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“Why don’t we just talk to them?”
With that question, my wife derailed her first game of D&D.
If you know nothing about D&D, it’s a role-playing game that mostly takes place in the imagination of the players.
You can find out all you need to know about D&D, and probably more than you wanted to know, from Episode 12 of Critical Role. Geek and Sundry streams the standing game a group of voice actors who play weekly.
As an Agile professional, the thing you need to know about D&D is it’s essentially a conversation taking place in a team.
In a literary sense, we call it a collaborative narrative — a form of fiction that emerges from multiple authors working on the same piece if writing. Think: pair programming, but with four to eight people, on average, working on the narrative at the same time. In D&D, everyone participating shapes what will happen next. Chance, the luck of rolling dice, determines how those choices will work out; but, people talking to each other, making collective decisions, collaborating on how to manage mutual challenges is the heart of the game.
As a result, players go through the stages of the Tuchman Model, like any team would.
Imagine: six people who have never met sit around the table in an effort to solve a problem. You would expect to see the kind of awkward, overly-polite, and ritualized conduct of the forming stage; only, these interactions would be partly filtered through limits, abilities, backstory, motives, and ideas of the characters people play.
For example, were I playing a “cleric,” the capabilities and limits of the role would shape how I interact with my other players. As a “cleric,” I can heal the team if they are injured and smack a foe over the head with a blunt object; but, I’m not free to take any action without retribution from the divine power I channel as source of my power. If I do (if I pretend that the character I am portraying does) something cruel or merciless, I may be punished by the celestial force I serve.
The result is a familiar kind of “thinking within thinking,” which we see all the time. Consider how teams behave when executives are in the room. From time to time, I get called to the “Twentieth Floor” to update senior staff on this or that. When I’m there, I don’t talk to people. I talk to their roles, instead. There’s no difference, really, between the way a person plays the avatar of a “cleric” from the way that person plays the role of “CMO.”
Once you see it this way, you’ll never be able to un-see it. Put a group of people who don’t know each other particularly well around a table and tell them to start collaborating, you’ll observe them leaning into their defined roles based on organizational definitions and spans of authorities.
It complicates team building.
Our first game together was a kind of tutorial, where we first started to explore our efforts as a team. In game play, we all had a set of simple challenges to face as a group. Each collective exercise taught something about the mechanics of game play.
First, we fight a foe, learning how conflict works in the game.
Second, we have to interact with a character, or to the point not fight a foe, and learn how that kind of conflict works in the game.
Finally, we have to use our particular abilities to overcome a challenge.
It didn’t work out that way, at all.
In the first scenario, giant rats are in the larder, where they are eating all of our stores. The mission, protect the stores.
We all assume this means, “kill the rats.” Being a bunch of dudes, we do what dudes do best: act without thinking. As we’re storming across the group to come up with a plan — or, more to the point, “whose plan will be the plan the others will follow” — my wife says, “Why don’t we just talk to them?”
She has to say it a couple of time, of course, because we’re talking over her. But, she sticks with it, and I’m pretty sure found herself using the word “stupid,” more than once.
Finally, she gets her point across: “I’m a ‘druid.’ I can talk to animals when I want to. Why don’t I ask them to just leave?” She goes on that it stands to reason that giant rats are in a pantry because they are hungry, and that survival is what they must have in mind. Therefore, they’d probably prefer not to fight in the first place. Since, the mission is to save the food, she concludes, we can do that and not kill anything.
None of us thought it would work.
She talked the rats out of fighting and they left the house peacefully.
Several players were clearly disappointed. They thought they’d gone to a Michael Bay movie, only to find themselves in a Merchant and Ivory film set in Devonshire countryside.
We get to the next obstacle, it’s the same thing: challenged to reach a hut at the top of a tall cliff, half the party rushes forward to climb. In the process they disturb the creatures nesting there (flying snakes, if you’re curious). One of the party nearly dies in the fight, and we have to bring him back from the brink of death.
My wife, on the other hand says, “I look for a path up. Nobody is living at the top of this cliff without a way to get up and down.”
There is one.
The fight was unnecessary, since the path leads up the cliff side without disturbing the nests.
And, the same with the ghost: we just talked to it. It gave us what we needed after we agreed to listen to its lament.
