If combat and exploration is the heart of D&D, dialogue is the soul. Communication and exposition are the myriad paints by which players streak across the textured canvas of the DM’s phantasy. A word can change a siege into surrender, a murderer into martyr, or victory into villainy. It’s key that players learn how to communicate effectively and excitingly and elevate inter-party and world dialogue to its rightful position beside knoll-stomping and jewel-snatching.
For your consideration:
Dramatic momentum isn't everything. In-world dialogue does not (and should not) have to happen in real-time. Many times, important monologues or off-the-cuff debates between PCs and NPCs can lose steam and break down because players try too quickly to produce movie-quality pre-packaged statements or rebuttals. There’s a reason why screenplay dialogue sounds so convincing and evocative: it’s been cooked for months and honed to perfection by a professional screenwriter (hopefully). Even your most experienced veteran is not going to be capable of producing inter-PC dialogue at that level all the time. Take a moment. Breathe. Refresh yourself to your PC’s motivations, weight options. Even if your PC’s choice is to react heedlessly without thinking, you can still think about just how devoid of heed your PC should be. It’s always better to take a breather, collect your thoughts, and come up with organized, story-evolving exposition, then stutter and ‘umm’ through a piece of dialogue for the sake of sounding flashy.
Show, Don’t Tell
While monologuing to song-one of Rush’s 89’ album Presto is inspiring, it’s not what I mean. Don’t just state flatly your Character’s emotional state. Present it. Become your own narrator. Let players guess what is going on inside your Character’s head. Avoid simple statements like “Rognoth gets angry,” you can use physical cues to express emotion: “Rognoth’s face reddens, his beard begins furiously twitching…” Even better, you can describe qualities of voice without needing to use your own inflection. Think audio-book, not soap opera.
“Rognoth's normally gruff voice becomes thin and trembling. He mutters ‘I recognize the insignia…By Moradin, its Angog the Beardless!’”
Emotionality is what changes combat from “He hits the Lich” to “He fulfills his destiny.” When it is presented right, what comes out of a PC’s mouth becomes as important as what’s in their bag of holding.
Let them talk!
Let the other party members (and especially the DM!) Talk. You are not the most important speaker in the party. There is an unfortunate condition going around in new players, which I call “exposition blue-balls”. People will stress out and tense up physically when they are ready to say something and are getting postponed. Practice patience and active listening. This becomes indispensable as party size grows. Don’t get stuck in your own head thinking about what you are going to say next while ignoring everyone else. It’s a bad way to play and a bad way to live. If you need to, keep a piece of paper handy or a whiteboard and write down reminding words. Don’t be afraid or miffed when forced to drop a dialogue idea or rebuttal entirely and move on. You would be amazed at just how often dropped dialogue threads become the perfect thing to say 15 minutes later in the campaign.
Don’t be afraid to call “OC”
Calling “OC” (Off-Character) is an excellent prefix statement for meta-game discussion and battle-tactics that puts the pressure off the party to work ideas into the personalities of their PCs. Some examples:
“Valthar fumbles with his belt as he saunters out of the brothel, drawing his spear at sight of the skeletons and says…wait OC did I see what the necromancer did when we were in that cave? No? Ok …Valthar says nothing and charges.”
“Radiant energy surges out of Cliiven’s chest. He strokes his beard, laughing then hurls his hammer… OC where are you moving next turn?... He aims for the curiously overweight knoll on the ridge.”
“OC, is Kshatra mad that I took the treasure? Ok Good… Thimble pulls out a gold coin and flips it in the air while giving a wink.”
You Are Not Your Character
Detachment is key. When talking to PCs and NPCs remember assiduously that you are not your character. One of the joys of D&D is that a player can craft a PC personality completely different from who they are. Always discern that difference. Some of the most exciting dialogue can spring from two PCs who loathe each other but must work together for a common cause. Mind you, this doesn't have to be forever, Characters can grow to love each other, but even if dialogue is a carnival of animosity and backstabbing, at the end of the day the PCs are put away and we are ourselves again.
When you start to mistake a PC’s motivations and feelings as a person’s motivations and feelings, bad things happen. Horrible, horrible, relationship-ruiny things. I am guilty of this. When losing in a battle or doing poorly I used to get bummed out and project negativity to everyone around me. Whether your PC is in the depths of despair, or over the moon in ecstasy should be of no concern to you emotionally beyond what you allow, like a painter that chooses to paint either a happy or sad face on his artwork. The joy or sorrow of the art is not that of the artist.
Forgive Yourself, And Never Apologize.
Never say sorry about what your character does or says. Oh, sorry, what I meant was… That is a death knell. Consider your Character as a musical instrument. A professional musician would never put their instrument down mid-set, apologize for a mistake they made, and keep going. You are going to make mistakes in playing an instrument; you recognize them, and move on. The audience probably didn’t even recognize it, and if the player is really good, s/he can incorporate it into the piece. Likewise for interaction. A forgotten detail or misplaced reaction isn’t a death saving throw. Learn to let go and not dwell on how you could have handled that better. It’s impractical.
You are the ultimate authority on what your character says and does. Don’t feel pressured into conforming to an archetype you don’t like. Most often that ‘pressure’ you feel is self-generated. Take a stand. Say something brash. Even if you mess up. It makes things more interesting and your DM will appreciate it.