Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Everything I know about management, I learned from Gary Gygax

Today's post is inspired by GenCon, which just wrapped up this past Sunday in Indianapolis. While I didn't get a chance to go this year, I've been catching up with the blog/Twitter/Facebook posts from those who did, so when I sat down to write this morning the pieces of this theme that I'd been kicking around for quite some time just seemed to fall into place finally. So put on your robe and wizard hat and enjoy!

Full disclosure: I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was in elementary school in the early 80's, when thanks to Jack Chick and a fearmongering movie called Mazes and Monsters (starring a very young Tom Hanks) owning a set of polyhedral dice was tantamount to consorting with Satan himself. Although I have struggled over the years with my identity as a gamer, this soul-searching never actually prevented me from playing or running various roleplaying games-- mostly running them, as it turned out, as I found worldbuilding a much more satisfying outlet than simply playing the part of one character in said fantasy world.

Indeed, as I look back on my years behind the Dungeon Master's screen, I realize that in addition to scratching that creative itch, I was busy building the exact skill set that I would draw upon as a library manager later in life. Okay, maybe there are no funny dice involved in running a library office, and if the dragons in your workplace aren't of the metaphorical variety you might want to contact OSHA or your local shop steward, but being able to manage a group of several individuals of varying ages, backgrounds, and temperaments through a shared goal-based narrative while keeping things both fair and entertaining is pretty damned close to my current job description! Therefore, I present to you a primer in Gygaxian Management, named of course after Dungeons & Dragons creator E. Gary Gygax. To wit:

1. It's about having fun. Remember my post a couple of weeks back about the importance of fun in the workplace? Well, this is where it comes from for me. When I sit down to run a session of D&D, it is my ultimate goal that everyone walks away from the table happy-- even if their characters encounter adversity and their best-laid plans go off the rails. Bad die rolls and unexpected character deaths are just as much a part of the gaming landscape as unhappy patrons and unanticipated workflow disasters are in the library workplace. My job in either situation is to keep spirits high while finding a way to keep things going, so that my players/workers actually feel like coming back even if nothing that day turned out as planned.

2. Rules are rules, but there isn't a rule for everything. Despite the fact that D&D (and myriad other RPGs) have made a cottaqe industry out of selling rulebook after rulebook to its deep-pocketed base of hardcore gamer customers, your players will invariably want to do something which is not governed by the small library of tomes amassed on the gaming table. Similarly, one of the most frustrating aspects of a service-based job like library management is that while there are so many rules that you can't possibly master them all no matter how many years you spend in your position, you will frequently find yourself asked to adjudicate on a matter where even the best-documented policies and procedures will fail you.

Both behind the screen and in the office it falls on my shoulders to analyze the situation, consider the spirit and intent of the existing guidelines, and then make my best informed guess as to proceed. Making field rulings is a large part of what a manager does, because otherwise progress would grind to a standstill as every last extenuating circumstance was hashed and rehashed to death; the same is true for a Dungeon Master, who needs to balance playing the game "by the book" with keeping the action lively for all players involved.

3. Die rolls are meant to be fudged, and rules are made to be broken. Sometimes however the problem is not that a given rule doesn't exist, but that its application in a particular circumstance would be contrary to the spirit of play. Say the party of adventurers are in the thick of battle and I roll a series of critical hits for the monsters they're fighting that I know will result in the death of the entire group (otherwise known as a Total Party Kill or TPK). Do I let the dice fall as they may, or do I pull my punches somewhat so that the group is able to prevail, but only by the skin of their teeth?

Following the rules to the letter and respecting die rolls is actually quite a bone of contention in RPG circles, but I've always believed that it is a Dungeon Master's duty to err on the side of Awesome. Ditto for the library manager. When a patron chafes against a local policy, instead of getting your back up, ask yourself whether the rule is in fact helping or hindering your patron's library experience. For example, if your patron is trying to finish his/her dissertation and really needs these 20 ILL articles ASAP, does it really make sense to hold that person to a daily request limit for the sake of honoring an arbitrary policy? Rules speak to the general, whereas every player or patron has specific wants and needs. This is by no means an invitation to make things up as you go along, but never let a stupid rule keep you from doing your job.

