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author: @aestranger

Reading time: 8 minutes

How role-playing games can help teach business & leadership

We all role-play, we all pretend to an extent. Every day we’re swapping between various roles depending on the situation we find ourselves. And one of the most effective ways to learn is by pretending-/role-playing to do something. If placed within an immersive story and allowed to explore and test through a role-playing experience, then I believe people can get much more ingrained, intrinsic and meaningful learning from any activity. As Lee Sheldon ((Sheldon, 2014, p. 11) said about what audiences expect from story’s: “Take me to a place I have never been. Make me into someone I could never be. Let me do things I could never do.”

We’ve discussed how role-playing experiences can be used as therapeutic tools and as educational tools to aid individuals in overcoming challenges in their lives and how to learn otherwise difficult and abstract concepts. If you haven’t read these pieces yet, then I do recommend that you give them a read as well. The reason that I believe that role-playing experiences are so versatile is because they create a microcosm of the real world. Whether it is through a live-action role-playing experience or a table-top role-playing experience, or even a digital version, each variation offers the player the opportunity to learn and practice useful (life) skills in a short, medium or even long-term environment, that is essentially consequence and risk-free.

Role-playing games & Leadership

If you’ve ever played a role-playing game (RPG) of any kind, be it live-action, table-top or digital, you will know that there are always players who either naturally or through circumstance become the leader and those who follow. In RPG’s like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), or other variations of that system, there is always the Game Master (GM). The GM is the person who essentially relates the narrative of the experience and facilitates it for all the players involved. They are de facto the leader, or manager, of the experience. Within the player group, there are also those that take on the leadership role. But let’s take a look at the GM’s role and what RPG’s give those individuals in terms of leadership experience.

The Game Master needs to, and often learn quickly on the spot:

  • how to multi-task
  • how to do project management
  • how to manage people

They must take on the responsibility of running a well-organized experience that everyone can enjoy and achieve their goals in. Such skills are needed and sought after in the business world. On top of that, the GM must also have the skills for strategy and planning. As any GM worth their salt, whether they are delivering a long or short-term narrative experience, and whether it is pre-made or self-made, they need to be prepared and be able to:

  • Create & have long-term goals and targets
  • Think ahead of time for themselves and the players
  • And consider the larger context and connections of the narrative and their players in it

Much as with any manager, project or otherwise, the GM must consider the overall structure of what he or she wants her team of players to do within the narrative, and what that team decides to do itself to achieve the goals set out for them. The GM needs to consider the time it takes to achieve objectives, much like how design sprints work and agile development. Everything has an amount of time required to accomplish a goal.

And like any good manager, the GM needs to take care of the little details in and outside of the narrative game experience, to create the illusion that everything is seamless and continues without issue or unnecessary distraction. For the GM shouldn’t allow her team of players to be distracted by a piece of technology that briefly didn’t work, she simply brushes it aside and/or incorporates it into the overall (seamless) narrative experience.

Role-playing games & teams

Another aspect of RPG’s is that they can also be used by leaders, either themselves or through external trained facilitators, to deliver experiences for their teams, to teach skills, improve team cohesion or to learn/develop an assortment of possible corporate/business needs.

Having played D&D myself with friends, and having GM’d it as well, along with facilitating such experiences outside of the fantasy setting with more realistic settings with clients, I’ve come to appreciate the unbelievable flexibility that a role-playing experience can offer. Regardless of what setting it is or which system it uses, such as D&D or a more real-world framework such as the Moerae Model for group work, an RPG has a multidisciplinary deliverable that can easily be used within any business setting.

At its core, for the players, an RPG offers opportunities in:

  • Creative thinking
  • Soft skills
  • Teamwork
  • Critical thinking
  • Risk assessment

A well-designed narrative experience, or campaign, to use the vocabulary of D&D, it incorporates all 5 of those points and variations of them. And the setting can be anything, though it is worth saying that in my experience, the best settings are ones where the players can be themselves in extraordinary circumstances. But let’s break down each point and what it offers.


Creativity is a two-way street when it comes to RPG’s. On one side it allows the player to be creative, but on the other, the players are part of a creative experience. And it is the narrative within these RPG’s that facilitates this creativity. Stories are amazing tools because the instantly activate multiple aspects of the brain and mind. Listening and taking part in a story, like in RPG’s, forces you to use various processes within your brain; from language and communication skills to logical processes around cause and effects and experiential aspects around memory and recall. Not to mention the complex processes involved around imagination and comprehension.

