D&D Goes to Work Part II: Professional Game Masters

It sounds like the ultimate dream for gamers: being paid to play the hobby you love. With the advent of new technology and a more accessible player base, the idea isn't quite as far-fetched as it used to be. Is it really feasible to become a "professional game master"?

[h=3]Why Would Anyone Pay for a Game Master?[/h]The sometimes onerous role of a game master (GM), distinct from players who usually require less prep time for a game, has plagued Dungeons & Dragons since its inception. Gary Gygax explained in Men & Magic that the game master, originally termed a "referee," had a lot to take on:

The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his "underworld", people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level...When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the "huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses".

Gygax elaborated on the nature of the game master in Master of the Game:

The Game Master has at least seven principal functions which are intrinsically connected to the game, its principles and rules, and the technical aspects of play. These functions are as Moving Force, Creator, Designer, Arbiter, Overseer, Director, and Umpire/Referee/Judge (a single function with various shades of meaning). The secondary functions of the Game Master are Narrator, Interpreter, Force of Nature, Personification of Non-Participant Characters, All Other Personifications, and Supernatural Power.


That's a lot for one person to take on. What was, exactly, was the reward Gygax mentioned in Men & Magic? Jon Peterson has a theory in Playing at the World:

The notion that the dungeon master “wins” by designing a popular dungeon must have a special resonance for someone who writes fiction for a living— the dungeon master here succeeds in much the same way that he as an author succeeded when his novel sustained the interest of readers and impressed them enough that they might look forward to a later work. The process of running a game shapes a story collaboratively with the players, and a dungeon master who tailors events to meet player expectations will be rewarded with repeat customers.


Repeat customers wasn't always enough. Gygax addressed the financial challenges in the same volume:

Financial considerations are typically the greatest restraint on the aspiring Master GM...Generally, however, scholastic or occupational demands must necessarily consume the greatest portion of each day's waking hours. Ironically, the group that is most active and desirous of attaining mastery happens to be the least economically able to handle the costs of doing so. RPG players are young students, by and large. The exception to this is the professional game designer, of course, but because such individuals are a minute portion of the RPG audience we won't consider them, other than to encourage all interested Game Masters toward mastery so they earn income, if not principal livelihood, from the design and authorship of role-playing games and supplementary game materials. The vast majority of GMs, however, must face the reality of pursuing their interest in "free time" as a hobby.


It was only a matter of time before some of these GMs decided that all that effort was a lot like a job and therefore they should be paid for it.
[h=3]What's a Professional GM Worth, Anyway?[/h]One of the questions that frequently comes up in a discussion about paying for a game master is why anyone would pay for something they can get for free. Most game masters, after all, volunteer their time for the aforementioned rewards. If we assume then that "mastery" means something better than average, Gygax's list in Master of the Game is useful barometer for aspiring game masters who want to "go pro":

  1. Master of Game Mastership
  2. Mastery of rules (interpretation, quantification, and development).
  3. Master of systems (interpretation, expansion, and creation--such as adding a system of political and social events to a modern RPG that did not originally have one).
  4. Mastery of adventure scenario and/or ancillary materials creation.
  5. Mastery of campaign milieu creation.
  6. Mastery of RPG systems expansions (derived works).
  7. Mastery of creation of Role-Playing Games.

That list encompasses everything from pay-for-play game masters to game designers who have been independently published. Gygax's book was printed before the advent of digital publishing (1989) and the spread of the Internet, when platforms like DriveThruRPG made it much more feasible to publish new role-playing systems, scenarios, and campaigns.

The price a game master can reasonably charge depends on the consumer's approach to entertainment. A poll on ENWorld indicated that nearly 40 percent thought game mastering wasn't worth paying for, while 30 percent considered paying at conventions, and 4 percent were willing to pay for a "professional" quality game session. But how much?

