Willing to Talk

One of the advantages I’ve always found of tabletop RPGs as compared to console RPGs is the ability to talk to one’s enemies, whether it’s face to face, by distant proxy, even (perhaps especially) in the middle of a battle. In fact, battle banter is one of the few situations in which I will almost invariably suspend disbelief, at least as long as the dialogue is worth it, and I once found myself running a battle that I just couldn’t stand because only one of my antagonists had a functional larynx. In stories, likewise, I tend to zone out on wordless battles no matter how exciting they are, but if even one of the combatants can keep my amused, I’ll put up with a lot of unnecessary length (within reason, anyway).

So what’s it good for?

First, of course, it establishes motivation, more than evidence and conjecture can. On full-fledged villains, of course, this isn’t quite as necessary, but it helps—even when they’re lying about their own origins. But when you’re trying to set up a tragic fight between people who should be on the same side, or ones who have other reasons to want to preserve their opponents’ lives, a complete lack of dialogue and explanation can turn a tragic battle into an unholy cross of railroad and straight-out diabolus ex machina.

Speaking of motivating forces, an antagonist being willing to talk can help to ensure a desired end-of-the-conflict result, or even affect what her opponent does between battles. One of my GMs, long ago, gave me a list of tricks to make a villain who when present makes the group uneasier and when not brings them into a homicidal rage when her name is mentioned; one of the keynotes of these was speaking with a clear condescension and arrogance. On the other hand, dialogue can also help ensure that a character survives—in some cases, by establishing that they’re only the enemy through forces beyond their control or a miscommunication; in others, making them admirable or interesting enough for the primary characters to want to keep them around. Sometimes, they can do both at once, sending their audience veering from hatred to grudging admiration and back over a small number of encounters. It all boils down to figuring out which buttons to push, and trying to do that without holding conversation can be rather like trying to operate a control array with an inch of glass between you and the buttons.

It opens the plot up to conflicts beyond one on one and yours versus ours, or fists and armies. When the antagonist’s willing to talk, it might be possible to deal with individual situations through such talking. If they’re just hinting at their plans, that opens the situation up to political games and chessmastering. Bribery, bargaining, blackmail? You bet. Reverse psychology, misdirection, ego damage—all fair game. And of course, if they aren’t willing to talk, how are you ever going to set up the temporary pseudo-alliance when a (usually bigger) third party starts coming in and making a nuisance of itself?

If what you want is a recurring antagonist, talk can make it even easier, particularly if they have a way to do so over distances—any time the antagonist doesn’t fight, the antagonist doesn’t get killed. One of my favorite recurring antagonists, from a game I’m playing in, hasn’t actually fought the group at all, but it doesn’t keep her from being one of the people the first overall arc was functionally about.

So think about it: is the person you’re setting up as the arc or story antagonist willing to talk? If not, why not?


  1. UZ says:

    See, this is a great time to bring in the mom or dad.

    Destructina: Aargh!

    Knightley: Uurgh!

    (They contend.)

    Dad: Just what the hell is going on in here?!

    Knightley: Damnit, reinforcements!

    Dad: PUT THAT AWAY. Dess?

    Destructina: Daaaaad, I’m buuuuusy!

    Dad: This had better not be about that conjunction thing. *Again*.

    There’s always a mom, dad, significant other, or talking pet that can start up a conversation while still being harmless enough that decent sorts of heroes won’t just kill them out of hand. They can be on the antagonist’s “side” while still having completely contrary priorities – interest in their personal welfare is a pretty good motivation here, and the cared about can bring more leverage to bear than the protagonists can.

    Significant other: Is it really worth dying over?
    Antagonist: Absolutely.
    Significant other: *Is it worth not having nookie over?*
    Antagonist: Uhhh…

  2. Michael says:

    In my book I have an antagonist who doesn’t talk during the final confrontation — for two reasons. One, she’s a mostly sympathetic character who’s only on the wrong side in the fight because she’d fallen in love with the other villain and was trying to win him back to the good side — and yes, the sequence of events from that to her fighting against the heroes does make sense, but it’s too complex for me to explain here. Anyway, before this battle she’s been a close friend of the narrator, so the reader already knows everything there is to know about her motivations.

    Two — the direct converse of a point you made above — she’s too stubborn and (at that point) angry to try to explain herself, leaving the reader (and the heroes) with the thought that her death could have been avoided. From a narrative point of view, her death is absolutely necessary, since the events of the next book would go very differently if she was still around, so it’s convenient to have something to point to and say that’s what led up to her death.

    I hope I’ve managed to make the battle scene interesting enough to read even without very much dialogue… you’ll have to tell me how far I succeeded if I ever get the thing published :)

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