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Paid GMing – A great income stream or doomed to failure?

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.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

21 thoughts on “Paid GMing – A great income stream or doomed to failure? Leave a comment

  1. “…the simpler approach is to occassionally bring the pizza and beer for your GM. ”

    Once again, people are misunderstanding–no one is talking about charging to DM with your friends and family. We are talking about DMing for strangers. Obviously, there is a shortage of people willing to DM on Roll20. I’m hearing all the time about people searching and searching and not finding an open game. I’m not going to cut into my already limited ‘spare time’ to go run a game for people I do not know out of the goodness of my heart. However, I *might* be willing if there is something extra in it for me. I’m not talking about generating enough for a second income, but a few bucks would be nice. After all, this *is* extra time away from other things that I could be doing *in addition* to DMing for friends and family..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Doomed to failure. The kind of person whose career aspiration is DMing as a job, is the same kind of person who is a prime incubator for all the worst DM traits.

      Also whats the point? That’s like renting people to play basketball at the park with.

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      • Aren’t you, in effect, ‘renting players’ when you pay to join a local basketball league? Sure, you can play a pick-up game for free at the park. You can also pay to play in a league, and then you have different expectations from that league than you do from pick-up players.

        Same thing here.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have said it before, and I will say it many more times. Pay to play gming is arrogant. The people who do it think they are so well-rounded that they should make money at a hobby. There are two major problems with this. First, everyone makes mistakes. What if your session sucks and someone just paid $100 for it? Do they get that back? (The answer is no, if you are running a business. It is buyer beware after all.) Second, it puts the GM who is “good” enough to get paid on a pedestal. They are not only asking you to play in their games, they are asking for a commitment (before the game) that the game is going to be “awesome.” Not sure about you, but that isn’t something I, or anyone else really, should be prepared to do. Just my two cents though.

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    • So you don’t think people should make money from hobbies? If that’s the case you can say goodbye to just about every product made for this and every other hobby. hobbies are built upon the foundation of skilled people building products and services so that others can experience the hobby.

      Why would making mistakes be such a huge deal? Every business type ever has been prone to the same issue and it hasn’t resulted in those business types failing to establish a viable market. Never seen a crappy movie or had an underwhelming meal at a restaurant?

      Where are you getting values such as $100 from too? I’d be very surprised if the average price of a session costs each individual player that sum of money. I could imagine it being that kind of sum divided amongst the total number of players perhaps.

      I’d argue that there are certain benefits that likely to occur as a result of sessions having an associated cost:

      1. Increased commitment from all involved – Not showing up is likely to have a cost associated. I attend an exercise class weekly and I guarantee you I’d be more likely to not show up from time to time if there wasn’t a cost involved in doing so. You can also guarantee that the GM will show up and be prepared as not doing so will be bad for business.

      2. Players gain greater input – With people paying there will be a greater emphasis on ensuring players enjoy themselves. As a result a GM is likely to put more effort in up-front to ensure this happens. The better the GM understands the players requirements the more likely they are to enjoy themselves.

      3. Choice – If you are willing to pay for a GM, and a sufficient market is in place, then you can be sure you’ll have a greater level of choice than you currently do.

      4. GMs with strong knowledge of used material – If I was a paid GM i’d try to re-use content as much as possible. I could feasibly have multiple groups running through the exact same campaign. Not only is this efficient but it’s likely to lead to predictable service quality levels.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I have been hesitant to ask for $10 a session. Cheaper than a movie and I still think it is too much. but that is one tenth of what people think is too much. So I am going for it! Thanks!

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  3. Yeah, this is really about Roll20 only, although my post does reference offline play as well. Roll20 is a ripe market. I wouldn’t go all the way and say that paid GMing is entirely arrogant but agree that you’d better bring your A game. I’ve only GM’d on Roll20 for people I know in person or who I know in other contexts (e.g. PbP games I’m running) so it’s hard to comment on what a general Roll20 game is with a set of completely random strangers. From what I read though the quality of players (and GMs) and their levels of commitment varies wildly. Paid GMing will either fix some of that or break it even further by adding the arrogance (both from paying players and GMs) to which dragonlancelegacy refers.

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  4. You’re wrong on the account that paid dming is flawless. And then again, if you consistently fuck up, you just suck as a DM and your pay will reflect this.

