January 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the world’s most iconic role-playing games, Dungeons and Dragons. Even if you’ve never known the pleasure of wiling away an afternoon bashing Orcs with your 4d6 warhammer, odds are you or someone you know has internalized the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, either by actually rolling its unique polyhedral dice or, for younger players, through one of the countless video games that use its system of experience points, items and talent classifications.
It’s easy to look at Dungeons and Dragons and think that it’s all about the mythical, Tolkien-esque world in which it was set. But the real attraction of the game was the way it boiled down human experience—or at least the experience of growing older, buying stuff, and using it to kill things—to pure numbers. Its ordered universe, built on integer values for various skills and their interaction with other numbers, is catnip to teenage geeks who are trying to make sense of the adult world.
It’s an open question whether the numerical system that drives Dungeons and Dragons is a fair (if simplified) simulation of the world or whether it has so shaped generations of teens that they now see the world in terms of D&D stats. Either way, here’s everything I learned about how to manage a team—and I have been responsible for many—by playing Dungeons and Dragons.
We can now measure more aspects of workplace performance than ever. This makes it possible to rank and compare people and give them feedback, in real time. All these are components of video games and are integral to the D&D system. Meanwhile, outside the workplace, more and more of us are also strapping on activity monitors that measure our every footstep, encouraging us to meet specific goals or just to tell us when we’re slacking off.
While the paper-based version of Dungeons and Dragons was limited by the patience of its players in terms of how many stats it could track, the game popularized real-time measures like “hit points” (how much more damage you can take until you’re dead) and “mana” (how much magical ability you have left to cast spells). And then there’s inventory management—how many arrows do I have left, and what kind are they? Am I going to run out of light if I don’t find another torch soon?
It’s not easy to get adolescents to think about managing scarce resources—both material and personal—and tracking them in the mental equivalent of a spreadsheet, but D&D made it seem normal. What better preparation could there be for the world of work?
The creation of a new character in D&D is a surprisingly good analogy for how skills are distributed among humans in the real world. The only real difference is that the former involves rolling dice and the latter comes from the interaction of genes and environment. In D&D, you roll the dice for each of a dozen different “stats”—strength, intelligence, etc.—that your character possesses. Each of these is modified by the character’s race and class—elves get more intelligence, warriors more strength—but no matter what character you are, a complete set of “perfect” stats is vanishingly improbable, and most of the time you’ll have a mix of strong and weak ones.
The same is true in real life: People who are exceptional at one thing may be lousy at others. Often, the best candidate for a given job isn’t the one with the highest skill for the job’s primary requirement, but is someone more well-rounded. Soft skills—getting along with other team members, being consistent—also matter.
In D&D, a “party” consists of a group of different characters who together face the trials of the adventure to come. It’s basically impossible to win unless you’ve got a warrior to beat things up and take damage, a wizard to deal with magical foes and occasionally drop the hammer on something big, a cleric to heal your party members, and so on.
It’s the same in the modern workplace. It’s not enough to hire in order to fill distinct roles within a company. It’s just as important to realize that different backgrounds are valuable as well. This is perhaps the one place in the D&D mythology in which Tolkien’s implicit racism actually counts in favor of the series: Orcs might be swarthy and villainous, and elves Nordic and haughty, but at least a successful D&D party requires a little bit of every race and creed of Middle Earth.
None of the lessons in probability that teens pick up from playing D&D are terribly complicated, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. First, there’s the fact that every roll of the die is independent of every other roll. In the real world, a company is never “due” for any particular success or failure—all you can do is weight the odds in your favor.
Rolling multiple dice at once also provides an intuitive window into the nature of statistical distribution—and how counter-intuitive it can be. This is as significant for understanding the characteristics of a group of customers as it is for evaluating how long someone will live with a cancer diagnosis.
It’s not the everyday slog that defines the success or failure of a team, but the way it handles the big, ambitious launches or the major setbacks. In D&D, how you prepare for a battle with an exceptionally powerful foe—a “boss battle”—determines whether you’ll win or be wiped out. This means giving your characters tons of practice against easier foes so that they can gain experience. In other words, employee development is key.
D&D also teaches that even average team members can do exceptionally well with the right tools. Plus, managing a party requires that you optimize your workflow as a leader, and then optimize some more. This is so important that the current head of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, has talked extensively about how he honed his management skills by playing World of Warcraft, a direct descendent of D&D.
When two people play D&D who are dating in real life, it’s a lot like dating in the workplace. If two co-workers start helping each other out (or worse, taking revenge on one another) as a consequence of their romantic entanglements, others in the office feel like the rules of the workplace are being broken. And in Dungeons and Dragons, forget it—how do you fairly divide up the loot from a slain dragon when your elvish cleric and your dwarvish warrior are not-so-secretly in love?