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Its approximately 6 months later, and our work based D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) groups are still going strong.

Everyone is having a lot of fun, players are forming relationships, ridiculous stories are occurring regularly and the campaigns are progressing nicely. Some of the groups have even finished the smaller adventures that they were running and are looking for new challenges.

Speaking of groups; there have been some minor mutations from group to group as far as people go, but overall they are mostly the same as they were in the beginning.

And therein lies something of an issue.

There Are *Rolls Dice* 5 People In Each Group

To be honest, we play a lot of D&D each week. We have a groups playing on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and there has been some interest in putting together a fifth group on Friday. Until we decide to pivot as a business into D&D related software (which I’m sure is only a matter of time), that’s probably as much D&D as we can squeeze in.

But those regular groups do lead to something of a problem; being mostly static, there is little room for new participants.

Think about it; We generally limit each group to 6 people (1 DM and 5 Players), but we have to keep a little bit of overlap between the groups so that the DM’s get to play as well, so with 4 active groups, we can really only involve 20ish unique people. That goes up to 25 with 5 groups obviously, but there is not much room left to grow at that stage.

I’ve got a bit of a plan to add some chaos into the whole situation later on this year (a full group reshuffle), but that is not going to magically allow a whole bunch of new people to participate, because I imagine that just about everyone will want to continue to play.

What I really want is another way to get people to play D&D that is more flexible than a long term campaign, letting people participate without having to make a long term commitment.

One Shot, One Kill

Of course there is, and they are called oneshots (well, I call them oneshots).

A oneshot is generally a single D&D session intended to only last a few hours, as opposed to one that lasts many sessions over the course of weeks or months or years). A short self-contained adventure that you can get just about anybody into with a little bit of preparation.

Now, because this blog tends to trail reality by a significant amount of time, I’ve actually been organising oneshots monthly since last September or so, so we’ve had a few at this point. They are typically on a Saturday, where I can safely steal one of the cool meeting rooms that we have at our office for an entire day without having to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. Our meeting rooms are great; big tables, massive whiteboards and easy access to a kitchenette and facilities. Also free.

At this point, I’ve played in some of the oneshots and DMed in others and every time its been a pretty great experience.

The last oneshot I participated in took a completely ridiculous direction where our group decided that we were a rock band and that our agent had simply booked us a really crappy gig (we were in prison), but we were determined to put on a good show anyway. It only got more ridiculous from there, and the last encounter of the day was us having a rock battle with an ancient blue dragon, with each party member having to make up their part of the final song. Also a tamed a spider and we wrote a song called Rider of the Spider.

The best part is that because it requires limited commitment, a oneshot gives a much wider variety of people the opportunity to sign up, assuming they can sacrifice a Saturday. Additionally, it leaves room for partners and other family members, which is a great way to get to know someone.

Partners know all the deep dark secrets about your colleagues, and in my experience, love to share them.

The only complication that I’ve found, which isn’t really all that much of a complication, is that I need to organise and sign people up for oneshots months in advance. This helps people make arrangements with family as necessary, organizing babysitting and whatnot in order to be able to spend a day enjoying themselves.

To be clear, its February now and I have a oneshot planned for later this month. Attendance has been sorted for this oneshot since November last year, and I’ve already signed up a bunch of people for the July oneshot.

A New Challenger Approaches

Allowing more people the opportunity to attend is not the only benefit from the oneshots though.

Theoretically, oneshots provide the perfect environment for nascent DMs to get involved without having to commit to a long and sometimes gruelling multi-month campaign. They just need to come up with an idea (or steal something off the internet), do some prep and then execute it over the course of a few hours. Its a limited engagement almost perfect for new and inexperienced people to have a stab.

Now, I’m always interested in training up new DMs because without DMs, the whole D&D thing ceases to exist, and they are something of a rare breed (compared to players). We still lose people from time to time, and sometimes those people are my precious precious DMs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as some amount of employee turnover is natural and healthy, and while the presence of a solid social component can and will reduce undesirable turnover, its never going to prevent it. People grow and change and move on and that’s okay.

So it helps to have a cupboard full of possible DMs.

