How Playing Dungeons and Dragons Made Me a Better Product Manager

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a collaborative, asynchronous story-telling game in which participants role-play as characters in a world that the “dungeon master” weaves. D&D has been more visible in the past few years thanks in part to the success of the acclaimed podcast Critical Role, and nostalgia-inducing TV series Stranger Things. But over forty years before the protagonists of that series began playing the game in 2016, D&D took the gaming world by storm. It has inspired board games, movies, books, and a devoted fan based that’s about 20 million strong.

D&D is more than a successful product. The game provides invaluable lessons that I’ve applied throughout my career building digital products and in my current role as a data scientist at Alpha. I’ve learned how to collaborate with numerous key stakeholders, rally people around ideas, plan, and iterate. Here are three tips on how being a better dungeon master (DM) and product manager (PM).

1. Balance the viewpoints of all key stakeholders

When you’re the DM, you’re creating a product, and that product is “fun.” DMs create a new world or bring a pre-written one to life, and tell the tall tales that the players act out. The DM is responsible for describing the imaginary world, so they have to prepare what that world will look like and what other characters and landmarks the group will encounter. In other words, they’re creating a roadmap, and that roadmap has to provide a fun experience for everyone.

Not every adventure on that roadmap will be equally exciting for everyone. The places that you visit one day might excite some players while boring others. Some players prefer roleplay and others combat. As the DM, you need to take in feedback from everyone and incorporate it while balancing it with your own vision.

Similarly, PMs collaborate with engineers, executives, and customers to develop products and features. You inevitably get conflicting feedback and ideas from different stakeholders. As the PM, you need to find a balance between the needs of your customers, internal stakeholders, your long-term objectives, and your own long-term vision.

This might mean shutting down useful ideas if they aren’t aligned with the goals or visions, but it doesn’t mean shutting down ideas altogether. Often times, you can incorporate an element of the idea, find a different way to solve the same problem, or put it on the roadmap for the future.

2. Rally people around your ideas using ‘the illusion of choice’

During gameplay, The DM provides players with the opportunity to make decisions about where to travel within the imaginary world. For example, the players may enter a dungeon with three doors, and they then decide which door to enter. The DM must be prepared to describe all three of the paths.

A crafty DM, however, knows that they only need to prepare two rooms, because if the players choose to go to the third room, the DM can simply describe one of those two rooms that they prepared. In other words, the DM gives players the illusion of choice. Players have a sense of control, but it’s within the scope that’s pre-defined by the DM.

In D&D, we say that DMs should avoid “railroading,” or making players feel like the story is being told “at” them. PMs should approach leadership in the same fashion.

Find a balance between providing your team with direction and autonomy. Encourage experimentation with the bounds of the company’s long-term vision. Teach and provide feedback, but don’t mandate every detail.

3. Have a vision but leave room for iteration

D&D campaigns can take weeks, months, or even years. No one wants to be a part of such a long game if it’s poorly run. That doesn’t mean, however, that the game has to be perfectly planned out from the start. In fact, the best way to create an experience that’s fun for everyone is continuous iteration.

When I am a DM, I change my plans after each session based on feedback from players. At times, I might even need to change my plans in real-time during game play. I observe what is most fun for the group and what’s least fun and adapt accordingly.

When you’re working as a PM, your customers’ preferences may be different than you had assumed and can even change over time. You need to be prepared to react accordingly. Your long-term roadmap may have been perfect when it was first created, but you need to be able to change course when you gather new data.

Don’t build features simply because they’re on your roadmap. Build features because your customers need them. Have a vision, but continuously iterate based on feedback from the market.

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