Emotional Decision Making

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019
Posted in leadership

I’ve been reading THINKING FAST AND SLOW by Daniel Kahneman. There is a real risk this blog temporarily becomes flooded by small bits from this fascinating work.

It includes this really interesting tangent on the possible role of emotion in making good decisions. From the author:

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio proposed that people’s emotional evaluations of outcomes, and the bodily states and the approach and avoidance tendancies associated with them, all play a central role in guiding decision making. Damasio and his colleagues have observed that people who do not display the appropriate emotions before they decide, sometimes because of brain damage, also have an impaired ability to make good decisions. An inability to be guided by a “healthy fear” of bad consequences is a disastrous flaw.

(emphasis mine)

I really need to dig into this further. This correlates with a number of software engineers I’ve worked with who often try to discount or deny the role of emotion in their work. As a result they make sub-optimal decisions, often because they can’t rationalize how that decision will impact the humans who intersect with these decisions.

When coaching leaders on big decisions, I often say something like “If you’re not scared, you’re crazy.” Usually this is meant to reassure and build confidence. Perhaps there is a deeper truth here though.

Dungeon Fate

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018
Posted in roleplaying

It’s a GenCon tradition in our group that we play a pretty half-baked, ill-prepared roleplaying game. This was the origin of such classic adventures as “Journey Through The Mud Mines” and “Take a Train to Go Turn Off a Radio.” This past GenCon was no exception, but we used a different system that I wanted to share.

Inspired by Rob Donoghue’s Blades of Fate writeup, I hacked together a mashup of Dungeon World and Fate Accelerated. This is mostly Rob’s writeup with a few tweaks. Here’s how it works.

This probably won’t make any sense if you’re not already familiar with Fate Accelerated. If you aren’t, good news – it’s a great $5 RPG that you should check out.


I love the core conceit of Dungeon World - failure is frequent and interesting. However, I wanted to graft that onto Fate’s narratively impactful aspects and a system that didn’t assume any particular setting. Dungeon World’s magic is in how well it evokes classic fantasy roleplaying. By contrast, we knew nothing about our setting until we sat down to talk about our characters and start playing.

Dice Rolling

I used the following ladder and corresponding numbers of dice:

  • Terrible - 2df, take worst
  • Poor - 1df
  • Okay - 2df
  • Great - 3df
  • Superb - 4df

This is slightly condensed from Rob’s version. Just like he’s struggled with articulating the difference between “Average” and “Mediocre,” I struggle with the difference between “Mediocre” and “Fair.” Thus, one tighter scale.

When you roll, you toss the corresponding number of Fudge dice and take the best result. That’s why the scale is so abbreviated - there’s no point when you are higher than Superb or worse than Terrible since the result is a foregone conclusion.

Die results are basically Dungeon World’s Defy Danger (that is, what Rob outlined in his article too).

  • + - Success. You succeed
  • (blank) - The GM offers a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice
  • - You fail. Things are about to get interesting.

Approaches & Characters

I kept the six Approaches from Fate Accelerated as-is. The players were mostly new roleplayers and the six Approaches are a fantastic way to help new players not worry too much about the rules and instead narrate their intents.

With a condensed ladder I had to rethink what skills characters get at what levels. I kept the same rough distribution of skills from Fate Accelerated but mapped them to this adjusted ladder (1 at Great, 3 at Okay, 2 at Poor).

Aspects & Fate Points

In this world, invoking an aspect moves you one step up or down the scale as desired. For positive invokes, this is relatively easy since you can add another die to the roll before or after without too much difficulty. However, this means that negative invokes only happen pre-roll. I like to run Fate with mostly pre-roll invokes anyway, but this runs against Fate orthodoxy.

Characters started with two fate points apiece. Since we were a pretty sizeable group, that was a plenty sizeable pool.

Everything Else

Otherwise it was mostly rules-as-written Fate Accelerated. We ditched stunts entirely but I’ve done that in basic FAE before without incident. We experimented briefly with stealing Dungeon World’s “only players roll” ethos but abandoned that midway through when we found the challenge lacking.

For dice rolls, we didn’t use the explicit system that Rob grafted in from Blades in the Dark. The spirit of those was still intact and is a useful way to counteract one of Fate Accelerated’s biggest problems, letting players lean too hard on a single approach. For example, we tried to make it clear that a Forceful solution was not going to be equally effective in all situations or equally safe either.


This played out pretty close to how I hoped, so I’m pretty happy with this hack. For players this was a incredibly fast system to learn. Spending aspect points just adds dice to a pool, and more dice is obviously better. Taking away the option to add +2, reroll, etc from FAE really helped.1

GMing this system is also a breeze - everything has the same fixed difficulty and if you don’t like that, you spend some fate points to make it harder for narratively interesting reasons. This was an end run around one of my only problems with Dungeon World’s fixed difficulties - new characters are too challenged by everything, experienced characters breeze through everything.

