I’m about to attempt the impossible. I want to persuade you, with your doctorate of jurisprudence, to become a better lawyer by playing Dungeons & Dragons. I know, it’s insane. But stay with me, because I’m serious. Role-playing Dungeons & Dragons is practical training for attorneys.
For the four or five readers who’ve never heard of D&D, It is the world’s most popular tabletop role-playing game. In 2017, 8.6 million Americans played D&D. Of course, you might think it’s only for geeks, for nerds, and you are correct. But if you’re an attorney, you’ve spent years cooped up in a library studying ancient words to recite in court. Kind of like spells.
You’re a Nerd, Jess
A group of gamers plays characters within a specialized set of rules. A small firm runs clients within a specialized set of laws. It’s a perfect analogy. And like a law firm, players in Dungeons & Dragons specialize. Your nonprofit, intellectual property and patent lawyers are like clerics, rogues and wizards.
How Dungeons & Dragons Works, In Brief
Just as a war room of attorneys sets off to win a case, a band of gamers sets out on a quest to defeat a villain. Here is a very high-pass explanation of the game:
- Players create characters.
- They embark on a quest.
- They explore dungeons, fight mythical creatures, and battle a final boss.
But there’s more to this game than chainmail and spells.
There’s an opportunity to hone your edge as a lawyer – and have fun while doing it. Like developing soft skills. You know all about soft skills because you read Forbes and you’re not an idiot, but here’s the thing: How do you grow them? Even if you take classes, you can’t actually learn them until you put them into practice. It’s like trying to master the Viennese waltz by watching “So You Think You Can Dance.” You can only develop your character by exerting those qualities that define character.
Which is something D&D knows extremely well.
The game’s all about character. Tabletop role-playing games teach the kind of soft skills you’d learn in an expensive webinar. They might stay with you longer, too. You can ask science if you need to verify my astounding claims.
For this article, I spent months as the dungeon master for an ongoing adventure with four friends. I’d never played before March 2019. Yet, to serve thee, gentle reader, I gathered my provisions. I invoked a vast, mysterious world out of thin air. I guided a nervous hobbit, two hell-for-breakfast humans and an animated skeleton.
Through countless crazy adventures, I learned how to value myself. How to work with a ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells. And finally, how to prove myself in a fight. To the death.
In a dungeon. With a dragon.
How Role-Playing Reveals Your Character
OK, I admit the time I spent huddled around a table talking about magic in a bad English accent has affected me a wee bit. So, bear with me as I attempt to explain how D&D can make you a better lawyer.
The chamber you are in is dark and dank. A shadow’s fallen over the front of the room and, from its depths, two smoldering coals glare down at you. You muster up your courage. You crack open your book of spells. Dark knowledge clouds your glowering countenance. You mutter your desperate incantation: “Your honor, may I approach the bench?”
Cast your first spell: Nosce te ipsum!
Nosce te ipsum — know thyself — was a favored aphorism of Greek sages and Roman senators. In Dungeons & Dragons, your very first action is to create a new self. Using dice, you roll for values in traits like strength and dexterity. You collect these values on a character sheet so you may refer to them as you play. There’s a lesson here. Quantifying yourself is a good idea. We do it already — your bio is 100% filled in on LinkedIn.
But where have you measured your internal values? And what are they? A D&D character sheet quantifies what makes you unique. It measures physical qualities (strength, dexterity). But it also measures qualities no one can see (wisdom, intelligence, charisma). It requires you to list your ideals, your personality traits, the ideals you bond with — and your flaws. It has a blank spot for your origin story.
Because D&D knows this story drives you.
Who you are, where you come from, and why you have taken your unique path matters.
For instance, a new study shows that the …
Above, the glowering ruby red eyes seem to narrow. They focus their dark energy on you, a mere halfling. For a moment you shiver with doubt. But then you take stock of your traits. Your internal virtues. You remember that you are a fierce halfling wizard. You have a book full of spells — you learned them at DePaul University School of Law. You came here to win a secondary judgment in an intellectual property trial. You look up to the bench and whisper to yourself: “Bring it, gavel girl.”
Yet, Forsooth, Sire, How Doth D&D Appeareth Upon My Resume?
This is a thought experiment, not a CLE class. It doth not appeareth upon thy resume, halfling. It giveth thee a new perspective, a unique point of view, to observe thyself. Forsooth.
