March 22, 2013

Splitting the Party


Do your players dread splitting the party?  That may be because tactical combat RPGs scale challenges to a group, and the GM can’t alter them as easily on the fly.  Or it could be because players don’t want to sit on their hands while others get the spotlight.

Note:  I'm using a running example from the tabletop Vampire: the Masquerade game.  
If you're not familiar with it, ask Wikipedia.

Dividing the spotlight time carefully is the hardest task you will encounter when splitting the party.  Re-scaling combat challenges on the fly can be tough in some games, but altering social scenes, and revising skill roll difficulties are all fairly easy, even for a novice.  Actually, the system advantages of splitting the party may outweigh the drawbacks, if you’re careful.

Imagine you’re running a Vampire game.  The neonate PCs have visited the manor of an influential Ancillus, who doesn’t come down to visit them as they expected.  Indeed, the Ancillus’ ghouls brought them into the drawing room, left, and haven’t returned for hours.  The PCs get restless.  The manor is large, with two wings branching off the central entertaining area, plus a mysterious outbuilding. 

Brujah:  “Something’s up.  Let’s get out of here.”
Toreador: “We can’t just leave without explanation.  Let’s leave a note.”
Nosferatu: “Idiot!  This is more than just discourtesy.  Something’s wrong.  What if she’s been killed?  Then we’ll be implicated.”
Brujah:  “Fine, no note.”
Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that”
Tremere:  “Can you take care of the cameras?  I want to find out what happened.”
Brujah: “I guess I’m curious, too.”
Tremere:  “Me and Tori will check out the outbuilding, then circle back and check the East wing.  Nos and Bru, why don’t you check the West wing and look for the security camera footage, while you’re at it.”

The Advantages to Splitting the Party
If the players split themselves evenly, it’s easier to share out the spotlight time.  The GM can alternate scenes back and forth between the two groups, building tension and ending each one on a cliffhanger.  Also, both groups will have an imbalanced skillset, so the advantages to providing a challenge (below) are preserved.

The big advantage of splitting the party is that you can produce high tension challenges in skill scenes without using over-the-top task difficulties.  A typical RPG party of PCs is a group of complimentary specialists who, together, possess a comprehensive skill set.  Within the group, there is usually someone good at every kind of task.  One character may focus on social skills, another on burglary, another on magic, and another on combat skills.

Character
Social
Burglary
Combat
Information
Nos
Poor
Excellent
Poor
OK
Bru
Poor
OK
Excellent
Poor
Tori
Excellent
Poor
OK
Poor
Tre
OK
Poor
Poor
Excellent

As you can see, the team as a whole is Excellent at every kind of task.   You can’t give them an easy obstacle to challenge them.  You have to constantly use tasks at the top of the difficulty scale to challenge the party.   And when you introduce such a hard obstacle, you only provide spotlight time for the character who excels at that task.

In the first example, the party split evenly.  Here’s what the two parts look like…

Group
Social
Burglary
Combat
Information
Nos/Bru
Poor
Excellent
Excellent
OK
Tori/Tre
Excellent
Poor
OK
Excellent

Now each sub-party has deficiencies.  They are still excellent at a wide range of tasks, but there is a skill area that they have some deficiency, and another where they are pretty inept.  If you give them tasks at which their characters excel, you give them spotlight time.  If you give them tasks at which the characters in the other group excel, you can use less “epic” difficulties (more “gritty” situations); you give the acting players spotlight time because they have the drama of failure; and you give spotlight time to the other team because they’re sorely missed.  They also tend to stay interested because the player of a character good at a particular task probably knows the system for that task well and may be able to help out. 

