Reprise: Comparing Conversation and Combat

Originally posted on August 11, 2010.

What’s the difference between conversation and combat?

I found myself asking that of one of my friends, while thinking about UZ’s recent question on keeping all participants in a conversation involving more than four characters at once. I have difficulty with that sort of thing too, so I didn’t really have too much to fall back on to try to figure out what I’d been doing with 4+ person scenes—until I realized that I’d written a perfectly good 5-NPC combat scene just a couple weeks before, and went to look at that. What’s the difference between conversation and combat, if you’re not operating on a set initiative system? Well, in one, everyone’s trying to hit each other with various objects that would be painful on contact, but other than that, I’m seeing more similarities than differences.

Both conversation and combat work a whole lot better if you have a goal at the beginning and know how to pursue it. Combat, of course, makes it easy by giving you a ready-made goal to fall back on if all else fails: survive, and disable the other guy. But conversation’s pretty similar; just as it’s better not to go into a fight without even knowing which side is your enemy or whose shiny weapon you want to steal, it’s better not to begin a conversation without some idea what you want to get out of it, whether you’re a player handling one end of it or a GM/writer handling most or all of it.

Conversation and combat, when dealing with large groups, both tend to focus into smaller conflicts, often with approximately binary sides. In a fight, you tend to have a bunch of small one on one sub-battles (plus or minus people perpetually switching opponents) or a group ganging up on a single opponent; get a large enough group of people together for a conversation, and it’s likely to start dividing into twos and threes as different subsets of people start paying closer attention to different aspects of the topic.

Both conversation and combat are long chains of action and reaction. Granted, the actions in combat are primarily physical (perhaps with some battle banter thrown in), while in conversation what one does isn’t near as important as what one says, but in either case, it’s a whole lot of someone does something, at least one other person reacts, people react to that reaction, and so on and so forth, with the actions and reactions overall giving it a direction towards one or more potential goals.

Because they’re both chains of actions and reactions, both are very easy to lose people in as the number of people involved increases. Between running and playing in games, I’ve found that the optimal number of characters to have active in any given combat or conversation situation is one: even my characters’ equally noisy familiars have a tendency to drown out (or on rare occasions, get drowned out by) their own familiars in a fast-paced situation, and that’s just dealing with two people. As there become more to focus on, the harder it is to get strong ideas for each; as a result, the ones that are focused on stay in the forefront, and the ones that aren’t fade into the background at best, or are completely forgotten at worst. An initiative list can sort of avoid this, but it does tend to result in a somewhat stilted-sounding scene, as everyone does everything in the same exact order.

Conversation and combat: people favoring one or the other notwithstanding, they really aren’t so different, and one can even be used to better understand the other.

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