Embrace the Nerd: Dungeons & Dragons and Military Intelligence


In 2019, one of us found himself briefing a commander on a reported threat to U.S. servicemembers stationed in his Middle Eastern area of responsibility. We’re both military intelligence officers and as such are required to report all threats, even though this particular piece of intelligence was single-source information with no evidence of further planning. Matt — the military intelligence officer in question — repeatedly emphasized these caveats, but the damage was done. The next day, the commander restricted everyone to base, claiming “snatch squads” roamed the area, ready to kidnap Americans.

A military intelligence professional can spend months building an understanding of an adversary’s capabilities, tactics, and intent, collecting exquisite intelligence and developing multiple possible enemy courses of action. But if they cannot overcome a commander’s deeply held notions about an adversary, all that work can be for naught. This is what happened with Matt’s commander: he saw the terrorist threat in his area of responsibility as much more capable than all evidence to the contrary indicated. In this instance, the only consequence was a dull weekend for the command, but in a more threatening environment, the results could have been much more catastrophic.  

In a perfect world, a commander and their intelligence team would have a relationship built on trust. Often, commanders and intelligence personnel are the only people with the same access to classified information, so theoretically, they can have free-flowing conversations where the commander and intelligence team challenge each other’s presumptions. However, due to the constant change of personnel and the operational pressures on commanders, often the only exposure intelligence personnel have to the commander is through irregular intelligence briefs. Without a developed relationship, building a compelling narrative becomes even more important.



The only way to overcome a deeply held narrative is to replace it with a more convincing one, and the ability to make a convincing narrative takes practice and training. This is, unfortunately, not available through traditional military training, but we have discovered a means of honing this skill at no cost to the taxpayer. We grabbed some twenty-sided dice and the Dungeon Master’s Guide and played Dungeons & Dragons.

Humans Are Storytellers — So Are Commanders 

A 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed students short animated clips of various geometric shapes moving around a screen. After watching the screen for around two-and-a-half minutes, all but one student developed elaborate stories about the shapes: two triangles fought over a circle, or a triangle chased the other shapes. Humans create stories out of almost nothing.

Military commanders are no exception. By the time officers reach a command where they are in charge of hundreds to thousands of people, they have engaged in exercises and operations for years. These officers have received hundreds of briefs — both good and bad — and have developed their own internal narratives about the capabilities and intents of the U.S. military, its allies and partners, as well as its adversaries. These stories carve deep grooves in a commander’s brain, leading many to conduct their own bootstrap intelligence analysis, just as Matt’s commander did.

Counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the idea that commanders have all the information they need to make decisions on their own. There, commanders would build relationships with leaders of various factions (friendly, unfriendly, or somewhere in between) without trained intelligence professionals. They watched live feeds from airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft showing “bad guys” in real time, without understanding the time and effort that go into the full-motion video analysis and pattern of life development needed to find those “bad guys.” In this context, some commanders were led to believe that intelligence was easy.

This can be a big problem for military intelligence professionals — they are trained to deliver intelligence, not to tell stories, so the stories that commanders tell themselves win out. Despite studies showing people are far more likely to remember stories than statistics, the military trains new intelligence professionals to brief intelligence through rote memorization and presentation of information. Neither of us ever received formal training in how to present information and intelligence as a story. This breeds uncreative military intelligence professionals concerned more with being “right” or having all the facts than whether their information is absorbed. Often, when information is presented in this manner, without context, commanders don’t remember what is important or, more importantly, why something is important.

In the absence of formal training on how to build a narrative, military intelligence professionals should find a way to turn this limited information into a story that presents a commander with a range of possible enemy actions. This should be more in-depth than the “enemy courses of action” slide at the end of most military intelligence PowerPoint presentations, which present the commander with the “most likely” and “most dangerous” courses of action the enemy might take. This, of course, is very limiting; there are an infinite number of possibilities between these two scenarios.

Military intelligence personnel instead need to build compelling narratives based on the wide resources, deep research, and analytical training available to them. Learning to do this on one’s own can be hard, but Dungeons & Dragons provides the storytelling training that schoolhouses lack, which can train intelligence professionals to constructively challenge commanders and help ensure mission success. 

Tabletop Role-Playing Games as Wargaming Preparation

Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games are played by a group of people collaborating to create a fantastical story bounded by specific rulesets. Dice rolls add probabilistic elements to the story, which force players to react spontaneously to solve tactical and strategic puzzles. One player narrates the experience by describing the world and initial problem set while simultaneously playing the part of the opposing force (monsters) and other nonplayer characters (potential hostile, neutral, or friendly actors). This player is called the “Dungeon Master” in Dungeons & Dragons, or “Game Master” in most other games, and is responsible for ensuring a fun and cohesive experience.

