One of the cardinal rules of Dnd is “Don’t Split the Party”. Why exactly is this is a rule? Well, players that decide to explore on their own are much easier to kill, but the main reason this rule is in place is to keep player downtime to a minimum. If the party splits, half of the party sits there doing nothing, while the overworked DM has to constantly shift their focus between 2 or more parties. In the interest of everyone, we choose not to split the party to allow more people to play the game and make the DM’s life easier.
Even with this rule in place, I still notice quite frequently DM’s who accidentally leave their players out of the game for extended periods of time. Recently, I had a friend tell me about their Dnd session where they didn’t even get to play at all. She was introducing a new character to the game and it was decided that her new character would be at the tavern. While the party was waiting for her to arrive (she was a little late), they decided to go explore a cave. She then spent the entire session sitting there as the party explored this cave without her. The DM wasn’t doing this to be spiteful, it was just ignorance. That’s why I am writing this today, to hopefully help DMs realize when players are being excluded, and how to give them more time to play.
The first step in treating a problem is learning how to identify it. In the case of player downtime, it is very easy to tell when somebody is not engaged with the game if you are looking for it. One of the most common reasons players get excluded from the game is because of roleplay scenarios, in which one person is talking with the DM and everyone else stands around doing nothing. During skill challenges, one player may also be engaged such as the rogue with a trap, while everyone else plays on their phone.
There are a few different ways to handle players who aren’t engaged. One of my preferred methods is making sure that every player has a task that they are doing. In the case of a roleplay scenario, if 1 or 2 players are talking to a noble I’ll ask the other players where they are, and what they are doing. Sometimes it’s as simple as them saying they are getting a pint at the Squealing Boar, while other times it may devolve into its own sidequest. At any point where there is a potential cliffhanger, I will snap to another player and follow what they are up to until they hit a cliffhanger and then I will jump to another group. The cliffhangers, combined with the speed at which I transition between players keeps them all engaged as they never know when they will be next. This style works for any time the party splits the party, whether it’s in the dungeon or in the city.
You can also introduce more elements into the session to get the party to be doing things, instead of just one player. If the rogue is working on the trap, maybe some monsters decide to ambush the rest of the party. If two people are talking with the noble, maybe the other half of the party notice an assassin moving in. Giving tasks to the entire party can help to keep them engaged especially when the task usually only calls for one person.
Another method that /u/Foofieboo mentioned to me is to let the players take over an NPC while they aren’t engaged. While their fighter is getting in a drunken bar fight, they can roleplay the noble and speak to their fellow party members in a completely different light. You can also choose to handwave what happens when the party is separated. Just tell the players what happens, and move on to a scene where everyone can participate. If someone is at the tavern when a fight breaks loose, just say that they show up coincidentally. Dnd is all about having fun, and even if it gets in the way of verisimilitude a little bit, I am much more concerned about making sure all of my players get to play Dnd.
Today’s article was shorter than usual, but I really wanted to cover this topic as I believe it’s something that many DM’s aren’t even aware of. It’s really easy to have a player end up doing nothing for 20 minutes or more if they are quiet, and you are busy trying to handle the rest of the session. As long as you are aware of the problem, and take some steps to integrate the players into the game, your game will really benefit from it. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!