October 16, 2014

Dungeon Master Leadership

We did not dress up as elves or anything like that. OK, maybe this one guy brought a robe to one of our sessions. But that’s it! I swear! We were twelve, what do you expect?

I still enjoy Dungeons & Dragons from time to time. Our games have evolved through the years: from being mainly a board game, we now take great pride in trying to tell stories together. Come to think of it, it’s one of the rare situations where we meet without anything digital and instead use only our collective creativity.

From the get-go, I took on/was given the role of the Dungeon Master — that is, the sort-of-director. The dungeon master is tasked with portraying everyone the protagonists interact with as well as crafting the basic elements of the story. It’s a lot of fun, and also quite demanding. I though I’d share some things I’ve learned that I’ve had great use of as a leader in the wonderful, magical land of tech consultancy.

Never plan the outcome

The world is, as you know, a volatile place. Things change. Things get out of our control. This is a very old stoic notion, and it is as useful in role-playing games as it is in the world of apps and development. What I can do is make the best possible environment for the team/players to excel in. But the actual outcome … That depends on a whole lot of other things.

So I don’t imagine how the scenes will turn out. I make sure to write interesting characters for my players to meet, cool places they can travel to, and I lay the groundwork for drama. The rest will have to play itself out. If I hold on to an idea to tight I might miss an idea that is even better.

People > everything else

Even though I enjoy D&D, I don’t enjoy it with other people than my friends. Our chemistry and our shared knowledge make work/play efficient and the output of a consistently high quality. Some dungeon masters get caught up in tweaking the rules; I obsess over having the right people at the table.

How to do this? Make sure your players know how valuable they are. Reinforce their strong sides by telling them how much they bring to the table. And if you see someone that you think would make a great addition to the team: hunt them down and get them to do a trial session, whatever it takes.

Play unsafe

All of our greatest moments in Imaginaryland have come as a result of us trying new things. It’s scary, sure, and sometimes you fall flat on your back. The thing is, though, that the fuckups are rarely remembered. We make sure to learn from our failures every time with a short post-mortem. But the highlights, the anti-fuckups, they live in memory forever.

Don’t stick to what you know. Abandon, try, learn, and give it everything you got. Better sorry than safe. Play unsafe.

Clues & tells

Is one of the players leaning back, crossing his arms and looking away? He’s probably not enjoying himself. What do you know about him? What gets him going? What we’re looking for here is an Archimedes leverage — if you spend a little of your energy in the right spot, that player will come alive and give the table ten times that energy.

Knowing what gets the people around you going, how to spark that enthusiasm, is a level 20 epic magic skill. A motivated developer is worth ten times that of a bored one.

Collective effort or rock star DMing

Some dungeon masters and managers want to keep secrets. They thrive on power.

Even if the team is unaware of the actual secrets, they are surely smart enough to notice that everything is not out in the open. If you send out signals that you carry important knowledge that you don’t want to share, that you have the power, your team will most likely let you do the hard work when things get rough. They will trust you to fix the situation.

Commitment necessitates trust. Involvement demands trust. Trust the team with your vision and your knowledge. Get everything out in the open and put all your collective brain potential to use. Power is so management 1.0.

Some DMs and managers can pull off the rock star style. But that puts an incredible amount of pressure on them — to consistently deliver quality to the team. This is the high road, and you are free to choose it. However, you can’t pick the rock star style and not do your (now tripled!) homework.

From the outside, killing imaginary orcs and stealing their imaginary treasure might not have much in common with leading a team. But upon closer examination, dungeon mastery have taught me great lessons in management that I would not like to be without. Who would have thought?

I’m looking forward to the next session: seeing the guys and gals gain experience points, laugh and push themselves. Both while killing orcs and writing code.

Next post
The benefits of not being mindful Oh no you didn’t … Oh yes I did. After teaching meditation and mindfulness for a couple of years now, I have realized a few benefits about not being