If you believe entertainment is only as valuable as the consumer's time spent on it, then movies are a good barometer: $8 to $10/hour, which is roughly the price of a two-hour movie ticket. But if you rather consider the effort put into gaming as an expression of an artist's talent, pricing can go much higher; the source of the title graphic claims he earned $1,000 every three months:

I was DM'ing at a local Game shop and a guy in his 20's stopped by and listened. After the session, he approached me and said he had a group of friends whose campaigns always fall apart because no one super enjoys DM'ing and he offers me $1000 to DM his group for 3 months. I ended up making $5000 over the course of the year that I DM'd for this group and used them as recommendations for other groups.


ENWorld member Malichai posted an advertisement outlining how much he was wiling to pay a game master in a professional capacity:

The position pays $120 for you to prepare and run each 6 hour session, with $15 for each additional hour over 6. You'll also be paid $150 every time we start a new campaign. This is a 1099 contractor position, so you'll be responsible for paying your own taxes at the end of the year. If running every week, the position would bring in approximately $7000 in a year, half that for a bi- weekly game. We provide all materials for use for the games, all books, aids, and whatever will make running easier for you. We also provide food and drinks and even have two different kinds of beers on tap at the house (right now it's Boulevard Wheat and Blue Moon's seasonal 'Honeymoon'). A couple times a month we have a private chef come and cook for the group, assuming everyone can show up a bit early for dinner. Optimally, you'd be running a game for us once a week, preferably on Friday evenings. If necessary, we will consider hiring two different GMs to run games on alternate weeks. Typically, our campaigns last from 10-20 sessions. To start, we'd like to explore some more systems and the campaigns might be as short as 4 sessions.


The barrier to entry for the first form of mastery is still high. Posts like Malichai's indicated there was definitely a market demand for a professional game master. It just took someone to make the leap.
[h=3]Trolling Around
[/h]Professional game mastering got off to a shaky start on ENWorld with Bugaboo's "DM Friends Network." What was the DM Friends Network? It was a pyramid scheme of sorts. It was also an elaborate joke dating back to the earliest days of ENWorld:

Bugaboo's DM's Friends Network was this sort of troll. He never came out and said - "I am charging players to play, debate." Instead he would postulate a ridiculous situation with his customers and then ask for advise. Generally the thread would break down with people exclaiming outrage at the thought of charging for DMing.


Bugaboo's trolling made the topic of paying for game mastering difficult to take seriously, and it remained that way until Katerek showed up in 2004. Katerek, who titled himself a "Professional Game Master," posted a thread titled "On Hiring a Professional GM." Although Katerek's career began with him "trolling around," this was no troll:

About 7 months ago I was trolling around ENWorld and noticed a thread in the Gamers Seeking Gamers section labelled "Looking to hire a DM". I thought to myself "No Way" but I clicked on it any way and saw that it was legit. Not only that, but the folks looking to do the hiring were only minutes from my other job! I contacted them, and sure enough, they were looking to hire someone on through their company to run a couple of employee games as a continual team building exercise! I applied for the position and sent them my professional and gaming resume. A few day's later I was interviewed...At first it started out with me running a DnD game on Saturday afternoons and it wasn't long after that and they requested me to start running a Friday evening game as well. Time has gone by and some tastes have changed so now I run Star Wars d20 on Fridays and Call of Cthulhu d20 on Saturdays. The games are great, and I am really enjoying it. The extra money is nice of course, but I think my favorite part ahs been getting to meet these guys and make new friends.


That customer was Malichai, who gave Katerek a rave review:

Katerek has been a truly fantastic hire and a great business decision. We are a small company, but almost all of our employees interact with each other, with management, and with the owners at least a couple times of month outside of work because of Role-playing. It's made the work environment healthier and seems to promote a sense of camaraderie. The Friday game is just the financial aid division's management side, and they get along really well now. Not that they got along poorly before, but this has been good for them.


Like all good things, the game eventually came to an end:

The GM-for-hire thing worked great. Katerek was everything we were looking for in a GM. At one point in 2005, I think he was running 3 games a week for us. A fantastic GM who handled the whole thing as a professional. During the 2 and a half years that he worked for us, he ran 3-4 3.5 D&D games, 1 Star Wars game, a Cthulu game, a couple Shadowrun games, a Deadlands: Reloaded game, and a bunch of shorter experimental games that didn't work out. I don't believe we ever had a single argument that related to the RPGs he ran. You can read some of his early experiences with us in this thread. He was great and I miss both his GM'ing and his friendship. Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship anymore. We sold our company in February of 2007 and retired. We sold at a really great time, but the entire process of selling was a massive emotional strain that killed our game. We also lost some of our game group in the business sale as the new owners don't give a damn about scheduling work around gaming.


