GMing For Love or Money

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It’s no secret that I like a good fight. I hang out on the internet for the same reason that I go to the monkey house at the zoo: I like watching idiots fling poo at each other. But internet fights are only fun when they are about trivial things. Things that don’t really matter. Like whether female dwarves have beards and whether you can drink a potion underwater. That sort of crap is hilarious and harmless. But lately, all of the people I would normally watch scream their fool heads off over trivial non-issues are so absorbs in insane political hyperbole. And that? That I don’t find amusing. And I don’t get involved. Now, don’t get me wrong: that crap doesn’t matter either. It really, truly doesn’t. But it’s just so filled with overly divisive, black-and-white, us-against-them bile that it isn’t any fun to watch. And there’s actual wit or intelligence on display. It’s just shrieking insults and vulgarities and screaming that the sky is falling. So I stay out of that crap.

The trouble is, that means I’m not getting my usual fill of poo-flinging fun. So when I do see an argument that’s about the trivialities of gaming instead of the trivialities of partisan politics or the inanity of social justice, I tend to seize on it. And recently, I got to watch just such a fight happen. A friend of mine got drawn into a really, really stupid argument with someone on the internet. And fortunately, my friend was smart enough to eventually walk away before it got too stupid. But, here’s the thing: buried in that argument is a really interesting issue. At least, I think it’s an interesting issue.

Now, I will be the first to admit this article isn’t really gaming advice. It’s exactly the sort of random garbage that I invented the Random Bulls$&% category for. And it IS a question related to gaming. And I’ve seen it come up several times. And I think there IS an important lesson in it that does apply to game mastering and game design. So, if you’ll indulge me, I want to do a little bit of ruminating about a weird little side-question.

And if you won’t indulge me? Well, tough s$&%. It’s my f$&%ing website and I’ll do whatever I want. Come back on Monday and I’ll write something about NPCs or whatever.

Should Game Masters Get Paid

Should GM’s be paid? That’s the question. And, believe it or not, it’s something that I’ve seen talked about a bunch lately. The argument I saw was a pretty piss-poor one, honestly. The person saying that GMs SHOULD be paid cited some pretty stupid reasons. Actually, stupid reason. Singular. Because they didn’t think it through very much. And my friend was smart enough to realize that and walk away. After all, once you realize someone is just going to keep repeating the same point in slightly different words regardless of what you say, there’s really no point in playing the game anymore. Parrots are pretty cool, but there’s no point in debating one about the merits of a low carb diet. It’s just going to keep insisting that it wants a cracker.

In case the question isn’t clear, let me explain. A GM provides a service for a group of players. They learn rules, purchase supplies, create or purchase adventure modules, and run games. And that time could be spent doing other things instead. The players get an entertaining, fulfilling experience. Therefore, should a GM expect compensation from players? Should players, in fact, pay GMs for their time and effort? THAT is the question I’m going to be looking at.

Now, I have to admit some of my own bias here. See, I grew up in the eighties and early nineties. And my generation was a bit different when it came to questions of getting paid. We had this concept called “selling out.” Essentially, you could EITHER make money OR be creative. Once you started accepting money for what you did, you weren’t really in it purely for the art anymore. And that somehow cheapened what you were doing. Life was divided between what you did for money and what you did for love. In other words, you had a job where you earned enough money to live on, and you had hobbies you did because you enjoyed them.

The thing is, that’s a silly argument. Getting paid for something doesn’t automatically cheapen it. But I will admit that the idea of “selling out” is still lodged somewhere in some visceral, emotional part of my brain. It was actually one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome before I decided to let my fans support me instead of working a full-time day job and belting out occasional articles when I could. And it is something I’m struggling with again as I’ve now decided to make this website, writing, and freelance game design and publication my only endeavor for the near future. It seems like I’m somehow cheating at life.

BUT, there IS something to the idea that taking money for something can affect your art. A bunch of YouTubers learned that not too long ago. And it’s a very interesting and important point that is wrapped in content creation for pay. So it’s worth talking about. Here’s the deal: if you make videos on YouTube, you have the option of monetizing those videos. If you do so, you give YouTube the right to run ads before, after, or during your videos. YouTube sells that advertising time to various companies. And in return for monetizing your videos, you get a cut of the ad revenue. In short, it’s how you can get paid for making YouTube videos. And honestly, it’s no different from network television. You make shows which attract viewers. You sell ad space in those shows to advertisers. They pay you so you can keep making shows. In effect, the advertisers are buying your viewers from you. And that’s a perfectly normal economic transaction: you have something someone wants (viewers watching TV) and they are willing to pay you for them.

But here’s the deal: advertisers want to get the best bang for their buck. They don’t want to waste money advertising to people who aren’t going to buy their product. For example, if they are selling cars or alcohol or guns, they don’t want to waste money advertising those things to little children who can’t afford or legally buy or use cars or alcohol or guns. And there are many, many products that have target markets. That is: specific demographics much more likely to buy the product than other demographics. Teenagers don’t buy life insurance. Far fewer forty-year-olds want Barbie toys than thirteen-year-olds. That’s just the nature of products.