    You use Mercer and Perkins as examples, and they are great DMs. But alas, they have the platform to show for. I will bet you $10.000 USD, hands down, that there are at least several just as good, or even better, DMs out there that could do just the same or more given the opportunity. Making role playing a career is what this is all about. I am totally for pay to play, and I really hope the online culture embraces this much more, as it will drive more people to DM.

    However, a proven track record, experience and maybe so quality control has to be established before being able to qualify to be a pay to play DM. We do want to receive a good service, and who knows, maybe make friends in the process.

    I don’t see why instead of spending 5 bucks on a beer or pizza, you can’t give that DM the amount for playing 3 hours.

    I believe there already are professional DMs in countries like Israel, where roleplaying is used as an educational tool. I only see a bright future for this endeavor.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It seems like the next step in Pay for GM is to include some kind of rating system. Yelp for GMs? Of course this adds another layer to the complexities presented in this (interesting and enjoyable) article. If you’re GMing for a group of strangers odds are they won’t be strangers for long, and if you’re dealing with a group of five people it’s hard to be anonymous when giving someone a say… 1 star rating and the comment “Railroaded garbage, over powered DMPC” or whatever.

    Personally it sounds like a fun way to make an extra few bucks, it has me looking at trying out Roll 20 to see how I like GMing on it.

    There’s also part of me that looks forward to the slew of angry comments and awful game stories that could come out of it, but that’s not really the… good… part of me. ;3

    Liked by 2 people

  6. We pay for all kinds of things in our hobby, but not for one of the most time consuming and challenging parts of it? Most DMs do it out of passion and it’s a profession that would not lead itself to economies of scale so it likely would never pay especially well. But as a way to make a few bucks that is generally fun, It makes good sense to me.

    A lot of what would drive a paid DM are celebrity and reputation. Just like people currently pay to watch others play video games, if you are entertaining and have some kind of fame then you can get people to pay for the experience.

    Absolutely you would expect that poor DMs are not going to get a lot of traction, but a very strong DM very likely could.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. You would need to pay me at least $120 to run a 4 hour D&D session online (regardless of whether its on roll20 or FG, but I think FG gets you a better play experience). The math is pretty simple: it takes at least 4 hours to properly prepare for a game, and another 4 of actual running it. 8X15/hr of minimum wage =$120. So, as a player, that means you have to pay between $20 and $30 per session (if there are 4-6 of you). Currently, a movie costs $12 to watch, and it is typically 1.5-2 hours. So, you are basically paying the same rate per hour of entertainment for a movie as you would to pay me to DM for you. That’s a pretty simple equivalence, but the world of online gaming may not be ready for that model, since we set the bar much lower (pizza and beer as you put it). Probably the more sustainable model is a “pay to win” style, similar to TrueDungeon, where you can either FIND loot during a module (with a lower per module cost, lets say $5 per session per player) or BUY loot before or after a module for a higher per item price ($10 per rarity level). People will happily pay $50 for a legendary item they can use in a game, even if they would never actually consider paying the DM for his or her time.

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    • I’m not against paid GMing – quite the opposite in fact. However the comments I’ve seen on Reddit and Facebook in reaction to this post suggest that while the majority of players seem to be quite happy with the concept, very few want to part with anything like a realistic sum of money per session.

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  8. I have a few thoughts on this.

    You buy novels. You pay to watch movies, whether in the theater, via rental, or via streaming services. You pay for comic books, magazines, and storytelling in all sorts of ways. You’ll even be a Patreon backer for your favorite podcast.

    When you’re a GM, you have a TON of work to do, especially when you’re running a campaign. Others in the group may help out with the financial side, but you’re giving up a lot of your time, not just financial resources, in order to make that game go off without a hitch. If you’re going to commit to a campaign with a bunch of strangers, it’s not unheard of to be open to charging those players to be a part of the game.

