Pay-to-Play RPG Paid GMs: Are You Worth It?

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What would you pay for a Game Master?

Almost every tabletop RPG requires a GM, yet when it comes to constructing a group the dreaded question is “who will run it?” Many players are put off by the role of GM, whether they are new to the hobby, they don’t want to manage the expectations of others or they prefer to control a single character. I know there are notable exceptions; I am someone who prefers GMing to playing a character, but that is a rare exception. Even I want to step out of the place of control and experience someone else’s world from time to time. In the event that you are a player who cannot find a facilitator I ask, what price are you willing to invest for paid GMs?

There has been controversy over GMs charging to run games. A tabletop RPG has always been free to play (except for the cost of the rule books) so it seems odd that GMs would ask to be paid, yet that is exactly what some are doing.

Many find it silly or insulting, others draw the line at who they would pay-to-play with, yet there are those who struggle to find a group. For those people hiring a GM makes sense. If you are looking to charge for your games there are some things to consider. You may be able to hold your group together, thus increasing the focus on the game as well as bring more to the table.

However, as soon as money changes hands expectations rise. If you fail to manage those expectations you will have some real problems. If you are serious about exploring GMing as a career there are limitations to the business model that must be addressed. Nerdarchy explored their view of the pay-to-play tabletop RPG in the video above. Let’s see if we can touch on some points they might have missed.

Pay-to-play tabletop RPGs

You unfold your screen, collect your dice, flip open your book to the threat for the evening. Your models are in hand, the battlegrounds stretch across the table. It is time to roll but your players aren’t even paying attention. Chatter fills the room, covering every topic except the game you have prepared. What is going on? Everyone devoted their time to this game, yet no one seems interested in playing.

Paid GMs – the pros

Every group takes time to build up to their game. It doesn’t matter what system is used or how much the players talk about the game throughout the week there are always distractions and/or delays. As a GM, it seems a never ending battle to keep your players in the moment. The problem should be solved by a compelling game and the GM’s ability to draw the players back in, but even the best of us struggle to keep the game in full tilt. When money comes into the picture the attitude changes.

pay-to-play paid GMs
Would you pay money to play Dungeons and Dragons with any of these people?

When players are paying for their gaming experience they will invest more of their time and attention toward the game. The expectation changes from a casual game with some friends to a business transaction. The side conversation will still happen but it will shift to things in game rather than how the newest Star Wars films impact the franchise. With money on the line players will expect more from the game therefore they will put more into it. Roleplay will be more immersive, combat will be more dynamic and exploration will be more extensive. Overall more will be done in game in the time allotted because that is the expectation everyone has from the start.

Hopefully all the players will consider not only their own financial contribution but also that of the other players. Certain archetypes will lessen as a result. The shy guy (or gal) will chime in more and the stage hog will take a moment to let someone else speak. That or the rest of the players will tell them to shut it. The unprepared caster will spend more out-of-game time researching their spells, and the brainless fighter might find more use for his brawn then squashing monsters. Not all of the problems will melt away, but many bad habits will diminish.

We all know the GM brings a lot to the table. They usually have the tub of minis, battle mats, dice, pens, pencils, character sheets and much more. With a little extra cash they will be able to provide extra props. There are so many in-game moments that I want to immortalize with great works of art, or times when a player achieves a heroic feat that deserves a token, but most of the time I don’t have the cash for such rewards. With a pay-to-play game the GM can afford the extra pack of minis or the grand prize for incredible acts.

Paid GMs can cut back on their day jobs. Free time means more time to plan the next session. They will be able to ask more questions about their world. Every answer provided is another piece in the puzzle of their ever-growing world that they players can explore. It might be easy to get into the trap of over-planning – that should be avoided. Build a house of clay that can be molded as the players experience it. Adding more clay is not over-planning if the GM is willing to reshape it when needed.

tabletop RPGs
Some times you just can’t find a group. (Slacktory: Nick and Siri play D&D)

The benefits of a pay-to-play tabletop RPG consist mostly of more coming to the table. There will be more investment and immersion. The GM will bring more props to the table as well as a maximizing their own skills.

There will be more fun, but there is something that will be missing: “out of game” distractions. When players are drawn into the game they tend to leave the outside world behind. The absence of real world chatter will allow the game to flow without interruption.

Then again, what happens when there is a problem? Who is right? Who is wrong? Who decide how to resolve it? What is really lost when the GM becomes an employee?

