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Using Dungeons and Dragons to Navigate the Knauss Fellowship

By Daniel Takaki,
Minnesota Sea Grant Knauss Fellow,
GEO Blue Planet Initiative Policy Fellow


My position as the Knauss Policy Fellow working on the GEO Blue Planet Initiative has required organization, flexibility, creativity, teamwork, and comfort with (lots) of learning on the job. The thing above all that has helped me to navigate these challenges is my role as a Dungeon Master (abbreviated as DM) in Dungeons and Dragons. I thought it would be fun to share with current and future fellows five different ways in which being a DM has helped me in my role as a Knauss Fellow and as a member of GEO Blue Planet. 




My fellowship position

I work with an initiative called the GEO Blue Planet Initiative. As a part of the Group on Earth Observations, or GEO, Blue Planet is an initiative focused on the relationship between oceans and society. This initiative is made up of ocean and coastal-observers, social scientists, and end-user representatives from a variety of stakeholder groups. In my position, I serve on the Initiative’s management committee and work regularly with a wide-breadth of different projects, regions, organizations, and agencies all around the world focusing on how ocean observations can both better our oceans and our society. At times, the realm of international ocean management and project coordination can be daunting, from compiling information on global marine litter data for the United Nations Environment Programme to just organizing a meeting across seven different time zones. 



1. Organization is key

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to work on a number of different projects. To give a few examples, I coordinate projects and activities to help support the UN Environment Sustainable Development Goals that focus on marine litter and coastal eutrophication, I work on a project that aims to create a monitoring and alert system for oil spills and sargassum outbreak events in the Caribbean, and I also help facilitate resource mobilization efforts to obtain funding for a project that is designed to alert small island states to flooding events on coral reef lined islands.


With all of these incredible projects, staying organized has been crucial to my efficiency. As a DM, I juggle multiple “projects” too: I create different characters and stories, and within each story, there are monsters, missions, and quests I need to prepare for my friends to encounter. Though there is no perfect formula or method for organization, D&D has allowed me to make a system in which I always can find the information I need at a moment’s notice. In a job where I’m working with and overseeing so many different projects, meetings, and people, the organization skills I have developed through D&D have been incredibly useful during my fellowship. 


Whether through D&D or another route, finding a method early on to keep yourself organized amidst the many roles you’ll be filling will make your transition into the fellowship smooth as can be. 



2. Stay Flexible

This one is pretty straightforward – be flexible with people, especially when trying to schedule a meeting. Because of the nature of this position, I work with a lot of international partners, which allows for great collaboration and insight. That said, trying to schedule meetings where everyone can be there and at a convenient time is difficult, especially across multiple time zones. When I play D&D, part of the DM role is organizing when the session will be held. With a group of eight people with full time jobs and other interests, finding a time for everyone to get together is hard. In both work and D&D, I’ve learned to understand that not everyone will be able to make every meeting and I will often need to make sure that the pertinent information gets to everyone involved. 


When working on projects around the world, you’re going to have to take calls at 6:00 AM with or 9:00 PM with partners in Australia sometimes, but just remember, you’re working towards a common goal and people will appreciate that you’re making an effort to make their voices heard.



3. Creativity can be a really good thing

An exciting aspect of the fellowship is getting to potentially step outside of your comfort zone, and with that, bring a really unique and interesting perspective into an area that may not have had someone with your background! You have the opportunity to bring in creative ways to solve problems and to share your ideas. As a DM, I craft a story for the players to navigate through in whatever manner they choose. The best games don’t limit the players to one strict line of thought or one specific path – I have to create opportunities for your players to do different things that will ultimately lead them to where they need to be. The game itself is also subject to chance and a roll of the dice, literally. You can be planning for one thing, and then on a dime (or a dice roll), something can change the course of the story completely. 


Keeping an open mind and adapting on the fly can be a beneficial skill in both D&D and your fellowship. There are goals you’re going to want to achieve, but the way you get to them aren’t always determined, and so stretching your imagination and perspective is extremely beneficial to both you and your team.




4. You’re part of a team – reliability and accountability are essential

While organization can get you so far, sometimes you’ll get assigned things with short turnaround times. There have been a number of occasions where I’ve been tasked to finish or edit a paper or brief on short notice, prepare a presentation quickly, or schedule a last minute meeting, and it’s important to do good and efficient work despite the time crunch. My office, supervisors, and collaborators are counting on me to do my part and maintaining that trust and reliability is important. Just as when I DM, I must be prepared and have interesting input for my friends to work with because they are counting on me to have information about towns and quests for them to go on. 


Working efficiently is crucial in any work environment, but especially as a fellow, where you’re often tasked to do things on a quick turnaround and maintaining your quality of work is equally as important as hitting a deadline. Keeping an efficient habit of work will help your team recognize that you can be counted on to get a task done, and they will be more understanding in a situation where something comes up that inhibits you from getting something done on time. You’re a part of a team from your own state Sea Grant, your office, to the Knauss Fellowship as a whole, and so establishing that you can be counted on to do your work and be a good representative for your team can go an awfully long way.



5. It’s okay not to know everything

Like most jobs, this position has had ample opportunity and need for learning on the job. My background is primarily in environmental engineering and freshwater, so in transitioning into a position that focuses on the ocean and marine environment, coupled with using satellite and in situ observations, there was a big learning curve. D&D has decades of lore, hundreds of monsters and a lot rules, so being an expert on all of those things, especially as a DM, the person who’s supposed to know most of these things, can be a bit intimidating. The truth is though, both as a DM and as a Fellow, it’s okay not to know everything and it is okay to make mistakes. One of the great things about this fellowship is that everyone knows you’re a fellow, and there are 60-some other fellows that are wading into the deep end of a new position that they’ve never had. 

As a DM, I sometimes will make the wrong call or have to do some extra research on a topic before a session. The same applies for this job. I don’t know everything about which satellites report out low-resolution or high-resolution images that are off-handedly being referenced during a meeting and I certainly have had to do a lot of extra reading and working with others to get a full understanding of the big picture of a given project. Just like D&D, if you’re ever confused or not in the know, it’s okay! As long as you communicate with your co-workers and willing to learn and improve yourself, people are generally going to be understanding and willing to help when they can.


Enjoy the Adventure

Any time you find yourself in a new position, things can seem both exciting and overwhelming. You’re going to have highs and lows during your fellowship and you’re going to get opportunities to both explore your interests and to grow. As a DM, I’ve experienced a lot of the same highs and lows, just masked with the element of fantasy and chaos. Both the Knauss Fellowship and Dungeons and Dragons have allowed me the opportunity to stretch my imagination beyond what I knew possible and to explore different parts of the world (and a made up world). The work will at times be hard, sometimes slow, but more often than not, enjoyable and rewarding. Using your experiences to help guide the way you navigate this year will only make things better and help you get the most out of your short time in the fellowship.



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