GM: “Nos picks the lock to the guardroom and Bru goes in with his shotgun ready.  On the floor is a handcuffed man in a bullet proof vest with close cropped hair, sobbing real tears.”
Brujah: “Woah.  Uh, dude, can you tell us what happened here?”
NPC: “It vanished!  I can’t feel it anymore!”
Brujah: “Calm the hell down and answer me, man.”
Nosferatu:  “Hey, buddy, what’s gone?”
NPC:  “The light!  The magic!”
Brujah:  “Oh, crap.  I bet he was Conditioned by the Ancillus.  He’s probably in mental shock.”
Nosferatu: “Can we get him to calm down and tell us what happened?”
GM: “Sure, make an Empathy check”
Nosferatu (OOC):  “I have literally one die for this.  What about you?”
Brujah (OOC):  “Uh…  Crap.  Two. I don’t want to botch this.  Let me blow a Will.  [Roll]  Just the one success.  Where’s that damn Toreador when you need her?”
GM:  “Well one success is enough for him to calm down, but not enough for him to give you anything useful right away.  You reassure him that the light could come back, and he looks doubtful, but stops crying.  At least he won’t eat a bullet while you fiddle with the security computer.”
Nosferatu: “You’re a paragon of humanity, Bru.  OOC, I don’t suppose he did well enough that he’ll give up the password?”
GM:  “No.  It’s going to be at least fifteen minutes for you to hack it.”
GM: “Meanwhile, Tre and Tori are approaching the outbuilding.  Whoever went inside didn’t leave a guard out here.  But they also didn’t turn on any lights.  The vans’ headlights illuminate the first few feet of the hallway inside the shattered doorway.  Beyond that, you can’t see very far.”
Tremere: “Shit.  Do we try to sneak in?”
Toreador: “I don’t have a stealthy bone in my body.”
Tremere: “Well, I guess we have to go in guns and spells blazing.  I can handle one with my Path magic.  You?”
Toreador: “Down a blind hall against an unknown enemy?  Are you nuts?  You’re good for one.  They brought two vans worth.  I’m a good shot, but I only brought a pistol.  What if those guys are lupines?  You’re going to annoy them with your cane?  How about we hide out here and at least see who comes out?”
Tremere: “That also involves stealth.  But at least we can call a good bonus for the bushes and darkness and stuff, right?”
GM:  “Sure, that’s worth +5.  But you won’t be able to do anything about whatever they’re doing in there…  Whoever they are.”
Toreador: “So we have to go in hot or pass up on intervening in whatever they’re doing in there.  Can we go back and get Nos and Bru?”
GM:  “Sure.  It might take you fifteen, twenty minutes to find them though.  In the meantime…”
Brujah (OOC):  “Aww, man.  I’ve been itching to try this new silver sword out on some werewolves.”
Tori (OOC):  “Sucks that you’re too busy hugging Rambo in there.”
Tremere: “Well I guess we hide in the bushes like you said.  We can’t stop them, but at least we can see who they are.  If they spot us – which, if they are werewolves, is entirely possible despite our merciful GM’s generous bonus – I say we run like the wind, scream like babies, and hope Bru and Nos can hear us and come to our rescue.”
The players will try to play to their strengths as best they can, but when they split the party, you can create situations like these where relatively easy tasks like calming a guy down or hiding in bushes are suddenly chancey and hard tasks like spying on unknown agents are totally inconceivable. 

In this way, you’re able to mix in easier tasks, challenge the PCs better, and give spotlight time to PCs who aren’t even in the scene.  Everyone gets to take a turn to act, and if the split groups are about equal in number, the net amount of spotlight time per player doesn’t change.

Uneven Split

But what if the players divide unevenly?  In reality, the most common way the party gets split is when one character goes off to scout.  What if that dialogue had gone like this?

Brujah:  “Fine, no note.”
Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that.  Let’s think about this.  Something is going on.  It may be too late to do anything about it, but it might not.  What if I turn invisible and try to find the Ancillus.  I’ll come back and report if see any clues to what’s going on.”
Now we have a problem – one person is taking dramatic action, while three people sit and wait.  You have options:

  1. Run the scouting scene and make the other players wait.  When the scene ends, return to the whole group.
  2. Skip or abstract the scouting scene and move the action forward.
  3. Run simultaneous action for both groups, as if they were split evenly; but give more attention to the larger group despite the fact that there’s more interesting challenge for the smaller one.

Each option has benefits and drawbacks. 

