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Meet a Professional Game Master

I've written about the mythical professional game master before, but for the first time I got an opportunity to interview one at length. Meet Timothy James Woods (Timm) who currently has a Master's degree in English literature and is working towards his PhD in the same (with a focus on games and learning). 2017 is the first year that he will be relying on RPGs for his income full-time, having locked down four regular games and two afterschool programs.

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Michael Tresca (MT): What's your gaming background?


Timm Woods (TW): I'd say my gaming background is simultaneously considered thorough to some, and sparse to others. I first discovered D&D when I was around 10 or 11 (when Magic the Gathering and Warcraft were fresh to me), and played with my siblings, but never really got to play all that much through high school and college. Being "inside" the hobby in terms of following it (I received Dungeon magazine and read every rulebook cover to cover from 2nd edition onward) while being "outside" the hobby in terms of playtime (I don't think I ever properly finished an adventure as a GM until I was in my 20s) had a weird result. I felt that it equipped me to see another side of the hobby: the "lost players". A large part of going into this business, for me, hinged on the idea that there are a great number of D&D enthusiasts who are still under-served by the volunteer GMing available amongst their friend circles and in their area, and that these individuals are happy to pay a professional as a way to reengage their lost hobby in a comfortable way.

MT: What are you working on currently?


TW: At the moment, I'm still working out the details of my dissertation and publication, although I do have a chapter available for viewing in the collection The Role-Playing Society (you can check out details here). That chapter covers a lot of the same ideas I have about gaming (albeit dated now).

MT: What's your dissertation about?

TW: My dissertation is about the potential importance of games to the learning process, particularly in the context of the language-learning and writing classroom. I'm detailing the ludic and pedagogical history of TRPGs (which, I argue, were historically almost always considered as educational tools FIRST and leisure activities SECOND), investigating potential uses for TRPGs as learning tools, and designing concepts for what a TRPG-based curriculum would look like.

MT: What gaming activities have you participated in?

TW: I've run university courses with game-based mechanics, including one first-year writing course in which I used The Quiet Year to encourage motivational roleplaying and in-character collaborative writing. In my after-school programs aimed at younger students, I use TRPGs like D&D as a tool for facilitating social interactions between students (some of whom are on the special needs spectrum). Even in the ordinary adult games I run, I use my classroom tactics as a way to keep the play flowing, and to bring new players quickly up to speed.

MT: How did you become a professional game master?

TW: I definitely stumbled into this career, in a sense, and it's primarily my background in education and English language that has allowed me to pursue it this way. I was originally looking for opportunities in the RPG industry when I started working retail at a large Manhattan comic book shop, basically selling the boxed sets and books for D&D 4e and Pathfinder and meeting people within the hobby. The most common response I got from customers regarding TRPGs was "huh, D&D, I always wanted to try that game," to the point where I was receiving that answer roughly once a day. It put into perspective how much of the hobby is transferred on a very personal level. For so many of us, the story is the same: we played their first RPG by some fluke or accident, at a young age, and now either play regularly or, more likely, currently have no point of access to the hobby. I started handing out business cards, then started working with a local gaming cafe, organizing and running D&D Encounters and my own games. Since early last summer, I've moved on to running my own freelance games and afterschool programs through a variety of Manhattan learning institutions like Winston Prep and the Quad Prep.

MT: What tips do you have for other aspiring professional GMs?

TW: A lot of what I feel a professional GM, and any GM, needs is less about running the game and more about setting the context for the game. I try to bring to the game-table what I bring to my classroom: a sense of fair play, of making sure everyone gets equal attention, of getting everyone comfortable in their roles. A GM is always part referee and part narrator, but a professional is also part host, part businessperson, part teacher, and part paid performer. You're creating an experience, and you're responsible for that experience in a sense that really transcends the game rules. If a player is a jerk in my game, it's at least partly my responsibility to handle the situation. In a sense, this is unlike a regular GM, although I argue that a big issue with TRPGs is that almost all GMs end up getting saddled with this role of "meta-facilitator" whether they realize it or not; essentially a human-resources role that GMs are not always prepared to tackle. Even just classic Dungeons & Dragons means so many different things to so many different people, and with a paying group you want to ensure that you run the game they had in mind (while still surprising them), which is not necessarily the game you learned to play. It's made me think of RPGs differently, and in some ways allowed me to more fully adopt the role of "showrunner"-- albeit with the knowledge that, like a showrunner, my "ratings" pay my rent. TL;DR, Recognize what makes your sessions fun, and focus and highlight those elements while clearly communicating with the group and basing the campaign around them.

