10 Business Lessons I Learned from Playing Dungeons & Dragons

Throughout my 20s and 30s, I played D&D and other fantasy role playing games at least once a week. Doing so did more than teach me the rules of combat or proper behavior in a dragon's lair. I gained several skills that truly did help me in my career.

Note that by "Dungeons & Dragons," I don't mean necessarily the very structured fantasy world made famous by Gary Gygax. I played in standard D&D and other created-worlds (such as Harn), but mainly I played in independently-created universes, at the whim of a particular dungeonmaster (DM).

I got real jobs as a result of playing D&D, one of them directly. One DM hired both my husband and me after we'd played in his universe for five months, because D&D is a great way to find out how someone solves problems and copes with stress. However, in this post I'm not talking about people-networking but rather gaming skills that map to real life. After coming up with a short list on my own, I asked the three primary DMs in my life for their suggestions. I'm grateful to Bill, Ivan, and (especially) Steve for their help. Which probably is an outgrowth of the first lesson....

  1. Feed the DM. Gamers laugh as they say this (and slide the veggie tray in the DM's direction), but it's important to treat those in power with extra kindness. The DM is busy rolling dice for your battle with the monster, while simultaneously responding to a scribbled private note from another player ("My character Rumin Bard is stealing gold from the cleric's saddlebag") and preparing for an interaction at an upcoming crossroad your party hasn't reached. If you take care of the DM (or your manager), perhaps he'll be kind to you. Or to your character. (Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.) Or he'll answer silly questions sent to him by e-mail, 25 years later, because he continues to be your friend. (In feeding the DM, it helps if you can cook.)
  2. One spell, used well, can be more powerful than an entire book full of spells. I first met Ivan when he showed up for a game in Steve's standard D&D world. Ivan drew up a first-level wizard character who had almost no hit-points and only one wimpy spell: cast an illusion. Whereupon Ivan's character cast an illusion of a 5th-level illusionist... and proceeded to run that powerful "5th level illusionist" through the rest of the game. Years later, Ivan played in a play-by-mail dungeon (yes, children, we did those things before e-mail) in which the DM permitted custom spells. Ivan's "swap" spell seemed Mostly Harmless: Transpose a 1" cube of anything with another 1" cube of anything. Whereupon Ivan set up a magical FedEx business (for very short messages) and a sideline of an assassin-business (swap a square inch of heart muscle with anything else; who could tell that murder was done?). This taught me to get everything possible out of the tools at my disposal. It also taught me to expand my notion of "What do I have, and what can I do with it?"
  3. It's better to out-smart an orc than to fight one. Young D&D players get into the game because they want an endless repetition of "Find a monster. Kill it. Get its treasure." But your character (and career) can get hurt that way. If instead you set up a situation in which the orcs think that they were attacked by the goblins, the orcs will blow up the goblin castle in retaliation. That leaves your party to walk through afterward, picking up the spoils (and the experience points). "Let's you and him fight" is a very effective business strategy... or it's far safer for you, anyway.
  4. "I'm the DM. I'm not there." D&D players often turn to the DM to ask for information about the universe. ("Is the person offering me this three-headed dog trustworthy?") The DM often doesn't know, or he isn't telling; just because he puts something in your path doesn't mean you need to trust it, accept it, fight it, or buy it. Experimentation without investigation can be very painful; learn to ask questions. Steve didn't ask a single clarifying question about the beautiful fairy-fly before he decided to catch it... and it burned a hole straight through his character's hand. Don't rely on assumptions, particularly in a world (or an office) you don't know. It's the wrong assumptions that kill you. (Particularly in computer consulting contracts.)
  5. The best quests require a mixture of skills in the party. Find new friends and cultivate ancillary skills. That pesky little hobbit thief may eat you out of house and home, yet sometimes he comes in pretty handy. This is the point of all those tedious "diversity training" exercises from your HR department; perhaps the message would get across better if they talked about the apparently-weak wizard and the bard with those amazing negotiation skills.
  6. Simple and internally consistent is more fun than random. My dungeonmasters assure me that, while all players are "chaotic neutral" no matter what their characters' allegiance might be, the fastest way to upset the game is to be completely erratic. (Well, next to running out of food.) I like to think that most software developers understand this point, and then I see evidence to the contrary.
  7. You create your own traps. If you fall into a habit, the universe will bite you. One player had a "standard door-opening procedure" that rarely was effective, but John did the same thing every time. Another player regularly became "party leader" by bullying in the name of leadership; based on Ron's longtime behavior, the DM set up an irresistible scenario that Ron fell for... and his character barely escaped. (Ron never realized it was his own human weakness that inspired the trap.)
  8. Treasure is not always what you expect it to be. Both a rock and an egg hold hidden treasures if you know how to craft or care for them. Thought and creativity tend to win out over immediate return.
  9. You don't have to read all the books, but a modest description of the beast you are about to face is better than facing a daemon and trying six dozen spells before finding the right one. (If you live that long.) Do not eschew documentation. Learn from others' mistakes — or from your own. Draw a map as you go. It is easier to avoid the pitfalls and to find that hidden room the next time through.
  10. When selecting a weapon or tool, bigger is not always better. Unique weapons tend to identify the heroes in the room.

So what did I miss? Add your own D&D-to-life lessons in the comments.

This story, "10 Business Lessons I Learned from Playing Dungeons & Dragons" was originally published by JavaWorld.


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