Also, if I look at it entirely unselfishly for a few seconds, being able to DM can definitely lead to the creation of new skills that are useful outside D&D. So really I’m doing these people a favour.

Ahhhh, the sweet sound of an assuaged conscience.

Conclusion

I’m sure its obvious at this point that I want to get as many people involved with D&D as possible. Maybe we’ll even introduce other tabletop games at some point in the future, because really its not D&D specifically that is beneficial (though it is great), its the relationships and culture that it inspires via its collaborative storytelling. I’ve always wanted to play Shadowrun for example, as its such a cool setting, and I’m sure we’d see the same benefits regardless of which universe we’re using as a foundation.

Anyway, apart from the fact that I personally really enjoy both playing and DMing (though DMing can be exhausting sometimes), I really do believe that having a regular social activity like D&D is incredibly healthy for any organization. There are just so many great side-effects to establishing and maintaining positive relationships between colleagues through channels other than actual work.

With more people playing D&D than ever, I assume it can only get better from here.

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Its been about two months since I first posted about Dungeons and Dragons, which seems like a sane amount of time to wait before writing a followup. A lot can change in two months after all.

And change it has! As is unfortunately sometimes the case, we had to do some pretty classic organizational restructuring and as a result, our old DM has gone the way of Gary Gygax.

To be clear, he’s not dead, but he's definitely no longer with us. His absence is keenly felt, both from a D&D point of view and from an organizational point of view. Also it makes me sad.

Its not all doom and gloom though.

His departure provided a natural opportunity to refresh and revisit our D&D group and paved the way for a second “season” of D&D campaigns.

Where once there was a mere eight players in a single group, now we are legion. Surely it is only a matter of time before the entire company pivots and we flip to some sort of D&D related business.

And I for one welcome our new draconic overlords.

The Phoenix Returns To Life In 1d6 Days

While the dissolution of the first group was a sad day indeed, our attempts to reform were immediately met with a fresh wave of interest from a wide variety of people.

I like to think that its all because of the masterfully crafted email that I sent out looking for fresh blood, but its probably more likely that the buzz generated from the ridiculousness of the first groups campaign provided for solid word of mouth advertising.

It wasn’t long before I had a list of about twenty people who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The best part was that the people were from all across the business, and ranged from other members of our development team, to our support department, all the way through to marketing.

Having discovered in the first season that seven players and one DM is somewhat challenging to run (similar to how large teams get less effective), the goal was to try and limit each group to five players. Using the power of maths, that meant we would have four groups.

Of course, with the departure of our sole DM, we’d need to find a new one. Actually, we’d need to find four new ones, as running even a single group can be time consuming at the best of times, let alone four completely different groups.

Taking into account everyone’s availability, the desire for each group to have a mixture of newbies and experienced people and the fact that the volunteer DM’s would also like to be able to play was somewhat….challenging. My logistical skills are pretty good these days though, so once I’d exited the fugue state brought on by all of the constraints, we were left with four groups organized over Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings and everybody reasonably happy.

Also, I was a DM, because I’m a sucker like that.

Behind The Curtain

Having only played D&D once before, peeking behind the curtain was both enlightening and not really all that surprising.

To make things easy, the fresh DM’s all picked solely from the pre-built adventures supplied by Wizards of the Coast. Its a lot simpler to get a handle on the responsibilities of being a DM when you are provided with some guidelines and ideas that are easy to extend (or not) as you wish, without requiring you to think of absolutely everything.

I picked Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which is a pretty big campaign that is actually the first half of a massive two-part adventure (the other half being Rise of Tiamat). Using our very first group as a high water mark, I’m not sure we’ll ever finish it, but that probably doesn’t matter as long as we have fun while we try.

For me, already being in a leadership role, the transition to being a DM is probably only about half as hard as it is for someone who has never had the experience of organising and guiding a group of people. Of course, that leaves the other half of the difficulty fully intact, so its not all easy riding.