- Who are you and how did you end up as a lawyer?
- What’s your backstory?
- What flaws inform your working persona?
In D&D, you roll dice to create those traits out of thin air. But in real life, you develop these over the years. You quantify them through testing and observing. Maybe through an Enneagram or a Briggs-Meyer test. Or maybe just use a D&D character sheet. Here are typical D&D stats for our halfling:
- Class & Level: Third-Level Wizard
- Background: Acolyte Race: Lightfoot Halfling
- Alignment: Chaotic Good
You can do the same thing for yourself if you tweak the meaning of the categories a smidge:
- Class & Level: Third-Year Associate in Intellectual Property Law
- Background: Engineering
- Race: IP Law
- Alignment: Lawful Good
Thy First Dungeons & Dragons Quest: Know Ye Value, Halfling
The players in your D&D party will share their character sheets. But at your firm, you’ll have to rely on acute observation. You can check your legal crew the same way you assessed yourself. It’s not Myers-Briggs, but it’s not half bad.
- The wizened cleric is Walter, the junior partner running your case.
- The feisty young hobbit is Jeanine, in her second year. She feels like she has to prove herself a little more than most lawyers in her class. She’s brilliant and can dismantle opposing arguments like it’s a level-one dungeon trap.
- Your fighter is a fourth-year associate in her second career. She was a fluid dynamics engineer and an occupational health professional. She has science degrees from Notre Dame. She called at DePaul. She’s in the Order of the Coif. She cuts through opposing counsel like a long sword through butter and they know it and they’re scared.
- But your dwarf is your secret weapon. He’s a living LexisNexis search. He recites precedent with the instant and accurate delivery of a savant.
You turn to your quest mates. A wizened cleric. A feisty young hobbit. A battle-hardened fighter. A first-level wizard dwarf with a photogenic recall of precedent. Most of the experiences you’ll have are skirmishes of increasing complexity. The stakes will start out low — just knocking off a couple of orcs in a dark forest. But as the brawls get bigger, so do the risks. And so do the connections between the players.
It’s common for players to follow a quest with the same group playing the same characters for years. A game in London is in its 40th year of continuous play. Spending time with the same players and characters builds a bond of trust and intuition. The characters know how their weird set of spells and skills and traits meshes with those of their party. They succeed through adventure and combat, leveraging attributes during their quest.
Suddenly, a dragon roars out of the darkness.
It may all be fantasy. It may be dorkish goofballery. And maybe you’re thinking there’s no way you’d waste time playing a game to hone your legal edge. And perhaps you’re right. Even though science tells us play is vital and that Dungeons & Dragons has cognitive and emotional benefits. Maybe it’s just a little too much. Besides, you don’t have time for this. Your case is going to trial in three weeks. Still …
How Dungeons & Dragons Keeps Your Head in the Game
If you don’t give your head a break once in a while, you’ll sputter out like a dungeon torch in a stygian wind. Sometimes, to keep your head in the game, you need to get it out. Tabletop games affect players much differently than video games. Both offer stress relief. But tabletop gaming Dungeons & Dragons requires you to be creative. It makes you tweak soft skills like teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving and conflict resolution. These form the bedrock for the social and intangible building blocks of a good team. Or a great career in law. You are participating in a story — both telling and hearing it.
D&D unlocks your mind from the ceaseless pressure.
It’s like reading a book or watching a movie. At some point, you engage the willing suspension of disbelief and find yourself in the story.
This is the transportation theory of psychology. You’re transported by narrative into the world the narrative describes. You can be passively engaged, like a reader, or dynamically engaged, like a performer. In Dungeons & Dragons, you are both. In fact …
From the billowing dark, bright crimson embers become the eyes of an ancient serpent. Countless battles have scarred its coiled body. Its impenetrable scales reflect the dull light of fire it blows from its snout. In its hand is a gargantuan tome written in an unintelligible tongue. The dragon slams the book onto the floor. It opens the pages. It reads in its rumbling, lithic voice, “Halfling! Prepare thyself!” You can feel your team rise behind you. You’ve trained for this. You’ve fought for this. You draw your sword and charge. Your dwarf hurls withering precedent at lightning speed. Your fighter leaps into the air to deal a shattering fact from the deposition while your wizened wizard points his staff toward the bench. “Your honor, I call for a mistrial …”
Illustration © Pikist.
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