4. Retcons are bad for party morale, so use them sparingly. All of the above about breaking rules having been said, you must take care to be clear and consistent when you do make a field ruling or reverse a decision at the table. Players crave continuity, as it allows them to more fully immerse themselves in your RPG setting-- violating the rules of the shared universe that you've agreed upon, even if your intentions are good, will therefore often be seen as a "retcon" and be seen in a negative light. Similarly your staff also desire to operate in an environment with well-defined rules and clear cut expectations. While you may feel like a library superhero whenever you swoop in and ask your direct reports to reverse X, Y, and Z at a patron or colleague's behest/request, managing to the exception will quickly erode your staff's morale and inevitably lead your them to think that you do not trust their own judgement and expertise.

So doesn't this advice directly contradict what I told you in points 2 and 3? Yes- yes, it does. Welcome to management! Yours is a constant balancing act between trying to do what is fair for your patrons and what is fair for your staff. This means being as transparent as possible about the decisions you do make, so that even if someone disagrees with your ruling, they understand that you are doing your best to act in good faith.

5. A well-balanced party takes all kinds. As Dungeons & Dragons has evolved over the years through several successive editions (it is currently in its 4th such incarnation), it has increasingly focused on "game balance" as one of its design goals. To be fair, D&D has always favored a well-balanced party of adventurers: fighters for muscle, clerics for healing, wizards for offensive magic, and thieves for picking locks and disarming traps.

This propensity for balance at the table goes beyond mere character classes, however, and into the personality of the players themselves. Every table has its "theater major," who loves hamming it up during the actual roleplaying portion of the game; the "minimaxer," who delights in exploiting the limits of the RPG's mechanics itself; the "rules lawyer," who will call the DM out for inadequate or incorrect rulings; the "powergamer/munchkin," who takes winning very seriously and may storm away from the table in a huff if his/her character dies or they blow a critical roll; and the "natural born player," who just loves the game itself and enjoys any opportunity to play it, regardless of how their dice roll.

To be successful, a gaming group needs a healthy mix of these archetypes, as they both complement one another as well as serve as checks against each others' worst tendencies. This is the same for a successful office as well-- in order to succeed, I need staff who are customer-friendly, staff who push the limits of our policies/procedures, staff who are good at enforcing said policies and procedures, staff who take their work so seriously that it can cause them agita when things don't go quite right, as well as staff who simply appreciate the job and can provide some much-needed perspective for those of us who occasionally get a little too emotionally invested in the daily grind. Too much of any one of these groups is a recipe for disaster, but find just the right balance and you are golden, my friend.

6. Don't play favorites. Cultivating a balanced table means that you can't favor any one player just because he or she is your best friend, or because their style of play is similar to your own (i.e., selection bias). It also means making sure that you are not inadvertently shutting people out just because they don't speak up as often or as loudly as the other players. While some players simply favor less active engagement than others, it is your job to make every effort to be inclusive at the table, so as not to exclude by omission. It goes without saying of course that you should never, ever take out any personal animus on a player, even if the only things at stake are hit points and imaginary treasure. A good Dungeon Master doesn't need to be best friends with everyone at the table; a truly great DM could run a successful game with his mortal enemies.

Now it is time for a painful admission: back when I was a young and foolish Dungeon Master, I needlessly harassed my little brother. Instead of being delighted that he had shown any interest in D&D whatsoever, I went out of my way to torture his poor character until he left the game in tears, never to return. Sure, this was probably more about sibling rivalry than anything else, but even so I ended up driving him away from any interest in roleplaying games whatsoever in the process. Who knows what could have been, had I not been such a jerk? Maybe my brother and I would have had gaming in common throughout all these years, along with our other shared interests.

It is easy to see how this basic rule also holds true for the workplace. Whether it is intentional or not, feelings of exclusion are absolutely toxic in any office environment, and can lead to more serious performance or morale problems. "The boss is not your friend" is a cliche often evoked in a negative context, but if you think of your role as the facilitator of your office you can see the wisdom it is meant to encapsulate.

7. It's not whether you win or lose. The last point is simple, short, and sweet. Whether I'm winning or losing at the gaming table, I enjoy every moment of it, and try to make sure that my players share in this enjoyment. The same goes for my workplace. I may not be able to control every outcome, and there may be days where the workflow and patron needs are so overwhelming that the best we can do is hang on for dear life, but I will do my best to make sure that my staff leave at the end of the day feeling valued and with a sense of accomplishment. We may not always be able to slay the dragon, but in the end it's the struggle itself which makes the whole endeavor epic, and not the outcome itself.

So thanks, Gary. You taught me more than I could have possibly imagined. Now let's roll for Initiative before attacking the rest of the day...

No comments: