How to manage a party that runs better in smaller groups?


I’ve been running a pathfinder campaign for close to 4 years now. In my mind it has been quite successful and my players are generally active and engaged in the story. However, over the course of the campaign I have noticed a strange trend that I’m not sure what to do about. It is kind of strange but I’ll do my best to explain it.

Group Composition

My player group consists of 4 (sometimes 5) players; my wife, my sister, my best mate and his girlfriend, another friend also plays but is currently overseas for a year. The age range is between 25-32 and the group all get on well. I love this group and want to see this campaign through to the end. Therefore splitting the group is an absolute last resort.

Campaign Details

I run a large scale open world campaign, with lots of sandbox play and opportunities for the players to explore. There are plots and threats throughout the world but where they go and how they deal with them is entirely up to the players.

Typically the party spend about 50% of it’s time exploring or traveling; 30% in towns, shopping or interacting with NPCs; and 20% in dungeons or on specific quests. I would like to adjust this slightly to reduce the amount of time spent traveling, most of the time is lost to indecision where the party can’t agree on a single course of action. More accurately they like to carefully examine every possible option before deciding, which takes a lot of time to reach a decision.

The Issue

Throughout the campaign there have been a few times when the party was split up, either for a scene or two, or for an entire session where I ran separate sessions for each half of the party. Most recently they encountered a pit trap that left the party separated in a dungeon. I switched back and forth between the parties until they could rejoin and it went quite well. Previously I’ve had two characters enslaved and forced to fight in an arena while the rest of the party worked on the outside to tilt the odds in their favour. These are just two examples from across a long campaign.

The pattern I have noticed is that almost every time I run one of these sessions the feedback I get is something like “That was the best session ever” or “best session in a while, I got everything done that I wanted to”. Basically the players constantly seem to enjoy sessions where they are separated more than ones where they are not.

Some reason I think this may be happening:

  • Faster decision making in smaller groups
  • More focused narrative where they always have a role to play in their scenes
  • Having less options forces them to think more creatively
  • Something to do with how I plan/run these session, though I am unsure what.

My Question

I’ve struggled with how to formulate this as a question so comments are welcome but here is my current question:

How do I best utilise the knowledge that my players enjoy sessions with smaller groups to improve my game?

Things I have considered:

  • Regularly splitting the party – I feel like this is the only solution that can reliably achieve this. But I’m having trouble thinking of ways to split the party often while maintaining a reasonable narrative flow.
  • Request for additional feedback – I’ve already tried this somewhat but haven’t gotten much that is meaningful. I can try for more targeted feedback with specific questions.
  • Changing the way I prepare my sessions – I think this is my preferred solution but I am struggling to identify what I am doing differently between the split and non-split sessions.

Answer types that I am expecting:

  • Advice on how to run for the whole group the way I do for the smaller group
  • Suggestions on what the issue with the larger group may be so that I can fix it
  • Advice on how to regularly split the party in a logical and narratively maintainable way.
  • Something I haven’t thought of (that really the point of this I guess)

TL;DR

My party seem to enjoy sessions where they are split into smaller groups. How can I use this to improve my game overall?