To compare:

  • As a player, you really only have to know the details about your own character and the basic gameplay tenets, and even those are not super important if you have a solid DM to guide you.
  • As the DM, you need to know everything. Literally everything, top to bottom, all the rules and constraints, how the game flows in the abstract and how your campaign needs to progress. You also need to be good at improvising, as you can plan for a huge variety of things, but once it gets into the hands of your players, all of that might go out the window.

Finally, the last (and possible most critical part) is knowing when to step in and when to let things go. You have to be careful to not spoil anyone’s fun (within reason) and to enable those cool D&D moments to happen as organically as possible, but you also need to maximise the amount of fun happening across the entire group.

Like I said in my first post, its a fine line to walk.

Epic With A Capital E

Interestingly enough, with multiple groups running at the same time, we might eventually be able to do some sort of epic crossover. Imagine a campaign where one or more different groups are working together to accomplish a greater goal, or even better, maybe the groups are working against each other, possibly without even realising it.

You could probably retrofit multiple groups acting together into one of the pre-built campaigns, but to be honest, you’d be better off putting a custom one together that was built with the concept in mind from the start.

Its a neat dream, but as we have people who are both players and DM’s, we would have to be pretty careful as anyone filling both roles would know too much.

I think I’d be more than willing to give up the ability to play to put something like that together though, as it would be an amazing experience for everyone involved.

Cure Wounds, Gain 1d8 Hit Points

Last but not least, one of the completely unintended side effects of running D&D groups at work is employee retention.

This comes in two flavours.

The first is the simple presence of social activities that help to bind people together around more than just work. For us, D&D is just another addition to an already healthy space, but being focused on much smaller groups it results in slightly different benefits (tighter bonds, closer friendships, etc).

The second is the continuity of the campaign itself. D&D groups are essentially engaged in collaborative storytelling, weaving an epic, personalised tale together over time. Its hard to pull away from that on a whim, so it tends to increase the barrier to leaving for non-critical reasons.

I say non-critical, because if your workplace is bad enough, no amount of social activities will keep the good people around.

Having said all of that, I would never prevent a former employee from continuing to participate in D&D. As long as they can regularly make the sessions, they are always welcome in any campaign that they were already a member of. Obviously current employees get preference when it comes to putting together new groups, but there is no reason to be a jerk about it just because someone has moved on.

Conclusion

We started this whole thing because there were a few of us that just wanted to play D&D, and having a bunch of people who were already together on a day to day basis made it a lot easier to organise. Its pretty hard to get a group of adults with various adult responsibilities together on a regular basis after all.

The result of that initial, relatively selfish desire has been a wealth of social activity that is effectively linking a bunch of different business units together, and is helping to smooth out some of the natural stress inherent in working in a challenging environment.

All in all, I think its been a worthwhile usage of my (and other peoples) time and I highly recommend it.

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Good news everyone!

I bet you heard Professor Farnsworths voice in your head just then, didn’t you.

Our monthly Mario Kart Tournament is going strong. We’ve just finished our fifth season, with strong intentions to immediately start a sixth. Our plush shells are slowly building up a real sense of history, getting covered in the names of people who have won a tournament so far. Its really great to see.

The races continue to be a bright spot each day, acting both as social lubricant and as a way to rest and recuperate from the stresses of the morning.

Like any Agile organisation though, we’re still iterating and improving on the formula, hence this follow up post.

Tooling Around

When we first started the tournament, we were just using a Google Sheet to capture scores and calculate rankings. As we finished each season, we just created a new sheet (well, we copied the old one and cleared its data). It was a relatively simple system, where each race was a row of data, and the ELO calculation was done via some spreadsheet magic.

It was pretty good to be honest, but it was just a spreadsheet. We’re mostly software engineers, so we took that as a challenge. It didn’t help that the spreadsheet implementation of the ELO algorithm was pretty intense too, and somewhat hard to maintain and reason about.

For a replacement piece of software, the initial requirements were as simple as the sheet:

  • The ability to record races (participants, score, etc)
  • The ability to calculate a ranked list of players

The engineer that ended up implementing the tool went above and beyond though, and also included basic season and participant management (including disqualifications, which are super useful for when people have to pull out of the tournament for reasons) and alternate scoring algorithms.