That said, I need to spend some time playing with AnyDice probabilities before I return this to the table. It was a little too easy most of the time - I saw fewer failures and blanks than I wanted to. Classic Dungeon World leans hard on the middle “7 to 9” results to generate narrative and we felt the absence of those complications in our game. It was mostly a story of things going to plan with the exception of our terribly unlucky warrior princess.

I may also take a look at adding some simple stunts back if I can figure out a way to do it that doesn’t require players to spend a bunch of time brainstorming how they mechanically work. That’s always been my challenge with stunts in Fate but that’s a topic for another time.


  1. This has an interesting unintended consequence - adding new dice to a roll isn’t guaranteed to make it better. If you failed, you have a 66% chance of improving it somehow. If you got mixed results, you have only a 33% chance of turning that into a success. It adds a little uncertainty into spending a Fate point. However, if you spend enough to go beyond Superb, you still just succeed regardless of roll. This allows players who really want to pass a particular check to creatively do so. 

GenCon 2018 Mini-Reviews

Monday, August 13th, 2018
Oink Games games really are teensy.

Recently I returned from the Best Four Days in Gaming, GenCon. In between roleplaying games of demon battling, cyberhacking, and union negotiating, I managed to fit in a fair number of board games. In no particular order, here’s some micro-reviews.

Before you get too excited about the prospect of hot takes on the latest GenCon releases, you should know that these are mostly games that I happened to play for the first time at this GenCon rather than new hotness. In other words, do not set expectations to Stun.


Fast-paced cooperative game that has players leveraging five unique decks to clear a dungeon in five minutes or less. Easy to learn and fast to play, great game to kick an evening off with. A lack of depth means it is not something I’d return to over and over, but then I feel that way about most cooperative board games.


A team game of providing clues to your teammates that help them guess words without providing so much information that your rivals can also guess them. This game rewards clever left brain thinking and I quite enjoyed it. However, it only shines if you play it with the perfect group of friends - a single bad cluegiver can ruin the game. As a result, I’m more likely to stick with Codenames instead of playing this.


A mostly solitaire game of building coral reefs by trying to make patterns. I only needed to look at another player’s board twice despite a few mechanics which try to promote interaction. That leaves me with just the puzzle in front of me, but it isn’t a terribly satisfying or difficult one. As a result, Reef is a completely unobjectionable but equally unmemorable game.


A lightweight, mostly themeless auction game for 3-5 players. Over ten rounds, you bid on cards with a color and a point value between -5 and 5. If you collect two cards of the same color, you lose both. This makes card values unpredictable for better and for worse. Not bad, but there are better auction games (see below).


A fun push-your-luck game for 3-6 players about divers with a shared air supply who are diving for sunken treasure. The air runs out faster as divers carry more and more treasure, so you have to constantly watch your other players to make sure they don’t ruin your plans. Which they will anyway. A fast game you can fit in your pocket. It’s a great choice when I have too few people for Diamant or want a more thoughtful approach.


Fascinating game about drawing a shared picture with one catch – one person has no idea what they are drawing. Real artists try to guess who the fake is while the fake artist tries to not get caught or guess what they are drawing. It creates an interesting tension for all players since real artists can’t be too obvious in their work. This is the game that Spyfall wants to be and feels like it would be equally good for all player counts. Bonus points for being another ultra-tiny game you can put in your pocket.


A fine deckbuilder about raising dragons so that others can drink magic tea that can pass along your memories (read the book - it makes more sense). This is a pleasant game with an interesting push-your-luck model of spending cards that I haven’t seen in other deckbuilders. Aside from that and the adorable art, the remainder of this game is very generic. If you’re a fan of the source material then this is a very fine licensed game, but otherwise pass on this.


It’s Lost Cities as an auction game. On your turn you either draw a card and add it to a shared auction pile or begin an auction for that pile. This plays like a streamlined version of classic auction game Ra with an added twist of getting new cash reserves at several checkpoints in the game. This twist makes sure that you have interesting choices even when you’re cash poor. You’ll often have to decide between triggering small auctions (hoping to win them) and forcing larger pots (hoping to get your cash back sooner). Probably not my favorite auction game ever, but almost certainly my favorite one for under $20.


The core idea is admirable. Firefly Adventures tries to incorporate a variety of non-combat options into a traditional combat-centric miniatures game. The rules for this are simultaneously convoluted but also too simple. Non-combat characters will spend a lot of time thinking about their character’s “mode” or the specifics of initiative order so that they can finally… open a door. More action-oriented characters have to struggle against these added mechanics as well to play a fairly traditional combat game. Even Whedon fans should avoid.

Culture-Driven Onboarding

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018
Posted in leadership

Friends know that I endlessly talk about team values. They’ve made a huge difference in my career - I still have a framed copy of Obtiva’s values next to my desk (complete with our Big Hairy Audacious Goal courtesy of Dave Hoover).

