also annoying since

As a DM I like to keep the party together for the sake of simplicity.  When I do split them up, I prefer to have the inactive players leave the room because I don't want them to know what's happening, because they have a tendency to metagame.  Like "oh, John's getting beat up? Well my character bursts into the room to save him!"  That's an exaggeration, but you get the point.  I think the key to splitting up the party is to keep it short so the other players don't get bored.

Oh, and this is sort of related: at one point my D&D 3.5 group had discussed splitting up the party that had been running for ~12 levels.  The idea was to give the DM a break, so two of us were going to take over and DM a side adventure for each half of the group. The people who weren't part of the group that was running would make characters that would somehow get involved with whatever sort of quest they were doing.  Then at the end of both of our sessions, the two groups would meet together and from then on, each player would have two characters to choose from for the main campaign.  We never followed through with it, but I thought it was a pretty cool idea.


oculusverit, you offer an interesting solution to the split party problem. My suggestion is try it out in play and see how it works. If it goes smooth and adds to fun, go with it. If it creates a problem for some of your players, then you don't have to use it. It strikes me as a good tool that can work for the right group of people. The only downside I can think of is if you have players taking on the role of NPCs they would have to have access to that NPCs motivation and knowledge (which could pose a problem in some instances, especially if that kind of information will make it difficult for them to run their regular character).

Splitting the party is something I've been thinking a great deal about lately. I run an ongoing campaign of our mafia game, Crime Network, and because of the nature of the mob genre, the party is split up most of the time (people are running their own rackets or being sent out in small groups to handle different problems). This can lead to boredom for some players. The way I've dealt with it, is to pay close attention to the pace of the shifts in focus from one group to another. I also try to keep an eye out for signs that some of the players are bored. Generally I find, shifting focus a little quicker than feels natural (at least for me) keeps things running pretty good.   
Bedrock Games


Thanks for all your great ideas, especially you Marshall!

I think I've come up with a pretty good idea, and after writing it up and running it by my gaming group, they seem to like it. I've scrapped the concept of them playing antagonists, since they like to be surprised and feel somewhat committed to having the plot develop without their meta-knowledge. However, I have come up with two new additions, don't know if they qualify as house rules or not. They should work for any system or setting. The assumption is that, before these come into play, the party splits in order to accomplish separate goals, or because of some plot device. So we have two groups during any given scene, the involved players and the uninvolved players.

Meeting on the Road: The uninvolved players roll dice. Whoever rolls highest needs to come up with a concept for a character (stats not necessary at this time) while the other uninvolved player(s) have to come up with a personal complication that this character would bring to the involved player characters. Meanwhile, the GM already has prepared a bit of useful information that this new character can bring to the involved player characters, and if after the scene the player enjoyed the roleplay he has the option to keep his new character and add some quick stats until he or she can properly stat them up, making this effectively their "B" character whereas their original character is their "A" character. The "B" character stays with the involved characters and is now a new member of their party. This can happen multiple times.

The Airship: Eventually, you may get to the point where the party meets back up, but now we have players with both "A" characters and "B" characters (some might have even voluntarily taken on "C" characters!). What to do? Well, to take a page out of Final Fantasy, the idea of the "Airship" is basically some network where these characters can all stay in touch with each other (they don't all have to hang out at one place like the name implies, but they at least need to be reachable, unless the GM has nabbed one for plot complications). This way, when presented with the next choices or pieces of the plot or adventures, the players can basically choose which character they would like to play and mix and match parties to their heart's desire.

Thoughts and opinions? I'm really appreciating all your feedback!



having players play NPC's strikes me as having several problems:

1. the NPC's may need to know more than the PC's, so you have to tell the players too much, or they play the NPC's wrong.  In simple scenes this probably isn't a problem.  If the players can just ignore what their PC's don't know this may not be a problem - but I don't like doing that myself, I like being more in synch with the character.

2. if the NPC's are successful the party suffers.  So doing well as an NPC against one party member is really hurting yourself as a player.  If the players are not a party but more like rivals this isn't a problem.  Or you can reward the player by doing well as the NPC by giving his character a "fate" point type of thing, that way it is hindering the party but the bonus makes up for it.

3. having the NPC do well against the PC may cause trouble between players.  That depends on the maturity of the players.


For what it is worth, I really like Kinch's ideas of "meeting on the road" and "the airship."  Never had the chance to do anything like what people are mentioning throughout this thread, including Kinch's ideas (usually, in the games I've played, splitting the party means half the group gets to be bored for awhile, unfortunately).

It seems to me that Kinch's idea of having the chance to make new characters and rotate which characters you use throughout a campaign could be really cool, and allow for interesting party splitting.   I think the big potential hangup to this approach, though, is system complexity.  If the system is simple and characters can be created quickly and easily, I think it could be neat.   Another potential hangup could come down to character advancement.  If you are playing a game like D&D, for example, which tends to emphasize the acquisition of power, then playing different characters at different times could result in weaker characters.  The players who manage to play fewer characters will be disproportionately powerful.