There’s still a bunch of improvements that we want to make (like easily inputting scores from a chatbot, overall ELO ranking (i.e. not seasonal), charts of ranking changes and so on), but it is pretty amazing already.

Orchestral Score

Speaking of alternate scoring algorithms...

After the first season (where we used a pretty naïve combination of average score + knockouts), we’re mostly been using ELO.

Now that we have a custom tool, its much easier to implement another algorithm that sits in parallel to the existing ones, which gives us a lot of freedom to try new things. For example, last season we started out by implementing a different scoring algorithm based around the concept of average win rate.

As races are run, the system determines how likely you are to beat every other participant as a percentage score. If you’ve never raced someone before, it will infer a win rate by using other people who you have raced against (i.e. a fairly basic transitive relationship), until it you actually do race them. If it can’t do that, it will just use your average.

Your win rate percentage against all other participants in the season (a score between 0-100) is then summed together and all the sums are ranked numerically.

As a whole, it was a decent enough algorithm, but as more and more races were run, changes to the scores because less and less meaningful, as each subsequent race had less and less of an impact on your average.

It was a pretty accurate long term representation of how you stacked up against the other people, but it was slow to change if you improved. It was also really boring from a tournament point of view, and didn’t really allow for comebacks and upsets, which are the most interesting bits.

In the end, we just used ELO again, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile.

You’ll never get any better if you don’t try new things.

Spanner? Meet Works

In order to keep things interesting, we’ve also added season specific conditions and constraints, rather than just racing the same way every time.

For example:

  • Season 3: 150cc (mirror), Standard Kart, Shy Guy
  • Season 4: 150cc, Sports Bike, Yoshi
  • Season 5: 150cc, Free For All
  • Season 6: 200cc, Frantic Items, Free For All

This has honestly had a bit of a mixed reception.

Some people are happy to be disrupted and learn how to play a style different than they might normally be used to.

Other people are unhappy about having to change just to participate. This comes down to a few different reasons include comfort level (“I like racing like this, why change”), desire to get better at one particular build instead of getting average at many and just pure enjoyment or lack thereof (“Its called Mario Kart, not Mario Bike”).

I personally enjoy the conditions and constraints, because I think it keeps everything from getting stale, but I can see the other side of the argument as well.

Conclusion

And that’s kind of it for the update on our Mario Kart Tournaments.

All in all I think it continues to be a great social activity that helps people get to know one another and provides a nice non-cerebral break in the middle of the day.

Having said that, our first season had the most participation by far, so I think the competitive nature of the tournament (and the improving skills of the regular combatants), is erecting something of a barrier to entry for the people who aren’t quite as competitive.

I have some ideas about how we might be able to deal with that, but I’m not entire sure how effective they will be.

For example, if it was a requirement that anyone in the top four was unable to participate in the next season until they trained a protégé, that might encourage highly competitive people to induct new members into the group.

Or they might just stop playing completely, which would be unfortunate and make me sad.

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Want a good team building activity that encourages a group of people to work collaboratively using their unique skills and capabilities to creatively solve problems?

What about something that actively encourages out of the box thinking in the face of challenges that are constantly adapting to their actions?

Do you like being surprised by the interesting (and sometimes insane) ideas that your colleagues come up with when faced with unusual situations?

If any of that sounded interesting to you, you should consider introducing a tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons to your organization.

Desks and Deadlines

Lets be honest, there is a good chance that you’ve heard about Dungeons and Dragons before, probably because you’ve watched Stranger Things. I’d wager a guess that people are generally more familiar with D&D than they are with the general concept of tabletop gaming, but at a very high level its a meeting where a smallish group of people sit in a room together for a few hours and collectively hallucinate vividly.

All jokes aside, table top role playing games are very much a team based problem solving activity, driven by a somewhat pre-planned outline, and constrained by a set of rules and guidelines. They can be as complex or as simple as you want, and are constantly adapting and reacting to the actions of their participants.

The official D&D website is a great place to start reading if you’re interested in finding out more, but most of those documents focus on the fantasy, and less on the social and team building aspects, so keep that in mind.

