Managerial Lessons from Game Mastering

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Managerial Lessons from Game Mastering

Games can teach us a lot about life. They simplify our goals and provide us with limited enough options that we can thoroughly analyze different strategies of achieving those goals. Each game has associated skills that are useful elsewhere – I despised math classes but have strong arithmetic skills because I played a lot of card games when I was young.

Pen-and-paper roleplaying games have a lot of unique lessons to offer, particularly for policymakers (whether for the government or a corporate office) and managers.

These lessons come from the unique nature of classic roleplaying games as they are less of a game and more of a vehicle for collaborative storytelling. One player takes the role of Game Master (GM), preparing the backdrop of the story (the setting, supporting characters, villains, puzzles, etc.). The rest of the players are the story’s main characters.

The players decide, on their own, what they will do. The Game Master describes how the world reacts and thus, how the story unfolds. There are exhaustive sets of rules to make things fair so that, when a lot is at stake and the Game Master and players have different ideas about what should happen, the game doesn’t devolve into “You can’t do that,” “Yes, I can,” “No, you can’t, so there.”

This is what I’ve learned:

Be humble. The Game Master has final authority over what happens in the story. This is a position of enormous power and one that can easily be abused. Be cautious and humble when exercising that power because the players (employees/citizens) know you have it, may have had bad experiences before, and can easily misinterpret actions as abusive.

Be clear. You manage a large set of rules that combine technical terms and vague language. It is your job to clarify exactly what rules your players are expected to follow and explain how they work. If they don’t know how to play, how can they possibly succeed? Rules should be clear, intuitive, short, and explicit.

There are no perfect rules systems. There will be contradictions. You will disagree at times with what the rules allow and disallow. There is always room for improvement and it’s up to you to change the things that stop your players from having a good time.

Game balance is delicate. Changing one rule can have huge consequences because of the innumerable ways it connects to others. Many decisions are made based on relative value, so making one option slightly easier to use can lead to many of new players using it. For similar reasons, think very carefully about any alteration to the rules.

There will be loopholes. Your job is to be the rules expert, but there are more players than Game Masters and some of them will be smarter than you. There are loopholes you don’t know about and your players will find them.

Let your players succeed. When they come up with a strategy you didn’t expect that bypasses some problem you wanted to be difficult, don’t be mad and shut them down. You have to acknowledge that your path to success will likely not be the most satisfying one for your players.

Furthermore, every player has a different picture of success. This means your game needs to be flexible and free enough to allow everyone to pursue their dreams and style of play.

Be consistent. Nothing kills trust in a story or a person more than inconsistent logic. Players need to know that rules, decisions, and the story make sense whether or not they end up putting all the pieces together themselves.

Be fair. Give everyone a chance to shine. There should be a place for every player to use their strengths without being held back. Consistently favoring one player or holding one back is a sure way to cause problems, both in the game and in your friendships. Players are smart and can see it from miles away.

Fun first. Above all, the game is supposed to be fun. Anything else is secondary. If your players are disgruntled, that’s a failure, no matter how clever your story was, how firm your grasp on the rules was, or how entertaining you were.

Set expectations. Rituals are arbitrary but effective at setting expectations. Playing a certain song right before the game should start is a clue to the players to wind down the socializing. Meanwhile, just telling people to quiet down and come to the table is weird.

Allow time off. Everyone needs a break sometimes. Work some time into your schedule to let people socialize. A break in the middle of the game helps people who start getting distracted.

Make it a team. Everyone needs to be on board with the story’s direction. One bad attitude is infectious.

And finally: if you have no players, you have no game. If they sense in any tiny way that you’re out to get them, they won’t come back. If you make things too difficult for them to succeed, don’t be surprised if they lose motivation to continue. If you’re a jerk in personal matters, they definitely won’t want to spend any more time with you.

You’re all in this together – treat them well because you can’t succeed without them.

Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.

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Financial Analyst

Matheson Russell is the Financial Analyst for Marotta Wealth Management. He specializes in tax laws, forms, policy, and planning. He loves complex rules systems, animals, and Koine Greek. His favorite stories are The Jungle Books.