In the past year or so, there has been a growing interest in the role of the Professional Game Master within the RPG community. However, this trend has also been met with skepticism and criticism by some. Those against the change often make claims about a number of issues that seem to go against what current Pro GMs are actually experiencing. In order for there to be successful and meaningful positive change, it's important to have open and honest discourse about these changes, especially when there is a significant potential benefit.
Whether you're having trouble finding the types of games you want to play, you are an aspiring Professional Game Master, or you simply want to be involved in the conversation, you should read this article.
We'll review 10ish misconceptions surrounding this topic of Professional Game Mastering and discuss why maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge its inclusion in the RPG community.
Misconception #1: No one will pay for a professional when there are so many Game Masters that do it for free.
Let's remember that hiring a Game Master will always be an option - not a requirement. There will always be people willing to run games for free, providing that all the stars align with schedules and interests to make that happen.
However, there are a number of issues that have plagued the online RPG community for quite some time now: last minute cancellations, no shows, inexperienced Game Masters, inconsistent sessions leading to collapsing campaigns, players that don’t pay attention, difficulty getting the same groups together at the same time, and the list goes on. There also exists an opportunity cost of spending time with family, working additional hours to earn a living, or lost opportunities due to flaky groups.
These are just a few of the reasons that might lead one to want to hire a GM - and believe me, the increase in quality when you start paying for games might surprise you. Many of these issues disappear. But that's expected. When you pay for a product or service, you develop certain expectations and for a service like a Professional Game Master to be successful, the GM needs to deliver on those expectations.
What it really boils down to is that if there is any reason that prevents you from being able to play games the way you want to play, then you have a reason to hire a GM.
Misconception #2: If you find Game Mastering to be too much effort, or so much effort that you want to get paid for it, do something else.
This one just made me sad. Gate keeping the craft in this way simply compounds the problem. There is a theory that financial incentive can be damaging to the GM's intrinsic reward of the experience, but that is a personal journey for each GM. Artists in the community that provide paintings and illustrations of characters and group portraits also provide their craft at a cost but I continue to see this flourish on social media with love and admiration from their fans.
If you are able to fully enjoy your craft while also being reimbursed for your efforts, there is no shame in that. In fact, one may even be more able to pursue their love of Game Mastering because of the ability to justify all the time invested in it.
Either way, it disappoints me to see shaming of such a practice and hopefully this article will help people understand that the philosophy behind Professional Game Mastering is not one to damage the community but to improve it.
Misconception #3: Every good GM will start to require payment. Your options will be having either having a substandard GM or paying for a good one. Setting up this narrative that GMs need to get paid for their work cheapens the experience and damages the community.
Is this statement saying that we should agree as a community to not pay Game Masters for their time or performance so that we can continue to play games for free? Who is the experience cheapened for? A bad music concert is bad, regardless if you pay for it or not and the same applies here. There will continue to be both free and paid Game Masters that span the range between superior and less than desirable.
Many of your favorite Game Masters are getting paid right now. GMs that stream their content are Professional Game Masters, performing their craft for advertising revenue. Don't get me wrong, that’s a wonderful model! A GM being able to monetize their is a win-win where the GM is able to be paid and the players are spared the cost of the game.
The streaming model, however, is only one area of Pro GMing and does not necessarily fix many of the issues that plague free games as mentioned above. Streamers also generally have static game schedules, specific game types that are played, and casts that are not generally open for just anyone to join. This is more akin to watching a TV show than it is a service for the greater community and it remains much more limited than a Game Master who hosts many types of games for a large number of players.
Misconception #4: GMing will have a harder time being seen as something fun and accessible for everyone. Paid GMs may discourage newer players from trying to GM since they could be replaced by a professional and they will immediately be held to the same standard.
I’m not sure how this would be the case. Musicians and.. just about any other artistic performance or skill has both a level of hobby and professional level of involvement. The role of a professional musician unlikely has any bearing on whether another new aspiring musician will decide to pursue or advance an interest in learning to play or sing music. If anything, knowing that there is an opportunity to be successful could very well bolster one's motivation and drive to become better and, perhaps one day, good enough to also earn a financial incentive. Sure, there is an argument to be made about financial incentives changing the innate, intrinsic reward that one gains from the craft itself, but that's a separate discussion altogether.
In regards to accessibility, I don’t see the connection. Creating an opportunity for Game Masters to run professional ventures addresses the exact problems with accessibility that the community currently experiences. These can include players have difficulty finding Game Masters to fit their busy schedules or want to play at odd times, cannot find the particular game they want to play, cannot simply find a Game Master that they like, or continue to experience problematic players (e.g. player that miss games, cancel last minute, and play irregularly enough to cause campaigns to collapse).
Hiring a reliable Game Master is aimed at solving these exact problems. If you haven’t encountered these issues, then consider yourself lucky! Because it sure happens to a lot of us.
Misconception #5: I would never charge my friends to run a game.