You drop your head into your hands. The players are at it again. Pages are flying as someone tries to quell the argument with rules. No matter what happens you know they will turn to you for the final solution. You already feel another migraine coming on. As soon as you make your ruling the players will complain. Try as you might there is no pleasing them. You are pretty sure the stress is giving you an ulcer.

Paid GMs – the cons

What is to be done when a GM has no authority?

As much as money can bring us all together, it can just as easily divide us. When money changes hands the GM is seen as an employee. The players pay them for the game, so who’s game is it? Who has the authority? What happens when players have disputes among themselves?

In a normal gaming group the GM has the authority to make quick calls to keep the game moving. However, when players have something to lose they are more likely to discredit the GM. They will double down on themselves when something goes wrong. When players feel justified to challenge the GM they steal the authority and it becomes unclear who has the last say. Without a defined leader, it can be hard to lay down the ground rules. If a player is unsatisfied with the results of a disagreement they may leave the game, and with them goes the financial support they provide.

“Who’s game are we playing?” is a question every GM should ask themselves as they write the adventure. It is everyone’s game, and everyone should enjoy themselves. Is that true when players hire paid GMs? With money comes entitlement. It is easy for the players to decide paid GMs should run the game they want. Paid GMs lose control of the trajectory of the game. They have to cater to the players. They should give the players what they want with no consideration of their own fun. After all, the GM is getting paid, they don’t need to enjoy the game. Without agency the GM will lose interest, then the group will lose a GM.

Sometimes people can’t get along.

More money more problems right? Well what happens when there isn’t enough money? A major drawback to running games for money is the poor business model.

There is direct competition in a market this is free to play, as long as someone has the books. Wizards of the Coast has the Adventurers League, which is designed to help new players find a group and experiment with the structure of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Many games provide free PDFs that contain the basic rules for the game. Drive Thru RPG has a vast selection of games that are “Pay What You Want.” A tabletop RPG hobby is cheap to get into and free to play. Competition aside, there is also the limited earning aspect.

Time is money and there just are not enough hours in a day. A GM is limited by the number of games they can realistically run. Assuming the GM pulls an eight hour gaming day, there is also the time they spend preparing to consider. A normal day could consist of an additional two to four unpaid hours of work. Earnings are determined by number of players and hours spent playing.

The only way to increase the income is to either take on more players or increase the price per game. These routes have a sustainable limit; the number of players that can reasonably play in a game and the price individuals are willing to pay. If the limit is exceeded the game will suffer. With too many players it will be impossible for paid GMs to give everyone the attention they need, and if the game is too expensive no one will be willing to join. It is unsustainable to make a profit from GMing only. Despite a rocky business model with limited earning potential I think there is a way to make gaming a satisfying career.

Paid GMs – the business model

My style usually has a section opening with a little imaginative story in italics so that you (the reader) may put yourself in the mindset of what is about to come. There is too much to say here so I chose to leave that little piece out this time… Crap.

It should be noted that this section will shift to a more personal voice as it is meant for those who are interested in turning their hobby into their jobby.

To make a pay-to-play tabletop RPG a viable business market a lot more should go into it then simply taking money from players. Understanding your limitations is key to finding a way around them. Many of the initial problems, such as loss of authority, entitled players and a game that it not enjoyable for anyone, can be resolved with a solid session zero. Whole games live or die on a session zero. Not only is this an opportunity to get to know you players, it is your sales pitch.

Use the session to show what kind of games you enjoy running and make sure that the players share the same interests. Get to know the potential clients and observe how they interact with each other. When the session is over interview each player individually. Listen to their impressions of you, the game and the other players. Be critical, understand their expectations and realistically decide if you can meet them. Plan for a larger session zero then your game allows for, that way you can narrow it down to the most compatible group.

As important as your session zero is it is only the beginning. Your house rules must be clearly defined – that way your players know what sort of behaviors you are looking for. A social contract is necessary. You should have your own concerns already in place, but add your players’ feelings to the mix. Make sure everyone agrees on the rules in place and they are comfortable with the in-game content. With defined house rules and a social contract that ensures everyone will feel comfortable, there will be no debate over who makes the final call in a dispute. Should complications arise the social contract can come out and solve the problem. After all the group decided on the appropriate table etiquette and everyone signed the social contract.

“I won Dungeons and Dragons, and it was advanced.” – Pierce Hawthorn (Chevy Chase), Community

A friendly and safe gaming environment does not address the limited earning potential. You shouldn’t be the only GM running games. Sure, in the beginning it might only be you but it should be your goal to change that as soon as possible.

