How Running D&D Helped Me Run My Business

I am a business owner. I run Adventure Capital Travel, a travel agency that caters to the geek community and which has clients all over the country. I also do freelance writing and art. I also play roleplaying games like D&D. You might be wondering how this is all related.

Simply put, I have learned more about how to run my business from my skills as a gamemaster than any other source has taught me. Some people might laugh at that; after all playing RPGs is simply pretending and rolling a few dice, right? Yes, but it also teaches some excellent skills which have several real-world applications.

Anyone who has run or played in a game know that gamers are a varied bunch, sometimes with conflicting personalities who approach things in many ways. Having run games now for about 23 years, I have learned how to read a person and get to know how they might approach things. It has made me familiar with people, and has given me the insight to be able to deal with and handle people regardless of their personality. As the gamemaster, you have to do everything from mentoring people to resolving conflict between players.

A common adage among gamers is that no plot survives contact with the players. A truer statement has rarely been spoken. No matter how well a gamemaster (the person who makes up the stories the players characters go through and acts as referee during the game) plans out an adventure, players will throw a wrench into it. Sometimes, they may take the left tunnel instead of the right or occasionally they won’t pick up on a story hook at all and will just go off and do their own thing. Unlike characters in a book or movie script, characters run by the other people in the game rarely do what you, as a gamemaster, want them to do.

As a result, this has given me practice and the mindset that I need to be one step ahead. I am used to looking at possibilities, even those that would seem outlandish. Once the unexpected does happen, I almost always have at least an inkling of an idea about how I am going to handle it and what the best way to do so will be. Running games has given me the skills to improvise and be creative, and to expect things to go wrong, in ways no school can truly teach you. This is especially handy as a travel agent because, if something goes wrong with someone’s trip, I am expected to find a way to fix it.

The third great skill being a gamemaster has taught me is the ability to problem solve, and to do so creatively. I don’t just “think outside of the box.” Most of the time, I don’t even realize the box is there. Again, as a travel agent there are occasionally unconventional problems that arrive. And unconventional problems often need unconventional solutions. My problem solving skills have been honed on the battlefield of imagination, where situations in-game can arise for which there are no real-world analogues that apply.

So, is playing an RPG all about rolling dice and killing imaginary dragons? Yes. However, what most people don’t realize is that it also builds skills that are necessary to be successful in life. It exposes people to many different personality types and situations, and forces them to solve problems using some very creative and interesting solutions. These are skills anyone can use, but has been especially useful in my line of work as a travel agent.

The Inquisition: Characters vs. Players

Can these guys just stand up there and say “I’m good at swordfighting”?

Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it takes a while for a player to realize, but eventually every player comes face to face with one of the great hobgoblins of roleplaying games: meta-gaming. For you neophytes, meta-gaming, simply put, is behaving in a way that betrays a character’s in-game knowledge. We might also call this “breaking the fourth wall” or “acting out of character”, but this behavior most often takes the form of a character acting on knowledge he or she doesn’t have. It can be as meaningless as “he doesn’t have many hit points left, he’s only CR 3” or as suspension-of-disbelief-shattering “I teleport 438 feet to the northwest… oh, right into the room my friend is in.” I, personally, don’t mind meta-gaming that much; it’s the kind of thing that can easily be walked back or simply undone by asking “Why does your character do that?”

But I don’t want to talk about meta-gaming today. I want to talk about something related, though. By it’s definition, meta-gaming occurs when the player has knowledge that the character does not have (that he or she learned by sitting at the table while a side-plot was being played out, that he or she learned by reading the rulebook or a supplement, or that he or she learned by stealing a peek at the GM’s notes, or something). I want to get into a maybe more-frequently encountered situation: what happens when the character knows more than the player ever could?

One of the players in my longest running game was a very smart guy, but he played a character, a wizard, who was a super-genius. Literally, this character was several standard deviations outside of normal intelligence for his species. This is all well-and-good, considering the Dungeons and Dragons rules (3.5) accounted for this kind of supreme intelligence within their ability score scale and he was awarded a commensurate number of extra skill points and bonuses on intelligence checks.

However, I can distinctly recall a situation in which we were faced with a particularly troublesome puzzle whose solution had thus far eluded us. He argued that his character, and by extension he should have some additional insight into the workings of the puzzle. He argued that his character was far more intelligent than he was, and thus that level of natural talent should be expressed in game. I sympathized with his point: his character was far smarter than he would ever be, and thus should be able to accomplish things of which he couldn’t think. Imagine a similar situation: you stutter, but your character is an extremely persuasive and charismatic speaker.