Obtiva Values

Many organizations capture their values in fancy signage and slide decks. Typically they become something of a joke, a bar bet to see if anyone can name more than 1 or 2. How do you make these values stick in a way that helps new hires understand what it means to be successful in your team though?

Your onboarding process is the ideal way to start that journey.

Values-Based Onboarding in Action

I love this description of Toyota’s onboarding from Kim Scott’s Radical Candor:

Wanting to combat Japanese cultural taboos against criticizing management, Toyota’s leaders painted a big red square on the assembly line floor. New employees had to stand in it at the end of their first week, and were not allowed to leave until they had criticized at least three things on the line.

Toyota combines two powerful learning techniques to make sure employees learn this critical value:

  1. The best time to instill values in a new hire is before they built their own impression of what the company is.
  2. We learn best by doing.

You can imagine an alternate universe where new Toyota hires sit through a presentation with a slick graphic encouraging them to “question everything.” I’m guessing these employees don’t need such a presentation though - they’ve already lived it.

Another example from a totally different company: one of Reverb’s biggest competitive advantages is a culture that expects everyone to care about the product deeply. To that end, they developed what they called “The Contest” - all new hires are given a budget and told to buy and resell as much inventory on the site as they possibly can. By the end of your five weeks in The Contest, you understand the product’s strengths and weaknesses firsthand. They even hand out bonuses to people who make suggestions on how to improve the product from the contest.

In both cases, employers have identified what they value most in their employees and have incorporated those values into an engaging, hands-on onboarding processes. New employees have no choice but to learn and demonstrate the company’s core values.

If your team isn’t finding a way to turn your values into action through your new hires, you’re missing a huge and early opportunity to convert good hires into good hires for your company.

Five Minute Checkins

Monday, July 16th, 2018
Posted in leadership

Let’s say you only have 5 minutes with one of your teammates to answer the question “How satisfied is this person with their job?” What do you ask and what do you look for?

Of course many readers immediately reject the premise at this point. I know – ideally you get more than 5 minutes for these kinds of checkins because you’re proactively scheduling skiplevels and other forms of soliciting feedback. Let’s just hypothetically assume that perhaps your planning and scheduling don’t quite go to plan. I know this definitely never happens to you but it certainly happens to me on a regular basis.

So what do you do with those five minutes? What do you look for?

The Trifecta of Job Satisfaction

When I have only a few moments to check in with someone, I look for indicators of what I consider the three pillars of job satisfaction:

  • Utilization
  • Growth
  • Impact

In a deeper conversation like a skiplevel, there are many other things I look for about their career and their relationship with their manager. When I don’t have much time though, these three qualities are often a leading indicator of all sorts of problems.


I define utilization as “the mapping of your job to your skills and interests.” While this isn’t always the same as utilization from the business’ perspective, it’s a useful proxy to gauge how motivating an individual finds their work.

I list utilization first because the other pillars take a backseat when there are problems. If I value myself as a designer but most of what I do is backend coding, I won’t feel well-utilized regardless of how much I’m growing or making a difference.

Utilization can also swing too far in the other direction, feeling over utilized. This generally means someone has a work-life balance issue or has to juggle too many competing demands for their time at work. For most people this is just as serious a problem as under utilization.


If someone’s skills are well-utilized, the next pillar of satisfaction is growth, the rate at which they acquire more skills. This should be a key motivator for virtually all members of the team. If it isn’t, you have a deeper problem than someone’s satisfaction.

Growth is also a reasonable proxy measurement for challenge. This is particularly important for high-performers - they often report a lack of growth when they aren’t feeling appropriately challenged.


The last metric I look for is impact – whether they feel their work makes a difference. Even if you are growing and well-utilized, feeling like your work has no impact is a sure path towards burnout. The root causes of this can be everything from organizational communication problems to challenges outside of work. Finding an impact problem rarely presents an immediate solution, but it directs you where to keep digging.

Assessing impact can be particularly important for spotting burnout in newer engineering managers. These folks are often still coming to terms with the transition from maker to manager. They can feel like their new workload lacks the same visible impact as shipping code to production.

Digging into impact can also reveal problems even when someone believes their work makes a difference. Sometimes, an underperformer will still believe their work is making an outsized contribution. This is a sign that feedback mechanisms are broken - perhaps they aren’t getting enough feedback or aren’t interpreting it correctly.

Everything Else

I would hazard a completely unscientific guess that these three factors cover about 75% of the typical satisfaction problems in an engineering organization. The remaining 25% is a myriad of issues which are specific to the individual and the organization. Typically those are only uncovered by deeper conversations though.

In time you’ll find your own ways to dig into these pillars and perhaps come up with a different three. My set has evolved several times until I landed on the three here. Regardless, it’s important to have a consistent gauge for happiness and to make sure you have the opportunity to dig into each team member’s satisfaction whenever you can.

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