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Once upon a time, in a D&D campaign long, long ago, I came to a dilemma. The party I was GMing for managed to ingest some poisoned food. Half of them failed their saves and ended up passed out and drugged. The other half managed to fight their way out of the situation, but left their fellow party members behind during the desperation of flight. How was I going to handle that?
Easy. I just split the party.
I know I just spent an entire article detailing the difficulties of doing so, but this was different. Those failed dice rolls led to some defining moments of the campaign. It would be many sessions and a few levels before the players would see each other again. When they finally did, they had many stories to tell.
At that moment, two campaigns were launched. I met with each group on different days of the week and forbade them to talk to the other about in game events. Two of the four players found their characters waking up to a new life as gladiatorial slaves. The other two were working on tracking them down and saving them. Each group only ever had half the story.
Splitting the party this way can be a great narrative technique if you have the time. It allows the GM to craft two intertwining stories whose scope isn’t realized until the end. Both groups are working on a problem from different angles, likely garnering all sorts of information in the process. When they finally meet up again, they will have so many stories to tell.
There are a few techniques you can use during the split to create some truly memorable adventures. My favorite if letting each group unravel the mysteries of the other. If one group ends up in an ancient dungeon, perhaps the other finds a text that discusses the history of it. Maybe an NPC that proves to be an adversary to one group befriends the other. The allied player group may become privy to why the NPC is doing the disagreeable actions that the other party finds distasteful.
Another fun thing to do is let one group of players run into the others aftermath. This worked especially well in the example I started with, as one side was trying to track down the other. They’d come upon scenes of destruction the other player’s had wrought. The enslaved group eventually started a slave rebellion, overthrowing the masters and killing their champions. The group that came to save them arrived in the city a week after this happened. They went around the city asking after their friends, unaware that they had become fugitives.
This naturally led to some uncomfortable situations, as their companions were not held in high esteem by the noble class of the city. They did manage to find out that the escaped gladiators were headed back to the last place they had all been together. After traveling all that way, they had to turn around and continue the head back. The entire return journey, the characters found remnants of their friends passing, always making them feel connected and close.
The best part of splitting the party in this manner is when they finally reunite. First, it feels like a victory that is bigger than any treasure or experience you could throw their way. The found their friends; what could be more powerful than that? Secondly, provided the players kept up their end of the bargain in maintaining secrecy, they’ll have so much to tell each other. It’ll likely be a session where the GM just gets to sit back and smile and the players excitedly tell each other about their journeys and all the things they came to learn. It’s a great role playing opportunity that players naturally take to, as it awakens many of the same feelings in them as it would their characters.
The down side of doing this is a lot more work for the GM. You’re basically running two campaigns where once you had one. The toys it gives you to play with are great, however. It can be a real treat creatively if you have the time and energy to make it happen. So yes, split the party. It’s a real adventure getting it back together again.