Go into this business with a small group of people who easily get along, but have different tastes. More diversity among your business partners provides a larger assortment of games for players to choose from. Your customers will be happy if you can say “my game may not be for you but my buddy is running a game that seems your style.” This way you don’t lose customers.

An increased number of GMs means more games being run, which is a boost to income. Furthermore, you and your business partners can work on a collaborative world. By sharing ideas and perspectives you are all spending less time planning your games and more time playing them.

One of the most important aspects of a business is advertisement. As Nerdarchist Dave is fond of saying “Field of Dreams doesn’t work, if you build it they won’t come.” Of course all the social media outlets will be your starting place, but a website with information about each GM readily available as well as a reviews section will be greatly appreciated.

Think of how Amazon provides a service for their self-published authors that allows reviews as well as a place to purchase the product. The site could provide a calendar of the games in session, the ones in the planning stage as well as open session zeros.

Don’t forget to network. Go out and find others who are doing similar things in your area of interest. Get connected with the names in the gaming industry and build a presence. Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. It is a trap to think there is no reason for the Matt Mercers and Mike Mearls of the world to care about you. We all share a passion for our hobbies. We want to see them grow, so reach to those who seem beyond your grasp. Who knows, they might be closer than you think.

With all the work your team is putting in, the money may hardly seem worth it and honestly it isn’t. The number of hours in a day is still a huge restriction. A pay-by-project business model is not strong. The games themselves will only produce so much, so you want something that will continue to sell without your immediate focus.

It is time for a product. Put your talents up front. If you are an artist, look to the games as inspiration for your art. If you are a storyteller, make modules based on the games you run. If you have a brain for math and enjoy creating complex rule sets, develop your own tabletop RPG and use your clients to playtest it. Real financial stability will come from the things you can give to your clients. Gamers are often collectors. We want to see, smell, touch and live our hobbies. Give us something to hold on to. Something we can rub our faces on… Wait, is that only me? Did I make this weird? Sorry everyone, sorry Nerdarchy. Don’t fire me.

There is a lot to consider before you get involved in a pay-to-play tabletop RPG. How will paying or being paid for a game bring the group together? How can money rip the group apart? Do you want to make a business out of it? What are the limitations you face, and opportunities available to you? How can you work your strengths into your business? Use your knowledge to mitigate the negatives and expand the positives. Pay-to-play games can work if you are willing to make them, but they can also fall apart if you go in with the wrong mindset.

At the end of the day you will not make a living running games as paid GMs. There will be other aspects of the market that you must tap into to succeed. Even with a solid session zero, a team of creators, advertisements flying out of all the social networks, big names in the industry supporting you and a butt load of unique products taking up half of your garage, you will struggle. There will be a lot of unpaid hours and loss of sleep. Starting any new business is risky.

The question is not “what will I lose if I fail?” You should ask “what will I gain if I succeed?”

As the pay-to-play tabletop RPG market grows to accommodate more paid GMs, there will be room for you. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying.

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3 Responses

  1. BeardedGlory
    | Reply

    I agree with a lot of what you said in this article. I have no issues with players wanting to pay or GM’s wanting to get paid. After all there is a lot of work that goes into creating a world and story arcs. Not to mention the improvisational skills needed to not railroad your players when they take a left when you wanted them to take a right. There is also a lot of good advice in this article for GM’s who aren’t getting paid. I love the idea of a social contract and this sounds like something I would like to include in my games session from here on out.

    The biggest issue I hear and read from players and GM’s about paid services is the view that it is a form gate keeping and it may prevent new players from joining the hobby. I’m more inclined to think that if a person is interested in playing and doesn’t want to drop the money on the books (this can be avoided with the SRD but you are limited) then they can spend 5$+ on a one shot and experience the game and then decide if it’s worth their while to get the books.

    All in all it was a good read.

    • Asa Kinney
      | Reply

      Thank you BeardedGlory. A lot of time, effort and my wife’s patience goes into these articles. It is great to have such positive feedback.

      • Robert Bailey
        | Reply

        I was just telling my wife if I could be a paid Game Master it would be a dream come true. I spend about 75% of my waking hours creating worlds . Just because I love doing it. I have run many games and I am a Story teller game master. For me the adventure is just a short tale of a much larger story . The other aspect that goes with this is with things like Roll20 and being able to game online . This works both for and against the business model . For me even when I am working my 9-5. I spend most of my time dreaming up worlds. I don’t think I would want to charge money to make a profit. For me I would use the money I make to deepen my collection which would in thr long run help all those who come to my table . The article was just what I was looking forfor . I can wait to read more sorry about the spelling sent from mobilemobile phone .

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