Paying Pros

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

There is a lot of outrage, upset, and scoffing recently over the idea that it is OK to pay gamemasters to run games for people. I find these reactions misplaced.

First…are we really complaining about someone using their talents and skill to improve their personal financial conditions if someone is willing to pay them to do so? Is it really anyone else’s business to tell someone else it is wrong for them to make a living providing entertainment to other people?

Yes, traditionally gaming has been a hobby entertainment of friends sitting around a table having a good time. But why is that all it has to be?

This seems like an odd compartmentalization: we pay the authors and designers of rules manuals for their time and skill, and we think nothing of doing so, because “obviously” they should be paid. Even though there are free RPGs and supplements available by the dozens.

Yet when it comes to a GM being paid for their time and skill, we balk at the idea…not because there’s a difference, but because that is not how it has been done in the past.

So this rush to moral judgement regarding the idea of compensation feels like simple human resistance to change: gaming has always been a hobby, so people expect it to always be a hobby, and expect that everyone should treat it like a hobby. We’ve come to expect, as a gaming culture, that’s simply “how it is”: the GM chooses to spend their time and money and gives it freely for our benefit and enjoyment.

Isn’t it also their choice if, in return for their time and effort, they desire some kind of compensation for doing so?

There is a good mirror to examine our assumptions in the negative reaction some people have when a once freely available game becomes a pay-for game: a designer releases a new version of a game, one they previously posted for free on their blog, and certain people lose their damn minds over being “screwed out of” the game, complaining the designer has given in to “greed” and that “money ruins everything”. They declare they won’t purchase the pay-for version of the game, and often declare the designer has lost a dedicated fan. Etc. (Usually there are worse accusations and personal attacks.)

Even though it is not up to anyone else to demand their work for free simply because they feel historically entitled to that product. You aren’t entitled to someone else’s time and effort. This upset, and associated arguments, against compensating GMs comes off very strongly as the same kind of entitled positioning.

As an artist, this angry reaction to paying GMs strikes close to home: a common tactic used by bad clients is arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay for the work the artist has done, that the artist’s payment is the exposure the client is providing to them, and how lucky the artist should feel that their work is even being published. Some even go the extra Karen-mile and insist the artist should pay them for publishing the work, since no one would see it without their publishing the work.

I think this is equally an issue of skilled labor: GMs provide a service to players in the form of a set of skills that not everyone has, as well as providing an additional expenditure of time that not everyone has the desire to invest, or that not everyone has the skill or capability to invest. Often, they also invest money — it is almost universally the GM who purchases, provides, or obtains the physical materials of play: rulebooks, minis, paper, location, etc.

One counter-argument I have heard is that it is only fair players should be compensated for providing skilled depictions of characters, and thus paying a GM is either a financial zero-sum game, or the GM is spending more than they are receiving in return. The reasoning here seems to be that paying GMs is therefore nonsense.[1]

This counter-argument is over-simplified.

In traditional games, there are always more people who want to play in a game than people who want to (or can) run a game. No matter how many players gather together, without someone willing to run the game, there is no game. Without someone willing to prepare maps, handouts, storylines, and so forth; to memorize procedures and details; to keep the game moving; to adjudicate rules and differences of opinion; to track and play NPCs; to track the elements of the setting and campaign history; and to ensure everyone is having fun — to name some of the GM’s duties — there is no game.[2]

A parallel counter-argument is that “without players, there is no game, either” or “everyone at the table is equally important.” Statements which seem reasonable on their surface, but they are pat truisms: there is no comedian without an audience, there is no artist without folks to appreciate the art, there is no sensei without students, there is no host without party guests, there is no restaurant without customers, there is no convention without attendees, there is no author without readers, etc.

So what’s the actual logic? I should be paid to come to your comedy show, I should be paid to eat at your restaurant, I should be paid to look at your art, I should be paid to read your book, I should be paid to take lessons, etc?