    Now, you need to keep in mind that because they’re playing, they should get first choice of campaign, game setting, game system, etc. If you run the game you want to see played, then why would you charge? You’re offering a service, a very valuable service, and if you’re a great GM, you have the right to ask people to pay you for your efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only thing I don’t necessarily agree with is that you should run the game that the players want played. If you are a GM with your own World and your own Campaigns and Adventures and story and you’re like a verging Tolkien with that stuff and your players catch on that your World is not just some prepackaged thing … you can run your own game. So long as the players are satisfied that they’re having fun and willing to pay for the pleasure of the thing, then you’re ok. The key criteria is Player satisfaction. But that came come from any number of possible directions.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a really bad op-ed piece that clearly didn’t investigate any of its “points” at all… I’m a professionally paid DM… my suggestion? Actually interview one once lol Or how about even players beyond yourself? In the Facebook 5th edition group a poll was done on this very subject and got like 3k responses… only the minority shared your opinion… about 400 people…

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    • This is a personal opinion piece on a personal blog. If I were a professional journalist being paid for the piece then I’d have been obliged to do more research, however I’m not. That said I’d challenge the assertion that I need to have either been a paid GM or at least interviewed one to have an opinion on the matter or to be able to spot potential pitfalls. After all, we’re talking about a game where people spend their time as Half-Elf Wizards, without any prior real life experience. While I appreciate your experience as a paid GM has been smooth, to suggest that yours is the only experience out there, particularly given that I’ve had comments from paid GMs agreeing with some of the points, hints at arrogance.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. The post discusses a number of fears that one might have going into Professional GMing. However, I think that each of those fears can be addressed, and in the end I think Professional GMing has potential. In fact a lot more potential that most people are considering. Let me tackled the points in the article first, though.

    1. Yes, there is a demand for GMs. And yes, GMs spend more time and money on the hobby than most players. Prep-time alone can be considerable, especially for GMs who create their own Settings, and strive for the high quality games.

    2. Yes, when you run a Pay to Play game it changes the dynamic. But that may not be a bad thing. In the case of musicians, originally, at one time, all musicians were hobbyists and no one got paid, and it was a group thing, and for what it was I’m sure people enjoyed it, and it was a cool fun thing to do in your spare time around the local cave-fire. Yep. But at some point in history musicians started demanding money for their craft. Maybe so that they could focus on it, rather than having to do the hunting-gathering day job, and in this way they could get really good at it. Same thing for GMs. We all know this is a very complex hobby, and the required GMing skills have to be counted on both hands. At the moment GMs are doing this in their spare time, and so can not really focus on it to achieve Greatness, although, just as in the musicians example, yeah, ok, it’s pretty good and people enjoy it. But Greatness requires focus. And being paid allows you to focus on honing your craft. And with focus comes better everything. Including mitigating the “bad night” effect. Of course no one is perfect, and even musicians occasionally make mistakes. So will GMs now and then. But Great GMs do so far less. Focus is the key.

    3. On the parity of engagement with players – yes, that’s true, and yes, it may be that sometimes players feel like someone else in the game is getting the limelight, and they may even find that frustrating at times, especially if it happens consistently. But the same thing is true for freebie games. The key here is that the GM, every GM, should be cognizant of this possibility. But Pro-GMs should pay even more attention, and understand how to round-robin the table so that every player gets to shine. It’s one of the skills required for GMing. Focus.

    4. Yes, you run the risk that trying to please everyone can lead to pleasing no one. Yup. But that’s true for every GM in every game. If that’s your baseline then Pro-GMs need to work on that to ensure, to the degree possible, that everyone gets their turn and has a fun time. No, it’s not impossible. It just requires great … focus.

    5. As for how much to charge… well, there’s different pricing models possible, and people, I think, should experiment to find out what the market will bear. There’s a lot of factors involved. Are you running a published module, or did you create your own World and are running dynamic campaigns? Are you a great improv actor, or just use the same voice for every NPC? Do you have loads of background material, NPCs and whatnot to draw from, or are you just starting out from scratch and don’t have much there at this point? And so on. As new Pro-GMs come into the market and try different price points, eventually a general sense of how much to charge will form, and it probably will be the case that different GMs can charge different prices based on their skill level.

    6. Bringing pizza for your GM solves the Players problem. Yup. But it doesn’t solve the GMs problem. If you want to get paid to GM then you need to look beyond your buddies, and enter the market. There’s a lot of potential customers. But no – don’t charge your friends for playing. That’s probably a bad idea.

    Lastly, as for the future of GMing and where the real money is … I think Critical Roll and Wil Wheaton are heading in the right direction. GMing as a general form of entertainment for a larger audience than just the players themselves. If you can generate a great game with your players then it’s possible you may be able to garner a paying audience. Kind of like going to the movies – but going to see a live RPG session instead. You never know how it will turn out. And it can be very exciting – IF it is done the right way. So far no one has found the magic combination, but I’m very sure that people will keep trying, and that at some point it will be found. And that will be where the real money is.

