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WM: Dungeon Master and the Boardroom

When Ben Scanlon ’04 decided that brushing up on his presentation skills might help him move up the corporate ladder, he learned that an old favorite pastime held the tools he needed. 

Ben Scanlon ’04 was relocated to Philadelphia a dozen years ago when his wife started medical school. He found a position in product development for Zenith Home Corp., a producer of bathroom products. 

Through feedback and experience, he quickly learned that in the world of product development, presentation and delivery are everything. And he needed to improve. 

“I knew my preparation was intelligent,” Scanlon says, “but I wasn’t doing a great job at communicating that at meetings. I knew I wasn’t presenting myself as positively as I could.” 

Ben used Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop role-playing game (RPG), to sharpen his presentation skills. 

An avid gamer through high school, he got away from playing as he headed to Wabash. After moving to Philadelphia, Scanlon joined a gaming group to establish friendships and soon discovered there were additional benefits to the group. 

“I really enjoy the creativity of these games,” Scanlon says. 

But the vice president of product development at Zenith Home Corp admits the strengthening of his social communication skills was a pleasant surprise. 

“If I think back to when I graduated, that would never have occurred to me at all.” 

Scanlon describes his role of dungeon master as the one responsible for describing environments and running the game. 

“No matter what you think the players are going to do, they’re always going to do something different,” he says. “That’s where you need to deal with these changes in direction. To run the game well, you need to deal with the unexpected and do so as seamlessly as possible. You are reading the table and the players’ reactions.” 

Lon Porter—Wabash’s resident RPG enthusiast, professor of chemistry, and faculty advisor to the Tabletop Gaming Club (Dork Club)—agrees that the skills of a dungeon master are transferrable. 

“It’s about balance,” says Porter. “I see [dungeon mastering] as the same skill set used to moderate a successful discussion in Enduring Questions or freshman tutorial. You clearly have an overarching path in mind for where you’d like the discussion to go. It takes a delicate hand in steering the conversation. Just like my students, I want my players to arrive at a goal, not have it dictated to them.” 

In gaming, as in the world of product development and production, making those reads is essential. Just as some players might be bored with an overly long battle— sometimes lasting months—a potential client may not have interest in the product being pitched. RPGs helped Scanlon sharpen those skills. 

“I can better adjust the message. I’m also more comfortable responding to those unexpected questions and not letting it shake me,” says the political science and history major. “Finding that comfort zone has made a significant difference. In the game, as in dealing with buyers, if you’re able to speak confidently about something, people are going to believe in you.” 

Such confidence is a big change for the kid who originally got into gaming. Self-described as “painfully shy,” Scanlon has established a strong group of friends in the nine-plus years he’s been a part of the group and has honed skills that have helped him succeed in a very competitive marketplace. 

Twenty years ago, he stopped playing games to act more like an adult as he entered Wabash. Now that he has rekindled his enjoyment of gaming, made friends, and even honed professional skills, he sees no reason to stop. 

“Over the last five years, it has become a lot more popular and more widely accepted to play these games in a way that would have, frankly, astonished me when I was a teenager,” says Scanlon. 

“I still find meaning in it,” he says. “I realized playing games doesn’t mean I’m less of an adult. Other people like playing golf. I still enjoy gaming and I’m going to keep doing it.”