Much of the time D&D is a team game. There's plenty of (good) advice about trying not to split a party too often, both because it makes your life harder as the DM and because it leaves half your players out of the action, which can be boring for them.
However! I want to take some time to give an example of when it's a really powerful tool to single out a player to have their own scene completely separate from the rest of the party.
Take a single player and very intentionally give them a 1-1 scene with a specific NPC. This is different to them walking alone into a shop and having a chat with the shopkeeper, this is you 'forcing' a meeting on them they didn't choose and probably weren't expecting and the goal is character development / backstory exposition.
Make it about their story: Try to find someone or something in their backstory who may interact with them – if they're a warlock or a cleric you could have another acolyte approach them, if they're a wizard maybe an old mentor messages them (the spell, not a letter, see make it solo), an old lover, a family member, or a teacher all work for anyone. You want to find the most evocative thing in their backstory and make it about that. Maybe not everyone in their family died in the fire, maybe their god has a mission for them. One of my PCs was sent on this campaign with an ulterior motive by the elders of his clan, so they 100% got in touch.
Make it clearly solo: This is why dreams or a message spell work well, maybe sorcerer brought them to a demi-plane to talk, or for simplicity, a note asking them to come alone to location x can work. You'll want to start by turning to them alone, taking a pause and saying their name, then go into your scene. Make it clear to everyone else that they are not there and do not hear / see / experience what happens. This gives you very specific character development – how they act on their own and what choices they make in a very personal setting. It also allows them to choose whether to reveal it to the other PCs or not.
Give it a new NPC: This serves two purposes: First it makes it much more personal, they are the only PC who has interacted with this character, they can't see how the NPC interacts except by talking to them so all of their understanding is directed by their own experience; second it makes it clear it's special, you've introduced this NPC just to talk to them, no one else gets to see them unless they introduce them to the party.
Make it dramatic: You're stopping the whole game for this scene, so it should be interesting. Aim to both give them something to think about and give everyone else at the table a reason to watch. Yes, you're giving the other players downtime, but you also want all of them to be excited (or nervous depending on what happens!) for their own break out. Likely this is the first time they're hearing details about another PC's backstory. This can also lead to more inter PC roleplay when / if they discuss what happened to them later, which is always fab!
Give it purpose: Decide if you want them to take more out of it than just character / backstory development. Do you want to give them a whole questline, or warn them against an impending danger? Is their god taking a special interest in them? Are they getting a secret mission to carry out alongside their current quest? This can be helpful if your players haven't picked up hooks to other parts of your main campaign yet, or you want to offer a side quest.
Keep it short: I'd suggest no more than 5 minutes each, but somehow time flies when you're playing D&D, so balance that as well as you can. You can either go around the whole table with them one at a time, or perhaps do one a session for a number of sessions. The former gives your players a lot of options, the latter builds suspense more.
When to use
This is a great tool between storylines of a campaign, or if your party is about to wrap up a quest with no clear direction of where to go next. It can work to give two characters different goals and lets your party decide what they want to do by giving multiple options. This is not a good tool for one shots or very short campaigns as your players have enough going on and you don't want to take most of them out of the action for a while if your game is short.
One important caveat
Please know your players & your table beforehand. Being singled out can create anxiety and make people feel under pressure in a way they don't enjoy. You're asking a lot more of your players here than normal, even when compared to eg. taking their turn in combat. Be kind & understanding of your players' needs.
A much smaller and more obvious caveat: This is a tip for heavily RP / story driven games, please don't try to shoehorn some story into a dungeon crawler where your murderhobo PCs just want to kill things and get epic loot. (Though making your PCs each have to have 1 on 1 fights with a creature as part of an arena / dungeon task may be interesting…)
Matt Mercer (Crit Role campaign 2, episode 5, Fjord's first dream. No real spoilers, it's very early in a long campaign ~6 min long (start time 47:55, but that's in the link))
(Escape from the Bloodkeep episode 1, a little different as these are character intros, but done very individually, each one is a full 5 min scene ~40 min long for 5 examples. It's literally 40 min before 2 characters meet)
Let me know if you have anything to add or you've tried anything like this in your games and how it went!
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More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Expose characters by singling out players for one on one interactions" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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