Katerek's experience inspired others to take up the torch, but it would be several years before someone else would publicly take the plunge on ENWorld.
[h=3]Going Commando
[/h]Captain Commando (AKA Johnny Tek) was a man with a dream, a dream of game mastering and getting paid for it. And he let everyone know about his plans by posting his ideas far and wide, including RPG.net, ENWorld, and many other RPG-related forums:

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Caravan of Blades, it is a pay-for-play DnD 4e campaign that I am currently planning as a temporary, supplementary source of income (NOT my main source of income). Whether or not it will succeed is unknown though the plan does seem doable based on the circumstances. I will primarily (but not solely) be marketing to college students in Manhattan in New York City. The location is to be determined. I will aim for a place within walking distance of a university (if not on campus). There is also apparently a very healthy gaming population in the city. My advertisement will consist of flyers, online ads, and word-of-mouth. I will also run a number of free teaching games (why just look for gamers when you can also create them?). The first couple of weeks will probably be sparse. However since this isn't a particularly big operation and I only need to get a negligibly small percentage of the local population to participate, it shouldn't be hard to pack the seats as the campaign progresses (assuming I deliver well on my end). I intend to make my gaming sessions superior to average gamers' sessions like the difference between A-movies and B-movies.


Prices ranged from $60/session to (eventually, as the business model failed) $3/hour. There have been other attempts at professional game mastering, but Tek's was notable for his volume of posts on multiple forums and his willingness to share his methodology. His frequent dialogue and forum diaries led to the launch of a web site (now defunct) and business titled Storyteller Solutions. Here's how it would work:

The current services are like hiring a party entertainer such as a clown or magician. In this case the hired person does the prep work for a tabletop RPG session or a storytelling performance and shows up at a time and location determined by the client. Satisfaction guaranteed or the session or performance is free. The gaming service would include the use of an expensive array of gaming materials and a game master with guaranteed experience and personal references. Testimonials from respected members of the gaming community should be available for reading by the end of the month. For the storytelling service, it would be a combination of original artwork visual aids and oratory performance. The storytelling would feature fairy tales and folk tales such as Cinderella or the legend of King Arthur.


Tek frequently asked the community about his chances of success. 68 percent of voters on ENWorld and 55 percent of voters on RPG.net thought Tek's business proposition was "a total waste of time. It will never work." Katerek later said they were right:

I wasn't thinking clearly. My father had recently passed away of a heart attack and the experience and aftermath were a bit traumatic (I discovered the body that night). I needed to get a job and picked a bad idea for making money. Fortunately I put a stop to the horror on the first day when I snapped back to my senses.


Tek made a few stabs at resurrecting his business plan that went nowhere and he stopped posting about the topic around 2009. But Tek's dream wouldn't die.
[h=3]Your Friendly Local Game Store...Is Hiring[/h]Some game stores pay their game masters through store credit. Legends Games is one example:

At Legends Games, each player must pay $4 to sit & play. However, the game store does not keep this money. At the end of the game, it is credited to the GM's account, and he can spend that money at the game store however he wishes. It's true that he can't "cash out" and spend the money elsewhere, but at least the store is giving the GM lots of products, and the GM got it just for running the game. I believe, but don't hold me to this, that the credit is a flat $25, even if only 3 or 4 players show up and thus don't have enough $$$ to make the full amount. So in some sense, the store is taking a tiny loss in the hope that having lots of GMs will result in lots of players hanging out and buying stuff. That is about as close as I've seen to a GM getting paid.


