September 25, 2018

Do Split the Party

Most RPGs can handle "splitting the party" decently well.  The problem with splitting the party is that players get bored when they're not actually playing the game.

It's one thing to wait your turn in combat, where you are part of the action -- especially if the GM is highlighting the stakes and context of the situation when it's not your turn (see the twitter thread below).  It's another thing to wait a long time while the other PCs are off scouting or investigating or negotiating.

You can tell GMs to cut frequently.  You can tell GMs what to avoid, how to try to match cut speed to pace, etc.  But what I've discovered in the last three years is that as a GM, you need to learn how to recognize triggers that cue you to cut.

If you're not reminded to cut back to the other players, you might not realize you've gone on too long.  You might not realize you're boring them.

So here are some triggers to remind you to cut.  If you internalize these eight scene cut-away triggers, you'll get better at running split-party scenes without boring your players to death.

Failing a Skill Check:  When a PC fails a skill check, cut!  Cut to the other PCs immediately.  This has a lot of great benefits!  First of all, depending on your system, failed checks will happen decently often -- especially when the party is split.  In D&D, it might happen every three or four rolls.  That's about the same for PbtA games.  Second, it gives you time to think about the move you want to make. With extra time, you can think of a really good complication that really adds to the tension. Third, the player who failed the check will be waiting with bated breath to hear how bad things went with that roll.

A Player Needs OOC Time: This one is obvious - if you're running for a split party, and a player needs time, it's time to cut.  Players might need time for lots of reasons:  OOC things like getting another piece of pizza, using the restroom, taking a call, fixing a tech issue (playing online), or having a sneezing fit.  Players usually won't take a break in a tense moment, so if they signal a need to break, it's at a lull, and a good time to cut.

A Player Needs Time to Think:  Players might also need time to think of a plan, think of what to say, think of how their character would react, make a tough choice, or figure out a character ability.  If you're going to force them to make a decision under pressure, don't cut away.  Apply that pressure.  Talk them through it.

Aside: When you force a player to make a decision in a split second, you're testing the player, not the character.  For some styles of play, this is great.  Actor stance play, such as LARPs, horror games, or high character immersion play can be enhanced by forcing players to make split second decisions in character.  You're encouraging bleed (see here, here, and here).  For other styles of play, this is bad.  Author and director stance play should test the character, not the player.  You might spend ten minutes thinking about how your character would handle a split-second high-stakes decision. In those styles of play, it's often fun to decide that your character made a bad decision. 

There's a Rules Question:  If the table runs into a rules question, cut.  The players can look up the rule while you run the other scene.  This one should be obvious. Just make sure to associate it with a cut-away trigger in your mind.

Cliffhanger Moment: When something surprising happens, cut away after you see the players' reaction.  Don't drop the surprise and cut immediately.  Why?  Because when you get the players' reaction then cut, you get five or ten extra minutes to think about how to play to it!  If you surprise them and cut away immediately, you don't get their reaction until after you cut back.  And that means you have only seconds to plan how to play to their reaction.  Put another way:  The surprise is big.  The players' reaction to the surprise is even bigger.  Your response to their reaction is the third most important thing that happens at a plot twist, and giving yourself extra time to plan that is gold.

GM: "Jasen, you've put down the third vampire spawn.  You're wounded, exhausted, but victorious.  You walk out of the alley, back into the crowd.  Nobody noticed the battle.  Standing there, staring at you is the vampire who commanded the spawn to attack.  She pulls her hood back, and it's none other than Lucia, your former mentor." 
Jasen's Player:  "Holy crap!  I thought she died in the crusade!  I don't care about the crowd. I don't care that I'm wounded.  I charge.  Do I roll initiative or what?" 
GM: "Hold that thought.  Let's cut away."

A Conversation Milestone: Conversations take longer than you think.  When you're GMing a conversation, you take on the NPC's persona, and start thinking about what the NPC wants, what they're afraid of, what they know, what they're watching for, etc.  Often, that means you stop focusing on a lot of the logistics of gamerunning.  You lose track of time, lose track of players who aren't in the conversation, etc.  So teach yourself to cut away when the conversation reaches a milestone.  That is, cut away when something new comes up; a decision is announced; the mood changes; or parties enter or leave the conversation.  Just teach yourself to watch for conversation milestones, as shorthand for that.

Plan B Doesn't Work:  The PC tries one approach.  They don't get the result they wanted.  The PC tries another approach.  They still don't get what they wanted.  It's OK to run a scene where a PC fumbles around a little.  The dice sometimes force that on us.  Players also sometimes don't know exactly what they're after - they go into a scene and just push buttons (literally or metaphorically) until something happens.  That's fine, sometimes.  But while it can be frustrating to the PC who's flailing, it's extremely frustrating to watch.  So teach yourself to cut away when the player's second approach doesn't go anywhere.  This has two benefits:  The other players don't have to sit through more than two false starts in a row, and the active player gets a few minutes to think up a better strategy.

A Clue is Revealed:  When you reveal a clue that's a "piece of the puzzle," cut away.  Unlike a cliffhanger, you don't need to see the player's reaction to a clue.  Most clues are just useful information, not major changes to the conflict.  (If the clue is a cliffhanger, see above.)  Cutting away right after dropping a clue will save you a ton of table time.  First of all, the players who just got the clue need a few minutes to process it.  They have to think about how it fits into their investigation, what it means, and what follow-up questions they need to ask.  When you reveal a clue, the players often ask a lot of confirmation questions -- stuff they already know, but just want to be sure about.  If you give them a few minutes, when you cut back, they'll have cut that down to only the most important follow-up questions.

Handy Infographic Version

Here's a handy infographic you can share if you're so inclined.

Click for a larger version.

Other Run a Game articles on splitting the party

I've written before about the benefits of splitting the party, which is still pretty good, though the game I used for the example is now an edition out of date!

I also did an article on cutting between scenes before, but I think my skills have evolved since, and I've also figured out how to communicate what I've learned in the last three years, since the last time I wrote on this topic.  For instance, in the older article, I recommend 15 minutes between cuts.  Now I'd say 10 minutes is pushing it, and you should aim to cut every 5 minutes, if you can.

Update:  Use these skills even when you're NOT splitting the party!

See this twitter thread about it. (Click through to see the full thread from here.)