Business and Dragons – Using Gaming Skills at Work

The resurgent popularity of role playing games (Dungeons and Dragons the one most people are familiar with) due to shows such as Stranger Things, the nostalgia of the original players (of which I count myself) and the explosive growth of tabletop gaming gives us a chance to take these games beyond their “nerdiness” and apply their learnings in the real world.

If you haven’t tried a role playing game, the oversimplified premise is players create characters based on a standard set of characteristics and then take those characters through scenarios created and managed by a “game master” or “dungeon master (DM)”. If we translate those roles to a business team, you have team members and a loose equivalent to a project manager. (Though in role playing a game master has much more control than most any project manager, regardless what they think.)  For now we’ll leave the discussion of developers as wizards and salespeople as bards is a topic for a future article. Taking a closer look at how players interact in the fictional scenarios provided by the DM gives us practice in applying the same skills to our non-fictional scenarios in the working world.

Overprepared or ready to improvise

Events in a gaming session are usually not pre-determined. Experienced DM’s will limit the amount of rigid prep they do, relying on dynamic changes in the scenarios through a roll of the dice or a reaction to the decisions of the party. Using this as a way to practice evaluating change and responding in a quick and decisive manner is an excellent extension of the RPG world into the business world.

While most business decisions are not based on a roll of the dice (though they often feel as if they may be) they can be based on external factors of which you are unaware. Can you understand the impacts, evaluate options, and provide creative solutions on demand? What better way to practice those skills in a safe but challenging environment?

Thinking on your feet

When you ask experienced role players what skills are most helpful for a good role playing game experience, one of the most common things you’ll hear is the ability to improvise. Role playing by its nature is dynamic and changing without clear objectives and courses of action. An ability to “think on your feet” serves a player well, but the same skill serves a person well in the business world.  This is a rare natural talent but it is also a skill that can be developed through practice. RPGs are a perfect place to strengthen this skill for application in other places.

There is a common trope in role playing circles for game masters that “no scenario survives the first encounter with players intact.” Basically it means players are unpredictable and no amount of planning and preparation will change that fact. Being able to react to an unexpected change quickly and fluidly, without interrupting the flow of the encounter, is the difference between a great DM and an average one.  The same thinking applies when working with teams in business.

When was the last time you were in a meeting, someone threw out a new idea, and the reaction was “I don’t know, we’ll have to go and look into that and get back to you.” That forced delay kills the momentum of the idea immediately. Sometimes this is truly a need for assessment but in many cases it is just as often a delaying tactic. If you take the skills you cultivate through RPGs and react to the idea with questions, thoughts, and observations, you are able to maintain the momentum while still refining the idea. Let’s look at a Dungeons and Dragons example.

The players enter a room in a dungeon.  You as the DM have decided that in the room there are several goblins hiding, waiting to jump them when they least expect it.  You have the stats ready, dice at hand, and are set for a rousing battle to ensue.  Then this happens: the party opens the door, peeks in, and casts fireball in the small room, effectively roasting everything in the space.

As the DM you now have a problem.  The encounter you planned for can’t happen because all your goblins are now crispy critters. The players are ready to move on. How do you keep them engaged? Project management theory would have you preparing for every contingency so no matter what happens you have a plan.  But as the trope suggests, players can be unpredictable.  Let’s change the fireball spell to the players throwing a bag full of ball bearings into the room.  Wait, what? Ball bearings? Are you kidding me? Now what?

Similar situations happen in business.  You’ve planned carefully, created presentations, and have your facts in order.  You’ve created your narrative and are ready to lay out your case for careful consideration and acceptance by your peers.  Then someone comes in with a handful of ball bearings. Where can you practice dealing with the unpredictable and strengthen your creative muscles to keep the narrative going and everyone engaged?  Why not in a dungeon? Taking advantage of the role playing environment to encounter situations that in most cases have no direct counterpart in the real world can provide the chance to “think outside of the box” and come up with alternatives that won’t impact your annual review if they don’t work out.

Three steps to managing an encounter

Step one is get all your facts. Take time to gather details from the players as to what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they plan to do next. The same thing applies in business.  Ask the people involved detailed questions about what, why, and what’s next.  Often what these questions reveal is an underlying need or change in strategy.  Just as easily though these questions can reveal a lack of strategy to the request and a more significant lack of understanding around the impact.

One of the most popular Dungeon Masters around is Matthew Mercer from Critical Role (among many other things). When players get to a point in an encounter where they have defeated an opponent, he has a question that always triggers a strong positive response, “How do you want to do this?” That question encourages the player to provide details about what they are doing and how they envision it happening in a way that Matt can skillfully weave into an entertaining narrative on the fly. Applying that same type of thinking to your business discussions can push conversations and ideas forward that have gotten stalled. Rather than “how do you want to do this” perhaps asking “how do you see this working” or “tell me more about what you’re imagining” can give you the raw materials you need for your business narrative.

Know your options

Step two is list your options.  In an RPG as a DM you’ll normally do this in your head (since you don’t want to reveal everything to your players.) Your decisions are based on what has changed, what can happen next, and what has to occur to put things in motion.  The dice will often make decisions for you but just as often you can change the dynamic to keep your party engaged. For example the ball bearings may have rendered all the nasty little goblins in the room flat on their backs as they slip and slide, but one may have found a foothold and is waiting behind the door with crossbow at the ready.  In a business meeting, listing out the options for yourself and then reviewing them with the group to make sure you haven’t missed anything and are starting to build consensus around the options.

Kick open the door

Step three is to choose a course of action.  At some point, something has to happen.  Whether it is one of the goblins makes it to its feet and takes a shot with its little crossbow or the software developer at the other side of the table recommends choosing option B to implement the new requirements.  By choosing a course of action you can now begin to evaluate the option, impacts, and requirements for success.  Until you make a choice, or in an RPG the dice make a choice for you, you’re just standing outside the door looking in.

Each time you create a scenario for your players and manage how they interact with the events you have outlined, you strengthen your skills in observation, assessment, and adaptation.  These are skills that could take years in the business environment to develop when the opportunities present themselves.  In the world of RPGs, you can create these situations over and over again with endless varieties and nuances with each time making you a more effective DM and as a result a more effective professional.

This is one article in a multi-part series on applying role playing game skills in the working world. As a DM and player of RPGs for more than 30 years, I hope to combine the learnings from the gaming world and the business world for the betterment of both. If you like this article and want more, leave a note in the comments, like, share, retweet, cast a message spell, or do whatever you do to let me know you want this real life campaign to continue.