More than 50 million people played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) worldwide last year, representing a 33% year-on-year growth in the popularity of this evergreen fantasy role-playing game. Over two days in June 2021, an online audience exceeding 4 million watched their favourite Game of Thrones actors and WWE wrestlers battle it out in a live-streamed event called D&D Live. Next year, a film, Honor Among Thieves, and a video game, Baldur’s Gate III will add to the long list of extensions to the D&D brand.
More crucially for employers, D&D could be just the team-building tool they need as they face the serious challenge of maintaining employee engagement and wellbeing in the new world of hybrid working.
First published in 1974, the game requires an interactive storyteller, known as the dungeon master, who takes a group of players through a series of quests, in which the actions of the fictional characters they choose to inhabit contribute to the narrative. The results of the key choices they make – for instance, whether to flee or fight an adversary – are decided by the roll of various polyhedral dice.
D&D is a relatively straightforward game that anyone can play. It encourages participation by “breaking down the barriers people put up at work”, observes Marina Desmarais, senior HR manager at US entertainment giant NBCUniversal. “By enabling colleagues to build a character and role-play in another world, it allows them to interact in a different way. The curiosity this generates is a huge driver in getting people involved.”
The game does call on players to immerse themselves in their characters to get the most from the experience, stresses Daniel Morgan, social media consultant at Agent, a brand and communications agency based in north-west England. In effect, every player is contributing to the story – and you can’t really pretend to be a bard drinking mead in a tavern, say, if you don’t commit fully to the part and the scene.
“D&D requires you to put yourself out there and do something you might not otherwise try,” Morgan says. “You won’t get much out of it unless you invest, drop your guard and go all-in.”
Senior-level employees polled in a recent survey by Workable cited collaboration as one of the top three organisational challenges presented by the rise of remote and hybrid working. If you speak to any seasoned D&D player, they will tell you about the puzzles they had to solve in the Tomb of Annihilation, one of the toughest modules in the D&D collection. Without teamwork, your character’s chances of surviving the tomb’s fiendish challenges are minimal. Cracking complex conundrums with colleagues in such an environment could, in theory, make the real problems you face at work seem much less daunting.
Richard Velazquez, head of Alexa games marketing at Amazon, says that he can see the value of “short-term D&D sessions in which you try to achieve a goal with your colleagues through role-playing, which requires engaging skills that are valuable to your team. The company can even tie incentives to people’s participation in these sessions, with teams earning rewards for successfully completing quests.”
Even unsuccessful teams will gain from the experience, according to Paul Foxcroft, a professional dungeon master who has hosted a session for Comic Relief.
“D&D gives players the opportunity to readdress their resources and evaluate why their plan didn’t work. In essence, it takes the stigma out of failure,” he says.
The game could even help an employer to unearth hidden leadership potential in the organisation. Under normal circumstances at work, some people have little scope to express themselves beyond the confines of their roles, but D&D can empower players to “step out of their comfort zone” and take charge of a situation, Desmarais says.
Playing D&D can also enable people to gain insights into their own personalities, according to Dr Ian Baker, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby.
“This is about helping people to reflect on their experience and inform how they might work,” he says. “For example, if you find out that you are impulsive, how might this affect how you’d solve problems in the real world?”
Foxcroft compares D&D to the children’s game of “playing pretend” – something that few adults get to do regularly. Role-playing is an important creative activity in our formative years and it can, in later life, inspire us to seek ambitious new goals. It isn’t hard to imagine that, after seeing Alessia Russo’s audacious backheeled strike in the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022, a girl might imagine herself becoming a footballer, for instance.
“D&D creates a safe space for people to explore and test out different ideas,” he says. “There is rarely a right or wrong one. You can try whatever you like – it’s aspirational.”
Baker observes that the pandemic lockdowns exacerbated people’s feelings of isolation. “As social beings, humans have evolved to want to be with others,” he says. “There was a surge in mental health issues related to this and we’re seeing the repercussions now. Owing to the sheer number of people seeking support, the nation’s mental health services are very taxed.”
Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s CIPD Good Work Index 2022 reports that 18% of UK workers polled by the institute said that their general mental health was poor. That’s a three percentage-point deterioration on the figure for 2020 – arguably the worst year of the Covid crisis.
D&D can offer a form of support, because it unifies people and “forces you to think empathetically about how your character and others in your group might behave”, says Jo Franklin-Wright, director at London-based PR agency Harvard. “Playing the game is an incredibly powerful team-building exercise. It brought people from all levels of our organisation together and created bonds that we’d never expected to form.”
Morgan points out that there’s an “inherent humour to the game – it is all a bit silly sitting around pretending to be wizards. Because of this, people do things to try to make other players laugh.”
Baker agrees. “It’s about the fun, the story, the people. It’s about those moments you talk about afterwards when something daft happened – or something tragic.”
Companies that try D&D as a team-building tool stand to benefit from a more collaborative, creative and content workforce, then. If you’re a business leader seeking such improvements, why not don your dungeon master’s hat, gather your party of bounty-hunters and roll some dice? On this quest, people have nothing to lose but their inhibitions.