In addition, advertising is very reliant on reputation. When people buy a product, they are often making those choices based on intangible qualities. For example, when you are buying insurance, you’re generally looking for a company that presents an image of being fiscally responsible, trustworthy, responsive to your needs, stable, and successful. On the other hand, when you buy clothing, you’re more concerned with image. You might, for example, buy clothes from a company that appears to be trendy, in-touch with what looks good, and popular, so that you’ll fit in and feel like you belong in your social circle.

Advertisers are in the business of identifying target markets and projecting the proper image. So, when they pay for advertising time, they want to pay for time that will reach their target market and won’t hurt their reputation. Now, television networks, because of that, face an interesting challenge. On the one hand, their shows have to appeal to an audience or else no one will watch the show. On the other hand, television shows also have to attract the right markets for advertisers and the shows can’t be somehow harmful to their image.

What does this have to do with YouTube? Well, recently, a bunch of YouTube content creators suddenly had their monetization option turned off. That is to say, YouTube stopped selling advertising space on certain videos because those videos weren’t suitable for the advertisers YouTube was partnered with. And several content creators lost their goddamned minds.

Now, on the one hand, you can kind of see where they are coming from. That seems terrible unfair. Some YouTubers are making a good living from ad revenue. And suddenly, that revenue disappeared. It seemed like they had suddenly been fired. On the other hand, though, those YouTubers didn’t understand WHO was actually paying them for WHAT. YouTube wasn’t paying YouTubers to make videos. Advertisers were paying YouTubers for their audience with YouTube as an intermediary. And they aren’t going to pay if they aren’t getting good value for their dollar.

When some content creators on TV got fed up with having to be slaves to certain standards and practices to keep the advertisers happy, they started up a new thing: premium cable channels. Instead of advertisers paying them to create shows, they charged the audience directly. And that is why shows like Game of Thrones can even exist. Because the audience is paying directly for the shows and no advertisers are involved. Unless, of course, the audience is pirating the show. Then no one is paying for it.

Now, imagine has become SUPER important lately. If you pay attention to social media, you’ll discover that many tech-savvy consumers make purchase decisions based on lots of things. For example, it has become very common for consumers to punish companies for their social, political, moral, or religious views by taking their money elsewhere. And there is nothing wrong with that. Every consumer has the right to spend their money however they want. BUT, it does mean advertisers are becoming more sensitive to where their ads are appearing. What websites. What videos. What services. And that means content creators are going to have to work much harder to court advertisers and sponsors. And they are going to have to be on their best behavior, neither pissing off advertisers nor challenging their audience.

And so, the smart YouTubers didn’t go apes%$&. Instead, they went to crowdfunding sites or started offering premium subscriptions to their channels. Just like premium cable channels, the YouTubers who want to create content that is controversial, challenging, or otherwise somehow viewed as “unsanitary” by the average advertiser are finding ways to get money directly from their audience. Now, I could talk about what that means for the future, but I’m starting to digress from the question.

The point I’m trying to make is this: the idea that accepting money for something somehow cheapens it is ludicrous. But, if you start accepting money for something, then suddenly you’re opening yourself up to outside influences. It’s never JUST money.

Money for Everything

Now, I’m going to stay a little “get off my lawny” for a moment here. Because even though I grew up in the era of “not selling out,” and I fully admit that was an extreme view, the other end of the spectrum is what I’m starting to personally a lot of now. The idea that “if anything is worth doing, it’s worth getting paid for.” See, the internet has opened up a whole new slew of ways for amateur creators to get their stuff out in front of lots and lots of people. And it has also opened up a whole new slew of ways for creators to get money from their audience. Advertising revenue from websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos was just the start. You can sell your self-published e-book on Amazon. You can distribute your independent video game via Steam. On DriveThru RPG, you can sell your own games and supplements. And, of course, you can also sell subscriptions to your ongoing projects, Kickstart your own products, and allow fans to support your work via Patreon.

Basically, this is the modern equivalent of the California gold rush. There’s gold in them thar hills and everyone wants a nugget. BUT, it’s also a bit different from a traditional gold rush. See, being a gold prospector wasn’t exactly fun. It was a harsh, dangerous life. You were exposed to the elements. The land was lawless. You could get shot by a claim jumper or killed by a bear or just lose your legs to hypothermia. And most people DIDN’T get rich in the gold rush. But the modern Content Rush IS fun. The promise isn’t money in return for a hard life, it’s money doing what you enjoy doing. Whatever you enjoy doing. Do you like making comics? Make money doing that. Do you like making games? Make money doing that. Whatever you love, there’s money to be made.

And that fulfills one of the oldest modern fantasies: the career doing what you love. Or it seems to. After all: working 40 hours a week sucks. It sucks having to get up every morning and go do something you don’t want to do for someone else in return for a paycheck. It sucks losing one third of five sevenths of five eights of your life to work. Yeah, go ahead, work it out. Eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty years. If you’re lucky. Who wouldn’t rather spend that doing something they are genuinely passionate about.

And so, a lot of the younger crowd are now smelling a loophole. They have gold fever. There’s money available for practically anything you want to do. It’s up for grabs. It’s there for everyone. Other people are making money, good money, doing what they love. Hell, I’m doing it right now. Thanks, supporters! So, if other people are doing it, why not them? Why not you?

