Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Don't pay the DM, pay the service (slightly NSFW, no pun intented)

Time to say something about the subject of "DMs for hire", me thinks. Not that I have made up my mind or anything, it's just something every DM growing up in a culture informed by western civilization will have day-dreamed about at some point and you can literally here the grinding of teeth when you read sentences like "Yeah, sure, if someone can make a buck with it, more power to them!". I was about to not publish this, but a friend told me to do it nonetheless. I also thought I could cut this in pieces and publish it over 4 parts, but decided against it. So here we go, have it all at once and RAW ...

There is supposedly two ways to see the activity of running a game for others: it's either a sport or it is art (could be both, gasp). Both sides have implications and real life solutions. Let's get into that.

You don't pay a referee to decide your way ...

Or at least you shouldn't. Okay, okay, sports is such a bad example because of all the corruption that plagues the high end of it. Fifa, anyone? IOC? It's a mess, right? However, I had an interview once with a trainer of mid-tier football club in Berlin and we had talked a bit about why he did what he did (which involved a 40 hours week at work and then another 30+ hours a week to train the club's youth without proper compensation) and it had been eye opening for several reasons.

First of all, work in clubs is not done for money most of the time (I'm excluding the big clubs here, because corruption, see above), it's done for the benefit of the work. Children joining whatever kind of sports club will more likely than not have a real educational benefit from it: working in teams, learning to win and lose, fairness, empathy ... all good things to learn.

That trainer told me how he lead children through puberty, how often parents didn't care (on several levels) and how hard the fight for help and recognition is, even when it's about children. The popularity of a sport like football (in Germany) is just a vehicle to keep the boat afloat. Of course kids aspire to become football heroes, but it's the journey they take to get there that really benefits them.

I think this is a really important first point to stress here: the popularity of a sport will get people to play and support that sport. Not because they all are going to end up playing for a big club, earning the big bucks (because most of them won't), but because to be a part of something they admire and aspire to. It needs that kind of beacon, corrupt or not*.

The second lesson here is that many, many (many) people do club work for almost no compensation at all, regardless of how popular a past-time is (but getting less and less paid in the fringes). As a matter of fact, most people will pay some way or another to participate. Clubs have fees and those working for clubs or helping them pay with their time.

However, the play's the thing, right? So there are at least two types of people that get payed for their trouble (sometimes, mind you, not always) and that'd be trainers and referees. Actually, clubs will invest into their training so that they'll get the job done properly.

A job well done ... [source]
And that's the third point we can glean from this: learning to be a trainer or a referee is like getting a drivers license, you'll get certified that you are able to preform certain tasks with a certain level of expertise. That's not to say that you are good at it, that's to say you get the benefit of a doubt because you'll potentially do a good job but at least will do it within a defined and acknowledged spectrum.

I know this is tricky, because people will be people, but that is why rules are established. It ensures that referees will rule a fair game more often than not. It also ensures that they are left to their devices to do so. If you lose in an official game, there'll probably be good reasons for it, too. Rules are established to elevate the referee to a position where a player's (or spectator's) wish fulfillment is not dependent on the decisions the referee made. The referee is absolved because of the promise of fairness.

The pay is also always indirect. That is very crucial: those who benefit from the outcome of a sporting event (not only monetary, sometimes winning is enough) cannot be the ones paying the referee in a direct exchange of goods. Remember that, it'll be a recurring theme in this post.

The DM as performer? No!

A performer is, in my opinion, a hybrid between the sports and the art approach as it forces the role of the DM into a very specific purpose: that of an entertainer. It's not anymore about the benefits of playing the game for the experience it offers and instead to consume a joyride of sorts.

Look at that D6! [source]
Those jobs already exist. We have topless DMs out there, doing their thing for bachelor parties and what-not (at least requested, but surely found?), we have DMs in funny clothes and with sets of tools equivalent to what a hired clown or magician would bring to a party. Actually, it's worse than that. Keeping with the sports analogy above, it's the equivalent of a aging boxer offering staged fights for hire to milk his former popularity a little more.

I'm not saying this out of contempt, I'm saying this as an advice for caution. No one but the deluded will take that boxer for the real thing (or more than a sad shadow of the real thing). However, there is a real danger that we won't be that lucky for Gamemasters if role playing games get popular through venues like this.

Look at the DMs in contemporary pop culture and tell me they are doing the hobby a favor. Big Bang Theory? Just sad. Harmon's Quest? Funny at times, but just a vehicle for some egos. The list goes on, most of them really do not care about the game, they care about the entertainment.