For a simple explanation, in D&D there are two roles:

  • Players
  • Dungeon Master

Both roles participate in the game, but have very different goals.

Players choose some set of skills (which automatically come with an equivalent set of limitations) and work together to solve a series of problems within the context of a grander setting. Typically there is a story at play, providing high level direction, but on a session by session basis they generally solve much smaller problems in relative isolation. There are typically five players, but anywhere between three and seven is probably okay.

The dungeon master plays the opposite side. They are responsible for providing challenges to the players within the greater context. It can be a difficult role to play, as an overbearing or controlling DM leaves no room for players to innovate and be creative, but a weak or distant DM leaves everyone disengaged and unhappy.

Sound familiar?

+2 Agility

Like most team based activities, its easy to draw parallels between D&D and agile software development. A group of empowered people with a wide range of skills focused on solving problems within a greater context?

That’s a pretty textbook definition of an agile team.

Of course, its a lot more fun to sweet-talk a dragon into not eating you than it is to build accounting software (unless you really like numbers), so it can be quite beneficial to use the softer, more engaging game to create and strengthen team dynamics.

Lets have a look at the capabilities required to participate as a player in D&D.

Players are expected to be able to:

  • Be creative and come up with a character, given a set of rules and templates to work within
  • Be able to put themselves in the shoes of that character, seeing the world from their point of view and acting accordingly
  • Understand a complex system of rules and constraints
  • Be able to think quickly and react in the face of changing circumstances
  • Understand that there are real consequences (within the context) to actions
  • Understand the skills and limitations of the people they are playing with, such that together the group is greater than the sum of its parts

I’m not going to go into each point in detail, but there are a lot of things there that are easily applied to delivering quality software.

For example, the second point (being able to put yourself in the shoes of your character) can be used to empathize with the users of your software. A pretty common UX approach is to come up with personas for your most common user types, and if the members of the delivery team have the ability to both empathize and think like those personas, you’re almost certainly going to get better results than if the team were just plugging through some arbitrary set of features with no thought to the greater context.

From my point of view, if I had a group of people who exhibited most of the traits that I outlined above, I’m sure I could point them towards almost anything and they would nail it.

Conclusion

This whole post is relevant because a small group of us have been playing D&D in a work context for a few months now, and its pretty amazing. I think its important to share these sorts of experiences, both to show how much a difference a good work environment can make, and to give other people ideas.

Our current group is drawn from across the entire business, rather than being a team that already work together, which is a shame, but even then I’m more familiar and friendly with everyone in the group than I would have ever been without D&D. Its similar to the effects we saw (and continue to see) from the Mario Kart Tournament, a higher level of general bonding and familiarity that leads to a whole suite of beneficial day to day side effects.

Like most things (professional development for example), the hardest part is always finding the time. Everyone has lives and other commitments that can easily get in the way of this sort of activity.

That’s where the business can help.

If the organization can agree to sacrifice an hour or two a week, they can reap a whole bunch of social benefits for very little investment. Just having all the participants already in one place is a massive boon from an organizational point of view.

For me, if we ever manage to finish our current campaign, I’m very interested in expanding the program to specific groups of people that are already working together, and testing to see whether or not the improvement to the team dynamics flows through into their day to day activities.

I’m pretty sure it will.

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Short week, short post.

Late last year, a colleague of mine brought their Nintendo Switch + Mario Kart into the office, with the plan to have a few casual games on a Friday afternoon to wind down after a long week.

Last Friday, we just finished the second season of our official office tournament.

There is a big difference between those two statements, and I’m going to use this post to explore that difference and write about how and why we did what we did, and some of the benefits (beyond fun) that we saw.

Round 1, Fight!

Progressing from that initial Friday, there was a small group of people who played regularly, usually during lunch time. We’d found that we’d gotten to know each other much faster and more effectively through racing than we ever had through any company sponsored BBQ’s or similar events. That familiarity had even knocked down a couple of walls that had grown (unintentionally) between a few areas of the business, and we were all much more open and communicative than we’d ever been before.

So why not offer the same opportunity to everyone else in a somewhat structured fashion?