In truth, the view that anyone should be able to make good money doing anything is as extreme as the view that making money for something inherently robs it of its value. There’s a grain of reality in it, but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And, in fact, the grain of reality is this: you can make money doing almost anything. There is money out there being made. And doing what you love is great. Dividing your time between survival and passion is much less fun than surviving through your passion.

The problem is the expectation is unrealistic. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get back to the question.

The Question of Should

The word “SHOULD” is a terrible word. Now, pay attention, because this is the part that is actually useful to all aspects of game design and game mastering. And probably lots of other things too.

The question “should a GM be paid for their time” is a BAD question. It’s a TERRIBLE question. It’s FLAWED. It’s IRRELEVANT. And the reason is the word “should.”

“Should” is a word that implies some kind of moral or ethical perspective. It implies a sense of fairness. It discusses the world as it SHOULD be. It presents an ideal image of the world. A world that is right and just and fair. Do you understand what I’m getting at? This is really f$&%ing important! The moment a question has the word “should” in it, we accept that there are multiple possibilities but one of them is inherently preferably for some intangible reason. For example, the implication in the question “should a GM be paid for their time” is “is it right or fair for a GM to expect compensation” and that leads to “is it unfair that GMs are expected to run games for free?”

Now, here’s the problem: right and fair are actually very subjective ideas. There is no universal moral framework that we have thus far discovered. And the world is huge and complicated and every action and choice has all sorts of consequences, foreseen and unforeseen. I’m not saying that it isn’t useful to discuss rightness or fairness. But we have a tendency to apply them to situations where they are irrelevant to the actual outcome. And we have a tendency to conflate fairness and rightness with desirable.

For example, whenever a new edition of D&D comes out, there’s a lot of arguments about what races and classes SHOULD appear and why. And, as I said, the minute you use the word SHOULD, you imply there is an idea, correct, just, fair, proper way for things to be. And when it comes to whether pixies are a playable race in D&D and whether they can be as effective in melee combat as orcs, those are kind of silly words to use. Some people want that crap. Some people don’t. It isn’t right or wrong. It’s just a subjective desire. It’ll make some people happy. It’ll make other people unhappy.

Now, when it comes to being a game designer, there are ways a smart game designer WILL look at the question. But the word SHOULD doesn’t really enter into that either. For example, if the vast majority of your audience wants pixie barbarians and a very small minority doesn’t, the smart game designer will consider including pixie barbarians to please the larger portion of their fanbase. Now, that might SEEM like “fariness,” but it’s actually a much more pragmatic choice. It’s actually about selling the game to as many people as possible. And making a choice based on sales volume isn’t inherently wrong or unfair either. It’s often good for everyone. More people can enjoy the game. More sales means there’s more money to pour back into future games. The game designer gets more rewards for their hard work. And more people playing a community-based game increases the chances that everyone can find groups to play with.

That said, sales figures aren’t the only reason to make a decision. For example, if I were designing a game, I wouldn’t include pixie barbarians. I realize it might cost me some sales, but pixie barbarians are f$&%ing stupid. I don’t want that bulls$&% in my game. They don’t fit my vision. And that, too, is a pragmatic decision. I’m choosing to put my artistic vision of what my game should be ahead of potential sales. I’m willing to lose customers so as not to compromise my distaste for pixie barbarians.

SHOULD is a dangerous word. It creates the false impression that there’s an inherent rightness or wrongness that should be considered as part of the decision. As a game designer, I’m not going to get wrapped up in the fact that pixie barbarians are the RIGHT thing to do. And if I do get wrapped up in that idea, I’m going to arrive at a stupid answer. I’ll either make my fans unhappy or make myself unhappy.

Chasing SHOULD is dangerous. The world doesn’t always conform to the ideal world we want. And convincing ourselves that the world WILL conform to the one we want will, at least, lead us to disappointment and, at worst, lead us to despair. And the major reason for that is that everyone has different SHOULDS in their head. Allow me to get social for a moment and don’t get too offended.

There are folks out there who believe there is an inherent moral value in making games more inclusive. I’m not weighing in on that debate at all. Whatever you think about that is fine. You have some view of the ideal world in your head on that issue. So do I. We all do. The problem is that you and I may not agree on the degree to which the real world fails to conform to the ideal world. And we may not agree on how to fix that. And we may not even agree on how important it is to fix relative to any other criteria. So, now, suppose I’m making a video game and it comes time to choose the gender and skin color of the protagonist. Some people might see that choice as tremendously important because, in an ideal world, more games include representations of women and minority characters. So, they would say I SHOULD choose to make the character, perhaps, an Asian woman who is in a stable relationship with another woman. There’s nothing wrong with that opinion. The problem is, I might not share that view. I might prefer to make my game about a white man because I, as a white man, feel more comfortable writing those experiences. That is, as the author, I identify more readily with that character. Or, I might just make the character a white man because that’s what I want to do. That’s a choice I, as a creator, have to make. And I have to consider all of the different criteria I think are important.

At the end of the day, you might refuse to buy my game because it has yet another white male protagonist. And that is your right. And if enough people do that, it might convince me to make my next protagonist a woman. Or black. Or gay. Or whatever. Or it might not. I might choose to give up potential sales for whatever reasons I might have and keep my character white and male. And that’s my right. Because I have different SHOULDS in my head than you do.