Rather than focusing on one aspect, a well-designed story for your players literally lights up their entire brains with excitement and energy.

Soft skills

Any activity that occurs with a group of people obviously has an amount of communication in it. RPG’s are the same, but they test this soft skill in a unique, as the player is required to communicate from the perspective of their role within the imagined narrative. What it teaches players then it to learn how to communicate effectively in a variety of settings. As well as how to communicate in a variety of situations.

As an RPG is a microcosm in terms of both space and time, a player can in a single session be required to request for help from various individuals, either fellow players or imagined characters. Need to communicate under pressure and stress, and perhaps even take part in difficult conversations that either leads to or need to resolve a conflict. In an RPG, a conflict is inevitable, but at least it is a safe environment to practice those resolution skills.

For both the GM and the player, the need to learn clear communication is of the utmost importance, as explaining an idea, plan or narrative so that a large assortment of different individuals can all quickly grasp the essence of it, is a very useful skill. And with it also comes secondary skills such as improving customer interactions and managing tensions and disputes in the workplace.


An RPG is based on the concept of a cooperative basis, of working together to overcome large (epic) challenges that no individual player could face alone. With that of course also comes the skills and challenges required to effectively work as a team though.

RPG’s offer low risk- or risk-free environments where players can be part of a group to practice and test out roles within a team. For example, how they fair as leaders, followers, ancillary roles and so forth. With effective feedback and debriefing, players can learn how effective they were and where they need to improve.

For the GM, it also teaches them how to motivate teams. As a manager or leader within a business, motivating teams can often be the most challenging aspect. Within an RPG, you can learn and practice which intrinsic motivational methods work best, to get the most out of your team. Since an RPG is all make-believe, short-term motivators like extrinsic rewards will not always work.

Critical thinking

Often the most desired skill, but one of the most difficult to practice is critical thinking. If a GM has a well-designed narrative scenario, then it will have layers of problems that players must figure out solutions to achieve the myriad of goals and objectives laid out before them. Imagine it as onion, peeling away each layer, uncovering new clues and answers, each leading closer to the resolution of the overarching dilemma. I’m sure project managers can relate to this metaphor.

Within a good scenario, players can test out new methodologies, techniques, and theories and iterate upon them as the story continues. A skilled GM will offer ample opportunities for their players to think on their feet, and deal with the unexpected, while often managing scarce resources. All things that they would encounter in a real VUCA world.

What the role-playing experience primarily does within this area is develop your player’s ability to improvise and their capability for innovative thinking. To overcome the unexpected challenges in the imagined scenario, they may not be perfectly equipped for it, and therefore they will need to think outside of the box to come up with new ways to meet the challenge head-on and win.

Risk assessment

The final point does relate to the previous one in some way. Dealing with the unexpected intelligently is a form of risk assessment and strategy and planning. Knowing who you have on your team, what resources and skills you and how to approach the challenge are all things that occur in a good RPG.

As a player you will need to quickly learn how to assess, manage and spread the risk as best you can, with what you have. And you will quickly learn that there is no such thing as the perfect team, just the one you have right now. So, you will need to come up with the best answer you can, in the time the GM gives you.

Fun & Feedback

The final two aspects that a good role-playing experience should teach both leaders and teams is that the experience should be fun, and that feedback should be given immediately and regularly.

Basically, it’s fun to role-play, to take on a different character or expand upon an aspect of your own character/personality. And the bonus of that is that it embeds learning far more strongly in a player due to the enjoyment of the narrative and the inherent teamwork required. The experience also becomes a shared memory, increasing the longevity of both the learning but also of the bond of the group.

And as the RPG is a real-time experience, the feedback can be immediate, due to the fluid nature of a confined, imaginary narrative space. Players can experience the outcome and consequences of their actions, as soon as they take them, without needing to wait for an email or a release date.


Hopefully, this piece has shown you the various possibilities that role-playing experiences can offer leaders, teams, and businesses. And these experiences can be done in a half-day session, full day, multiple days, or even as long-term side experiences that continually help improve you and your colleagues.

The final thing I will say from the perspective of good leadership training, within a role-playing experience like Dungeons & Dragons, or other varieties, the Game Master’s last most important task is to ensure that everyone enjoys the experience and that it ends on time for everyone involved. Much like a good leader ensure that everyone gets to go home to their personal lives, on time.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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