My First Time on the Other Side of the Screen

I messed up rules, I forgot what I said, and didn’t add any of the flavor descriptions I had planned. But, people had fun so that’s OK. After three years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, I survived my first session as a Dungeon Master.

Once a year my employer gathers all our distributed workforce for a week of in-person work. My coworker Payton organized some groups to play in the downtime we have some evenings. He wrote the scenario, provided pre-gen characters, dice, pencils, everything! Payton also asked people if they wanted to play, DM, or “play but could DM if needed.” I chose option 3.

The game was a one-shot scenario based on Stranger Things called “Unusual Things” for a group of level 2 characters. His description:

Nothing much happens in the mountaintop town of Hawkurns, where the populace mines magical crystals and their kids to get into all kinds of mischief. Recently, however, people have been disappearing, and no one knows why. Rumors of unusual things are everywhere. Can you help solve the mystery before something worse assails this small town?

My players solved the puzzles, found the big bad guy and defeated him! Some of the townsfolk even survived!

Aside from Payton’s organizing, two things helped me a lot for my first time on the other side of the DM screen.

/r/DMAcademy has a lot of good discussions and tips. It also presents a wide array of experiences so I felt like I could handle the weird things my players did. The players still threw me for a loop, but the important thing was that I was fooled into thinking I could handle it.

The other big help was my friend Chris Salzman’s podcast Roll for Topic, where he and Andy Rau roll a d20 to decide what to talk about with their guest GM. (Skip episode 20 if you’ve never listened before, it’s an off-format episode.) Chris runs the 5th Edition game at my coworking space as well as a Blades in the Dark game I’m in with Andy on Roll20. I also recommend listening to your own DM’s podcast if they have one, just to find out how much you messed up their plans.

Chris’ sign-off for the podcast is “Remember, if your players are having fun you’re a great GM” which is the best advice I got.

(The photo at the top is from a different game I was in with maps and miniatures. I forgot to take any pictures of our game, and my hand-drawn maps with beer caps for enemies was much less photogenic)

It’s Ridiculous That Your Company Doesn’t Give You a Paid Sabbatical

Three months off work. Paid. Every five years. That’s the Automattic sabbatical program. And I can’t believe more companies don’t do this.

The Automattic sabbatical is a benefit where every employee is encouraged to take 3 months off every five years at the company. (We’re hiring people passionate about the web, just so you know.) People take a long break from work and do something else, or nothing at all. If you do a search for “Automattic sabbatical” you can find plenty of my coworkers who have blogged about what they did.

It’s easy to write this off as yet another tech excess–like catered everything or laundry or twenty-four/seven massages–but if you look at the benefits and the cost it makes a lot of sense. Almost a no-brainer. Which is why, as it says in big letters up there, it’s ridiculous that your company doesn’t give you a paid sabbatical.

Sabbaticals make companies anti-fragile.

Netflix has a system called “Chaos Monkey.” It randomly turns off servers to test how robust their systems are. By simulating an outage, the engineers are able to build more robust systems that can deal with real outages. The parallel to a sabbatical is clear – it’s making key employees disappear for a little bit. When do you want someone with five years’ experience to train up the team on their job? For three months before sabbatical or the two weeks before they start a new job and leave forever?

I firmly believe this is one of the two most important things to understand about the benefit (the other is the cost, which I’ll get into below). It creates a system where the old guard regularly trains up newer folks to replace them. That means that the organization as a whole is stronger.

Sabbaticals make it easier to hire.

Did you click that hiring link up there, just out of curiosity? If so, you know how attractive a sabbatical program is to people. This may not be useful once more companies catch on and start offering sabbaticals, but for now it’s a clear advantage in hiring talent. Take advantage while you can!

The best way to make hiring cheaper is to not do it. When someone with five years experience leaves due to burnout or boredom, replacing them will take a long time. Keeping folks around and recharging them means lower turnover.

Sabbaticals are cheaper than you think.

There’s one other important thing: how much does this cost? None of this matters if the price tag is too high.

Well, it’s three months salary (and benefits). So your labor cost goes up for that person by 25%. But that’s every five years, so 25% ÷ 5 = 5% increase in labor costs per year. BUT that only applies to people who make it to five years, which is what? Half? So now we’re down to a 2.5% increase in labor costs. That’s less than the the 3% yearly cost-of-living increase!

So we have a way for your organization to organically get the most experienced employees to cross-train on their roles, that costs less than an annual cost-of-living raise AND it reduces churn AND it makes hiring easier. How is this not at more companies!?

Now, it’s true that this isn’t right for every company. If a company does not have to worry about knowledge transfer and retaining institutional knowledge, and it has a plentiful labor supply, it may not make sense. But for everyone else, time to ask your HR why this isn’t a benefit at your company!

WordPress.com in Detroit

Automattic (my employer) has been partnering with Rebrand Detroit to get 100 local, small businesses online.

I’m thrilled that our international company is focusing on Detroit. If you are too (and you are reading this on May 17, 2017) you should come to the Rebrand Cities Salon this afternoon in Midtown.

Matt Mullenweg, the CEO, just posted these new ads showing some of the work that has been done so far: