Playing to the audience when the party is split

Continuing the discussion from Episode 97: You Can't Have Enough Thugs:

Towards the end of the last thrilling episode of Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice, the Sages of High Wycombe treated us to a discussion of issues arising from the condition in RPGs in which some PCs are present and others absent from a scene that deserves for whatever reason to be played out at some length. I should like to add to their advice a brief recommendation that when you are playing such a scene you ought to play to the audience. This is not an alternative to brevity and balance, and it is not an admonition to the GM alone. In fact, the advice is not entirely restricted to situations in which the party is split. Strive to amuse.

Back in the old days on rec.games.frp.advocacy, before the Threefold took over as the only thing worth talking about, somebody came up with the very useful observation that players of RPGs (including GMs) take from time to different stances towards the events of the game, and that among these stances are Author, Actor, Audience, Character, Director, and Tactician. Brushing resolutely past a thicket of promising elaborations and digressions, I shall move on to the point that Audience stance, in which one takes no active part in shaping or narrating the course of events, but rather appreciates and enjoys what the others are doing for the moment, is a significant part of RPGs¹ (and of many other games). It behoves us all, especially when we are playing in Author, Actor, or Director stance (but, I maintain though aware that it is controversial, also in Character and Tactician stances), to have a thought for our friends who are (however fleetingly) in Audience mode. Be brief, at least brief enough. Strive to be amusing.

The essence of amusingness is different in different stances. It is not necessarily helpful to announce your moves and combat options in Convention Mexican. But bear in mind that it is your part as Tactician to demonstrate tactics that have substance that the audience can appreciate. Strive to amuse with your skill and flair.

I am inclined to think that the people who discuss RPGs and try to work out how to improve the craft tend disproportionately to be GMs, and that discussion and advice about how to be better at RPGs is biased excessively towards advice about how to be a better gamemaster. But you can’t do it all from the GM’s chair; there is craft also in being a good character-player, a player who is fun to play alongside, a player who is fun to GM for. I put it forward as a key realisation that character-players are not just consumers of entertainment produced by the GM, but also entertainers themselves. Strive to amuse whenever your character is in the spotlight, encourage your co-players to strive. It is fun to be amusing; it is sufficient to the moment to let yourself be amused.


TL;DR: splitting the party is less of a problem when scenes featuring the half-party are fun to watch and listen to. This can be made so with a little effort from the GM and players.


¹ That is perhaps less of a revelation now that Critical Role and other actual plays are a popular genre of streaming video than it seemed in the early Nineties.

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I think that’s entirely reasonable. If the main problem with a split party is the other players being bored (and I know some who are very prone to this) rather than game-mechanical “the book says ten thugs jump them so we need the whole party together”, it should be rather easier for some players to be amusing/entertaining than for the GM to set up a bunch of opportunistic NPCs for the others to play.

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Yes, I am talking about easing the problem of sharing the spotlight time. The problem of avoiding defeat in detail is a different one. It doesn’t exercise me as much because I don’t run many adventures in which winning fights is an important problem.

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Agreed. I’ve been trying to do this for a few years in Roger’s WWII game, although I’m not sure how well I succeed.

As a GM, I’m very willing to run solo things for characters outside play sessions if they would not be interesting to other players.

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Yes, one producer of difficulties is that your character there is very specialised in stealth, so it makes a lot of sense for him to go off on his own quite frequently.

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I think there is another issue here: if I’m playing an RPG I have signed up to participate, not to be a passive observer. So whereas I am quite capable of sitting passively and watching a 3 hour movie, my boredom and/or frustration and/or indignation threshold is much, much shorter in an RPG.

So I heartily echo the sentiment of brevity. Even the most hilarious hijinks gets dull when you are not allowed to join in the fun. For instance:

  1. The Vampire game where a PC inadvertently insulted the Prince and ended up having to flee for his life. It was fantastically entertaining for about 10 minutes. At 30 minutes in, I asked the GM if there was any chance the rest of us could get to play, because sitting in a sweltering hot room doing nothing was not my idea of fun.

  2. The paranormal investigators game where our half of the party was sneaking in the back of a building and the other half was causing a distraction by pretending to be door to door salesmen at the front. Again it was hilarious for the first 10 minutes as they changed the plan at the last minute, improvised with much scenery chewing, then cocked up utterly. But it just went on, and on, and on. So the two of us who were not involved stopped listening and chatted in character. Then chatted out of character. Then went downstairs to the bar to order more drinks. Then came back upstairs and listened to the others for another interminable period (they’d gotten into a fight by then).

