The Motto is "Never Split the Party" for a Reason


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 30 January 2010

One of my players has a great blog about his experiences and thoughts regarding D&D and recently he wrote an entry about something that happened in one of our sessions. Due to how the session evolved, he felt that his character would do something completely different from the rest of the party. Basically, they were accompanying the king and queen back to their capital city and it was clear that the king's chief advisor was not quite right. Mike's character, Skamos, as someone who is generally leery of all authority, understandably wanted to follow around the advisor, but the rest of the party (and to some degree, the story) wanted to be in another location. This left me with a hard dilemma. He could go off and do what he wanted, realistically meaning he could be out of the game for the rest of the session at least. Alternatively, I could find a way to get him to the rest of the action. Since I want everyone at my table to have fun, I did the latter. Someone wearing a cloak just like the character he was following and of the same height and build left the inn where the king and queen were staying and traveled to the tavern where the rest of the group was hanging out, having a few drinks and flirting with the locals. I felt terrible doing it, but at least everyone was together right?

Unfortunately, it turns out it was just the beginning of the story just not flowing in the way I had hoped. The character also didn't feel like sharing in the libations. Completely understandable, since well, they were adulterated with goodnight tincture, but that wasn't something the characters would have known. This meant that when they went outside to get some fresh air, his character was the only one standing while the rest of them passed out. And when the bad guys who were there to kidnap them asked him to give up his weapons, he refused to do so. Which left me with the choices of attempting to (and probably actually) killing his character, leaving him behind or having the NPCs allow him to go with them with his weapons. In the end, I chose the last option, but I just felt like a complete failure at this point. As a person playing the game, I know that none of the other players want to sit out a session. Also, I really try to not railroad my players and had their characters all decided to call it a night and never go out drinking, I would have come up with a completely different story. But I was having a really hard time figuring out what to do when only some wanted to go in a particular direction.

Days, well really a few weeks later, I know that the failure wasn't completely my fault. Sure, there are things I could have done better. Having a better understanding of the motivations of my players' characters would definitely help. Finding other ways to get the unsuspecting PC unconscious would help too. But in the end, the burden isn't the DM's alone. Just like the NPCs can't always act the way they "naturally" would, PCs need to have the same flexibility. Otherwise, it can be a bit not fun and, at that point, why keep playing? And if a player is particularly adamant about not going with the rest of the group, as much as it might hurt to do it, it might be better to let them go. I do like his idea of letting the other players play the other NPCs in the fight, although I would be concerned that they might be a little easy on him since they might need him later.

All that said, I think there are times when the party could be split. Ameron on the Dungeon's Master has a great article about how splitting the party worked really well in a game he was in. And having a Leverage-style game would be really cool now and then. However, unless it's one of those times, please do you DM a small favor and don't split the party.

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It sounds like you did what you could to bring the group back together, though I can understand why you felt not so good about "tricking" the player into rejoining the group. Still, you're right on the money about the players and DM sharing responsibility.

One of the main planks of the game design in D&D, and this is especially true for 4E, is that the PCs are a team that sticks together through thick and thin. The classes, powers and skills are designed with the clear intention that they complement the class, power and skill of the other PCs. Sticking together is almost always the best option for them from this point of view.

More important than that, however, is the spirit of the game. 4E is about playing as a team. It's about cooperative effort not only in solving the mysteries and challenges of the story at hand, but a cooperative effort to make sure everyone has fun doing it - both the players and the DM. This is one of the things I really like about the game, and why I keep coming back to it.

Of course, the player didn't do anything wrong at all. It is, I think, inevitable that from time to time one or more PCs will separate from the group. I think that the DM's role is to try and present opportunities to rejoin the party before something horrible happens to the lone PC. For the player, it's a matter of keeping the teamwork game design conceit in mind when ever he has to make a choice on whether to stay solo or try and find his way back to his allies.

It's interesting from your perspective. At the time I thought the thing at the bar was just for some world flavor, and as the more serious workaholic character I wanted Skamos to be out trying to find information instead of just having a good time; I wasn't trying to be difficult. And I think once I got what was going on, I was pretty gracious about it.

The big point you glossed over was that you let me both "win" in that situation by keeping my weapons and staying conscious, and still got me to go with the rest of the party. The genius part was after we were delivered by the stupid kidnappers to the mastermind, the mastermind was like "what is he still doing conscious?!?" and the scene that ensued while the brute tried to explain. I was quite happy with things from that point on, especially because my character got to shine during the fight.

There's some trouble in what defines team work. In order for 4 players contribute 25% of the adventure, they need a certain amount of space to do that. It isn't fun for everyone to do the same action all the time, or just support the one player that does all the talking. Our particular group is pretty good about this, but it's a struggle because we game in such a small window.

Last Mike's post:How to not split the party

If the NPCs were really committed to their mission then they should have put a knife to one of the unconscious PC's throats and said, "Drop all your weapons and surrender or your friend dies."
They don't do this, a PC dies and it's then the player's fault for not anticipating that the NPCs would really be that hardcore.

Yes it sucks to be the victim in this scenario but as a DM who's tried this the story motivation to get revenge on the evil villains who killed xxxx is worth it. It's always possible for a player to get back into the adventure by just slotting them into the shoes of an NPC 'supporting cast' character. If later on the PCs decide to 'raise dead' or some such their friend then they can...

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