Create the Container, and Fill It with Lethal Challenges

The problem with “the Dungeon Master as Scrum Master” analogy is the fact that the Dungeon Master is trying to kill the players.

I’m a fan of William Morris (and “The Arts and Crafts Movement as an Agile Revolution,” is another essay for a future time), but I’m the first to admit that “News from Nowhere” is boring.

Of course, the whole point of “News from Nowhere” is to be boring.

Morris is describing his vision of a utopian future: there is, explicitly, no conflict in it. Disagreements are resolved through conversation and consensus building. A world without conflict makes fiction boring.

Conflict is necessary in drama.

Consider “The Lord of the Rings,” where Sauron sits down at the council of Elrond to make himself better understood, so that all of Middle Earth could find a way to co-exist in collaborative unity?

(By the way, if you thinking, “Bored of the Rings,” that would be spot on, except that National Lampoon has already used that title in their satire of the Tolkien trilogy.)

So, D&D is a narrative game, and more to the point, a game where the players  collaboratively create that narrative.

So, in D&D, you need conflict.

For a game to be a game (as Kevin Werbach points out in “For the Win”), you need rules, an objective, and attitude among the players that achieving the objective within the rules is worth doing; and, you’re doing it for fun. We play games for enjoyment.

In D&D, the objective of the game can be confusing to new players: In D&D, you don’t “win the game.” The game continues as long as the players would like it to continue.

The official rules limit how far players can advance. Without advancing, the players don’t gain new skills and capabilities as a reward for achievement. That’s not winning. That just means, one of two things: your player character stops changing, which is boring, or it means, you ignore this rule and create a new set of your own rules where players can continue advancing.

So, this is a weird game where objective is transcendental. You are “winning” D&D if you are advancing and having fun.

Advancing results from achieving, and achieving results from overcoming challenges.

These challenges pit the players against the Dungeon Master.

That hardly seems fair. The players have a limited set of skills, abilities, and knowledge; the Dungeon Master is the omnipotent creator of all things with a final say in all matters.

Take a fight between goblins and the party of player characters. If a die rolls unfortunately for a player, that’s bad luck. If a die rolls unfortunately for the DM, the DM can choose to ignore it.

This is where the study of power and power relationships gets a little strange.

There’s one power the DM doesn’t have: the power to make the players sit at the table and play the game in the first place.

If the players find the game unfair, the challenges overwhelming or too simple, the advancement too slow, or the narrative uninteresting, the players can “fire” the DM by simply walking away.

I’ve seen it happen.

For the DM, this is definitely “losing.”

A DM might take months constructing a world hewn entirely from the imagination. Antagonists are created, traps set, story arcs devised; it’s a labor of love.

I’ve seen DMs who create elaborate models — three dimensional representations — of the dungeon maps — that cover the living room table. This is not a trivial undertaking.

The DM can only experience this world of the imagination if other people willingly step into it.

For Agile Coaches, this is the problem of “creating the container.”

We can hold as many ceremonies as we want, but it doesn’t mean the team will participate; and, if the team really has the authority to refuse to participate — which ideally they would but seldom do — would they even come to the ceremony in the first place?

We teach with games, because in games we have safe environment for people to fail safely, but do we give the team the option of just not playing in the first place?

Agile Coaches need to take the “ludic attitude” further: it applies to ceremonies, coaching conversations, teaching skills, and everything else we do all day long. The team has to want to be there.

Like the DM, we really only have one kind of power: the one that the team legitimately invests in us by willingly coming to the table. Unlike the DM, we have organizational authority, where we can demand people come and sit, whether they want to or not. We can trap people in the world of our imagination and do to them anything we want.

Our key metric, genuine participation, is something we force the team to lie about.

Autonomy, agency, and authority: if the team finds work meaningful and engaging, they will come to the gaming table and step into the imaginary world we create for them.

In this imaginary world, work is represented on cards as stories, players take turns during stand up, and they face challenges every review. They start at level 0, and through collaboration, delivery, reflection, and inspection, they gain experience through their trials until they become powerful.

The job of the Scrum Master as Dungeon Master is trying to kill the team: we have to create the space where they willingly and enthusiastically face trials in the struggle to bring value to customers and not a prison where they have to sit through a game they’d prefer not to play. The container needs to be challenging and rewarding. The players need to face adversity they have to overcome. Unlike Morris’ “News from Nowhere,” our “teal utopia” must have drama, conflict, in it.

We create the container, but the team fills it.


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