And that is just reality. In the absence of some absolute and provable moral or ethical framework, there’s no way to prove which SHOULDS are preferred. And if we try to have a moral argument about, it will quickly become very complex if we do it from a place of intellectual honesty. But it will all be subjective. Now, I’m not saying moral arguments aren’t worth having. They certain are. Intellectual debate is extremely healthy and it helps us reach better ideas and to find common ground. That’s why it’s valuable to talk to people you don’t agree with. But not all moral issues are created equal. And even the weight of particular moral issues is subjective. Quick, what’s more important, donating money to cancer research or to feed starving children? You might think the issue of inclusion is so important it should outweigh every other aspect of creation. I might think being true to my artistic message is more important.

And here’s the other problem: even if something SHOULD be a certain way in some absolute framework of morality, no one can force that issue. You might be right about my hypothetical game. It might be inherently and demonstrably wrong for me to fail to conform to a certain idea of inclusivity. But you still can’t force me to conform to it. That is to say, you can’t make the world conform to your ideal view. And, given you can’t be sure your ideal view is really right, you are egotistical to try. That’s why you have to pick your battles. In some places, it is very important to arrive at a common moral framework. For example, as a society, it’s kind of big that we all agree that murder and rape are wrong. It’s important. Because people suffer and die as a result of that choice. It isn’t nearly as important that we all agree that pixie barbarians belong in D&D. That’s not an issue that seriously hurts anyone.

What’s the point?

The point is this: even if it is true that the GM SHOULD be paid for their time, that doesn’t mean a GM WILL be paid for their time. And there’s a heavy assumption in that question anyway. We’ll get back to that. For the moment, though, let’s rephrase the question. Let’s ask “COULD a GM be paid for their time.” That is to say, in this world, today, could a GM practically expect to be paid for their time? And if so, how much?

Why People Get Paid

Now, let’s strip away all of the moral and ethical arguments concerning money just for a moment. Because there is a complex issue of survival wrapped up in money. Without money, in the modern age, you will die. Money is a necessity for food, shelter, and medical care. That’s not up for debate. Without money, you die. And once we accept that point, we then have to argue how much of another person’s survival am I inherently responsible for as a human being. That is to say, if people are starving due to lack of money, is it right to expect me to support them? And how much of my own standard of living should I be expected to give up to keep other people alive? How much of my own survival should I be expected to risk to keep another person alive? And how much should the community have in what I should give up to ensure the survival of others? Can my own money be taken by the community to be given to those who the community decides needs it more? I’m not going anywhere near those questions. Because they are complex and personal. And there is no objective way to even begin to argue those questions.

Instead, I want to look at a hypothetical GM who is already well-off. After all, gaming is a luxury hobby anyway. He looks at the time he spends each week on his game. He figures he’s a pretty good GM. So he wonders if he can make money running games. So, his first idea is to charge his players for his GMing services. Could that work?

When you get down to it, the only reason anyone gets paid for anything is because they have something of value that someone is willing to pay for. McDonalds pays you because you have hours of time you are willing to spend flipping burgers and filling sodas. That’s something they need. So, they pay you for it. You get money, they get your time. That’s a fair exchange.

From that standpoint, it seems easy enough to say that a GM could earn money running games. After all, the GM has something of value: time. So, if players value that time, they might be willing to pay for it. But, it isn’t as simple as that.

Imagine, for example, a whole bunch of magical elves suddenly appeared in the world. Basically, these are like the shoe-making elves of old. They just LOVE flipping burgers and filling sodas. And they are magical so they don’t need food or sleep or anything. They exist SOLELY to flip burgers and fill sodas. And they all gravitate to McDonalds. What’s going to happen?

Well, suddenly, McDonalds doesn’t NEED your time anymore. They have magical burger-flipping elves who do the job for free. They aren’t going to pay you because you don’t have anything they need anymore. And THAT is the first obstacle the hypothetical GM has to contend with.

See, there are plenty of GMs out there who are willing to do it for free. And they are willing to do it for free because they find it fun. Hell, I know some GMs out there who love doing it so much they would pay PLAYERS for the privilege. They are crazy, but they exist. So, the hypothetical GM who wants to cash in might find it hard to convince his players to pay him when they can simply find a GM willing to provide a game for free.

Now, the availability of GMs varies from place to place. If you live in an area with lots of gamers and no one willing to run games, you might very well be able to cash in on that. But most GMs are going to find it hard to convince players to pay them for something they can get for free. And that leads us to the second issue.

Let’s say you want a raise at McDonalds. You don’t think they are paying you enough. So you demand more money. And if they don’t pay you more, you will quit. Well, McDonalds will generally let you walk out. And the reason is because it is very easy for them to get new burger flippers and soda fillers. The thing is, becoming a McDonalds employee is very easy. You basically have to pass a drug test. After that, they will teach you the few things you need to know. And the job itself is pretty simple. So, you are replaceable.