You can follow Timm on Twitter.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

M.T. Black

Adventurer
I love that this is a "thing" now, and it doesn't surprise me at all. There will be more and more of this happening in the future, and I suspect there is a lot of "quiet demand" for this service.

I'd like to see more stories featuring people following this path.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I should have expected it sometime, but I don't know why I keep forgetting that Demand = Market, regardless of subject. :)
 


Dragonblade

Adventurer
I would pay for a good DM if the rates were reasonable and the game was good, and I had some input into the type of game and the levels we played at. I rarely get to play anymore and when I do, the DM can't sustain the game, or they don't want to run the type of game that I want to play.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I would pay for a good DM if the rates were reasonable and the game was good...

The problem is that what a reasonable rate looks like isn't what you think it is. I'd need to charge $80 per session per player at minimum. And that's for a work load that amounts to pulling a 60+ hour work week every week (leaving a few weeks for a much needed vacation). It is also a work load that I could really only pull off if I was single.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I think those folks who produce web shows for Geek & Sundry and similar outlets definitely qualify as professional game masters. Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, for sure.
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
[MENTION=2804]Dragonblade[/MENTION] I feel ya.I was bringing extra delicious community snacks in hopes of the DM actually reading the module before we started...
[MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION]: $80 per player per session? What exactly does the player get for that? For $80, I better get to sit in a nice new leather recliner, there better be someone working an omelette station that has plenty of bacon, and I players get a handy as a consolation if they fail a saving throw for starters...
Seriously, if you are spending 60 hours to run a 4 hour session, something needs to be adjusted. What would the player get for $80 besides you knowing the rules and being prepared?
[MENTION=1]Morrus[/MENTION] I disagree. Mercer and Perkins are different in that their players are not paying them to run games, they are running games to promote their channel (Mercer) or a brand (D&D). They are getting paid by others ( to view, to increase sales, etc). I suppose we can say they are Professional Game Masters, but this doesn't seem the same as the dude who is just charging to run a game. They are more like Professional Game Promoters who do so through the DM role.
 

Celebrim

Legend
[MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION]: $80 per player per session? What exactly does the player get for that? For $80, I better get to sit in a nice new leather recliner, there better be someone working an omelette station that has plenty of bacon, and I players get a handy as a consolation if they fail a saving throw for starters...
Seriously, if you are spending 60 hours to run a 4 hour session, something needs to be adjusted. What would the player get for $80 besides you knowing the rules and being prepared?

This reaction is exactly why I don't think professional GM is likely to be much of a thing yet.

For $60 per player per session, you are getting 4-6 hours of my time running the session, plus 10 hours of my time preparing to run the session and customizing the campaign to your particular characters and tastes. That's honestly a pretty low estimate of the time required to run a campaign.

So for 15 hours of my time as an independent self-employed contractor, what I'm a really asking? Assuming I'm charging $480 for the session, I'm charging just $30 an hour for my time. Out of that I would need to pay for health insurance and self-employment taxes (like social security, which is absurd when you are self-employed, and absurd period, it's just the non-self employed don't normally see it). We're talking barely getting by at those rates. The only good thing is that I could list RPG purchases as a business expense on my tax forms.

Now understand that by comparison, my current client is being charged about $170 a hour for my time.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
The problem is that what a reasonable rate looks like isn't what you think it is. I'd need to charge $80 per session per player at minimum. And that's for a work load that amounts to pulling a 60+ hour work week every week (leaving a few weeks for a much needed vacation). It is also a work load that I could really only pull off if I was single.
That is the stickler, right?

You want a decent, but not extravagant, lifestyle that can afford benefits and vacation.

Everyone else wants to pay you $10 an hour because either A) That's all they can afford, or B) they can't stand the idea of some one making a living off of "fun" while they slave away at a job that stresses them out. Because fair is fair until it's not fair for "you."

And a good chunk of DM earnings will go to a 1099 tax filing.