Clearly it’s all a zero-sum financial game if we want to explore that rabbit hole. (And you can see why I compared it to dealing with bad clients in the art world.)

We would find it odd for a game publisher to pay players to play their game, even though their games don’t exist without the players. Even though you’re as important to the whole thing as the designer, in those terms, and you are also putting your time and energy into that game.

But that’s not how we treat the world, because we recognize all things are not equal, even if the participants are equal in respect to inter-dependency.

We are all hopefully aware that GMing requires a significantly larger time-and-energy investment than being a player, both before and during a game. For example, I often spend multiple hours every week in prep. This is time I could spend, say, doing something else with my family, working on personal projects, weeding the garden, building a sun-deck, or binge-watching Netflix. Game prep is additional time out of my day that I freely choose to spend for other people to ensure they enjoy themselves.

As a parallel example, one perhaps not so emotionally fraught in this space, this dynamic is why you always bring a gift for the host of a dinner party, and why the host doesn’t give you a gift for showing up to eat their food and socialize.

Even though “there’s no party without guests”, the host doesn’t gift the guests. We know the host is putting far more time, energy, and resources into providing their guests with a good time than the guests are, even if the guests provide sparkling conversation in return.

On a historical note, similarly, many groups have utilized an unspoken “GM hosts the game, players pay for pizza” rule since the very beginnings of D&D, in recognition that hosting and running a game are work. Fun work. But still work. And work that not everyone wants to do. Paying GMs, as you would pay any professional providing you a service, is the obvious, logical extension of this. Particularly in the digital age, where widely dispersed people cannot find a local group, a local group aligned with their schedule, or even a local group they mesh with, and have the option of assembling for virtual play — where you can’t buy the host a pizza.

Don’t forget if you go to (usually larger) gaming conventions, you are paying a price for someone to GM your game. The fact you aren’t directly handing cash to them–instead paying the convention to attend–may have obscured this transaction from you, but those GMs are compensated for their time. Sometimes through direct payment from the convention organizers, other times with free badges and event tickets, or even hotel rooms. Gaming conventions have been happening for decades, and you do not hear people complaining they had to pay money to get in and play games.

More recently, there is also the D&D Adventurer’s League official campaign. These events are often run by GMs at your local hobby store, and there is often a pay-for-involvement component to doing so. Some of this may go to the GM in the form of monetary compensation or store credit, and some may go directly to the store for hosting the event and providing the time and space. But it is a valid and accepted practice in many areas.

Ultimately, for those still outraged by the idea of paying for a GM, look at it this way: there are professional sports teams, but you can still get together with your friends and play hobby sports for free. It doesn’t affect your ability to gather together for the same activity — it isn’t stopping you from getting together to knock a ball around, or forming a hobby league with referees and coaches who volunteer their time.

(In fact, even in these cases, often times we still compensate the coaches and referees involved in those local sport leagues. We recognize, despite that people do volunteer, it is not “unfair” for a coach or ref to expect some form of compensation if everyone agrees to it.)

So you’re interested in running a game as a professional GM? Or playing in a game run by a professional GM?

Check out Start Playing Games. The site serves to connect players with GMs running on-line games (via Discord, Twitch, Roll20, and others), and lists hundreds of games to choose from in a variety of systems, all run by professional GMs. Oftentimes, GMs offer a free session so they can showcase their talent, and potential players can decide if they are the kind of GM they would like to game with longer term.

There are (or were) other sites out there, such as Zero Session (but they have apparently paused their services for unspecified reasons), which was created during the COVID lockdown to help GMs obtain income during a time many people were out-of-work.

[1] Sure, nothing is stopping you from trying to become a “professional player” either — based on your acting and narrative-development skills, or puzzle-solving ability, or whatnot. Good luck to you.

[2] Yes, there are “GM-less” games, but we aren’t talking about those: most people don’t play GM-less games, plus (more importantly) there’s no GM, so no GM to pay. It’s not an argument against the value of a GM to most gaming.

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