The idea for this article has been percolating in my head for many months, and it’s something I’ve been hesitant to write for a long time. But here it is. I play Dungeons and Dragons. Even better, I believe that D&D has tremendous power to make organizations better — to make leaders more effective, to learn and practice empathy, to flex creative and critical-thinking muscles, to build comradery, collaboration and teamwork; to embody diversity, and to resolve conflicts.

But let’s back up a bit and give a little history. I didn’t grow up playing D&D on a regular basis. First, there was very much a stigma back in the day about how the game was tied to satanism and all sorts of evil influences. It’s not, and in actuality it’s a pretty good model for teaching religious tolerance. Regardless, that wasn’t going to fly on a regular basis in my house, though my mom eventually relented and let my older brother and his friends take over the kitchen table once in a while. Of course, as the little brother I was too young and annoying to join them, but sometimes I was allowed to perch in the corner and observe. I was fascinated by the imaginary world and heroic characters they created. I was intrigued and terrified by the fantastic monsters they’d battle. I was entranced by the story that they collaboratively created on the fly, with life or death consequences for their character’s decisions.

Fast forward another 30 years or so. I hadn’t given much thought to the game for decades, but then I read about a local place where people go to drink craft beers and/or fancy milkshakes while playing Dungeons and Dragons (in addition to all sorts of other games). On a whim one night, I went.

Being a newbie, I was a bit shocked at the complexity of creating a character and the dizzying array of options available. Thankfully, I landed at a table where the group was friendly and welcoming (as you might expect with human interaction, not all of them are). The DM — that’s the Dungeon Master, sometimes called the GM or Game Master — was patient and engaging. I was immediately drawn into the story, the intrigue, and the collective ability to take the experience wherever we wanted as a group.

I went back the next week, and then the week after. I was thoroughly enjoying the budding storyline in this fictitious world we were operating in. Unfortunately, our DM had to leave the game due to real world obligations. In a bit of serendipity, a group of newbies showed up that same night, and there was no one to run a game for us. So, despite my obvious lack of game knowledge and rules, I offered to be the DM. At the end of the day, the game is about creating a good story and entertaining experience, and even if I didn’t get the technical details right, I figured I could at least do that.

Thankfully, probably in part due to their own new exposure to the game, the group was patient as we began to build our world together. D&D has a rich history and offers pre-existing adventure modules that provide a detailed framework to work from. Over the course of the next year, we built a fun little campaign. While some players came and went, the core group stayed and we explored the many intricacies and possibilities of the game. In that span, a couple of experienced, veteran players also joined our group. I reached a point where I couldn’t devote the time to being the DM (and it certainly takes some prep time to create a compelling adventure). Another player took over and ran a new campaign, and now I am back to being the DM.

The Popularity and Economic Impact of Dungeons and Dragons

Perhaps you are thinking that D&D has a niche audience of stereotypical nerds. Maybe. But let’s take a closer look at that demographic, with some case studies. The first and most obvious is a group of voice actors that stream a live show on their own Twitch channel every Thursday night. The show is called Critical Role, and if you are looking for a business case for D&D, look no further. These group of friends had been playing the game for fun in their living room until they agreed to stream it live for the world. It was a huge risk. For one, was there even an audience? Equally important, would it take the fun out of an experience that was personal to each of them?

Well, turns out the audience was certainly there. Critical Role has become a long running show featuring an enthralling storyline. They have built a huge fan base, affectionately called “critters”. Then, the cast decided to start a KickStarter to try to raise enough money for creation of an animated special for their fans. Animation is expensive, so the funding goal was $750,000.

They blew past that target in the first hour of KickStarter launch and finished with 88,000 backers and $11.3 million raised.

You read that right. They exceeded their funding goal by 1500%. They went from their starting goal of producing a half hour animated special to securing enough funding to create an entire animated series — complete with sub arcs. If this seems surprising, consider this. Game of Thrones had 19.3 million viewers for the series finale. There’s obviously a huge fan base for that show. In whatever business or personal circles you happened to be in, folks were discussing GoT and making sure no one revealed any spoilers. I confess, I never watched Game of Thrones, so I never truly understood all of those mother of dragons references. But I did wonder — what if all the rabid fans of Game of Thrones were able to experience the show — to become their own Jon Snow or Arya Stark? That’s exactly what D&D is. Instead of watching a fantasy world, it provides the opportunity to immerse yourself in one, to make decisions that impact the balance of the multi-verse, to become a hero or a villain, and to live the story.

We are finding more and more celebrities admitting to their love of D&D. Check out this video of Stephen Colbert playing a one-shot with Critical Role‘s Matthew Mercer — and witness the pure joy on his face as he recounts his long history with the game and revisits all the things that made him love it in the first place. Think it’s just for nerdy types? I’d argue that nerds are sexy, and if you need proof, check out Joe Manganiello’s love of the game: He’s built a D&D themed game room in his basement, plays regularly with other celebrities, and even started his own clothing line. That starts to put Magic Mike in a whole new context… I’m envisioning a wizard with an absurdly high charisma score.

