Soft Skill Check

Wizard School (Copyright Wizards of the Coast and the artist)

About a month ago, I got an email from my alma mater. For fifteen years, the only time I ever heard from my former university had been when they wanted money, and I figured I had given them plenty of that already through two major changes. I had almost clicked the Delete button when I noticed the email was from the Computer Science department. They wanted me to be a career mentor for some students. Now this was something I could do.

So it was that I showed up on campus last week and met briefly with the organizers from the CS department. It was great. It even felt just like I was back in college because they wanted us to fill out forms and I hadn’t brought anything to write with. Their goals were clear, their plans for us were not. Apparently, there is an enormous worldwide problem with IT workers knowing lots of  great tech stuff and having the people skills of a badger. Having spent my entire adult life in the IT field, this was no surprise to me. I have been, and do occasionally transform into that badger even today.

I was assigned two students. Shortly after we sat down, I asked them what would signify someone being a really good programmer. I got the expected answer of “they write really efficient algorithms.” They were surprised when I told them the ability to work with people — especially non-technical people –was what I had at the top of my list. After all, you can write the most beautiful code in the world, but it doesn’t mean squat if you can’t work with a customer to establish what it is they want, know if you’re doing it right, and manage their expectations effectively. You can’t be effective if nobody wants to work with you. It’s just the way of the world.

Gamers Are Vulnerable To Soft Skills Too

It comes as little surprise to me, then, that when I look back on all the really good DM’s I’ve ever played with, I see a 10d6 fireball made out of people skills. These people manage to complete the cat-herding ritual that is holding a weekly game night. A lot of them work with their players individually to give each one something personal to enjoy in-game. They manage interpersonal conflicts, both in and out of game. They manage the expectations of their players. And they do it while running a game.

This concept certainly extends to players as well. A party divided, either in or out of game, is both vulnerable and not very fun to play in. Really good players work well as part of a team and find their individual place within it. They also work with the DM and don’t spotlight hog at the party’s expense.

Best of all, people skills are platform- and edition-agnostic. I even have it on good authority they’ll work with D&D Next. (I hope that’s not breaking any NDA’s.)

How To Prepare Fresh Meat

My initial experience mentoring also made me consider something else. I’m, in theory, the first exposure to “the real deal” these guys will get to their chosen career (Pelor help them!) It would probably be a good idea if I didn’t bury them under a mountain of details they can’t process. After all, while I absolutely think people should sanitize their inputs, unit test everything into oblivion, and generally try to avoid opening a billion database connections at the same time — well, they’re just learning to code. I can introduce them to new stuff and nudge them toward places they can learn things that will be useful, but turning the Firehose of Knowledge on them would likely be counterproductive.

My gaming group got several brand-new-to-D&D players over the last couple years, and them getting overwhelmed has always been one of my biggest fears. People who get totally lost on day 1 in a recreational activity are 758% more likely to quit than those who don’t. It’s science. Yet, I’m sure most of you have seen the brand new player show up to D&D, never having played anything even remotely like it, and had the group’s minmaxer help them roll their character up. Numbers and hasty explanations fly everywhere, the eyes glaze over, and sometimes they don’t come back.

When a new player shows up, everyone at the table is effectively an ambassador not only to your gaming group but sometimes to gaming itself.

Not one person that ever played D&D has ever rolled up a perfectly optimized character and played to maximum combat effectiveness on their very first day, and even if they did it’s not like Mike Mearls would come crashing through the window on a zipline and give someone a medal for doing so while saying FLAWLESS VICTORY as if he was Shang Tsung. (Unless I’m wrong about this, in which case I totally did this on my first day.)

Conversely, if a new player shows up and everybody is having fun together and supporting each other, I’d say it’s a lot likelier that a new person would have a good time. It doesn’t matter that much if someone is playing right. Let them screw up a million times like you did. Let them have fun doing it like you did.

… Or you can get into a 45 minute fight over, say, who takes which watch when they camp and where the new person’s elf ranger should be in the order because they trance and how it’s incredibly inefficient to do it any other way not that I’m bitter or anything.

That’s it. As a new player, I quit gaming before I start. I have invented time travel over a campfire-related dispute. THANKS, OBAMA.