Roll +3 vs the Future
At one point during the multiple days of futures workshops held over the last week, one of my colleagues asked me where I'd learned to facilitate groups. After confirming that he thought I was doing it well, and wanted to learn more (as opposed to wanting to know what to avoid), I told him, and he was a little surprised. You might be, too.
Dungeons & Dragons made me a professional futurist.
Not the subject matter, of course. For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons (hereafter D&D) is kind of like World of Warcraft, with elves and wizards and inappropriately violent people with heavy swords, all in a vaguely medieval setting. The big difference between D&D and WoW is that D&D isn't played on the computer; it requires you and a handful of friends to sit around a table that's covered with sheets of paper, stacks of books with embarrassing covers, and dice. Lots of dice. The other big difference is that D&D emerged in the 1970s, and WoW is totally a ripoff. But I digress.
For the most part, when I played D&D in the 1980s, I served as the "dungeon master" (DM) for the games -- that is, the guy who came up with the stories, managed the games, and threw various hazards at the players. It's not an easy task: the three to five players sitting with you have to run their individual characters, but the DM has to be everything else in the world, and has to make sure that the story moves along fast enough to keep the players interested but carefully enough that the players don't feel railroaded. That role taught me a couple of things that still shape my thinking.
The first is the art of world-building. Although the current version of D&D (as well as the various other surviving non-computer role-playing games) includes a pre-made world in which to play, back in the day we didn't have pre-constructed settings with collections of conflicts and lore and a lengthy backstory, and we liked it. We had to make our own worlds. And if they were to be interesting settings for narrative play, they had to be detailed, internally-consistent, rich with history and key driving forces, and open to players creating novel strategies to deal with seemingly world-shaking threats.
The last part is especially important. The art of world-building isn't the same as the art of story-telling. Stories focus on the characters, and have a strong narrative arc. World-building creates the environment in which the player's characters exist, and offers hooks and platforms upon which the players can, collaboratively, create their own stories.
The parallels here between world-building in D&D and scenario construction for futures work should be obvious. Scenarios have to be detailed, internally-consistent, rich with history and key driving forces, and open to "players" -- that is, the strategists and citizens reading the scenarios -- developing their own strategies of operation. In this case, however, futures scenarios involve the emergence of nanomanufacturing or disruptive climate change rather than the emergence of wizard-kings or disruptive undead hordes.
The second lesson from D&D is the art of invisible guidance. This is where the facilitation skills come into play -- the goal of a DM (facilitator) is to get the players (participants) to follow a particular story-line (strategic argument) and reach a given end-point while making the players (participants) feel as if they'd arrived there naturally. As a facilitator, standing up and telling the participants what they should be understanding and deciding is worse than ineffective, it's counter-productive. Similarly, when a DM gives the players no choice but to accept a quest or follow a path, players often end up pushing back.
Why not just let the players or participants follow where their interests lead? Ideally, that would be wonderful, but both facilitators and dungeon masters have real-world limits on time. If an organization is paying me for seven hours of futures consultation, I had better make sure that what I produce by the end of the day is something that the organization finds worthwhile and appropriate. If a group of friends is going to take a full night out of a busy week to get together and play a game, I had better make sure that they have fun during that session, and feel like they've progressed.
The trick, then, is to make sure that the participants and players move towards an end-point I have in my head without me telling them what that end-point will be. I don't have a checklist for this; for me, it's a style or practice that emerged out of years (a few decades, really) of on-the-job learning. One element that's certain: I always let the participants & players follow tangents for awhile before nudging them back towards the intended narrative. In nearly every case, this provides a better context for the ensuing conversation/game-play.
Obviously, running a D&D game and facilitating a futures workshop have numerous fundamental differences, and I don't want to make more of the comparison than is warranted. But I am at the same time quite convinced that I wouldn't be able to do what I do today without the experience I've had playing these sorts of games. I suspect that, in a variety of important ways, the kinds of thinking and practices encouraged by those games are precisely those that have enormous value today: open-ended strategy; an embrace of the unexpected; and a fundamental reliance on asking "what if?"