Staring wistfully out the window on a Friday, you begin to think about the upcoming weekend, excuses to avoid going to that wedding for your second cousin, chores you’ve been avoiding during the workweek. And if you’re me or millions of other people around the world, you are looking forward to meeting up with your friends for a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
In Dungeons & Dragons (also known as D&D), a roleplaying game played around a table or online, you take up one of two roles. First, are the players. They make characters, often inspired by works of literature like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and respond to the events laid out by the other role: The dungeon master. The dungeon master orchestrates the world around the other players. Everything from enemy goblins to the local blacksmith are run by the dungeon master. Basically, they set the scene that the players get to act in.
Ben, I hear you ask, how in the world would this game make you better at your job? In what way does casting a fireball at an imaginary troll bring you to greater success in business? How did you convince your boss to let you write about D&D at work?
All good questions. Let me explain.
There are certain virtues that people who play D&D pick up as they get experience in the game, things that are must-haves when doing any collaborative activity with others. Just as there are two roles in the game, there are also two sets of virtues that can be acquired by engaging in each role.
Let’s start with the player.
In order for a player to be successful (e.g. have fun), they must work with a party of other players. In this lies the heart of dungeons and dragons–it’s about the group, not the goblins. Failure is an ever-present threat in Dungeons & Dragons, and avoiding it is a careful balance of collaboration, heroism, and creativity. Each of these must exist in some measure, but not at the expense of the others.
So let’s break those down.
This is a word that is bandied about in most corporate spaces ad nauseum, reminding us of group projects in college. In Dungeons & Dragons, good collaborative skills are necessary for survival. In situations ranging from political intrigues to deadly battles, the skills essential in good business collaboration are doubly so in D&D.
Communication skills are the key to good collaboration in both business environments and in the darkest dungeons. Approaching a problem, whether it’s a goblin with it’s back turned or budget planning for the new year, is best done with everyone on the same page.
Knowing your place in the group is important, but so is stepping up when it’s your turn to bring the pain. You are in your position at your company for a reason, and that reason better be that you rock at it.
Rolling initiative in Dungeons and Dragons means figuring out when it’s your turn in combat. When it finally rolls around, your careful planning can be put into action–but that requires being brave enough to believe in yourself and roll the dice.
One of the great strengths of role playing games is the freedom to try things that you never could in real life. Plans that would immediately be tossed out as impractical can be implemented in D&D simply because they sound like fun. This is a fantastic exercise for brainstorming meetings, as even when an idea can’t be taken as a whole, it could change perspectives and lead to the final solution.
Beyond that, even when creativity begets failure, failure begets growth. Your skills in collaboration will build a team that can experience failure and use it to their advantage going forward.
Next, the Dungeon Master.
“If you want to build a fleet, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the boundless immensity of the open sea.” -Antoine Saint-Exupéry
A good dungeon master’s goal is to help the players succeed (e.g. have fun). Unlike the players though, this doesn’t always mean help them win. While you aren’t playing a game against the players, a good dungeon master makes victory seem near impossible to grasp before the players snatch it from the jaws of defeat–except when they don’t. And when they don’t, there should be a great story to be told regardless.
As with any leader of people, dungeon masters must be experts in ego. Managing expectations, listening skills, and developing a team are just scratching the surface of what a good dungeon master brings to the table–but let’s break those down too.
Dungeons & Dragons is a commitment. You are committing to contribute to a game that can stretch months and years for a single campaign (which is the overall story the individual games take place in). That’s why at the very beginning, a dungeon master must reach an understanding with the others around the table about the type of experience everyone is interested in having with the game. Because of the nature of the game, it can vary greatly in the frequency and intensity of combat, politics, and/or roleplay. Because of this, being up front about the game that you are planning on running and sticking to it is important in making sure everyone playing with you is getting what they signed up for.
It’s the same for managing/building a team. You don’t want to just take whoever you can get when they aren’t even interested in what you are attempting to accomplish. Laying out the purpose of a company and adhering to it will end up building a strong team with minimal turnover.
Yes, I said years earlier. Dungeons & Dragons is similar to serialized content like a TV show or novel series–so as time passes, it is possible your group’s dynamic begins to change. It’s possible some players are taking the spotlight far too often, or engaging in behavior that makes the experience less fun for others around the table.
As this happens, it’s important to ask your team how they are feeling about the game regularly, getting both public and private feedback from each of them. As this happens, you can either make subtle changes to fix the problem, or talk to other players about their playstyle.
These sort of awkward conversations exist in the professional world too, often with far greater consequences. Sometimes it is necessary to part ways with team members, but often things can be prevented from reaching that point by just listening and communicating directly.
Developing a Team
As time passes, your party grows in both character and level. They can now handle greater threats and problems, meaning you can begin throwing more at them. As a team grows and changes, it is a leader’s job to keep challenging them. Around the table, this might mean it’s time to put the dragon in Dungeons & Dragons. In a business setting, this might mean setting time aside for personal development, engaging in more ambitious projects, or giving responsibility to those ready for it.
How do you want to do this?
These things are just examples. D&D is a game with near limitless possibility, and the lessons you learn from it will be unique to you. You might find that some other activity you engage in this weekend, whether sports, trivia nights, or book clubs, develop you in a way that you bring to your place of business as well. To that I say: Nice! More power to you. But if that isn’t the case for you and you’re looking for something in what I’ve just layed out, then hey, maybe it’s time you rolled the dice.