RPG IRL: What Escort Missions Can Teach Us About Meetings

You’ve been grinding a new game for days, fighting back enemies left and right. While you’ve had no problems holding your own against hordes of baddies, a character that holds some importance to the story can’t say the same. They need your help out of a sticky situation.

Cue the escort mission.

Escort missions have been around for ages and the concept is simple: Protect a non-player character (NPC) from enemies as they move from point A to point B. Think R2D2 leading C3PO through the besieged corridors of the Rebel Blockade Runner, doing everything in his power to get his bumbling companion to safety.

You’re almost guaranteed to have encountered one of these missions playing through any narrative-driven game, and chances are high the mission felt tedious, frustrating, and short on value. While it may provide some important plot point or movement to the story, the purpose is quickly lost in an overwhelming sense of annoyance and a lingering existential crisis in trying to answer the age-old question: What was the point?

Now transport yourself to an office. With your calendar blocked from 8am to 5pm with half-hour meetings, you wonder when you’re going to find the time to get some actual work done. And as the specter of the escort mission dances above your head, you end up asking yourself the exact same question: What was the point?

While seemingly unrelated, meetings and escort missions have a shared existence: viewed as necessary to keep things moving but consistently frustrating to those involved. By taking the good and bad from escort missions and applying them to how we approach meetings in our day to day lives, we can move away from marathon meeting days and focus our time on things that provide value to both an organization and an individual.

So let’s talk escort missions.

What do they get wrong?

Movement Speed: While playing through a game you quickly become acclimated to your character’s movement speed, yet for some reason the character you have to protect is moving at a totally different pace. When you run, they run slower. When you walk, they walk faster. It’s always out of sync.

Easily Distracted: You’re guiding a character down a path and see your final destination. You run toward it in anticipation of ending the mission and getting on with your life, but upon arrival there’s no cut scene, no completion. You turn around and what do you see? Off in the distance the character you’re sworn to protect is fighting some enemy that they have no business trying to fight, and all you can do as you run back to save the day is ask yourself, “why?”

Minimal Value: Often times escort missions feel like a tedious way to advance the story. While in progress, you and your escortee often banter to drive home plot points, but did the mission really need to happen for the story to advance, or would a cut-scene have sufficed? In many situations you wish you could’ve just carried the character over your shoulder, setting them down to encounter enemies and picking them back up, completely eliminating the unnecessary challenge of leading a character down what should be a simple path.

What do escort missions get right?

NPC Power: Escorting a character that can hang with the best of them can make the experience great. Leading someone who stands by your side while you swing your sword but doesn’t actually swing themselves can be frustrating. If you can’t stop your escortee from charging into battle, the least they can do is knock down some enemy HP as they wildly yell a battle cry in the distance.

Providing Control: If your escortee can’t hold their own when danger’s afoot, provide a way to plan for when enemies do attack. The ability to instruct your escorted brethren to stop, hide, and get out of the way gives you some time to make a plan and get through the mission as efficiently as possible. No more running off into the distance or disappearing.

So what can we learn from the good and bad of escort missions when it comes to meeting culture?

Have A Leader

While any number of stakeholders may be in the room with their opinion, there shouldn’t be more than one guide, and they need the ability to keep the meeting on track. Just like providing control to a player to keep another character out of danger and on the right path, giving control to the meeting leader helps keep the group on the path ahead.

Have an Agenda

Whether it’s a 15 minute stand up or a two-hour QBR, have an agenda to keep the conversation moving forward. It’s all too easy to riff on a single issue for an hour (especially in a large group), but that can quickly detract from the matter at hand and often times lead to additional meetings (and fuck that). Sending out an agenda before the meeting allows everyone to get on the same page and avoid unnecessary catch-ups, avoiding the trap of poor movement speed we see so often in the videogame world. Additionally, having an agenda keeps the team on track and not sprinting off into the wilderness with irrelevant questions.

Include the Right People

It’s not uncommon for a meeting to be loaded up with people attached to a project but uninvolved in terms of the work being discussed. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing it can quickly lead to a portion of the meeting being eaten up by giving background information and fielding a never-ending stream of clarification questions (that probably could have been solved if SOMEONE had looked at the agenda). Just like escorting a character that tries swinging a sword with a non-existent arm, an uninformed meeting participant with skin in the game can be equally frustrating. While you can’t necessarily get them out of the room, you can at least take steps to get them to a place where progress can happen with little frustration: make sure they’re up-to-speed before the meeting begins, manage their questions through the agenda and leader to keep the conversation on point, or have them hold their questions until the end (or more preferably – through email afterward).

Do We Really Need It?

Before scheduling the meeting, ask yourself “Is there a benefit to meeting?” In other words, could this be summed up in an email that can be read through in 5 minutes, or is a face-to-face actually providing value? I think this is the trap fallen into most often. Face-to-face always feels like a better option because extra details always come up (see Have an Agenda), but many times that leads to unnecessary time spent on the phone and less time tackling work. Just as escort missions feel like they NEED to happen for the sake of the story, meeting in person often feels necessary to overcome a task. But would a cut scene have made everyone happier in the end?

Clearly there are a lot of ins and out to every organization that can prevent suggestions like this from being implemented, but taking a step back and reassessing the who, what, and why of our approach to meetings can help all of us find some solace in a world drowning in calendar dread.

Remember, don’t be the NPC that gets hung up on a tree trunk. Be the NPC that can swing a sword like the rest of ‘em.