The Business Case for D&D and Organizational Development

D&D embodies design thinking concepts. Both require empathy and a human (or humanoid) approach to problem-solving. Both thrive on collaboration, idea generation, and rapid prototyping. Both provide opportunities for testing of possible solutions. Both excel at solving complex, wicked problems. D&D is design thinking made manifest in story format. As such, I’ve considered creating a customized D&D experience as a way for business to tackle organizational development, but I’ve always hesitated from doing so because of the stigma and stereotypes associated with the game. But allow me to outline the business case for doing so:

Collaboration. By its nature D&D requires collaboration. You can’t play the game by yourself, and it’s best experienced with a group of 5 to 8 people. In addition, all players have to work together to accomplish anything — even just to survive.

Innovation. The game rewards innovative thinking. In fact, there’s a component where the DM can award inspiration for creative and innovative ideas, or exceptional role playing. Because it’s a collaborative experience, the story continues to evolve in new and unexpected ways, forcing players and the DM to think on their feet and respond to plot twists and turns with innovation. Trust me, there has never been a session where things have gone according to whatever plan I might have had in my head prior, and that’s half the fun.

Diversity and Inclusion. I have not found many groups more open to diversity and inclusion than the role playing game community. Yes, there could certainly be more diversity in regards to people of color. The Critical Role cast, for example, is all white, though the guest players have included a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. I suspect this is due to a larger systemic problem of exposure and perhaps economics. But the role-playing community is very supportive of diversity. The game itself provides a plethora of character options for race, class, gender identification, and sexual orientation. Such labels almost seem silly in the context of the game, because the world itself is so open and diverse. Importantly, because it’s a game, it allows players to experience a character’s life as something very different than their own. That often includes racism and classism as part of a storyline. There’s a chance the next town you roll into may not take fondly to your tiefling appearance, and that the people there will be dismissive and derogatory based on your appearance alone. Or maybe you have to conceal the fact that you’re a magic wielder in certain locales. It’s one thing to talk about racism, it’s quite another to experience it and navigate through it, even in a fantasy setting. I’m not suggesting it’s anything like experiencing it in the real world, but it does provide an opportunity for learning and empathy.

On the flipside, the make-believe world typically operates with a baseline tolerance that the real world lacks. I have seen players create characters of different genders, sexual orientation, and personality types from their own. Nobody at the table blinks an eye, and it’s fun to watch people begin to embody their character as they immerse themselves in the role-playing. This is empathy at its core — walking in another person shoes, even if it’s in the land of make-believe.

Strategy. Inevitably in a campaign, characters run into a super villain or large scale problem. There are an infinite number of ways to combat these forces or challenges, and characters use the tools and abilities inherent in their characters to do so. Maybe it’s a city or an entire continent under siege. Maybe a god is convinced that need to bring a demigod from another realm into the material plane (yes, that’s as bad as it sounds). Maybe that requires fighting. Maybe it requires diplomacy, or deception. Whatever the course of action, it absolutely needs to be a collective effort or it will fall on its face.

Conflict Resolution. You know from experience that whenever you walk into the office it’s all sunshine and lollipops. Everyone gets along famously and plays well together in the sandbox. No one ever disagrees on the strategy or course of action, and people just fall in line to the first idea that’s presented to the group. Well this is about as true in the fantasy world as it is in the real one. Characters disagree, with the interesting twist that the in-game character may disagree, while the real life player may not! Again, that’s the beauty of role-playing — you can completely disagree with what your character would do, but do it anyway because, well, that’s what your character would do. Conflict resolution in a fantasy setting can set the stage for effective problem solving in the real world.

Superpowers! The fun of D&D is in doing things you can’t do in real life. That could be casting powerful spells as a sorcerer, healing the party en masse as a cleric, hacking baddies to pieces as a raging barbarian, or sneaking out a treasure horde as a stealthy rogue. Regardless of what you choose, you level up throughout the story arc, becoming more powerful and better able to influence the world around you. Again, the choices are seemingly endless. Do you multiclass and try to combine skill sets? Do you forgo an ability score increase in lieu of a feat? Whatever you decide, you are advancing your character development not only for yourself, but for your party. Your decisions impact your comrades in the world around you. Working together, you can create an unstoppable force that has the power to affect the world at large.

Get Rolling!

These are just a few of the benefits of D&D for business, but the best way to really understand the value is to experience it yourself. Find a local group (I bet you already have some friends that play) or join an online community. If you’re a business owner and would like to run a session geared specifically toward organizational development and problem solving for your team, drop me a line — there are specific experiences we can craft to meet your needs. Have fun!

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