Premature speculation


I run campaigns where the party is split all the time.

On one hand, my feeling is that if there are N players, each player gets 1/N of the playtime. That remains true whether the characters are all in the same little room, or in different solar systems. (Not that I’ve ever done one with different solar systems!)

On another hand, if the party is split, the characters may not be able to interact with each other; they may only be able to interact with NPCs. That may or may not be a minus. It does mean that for that span of time, they have the GM’s undivided attention, and they get to have their characters take action without competing for the spotlight. That may be a plus for players who are less assertive.

On a third hand, it’s possible to have subgroups of players interacting with each other, but not with the entire group.

Probably the most important thing, though, for me, is that it lets me develop the action on several parallel tracks, with cross-cutting. That can be a great way to build tension. Not having that available as a tool would be really limiting.

Now, in practice, my campaigns range from some where the PCs are a team and spend a large part of their time together, on shared missions, to one or two where the PCs are only all in the same place in the final couple of sessions. They have different dramatic goals; for example, if I want a campaign where the PCs are in conflict much of the time, letting them pursue victory in separate plotlines works pretty well.


I wonder whether some of this is a play style consideration; if the GM is going round the table in a fight saying “what do you do” to each player in turn, each player may only be getting 1/N of the GM’s time, but they feel as though they’re more than 1/N involved because they have to be listening to what’s going on so as to be ready to call their action, alert to what’s going on so that they can change their action depending on what other people have done, etc.

If the current play is happening “over there” in a way their characters can’t interact with, that’s less involving, and at least some players will stop paying attention, play with their phones, etc. – for all they may still need to know later what happened.


I wish they reliably had been listening so in some campaigns I played back in the day. I remember some Champions sessions in over-sized groups in which a majority of the players read comics, browsed the bookshelves etc. while waiting for their long-separated turns. Then when their turns did come around they had to ask a lot of questions about the situation they had been ignoring, which generally took quite a bit more time than declaring and resolving their combat manœuvres. So more than half the time was spent on the asking and answering of redundant questions. Some players seemed to have no interest in being entertained by others’ play, and seemed to make no effort to entertain others.


Ah. When I was playing at school I had GMs who used aversion therapy: if you can’t immediately answer “what are you doing” when your turn comes round, your character does nothing.


I’ve had GMs who fervently believe they are giving all the players 1/N of time, but they don’t look at their watches/phone clock and time things, so it is just a wild ass guess on their part and may feel very different to the share of time the players feel they are getting. It most often goes awry when one half of the party is doing something the GM thinks is interesting/fun.

It does skew both ways, though.

  • The GM who gives 10 minutes to Uncle Tom Cobley (off on his lonesome), then 25 minutes to the rest of the group (Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke) because 25 minutes ‘feels’ like a long time.

  • The GM who gives Tom, Dick and Harry 30 minutes, then short changes Billy No Mates with a mere 5.

More GMs should take your advice on cross-cutting!


That’s true. But if you don’t split the party up, it can also happen that the players who are quicker to react and speak, or louder, or more extroverted, dominate the play and the other players get shoved aside.

Or just ruder. I remember, from many years ago, a campaign where I had to declare a 10-minute time out, because one of the players had come up with what he felt was a clever bit of humorous dialogue (in a Buffyverse campaign, where this was totally appropriate), and another player just started talking over him. The first player was so angry I didn’t feel able to just carry on with the game.

I don’t think we are going to get exactly fair results, since we’re doing this with human participants. But the GM can strive for at least the rough equality of making sure every player has some spotlight time during a session.


I tend to split parties a lot. There have been few complaints but it’s not like there’s standardized feedback for this so consider this advice within the boundaries of my likely cognitive failings.

I try to judge it by time the player speaks. That forces me to focus on what they are saying and it seems that other players tune out other players more than they tune out the GM.

I also try to judge it by rolls. This goes back to playing too much white wolf during undergrad. Parties split a lot there and the other players seemed to tune out after three to five rolls depending on the drama. So I try to force a smash cut before someone reaches for the dice a sixth time.

I have noticed that problem with big champions fights as well. It seemed worse with master villain fights than with villain group or mook mob fights. There’s a particular sense of breaking a stone with a pickaxe to master villain fights in champions and if a speedster acts three times before your brick checking out seemed inevitable.

