Friday, September 20, 2013

RPG Expertise Part 2: GM's For Hire

I'd Play
Why Aren't There GM's For Hire?
Unless I'm gravely missing something there is no 'Dungeons Masters Guild' that an 'expert GM' can join, hang out his electronic sign, and get bids with real money to run games for people. To be sure, there are cases where someone has or has tried to game mastered for money--and there are individual cases where people have offered to pay for the service--but there is no standing "business model" to it.

Why not?

If you think about it, the model ought to exist:

  1. Players often have invested real money in gaming materials. Between books, miniatures, maps, and other play aids, the collateral for a single game like Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed can easily run more than 100.00 (and way more than that if you buy a lot of miniatures). When you look at some of the gaming collections with multiple games, we can see that, even for players who will never GM (which, presumably might run less) the cost can be into the thousands.
  2. That investment is useless unless someone is Game Mastering.
  3. While it is "traditional tunnel vision" to say that the GM is the "most important aspect of the traditional play experience" I think no one would argue that a competent GM is pretty much the low-bar to clear in order to have a decent time. If your Game Master sucks (whatever that means) it's going to be harder to have a great time.
  4. Gaming takes at least 2.5-4 hours per session (as a generality). Even conservatively, with a 4-person group, that would be about 160.00 USD (assuming $10.00 per hour for a 4-person, 4-hour session) that is the opportunity cost for gaming (i.e. if you were all getting paid for your time, which you are not, the sum total would be more than 100.00 to play the game--that's what you're 'giving up.'). This is not insigificant. For professionals who make a lot more than that, the 'cost' for even a short session could be much higher.
  5. If having a good or great GM makes the experience better you would think there would be numerically fewer of these people out there ... and therefore if you wanted the peak-experience for your gaming hour and gaming dollar you would want the best GM possible. Wouldn't you?
In other words: people have spent the buy-in money--why isn't there more market-pressure to spend money to get use out of that collateral? You'd think market pressures would create GM's for hire ... wouldn't you?

Some Possibilities As To Why Not
Let's look at some basic possibilities as to why we haven't seen pools of GM's for hire.

Games are Extremely Local?
One possibility is that your need for a GM-For-Hire is restricted to, like, a 10-15 mile radius. If there isn't a GM-for-hire down the street that doesn't do your group much good, does it? As the travel-radius is so small the market pressures for a Guild of some sort (some easy way to find a GM-for-hire) simply don't exist.

The problem with that is (a) there should still be some in dense places like major cities (b) the Internet makes the barrier to just listing yourself as a GM-for-Hire pretty low (c) with electronic / online gaming your GM could be anywhere (even another country) and (d) some people drive a long way to play anyway. Once you get to, like 30min of travel-time you have a potentially very-large-radius.

People Do It For Free?
As parents have been telling their kids (mostly daughters, I guess) for years, no one will buy the cow if she gives the milk away for free. Perhaps the problem is that there are enough free GMs out there right now that there's simply no need to pay?

The problem with this is that we know it's not true: for a significant number of groups (apocryphally, at least)--there are groups looking for GM's. We can also assume that even if someone in the group is willing to GM, if, indeed, there is a concept of "expertise" and it is important to the quality of the game then there would be a role for 'expert' GMs, even if you had an available free one.

Maybe We're Wrong?
Perhaps the problem is that there is no such thing as an "expert GM" and the problem is that paying for someone to run a game simply doesn't make it better? Or maybe, if you have a GM and are 'generally happy' there's no one else that will make it better--maybe bringing in a hot-shot is always worse? Maybe the difference in expertise isn't significant and, therefore, not worth paying for? Or maybe, simply, no one knows if the game would be better if you hired Skippy?

While this is all possible--and some people will find it true (there are people who find the traditional model of gaming implicitly dysfunctional)--I think there's no reason to think that's so. After all, one could make the case that best-selling authors are no better than Bob-down-the-street at writing novels--but no one is going to go very far with that. There's no reason to think that the experience of RPG-play is so unique that time and expertise doesn't improve it.

Furthermore, most people agree that one of the keys to a good GM is preparation on their part--moreso than for a player. It's also generally agreed that the GM needs confidence, a knowledge of the rules, and, probably some personal charisma. If any of this is even close to true, the greater time-commitment alone should be "worth paying for." Right? I mean, speaking purely in terms of economics.

So, okay: there's no killer reason as to why not. So why not?

What Would It Look Like If There Were Paid DM's?
We don't have to guess: we kinda know. Here are some points on a line.

