We all know it happens, that moment when one of the players at the table declares their character is going to split off and go on some solo task, be it a lengthy amble up the slopes of mount Doom or just a quick duck into the local pub for a swift pint or two.
Before you know it someone rolls their eyes and says those immortal words.
DON’T SPLIT THE PARTY!
Now, we all know this is generally good advice, for all players know deep in the fearful recesses of their hearts that every horizon, corridor or innocuous side table might conceal a straining tidal mass of kill weasels just waiting to fall upon the unwary in a raging torrent of teeth and fury.
But, that said, it’s also the sort of thing that leads to a boring, cowardly wagon-circling herd mentality.
There are great depths of story that can be developed by encouraging players to try separating their characters and allowing them to experience the game world with only their characters own skills and understanding, independently of that most obnoxious of roleplay conceits, the collective power of “group expertise.”
What’s that then?
Group expertise is the phenomena that occurs when all the characters in the whole group can and does instantly call on the skills, abilities and knowledge of the group’s most capable character(s) for a given task at any time, seemingly regardless of the situation or any other impracticalities.
It also breeds an atmosphere where only the “best” character matters to the progression of the group and if (as tends to happen) the group regularly runs into similar challenges then those whose skills aren’t called on can fade into the background..
INDIVIDUAL ABILITY VS. GROUP EXPERTISE
Now group expertise isn’t necessarily bad, it serves a purpose and it sometimes even makes sense, like when you have the whole group finds itself standing about impatiently while the thief pops a lock open. Or when the group need to talk to an NPC with whom most of them don’t share a common language.
But it can also obstruct a Puppet Master’s ability to paint a full and engaging picture of the scene through the information that individual players receive, for example when the party’s stonemason doesn’t bother to look at the crumbling walls because the scout said there was no danger while looking for goblins and other critters.
Splitting the party isn’t (and doesn’t have to be) just a reduction in total health and damage output. It can be an opportunity for a character to shine, (especially one of middling abilities that tends to get outshone or outperformed) a chance to act as a hero in their own right instead of a sidekick or a minor cog in the machine of the party.
So, what do you propose then?
Well, I have recently been fortunate enough to run a game with three fine players who have a particular tendency to split up and I have begun to employ subtle variations in the information I put into the narrative based on which character experiences it. Coloured by how their character experiences the world using each character’s biases, attitudes and unique abilities.
This is particularly stark as in the group we have:
Zeke, a reclusive northern outdoorsman on a delusional revenge quest to find the brother of his pet, Jerry (a mutant red squirrel with two heads.)
Anita, an experienced medic and chem trader with over a hundred years of half-forgotten life experiences and a network of dodgy acquaintances.
Timi, a borderline psychotic, lip reading, grease monkey and tech pervert with a nail gun and a side interest in gruesome torture.
WELL, THAT’S… DIFFERENT.
Indeed it is.
And those differences mean I can supply very different information to each of them depending on which of them is exploring an environment at the time.
The outdoorsman keeps an eye out for Vitals of survival, food, landmarks, animals and other physical dangers.
The chem trader looks for opportunities to make money, chem users and places or people she remembers from her long travels.
The mechanic/torturer tends to be in the look out for unattended tools, interesting components, places to remain unseen and more recently the guards, who are hunting her for a chain of mutilations.
With these things in mind I can have these three all look into the same room and pick out different details from it based on what information they look for and how they feel about it.
WAIT, DOESN’T THAT MEAN THEY MISS THINGS?
It sure does, just like real people do.
No major plot points or game changing info drops of course, but just adding little details that they alone notice can reward player engagement and make it worth having characters that act as individuals while working together to further the goals of the group.
Who knows, maybe particularly canny players could even potentially turn some of those innocuous little details against their PM imbuing them with importance and leveraging them to direct the plot if they are clever about it.
Actually, I think I’d love to see that in my games.
Everybody take a level of Suffering!