Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
The monetization of tabletop role-playing games

Tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are comparatively slow-paced. If you want to watch the first campaign of Critical Role on YouTube, it'll take you over 400 hours. The campaign I am currently running, Dungeon of the Mad Mage, has 23 levels of dungeon, with a thousand rooms. If you think of D&D in campaigns, it is normal that the players around the table are always the same, except for the occasional missing player. If you need many sessions to tell a story, you can't completely swap out the players, because the story only makes sense to those who played the early part.

Having said that, in the role-playing club that I am a member of, I've been running the occasional pickup game, usually with the purpose of introducing new players to the game. In fact, I met my group for Dungeon of the Mad Mage that way, and they liked that pickup game so much that they stuck with me. I am certainly not the world's best GM, I don't have voice-acting skills for example; but I do know a thing or two about how to tell an engaging story, and how to stage an interesting tactical combat situation. Even a one-off game of D&D can be fun, but it is hard to find a Game Master for it.

Tabletop role-playing games, except for a few GM-less exceptions, are asymmetrical: The GM carries a lot more responsibility than the players. That translates into the GM having to spend a lot more time for preparation than the players. Often he also has to spend more money: The players just need the player's rule book, the GM has additional rule books and the adventure module. In consequence, although there are on average 4 to 5 players per GM, the limiting factor to the number of games run in our local role-playing club is the number of GMs.

The current pandemic has accelerated a move away from tabletop role-playing games being run on real tables towards virtual tabletops, like Roll20. And finding a GM to run a game for you is still a problem. Especially online, any GM running a game for complete strangers risks those players not showing up, or abandoning the game. So, one thing that evolved over time, was GMs on virtual tabletop platforms demanding a small amount of money upfront for their services. On the one side that covers the cost the GM has on the virtual tabletop, which often force you to buy virtual copies of books you already have in physical form. But on the other side, it works as simple psychology: The player who paid $10 upfront for a place at the virtual table is more likely to turn up than somebody signing up for free.

With 5th edition, Dungeons & Dragons has become more widely known and accepted. So, some people would love to try it out, but have a hard time finding a GM. And "playing the GM" is pretty daunting if you never played as a player before. So GM for hire small businesses evolved. The same way that you can hire a clown for your kid's birthday party, you can hire a GM for your slightly older kids, or for your group of friends. The cost structure is the same as hiring any professional that has to come to your house and stay there for several hours, it ends up costing a few hundred bucks. And if you don't live in a densely populated area, this service might be hard to find.

Virtual tabletops allow GMs for hire to expand their business. More potential clients, no geographical restrictions (other than time zone problems), and easier ways for players to find a GM. And you don't need a group of friends to play either, players can join games individually. So now, there are services like StartPlaying, where a GM can set up a game and sell seats for around $20 per player per session.

I don't know how much Matt Mercer earns as a GM, compared to his occupation as voice actor. But "the professional GM" seems to be a possibility now. And, as an "experienced amateur GM", I'm not sure whether that is all good. Money does strange things to hobbies. Games change when their primary purpose is money instead of fun. Will we end up with professional GMs offering loot boxes in their dungeons? Only time will tell.

I don't know about loot boxes, but the social dynamic definitely changes when the GM is an employee of the players. There's going to be an implied pressure, at least, not to kill the character of the guy who writes you a cheque at the end of the evening, and maybe to put a +3 longsword in the loot for his fighter.
The moment you put a 'GM' on a payroll is the moment you need to start collecting data sets for accountability purposes.

I don't know how Roll20 works from a mechanics standpoint, but if a GM is just being hired for their 'voice acting' ability - by which to lend a dramatic feel to the game, then I see no possible harm that could come from that. But if that same GM will be responsible for making decisions and die rolls that will affect the outcome of the game, then there should be accountability measures put into place in order to track their decisions and rolls. I don't know if Roll20 does this already, but I could see some serious legal implications arising for Roll20 if they don't, especially if they are seen to be allowing or condoning the use of these 'paid GMs'.
In many ways, hiring a GM is like hiring a sex worker (even more so than how every job is some form of prostitution). Best practices are going to involve contracts and negotiation. These activities are desired, these activities are not desired. For example, the power level of the campaign, the focus of action vs story, whether or not permanent character death will be a part of it.

Much the way you could just hire someone with none of that discussion, you're rolling the dice (heh) and may end up disappointed, frustrated, or very unhappy. As with nearly any newly maturing profession, best practices will likely emerge. Contract templates will be developed, and these issues will likely be trivial to clarify for professional GMs who are motivated to do so.
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