It was made much worse by the GM not letting our characters make Listen rolls to hear the raised voices, crash of breaking things, etc, etc. And when he finally gave us “our turn” it lasted about 2 minutes and one dice roll and he went back to the other characters. :face_with_symbols_over_mouth:

The time where I have least tolerance for other people having fun without me, is where the thing they are doing is my character’s schtick. If I’m the party hamster trainer and they are off at the Hamster Circus trying to get hamsters to jump through burning hoops, I don’t care how witty or dramatic they are being - they are stealing my chance to be awesome!

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Yeah, one thing I’ve been trying to do recently is find an opportunity for the rest of the party to get back together. Sometimes the players make it difficult. :slight_smile:

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Ending up with half the party utterly determined to own 2 spaceships in Firefly does not help. Everyone is always on the wrong ship! :slight_smile:

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In 1986 I ran a campaign (my first at ANU) in which one PC kept trying to steal the McGuffin and escape the rest of the party, and he actively resisted being got back together. The player did not make it into the RP circle that I established there.

Yes indeed! Ham and cheese is a seasoning for brevity; it will not suffice as a diet.

Back on the old shut up and sit down forums I ran a 5e campaign PbP where I would encourage the party to split, even down to 6 simultaneous stories for training arcs. While the writing strain made me go a little batty (I’m an extremely slow writer), the experience of being able to show that much of the world at once was amazing. I thought that I had figured out a way to fix this problem of people having different styles of play/how to keep everyone engaged at all times from the GM’s side. Without any ‘hey you’re taking too long’ or ‘maybe let the quiet person talk a bit’.

But difference in play style still came up, and created big problems. Everyone still had very different roleplaying tastes - and that included me, the DM. Some people like to describe every little detail and emotion that their character goes through - others roleplay like they’re typing into the command bar in King’s Quest. ‘Get flask’ type players go through content at such a rapid pace, that I reflexively make their segments less detailed, to numb the pain of carefully crafted locations and NPCs being largely ignored. Detailed players get more and more, as they drop hooks for me to hang my juicy description steaks on. Suddenly, someone is a day behind everyone else, and someone is a day ahead.

In the end, it was only sustainable so long as I have self confidence - which turned out to be a finite supply. Probably could have solved a lot by just asking my players for a medium amount of effort/engagement, instead of letting things get so unbalanced - but I can’t help but feel like ‘the entertainer’ as the DM, and that an uninteresting game is entirely my fault.

In a live game, it’s extremely easy to prioritize what’s ‘funny’ or ‘exciting’ - and as a DM sometimes you feel like you’re chasing highs. When something is going well, you instinctually let it continue, and it’s hard to snap out of it and remember that everyone needs to play. The revelation that a lot of people were bored at certain parts often comes with hindsight.

On the topic of ‘critical role’ etc. I think new D&D players definitely expect different things from the game due to the new (new being a relative term) popular podcasts. People can’t imagine just ordinary crunchy roleplaying - everything has to be awesome and funny and ‘hijinks ensue’ (and rules-lite). It can make things more fun when people get more into roleplaying - it can also alienate quiet people, or methodical people. Or it can feel like some people are carrying the story, while the other ‘less funny people’ are not pulling their weight. I know it certainly infected me - my first exposure to roleplaying was the original Penny Arcade D&D podcasts (before it was cool to have a D&D podcast!) - and Jerry/Mike/Scott dm’d by Chris Perkins very much shape what I expect from D&D to this day.

I think of myself mostly as a DM, but I hate this and it’s what I try to avoid the most. Anything where players feel sidelined in a story that they’re supposed to be equal participants in. Especially when you have a group where there is a significant personality imbalance - or in the case of a PbP game - the ability to always reply quicker than others. It’s a game that is supposed to be fun for everyone playing - not for the one or two quick witted/dominant/loud/fast typing people. I haven’t always reacted to this in a very mature way - the power of being a DM gets to one’s head. I haven’t stooped to ‘rocks fall everyone dies’ - but I’ve fantasized about it.

I have a relatively new rule after dealing with some really annoying party-plagues - nobody gets to play a side character except guest players or me. If a player actively opposes the party - then they are playing a side-character NPC, and their character is now played by me.

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I have gradually become a convert to negotiating an explicit agreement that “the PCs are X who do Y in world Z” before character generation, so that any attempt to do Ȳ is clearly a breach of contract, and so that the excuse “but it’s what <my character> would really do” can fairly be answered “then you must have generated the wrong character”.

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Even if they are NOT bored, in the interests of fairness if you’ve let Fred & Ethel have 40 minutes of game time, then you need to let Janet & John have 40 minutes of game time (approx). If Janet & John are ‘Get Flask’ players who don’t want 40 minutes of scenery chewing, then fine.