So basically a pro DM will pretty much face the same issues as Graphic Artists, Writers, and other artistic types.

Welcome to the club.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That is the stickler, right?

Pretty much.

As things stand, there is a niche perhaps to be had in high income areas (Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York) catering to the 1% - the same sort of people who with different tastes might buy private airplanes, yachts, or spend $2000 or a weekend seeing a professional football game. Those sorts of people might be unable to find a DM amongst their social class willing to invest all that time in running a game, and so might see it as highly reasonable to drop $500 or more dollars every week or every other week to get a gaming fix.

But there is probably only room at present for a handful of persons filling that niche.

You might have cases where an English major decides that he's better off as a professional GM than the is working fast food, and so willing to put in this time to generate a supplemental income. But that's not a career, any more than fast food is a career, and even then I think people will be absolutely shocked by what he charges just to make say $17,000 on the side. He's going to be somewhat helped out by the fact that at that income, the taxes aren't killing you (and in fact, you get 'welfare' reverse taxation at that income), but the self-employment taxes that are normally 'invisibly' born by the employer are still nasty.
 

DM Howard

Explorer
Pretty much.

As things stand, there is a niche perhaps to be had in high income areas (Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York) catering to the 1% - the same sort of people who with different tastes might buy private airplanes, yachts, or spend $2000 or a weekend seeing a professional football game. Those sorts of people might be unable to find a DM amongst their social class willing to invest all that time in running a game, and so might see it as highly reasonable to drop $500 or more dollars every week or every other week to get a gaming fix.

But there is probably only room at present for a handful of persons filling that niche.

I tend to agree with you. I'd be very surprised to see this work anywhere other than metropolitan areas where there is both a high pool of potential customers and a higher wage median.

You might have cases where an English major decides that he's better off as a professional GM than the is working fast food, and so willing to put in this time to generate a supplemental income. But that's not a career, any more than fast food is a career, and even then I think people will be absolutely shocked by what he charges just to make say $17,000 on the side. He's going to be somewhat helped out by the fact that at that income, the taxes aren't killing you (and in fact, you get 'welfare' reverse taxation at that income), but the self-employment taxes that are normally 'invisibly' born by the employer are still nasty.

I COULD see this being, potentially, a great source of extra income for a family where it makes economic sense for the least paid parent to leave their job to take care of the kids (child care is expensive as heck!) and the stay-at-home parent could run a group on the side to continue contributing to the household financially. My wife and I have started going over the numbers, and we are almost at the point (but not quite) where it would be better for me to quit my job than pay for child care.
 

Raddu

Explorer
I've just dipped my toe into professional DMing (2 months). I'm not to the point where it's my only gig, I'm still doing social media for RPG companies and Kickstarters, but it's another revenue stream. The hours is the thing, how much do you need to prep to make the game unique and desireable? I'm cutting down the prep time by running my own adventures, over and over. There is demand for these adventures as they're part of the D&D Adventurers League offical adventures. All of those adventures are effectively one shots and I run 1 of 2 adventures 6 times a month. I'm also running campaign style Tales from the Yawning Portal adventures twice a month and about to start a custom D&D 5e Dark Sun campaign once a month that will hopefully pick up to twice a month after a while. I'm doing all of this via Patreon. I'm not sure if it's the best system to do it, but it's working for now.

EDIT: All of my games are online, using Fantasy Grounds. Before I started the Patreon I put a few digital posts in local groups looking for local players, but the player base online is enormous and much easier to find than local players, and I live in a big metro city (Denver).

If you're interested in seeing my pledge structure and game details you can find them on my Patreon page.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
My wife and I have started going over the numbers, and we are almost at the point (but not quite) where it would be better for me to quit my job than pay for child care.

Yeah, there was a period where my wife's job made no sense given the cost of child care.

Speaking of someone who is in automation, we are really on the cusp in society of a point where domestic service is going to come back as a very viable career, and anyone who is in an upper income bracket who doesn't employ domestic servants of some sort - whether nanny's or professional dungeon masters - is going to be seen (with some justification) as a sort of Scrooge. The reason is that while domestic service is considered a job 'anyone can do', human's are really bad at figuring out the computational costs of something based on what is easy for them. Math is computationally easy. Domestic labor like cleaning a house or caring for a baby is computationally very expensive. Those jobs will be safe from computers long after things like lawyers or physicians are getting pressure from automation.