We’re used to playing heroic or extraordinary characters when roleplaying; though it is a sobering and rewarding experience to play a character who is completely mundane. By their nature, these heroic characters will do something exceptional. And while this exceptional capability is usually expressed in terms that are easy to imagine (swordplay, archery, slinging spells), sometimes they come in forms we might not be able to easily imagine, such as charisma, persuasiveness, and outright intellect. We’ve seen systems that have tried to apply the same skill-treatment to social and puzzle-solving skills as applied to physical and martial skills, and we usually remember that those skills (IMO) are rarely played rules-as-written (prime example: Diplomacy in DnD 3.5 – and I know some of you will disagree about this).

One of the key issues here is that it’s easy to visualize someone being a good swordsman physically or being incredibly beautiful (when I was a kid all Charisma-dumped characters were hideous hags and all Charisma-enhanced characters were stunningly handsome), but it’s much more difficult to identify that there is an element of intelligence and instinct involved in being a champion duelist, be it with the sword, the pen, or the podium. Anyone who’s ever been in debate knows that an intelligent debater is just as dangerous and persuasive as a charming one, and anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that players with an eye for strategy and tactics can run with much more physically gifted athletes.

So the question becomes: how can you roleplay someone who is incredibly intelligent if you are not incredibly intelligent? Put better, how do you play someone with mental capabilities that far exceed your own?

First, we’ll inevitably retreat to the comfort of our rules set? Don’t the rules account for these kinds of things? Well, yes, of course they do (or any system that is worth its salt should). We get more skill points or bonuses to certain types of rolls for being intelligent, a better modifier on social interactions for being persuasive, and so on. But we still face problems such as the player who walks into every situation and asks to roll Diplomacy. Or the player above who wants extra help on puzzle solving because he’s a genius.

I think we can all agree that the first situation (the Wordless Diplomat) is not the way most of us want to be playing. We want to roleplay, not roll-play. So, my question to you: what is the acceptable amount of roleplaying necessary to be able to roll your skill in social situations? And I don’t have a good answer to that question. I typically weight creative roleplaying more than raw character sheet skill, but both are important for success in situations. A good diplomat with a poor in-character argument is probably on the same footing as a crappy diplomat with a good argument. I usually don’t let my players just declare “I’m trying to Fast Talk this guy”. If that’s what you’re doing, do it! However, to be fair to my players, they might not believe that they can Fast Talk effectively. It’s a totally reasonable position that you as a person might be terrible at thinking on your feet, but your character (by his/her stat block) might literally be among the best in the world at it.

So, I am left wondering what the players’ responsibility is in, you know, actually being a good player. Roleplaying, in itself, is a skill, and naturally some are much better at it than others. Some people are really great problem solvers, others can slip into and out of numerous characters at will, and still more have vast reserves of creativity and energy for creating worlds, races, nations, pantheons, and so forth. I feel that we should be rewarding players for quality role-playing if that’s what is most important to us. I do feel bad sometimes that the player who spent no points on social skills might end up being a more effective party face than the player who put a ton of points into it, and that’s bad for roleplaying. Because gaming for a lot of us is about getting outside our comfort zones and trying something new. Putting more weight on roleplaying tends to push the players who are more comfortable with social interaction to the social interaction roles.

Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t know. I think that roleplaying system designers have been trying to solve this particular puzzle since Gary Gygax invented DnD in his basement. What I know for sure is that we should reward good roleplaying, we should reward creativity, inspired character design, quick thinking, well-designed characters, and so on. In short, we should reward and therefore encourage the kinds of behavior we want to see in our games. I typically hate using a die to determine that which roleplaying should determine, so I put more weight on the roleplaying. But it’s obviously a fine line to walk.

PS. Coming back to the “intelligent people should have an easier time solving a puzzle” idea, I really like adding non-modifer benefits to show that a character is better at a certain task. Maybe the super-genius can have 6 minutes to solve a puzzle instead of the party’s normal 5 minutes, due to the fact that she thinks faster. Maybe the tactical genius can rearrange himself before combat starts, showing that he always seems to be in the right place. In a social situation, maybe the party face has more paths to success, much like options in Mass Effect or KoTOR, rather than just being flat better at being generically “persuasive”. There needs to be a way to show that a character has more ability than a player – we don’t, after all, make our fighters stand up and wield a greatsword. But we do make our diplomats come up with good arguments? That seems a bit unfair to me.

