Why a campaign of “Dungeons and Dragons” could be your next team event.
This isn’t where I thought I’d start with my first Medium post, but here I am.
Dungeons & Dragons.
Or as we call it on our weekly calendar invite: “Dn🐉”. I used to play Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, against most social norms at the time and loved every second. After a twenty year hiatus I find myself in love with the game all over again: the role-playing, the shared world building, the magic, the monsters and most of all the built up camaraderie between people. The game is experiencing a resurgence as of late.
Metromile Does Dragons (actual name of campaign)
About once every two weeks the party — Davina, Eleda, Zelphar, Torrga, Navina, and Haela — gets together, eats dinner, rolls dice, and roleplays. Those are their character names of course. I take on the role of the Dungeon Master and guide the party through the adventure. Everyone is pretty new to the game so we started out with the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set. Go here to learn more about the basics of the game.
About halfway through our third session, I had this light bulb moment about Dungeons and Dragons and Product Design: both are fundamentally about problem-solving. The success of the group of adventurers in Dungeons and Dragons relies on a high level of collaborative problem-solving. Great design is accomplished with highly collaborative teams.
Once that “aha” moment set in I realized how powerful of a bonding activity this was beyond the laughs, bloody goblin battles, hidden treasure, and good conversation.
We are becoming a stronger team.
When the game stops for the night someone updates our slack channel about our adventure in Phandalin. You see, some bandits are terrorizing the town, and everyone is searching for this map, and a dwarf was kidnapped, etc.
The next day at work people might act out things that happened the night before. Inside jokes pop up — whether it is about Haela the Ranger’s murderous tendencies (don’t mess with her two short swords) or Zelphar the Bard’s ability to play the lyre and persuade anyone to do anything (he plays music in real life to set the mood).
Everyone is able to show a side of themselves that may not come out in a product design review or sprint meeting, happy hour, dinner, or typical team bonding event. It is the type of bonding that can only come organically. The team also gets to see me in a new light — quirks and all. When we are in the room together with a dungeon before us and dice in hand there is no manager/employee dynamic. Instead of talking shop we’re talking about if it is feasible to hurl a fireball across a chasm into a trio of unlucky goblins.
Our group is now seven game sessions in. Each ranging from one and half to three hours. From our short time adventuring together here are the three main parallels I’ve noticed between Dungeons and Dragons and Product Design.
1) Problem Solving
Already mentioned, but at its core Product Design is about problem-solving. A high performing design team is capable of problem-solving together. A group of people — the aforementioned party — take on the personas of adventurers who work together to overcome marauding bandits, discover treasure, navigate a dungeon’s traps, and problem solve their way out of situations.
Another great team activity focusing on problem solving is to do an escape room. The thing that sets Dungeons and Dragons apart from an escape room is, typically, for an escape room there is one solution. In Dungeons and Dragons a problem can be approached from multiple vantage points. Much like the conceptual or discovery phase of a design project.
In Dungeons and Dragons, the player character tells the Dungeon Master what they want to do and usually a roll of the dice determines whether the action or inquiry was successful. It might be something like scaling a wall or stealthily creeping down a dungeon corridor. Or it may be more straightforward like attacking a foe.
This variability leads to some actions working and others not. Because of this, the party has to adapt to the situation and try out new solutions. Thus, more dice rolls. Or more innovative creative thinking. Because sometimes the dice do not need to be rolled.
In cases where the players creatively outline how they will go about something the Dungeon Master can just allow it. For example, a character may say she is searching for a secret door by feeling at all of the cracks and crevices in the wall. Sounds like a creative way to solve the problem of finding that door versus just stating they are looking for secret doors. The game drives the players towards being creative, and fully thinking through how to best solve their given predicament.
Product Design is much the same. There aren’t dice, but there are end-users and customers, changing requirements (but hopefully not too often!), technical limitations, analytics, stakeholders, and other inputs. There are times, hopefully many, where out of the box, divergent thinking is going to drive the team towards the “right” solution.
The most successful product designers are able to adapt to this variability.
3) Design Teams Aren’t Made of One-Size-Fits-All Designers
The best design teams aren’t made up of designers with the same sensibilities and skills. The same is true for a band of adventurers. In Dungeons and Dragons, each character takes on a certain class: fighter, wizard, thief, cleric, etc. A party of all fighters, or wizards, or clerics, or thieves isn’t going to be able to overcome the same obstacles and solve the same problems as a party that has more balance. Fighters are typically strong and useful in combat. Clerics can heal. Thieves can slink about in the shadows. You get the point.
Product Design is the same way: UX designers focus on end-to-end solutions; user researchers provide insights and broader understanding of the problem space; visual designers craft designs to pixel perfection; interaction designers meticulously fine-tune an experience; content strategists take complex problems and simplify them into well-understood labels, prompts, and copy.
Without the balance of all of those roles and skills, the resulting solution may not be as robust.
Design Is Not a Silo
It goes without saying that design teams can’t succeed without high collaboration with other disciplines. Which is why in our adventuring party there is a mix of design and research, product management, and engineering as well.
Having strong relationships with members of other functional groups is imperative to designing, building, shipping, and iterating on a solution. It can’t happen otherwise. So if you are a design team of one or two don’t let that stop you from trying this out with other people in your company.
I encourage anyone even the least bit curious to try it out with your team or members from different teams. The basic set of rules is fairly intuitive and learning the game itself is part of the journey. The payoff is a lot of fun, teammates will learn new insights about each other, and everyone will have an extra jolt of creativity to tackle your next problem.
I’ve been leading the Product Design team at Metromile for four years. Prior to that I led design teams at Salesforce and Autodesk. If there is something you are interested in learning more about let me know and I’ll give you my take.