Oddly, I do kind of have a ritual for this. I wind up watching Fifth Element a lot before games because it does such a good job of jumping among the characters while keeping me engaged. The conceit in there that Corbin Dallas is never actually face to face with a Zorg had a bit impact on how I ran villains.


A slightly related problem that’s come up in a couple of games I’ve run: if one or two PCs are stealthy infiltrators and the rest aren’t, the rest of the party is sitting around while the infiltration happens. If the things the other PCs do aren’t as mechanics-heavy…

(All right, this is the Cyberpunk netrunner problem in another guise.)


Cross cutting and limiting what a PC can do as you cut to another, teaching players to roll in advance, ignoring initiative order when it’s irrelevant, allowing some out of character “cheering on” or flashback retcons between groups/PCs… it’s a story not a simulation for me (these days).


I agree with most of that, but I don’t ask or allow players to roll in advance. The order of figuring out the target number and THEN asking them to roll feels right to me; having to figure out the target number when they’ve already made the roll doesn’t. I’m not sure there’s a rational basis for this, but it makes me feel ill at ease.


I’ve seen a number of games which try to enforce that ordering - in 7th Sea (first edition), for example, the player needs to know the target number every time they roll, because they need it to be able to decide how many raises to add in order to make things more impressive. And there was one game I played in the early 1990s which universalised its mechanics to the extent that the GM never rolled at all: a player would effectively roll against shooting skill to hit an NPC, and against dodging skill to avoid being hit by them. (With modifiers for NPC competence.)

Sometimes I like to say “make a roll and see how well you do”; if the dice say that the PC did superbly well or badly, that solves my resolution problem, and if not I’ll narrate something loosely based on the margin of success or failure.


Sounds like how things work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has the merit of keeping the agency with the PCs. . . .


Yes I like those kinds of systems. The less I as GM have to bother about, the better.


In fact (since I’ve just been reorganising my RPG shelves) it was Metascape. No, you’ve probably never heard of it. The designer was still active (with his share of the patent on a 16-sided die!) as recently as 2010 (last post: “My Pledge: MetaScape 3.x.x rules will not change enough to require new character creation for one year!”).

Where I get edgy about a system like that is that it seems to remove a certain degree of GM power, or at least make it very obvious when it’s being exercised (“your roll is at minus infinity, har har”). In my normal game-running flow I’ll say “make a roll” and then start thinking about the modifiers, which is a process that can be short-circuited if the roll indicates a superb or terrible result so they won’t make a difference; in a “players roll” system, I have to rack up the modifiers beforehand.


I found BtVS quite playable. But of course it’s representing a show where it makes sense to load all the agency onto the protagonists and treat their adversaries more like scenery. My usual preference is to have the NPCs make rolls and have a chance of a critical success or failure, so that the world is more decentered from the PCs.


I keep meaning to run or play Numenera/Cypher to really appreciate a system fine tuned for player side rolling.
We have played Symbaroum for about two years, and that’s totally player rolled dice, but I think it’s less refined than Numenera tries to be.


I just want to note here that this is an illusion. If an outcome is actually determined randomly, the person pushing the “generate random number” button has no control.

Yet folks feel responsible for what they rolled. I feel responsible for my rolls.

Humans are weird.


It seems to me that the agency doesn’t reside IN the random roll. The agency manifests in the choice to MAKE the random roll; in other words, in deciding whether to undertake an action with an uncertain outcome.

DA: Datta. What have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart,
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract—
By this, and this only, we have existed. . . .
(T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”)

I’d also say, more broadly, that agency resides in making decisions as such. The very fact that Dr Bob alludes to, that with a no-GM-rolls system the GM has less to do, means that the GM is making fewer decisions, and therefore the characters over whom those decisions are spread occupy less processing time. And that gives them less agency.


Then it doesn’t matter who makes the roll. Yet we think having the player roll the dice rather than the GM gives them more agency.


It feels like it to the players.

“I, the player, have picked up this piece of plastic and cast it. At this point I can no longer say ‘oh, hang on a moment’ and scrabble for more bonuses; alea jacta est.”