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. Curunír, 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?

  • Overwhelming Numbers: This is one of the least reliable means, and I can’t really recommend trying it in live-action play because of the burden of NPCs it requires. That said, one of the scariest, most intense non-combat scenes I’ve played in a LARP involved my team and roughly equal numbers – but we were a few feet from our weapons and there was no question that the opponents were egregious badasses.
    • In tabletop games, be mindful of how you use this. If your system of choice has mook or minion rules, players may rightly assume that a large number of backup singers thugs showing up with the villain are just mooks they’re expected to mow down, thus negating the intended feeling of overwhelming threat.
    • Also, if you’re going to use this as a lead-in to a fight, have the villain pointedly take a substantial portion of the goons with him when he leaves, and tell the ones that stay behind to start the fight. It’s just one of those conventions of the fiction, you know?
  • Bulletproof Glass: Any barrier that permits sound and light but not weaponry or spells works for this. (In systems with magic, pay close attention to whether spells require an uninterrupted line-of-sight or line-of-effect. It would Simply Not Do to have the wizard summon an Interrupting Cow on the far side of the glass.) Indestructible transparent surfaces aren’t nearly as much a genre convention of fantasy, but talking through a locked-and-indestructible door is fine too. (In LARPs, your players had better be comfortable with treating windows as indestructible!)
    • Bonus tension-generating points if there’s a timer in the conversation because one side or the other is working on circumventing the barrier.
  • Expeditious Retreat: I’ve mentioned this above, and it applies in LARPs with “you may not chase me”-style Haste effects as well. The danger here is that the villain may wait a moment too late to begin her exeunt, and that kind of thing is a fatal mistake. A screening force of minions is a great help here. Any solution that allows the heroes to possibly win an initiative check or get an invisible character to sneak up on the bad guy is asking for things to go… other than as planned.
    • Note on Good Gamerunning: If having the players surprise you and murder your villain ahead of “schedule” is going to wreck your event, it will absolutely happen, better than 125% of the time. Also, you’re not leaving enough room for player choice to direct the course of the narrative.
  • Triggered Catastrophe: If the best you can do is flee at normal foot speed, create a bigger problem for the protagonists to handle. This is the problem that people have been throwing at Superman and Batman for years: “You can either stop me, or save your friend. What’s it going to be, hero?” (Presumably you are not having to plan around Superman-level protagonists. If you are… that’s well beyond the scope of this post.)
    • Rickety architecture that you can collapse to block the way behind you is similarly ideal, but damn hard to set up in a LARP, so in a lot of cases that will be tabletop-only.
    • This example, and Expeditious Retreat, are both cases where the villain takes a big risk, presenting himself within bowshot or spell-range at all. So, you know, plan carefully.
  • Hostages: Some hostages who will really definitely be murdered (in sight of the PCs or otherwise, but… you can only get caught in a bluff once per campaign, and only after establishing with some other villain that you’re happy to have villains murder hostages) are a useful control on goodly-hero types. Pay close attention to what the villain (not just Plot/the GM) reasonably believes about the protagonists before making a decision here.
    • The classic variant on this is Possession – “if you kill me, you’ll never get your loved one back.” This works right up until the villain generates so much hatred that that sounds like a fair trade: rare, but achievable!
  • Teleportation: So remember that thing I said earlier about any time the NPC might lose an initiative check, the plan might fail? Once you get into using teleportation to put villains on-camera and then pull them off-camera again a split second before the fight begins, you’re teaching PCs not to hear them out at all. If you use any of these tricks too much – even once an event/session might be too much, depending on the audience – you’re teaching the PCs to strike harder and faster next time.
    • So flip it and teleport the PCs away from the villain. Or, to establish the meeting in the first place, teleport the guests away from the Genpop. It creates a sense of isolation and puts the PCs off-balance, both of which ratchet up the tension for them.
  • Engraved Invitation: Use this to teach the PCs to treat the villain with respect: offer the respect first. Invite the PCs (or a small team of them, in a LARP) to private social gathering. The social pressure to obey the rules of hospitality, and the curiosity of what the villain might want to say, goes a long way with a substantial number of players. (Beware those who do not respect the sanctity of the hors d’oeuvres.)
  • Villain of Letters (or Cell Phones): There are plenty of not-face-to-face ways to handle this, and these do mostly cover the emotional power of the rest of the examples. These should be your bread and butter, though it’s only too easy not to respond to letters or trace cell phone calls. Letters are particularly good for setting a tone, such as the Scrupulously Polite Villain or the Threatening Letter Villain. The former is more useful for luring PCs into conversing, the latter for generating depths of hatred.
    • An illusory messenger, such as a projected image, really falls under this category – it’s the zero-risk option for the villain.
  • Binding Contracts: In Dust to Dust, we have Binding Contracts – that is, magically-enforced contracts to ensure good behavior. The punishments are, in many cases, brutal and ongoing, though they would likely only fall on one or two PCs. Still, it’s pretty persuasive to say, “please don’t stab him right now – if you do I am completely fucked, and also I know for sure he’s not here to fight, because if he were, he would be completely fucked.” I expect that a comparable set of mechanics would fit in most fantasy games. In modern or futuristic games, there are probably ways to do something similar (if less lethal) with escrow accounts or other kinds of mutually-trusted neutral third parties.
    • The last time you want this to work in your campaign, have one side or the other suborn the neutral third party to turn the diplomatic encounter into a complete Charlie Foxtrot. (The lesson here is that the shock of violating expectations gains its power from how thoroughly those expectations have been established.)
  • Flag of Truce: This is the kind of mechanism that only works if all of the other pieces of your game’s social structure are already in place, creating a shorthand so that a more involved stratagem is unnecessary. If your PCs will honor a flag of truce (very tense the first time it comes up, decreasingly so thereafter), you can reliably set up this kind of encounter, giving villains and protagonists more chances to spit insults at one another. This method is particularly appropriate to political enemies or low-fantasy warfare (i.e., fighting other roughly-equal opponents, not the world-conquering Evil Overlord).
    • As with Binding Contracts, just expect that the first time this ends in betrayal by the villain, it will never really work right again. In my experience PCs don’t think of each villain as an independent entity with independent credibility – they think of all past experiences as informing each individual case. To be fair to players as a species, this is how people behave in real life too – it’s just that experiences within the setting can’t ever match the depth and range of real life, so one bad or undermining experience is a higher percentage of the overall.

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.

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