The closest to something I could relate to was how Stranger Things had it, to be fair, and there is hope that there'll be more than that in the future (Freaks & Geeks was solid, too, just wasn't mainstream). But there's also a very real chance that dungeon masters will be seen as goof-balls instead of getting the respect a referee (for instance) would get because of popular shit like Big Bang Theory.

I'm not saying people shouldn't earn money that way. To each their own, but if done as a performer it should be clear that it is just mimicking the game in a way a theme park is mimicking adventure for cheap thrills. Sure has its place, sure isn't the real thing.

Role-Playing Games as media ...

Yeah, that again. I think it's important to see that aspect of it as well in that kind of light. The short of it is: you (usually) buy a book before you read it. Actually, you don't buy it to read it, you buy it to own it. Of course, reading is your intention in some way, but ultimately you buy it to have it around because the idea to read it somehow enticed you. At that point you don't even know if it is any good or if you you like it. You paid for the opportunity.

Now, I've worked in book-selling and one thing that happens really only on rare occasions is that people read a book (entirely or partly) only to bring it back because they didn't like it. It just isn't done (or if, it's frowned upon). Only the audacity of opinion could make people believe that the world orbits around them and needs to be formed towards their bidding ... In other words, it'd be a sign of bad character :)

Take movies. I've heard of people that tried to reclaim their money from the cinema after a bad movie, but try to buy a movie in a store and bring it back afterwards, saying something like "We didn't like that, we want our money back!". Wouldn't work. And even if someone could make this work, the intermediaries in those scenarios (the bookseller, the DVD store or the cinema) will not go and take the money back from the publisher or the author or the director, and so on.

Good advice ... [source]
There's actually a whole lot more to consider, to be fair, but the argument stands, you pay for the opportunity to get entertained, not for the guaranty.

There's also the whole player side to consider with role-playing games. They participate and each contribution helps shaping the game, for good or for worse. This at least gets tricky when considering that the DM is paid. However, computer games are very much like described above. No one goes to Blizzard to get their money back because other players didn't behave. It'd be ridiculous.

Playing role-playing games is using a medium, just like reading a book or watching a movie or playing a video game. Just like all the other mediums, there are different levels of involvement, it has the full spectrum from producing content to just consuming product, with all kinds of shades in between.

If you pay for any of that, regardless of the level of involvement you bring yourself to the table, you should only be able to pay for the opportunity to be entertained and you should be fully aware of the "why". A DM does so when he buys a game or an adventure, why shouldn't players be when they pay a DM?

The DM as artist

There is that. DMs aren't authors, but in many ways they are like authors in regards to preparation and research, even the skill-sets you'd need for each overlap to a huge degree. Actually, DM can have aspects of many different artistic expressions. Stand-up comedians come to mind, as do actors.
 
Fair representation? [source]
The closest you will get, though, is the old tradition of storytelling as performed by (drum-roll!) bards or skalds, in that a story is woven for the participants as the elements of it are collected.

Let's take this one step further. Say, a DM not only prepares the game him- (or her-) self, say they write their own game or they publish blogs about their process or write adventures ... Our hobby gives many opportunities to express ones creativity and there are some that earn money with it. Admittedly, indirectly, but nonetheless.

The thing is, for a DM like that, money will most of the time be a nice coincidence. To get better at DMing doesn't have you also publishing and doing the marketing or the social networking. It's possible, but something always has to give if you do it all.

Here's another aspect of the "art": a DM needs to be good at managing a group and it is a commitment over years at a time. I see this in direct conflict with the whole DM-for-hire schtick. To give an example of this: I'm totally able to sit down in front of some strangers and DM a game for them. Chances are, they will be entertained. I did so just the other day for the free RPG day here in Leipzig. And while it had been fun, it lacked for me one important aspect: a connection beyond the game.

Nonsense, you might say, and I agree, it is strange. I don't fully understand it yet, but the idea to DM an evening for people I will not see again afterwards, just for a couple of bucks, is missing a crucial ingredient I need to make it all work. I need to get to know the players and I believe there is an art to forging a bond like that. At least it's one of the qualities of a good game (not necessarily the "we need to be friends"-argument, but that direction).

Maybe there's another perspective connected to this, as DMs are not just producing content, they are (in many ways) players too. There needs to be a mutual understanding in that regard. The whole idea that anyone can be a player, but a DM is something you could just as well pay for, is ludicrous from that point of view, as it reduces the DM from a player to a function. I want to be able to decide who plays at "my table" or whom I'm offering to join.