You’re not going to charge your friend to help them paint their house. You also wouldn’t paint a stranger’s house for free. This is the dynamic that a lot of people overlook.
Professional Game Masters are unlikely going to be running paid games for friends, but rather for individuals who have difficulty finding the type of Game Master or game they want.
Misconception #6: Game Masters are just like anyone else at the table and the fun of the game should serve as its own payment.
Yes, of course the hope is that everyone at the table is having fun. It’s hard to argue, though, that there is not a greater burden on the GM to act as a kind of Master of Ceremonies, balancing a complicated web of information while navigating the path of the story to make sure that the game flows smoothly for the players. A famous comedian once said that, “the show is not for you. It’s for the audience.” The GM is a player in the context of having a seat at the table itself, but the role within the adventure is much different.
Secondly, this statement potentially implies that some players may not understand how much investment their GM puts into the gaming experience. Perhaps even taking it for granted. Even for the GMs that invest less in their preparation, the need for a quick mind and wit to make an adventure interesting and consistent requires a significant mental effort.
For those who might be quick to reply that players are also just as important, I will say that each player also does absolutely carry the responsibility of their own contribution of performance. Would you suggest, though, that the player’s role is equal to that of the GM? That’s really the point I’m challenging you to reflect on.
The Game Master has the entirety of the world to narrate. They must constantly keep their finger on the pulse of the story, balancing the pace of each scene to ensure that it falls in line with the greater arc of the adventure, intricately weaving in group and individual character challenges that highlight their subtle nuances, spotlighting each player whenever possible. The players are extremely important in supplementing the adventure with their own flavors (and they often do so greatly!), but I think it’s fair to give credit to the GM for a greater degree of necessary involvement.
Misconception #7: A Game Master does not have to prepare, so why should I pay them for it.
There is a bit of truth to this the first half of this sentence. Some game systems, such as the popular Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA: e.g. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and others), fantastically lend themselves to low-preparation. The rules are created in a way to allow the game to be more fluid and narrative in the moment, leaning on all parties involved to help develop the world. The GM and players are explicitly understood to be partners in developing the story and world within it. Even in these games, though, the onus still lies on the GM to navigate the outcomes and create an interesting adventure.
As for how it pertains to Professional Game Masters, I’m not really sure, therefore I define it here as a misconception. You will find high and low prep GMs in both categories - paid and not. Hiring a Professional GM in this situation would likely not rely on the amount of prep they put in, but for other factors such as the skill to tell a story, deeply understand a ruleset, or even understand a number of rulesets.
Misconception #8: Games become pay-to-win.
Now we’re just being silly. A good Game Master should not, and will not, fundamentally change the dynamic between the group nor the outcomes of the game simply because they are being paid to be there. The adventure should have one central aspect remaining true regardless of the financial incentive - to have fun. Imagine an audience member at a comedy show becoming disgruntled or starting to shout out demands. A quick search for “comedy hecklers” on your favorite video streaming site will quickly give you an idea of how well that works out.
Misconception #8ish: Players are paying, so they can do whatever they want, including being hostile or otherwise disruptive.
This falls under the same explanation from the previous misconception. Part of being a professional is also being a manager of your groups. If you have hostile or otherwise toxic players involved, it is the responsibility of the Game Master (as well as the group for that matter) to address the problem and remedy it. As mentioned above, a financial payment for a gaming session does not simply give a player the authority to act however they choose, especially when it disrupts the experience for others.
Misconception #9: A paid Game Master would have to be over the top and exceptional to deserve payment, like Matt Mercer!
Let me just say that I love the guy, really. I give him so much credit for being an exceptional GM, voice actor, and a great source of entertainment and knowledge for the community, but he has become to the RPG community what Keanu Reeves is to Reddit. Mercer has exceptional skills, but let's not pretend that there aren't hundreds, if not thousands, of other amazing game masters out there. They deserve some credit, too.
Whether or not you're a voice actor, you have professional equipment, or you have all the books and figurines, you can still be an exceptional, highly valued Game Master.
Misconception #10: I’m going to be able to quit my day job!
Probably not. I am hopeful about the role of the Professional Game Master but it is important to look at this realistically. Could this be done full time as an actual profession? Of course it's possible, though there are a number of challenges on the path to doing so to combat fatigue and other barriers to success.
There are always paths towards financial independence that can stem from following your passion, but I do believe that it won’t be easy doing it as a Game Master. I hear that many Game Masters are able to supplement their income by performing this craft professionally, but the existence of a full-time Professional GM is rare.
There are also avenues, such as streaming, that are also ways of performing the craft professionally, though, again, more difficult to achieve.
In summary, the purpose of this article was to highlight some of the common misconceptions that stigmatize Professional Game Mastering. Just as role playing was once stigmatized as a whole, the role of the Pro GM has seen its share of criticism - but this can instead be seen as a positive change to the community. We should always appreciate and embrace changes to the community that improve the experience for others.
Professional Game Masters won’t take away your free games, but they could help bring game to those who so painfully want to play but can’t seem to make that happen.