I noticed that Roll20 has recently begun to offer GMs the ability to mark their game listings as ‘Pay to Play’. It’s an interesting proposition but I’m not convinced that it’s all good.

There’s no doubt that there is a demand. GMs are in short supply as a general rule. Just try and get into a game in Roll20 and you’ll immediately realise that the ratio of games to players is grossly unbalanced. It would then seem like a natural progression to allow GMs to capitalise on this demand, right? There’s no doubt us GMs spend way more time and money on the hobby than most players. Adventures and add-ons for virtual tabletops don’t come cheap, and if like me you also like to own the physical copy of the campaign books then you can understand why some GMs might want to recoup some of that cost.

The thing is, recouping the cost of say purchasing “Storm King’s Thunder” to run for your group isn’t the same as “Pay to play”. As soon as you change your role from GM to service provider then you change the entire dynamic at the table. Unless you are Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins, then it’s likely you’ll occasionally have that shitty night when everything goes wrong. You fumble game mechanics, forget critical details within the adventure and generally make an arse of it. If a group is paying you for your services then suddenly there is less scope for those nights. Players won’t roll with it any more and chalk it down to experience, or allow you to blame tiredness, or a lack of familiarity with the system. If you buy a burger in McDonalds and it’s raw in the middle then you’d rightly expect a refund. Disgruntled paying customers aren’t what you want at a gaming table.

The other thing to consider is the parity of the experience over the course of the session. Everyone may pay the same for the session but if you have a session which focuses mostly on the Rogue’s strong points then you can expect the Wizard in the party to feel aggrieved at that. They’ve paid the same money for this experience. The same applies if you have a player in the party who is more vocal and forthright than others. Nobody cares if that player hogs the limelight from time to time if the game isn’t costing anything but all of a sudden, that could become a problem. And what happens if a character dies? Does the player get a refund or a discount for future sessions? Money changes things.

Even if you decide that you want to go down the route of paid GMing, the considerations mentioned above will almost certainly result in you making compromises in the adventure design to ensure that everyone gets equal billing and value for money. Of course, it’s clear that everyone should get equal enjoyment out of any game you run, but trying to balance player “face time” on a session by session basis, rather than spreading it evenly across a wider campaign is difficult if not impossible. You run the risk of trying so hard to satisfy everyone that you actually end up satisfying nobody.

The final consideration of course is exactly how much to charge? If you are running a weekly session then balancing cost to players with your own expectations of what constitutes a reasonable fee is going to be difficult. I do contracting work as part of my main job and charge an appropriate hourly rate. It’s a sizeable enough amount. That’s what I’ve determined I need to earn per hour to sustain our lifestyle and make it worth my while. There’s no way I could expect to earn the same as a GM or even remotely justify charging players that amount, especially if the game is weekly or fortnightly.

In conclusion, while some people will no doubt embrace paid GMing, and no doubt encounter some of the issues mentioned in this article, the simpler approach is to occassionally bring the pizza and beer for your GM. Perhaps as a party you could chip in to buy him or her the adventure you want to run or chip in a small amount towards the Roll20 subscription (an arrangement between friends for such a small amount doesn’t in my opinion fall into the “pay to play” category, which seems to me to have a much more commercial focus). It saves the GM’s bank balance from taking a hit, shows them some love, and you’ll all benefit in the long run.