I also want to be challenged by a game and have fun.

And now, I rant a bit:

Our hobby has almost no structure beyond the commercial one provided by publishers (which is weak to begin with). We are also woefully behind in finding out what our hobby actually is (compared to, say, books or video games), so from that point of view alone I think commercializing it further will only throw us back.

Not that it can be helped, people will do what they always do and seize any given opportunity. Seeing how role-playing gets some traction with the main stream media, I'm sure all possible ugly faces of capitalism will manifest. They always do and just for the reasons stated above, people will get duped or will pay for inferior services or will demand their money back because they are not happy with what they payed for ... the whole kaleidoscope of capitalism fueled, unreflected bullshit is going to happen. I guaranty you, we'll see players for hire before long.

Maybe it needs to happen, too. We just have to take that bullet until people out of sheer greed up their game by offering "certified DM schools", which will have them proof at some point what they are doing ... It'll go a bit rampant there for a while and maybe we won't be alive to see all this calming down eventually.

Which leaves the question, why I even bother, right? Well, I wasn't sure when I started writing this, and I still don't have an answer. Role-playing can be more than just entertainment. We see this happening all over the place, in schools, in therapy, in jails, even. It has a tremendous effect on young players and we've only just started to explore what the possibilities are.

The entertainment industry, however, is the enemy in this regard, just as the big publishers are. They don't want to explore things, they prefer things to stagnate (just look at all the reboots, is all I'm saying, there'll be another Interview with a Vampire, ffs, and Star Wars is effectively killed to death). It's all about the next buck. Let them do their thing, but don't expect anything beyond what is already established. They'll harvest our hobby as they did with everything else and that's just that.

Is it insulting to earn money on what all those other people do for free? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Just remember all the DMs out there not only offering their services for free, but also investing in tons of product to make it happen. Isn't it kind of a perverse system, where companies can not only sell people stuff, but also reinvent it in cycles to earn even more money, without actually doing that much? What do publishers offer besides their product? Gaming culture? Places of exchange? Recruitment??! I don't think so. Who has the money, who has the time, right?

And there are always those doing it for free ... Maybe we all should ask for money. I'll write a letter to some publisher right away:
[source]
Hello good Sirs, I'm about to start DMing a game of yours, I've already recruited 5 players (Recruitment fee: 50 Euro), we'll play every week for at least 4 hours (40 Euro per session, but we could talk a lump sum for the year). I expect to invest at least 1000 hours of work into this, preparation included. My fee could be reduced by future products from your side and all sorts of services you can offer around the game. Thank you very much.
Sincerely ...
I don't see this fly, do you? Now imagine the DM at the end of the session saying something like: "That's 10 bucks now from each of you, thank you for participating. See you next week." Or starting an offertory? Yeah, why not, I like money as much as the next guy and I most certainly DID THE WORK!
 
I know, nobody cares about that shit enough to even break a sweat. The personal benefits of simply gaming are still greater than anything greed could destroy, I guess. Or rather, hope.

Conclusion

This isn't against people earning money with rpg products, it's against a culture where people think everything can be bought with money, that convenience should be above all else and that everything you do should have a price tag attached, but doesn't. It's bitter, isn't it? Try go to your wife and say "I've cleaned the kitchen, that'd be 20 Euro for services rendered." Or charge your children for driving them to school ...
 
My point is, telling us everything has a price tag is the lie that gets imprinted in our brains so hard, we actually started believing it. Here's how it is: we do things without getting payed and not everything we do is worth money, but maybe worth something else. What that is? Doing something worthwhile for others, I'd say. An evening making a group of people happy is an evening well spend.

I believe the very reason why role-playing games became as popular as they are, is that you need nothing but a set of rules, some dice, pencil, paper and a couple of friends and you are set for life. Offering this opportunity to people is priceless. It's why I blog, it's why I tell people about our hobby, it's why I DM.

It's also why I think asking money for playing the game is diminishing not only the efforts of others, it's also against the spirit of the game. There's so many unexplored or untouched ways to earn money with this, it's uncanny. Look at roll20, there's a great idea. Offer a platform to bring DMs and players together instead of offering DMs for hire. Write and publish, do research.

Establish the hobby to a point where governments support it as art or sponsors as sport (although I rue the day a DM for hire comes to a gig with banners from Nike or McD on his shirt ... let's not do that). Official games, streamed live? Why not? Certified DMs? Go crazy!

