Heroes split up in town? Try ‘Jamming’

"Medieval Courtyard" by Barbara Couse Wilson. Please click the link for viewing or purchase provided at the end of the post.

"Medieval Courtyard" by Barbara Couse Wilson. Please click the link for viewing or purchase provided at the end of the post.

We’ve only got until nightfall to equip for tomorrow morning, so Kelestin and Tebryn are heading to the temple to ask the underpriests if the rumors we heard are true and stock up on ritual compenents. Aedikk and Chriegan are heading to the bazaar to obtain provisions, ammunition, and dried mrantas berries for Silas’ healing drought. Silas is staying back at the inn to enchant Chrieghan’s shortsword, while the Hammerspark the dwarf gets drunk in the common room below. What happens?

Nearly every Dungeon Master (DM) has been (or will be) faced with an in-game situation like the preceeding. While it is easy to keep an adventuring party together in a bounded setting, such as a dungeon crawl, and relatively easy to keep them together in wilderness settings, keeping player characters (PCs) together in unbounded settings, like towns, is akin to herding black cats at midnight. Whether players do this because they feel safer in a town setting, or because they desire to get to the “real” adventuring after getting equipped is irrelevant; the DM is still faced with keeping a group of players simultaneously engaged in the game, even though their characters are in two different places at once.

There are a few obvious approaches to resolving this situation. The DM can run scenes with each group of heroes in turn, giving the inactive players an opportunity to fetch a snack or use the lavatory, or the DM could also divide the various PC errands into smaller scenes, switching between groups more frequently so that periods of “down time” are shorter.

A third, and more entertaining, option was briefly outlined in the recently released fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, but discussed at length in the second edition,  out-of-print Creative Campaigning supplement, published by TSR Hobbies in 1993. The authors of that supplement called the option “jamming,” and it greatly reduces player inactivity when only some heroes are in the spotlight.

The concept of jamming is to allow players of inactive characters to assume the roles on non-player characters (NPCs) that are part of the current scene. During her preparation time, the Dungeon Master makes notes about the NPCs with whom the heroes might speak. Using an index card for each NPC, the DM notes NPC names, mannerisms, speech patterns, general attitudes, notweworthy information to share, current moods and motivations.

In the example situation that opened this post, the DM may decide to begin with the heroes’ temple errands. Kelestin and Tebryn have the spotlight, so their players are already engaged. The DM hands jamming cards describing the temple’s underpriest and templar captain at the temple to the inactive players for Aedikk and Chriegan.

The DM already knows what information will be exchanged during the temple scene ( it was written on the scene’s jamming cards) so she turns her attention to the players for the dwarf and wizard, and handles whatever upkeep is needed for magic item creation and intoxication while the temple scene is playing out. Since it probably won’t take long for the DM to sort out details for the heroes who stayed at the inn, she gives the players of Silas and Hammerspark jamming cards detailing an unsavory merchant and well-informed street urchin for the upcoming scene in the bazaar, where Aedikk and Chriegan plan to resupply the party.

While this approach to keeping players engaged doesn’t always work out so neatly – simultaneous jamming scenes don’t always run the same length, and there will sometimes be players with no spotlight time and not enough available jamming characters, for example – using this technique still greatly reduces player downtime and provides additional role-playing challenges.

As a DM’s comfort level with the jamming technique and trust in the players increases, it may be plausible for players to jam into villainous NPCs. To continue our example, consider the scene where Aedikk and Chriegan are shopping, and the players for Silas and Hammerspark are jamming for the merchant and street urchin. During that period, the players for Kelestin and Tebryn have nothing to do. What if the DM provided them with jamming cards for a duo of rogues who ply the time-tested pickpocketing tactic of one rogue distracting the victim(s) while the other cuts purses? In such a case, the DM is really more of a rules consultant while the players tear up the proverbial scenery.

Clearly, this technique is most effective in cities, towns and other settings where PCs are likely to encounter numerous minor NPCs with neutral attitudes toward the heroes. It is far less appropriate in settings where NPCs know information players shouldn’t have, places where everyone the heroes meet are hotile toward the party, or times where player vs. player grudges would enable one player to unfairly cause trouble for another’s hero (admittedly immature behavior, but DMs do see it from time to time). Jamming is, nonetheless, a useful instrument in the DM’s toolbox.

The image accompanying this post was taken from the online portfolio of Barbara Couse Wilson. To see more of her work or to purchase prints, click here.

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7 comments on “Heroes split up in town? Try ‘Jamming’

  1. […] Li esse artigo aqui hoje e fiquei pensando se não posso ir mais longe. O artigo sugere que para evitar que os outros jogadores não tenham o que fazer quando o grupo se separa, que o Mestre permita que eles assumam o papel de NPCs temporariamente. Isso em cenas menores, como momentos de investigação ou quando estão passando o tempo numa cidade. […]

  2. Alric says:

    Thank you for your comment/pingback. I should have studied Spanish.

  3. […] the rest of the article at The RPG Athenaeum Share and […]

  4. […] Heroes split up in town? Try ‘Jamming’ When the party splits up in the dungeon, the GM pretty much has to handle two (or more!) groups of people running amok in their carefully crafted areas. However, when they hit the city, it’s a different matter. It’s totally possible to allow one player to play an NPC merchant while you handle the wizard’s research in the library. This does require some level of trust in your players, but if you don’t trust your players, it’s time for a new group anyway. I’ve had the pleasure of doing this in a Vampire game many moons ago, and it worked quite well. It wasn’t a city setting, but rather a large party full of vampires. The Storyteller had us play our own characters, but told us that when our character is out of things to do to pick up an NPC to run with. He had little cards printed for us to tell us about our NPC and how to player them. He was obviously prepared and planned for this to happen. You can’t always do that with impromptu splits of the party though, so that’s where you get the players to play something other than their own character for a short sprint. […]

  5. krevyl says:

    Interesting way of handling players splitting up, I’ll definitely use this in my campaign. Players always go into different sections of the cities and they keep pestering me to get on with the story so they can get their turn.

  6. […] is used to keep idle players engaged when the action involves other heroes, as described in this post. The most significant aspect of this arrangement is that whatever the players decide is fact for […]

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