Militaries have used wargames to train ever since Lieutenant Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz introduced the concept to an initially skeptical Prussian General Staff in the early nineteenth century. Very simply, a traditional wargame is a board game that simulates some aspects of military combat. The popular game of Risk is a very simple wargame, while chess can be considered as one of the oldest. Wargames can be successful mediums for training, in part, because the narrative holds players responsible for their actions and emotionally attaches them to the game’s results. Tabletop role-playing games are just the modern evolution of the classic wargame. The first version of Dungeons & Dragons, released in 1974, was a revised version of a wargame called Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures. This revised system allowed players to “connect multiple wargame sessions together” and “collaborate with each other inside an imaginary world that was not imposed by an author.”

Tabletop role-playing games are unique from traditional wargames because the collaborative nature of the game means that almost anything can happen. The rules of these games only help structure the narrative and determine the consequences of actions. Players are free, even encouraged, to try anything they can imagine within the limits of that narrative. Most tabletop role-playing games have several rulebooks, but, as with military doctrine, the rules do not and cannot account for every eventuality. Instead, games such as Dungeons & Dragons rely on players’ creativity and flexibility to develop and adapt rules as they go. One of the most essential aspects of such games is the application of chance, usually employed by rolling various-sided polyhedral dice, which encourages out-of-the-box thinking for players and Dungeon Masters, especially in the face of catastrophic failure or, just as critical, catastrophic success.



These rules, when applied to wargames, can make them better — we have firsthand experience with this. Ian acted as an observer during a 2023 joint wargame using the Marine Corps’ Operational Wargame System. During the wargame, an experienced aviator wrestled with the decision of whether to use an exquisite munition to attack a threat reconnaissance drone or let the drone continue unimpeded. Recalling recent footage showing a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. surveillance drone, which downed the MQ-9 into the Black Sea, the aviator said he’d do the same. The wargame moderator said it was a “nice try” but that the move was outside the rules. If, instead, they’d abided by tabletop role-playing game rules, the aviator and moderator would play out the situation. Most likely, the moderator or Dungeon Master would determine, on the fly, the probability of the move’s success based on the game-defined attributes of the two aircraft and ask the aviator to roll a die. The Dungeon Master would use the die results to determine success or failure.  

An experienced Dungeon Master might further adjudicate the results by applying a range of outcomes based on the die roll. For example, on a twenty-sided die, a roll of a “1” (critical failure) might result in the loss of the friendly aircraft with no damage to the drone, while a roll of “20” (critical success) might down the drone with minimal fuel loss and allow recovery of the drone sensor equipment. Rolls in between could result in varying degrees and combinations of damage and fuel loss to both the friendly aircraft and drone, as deemed reasonable by the Dungeon Master. Simultaneously, the Dungeon Master would determine the enemy’s reaction to this unanticipated event, both tactically and strategically, as well as the opposing force’s long-term adaptation to this move.

This is not so different from a military intelligence professional’s job: think like the enemy, understand their capabilities, develop possible scenarios, and then play the adversary as operators run through their plans. As previously discussed, while service intelligence schools generally teach presenting just a few courses of action, in a real conflict, there are infinite threat scenarios. Modern intelligence professionals must be flexible, responsive, and creative, in both planning and ad hoc operations. The problem is, short of an actual conflict, there are practically no opportunities for these personnel to practice working in a wide-open world — this is where tabletop role-playing games could prove valuable. As Dungeon Masters, military intelligence professionals can build worlds and scenarios and act as the enemy, or red, force. Most importantly, they will learn to respond spontaneously to unexpected player actions — regardless of whether those actions are incredibly clever or incredibly stupid.

Becoming Intelligence Storytellers

In the Netflix series The Diplomat, Keri Russell succinctly described the problem of intelligence storytelling in three short sentences: “Intelligence is a story. A story based on incomplete facts. Life or death decisions turn on whether people buy the story.” While she was talking about telling stories to presidents and prime ministers, the logic applies to all levels of command, as well as to wargames. As Dr. Ed McGrady explained in War on the Rocks: “[W]argames are also stories. While we can debate the differences and similarities between games and narratives, designing and playing a wargame inherently involves storytelling. …The stories games tell matter because they are the way we create new ideas and understandings to feed into the cycle of research.”

For now, military intelligence professionals must develop these storytelling skills independently. When giving an intelligence brief, they have a limited period in which to describe the enemy, the threat capabilities, and the environment, all of which could be new to the commander. The intelligence professional might be able to use a map or other visual aids, but ultimately, they have to present intelligence in a manner that enables commanders or operators to remember what is essential, even much later, under combat conditions. Telling good stories can save lives.

