Old School gamers have had it repeated so often that they can recite it in their sleep – never split the party. In combat-based games like D&D, the reason is obvious – half a party is half as likely to be able to fight off something that a whole party could probably beat. This, however, is usually not the case in Call of Cthulhu. No matter what size the party, running into something eldritch and monstrous is usually a TPK unless the investigators have something powerful on their side. Similarly, one person can die just as easily as five or six if they encounter a Shoggoth.
So, if it doesn’t matter what size the group is, there’s no reason not to split up and cover more ground (to paraphrase Scooby Doo). Indeed, the investigative focus of a good CoC game almost demands that the party breaks up into smaller groups or individuals in order to gather evidence and follow up leads. If the Keeper is doing their job right, there will be more leads than one party can cover on its own – the division of labour is not only advisable but essential if the investigators are going to stand a chance of acquiring enough information to stay alive (and that is the virtue of information, after all).
The format of a pbem makes it very easy to split the party up, in a way that can’t really be done with a tabletop game. No sending players out of the room and running the risk of having them listening at the door.
However, if the party does split into two or more sub-groups, it is very important that track be kept of time. One part of a split party should not be allowed to get too far ahead, since actions taken by the other part of the party may have an effect on them and it gets very confusing (and prejudicial to the atmosphere of the game) if time keeps having to be rewound in order to slot things into their correct chronological place. A general rule is to allow one sub-group to carry out actions that take it perhaps half an hour into the future and then concentrate on the other sub-group. Two sub-groups can be run simultaneously in pbem and be unaware of the activities of each other.
The players should, of course, be encouraged, in the tradition of the old public information films to let their fellows know where they are going. An investigator that does not call in on time can be assumed to be either dead or captured. With the second possibility, their rescue may be effected but even if they are dead, their remains, such as they are, may be able to tell their fellows something of importance.
Many CoC scenarios open with a social gathering of some nature. It’s difficult to administer these face-to-face as the odds are likely – as we have already mentioned – that the other players are listening in to the conversations that the Keeper is having with one particular investigator. There’s also the problem of putting on accents and strange voices, but that’s a matter of personal taste for each individual Keeper. Pbem means that the same e-mail can be personalised for each player. This makes it relatively easy for three characters to be talking to three different people in the same room and still feel that they are the focus of the Keeper’s attention.
Next time – when to handwave.
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