Kobold Press

Two Parties, One Campaign

Crossing the Styx, illustration by Gustave Doré, 1861
When running a home campaign, it can be a good idea to encourage players to create back-up characters. Even better, why not have them develop an entire second party altogether? Aside from offsetting player character death and fatigue, an auxiliary band can become a source of completely new adventures and subplots all on their own. It can also provide the PCs alternative play styles from the usual sessions and add freshness to the campaign. You can even run these sessions with a particular theme, such as one that is more comedic, diplomatic, expendable, or even more evil than the main group.

The Goofballs

It goes without saying that most gamers have a good sense of humor. For this reason, it can be a good idea to cast aside plot believability for a session or two and delve into the absurd by running a farce, parody, or comedy. This works best against a campaign backdrop where the primary party is engaged in a particularly nail-biting point in your story. Say, for example, the PCs are finally about to face the evil wizard overlord—after of course, expending all their healing. Taking a breather and putting this moment on hold means that you can have a second group of adventurers appear in the town nearby. Their objective? The wizard’s less-than-deadly brother Clifford, whose dastardly plan is to rearrange the village’s furniture by color while being aided by an army of whimsical gnomes who whisper dirty limericks.

The Politicians

For combat-oriented campaigns or in situations where PCs have fought a person-of-interest that you meant them to question, problems can arise whereby a little more finesse than usual is required. In such cases, characters with more personable backgrounds can come in handy. Perhaps a duke simply needs to have his palms greased, or a hobgoblin vice lord is open to mutual cooperation; a second band can act as diplomatic salves for these encounters.

While it may seem like common sense to have the original party deal with these issues, the purpose is to provide a fresh set of personalities for the campaign. This second set of PCs could even develop into an investigative or diplomatic arm for the PCs to use later on. Too much involvement in a campaign can diminish the need for the main force, but there is no reason the primary party, out taking care of business on the frontier, could not be aided at home by a cosmopolitan group acting in their best interests.

The Expendables

The expendables are the group of PCs at the complete opposite end of play style from the politician’s group. Although roleplaying should be at the heart of gaming, sometimes players just want a basic session of hack-and-slash. That’s when a “super-powered,” stab-first, ask-questions-second group can come to the rescue.

For instance, if the main party is off tracking down a lost artifact to stop an impending breach from the Fey World, throwing in a session or two where the players take on the role of a medieval “marines” recon party can be a great way for the players to blow off a little PC steam. It’s also a way to have them face skirmish forces before the climactic showdown with the real baddies. Such a group of advanced scouts can allow you to create a series of really exciting and deadly encounters—ones that won’t affect the larger campaign.

The Proper Villains

Lastly, for the not-too-squeamish groups out there, there is always the possibility of running a series of encounters that have a second party donning a villainous affectation. Some players may find this devil’s advocate gameplay a bit too much, but you may find others who throw themselves full force into the role. To mitigate the consequences of the first scenario, talking to players ahead of time about this option can allow those who aren’t comfortable with such a direction the chance to say so.

The purpose behind these sessions is to give this shadow party a chance to create problems in the campaign world—problems that the main force must deal with, such as a kidnapping, theft, or assassination. Each of these serve as good hooks for later encounters. A great conclusion to the evil troop idea is to set them on a collision path with the main party. However you run these scenarios, remember the goal isn’t to completely destroy the main storyline but to create difficulties for the primary characters that the players themselves can have a direct hand in creating.

Whichever thematic banner you ultimately decide to introduce the second team of adventurers under, remember that it’s best to tailor the sessions around specific styles. At the very least, perhaps on one of those nights when a key moment in your campaign is coming up and one of your players is unable to make it, rather than missing out on a chance to run your usual group, you could always throw in one of these ideas as a great fill-in session. After all, it can be incredibly exciting to have the PCs suddenly hear the sounds of a fellow group of adventurers coming to their rescue. Deciding beforehand whether these arrivals are hard-edged mercenaries bent on plunder—or dumbfounded knaves just as shocked to see a dragon as the beast is to see them—can give the session an extra touch that makes a great campaign memorable.

About the Author: I am a relatively new member to the world of tabletop gaming, but in my short time playing, I have traveled through a plethora of settings, campaigns, and system—all of which I have enjoyed and taken with me on my ever-expanding quest throughout this unique community. My emphasis is and always will be on the richness of characters and the ability to create truly satisfying experiences for my fellow gamers and adventurers. I recently wrote a Living Forgotten Realms adventure module that premiered this year at Gen Con 2012, and I’m looking forward to adding even more to the gaming world in the future and beyond. You can find my module at LivingForgottenRealms.com.