Run the Scouting Scene then Return to the Whole Group

The first option is the typical GM response.  Some groups like to run these scenes in another room, so that the other players can gossip and go out of character freely without disrupting the game, and so that there’s a sense of mystery to what’s going on.  Other groups like single player side-scenes to be played at the table, so the scout doesn’t have to waste table time reporting everything.  He can just say “I tell you what I saw.”  

Some groups like the scene run at the table for other reasons – if there’s a more “author/director” stance among the players, they often suggest things for other people’s characters, or for NPCs, or suggest complications for scenes to add to the drama.  Some GMs even let the players whose characters are absent run NPCs in roleplay (this usually requires some prep ahead of time) or combat. 

The drawbacks of those techniques are obvious.  Plus, if your game sessions are short, running the scouting mission with just one player can eliminate half the game for the other players.  And if one player has built a scout character or just likes to go off alone, you’re going to find yourself running these side scenes all the time.

Skip Past the Scouting Scene

The second option – skipping or abstracting the scouting – is great if you want to keep the party together.  

Here’s how that would go for the example scene:

Nosferatu: “Just as bad – maybe worse.  At the very least we’re on camera coming in.  Someone will find that.  Let’s think about this.  Something is going on.  It may be too late to do anything about it, but it might not.  What if I turn invisible and try to find the Ancillus.  I’ll come back and report if see any clues to what’s going on.”
GM: “Nos, you go scouting and come back with information:  There were signs of a fight in the Ancillus’ office, and a pile of ashes with his medallion buried in them.  You could sense he was killed by a mighty sword blow, but nothing more.  You also saw the outbuilding through the office window and noticed two vans parked on the lawn next to it, their headlights pointed at the doorway, and the door itself busted off its hinges.”

The main advantage of this technique is that you totally avoid splitting the party when there would be a chance of a strong imbalance of spotlight time.  The story moves forward quickly, and the PCs don’t miss a beat.  There are drawbacks, though.  Nos invested quite a lot of resources in scouting skills and magic disciplines, and you just hand-waved them.  Another drawback is that you can’t use Nos’ flaws or other hooks to try to compel him to make a dramatic misstep. 

You can use system to abstract the scene instead of totally skipping it, if you focus on situations where the player can fail and the story will still move forward .  In this example:

GM: “Nos, you go scouting and come back with information:  There were signs of a fight in the Ancillus’ office, and a pile of ashes with his medallion buried in them.  Make a Spirit’s Touch roll.
Nosferatu: “3 successes.”
GM:  “You sensed that he was attacked by between three and five enemies and killed by a mighty sword blow.  When you stood up again, you also saw the outbuilding through the office window and noticed two vans parked on the lawn next to it, their headlights pointed at the doorway, and the door itself busted off its hinges.  Then you came back to report.”

Split Scenes and Balance Time

The third option gives you opportunities for split scenes.  One group will have a fairly complete skill set, so they will act at nearly full strength.  The other, the individual, has a focused skill set with a lot of holes.  This gives you an opportunity to provide distinct challenges for both groups. 

Because one group is just one person who has a limited skill set of skills, you will be tempted to spend more time with the smaller team or solo scout, for the reasons I discussed above.  But you can’t.  You have to be very careful to spend more time with the larger group instead, or else you have more people bored more of the time, and prone to cross-table talk and frustration. 

Suggestion

Splitting the party can be a wonderful technique for the GM, but it can be very hard if they don't split evenly. The main reason one character goes off alone is that the stealth rules in most RPGs encourage it.

Many game systems penalize the party for using more than one character to sneak about.  If two people make Stealth checks and the enemy only has to beat the lower result, that’s a penalty.  This is fine from a simulationist perspective:  Two people are harder to hide than one.  But it discourages even party splitting and encourages solo scouting scenes, which are harder to run.

You can encourage splitting the party more evenly by defying realism a little.  Instead of two stealth checks, have the second character’s stealth check provide a bonus to the first’s depending on how well he rolled, but never a penalty.  If there’s limited invisibility magic (like in Vampire), give non-invisible characters a bonus for having an invisible person take point.  After all he can see watchers well before they do, then come back to whisper what he saw.

So folks...  What tips do you have for splitting the party?

No comments:

Post a Comment