01 02 03 Harbinger of Doom 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

How (and Why) to Talk to Villains

Today I want to talk about some very bad people. Well, narratively speaking, the bad people. Villains: a species of character that has a damn tough time getting a word in edgewise in roleplaying games. It's a tough life for villains; players have learned over and over again that letting the villain so much as speak is tantamount to letting him win. I'm here to make a case for talking to villains before the smiting begins. I'll also present some ideas for GMs on how to give their villains a chance to speak without springing a red leak - but this article is for players and GMs alike.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that villains should always be the heroes of their own stories, should always believe that what they're doing is right or necessary. Evil for evil's sake just isn't compelling - it's simplistic and, let's face it, we have trod that ground many times before. Don't get me wrong: you still want iconic villain moments, mad laughter, the whole nine yards. That just needs to be built on a foundation that the protagonists can engage with on an emotional and philosophical level. (I'm presuming that we all care about narrative. If that premise doesn't hold, this post isn't for you - pure beat-em-ups have their place, but this is a conversation about games with narrative.)

As I said before, though, games have taught players for ages that they should never let the villain speak. This comes from multiple sources. First, it's boring to sit there and listen to the villain ramble on and on. This leads to someone saying, "So, can I stab this guy now, or what?" Which is fair: I'm not arguing for massive monologues. This post isn't titled "Why You Should Let the Villain Talk All Week." Instead, I'm saying that protagonists should engage the villain in conversation and repartee.

Secondly, there's a common conception that games have only so much awesome to go around, and if the villain gets time to be awesome, that must necessarily be taking away from the heroes. The truth is that there are really two kinds of Cool. The first is too-cool-for-school, the kind of character who refuses to acknowledge any threat or fear through the powers of solipsism. The second is the hero that engages with the world and narrative; this character is threatened, suffers fear and loss, and digs deep to triumph over challenges. I've talked about players refusing to allow themselves to experience fear before, though.

My contention is that the second kind of Cool is in every possible way better for the game and the playerbase, whether that's a one-PC-one-GM game or a 2000-player LARP war. The first kind of Cool is like reading a book and sneering at every character: you're probably not going to enjoy it as much, because you didn't really experience the book or the emotional journey the author set to print.
Look, I get it, plenty of books don't merit deep engagement. If you're playing a game that doesn't merit engagement, you should probably figure out how to make it better, or find a different game.
The most basic, essential concept of playing a role is behaving as if the situation of the role is real, so suspend disbelief and help others do so. This includes allowing villains a little credibility - Plot/the GM has to earn that credibility, but meet them halfway. The second kind of Cool is not zero-sum, because by accepting the threat the villain poses, the villain's defeat carries actual significance. The first kind of Cool is like trying to write a five-act story without the bleak Act IV. It isn't that players should be thinking of how to follow narrative structure; it's that courage is only interesting if it feels difficult. There's a separate and necessary conversation about how to show courage without seeming to disregard the threat.

But I digress. Getting back to talking to villains, the goal here is to not treat the villain like someone you can simply talk over. Again, the villain (and any narrative staff supporting said villain, such as a Plot committee or a GM) is responsible for comporting herself credibly; threatening or murdering some convenient NPCs is a time-honored tradition. There are whole volumes to be written about how to establish villains properly.

As a protagonist, look for opportunities to display the superiority of your ethos before you display the superiority of your aim. The reasons to do this are manifold (and it's incumbent on Plot/the GM to make them relevant): in a struggle between Good and Evil, Good always has to prove its superiority over cynicism. (Batman always tries to talk the named villains out of their bad ideas, and that is a huge part of his heroic appeal.) Maybe you can talk the villain down and convert him to your way of thinking; if the broader threat level of the setting is dire enough, you need every ally you can muster, and resources you don't spend fighting one villain can be better used fighting another one. Maybe you can goad the villain into spilling some bit of information, or you can appeal to the last shred of the enemy's humanity. Maybe you can drive a wedge between the villain and his lieutenant. (Imagine Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi without Luke's all-important conversations with Darth Vader!)

The most common reason to never let the villain speak is about encounter design and the lessons that Plot/the GM teaches players over time. The fiction, and a great many games, are full of villains who use the pre-battle conversation as a time to seize the advantage, possibly by moving minions into place. CurunĂ­r, for example, was noted for his ability to persuade even his sworn enemies, such that the movies contain several references to striking him down before he can speak. This is fine in fiction, but it's regrettable encounter design, because Plot/the GM should not be looking for ways to accelerate climactic encounters to their often-inevitable conclusions. Make your villains pretty honest about their desire to have a frank exchange of ideas before the bloodshed, and create opportunities for clever, engaged play to seize an advantage. Also, look for ways to make the pre-battle repartee, or lack thereof, change the villain's tactics.

If you haven't ever played a character who is scrupulously polite to even an arch-nemesis, give it a try. Elevating the discourse and feeling refined can be deeply satisfying, and this intrinsically demonstrates the superiority of your character's ethos. Don't cut villains off mid-sentence just to dominate the conversation and frustrate them - it's cheap.

This kind of guidance doesn't apply every single time. Even more than in real life, variety is the spice of narrative. If there are some opponents who get the drop on the protagonists or, for whatever reason, have no interest in conversation, the contrast of other villains matters more. There's also nothing at all wrong with wanting to play an iconic, zealous hero - so let me talk about how to get even the zealots to talk.

Advice for GMs

Most of the commentary above is aimed at players, other than the bit about encounter design. Now I want to talk to the GMs in the crowd. I probably don't have to explain why GMs should want players to talk to the bad guys, but just so I've laid this out: the conversation establishes emotional stakes for the conflict as something deeper and more nuanced than kill-or-be-killed. Most opponents show up once, get defeated, and spend the rest of the story in a prison cell or a shallow grave. Extending that encounter a bit, or splitting it into multiple encounters (diplomacy, then showdown), makes the villain more memorable and creates more context for the conflict.

One of the challenges of tabletop and live-action play, though, is that players can do just about whatever they want, whenever they want. Compare this, for example, to video games where the player can't start the fight with the villain until the pre-battle cutscene or dialogue is complete, or the villain gets to flee with unlimited speed for no particular in-game reason after either posturing at the heroes or taking a less-than-fatal amount of damage. In a tabletop or live-action game, though, this kind of thing would justly be considered dirty pool and a violation of illusionism. Further, if your game has a Tracking skill, even "legitimate" high-speed escapes, such as an expeditious retreat or the like, often lead to players insisting on attempting to give chase to the ends of the earth. Rational, sure; also insupportable in a lot of game situations. Players hate seeing the villain escape, and who can blame them? So the villain needs to establish a reason that her getaway will succeed.

How can GMs stage more conversations that both make sense for the villain and give the villain a chance to threaten the PCs again in the future?
I have no doubt that there are other great ideas I've overlooked - feel free to add those down in the comments. One more thing - I bet it would be super cool to use some of these techniques on the protagonist side. Who hasn't wanted to make an exit as calamitous as the Triggered Catastrophe? Putting players into unusual situations that no previous game has supported is instantly memorable. Getting a chance to put the villain on her back foot? Priceless. I guess the Triple Word Score version is pulling off something like this in a factional PvP game...

In conclusion, many GMs and Plot committees don't do everything in their power to build emotional connections - hatred, mitigating empathy, curiosity, academic respect (this one is really fun to establish), and so on - between the protagonists and antagonists. To be just a little bit of an English major, the great narratives are driven by emotional, philosophical, and physical conflicts between characters. The best games know that more depth and nuance to the conflict enriches the experience of the narrative.

Labels: , , , ,

35 36 37 38