Most of all, support a piece of culture that's not driven by profit (at least at it's core, the game itself).

Actually,  we all know it's already done in some places, with different levels of success. Little clubs here and there doing their thing, with many people doing projects with libraries or comic and gaming shops, schools even. They don't do it for the money, they do it because they see value in it beyond that.

So, before you start charging money to DM a game, contact your local club and ask them how you can help. If you think you are a good DM, offer seminars. It's something even clubs can pay for, if money is what you crave ...

Of course, this is just my opinion and I haven't made up my mind completely. It's a complex subject. As I said above, the trend is there and it will happen regardless of my arguments. I hope I could offer some food for thought for those on the fence, though.

[source]

* Shit, sorry for the detour, but there is something to be said about how much evil we are willing to accept because of the benefits something brings to a community. I won't go into this further, but the movie Spotlight pretty much shows it all and from all sides (although being about the church, it pretty much shows the dynamics behind a lot of looking away). Check that out, if you haven't.

11 comments:

  1. I’m glad you posted it.. you blame me if you get any angry rebuttals

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    1. Thanks, I will :)

      (Honestly, I won't, but thanks for the support!)

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  2. Damn that was a long one. I'm going to charge you 5 Euros for reading it, and KIDDING!!!!!

    Actually it was really good. I found the rise of the paid DM interesting but I could never get past the unsavory aspects of it to seriously consider it. If it came down to a paid DM gig or panhandling on an interstate exit, I would take the gig. And maybe that's the problem. Maybe this is all emblematic of the decline of the middle class, being asked to work longer hours for less pay creates a strange situation where we can afford bigger and more expensive books than we could in the past, we just can't afford the time to play them.

    Money is just evil. While I'm not against paying to play in a convention, if I ever find myself having to pay a DM directly I am going to play that game as a cleric and charge my fellow players for curing spells. Hmmmm, I wonder if I could actually sell them on a character insurance policy....

    https://youtu.be/vezVrj8aG84

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    1. I wouldn't have paid :P Seriously, though, thanks for reading, I always appreciate your thoughts on it (and that song is great!).

      Casualization is a real problem we have to face at some point. Or someone has. I can understand people desperate enough to say "No one gives me a job and this is something I can do ...". Add a family to feed and people will do anything and defend their choices. Another ugly side of capitalism, I think.

      And yes, please charge them! It is a question that occurred to me when writing the post: how far can I push this to show how absurd the premise is. Replacement players for hire, in case you can't make the game? There's a market! The paladin looking away for a second, because you push the player a couple of bucks? So many possibilities for entrepreneurs :)

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    2. I think the whole gig culture that is slowly coming into being is also responsible, often (back when I was a lad) you could get a guy to do a sketch for you for free to put up a poster or there would be a kid who'd babysit on the block, or someones mum could do your ironing because you were sick in hospital.

      Single income households in the golden age are over, people don't believe in god, so they don't go to church so they don't help out as good Samaritans, they think they do but they don't trust their neighbours.

      Everyone is struggling, two income families this generation, will become three income families as the 15yr olds get night jobs to help pay the mortgage, dad works all day long and does gigs in the evening, and mum has only gigs 12 hours a day 6 days a week to cover costs.

      What your complaining about is this gig culture coming into the hobbies.. and interestingly, its not just DMing, I've seen it in so many areas of life, its gone past funny and strange to disturbing.

      In my opinion, Sport should not have a cost, should not be supported by taxes, local teams play and local people watch, all volunteers. That to me is as much as a slap in the face as paid GMing!

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    3. I think you are right, Bannister. I just recently had a conversation with a friend that joined a fb group about sharing stuff for free. She complained how demanding people actually got even about stuff that is free. If you want to do something against this trend, one way to go is to point out what might be wrong with paying, for instance, dungeon masters. At least not directly. Although it's definitely not popular to say so. Regarding getting paid for sports ... it's a difficult one, mostly because people think their time is worth something. Always. So when you say, sports should be free, you'd have to answer who pays rent for locations, who pays sports equipment, who builds it, if the infrastructure isn't given? How do you get to tournaments? And so on and so on. If you say it should be free, I'd say it'll only be free if no one earned a cent with it. Is that even possible nowadays? Difficult, very difficult. And yeah, people are struggling, no kidding, but who's at fault for that and how can we change it other than by organizing in communities and doing something just because it is a good thing?