Now consider the job of a Dungeon Master: they must tell a compelling story, usually set in an environment unfamiliar to the players. When threats are encountered, the Dungeon Master must accurately explain the nature of the threat by sight, sound, feel, and smell, because, of course, the players have never experienced a nest of snake-demons in real life. Dr. James Fielder explained that when games are designed correctly, a synthetic environment is created that becomes real to the players. In such an environment, the learning becomes real even if the risk is not — at least not yet. This is the challenge for both Dungeon Masters and military intelligence professionals. Telling a compelling story that enables others to envision combat environments and the threats within them accurately can be the difference between success and failure.

Military intelligence professionals should, of course, be careful with the story they craft and clearly articulate differences between known facts and intelligence assessments, because to make informed decisions, commanders must understand what is known as well as what is possible. Intelligence professionals should use facts to weave assessments so that commanders, staff, and operators think creatively without being distracted by the story itself. This takes practice, just like any other skill. Attempting novel briefing techniques when not properly prepared can have disastrous results.

For example, during one tactical wargame Ian witnessed, a fellow intelligence officer took an untested, story-based approach to briefing the commander. Playing the part of the enemy commander, the officer narrated threat disposition and courses of action in the first person. While an interesting and possibly effective approach, the officer became so wrapped up in the story that he forgot the purpose of the brief: providing the commander with a clear picture of the threat. The briefer failed to use doctrinal terminology understood by the commander and staff and ignored assessments provided by supporting units. Luckily, this occurred during a wargame, so no lives were lost. But this is one of the few instances in an intel professional’s career where that will be the case.

Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons give intelligence professionals a safe, zero-risk environment to practice storytelling, minimizing potentially lethal mistakes in training and real-world scenarios. Storytelling needs to be practiced, just like flying or marksmanship. Pilots can safely make mistakes in simulators or with instructors in the cockpit. Shooters can miss targets on a range until they understand the weapon firing process. Similarly, Dungeons & Dragons provides intelligence personnel the opportunity to practice storytelling with the ability to make and learn from mistakes. After all, if a dragon kills a party of adventurers because the Dungeon Master wasn’t clear, they can simply try again. There are no second chances when giving an operational intelligence briefing before a strike mission.

Be All the Nerd You Can Be

Wargaming has seen a resurgence in professional military education, something we wholeheartedly support; games make learning fun, effective, and memorable. But integrating games into this education isn’t enough. The armed services only send a military intelligence professional to formal training a few times over a long military career. Comparatively, tabletop role-playing games can provide regular practice for the skills needed in exercises, wargaming, and the real world. After all, as James Sterrett, chief of the Simulation Education Division at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, said, “Experience is a great teacher and well-designed games can deliver experiences that are tailored to drive home learning.”

If you are interested in integrating tabletop role-playing games into training for military intelligence professionals, it will likely prove challenging to convince commanders that subordinates should spend work hours “playing a game.” However, if games are structured like training, commanders could perhaps be brought around. First and most important: create a training plan. There would need to be learning objectives, measures of performance and effectiveness, lesson plans, and a schedule. Have the required materials ready; convert them from the standard Dungeons & Dragons style (filigree and stylized dragons in the margins) into something that looks like a Department of Defense form. Don’t plan an epic, multi-year campaign. Instead, take and edit short adventures that can be completed in around two hours.

Next, present the plan and justification to the chain of command. Be ready to answer a lot of questions. Be ready to be told “no.” Emphasize professional development — this is always a viable reason in the military. Wargaming is already built into the upper echelons of military learning; tabletop role-playing games are simply more advanced, if smaller, wargames.

In the face of extreme skepticism, ask for this to be a pilot program: As a possible measure of effectiveness, offer to have a subordinate give an intelligence brief to the unit both before and after the tabletop role-playing game training cycle with surveys to see what the audience remembers. Lieutenant von Reisswitz also faced initial skepticism about integrating wargames into military training, when a general was reported to have said, “You mean we are to play for an hour on a map!” And now, due to the history of Prussian military success, wargames, both large and small, are an accepted part of military culture. Tabletop role-playing games may eventually be as well.

As the U.S. military moves from counter-insurgency toward great power competition, military intelligence professionals must be ready to deal with complex and dynamic adversaries acting in an increasingly complex and dynamic world. Now is the time for experimentation to learn new skill sets and find new ways to fulfill the intelligence professional’s mandate. Dungeons and Dragons is a powerful tool to do just that. If you get to kill some imaginary orcs along the way, all the better.



Ian Strebel and Matt McKenzie are commissioned military intelligence officers in the United States Army and Navy, respectively. They met playing Dungeons & Dragons at Eskan Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

Ian currently serves on the Army’s Long- Range Precision Fires Cross Function Team having previously served with the 1st, 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions, 10th Mountain Division, 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, Allied Command Counterintelligence, and Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabia National Guard.

Matt is head of intelligence partner engagements at United States Cyber Command, after serving in the United States Military Training Mission-Riyadh, Joint Staff J2, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Strike Fighter Squadron Three-Seven, and Commander, Naval Forces Korea. He can be found on Twitter @PhoneCommander.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy Hernandez