Josh Cooper at Dungeonsmaster explains why this works:

It’s really an example of capitalism at its finest. The game and store have worth to the players, because they have invested money in the store in order to play the game and experience which I provide. The owner of the store is invested in me and the players, because the players are his customers, and not just squatters who take up valuable real estate in the hope that they might buy a book at some point, and I am making the experience fun in order that the players may return for future games. I am invested in the game and store because I enjoy the experience I create, and I know that I am valued by both the players and the store. And now, as the senior DM, I am able to recruit other DM’s from within our player base because they see the system dynamic and wish to be a part of it.


Community centers and libraries have experimented with this model as well. Teflon Billy's experience was...not great:

Honestly, when the community Centre approached me (via my friend Paul, who was their activities director), the 15 dollars an hour was not a prime motivator. I was in my "RPG Missionary" phase and thought I was--through the medium of my admittedly awesome GMing skills--going to be bringing in a whole new crop of gamers to the hobby. The reality of it is that the experience pretty much soured me on the idea of "Gaming with Strangers", "Gaming with Youngsters" and hell, even "Gaming with the Poor"


Organizations like the RPGA had a much more structured form of incentivizing game masters:

The GM Program is designed to help game masters (GMs) showcase their talent while developing the vital skills and rules knowledge needed to run great RPGA events. Participants begin at the Herald Level and may advance all the way to Paragon Level. Each progressive GM rank builds on the previous levels while adding both greater responsibility and greater rewards. The application requirements also become more demanding with each new level.

[h=3]The Online Revolution[/h]Owen K.C. Stephens theorized in 2007 that players would be more receptive to hiring a professional GM thanks to the Internet:

I do wonder if electronic gaming is going to change some of these dynamics. If I didn't have to leave home, and things such as miniatures and maps were easily taken care of for little expense, it might become much more economical to pay me to GM. And some sort of style guide and rating system might allow players to find quality GMs who run the kinds of campaigns they enjoy.


Fast forward to 2015, when Roll20 posted an ad for a professional game master:

Roll20 is seeking a seasoned Game Master (DM, GM) to become our roleplaying game system guru and Twitch livestream producer as a part-time independent contractor. We welcome over 1,500 new tabletop gamers across a wide spectrum of roleplaying games interests to our program every day. The ideal candidate for this position will have a strong history in tabletop roleplaying games of all genres, be proficient with Roll20 Virtual Tabletop, Twitch livestreaming and social media interactions, along with extraordinary written and verbal communication skills. Contractor will work with our entire Roll20 Development team to create engaging content for our audience, with an emphasis on showing the best ways to utilize the Roll20 platform across a wide array of gaming experiences. Contractor will host at least two live game broadcasts per week, produce Q&A sessions for the community along with our Dev Team, and be a general “go to” resource for other GMs who want to make the most of Roll20’s toolset in their games.


Roll20's announcement was met with over three hundred applications and expansive worldwide press coverage. In the end the company chose chose Adam Koebel. Koebel is co-creator of the award-winning Dungeon World fantasy roleplaying game and a popular live streaming personality, having run games for the RollPlay and Misscliks Twitch channels. Koebel explained the popularity of the channel:

Roleplaying games are a fantastically entertaining technology for telling stories, and we’re seeing it grow and change just like technology does. Playing and GMing roleplaying games is something I think that everyone should be empowered to do, and the Roll20 toolset makes that easier and more fun than ever. I’m super excited about working with the team to develop shows that’ll demonstrate how everyone can use Roll20 to tell stories and play these games in a new, exciting way.


If you match up Koebel's skill to the masteries Gygax outlined back in 1989, Koebel is more than qualified for the job.
[h=3]The League of Extraordinary Game Masters
[/h]The Professional GameMaster Society was formed to address the nascent industry of like-minded game masters:

We believe that by bringing the art of GameMastering to a higher level of quality we can help to improve the experience of Role Playing Games. In order to dedicate our time and energies fully to the art with this goal in mind requires that GameMasters be compensated sufficiently. Hence the call to Professional GameMastering.


