When the party left Medusled with the promise of Eastfold’s help, they were lifted up. They thought that they were all alone in a forgotten corner of the Middle-earth for a long time. And, in fact, they were. But after a long journey and an uncertain council at the hall of the Riddermark king, they found, at last, a powerful ally. But at the same time, they knew that a lot was going to happen in a very short time from now on. While they were on their way to the Brown Lands, they agreed on splitting up the party – an idea that often seems like a perfect solution at many RPG tables but is nevertheless somewhat problematic to handle.
Why would I hesitate to split up the party? And why didn’t I, back then?
It’s only now, after much more games run as a GM, that I see what could go wrong with allowing the party to split up, especially for a longer period. First, the other players may be simply bored or feel disconnected if they don’t act for too long. Or, if I’d try to switch back and forth between the groups, I could quickly lose track of one or both situations. And there is also the problem of the player knowledge vs. that of their characters. Either I separate the sub-groups and hence increase the risk of those “inactive” feeling cut off. Or, if I keep everyone at the table, the players will have to work around the bits of knowledge their characters haven’t learned.
Today, I know that it comes down to the personal preferences of playstyle, interaction, and expectations about the game. Some feel more comfortable while not actively playing than those who seek opportunities to role-play their characters. Some enjoy the story and the narrative as a whole, and those that want to follow it along with their alter-ego share all elements of suspense and surprise. Those are all things to pay attention to and adjust for the group with which you run your game. But it also creates a very tricky plot to run. You’ll see that in just a moment when I’ll tell you about the following part of that session.
Consciousness and Tension
The Rook, Bruni, Eradom, and Ingolf approached the ford of Undeeps. King Thengel said that the Rohan’s help would arrive in three days. That seemed long for them since they had already seen the bandit forces moving in the area. The tension was rising. And they felt an urge to do something about it, to help the people they defend. On the other hand, they needed to guide the Rohirrim to the Limesplice or the Raven Gully. Splitting up the party only seemed like a natural solution. They could do both things simultaneously.
Yet, it was a bit problematic for me to maintain that tension. If I’d run either of the parts – preparing the hamlet for the final battle or leading the forces from Riddermark – earlier than the other, the tension built over the last two sessions would disperse completely. And that was going to be the climax of the campaign. Without the suspense, it would be a disappointment.
If they can have both, why not me? Party splits, split the RPG sessions!
As I mentioned above, that was my early days as a GM. But I did trust my gut enough to call an early end of that session the moment the players agreed to split up the party. Suddenly, I was very excited to do a bit of an experiment. I thought I could run two separate sessions for both pairs. Bruni and Eradom would have their time securing the arrival of the Rohirrim unforeseen by the bandits. Likewise, Ingolf and the Rook could make their scouting mission. And all of them wouldn’t know how the others fared, so they’d be nervous to see the outcome.
From my present perspective, I have no idea how I managed to pull that off, lacking much of the experience I’ve got now. There was a lot to take care of, like fleshing out two sessions and providing enough gameplay for two pairs of characters or managing the information flow between the two. For Bruni has just learned to speak with the birds with his Master Scholar feature. And that meant he could have a message delivered between the two groups. Next time, I’ll write exactly how the two groups handled their goals.
I’ve found a great article on the Gnome Stew about this issue. If running two extra sessions isn’t worth the effort for you (it could well be too much for a more straightforward situation), I recommend you check it out. You can find a lot of good points on the game pacing there – especially for such a brief read. And that, pacing that is, applies to way more issues in RPG than just the characters splitting up the party.