Solid decision-making is a valuable skill in any context, but it’s an area where I’ve really grown since I started leading my D&D friends on adventures that require a consensus on a course of direction.
Here’s what I think…
Often, my players will have different ideas on how to approach a particular problem. For example, they may have followed some tracks from a ransacked cart on the road back to a small cave that, at face value, doesn’t have any unusual appearance. The wizard in the group casts Detect Magic and learns that there is a magical item inside the cave. Now what do they do?
The wizard wants to go investigate the magical item, sneaking into the cave and hoping they don’t get caught. The barbarian wants to charge in, swords out, and attack anything that moves. The bard suggests that they put on a loud performance outside the cave to draw out whatever monsters might be inside. The ranger suggests searching around the cave to see if there are any more clues or secret entrances.
Each player has a reasonable approach–one that plays to their specific strengths and goals. But they can’t each go off to pursue their goal alone and expect any sort of competent resolution.
We can’t stay here.
To succeed, the entire team needs to decide on one approach and stick to it. Author Patrick Lencioni identifies this potential problem in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. This dysfunction—a lack of commitment—often results in a failed plan that goes wrong and devolves into teammates blaming each other.
Because I act as the Dungeon Master and do not participate in the game as a regular player, I have no place in these decisions. It is completely up to the team members to decide what they want to do and how they want to do it. Once the group has determined what they want to do, I follow through with the consequences of that decision.
Say the party decides to sneak around the cave entrance and see if they can find another way in, but they don’t closely investigate the area around them. Okay, well, the barbarian just stepped into a bear trap. They take three points of damage. Also, they’ve alerted the entire goblin troupe hiding in the cave to their presence.
Because of my removed perspective, I’ve been able to observe various decision-making strategies my players have used and connect them to similar strategies I’ve seen teams using at the office.
3 Approaches to Deliberation & Decision-Making
The most obvious approach to solving a disagreement is to vote on it. In this approach, every team member gets to present a solution to the problem. Everyone discusses the pros and cons of the proposed solutions. Then, team members vote on a solution.
The team can come to a decision through a single round of voting, or if there is large distribution of votes, they can use a tournament style where the process is repeated, eliminating the lowest-voted option until only one remains. This approach is ideal for giving everyone in the team or party an equal voice in the decision-making process. But it does take a large amount of time to present options and debate them.
Sometimes, a decision needs to be made quickly. The team doesn’t have the time to sit and debate sixteen different solutions to a problem. They need one solution, and they need it now.
In this case, a leader, preferably one that the team has agreed to entrust with this responsibility, will make the choice. This leader is typically in the best position to make the best decision. They either know more information or can capitalize on their strategic strengths. The teammates trust that the leader will make a choice that protects each of their interests to the best of their abilities.
This approach is much faster than democracy, but it does place a large amount of trust in the chosen leader. If that leader’s choice doesn’t reflect the general goals of the team as a whole, it can leave teammates feeling unheard and left out.
“I’ve Already Chosen”
I’ve encountered this a lot with a hot-headed player in my group. While the rest of the party is discussing various approaches, this player turns to me and says, “I do X.” They disregard the decision-making of the rest of the group and decide that they will now do exactly what they want to do.
This is an approach that prevents the rest of the team from planning. It leaves them scrambling to accommodate this new change of events, and in general, it indicates that this team member does not give a shit.
This approach is a poor decision-making tool in any situation. It can have “deadly” results in a D&D game, but the real-world consequences of this kind of decision making can be far more dire. Software architecture decisions made by a single developer could result in an unclear mental model of the system. Feature prioritization choices made without feedback from user testing could set the product on the wrong course. Making a fast choice on your own may seem like a time-optimizing solution, but it will almost always cause problems, and it will damage your teammates’ trust in you.
There are, of course, more processes to go through when making decisions–you could rotate the leadership role amongst teammates, or ask an external party to make the decision for you. You could even take the Dungeons and Dragons approach and roll some dice to see what happens.
Each process has its own pros and cons (even the “I’ve Decided” approach gets something done). Be sure to choose a method that will help your teammates feel like they’ve had a say in the decision-making process, be it direct voting or a leader they feel has their best interests at heart. Careful deliberation makes a world of difference.
Come back next week Sunday for the next post in the series: