Lessons from the Tabletop: Things I've Learned about Project Management from Dungeons & Dragons

For the past year or so, I’ve been getting together with a group of friends once a week to play Dungeons and Dragons. The popular role-playing game from the ‘70s has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years.

In the game, 4-6 players act as characters that they create using randomized dice rolls. One player, the game master, tells the other players about the world and what they see. The players respond by saying what they’d like their characters to do, and the game master will tell them if they need to roll any dice to determine the outcome of the attempted action.

Unlike most RPG video games, the (usual) goal of Dungeons and Dragons is not to win. The goal is to tell a good story. To that end, it is an extremely collaborative game. The players and game master together craft a narrative. There are heroes, villains, growth, remorse, and the usual range of human (or humanoid) emotion. Usually there is a fair bit of conflict too.

In my group, I act as the game master. Even though I’ve been leading professional teams for over a decade, I have learned a lot about project management in the process of adjudicating a world born out of my friends’ collective imaginations.

Join me for lessons from the tabletop…

Lesson 1: Align on your Goals

There is a joke within the roleplaying community: “Never split the party.” Each hero’s individual talents are not enough to stay alive in the dangerous fantasy settings where these games take place.

The first mistake that I made as a new game master was a big one. Instead of giving my group a shared sense of purpose and a common goal to work towards, I let each one of my players decide the individual motivations for their character.

This mistake actually led to a more realistic, though detrimental, dynamic within our group. In the real world, individuals come to a team with their own personal motivations and priorities, just like my D&D players did.

Some are motivated by financial success, others by a sense of craftsmanship. The motives that drive us are as varied as we are.

A team without aligned motivations and goals will find that they often argue unproductively. Consensus becomes nearly impossible without the common ground of shared values.

On the other hand, a team with a shared purpose and a set of common values will find unexpected opportunities. When differences of opinion do arise, there can be healthy debates grounded in objectives.

The Solution is Talking

In the end, I solved my storytelling problem by having a sit down chat with my players, “out of game.” We discussed each person’s real motivations for playing. We then worked to create a set of character motivations that would be compatible (mostly — a little conflict can make the game fun).

As a group we decided that we wanted to tell a story about heroism and saving the world. From then on any debates were about how to achieve the group’s goals, rather than about what the group’s goals were in the first place.

Talk to your team about your organization’s values. This can be a mission statement, but it doesn’t have to be. What is important is that every member of your team is willing to embrace and advance your stated purpose.

Part I: Align on your goals
Part II: Letting go

Part III: Know your domain

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Josh Lee