Now, say what you want, but GMing isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s not really any more difficult than working at McDonalds. And, more importantly, it’s pretty easy to become a GM. Any player at any table can get behind the screen and start running games. So, when the hypothetical GM says “if you want me to run any more games, you’re going to have to pay me,” there’s a distinct possibility that someone else sitting at that table will say “nah, I’ll just run the game myself.” There aren’t any real barriers to entry, see? I mean, there are a few. But they are pretty tiny. You have to buy the books. And you have to practice a little bit. And you have to read my website.

It comes down a pretty basic truth: whether you can get paid for something depends solely on whether people are willing to pay you. There’s no should about it. No morality. And people aren’t willing to pay for something they can get for free.

Am I saying it’s impossible for a GM to be paid to run games? No. It is possibly. There are people out there who ARE willing to pay for the service. But your ability to get paid as a GM will depend entirely on those people. And their willingness to pay you, and how much they pay you, will depend on a lot of factors beyond your control.

Making Money as a GM

So, what does determine whether you can get paid as a GM and how much? Well, the same things that determine whether you can get paid for anything and how much. First of all, there has to be a demand for what you’re selling. And there has to be a limited supply of what you’re selling. If no one wants the thing or the thing is readily available, no one will pay you for it. And that’s the biggest issue with making money as a community GM. There’s an easy supply and very little demand.

Now, theoretically, there are ways to increase your value as a GM. For example, if you’re an exceptionally good GM and you can somehow convince people that you’re exceptionally good, you might be able to make some money doing it. However, convincing people that your GMing is somehow better than everyone else’s can be tricky. It’s not impossible though. The entire bottled water industry exists solely because Coca Cola somehow convinced lots of people that their water in bottles was better than the water everyone already had in their homes. Alternatively, if you’re some kind of celebrity, you can probably make money running games. Chris Perkins or Mike Mearls or Jason Buhlman or Steve Jackson or Margaret Weis or Monte Cook or Vin Diesel or Judy Dench could all probably convince people to pay them to run games. And that’s because they are offering something more than simply a game anyone could run. They are offering prestige. Status. Privilege. The unique ability to say Vin Diesel or Steve Jackson killed your character.

See, because there’s nothing you can do about the ready supply of GMs and the lack of demand for GMs, the only thing you can do is somehow offer something unique. Celebrity. Expertise. Some kind of experience people can only get from you. Hell, True Dungeon and escape rooms are basically just GMs who found a way to make money running a single encounter by offering a unique experience you can’t get at a home table.

But you could also learn something from YouTube and Matt Mercer. See, that idiot I mentioned screaming that GMs deserve to be paid? Well, he kept citing Matt Mercer, the GM of the Critical Role livecast. If you’re not aware of it, Critical Role is one of a handful of professionally produced weekly D&D games being broadcast over the internet. Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast is also involved in one: Dice, Camera, Action.

Now, I don’t watch those shows. I have better things to do than watch celebrities run games wrong on the internet. I run games. Also, I write a website. And I’m not even entirely sure that content is monetized and HOW it is monetized. But I will tell you something: if Matt Mercer is making money as the GM of Critical Role, it isn’t coming from his players. It’s either coming from the audience or its coming from advertisers or its coming from the producers at Geek and Sundry. And they are making money from either advertisers or their audience. And THAT’S the key. That’s why the screaming dumba$& was wrong. Those “professional YouTube” GMs” aren’t charging their players to run games. They are charging advertisers or they are charging their audience. And the advertisers aren’t paying for games. They are paying for a market. And the audience is paying for entertainment.

But in there is another way a GM could make money. Instead of charging the players, a GM could conceivably find someone else who had an interest in them running games. For example, game stores might pay someone to run demos or events. Conventions always seem to need GMs. And, if you’re willing to stream your game on the internet, your audience or advertisers might just pay you.

Now, game stores and conventions often DO pay GMs. It’s just that they usually don’t hand out cash. Some conventions give out free or discounted tickets to those who run events. Some groups even give you room and board if you run games for them at bigger conventions. I myself have gotten a small handful of free books and trinkets from various conventions and game stores over the years in return for running events.

As for the internet? Well, the problem there again is competition. There’s A LOT of gaming content on the web. If you want to make money producing content, you’ve got to find a way to stand out. And you’ve got to build an audience. And that can take years and years. And it’s hard work. And that, perhaps, is the bitterest pill to swallow when you look out over the Content Gold Rush of the internet. A few people got very lucky and discovered gold. But, if the rest of us want any of that now, we’re going to have a spend a lot of time in the mud sifting water through a pan and getting frostbite while we fend off wolves. And I don’t say that lightly. I’m very proud of this website and everything I’ve accomplished with it. And while I’m grateful for the support of every one of my fans, I also remember that I spent many, many hours for five years building this site from nothing for free to get to this point. I did it because I loved doing it. And because I genuinely wanted to make a difference in people’s games.

In Conclusion

So, when all is said and done: should a GM be paid? Who knows. Who cares. There’s no way to answer that question except subjectively and the answer isn’t going to change anything unless you can convince every GM out there to stop doing it for free for fun.

Could a GM be paid? It’s possible. But it probably won’t be very much. And to make any more than a pittance, it will take a lot of hard work achieving celebrity status or convincing the world that you’re better than Matt Mercer. Even if you are. And you still have to find someone willing to pay you.