Mark Abrams, creator of the Elthos RPG Mythos Machine and founder of the Society, sees a bright future for professional game mastering:

...I think RPGs represent a new art form for the 21st century, and the possibilities for Professional GMing, which is in its infancy now, are far ranging and practically endless. I believe that eventually it will become the predominant form of entertainment. The reason why is that it allows for infinite and personal creativity, brings together many kinds of artistic pursuits into one cohesive whole, and is an amazing amount of fun.


With over 100 members in its Google+ group, Abrams is definitely not alone. As gaming luminaries like Wil Wheaton stream their own games, Abrams believes online streaming is the way forward:

Video streaming of game play may become a popular spectator sport as we are seeing lately with people using twitch to play computer games. Wil Wheaton is running a show wherein he is GMing for a bunch of friends of his, and that seems to be doing reasonably well. It is entirely possible that done right an audience based model for professional Gamemastering is feasible. We are attempting to work in that direction.


With platforms like Patreon allowing artists to provide a service for a fee, being paid to game master seems more feasible than ever. But for the majority of GMs who provide their services for free, we can always show our appreciation by repaying them with gratitude for a job well done, not just on International GM Day but every day. For the other articles in this series please see:



Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


delericho

Legend
I've never known a DM who was both good enough to justify paying for the job and unable to make much more money doing other things.
 

Mr. Flibble

Explorer
I'm sort-of a professional GM these days: co-organizer and primary DM for a club for university ESL students. I'm not getting anything beyond my base salary as a lecturer, but it is kinda fun being able to play during working hours!
 


jrowland

First Post
As an aside, my "old" gaming group (20+ years) recently started anew via Fantasy Grounds. They all chipped in for the Ultimate License, PHB, LMoP, and PotA. So I get to keep all the content...so in a way that's being paid to GM. I won't quit my job, however, lol!
 


RedSiegfried

First Post
I've never known a DM who was both good enough to justify paying for the job and unable to make much more money doing other things.
Yeah, I've known a number of DMs who were good enough to get paid for what they do, but I suspect that none of them could get paid enough to have it be their only source of income. Not because they are bad at what they do, but because the true value of a service is how much value the customer places on it, and most customers simply won't pay for a service when they can obtain a service of approximately equal quality for free. And let's face it, most people can manage to find a good enough DM most of the time.

I've gotten paid for DMing D&D Encounters by a game shop who collected a fee from participants. I didn't even want the money, which was just $10-$15 for a couple of hours a night anyway, so I saved the money and at the end of the season I turned around and bought small gifts for the group to thank them for playing (dice, cards, etc.)

Now, how much prep time did I put in to get ready for the 1-2 hours per week? Usually very little - less than an hour. Since it's 4e which is easy on the DM prep time anyway, and we were playing pre-written adventures, I usually didn't have to do much or anything at all to get ready. I just didn't feel right taking the money when I didn't need it - the store was perfectly justified in keeping it to help pay for the gaming space but I didn't feel right getting paid for something that was just a fun couple of hours a week.

I can't think of any better way to ruin my fun hobby than to turn it into work. Once you do that, you suddenly become legally and fiscally accountable too all sorts of parties - forget that!
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
After my FLGS hit financial difficulties and closed down, I play once a week at a "D&D Club". It's $5 a session to play, and $1 each for any of the food items they have. They also have very limited stock to sell such as dice and a few 5e items, but no real stadnign inventory. It's furnished somewhere between a geek man cave and a gaming store with room to run 4 semi-private tables (2 rooms + sound baffles). Besides all the RPG/anime/star wars/etc. memorabilia and such they have a wall of minis for use. Currently they run AL on Wednesday nights and a local shared world under AL-like rules on Sundays.

It's a casual atmosphere but it's also an exclusive one. You cheat or be odious and you'll be asked not to return. Makes it a relaxing and fun place to play. I've met two people there whom I play with in other games, and more I would if I had more time.

So it's pay for a gaming seat, even if it's not necessarily paying GMs.
 

Benji

First Post
I demo-ed games for our games company at conventions. Technically I got my entry fee and travel paid, so it was pretty badass. I got to do indiecon twice, which was pretty a pretty cool weekend both years running.

If anyone in england wants to pay me to DM games for them, I'm totally open to it. :D
 

Related Articles

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top