Dungeons & Dragons & Remote Workers

Conan's sword piercing a d20

I’m a nerd. I play video games, I read comic books, and I have an unhealthy amount of Star Wars knowledge.

I once went to a comic-con with a friend dressed as Mario and Luigi, and I make an annual pilgrimage to Awesome Con in D.C. And without a doubt, I have strong opinions about some high-level nerd debates: Marvel is better than DC, Star Wars is better than Star Trek, Pluto is a planet (I don’t care if you’re a scientist, we can’t just reclassify things at the drop of a hat), and of course, Han shot first.

I also play that pinnacle of nerdom, Dungeons & Dragons. While I had brushes with D&D in middle and high school, it’s really been in the last four years that I’ve taken the deep dive and since then I’ve made great friends, had some epic adventures, and defeated countless evil creatures

So after being at Simple Thread for about a month, it seemed like a perfect next step to offer to run a D&D game for some of my new coworkers. I’ve played D&D with coworkers before, but because we all work remotely at Simple Thread, this game would be a whole new experience. In fact, since I was still new to the company there were some players I hadn’t even met yet!

But after a few casual conversations about people’s previous experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, running a game seemed to be a great way to get to know people whom I otherwise would only interact with via Slack. And thus our party—Obesian, Kerak, Malicay, Tiep, and Varis— embarked on a journey, meeting every other week via video chat to battle our way across the land in a valiant effort to stop the machinations of a vicious dragon cult.

What even is Dungeons & Dragons?

But before we jump in, how about a quick refresher on what Dungeons & Dragons actually is.

To put it as simply as I can, Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, or DnD) is  a fantasy, role-playing tabletop game where you and a group of friends (a “party”) collaboratively tell a story.

Each player creates a character and together you embark on an adventure that may involve epic battles against evil, quest for treasure, freeing innocent villagers from an oppressive regime, and/or anything else your collective imaginations can create. One person takes on the role of chief storyteller (“Dungeon Master” or “DM”) whose job it is to oversee the arc of the story, help set the scene during gameplay, and act as the arbiter of the rules.

So how could this entirely un-work-related activity actually help strengthen a remote team?

Shift your perspective

We’re used to looking at the world (or a work project) from one perspective—our own.

We filter the world through our own unique set of experiences and history—our education, family environment, ethnic background, socio-economic status, physical abilities, etc. and we need training and awareness to be able to see things differently and allow for the vast array of experiences and perspectives that surround us. Creating a D&D character is one of the most fun parts of the game, and as you move through the game you have to make decisions based on your character’s strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities. You experience the D&D world from a completely different perspective (perhaps a female half-elf ranger with a panther beast companion?) and have to embody that role in order to survive.

Role-playing is a great way to get out of your own day-to-day set of thoughts and biases and to build empathy and better understand your co-workers and clients.

Make quick group decisions

Whether it’s palace intrigue, a booby-trapped dungeon, or solving a complex, world saving puzzle, D&D requires your party to make quick decisions as a group. Product teams face similar challenges throughout  the life of a project. There’s not always (hardly ever!) time to sit down together, list out every possibility, and spend hours or days working on potential solutions. Your team has to quickly assess what the key problem is, prioritize some top level solutions, and work collectively to make some decisions and implement.

The same is true when you turn the corner and are faced with a dragon. (Pro-Tip: Run from the dragon or get burnt to a crisp.) In D&D, as in software development, the longer you delay a decision, the more likely the problem will get worse or multiply. Learn from your collective mistakes and forge ahead. That band of goblins coming up the road isn’t going to wait patiently for you to decide whether to run or fight.

Crank the collaboration up to 11

Being part of a remote team can make you feel isolated. Slack is a great tool for communication, but it adds a barrier to collaboration. D&D reinforces collaboration whether you’re in the same room or not. If you don’t work together, your party just won’t make it very far. Within just a few months of play, we saw players breaking out of their individual decision-making habits and learning to use each other’s strengths much more often.

We’re building trust and teamwork within the D&D world that lowers the barriers to collaboration that we experience in our working relationship.

Build cross-department relationships

Our intrepid D&D party is made up of folks from all different parts of Simple Thread. Design, engineering, and sales are all represented and through D&D, we’ve built strong cross-department relationships. These avenues to working across departments makes Simple Thread a stronger team overall.

If the members of your team can work together to defeat an insidious mind flayer waiting to consume the brains of all sentient creatures, imagine what the possibilities are when they’re working together to create an innovative solution for a client.

It’s fun as hell

At the end of the day, D&D is really just fun as hell. Why wouldn’t you want to immerse yourself  in a wild world where you get to be a hero of your own design, with powerful friends alongside you, on a journey where anything can happen, and you get to kick some ass along the way?

Of course, there’s more to role-playing games than just Dungeons & Dragons. Would you rather dig into  Sci-Fi rather than Fantasy? There are a ton of games in that genre. In fact, for whatever setting you can imagine, I can almost guarantee there’s a game for it.[1]

And if you’re thinking about ways that your team, whether you work remotely or not, could generate connection, collaboration, and cohesiveness in a fun and creative way, I’d encourage you  to give role-playing games a try.

At the very least, you’ll have some fun, but my guess is that your team will emerge with new perspectives, better teamwork, and a whole new paradigm on how to collaborate with teams and clients—and maybe even figure out the best way to battle a horde of deranged orcs.

[1] Fate

This one is really open and can be molded to fit just about any setting. The dice rolling is far simpler than D&D too so it could be easier for some to enter the world of RPGs here.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion

Who doesn’t want to join the rebellion and fight the empire? Can get fairly complex but it’s worth it.

Shadowrun

Like to mix your fantasy with cyberpunk? Shadowrun let’s you play as an Orc hacker. What’s cooler than that?!

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