    Anyone who is interested in further brainstorming and discussion on this topic, those who are interested in trying their best at Pro-GMing are invited to join us at the Professional GM Society, on Google Communities. https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/107002555575842362740
    And here’s our website: professionalgamemastersociety.com.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. As a professional storyteller, I can tell you that my paid sessions have been orders of magnitude easier to run than free, open sessions through D&D 5E Adventurer’s League. Usually only one person pays, and I call them my patron. Sometimes people know it’s a paid game, but sometimes they don’t. Paid sessions are no better or worse than non-paid ones, but there is much more of an expectation put on the logistics of the session. I’m not going to flake out as the storyteller if it is a paid gig. I’m going to take the time to prepare and be conscious about pacing the session to make the most out of the normal four hour time commitment. Players who pay are also much much more likely to keep their appointment, and some of them do have reasonable expectations and suggestions about their session. They are a paying customer, and these elements are usually very reasonable.

    I have only had one negative experience with a paying player. They were rude and aggressive to a shocking degree, so I refunded them their money and blocked them from my voice comm server. I run my sessions online using a virtual tabletop, so it’s easy enough to separate myself from those that think they don’t need to act like a respectful human being because they are paying for my services. I choose who I serve, and it is easy enough to sever that relationship if there are issues.

    These folks that like to complain about this profession, frankly, are not my clients. I’m thankful because I couldn’t handle more than a few weekly games. I’m looking for a very certain kind of client which probably only fits a small fraction of the RPG community at large. Most of them are very accomplished storytellers themselves, but they desperately want to play and have careers that allow them to pay for professional storytelling services.

    You talk a lot about risk, but really you are taking the same risk any time you buy a ticket for a sporting event, or concert, or play. It could be the worst performance of that professional’s career, but you can’t ask for your money back if a real effort was made. A performance isn’t a burger. A service isn’t the same as a physical product.

    Also, this idea of parity for money and value, trying to keep participants that might have paid differently happy proportional to their monetary contribution, is very puzzling. They are all players in the game, and I will say occasionally I have deferred to the patron if nobody can make a big decision, but that’s just out of convenience for me. Really what I’ve found is that I know my patrons better than their guests that occasionally play with them. The relationship is really what dictates how much I can tailor a session to their tastes and their characters. If I don’t know them very well I’m probably not going to be able to anticipate what they would really enjoy. That doesn’t have to do with money at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. In some ways, pay-2-play is already occurring at gaming conventions (e.g., Gencon). The GM is not actually paid, but they do get perks for running games (e.g., free convention pass, discounted hotel room. In order for a GM to get a free pass at Gencon, he/she need to run at least 70 hrs of games. You’ll get 72 hrs for running a 4 hr adventure for 6 players 3 times (4 hrs x 6 x 3 = 72 hrs). I don’t know how many hours you need to get discounts for hotel rooms.)

    Many people don’t seem to have too much of a problem of paying $2/2hr ticket, since it guarantees them a spot in a game at a con. (Actually, as a GM at Gencon, I sometimes think the price is too low when you have 6 people preregister for a game and only half or less of them show up for the game, but that’s another discussion.) In most of my games at conventions I’ve played, it was worth the cost of the event. (I hope the same can be said by the players of the games I’ve ran as well.)

    The amount people should pay-2-play is a difficult question. I would agree a minimum of $1/hr would be appropriate if the GM is running the adventures multiple times. I think the cost for the game should be modified based upon the following:
    # times the game will be offered (e.g., 1 time vs 5 times)
    Length of the campaign (e.g., 1-shot vs multiple adventures)
    Complexity of System
    Complexity of adventure (e.g., smash & grab vs complex puzzles, mysteries)
    Rarity of GM’s available for system (e.g., D&D any ed., GURPS, HERO, Ubiquity, Fate, etc.)
    complexity of game & props (e.g., battlemat vs 3d terrain)
    GM preparation time
    other costs (e.g., rental costs, source books, props)

    Alternately, the costs could be based upon the adventure/campaign instead of an hourly cost (e.g., $25 for a group of 6 for a 4 hr adventure).

    Liked by 1 person

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