Monday, March 15, 2021

Professional Dungeon Masters


Pictured above: profile pic of a Roll20 forum member

advertising as a "Paid DM" 

In recent months I've been exploring the Roll20 members forums. Here people advertise that they are looking for games to play in, looking to start a campaign, etc. I've been interested, surprised, annoyed, and even appalled (I'll post more on this in the future), but the most stand out thing to me there is the phenomenon of "paid DM's."

Around 10 years ago when I started exploring the "OSR" online, there wasn't much in the way of "professional dungeon masters." Sure, somebody like Frank Mentzer and other mid-level gaming luminaries might be getting a payday for running a convention game. You can make your own call as to whether such sessions are worth the time and money (I try not to be judgmental but I don't find this grizzled veteran very compelling in his refereeing), but I was never much of a convention dude. 

At some point right before I originally started this blog I was lurking around a forum, I think, and some young fellow calling himself Captain Kommando or some such made a post discussing the possibility of running games for a living. Apparently he lived with his granny and money was an issue. In order to help he wanted to earn some bucks, and he thought DMing for pay would be a great way to save the homestead. He would don masks and do voices and provide you an interactive experience. That forum, at least then (I have zero recent forum experience; in the past I found forums such as and Dragonsfoot to be cesspools of tired old school gamers clinging to tired old notions) was full of people who thought their way of having fun pretending to be elves was superior, and they kind of ate Captain Kommando alive. "pay to play? the hell you say!" But he dug in his heels. I think that after he sat on a train for an hour to go run a free trial game for some folk at a mall food court, and none of them showing up, he gave up on his dream and went back to a regular job search. 

Flash forward some years, and the roll20 "looking for games forum" is full of folk advertising as "paid DM's." Literally 25-35 % of the posts are from DM's looking to get 10-20 bucks a sessions from their players. And they often seem to be able to find a group to pay. They call themselves "legendary DM's" though readily admitting they have only been doing D&D for two or three years. That's gotta chap the ass of anybody doing it for free for decades. Hell, sometimes a group will post looking for a DM to pay. 

Now, none of that really appeals to me. For one thing I don't really need the money. But to have to have an expectation that you are "working" for the players really turns me off. Too many times in the past, especially outside my own hand-picked groups, have I felt like running a session was like a job that didn't pay. For every player that brought me a six pack of high end beer, there were two who didn't seem to give a shit about what might be fun for me in the game. And I was giving it up for free. 

The added pressure of getting paid for it for sure does not appeal. A role playing game as customer service? Just like life in general I have found that when it comes to being a player the secret to happiness is managing your expectations. If you are paying somebody you certainly have high ones. 

Honestly, I think this notion is another side effect of  the popularity of Critical Role. 


  1. Been DMing for approximately 40 years myself, and I have to say my ass remains comfortably unchapped about this. If people are willing to pay you to GM and you think it's worthwhile to do so, more power to you - although $10-20 a session is well below starvation level income.

    Mocking a relative youngster for having less experience than we do is kind of petty even if they're being vain themselves. Frankly I suspect they'd connect with similarly young players better than Boomers and Gen X GMs would. Play styles aren't really generational, but a lot of older GM's are stuck in styles they grew up with, which isn't going to fly so well if the "paying customers" cut their teeth on 5e or Fate or (and this is actually going back 25-30 years, so more like an entry point for Millenials of Xers) the White Wolf Storyteller games.

    As for GMing for free, I don't know about you but I haven't paid for drinks or food in years while I'm running a table. Bet it amounts to more than that $10 a session baseline the kid was hoping for, at least with today's prices. There's more than one way to get paid, and when I'm playing i don't kick about reversing the benefits. :)

    1. Well, I for sure don't hate newer players or DM's. Though at any age (these paid DM's don't usually indicate age) calling yourself "a legendary DM" in the same paragraph you state you have two years experience is little eyerolling. If that is petty then so be it; I certainly would not criticize them to the face or be discouraging in any way. When I moved into my new town and played some games in the local shop (primarily to get experience with 5th ed) I had LOTS of opportunities to at least give some (IMO much needed) advice to new players and the newish DM, but I just went with the flow. Look, not every player who came into my games stuck around for the long term. Its all a matter of taste. If somebody wants beer money then more power to them. If they feel that claiming "legendary" status after a couple of years of play just to promote their pay to play then alls good. For all I know they are all gaming wunderkinder and deserve bigger bucks. I'll never know because I will probably never pay for it. Though to be honest when I first got interested in Roll20 I considered it (I've wasted more money on worse things) just to learn the ins and outs of using the platform. But I managed to get functional on my own.

  2. I was interested in the pro-DM thing a while back, until it was pointed out to me that having to cater to paying customers would undermine my own creativity and interests, not to mention my ability to be impartial as a referee.

    Think of it this way: players on a pro sports team don't pay the umpires to show up, and neither do the fans in the stands; it is the LEAGUE that does so (and who is required to ensure the integrity and quality of the product being put on the field). There is no "higher authority," no league commissioner, in the RPG business. We're all just playing backyard ball.

    I think you're half right in your assessment of how DMing has gotten monetized: shows like Critical Role have increased the popularity of D&D, giving the game a new "boom" that has drawn new players not just oldsters nostalgic for their youth (as what happened with the last "boom" to occur, circa 1999). The other half, though, is the "bigger half" of the equation: folks don't know (or aren't interested in learning) how to DM. They want to play without reading the books. And neither do their friends. And so, they require someone to run a game for them...and they're willing to pay to see it happen.

  3. "And so, they require someone to run a game for them...and they're willing to pay to see it

    Yeah, there do seem to be those boom times when DM's are in demand. Then there are those other times when it seemed everybody wanted to be the DM.

    There is some good that can come out of the pay to play model. Prepaying makes players show up. Suddenly blowing 10-20 bucks makes attending the session more important than the GF wanting you to watch The Queens Gambit with her on Saturday night.