Good luck with that.

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30 thoughts on “GMing For Love or Money

  1. Spot on.

    Supply and demand, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. When you take the King’s shilling, you do the King’s bidding. It’s an old old truth.

    Most DMs play for snacks and pizza that is sometimes provided by the players. That’s a form of compensation. I recently went 3 days without having to buy lunch or dinner. Look out, Chris and Matt!

    At risk of aggravating the Angry one, his points made will be sharper and all the more effective once a caring editor can look them over. I am just happy there’s an article.

    • Very true. The quality of this article’s content is amazing, one of the best “ramblings” yet! But the quality of this article’s proofreading got much worse than the Antagonists one.

      Keep up the great work, now and during the next months! Just take care to not get burned out, after all, four angry-sized articles in a week is batshit crazy… (and I am loving it!)

    • GM’ing is hard and time consuming, and if someone at your table is taking the the other 6 nights a week to make sure the one night you play is thought out and adaptable if the PCs decide to “leave the road” then the rest of the folks at the table COULD (not should) consider making sure the GM isn’t paying for beer, or pizza, or snacks, or whatever. That’s good manners. As a player, I offer to chip in for books if the table wants to play a new game or campaign or version or whatever. That stuff adds up, and I benefit from it as a player even if I don’t get to read it or own it.

  2. I really appreciate your uncanny ability to break issues down to where rational people could disagree, and then leaving it there.

  3. Angry, you’re right (of course) that it really is each person’s definition for what they value as to whether a GM might ask payment… should be paid, etc. However, if my own time prepping my game and running it were paid by the hour? Each of my four players might be on the hook for $100 per 8-12 hour game… for me to eek out minimum wage. Anything less would be insulting, and I guarantee they would not feel that was a good value either.
    Nope. If I’m not paid, I decide what to focus on, how hard to work, and if imperfection happens, it is a lot easier for everyone to be okay with it — most importantly, me.

  4. Gaming is a recreational activity. Not only am I a game master, but also a (barely) published author of game material and a (unpublished) game designer.

    There’s a common “joke” in the game industry: How do you make a small fortune in gaming? You start with a large fortune.

    There are people, celebrities, who can justifiably charge money for running games. You won’t find me paying to play in their games. Tracy Hickman’s Killer Breakfast is a huge event at GenCon. I have never attended. I’ve done True Dungeon twice, and have decided that I’ll never do it again.

    I am willing to trade my time to run games at GenCon so I can get my badge for free. (Speaking of that, I need to get my events submitted!) No telling how many hours I will spend in advance preparing to run these games without pay. Certainly more than the value of the badge -especially considering I make decent money at my full-time job.

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus of those who agree with what you’ve said, (as well as agree that a good editor would be an awesome addition to your writing. I’d be willing to help… if I got PAID for it, though technically, I’m neither trained nor qualified to be a professional editor! I’ll shut up about it.)

    The value I want to add in this conversation with post is this: Before you consider charging for running games, it is MY opinion you SHOULD be qualified. You must prove yourself. How, might you ask? I have some thoughts:

    1. Run games. Lots of them. Lots of systems. Lots of settings. With different players and groups. Become the person that when you post in your FLGS that you are going to start a new game, more people put their name on the list than you can handle. Lots more.

    2. Develop and publish. You can establish a blog and develop a loyal fan-base (as Angry has done). You can write supplemental content and publish it, and if you’re good enough, actually make a little bit of money on it.

    3. Play games as well. Don’t play with the intent to critique, but from the mindset of the player. Learn what you, as a player, like and enjoy, and as you do, learn what other players like and enjoy. Learn from the GMs you’re gaming with what works and what doesn’t work. Be willing to experiment in your own games to find the mechanics and tricks that work for you and your style.

    And finally,

    4. Be willing to take risks. You’ve done the things above, but as long as you remain in your proverbial basement, lights dimmed, playing Elder Fallout on your Atari, you’re never going to get anywhere. The only way to find out if people are willing to pay you for your services is to hang your shingle and ask. If people think you are qualified, you will know. Pretty quickly.

    With all this said, don’t expect to make a fortune. Very few people who make their income through gaming are successful. Some make a comfortable living, and the rare individual has made it big. We all would like to be the next Richard Garfield, but considering all his work and innovation, I never saw Gary Gygax’s name on the Fortune 500 list.

    For me, I probably won’t ever charge to run games as a GM. I have my reasons, but chief among them, I’d rather make money from gaming through other means. I have no expectation that my designing and writing endeavors will ever exceed the costs and turn a profit. I accept this because it’s the nature of the industry.

  5. I suppose, technically, I get paid to GM. Not because I do it professionally, but because I’m a teen librarian, one of my responsibilities is to run teen programs, and one of the most popular programs I ever ran (and I know because, months later, teens are still asking me to start it up again) was a rules-lite generic fantasy RPG campaign.

    Two nights ago, I demonstrated that game for two kids at a high school during a literacy event. I also set out a chess set and tangrams, both of which were also popular.