Or think of it this way, as long as you are staying at home taking care of your kids, the cost of taking care of 1 or 2 or even 3 or 4 of someone else's kid isn't that high. But the value you provide to the person that is dropping your kids off might be enormous. So, yes, supplemental income sources through acting as a nanny, concierge, or yes, professional game master are going to become somewhat viable in certain areas in the near future, quite outside the lower income brackets we currently associate them with.

However, we have to become the sort of society where that is viable. The cost of child care is enormous I would guess mostly because of liability issues.
 

DM Howard

Explorer
Yeah, there was a period where my wife's job made no sense given the cost of child care.

Speaking of someone who is in automation, we are really on the cusp in society of a point where domestic service is going to come back as a very viable career, and anyone who is in an upper income bracket who doesn't employ domestic servants of some sort - whether nanny's or professional dungeon masters - is going to be seen (with some justification) as a sort of Scrooge. The reason is that while domestic service is considered a job 'anyone can do', human's are really bad at figuring out the computational costs of something based on what is easy for them. Math is computationally easy. Domestic labor like cleaning a house or caring for a baby is computationally very expensive. Those jobs will be safe from computers long after things like lawyers or physicians are getting pressure from automation.

Or think of it this way, as long as you are staying at home taking care of your kids, the cost of taking care of 1 or 2 or even 3 or 4 of someone else's kid isn't that high. But the value you provide to the person that is dropping your kids off might be enormous. So, yes, supplemental income sources through acting as a nanny, concierge, or yes, professional game master are going to become somewhat viable in certain areas in the near future, quite outside the lower income brackets we currently associate them with.

However, we have to become the sort of society where that is viable. The cost of child care is enormous I would guess mostly because of liability issues.

Great post, Celebrim! I definitely think you're correct on the future of the domestic workforce, and you are probably right about the current cost of childcare being due to liability insurance, but it still smarts! Food for thought, most certainly.
 

Louis Brenton

Explorer
I think it's great that this gentleman & a few other individuals are now able to do something like this. If he has developed his craft to the point where people are willing to pay him in order to benefit from his services, more power to him.

I think this also speaks to the continuing mainstreaming of rpgs in our culture. There's at least enough of a client base to support the handful of people doing this, & I think that client base will grow.
 

der_kluge

Adventurer
Years ago when I lived in Kansas City, I was approached by someone (through ENWorld) to run a game for a small company near Lawrence, KS (home of Kansas University). This company was a small company with less than a dozen employees, and when asked what kind of team-building thing the company wanted to do, in lieu of a bowling league or similar kind of thing, they all agreed they wanted to play role-playing games. They were willing to pay me to run a weekly game for them at their office. At the time, Lawrence was too far for me, so I found someone else that I knew who lived closer who would be interested in doing that. And, as far as I know, that individual ran games for them every week for quite a while. It wasn't just D&D - they had a voracious appetite for all kinds of games.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
[MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION]: $80 per player per session? What exactly does the player get for that? For $80, I better get to sit in a nice new leather recliner, there better be someone working an omelette station that has plenty of bacon, and I players get a handy as a consolation if they fail a saving throw for starters...
Seriously, if you are spending 60 hours to run a 4 hour session, something needs to be adjusted. What would the player get for $80 besides you knowing the rules and being prepared?

Those things will add to that base cost of $80 considerably. You know that, right?
 

Desh-Rae-Halra

Explorer
Well, maybe I can give up the Omelette station..... :)

And I didn't realize I had to help finance a full time job. I was thinking of if he ran a game on a Saturday once a month.
Does the price go down if he already has the game books vs having to learn a new system?
What if I supply the module?
How do we get discounts from the "going rate"?
 

HawaiiSteveO

Explorer
Not intended as a snark, genuinely curious on (financially) profiting from someone else's work without compensating them?

Is there any kind of licensing etc for video game places / tournaments and so on?

Does DM for hire fall under the OGL? What about using Curse of Strahd etc?

Playing D&D with your friends is one thing, charging people $ to play a game that a corporation made sounds sketchy.

*edit* I guess people with stuff on Dmsguild are making $ off game, although what if I was using your adventure and running it over and over for paying groups? Shouldn't you get a piece?
 
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