I’ve never been sailing. I’ve only been on a boat once, twice if you count those two-person ducky boats you can paddle around the harbor. I don’t know port from starboard, preferring to use the directions “that way” and “no, the other way”. I know a thirty-foot boat is longer than a twenty-foot boat but I couldn’t tell you what that means for performance, crew, or price (besides, presumably, higher). Yet I just finished a campaign where the players spent three months on the high seas, ostensibly hunting monsters and committing as little piracy as reasonable.
Most DMs have to run something they don’t know at some point. I think I’ve only run games for two players who have crewed a boat, one who’s swung a sword, two who have ridden a horse, and three who have cast magic. I expect most DMs have similar ratios pending circumstance. (Games run at a naval base probably have a higher amount of boat experts and fewer horse experts. Same amount of magicians though.) But we know players are going to ask questions like “how much does my horse eat*?” and “why can’t I deal more damage swinging a sword vertically*?” We also know that we don’t know the answer, and the players know we’re making things up.
There’s a lot of good information out there about knowing what you don’t know lest you run headfirst into something you think you know that you really don’t. Leveraging the expertise of the players is a valid way to answer questions one DM can’t. I can ask the boater a question about boats, and his answer is just about guaranteed to be more detailed and accurate than mine. I can ask a historian, or a businessman, or a paramedic about things that happen at the table.
Indeed, my actual expertise is completely alien to tabletop gaming. I’ve worked in white-collar, service-oriented offices for my entire career. I work with numbers, text, and bureaucracy. I create, file, read, proofread, and disregard reports. I deal with angry customers, angry clients, angry colleagues, angry managers, and on very rare occasions people who are not angry but merely vexed. It’s decent practice for a numbers-oriented, parlance-heavy, people-management hobby like D&D but it’s not the sort of thing where I can leverage my expertise for the story. Nobody’s ever looked at me across the table and asked how stock prices work.
But very recently a player wrote a letter to a large company and received a very formal response. I wrote this response using generic business-speak, which I hoped would make it seen a little impersonal and distinct from the other letters the party had recently read. I did not expect that the players would treat it like the greatest show on ice.
See, none of my players work in the sort of industry or business I do. My players don’t spent their slow days reading fifty letters like that and writing ten or fifteen more. What to me was a form letter, the sort of thing I write a dozen or more times on my slowest days, was to the players a unique and effective tool for moving the plot forward and building the world around it. As irrelevant as I thought my proficiencies are to D&D, as soon as I leveraged them I saw how fresh it looked to everybody else.
Generally gaming groups are made of somewhat disparate people. Players have different occupations and different skill sets, all of which are interesting (or can be made interesting) to the others. Even among a group that all attends the same classes or works in the same office, the players have different families, hometowns, faiths, beliefs, and experiences. For every player who needs to know about boating skills and jargon, there’s another player who’s never worked on a million-dollar deal, a third who’s never been to an emergency room, and a fourth who doesn’t understand a thing about professional wrestling.
…Okay, pro wrestling may seem out of place in that list, but this applies to more than professions. For example, I like puzzles. Not just jigsaw puzzles, but logic and reasoning puzzles of nearly all kinds. I play puzzle games, I solve puzzles in papers and online, and I keep a book of puzzles on my desk in case I need to come up with something for a session in a hurry or club an intruder. I even watch televisions shows about solving puzzles, and finding those is no mean feat. Over the last few decades, I’ve amassed a respectable number of completed puzzles and I remember most of my favorites, at least in structure if not exactly.
Puzzles aren’t my job (usually) but they’re something I enjoy and I’ve sought out a lot of them. When it comes time for my players to challenge an ancient temple or an intelligent enemy, I have something on-hand that I can use in a session or reskin to a believable challenge. I’ve been known to use puzzles as a pacing mechanism, giving players a breather between fights or limiting the speed with which they burn through a dungeon. Since I’ve done so many puzzles of so many different types, I can just about guarantee that not only have my players not already solved a given puzzles, they’ve probably never heard of anything like it.
A connection between puzzles and D&D makes sense (not that you’d know it from reading the books…but that’s another post), but what about other hobbies? If you look hard enough, you can use your experience in just about anything to make your sessions better. Like movies or television? Imitate an obscure character to give a recurring NPC a little more realism and distinction. Like video games? Use some of your favorite levels, maps, or mechanics when you’re designing a dungeon. Like paintball? Hit your players with a coordinated team of snipers who outthink them at every turn. Like astronomy? Space is full of places and events that would give even epic-level PC pause, places and events that don’t require any magic and could be home to any number of beasts or civilizations. Name anything you like, some hobby or interested or activity, and you can find a way to use it to make session new and fresh to your players.
Every DM has some story, skill, or knowledge that his or her players don’t. The trick isn’t using that uniqueness in a game. DMs can do anything, so if you really want to get something out of your years as a newsroom intern or all that time you spent in Call of Duty you can find a way to make a plot revolve around it. The trick is in recognizing that it’s something worth doing in the first place.**
* — The answer to both of these questions is the same and is left as an exercise for the reader.
** – If you’ve read the comic and you’re confused about its relevance to what I’m saying, read the advice below the comic.