Mario Kart is a rare gem of a game. Incredibly low barrier to entry, but a high skill cap. Anyone can receive a quick lesson on what buttons do what and get in and have some fun, but it takes some serious practice to get really good. Not only that, but games are generally quick (which is good for flow) and fun to spectate as well as participate.

Perfect for a competitive tournament involving a decent number of people.

The first iteration was simple:

  • Scores at the end of each set of races are recorded per player
  • Scores are averaged over time
  • After some calibration, races are organised by score bands
  • Eventually, bottom two (out of four) in each set of races is knocked out
  • Continue until we have two sets of finals (runner up and grand)
  • Winners get to write their name on some plush shells

I’m summarising the first tournament in the points above of course. We actually started with just “lets record races and somehow find a winner” and then iterated from there.

That first tournament took us about a month and a half to run to completion. Races were organised and booked into peoples calendars as appropriate (mostly during lunch), and the finals were organised on a Friday with drinks and snacks for all to come and watch the festivities.

Competition was fierceand everyone had a great time.

A lot of people commented afterwards that they now knew more people after a month than they had in the entire time they’d been working for us, which was exactly what we’d aimed to accomplish in the first place.

Some Shows Never Get a Second Season

With the first tournament behind us, it was time to reflect and improve. We actually had a few informal retrospectives with a bunch of the participants (and non-participants), discussing what went well and what went poorly.

For example:

  • The knock outs had been particularly harsh, where one bad race could see you kicked out of the tournament altogether, even if you’d been racing well up until that point. It also limited interest because it was so brutal and final. Once you were out, there was really no motivation to keep racing
  • The score averaging was okay, but it was really just a poor mans ranking system
  • Because the races were organised around score bands, and the bottom two were knocked out, if you couldn’t get all four people in the band together (which happened a lot) the tournament was a bit stuck
  • The tournament had dragged out a little bit, from a combination of the previous point and because we started before the Christmas break

Keeping those things in mind, it was time for Season 2, where we had two main improvements in mind:

  • Complete the entire tournament, start to finish, in one month
  • Rather than average scoring + knockouts, use an ELO ranking system. People could race whenever and whoever they wanted, and as long as the race was recorded, rankings would be adjusted appropriately
  • Top four players by rank go into the grand final
  • Next four go into the runner up final (which I’d taken to calling the grandiose final)

This worked a hell of a lot better, as people could keep racing all the way, and even a series of bad races could be overcome through sheer dogged persistence (and winning obviously).

It took less effort to run (no need to schedule races and chase people down), and we got the same sorts of organisational benefits as last time (familiarity, morale, etc).

The Ramifications Of Your Actions

One interesting side effect that we didn’t notice until later was that the social break in the middle of the day, where we focused on doing something vaguely physical (instead of mental) refreshed everyone, and energised them for the afternoon. A bunch of different people let me know that they felt more productive in the afternoons after they raced/spectated compare to the days when they didn’t.

Of course, it wasn’t all peaches and cream.

The lunchtime races could be somewhat disruptive to those not participating (cheering and whatnot), so the participants had to be careful to modulate ourselves, and to strictly follow our time limits (none of this “just one more race malarkey”). Also, there might have been a few times where our executives were worried about what sort of impressions we were giving to our board of directors (when they were visiting), but a few honest conversations about the benefits smoothed those things over. Hell, the CEO actively participated in the first tournament, which was great to see.

Conclusion

In essence, what started purely as a bit of Friday fun, quickly progressed into a valuable social activity for getting to know people across our entire organisation.

We have no intention of stopping, so there will almost certainly be a Season 3, and it will probably be even better than the last one.

I mean, we’re an agile organisation that prides itself on being able to adapt and adjust our approaches based on our learnings, so there’s no reason we wouldn’t apply that here too. We’re technical too, so we might even build some sort of thing to help us administer and track the tournament.

Maybe image recognition for the recording of scores and automatic booking of races for matched participants? That sounds pretty cool. Or a Hipchat/Slack bot to help us administer things. So many possibilities.

We’re software engineers after all.

Hell, I’m surprised someone hasn’t tried to write a bot to race for them yet.