    Is that getting paid to run games? Not in the sense of it actually being in my job description. Entertaining kids and promoting literacy IS in my job description, and it just so happens that DnD is a fine way to accomplish that. I can spend an hour a week planning an hour’s gaming, so technically a twentieth of my salary is in exchange for that — but I’m getting it for something I would do anyway in some other fashion, whether as storytelling, running an anime club, or teaching kids art or music. I just enjoy it more.

    Heck, I can read this blog on work time and call it research, and I’m not even obfuscating. I like it, by the way; it’s already given me a lot of useful material, so thanks!

    • Getting paid for something you enjoy doing, and involves gaming? Sounds like a winner to me.
      Question, do you intend to pursue being a librarian as a career choice, and if yes, will you continue this awesome idea?

      Whether with an assistant or as the operator, both are good options. It also brings gaming to more people as well.

      A neat little package, all that.

      • I wasn’t clear – I’m a professional librarian already, have been for ten years, degree and everything, and I work primarily with teenagers – hence, a teen librarian. As opposed to children’s librarian, reference librarian, etc. And I do intend to keep it going as and when I get the chance — there are plenty of librarian gamers out there, though given the atmosphere and time constraints it is generally easier to run board games and video games than RPGs. We sometimes even have booths at local cons, and I hope to be in on the next one.

        • Ah. Well, sometimes misinterpretation is a fact of life. Ironic almost, considering the content of the article. Still, It is great to see the indoctrination of a new generation of gamers.

          Let this also be a point to others to never be afraid to look like a fool.

  6. I’ll admit confusion over your claim that politics doesn’t matter. You’ve got chronic health issues and you’re not concerned about the future of healthcare in this country?! Yes I know it was part of the intro but the dismissive tone was a bit off IMHO. I know your blog…. 🙂

  7. Best way to get paid to GM? Open a damn game store and do it as an event.
    Most realistic way to get paid as a GM? Open your damn book and be thankful for the pizza and wings your buddy sprung for.

    Hell, being the shoddy (at best) GM I am, I could never dream of being paid to GM outside of the food I am occasionally provided.

    There was a reason “Bribe the GM with food ” was a thing.

    GM time is also social time for me though, being a single parent of a toddler, so having the gang out to just have fun is worth the time commitment.

  8. I think one sentence in this article says everything about why I don’t ever expect to be paid to GM: “After all, gaming is a luxury hobby anyway.” For me, running the game isn’t the only aspect that’s a luxury – planning it is as well.

    I think too many GMs let themselves get dragged into a mindset where they have an obligation to keep running games for their players: gaming and especially GMing stops being a luxury undertaken for personal enjoyment and becomes a second job, something that taxes the energy and will but doesn’t have the decency to compensate them for their spent time.

    I GM for my own enjoyment; I’m not terribly concerned with how good a time my players are having. However, pragmatically, I understand that players are a necessity to keep having the most enjoyable gaming experience, and in the interest of making sure I always have players to satisfy my own desire to GM, I’m going to try to give them an enjoyable experience so that they’ll return next week and keep playing.

    It’s a double-edged sword, though: I try to keep my players aware that if they do anything to make the game not enjoyable for me – e.g., showing up not ready to play, breaking table rules, making scheduling the next game difficult – I’m going to be less inclined to run the game for them. And while some players will get huffy and walk away at that, the promise of a seat at a table next week with someone who respects their time and his own enough to care about running a good game (even if he occasionally falls short of that goal) is usually enough to keep them around.

  9. I only just this second realized (’cause I read this article), that when I was in my teens I ran games in the “free” to play model. The game was happening, and you could play no matter what, but if you brought pizza or drinks or snacks you would get bonus xp as an ‘in-app-purchase’.

    So I guess you can get paid to run pretty easily if a free meal equals payment to you. 🙂

    • I can see it now…

      “Not only does your character get bonus experience if you pay me, but he also gets better looking armor, a nicer weapon, and an extra room in his house where he can display his trophies.”

      • I have to confess I did exactly this.

        I ran a D&D 5e game for about 6 months where instead of Inspiration you would get a random card. Maybe it would give you a free reroll. Maybe a few extra coins in your pocket that you hadn’t noticed before. Maybe it would give you an extra turn. Or an additional level. From a design standpoint it was a fun and appropriate choice for my group.

        Where it gets interesting is that I would give extra cards away to people who paid me for my time. I managed to make a couple hundred bucks, but then again my games are in high demand so I got to choose.

        Should I be able to do that?


  10. Well I would like to share a personnal experience that relate to this topic. About 10 years ago I used to have a little business doing medieval themed entertainement. Sword fight, music, belly dansers, fire breather etc. We mostly did weddings, kids party and festivals.
    The relevant part is that we used to rent a place to pratice our stuff. We also gave dancing lessons and sword fighting and we had painted he place like the interior of a castle. Some evenings of the week the place was empty so we tried running games there. Had 3 tables 6 players each. The GMs were paid little money (20$ a night + free access to our other activities, like swordfight lessons) the players had to pay a monthly fee and it contributed paying for the place… it worked well from september to christmas and then it stopped due to a few issues.
    I used the be GM at one of the tables, i was a much worst gm at the time but the players where mostly teens and did’nt seemed to notice.
    The first issue I remember though is that the pressure of having people paying for a game was not having the same effect on everyone, stress, pressure, obligation, challenge to name a few. So one GM quit because of that. Also, one table had clearly more fun than other, so players started asking to change group, after all if you are paying you want the best out of your money right ? Another issue was rullings, making sure all table used the same interpretation of the rules (playing 3.5) became important… there has also been a player askig for a refund after a character death and many little other thing i don’t remember.
    So getting paid to be a GM ? Possible yes, but it is only the first step in a vast unexplored territory and THAT in my opinion would be the real challenge.