Basically if the GM is looking at their watch/phone now and then to do timekeeping and make sure the game isn’t going to overrun and/or will there be time for the big boss fight this session, they can damn well also keep tabs on how much time they’ve given to Fred & Ethel. It doesn’t have to be itemised to the minute or second. But cut away from the time consuming scene to give the others a chance, then cut back to it.

The people who are chewing the scenery may even appreciate the cutaway, as it gives them some thinking time for more plans/dialogue.

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My slavish devotion to the mystical ideal of ‘true open world storytelling’ hasn’t allowed such restrictive contracts - if my PCs wanted to ditch the main story and become farmers, I’d 100% let them without a blip of protest, provided that was the direction the whole party is moving (though, the main storyline would continue in the background unabated, and they’d likely be overrun by whatever big badguy/disaster they were supposed to stop). In practice, it’s not so harmonious and it takes too much work to continually make up new stuff - I should probably just give up on ‘open world’ as something reserved for video games with many, many creators.

Indeed. I agree 100%. I haven’t always done a very good job of it, but I try my best. It’s way easier in PbP, but even then it’s hard to be all things to all people. I guess this is why the original thread question is ‘how can the players help?’ Because, honestly, trying to take on all of it by myself really burnt me out.

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Yeah, but my experience includes a lot of examples in which there is no consensus, but in which several sub-quorums radiate on divergent courses.

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I think I interpreted your contract formula as codifying plot adherence (nipping off divergence at its root), but obviously it’s more sophisticated than that. What would your self-described DM style be (instead of me blindly assuming)?

A canonical example of this for me is Call of Cthulhu, where the response of most people to the introductory adventure (let us say broadly “something scary happened, but we managed to deal with it”) would be to go home and never get involved in weird stuff again. (In fact, as a broad sweeping statement designed to promote discussion, I think I might argue that if they do voluntarily go back it isn’t really a horror game any more, it’s a monster-hunting game.) I think this is why Trail and its descendants have the mechanism of Drives, which force the player to build a character who does delve into scary things as a matter of habit. I’m more inclined to make it explicit, in Agemegos’ style: we can chat in advance about the sort of game people want to play and the elements they’d like put in or left out, but at some point the GM declares that this is going to be a campaign about people who do this kind of thing, so bear that in mind during character generation.

(And as primarily a GURPS player I’m used to the idea that character generation is a multi-person process: a player might say “I’d like to play this sort of character”, I say “yes, how about template X”, and so on, and by the time their character’s ready to play we’ve gone back and forth a few times and I’ve had a chance to guide the character towards something I hope will fit in the game. I gather that e.g. D&D/Pathfinder tends much more to the form “here are the rules we’re using and here’s what the party currently has”, with the player expecting to be able to play pretty much anything that’s in the book.)

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I think people think of D&D as being more ‘gamey’ than a lot of other RPGs. There’s really no social mechanics other than ‘pass or fail’, true - but there’s still a huge amount of roleplaying that actually happens. I think a huge amount of games end up dying precisely because people don’t do the due diligence in cultivating the character concept portion of creation. Maybe because they’re not wise to the pitfall, or because they’re a chicken who says yes to everything like me.

I think that the D&D approach to actually playing a role, as distinct from playing a tactical wargame, relies very heavily on the players doing a bunch of the heavy lifting: if you want to play an honour-obsessed duellist, there’s not (as far as I know) a system for penalising you when you stab a bad guy in the back because it was more convenient that way - as long as you’re Good and he’s Evil you should probably just do the most effective thing.

GURPS does offer that - your Code of Honour is separate from your Vows is separate from your Sense of Duty, and there are specified game-mechanical penalties when you break them. To me a lot of the point of disadvantages is that they push you to play less than optimally, but in character, which in an RPG I enjoy rather more.

(But in turn it would be easy to generate a GURPS character with so many restrictions that they can’t go on the adventures you planned. Because one of the other things a GURPS Disadvantage is is a bid for screen time, just as any trait is: “I am honourable so I won’t agree to certain tactics” can be in effect just as much a tool for saying that you want narrative attention for a bit as “I am the explosives expert”. Which I think is why every version of GURPS has set limits on disadvantage totals.)

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As a DM, I compensate for the lack of actual roleplaying mechanics by making the world react realistically. It’s true, there’s no mechanical ramification for breaking your code of honour - but there will be story ramifications, significant enough that anyone would pause to do so. I’ve never played GURPS - or really anything with a mechanically robust social system, so I don’t really know how different that would feel to play or DM.

Otherwise min-maxers will have characters with all the flaws of Dorothy’s travelling companions, but can shoot a fly mid flight and hack the pentagon.