Photo credit: Flickr user hans s. CC BY-ND 2.0

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Ability Scores, Skill Checks, and Alignment in Classic D&D

This is part of my ongoing series dissecting early Dungeons & Dragons, and building the retroclone Dungeon Raiders out of it.

'ShuttaFly' by aarika on Flickr
'ShuttaFly' by aarika on Flickr

Ability Scores

Far be it from me to throw out the six classic ability scores. But what use do they have? When did you last have to use your ability score in D&D?

Original D&D uses one lookup table, with effects on the character depending on each ability score. Each class has a prime attribute: strength for fighters, intelligence for magic-users, and wisdom for clerics. A higher prime attribute improves your XP gained, while a low one penalizes your XP. Or, strength can be used by clerics at 1/3 its value, intelligence by fighters and clerics at 1/2 its value, and wisdom by fighters at 1/3 its value or magic-users at 1/2 its value.

See what I meant by “strange simulationism” in my first article on early D&D?

First Edition D&D expanded this lookup table even further, into one table listing the adjustments to XP made depending on the prime attribute, and another for each ability score’s effect on the player.

Otherwise, ability scores were not used directly in either system. Great.

How can we simplify this, and provide a use for ability scores?

Let’s look at the numbers. If we use the traditional method of rolling up ability scores–rolling 3d6–we have scores from 3 to 18. This is usefully less than 20, but never exactly 20 or 1. Jumping forward in our design a bit to skills, we notice that there are no skills in Original D&D or First Edition. We could use some equivalent.

What if we combined the ability score with skill checks? So, if a player is attempting a strength-based check, like lifting a portcullis, she would roll a 1d20 and compare it to her character’s strength score. We want high ability scores to be good, so the character succeeds if the roll is less than or equal to the appropriate ability score.

Boom! Now what about those tables of effects? Well, I don’t think they’re useful. Players are very good at working the system to have a high prime attribute, and construct a character to minimize the impact of the lower scores. They also add quite a bit of extra situational math, so we’ll ignore them.

When an adventurer is faced with a truly difficult action, such as leaping bravely across a chasm as opposed to merely strolling across a bridge, choose the adventurer’s appropriate ability score and roll 1d20. If the roll is less than or equal to the chosen ability score, or a 20 is rolled, the character succeeds. If not, the character fails.

The preceding roll is called an ability check. If the adventurer must attempt a particularly challenging action, the GM may add a penalty, typically -2 or -4.

Saving Throws

What about saving throws? For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that everyone rolls 1d20, trying to roll less than or equal to 10. Rogues get a +2, for a target of 12.

How about saving throws against other effects? This quickly gets hairy, so we’ll make it optional: certain effects include anywhere from -2 to +2 on the saving throw. We’ll also give certain classes bonuses: fighters get -1, while wizards get +1. All optional, though.

Optional: To increase realism (such as it is), add or subtract the following amounts from the difficulty target of 10:

Class of Adventurer Rolling Saving Throw:?

  • Fighters: -1
  • Clerics: 0 (no difference)
  • Wizards: +1
  • Rogues: +2 (their natural rogue ability)

Attack type:

  • Rays: +2
  • Wands and staves: +1
  • Paralysis: 0 (no difference)
  • Dragon breath: -1
  • Spells: -2


Now. Alignment. Boy, has this been a controversial topic lately!

Let’s return to the sources. OD&D has no alignment; Basic 1E has only lawful, chaotic, or neutral, and AD&D offers all nine classic alignments. Which approach is “best?”

If we’re going to use any of the alignments, we’ll need to define our terms. “Chaotic” vs. “lawful” characters are pretty easy to understand, but what about “good” or “evil?”

I’ve come up with an approach that I think is more helpful within the game: “good” and “evil” are more accurately “selfless” and “selfish.” A “good” character will naturally help others at his expense, while an “evil” character will naturally look out for his own interests at others’ expense.

This is not a good general definition of good and evil. It’s an approach for alignment in RPGs, which allows different characters to work together.

With that, I feel okay with placing all nine alignments in Dungeon Raiders.


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