The Iron GM
You don't exactly "get paid"--but if you are part of an Iron Game Master event you get prizes (players can get prizes too). They give you three secret words, you get 60 minutes to make an adventure around them. Players, randomly assigned to your table, get 60 min to make characters. Then you play--and they give the players a review / scoring sheet to fill out and you get rated. This, frankly, is a good idea and sounds like a whole lot of fun. Problematically, while it's good for a convention, it wouldn't be good for week-by-week play for groups that want on-going characters and the like. No problems, though: they have a scoring system and prizes. This is a glimpse of what such a thing might start out as (also note: the system is SDR 3.5 by default but if your table unanimously agrees to another system, everyone can play that).

Also Note: The sicko would-be child cannibal guy in the news recently was wearing an Iron GM shirt and, in fact, was an RPG gamer. Yuck (but nothing on the Iron GM guys).

Niche GMing
In what was described as potentially the saddest bachelor party ever,  a group of guys was looking for 30 min with an attractive, topless, female game master. They were willing to pay--for nothing but 'an exciting game.' I can only imagine what the miniatures would look like. While it's not exactly "normal," I think most of us can agree that there are conditions that would require money to entice a game-master.

One guy was apparently ready to hire a live-in-GM with his massive inherited wealth. Full time? Bleh. I love gaming and you'd have to pay me to do that. Still, while there's no evidence it went down, at least we know these things could happen.

Paid LARP Events
There are paid events where you can go off and adventure for a few days. It costs money. There are "extras." In some cases you get a guide to help you along. Apparently it's a load of fun. In this case you have to pay: they feed you, they have a venue--stuff is set up. There are live-actors playing NPCs, and so on. In this case the GM is the group that sets up the adventure and manages it--this was the idea behind the Dream Park novels and, clearly, it's something people would pay for. It's not normal GMing though.

But the fact is that we don't see a working model out there where a GM shows up each week for about 4 hours of face-to-face gaming with a group of guys playing a traditional game. It just doesn't happen--at any cost point.

So Why Not?
I knew a guy--a friend of mine--who went to a wealthy private college in the northeast. He told me a story about one of his frat-bros who had been taken under the wing of a bookie. This guy--a friend--facilitated sports betting from the other bros for a year. By the end of the year? They tolerated each other: they weren't friends. The betting bros had 'bought' their bookie-bro a new Mustang or something (some kind of very nice muscle car). It was hard to respect your friends when they were forking over money and you were taking it.

I think paid-GMing would be a bit like that: I think it would erode the experience because of the implicit lack of equality between the guy paying and the person forking over the money.

While not all gaming groups are formed of friends--and, indeed, sometimes in long-running groups gamers may not know what each other do for a living--I think there is a give-and-take dynamic that virtually precludes getting paid. You don't have to be friends--but you have to be friendly. I regularly pay a personal trainer I am friends with who helps me work out--but once when I worked out with my personal trainer (he was doing his exercise routine and I was helping) I didn't pay for that.

With friends, if I feel something in the game wasn't right, I can bitch--but with a paid GM? If there's a Total Party Kill and I feel the encounter was unfair? I might not just want my money for the session back--but what about the whole adventure--my whole investment? And can the paid-GM really keep all the players satisfied? What if what I want and what Bob wants conflict? We're all paying our money ...

The RPG-dynamic is far more creative and give-and-take than the traditional forms of paid entertainment where you sit passively and let someone else present to you. The GM and the players are all in-it-together in a way an author and readers are not.

We do see a common form of pay in the GM-doesn't-pay-for-the-pizza standard many groups have. This is a way friends compensate each other for extra work--not raw dollars on a regular schedule.

In short, I think the traditional mode of RPG play works against a paid-GM dynamic by its very nature.

That's why we don't see it.


  1. I agree with the conclusion. The way I think of it is, how can you pay someone to act as opposition and arbiter--two of the key "services" a GM provides? If I were being paid for an ongoing campaign I'd feel like I was "under the gun". (Hm, remember the story about the Brazilian death squad?) Exception: if it were a "living sandbox" campaign where I was set up to take all comers, and equally prepared to part ways with players who were obnoxious or poor sports, it might work. Thus, the MMO, and before that, various multiplayer commercial PbMs such as Tribes of Crane.

    1. I *do* remember the death squad story!! Classic. Yeah, I could see a clean, transparent set up ("here's the stat sheets for the various crime-lords around the city") so that people coming in really had a good view of what they could expect.

      I'd also want a "review" process where we could do a "refs go to the tape" thing and review the call if it was in question. I might still be final judge--but having a formal process to handle disagreements might help.

      It's interesting that no mainstream game I can think of includes such. It wouldn't (probably) be welcome in most traditional games (who wants formal rules for arguing with the GM?) but I could see some Tournament-Mode Chapters out there somewhere (doesn't the RPGA have some rules for escalation?)