5 Replies to "Two Parties, One Campaign"

Nevenall

September 28, 2012 at 10:19am

Jesse, nice article!

I’m thinking this could work really well for storytelling too.
For example, it can be hard to convey a sense of what’s at stake with an epic storyline, like an alien invasion, because the scope is beyond anything we have real experience with. But what if you throw in a session or two where the players take on the role of ordinary people affected by these events? Now your players aren’t fighting aliens for some abstract ideal, but for real (imaginary) people.

Philo Pharynx

September 28, 2012 at 1:54pm

We’ve been doing this for over a decade. One campaign even had four parties over it’s lifespan: The Main Team, Team Stealth, the God Squad, and the Monster Party. Team Stealth was for covert missions where subtlety was needed. The God Squad was mad of people with a strong religious theme, (mostly dvine casters but not all). The Monster Party was all made up of creatures not normally playable. The game world has evolved, and the rules have gome from D&D to Pathfinder, but we still have two groups. One is still Team Stealth (six characters with Stealth Synergy is a dangerous thing), and the other is team KABOOM! (several characters have guns, an alchemist, and an oracle of fire).

The GM for this world is the kind who always has lots of plot hooks out there waiting to get picked up. Some adventures fit one group or another better.

One issue with some of the more specialized parties is that it can be harder to find a niche. When you’ve got similar characters it can take work to keep yourself separate. In the earlier Stealth team we did this through multiclassing. Everybody had a little rogue (except the bard), but we also had druid, ranger, sorceror and fighter in there.

But specialized parties are worth it. In most games, the stealthy characters don’t get to use it that much because they would end up alone while the noisy characters sit back. Our stealth team makes that a good strategy again. And the God Squad had several healers, so that freed up the spellcasters to use the other spells on their list instead of saving them all for healing.

Morgan Boehringer

September 28, 2012 at 7:31pm

Very well developed article Jesse – well done. I am all in fagour of a change of pace and a change of perspective, plot and approach.
I remember the initial AD&D Dark Sun setting introduced the concept of “character trees” or “rosters” – (actually it kinda seem like i don’t recall well enough…) – it seemed to encourage the “interchange” concept to player characters. Another thing I like about the “themed team” approach is the fluidity of members between teams – like the X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor etc – able to switch in or out of teams as needed, and as members move on or shuffle of the mortal coil…

Some may find this breaks their verisimilitude having dedicated “teams” but the nomenclature needn’t be so overt, nor the approach too regimented. Like minds travel together, as do strange bedfellows and allies of convenience – all just more terms for groups…

Chuck Benscoter

September 29, 2012 at 5:40pm

Running two parties in the same campaign has been the norm for our gaming group for almost three years now. The reason we run this way is not for any of the options you listed in your article. You might say we accidentally discovered he “joy” of dual parties.

When our group first started playing D&D4e we only way two players and myself. So to fill out the party roles I had each player create 2 characters. This worked out incredibly well. Later we picked a 3rd player then a forth and finally a 5th, 6th and 7th. Or each I just had them generate 2 characters. At about 4th level the party was too big so I suggested that each person pick one character to run full-time and we would come back to other character at a later date. One the players said why not have two parties. So that is what we did. Neither party has a flavor that contrasts with the other group. A few times characters of the groups have switched places.

At this moment both parties are working on two sides of the same plot that encompasses both the mortal world and the feywild. I have been giving the gift of weaving a very broad and complex plot, with multiple villains in multiple locations. The overarching storyline is beyond anything I ever thought I could write. Giants, mind flayers, dragons, elements and demons await the party. I have even incorporated the Rod of Seven Parts as a parallel story element to the main plot. Each group now searches for the pieces while dealing with the main plot line. The players love it and I am really challenged to step up my game.

This was never something I would have tried from the start but having grown into it the way we did has given each of the group members a great gaming experience.

Just as an aside, I run a very sand box style of gaming, so a lot of what is going on is drawn from the players themselves.

Charles Lee Carrier

October 4, 2012 at 11:18am

Yep, this is an excellent idea. I always thought I was an odd DM for encouraging my players to have multiple characters. Now I see that I’m not alone.

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