Three exercises, there conversations, and no imaginary blood needed to be spilled.
By this time, some of the dudes in the group are beginning to show cracks. They’re armored, armed, and ready for daring-do.
We’re not forming any longer, and we’re not even storming: we’re fast tracking to norming.
Before the challenge with a giant spider, one of the players is beseeching my wife let us kill it with violence.
She considers the matter and concludes: ‘druids’ are about a balance in nature. A small spider is natural, but a spider the size of a FedEx truck is a monster. She agrees with the dudes that we have to kill the big arachnid.
As I’m recounting this, try to think about backlog scrubbing and sprint planning, but with a team dressed in viking helmets or carrying wands.
In the next several games, however, my wife stopped innovating.
Her initial success in getting the team to think waned. She was struggling to keep up with the mechanics of the game play. So, she was paying no attention to playing, focusing instead on the rules.
In the process, it seemed to me, she stopped having as much fun.
I realized she was overwhelmed by the mechanics of the game play. All the other players around the table had some experience with these kinds of games. Easy tasks for us, like identifying which die to roll (if you don’t already know, there are many polyhedral dice in the game, ranging from four sided to twenty sided), which actions we can take in gameplay, or how we “move” through the imaginary space of the game setting.
She was flipping through the pages of the rule book, rather than experiencing the created narrative.
You’ve seen this. An engineer will be struggling to get VSTS or Agile Central to update the way they want it. That look on the engineer’s face, yeah, that was the expression my wife was wearing.
Without this voice to “think first, act second,” we were working it the other way around. With no clear “leader,” most of the people around the table were leading teams of one. We were in a zero-sum game of “my plan beats your plan, so do it my way.”
Sentences began with “I”. “I rush the orc with my great axe!” “I smite the giant spider!” “I shoot it with magic missiles!” “I smile with a brilliant gleam that blinds my foes and adores me to my many followers.”
It had all of the organization and collaboration of a bar room brawl.
Facing a cadre of orcs in a desecrated chapel of the god of Justice, the warrior gnome valiantly rushes into the room, risking multiple attacks from the orcs, so that he could extinguish the evil candle that burned with the curse that hung over the place. He pulled it off and survived.
Only, there were three of us in the group who could have extinguished the candle with magic from the safety of our living rooms, risking no harm from the orcs, and making the whole affair quite a bit easier to manage.
He never asked. He got to his turn, and he did something heroic, which is to say, stupid, without a thought of talking it over.
Again, does any of this remind you of any behavior you see on your development teams?
Meanwhile, I can’t get out of the self-imposed limitations of my own role. Seeing that my wife isn’t having fun, I find myself trying to pick which segment of the Agile Coaching Framework is the one I want to be in. I ask myself, “Does this situation require ‘teaching’ or ‘mentoring’?” I did not ask myself, “Does my wife want an Agile Coach to help her be a better Druid?”
Look, a recurring theme in this series is, “I am an idiot.” Get used to it. It’s going to come up a lot.
So, we work on practicing the mechanics of game play. I print out quick reference guides — she’s a second-grade teacher; we have a laminator; so, yeah, I laminated the reference sheets. I found videos on Youtube. I accomplished taking my wife from being overwhelmed in one way, and I make her overwhelmed in another.
Eventually, with the phrase “I am an idiot” ringing through my brain, I just open up a conversation with her using open questions. Not surprisingly, that works.
“What can you do to make the mechanics of game play less of a struggle?” “What is it you like most about game play, and how can you make the game more like that every time we play?”
It’s the hardest part for me on teams: I have an answer, and it’s really a very good answer, but I have to step aside and let the team learn it. I have to let them pick an answer that I don’t think is as good as the one I have (although, it might turn out to be better).
I finally hit on something useful when I turned to David Marquet: I told her, “What do you think about just telling the DM what you want to do without worrying if the rules say you can or can’t? What would happen if you just stated your intentions and gave him an opportunity to respond?”
She’s enjoying the game more.
As a group, however, we’re still stumbling around in ‘storming.’ We had a brief moment when we were starting to work effectively as a team, but that fell part. I’m not trying to solve this, however, because no one has asked me to be the team coach or the servant leader.
I’m enjoying the game more, too.
(Next: Unseen Servant Leader)