Dungeons, Dragons, and Resilience: Role playing as a thought model for complex resilience


Sketch of sword, shield, heart and ribbon

Gamemaster (GM): You start climbing the cliff and one of the storm giants drops a rock on you. What’s your armor class?

Player: Full plate armor, so 18! That’s good, right?

GM: <rolls a 20-sided die> I rolled a 19…so…not good enough. <rolls more dice> You take 15 points of damage.

Player: That’s two more than my current hit points.

GM: You’re incapacitated. If your cleric can heal you before the giant climbs down to finish you off, you can get back into the fight.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Howard Smith, PhD is the Integration Team Lead at Applied Research Associates, Inc. (ARA).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Howard Smith, PhD is the Integration Team Lead at Applied Research Associates, Inc. (ARA).

In the 1970’s, game designer (and former insurance underwriter) Gary Gygax invented a game for simulating medieval combat he called Chainmail. This basic system then became the melee mechanics for his next game, Dungeons and Dragons. Almost every role-playing game since, in-person or online, has drawn inspiration from or elaborated on this model. Today and every day around the globe, millions of people (both affectionately and derisively called ‘gamers’) play in-person or online role-playing games. They simulate repeated interactions between attackers (which can be intelligent adversaries or forces of nature) and defenders. They roll dice or depend on computers to do the dice rolling, and they fret and argue the details about how to best prepare for, resolve, and ‘survive’ these encounters.

The core elements of armed combat simulation involve two essential characteristics of the defender called statistics (or stats) by gamers:

Armor class (AC): Armor represents the ability to resist the effect of an ‘attack.’ Characters with a lot of armor can wade into the thick of battle and emerge unscathed.

Hit points (HP): Hit points represent the ability to sustain damage without becoming incapacitated. Frail characters have fewer HP than hardy characters.

A third critical characteristic is healing. This isn’t typically a represented as a single number, because it often takes the form of external aid: the magic of clerics or potions in fantasy games; or bandaging and natural recovery in more ‘realistic’ games.

The way that role players have approached these three characteristics have spawned standard archetypes designed maximize the value of each element:

The first archetype, a tank is a highly armored character. Players create high AC tanks to be as impervious as possible to physical damage. The trade-offs are usually reduced agility (all that armor weighs you down…let’s hope it doesn’t rain), and often, high monetary cost. And no type of armor is impervious to all forms of attack. A crafty GM or simulation can and will exploit the weakness of the strongest armor.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s book that inspired both Gary Gygax’s and Peter Jackson’s subsequent (much longer) creations, the Dwarven King Thorin Oakenshield (his AC is so high it’s even part of his name) and his band of warriors are the embodiment of this tank archetype.

The second archetype, a barbarian often clad in nothing but a loincloth, eschews AC in favor of HP. This character is the Timex of role-playing. It can take a licking and keep on ticking. But, if the attacker is as stubborn as a Dwarven king, eventually even the hardiest of barbarians can be laid low by repeated, persistent attacks.

Again in The Hobbit, specifically as retold by Peter Jackson, Azog the Orc Chieftain (clad in nothing but a loincloth) is the embodiment of the high HP barbarian. In the Five Armies film, his ultimate duel with Thorin (spoiler alert) kills them both, but not quickly. Thorin deflects much of Azog’s damage, and Thorin just can’t get seem to pile up enough damage to get Azog to die (and stay dead).

The third archetype, the troll, is a character that rapidly regenerates HP. A troll doesn’t need costly AC or a (comparatively) burly frame, because it can heal faster than an attacker can pile it on. Too much burst damage from an attack can overwhelm even the troll’s rapid healing so much that it can’t keep up.

In a different film universe, Marvel’s Wolverine character (and his hipster version with apparently lower HP: Deadpool) exemplifies the remarkable resilience value of almost instantaneous healing. Even atomic bomb blasts aren’t an insurmountable challenge for a fully-functional Logan.

If you’re in the resilience field (and you’ve read this far), you already realize the parallels. AC, HP, and healing are all fundamental types of resilience possessed by individuals, communities, and systems. When I drew the original version of the resilience analogy picture in the header of this article on a whiteboard three years ago, I was able to easily convert a number of divergent concepts from varying resilience models to this analogy. For resilience professionals, many of our conversations and definitions of resilience emphasize one or more of these elements.

At the recent DC launch of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute (GRI), luminaries in our field gathered to talk about the topic. It was interesting to me that several of the cocktail party conversations focused on alternate definitions of the core concept of our gathering. The meaning of resilience was discussed at various times throughout the evening:

“Resilient infrastructure is engineered to keep functioning despite catastrophic damage.”

“Resilience is everyone in the neighborhood putting out sandbags to brace against the storm surge, because a single house with sandbags still can’t resist a flood.”

“Resilience is the ability to get back up again after you’ve been pushed down.”

Well which is it? It’s all three. It’s AC, HP, and healing.

Dr. Stephen Flynn, founder of GRI, said resilience to him is the idea of ‘evolutionary adaptability’ in the face of changing risks and threats. That’s a sensible approach that can include multiple dimensions of resilience, and gives us a conceptual paradigm that acknowledges and facilitates trade-offs between the dimensions.