  11. “Now, with that out of the way, let’s get back to the question.

    The Question of Should.”

    I laughed irl.
    I don’t think it’s your main aim, but you always manage to make me laugh.

    Love your work. 🙂

  12. I’d like to leave a simple comment here: I, personally, would never charge my players for games.

    Yes, I spend a lot of money on the game, and have collected almost all the 5e sourcebooks. But to me, D&D is a hobby, and even though my players probably don’t appreciate the time and money I drop into it, they wouldn’t want to stick around if I started asking for money.

    Also, I don’t consider myself a “special” DM, especially not special enough to ask for money. My party tells me I’m a good DM, but I know that I could never make money out of it unless I managed to up my game.

    But of course, as you said, it’s different in every situation.

  13. Jack Sparrow: The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.

    If you can get paid for DMing: good for you.

  14. Damn, Angry, I love the content of your posts but please proofread. At least two times you left out entire words that were integral to the point you were making, and once you omitted “not” which made it look like the exact opposite of what you meant. You write about flow and pacing so much but force your readers to go back and re-read a sentence three times to figure out what you meant.

  15. So, some time ago, when D&D 3.5 was the edition du jour, we had wrapped up one of our campaigns (because the DM decided to move out of state) and there was a sort of “hot potato” game we were playing over who would DM the next campaign. We all had done it at one time or another, but no one was really wanting to step up and do it this time.

    Then on of the players suggested that we put a post on forum boards and on the bulletin board at the local store to see if we could find a DM. He also suggested that we all chip in and pay the DM. I told him that if it came down to paying for a DM or running it myself, I’d take the latter. I didn’t see much reason to give my money, which was better spent on my actual expenses, to someone to run a D&D game. Plus, I didn’t think that the amount he was suggesting that we offer to run the games was more than a pittance; and it didn’t seem like an enticing amount for anyone to take just to run a game.

    Anyway, the content of the article was very good. And I appreciate your very pragmatic approach to monetizing things. I think we see this issue most often when one tries to monetize “creative content” (art, music, hobby material, etc); but it is true of anything one does in life to earn money. It brings to mind the quote from Publius Syrus, “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.”

  16. Does a rule that the gm doesn’t have to chip in for mountain dew and Twizzler bites count as paying the GM? Because that totally works on me. Or the last game I ran where the players bought me the DMG and MM. I mean, I ran two sessions of that game that weekend (we had a friend from out of town) so I made like $10-$15 an hour in stuff!

    Granted, no one said if you do this, we will pay for this … :-). We’ve just always had informal practices like this.

    (I realize gifts as a sign of appreciation aren’t the same thing, but there are similarities for the question will people assign it monetary value!)

  17. My biggest concern is, if I’m charging people to play in my games, suddenly, instead of just my friends, my players become CUSTOMERS. And customers get to decide what they buy. Which means, instead of creating whatever world I want, whatever villain, etc., suddenly my creativity is beholden to the players’ desires. They could now say, “we want a game where we are all evil orc barbarians and there are no wizards.” And if I want to get paid, I toss out my homebrew campaign setting and my cool villain that was supposed to haunt them through 15th level, all the NPCs, sub-plots, etc. that I spent weeks, months or years working on, and I make a new setting where there are no wizards and orc barbarians run roughshod over the human kingdoms.

    Also, my players are my friends, and sometimes friends of friends (though I do run the occasional convention game for strangers), and you don’t invite your friends over for a BBQ and then say “that’ll be $12.50.” You might ask them to bring potato salad, and they probably won’t have a problem with that, but you don’t charge for it. Same thing with gaming. If they are contributing by buying books, miniatures, battle mats, a two liter of something or a bag of coffee here and there, and are pitching in for pizza or Chinese food or whatever you eat around the game table, why would you charge them money?

    Don’t get me wrong, there are venues and situations where you should be compensated, but the average home game or “meet up at the local game store” game is a hobby, even for the GM, and it should be fun. If you don’t enjoy GMing for your friends, don’t do it. But sure as heck don’t ask them to pay you for it.

  18. Actually many (seemingly sane) GMs pay to get to do their GMing, just by buying all those campaign sourcebooks or Monster Manuals, or DM Guides, or Adventure modules, or Dungeon magazines, or… OK now I am just reading titles from my shelf…

    Anyhow, nice article, major points for going through the whole explaining the value of labor thing without having to quote Marx.

    At the end of the day when you get to do something you love, even if your day job is not part of it, it still makes the 1/3 out of 5/7 out of 5/8 part much easier to soldier through 🙂

  19. Some might say I paid my GM by buying him the adventure path he is running for us. I call it an investment.

    • that’s a perfect way to thank and support your GM! I know I love it when players tell me not to pick up or preorder a book since their getting it for the group!

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