But Steve’s adaptability paradigm, to be actionable, requires persistent and meaningful engagement by a broad array of stakeholders. It requires creativity and critical thinking about the elements of resilience across a varied system of interests and equities. It requires committed investments of time and resources to solve the problems of infrastructure and systems that often contain critical vulnerabilities.

That kind of engagement is a hard problem for policy analysts who work in cross-cutting, predictive issues like resilience. Maybe harder than the technical problem of determining optimal solutions. The highest hurdle for us is often holding policy makers’ and stakeholders’ attention to issues of long-range preparation for future possible crises in the face of more pressing competing demands.

Add to this challenge the fact that policy discussions about risk and resilience can quickly get pretty esoteric and technical for laypeople. These laypeople are the constituents, stakeholders, and decision-makers who will ultimately be responsible for resourcing and executing resilience-building activities.

Imagine yourself telling those stakeholders: “Let’s all sit around a table today for an indefinitely long time, and deal with an unknown number of problems of increasing complexity and adversity, some apparently intractable, all taxing your limited community resources and collective problem-solving skills. Oh, and I am going make you deal with intricate mathematical issues of joint statistical probability and risk.”

Tell a gamer that same thing and hand him a 20-sided die and a character sheet, and he’ll gladly buy a full night’s supply of soda, chips and pizza to be allowed to join the fun. Because that’s the definition of a role-playing game. Put that online, and she’ll happily pay a monthly subscription fee and use the simulated world as a source of relaxation and recreation to get away from the urgent stresses of her everyday world.

Why? Because role-playing is storytelling, and, at its core, humorous. The value of this proposed fantasy role-playing analogy for real-world resilience is found in both elements: narrative and humor.

In this context, humor is not trivializing, it’s not undermining. Humor is found in the harmless violation of preconceived expectations. A joke leads you in one direction, and then makes you laugh by tugging you quickly in the other, with pleasant surprise and without harm. A GM puts fictional characters (that the gamers care about) in absurdly perilous conditions. The rationally expected successful resolution to all that peril in the story (because you don’t keep playing with a GM that keeps killing your painstakingly envisioned characters, unless it’s advertised as a Game of Thrones storyline) is nonetheless an emotionally humorous surprise to the players.

When you expect things to be one way, and instead of it being that way it turns out to be different in an enjoyable way, your body reacts with a release of chemicals that stimulate your mind to emphasize the salience of that moment. You feel it as positive reinforcement of the novelty of the situation and express it as laughter. You laugh to signal that, in that moment, you learned something new and it didn’t hurt you to learn it.

I was sitting on a plane reading one of my favorite books on my tablet. I frequently laughed out loud, so often that the woman sitting next to me finally said “That must be really funny. What are you reading?” She was probably expecting I would respond with a book by Chelsea Handler or an essay by Dave Barry or a work of some other humorist. Instead I said, “It’s a book by Daniel Kahneman, called, Thinking, Fast and Slow

‘Aha!’ moments are often ‘haha!’ moments. One of the most pleasant and humorous violations of expectations is when you discover you can solve a problem you didn’t think you could solve. People who are intensely curious (in both senses of the word) are addicted to that pleasurable rush of the ‘aha!’ They’ll toil for years in painstaking studies and careful experiments, and suffer personal hardships in search of that unique, cerebral burst of pleasure.

So as a professor or a policy analyst, when I address a complex and challenging subject and I am trying to help people learn a new way to address that subject, I strive to find the humor in it…maybe too often for some of my students and colleagues (and certainly too often for my children).

I also look for a way to make a story out of it. Here’s where the anthropomorphic element of this role-playing analogy comes into play: it turns resilience concepts into visceral (literally…concerned with the viscera) depictions. It embodies and personifies concepts that are too often merely abstractions. Now, complete with bodies, resilience characters can emerge. Those characters can improve and change with changing conditions. In Steve Flynn’s resilience paradigm, they can evolve and adapt. In narrative terms, they can have adventures.

If you want resilience to improve across the complex system-of-systems where it resides, you need to engage people to actively learn about it and work with it to the point that they want to do it themselves (in their free time for fun would be optimal, but lets not push it). As Miss Frizzle of Magic School Bus says, get them to want to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” It’s surprising to me how much probability and statistics people can understand if you can make it into a game. Students who don’t seem to understand a probability distribution can provide you with a pretty exact intuitive description of the likely frequency of totals from three six-sided dice.

To modify the old adage: You can give a woman a fish, and she can feed herself for a day. But if you teach a woman to fish, she can feed herself for a lifetime. But, if you can teach a woman to learn to fish, then she can also learn to build boats, and predict weather, and protect fisheries, and she’ll create a resilient fishing community that can feed itself for generations. That’s evolutionary adaptability at work.

If you want her to learn, turn your lesson into a story and she’ll feel it. Turn it into a funny story and she’ll feel it, and remember it, and retell it at every opportunity. Stories need characters. This model has characters—tanks and barbarians and trolls (oh my)—funny characters who can teach you serious things. If she can learn to fight a storm giant, and win, she can also learn to be resilient against a coming storm.

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published by Dr. Howard Smith on LinkedIn on June 18, 2017 and has been reposted with permission from the author.