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  3. The very idea does seem like a slap to the face. Now I'm not saying that players shouldn't chip in, maybe give thank you gifts once in a while. Some of our supplies can be pricey, or we'll see things that might enhance the way that we play; pick it up or offer to help pay for that vinyl play mat. Designing games is as time consuming and as much work as you let it be, and any experienced DM knows that being over-prepared is worse than having to improvise.

    There are other things that you can do to make some side cash around here. Write a book or a PDF. Sell art and maps.

    I got to tell you, if I designed a RPG system and found out some guy was taking all of my work and making money off of it and not giving me any, I'd go after him. This would not improve our hobby in the slightest. Licensed DM's? Can you imagine? God, what a horrible thought.

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    1. Thanks, Ripper! There's an interesting aspect of the whole thing: players tend to chip in eventually, occasionally, somehow by bringing snacks to the game or offering a place to play or driving others ... It happens and it should be acknowledged.

      Designing games is a different matter and I totally agree: if someone's earning money with your ideas, he should share (but that's a completely different can of worms right there ... rules are not protected by most copyright laws!). In the end I see the beer money I earn for this every now and then (rarely, I don't really monetize this here, no banners, no affiliate links) as a lucky coincidence. Something to take out the girlfriend :) I said this someplace else and I'll say it again, doing what we do for the money would be foolish.

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  4. A pro GM is not a regular GM that you have to pay. A pro GM brings a lot of extra stuff to the table. A golf pro will play a four person round with their friends for free, but if you want a golf pro to play a round with you and two other friends, and spend the whole afternoon teaching you and helping you identify areas you need to practice, you have to pay them. You get a totally different experience playing golf with a pro friend vs. hiring a pro to play with you.

    The best analogy is a business manager. A business manager will bring their skills to hanging out with friends, making sure the group's time is used well, reducing tensions, and handling any business transactions. But when they're PAID to manage, they do a lot of work you don't see figuring out how to bring out the best in their team.

    Pro GMs worth paying do a lot of things you don't see. Pro GMs who work for kids do a lot of teacher skills. Pro GMs who work online learn a lot of technical skills and pay for a lot of art. Pro GMs who do boutique GMing for wealthy people who want a GM to come run a game for them and their friends do everything for their clients - including things players normally do. They handle the rules, make characters, distill game content to an easy-to-access package, and they bring their A game for performance.

    You don't have to approve of the idea of pro GMing. You just have to recognize that there are people out there who are eager to pay for pro GMing, and they're welcome to do so. Nobody is going to charge YOU.

    I think a lot of the reaction against pro GMing comes from a fear that every GM is going start to to feel entitled to pay. That's just not going to happen. You don't hire a professional meeting facilitator for every professional meeting, and you don't hire an event planner for every party.

    Rich people might, because it's easier.

    People with no time to prep the meeting/party probably need to.

    People who suck at meeting/event planning/facilitation really should.

    But most of us can plan a party or run a meeting well enough, and most of our parties and meetings aren't important enough to spend money on a professional. If I don't have time to prep for a meeting and it comes off badly, if it's only once in a while, I'll be OK. I still don't feel the need to hire a facilitator for every little meeting.

    And I have kids. I hire "event planners" called teachers and daycare providers and summer camp leaders to teach them and take care of them. Pro GMing for kids is the most common style of pro GMing I see. Second is Roll20 pro GMing.

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    1. I'm not quite sure you read the blog above, Jon, because I address lots of the points you make here and make my case against them. That said, I would agree with what you said if there wasn't that tiny little problem with it: there is no such thing as a "professional" GM. Teachers have to study and qualify to teach children, there are clear processes of evaluation (which might be criticized or optimized or discussed, but they are there) and the same is true for every other profession you used as examples here. But no such thing exists in our hobby and that should give you pause, because what it actually means to say you are a "professional GM" falls apart as soon as you ask "how did you manage to become that?".

      You know, I'm a certified trainer, I'm working on my degree as a print media business administrator right now (which is all you described above and then some) and I'm DMing for over 25 years now, writing about it for close to 7 years. It's the very reason why I wrote what I wrote above. In my opinion, your argument does not hold.

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  5. Professional GMs definitely exist. All you have to do to meet the definition of professional is have that pursuit be your main source of income. I don't think certified GMs exist at this point. I've been a Pro DM, mostly for D&D Adventurer's League, and I feel like that was the perfect product for Pro GMing. I was able to do it professionally for almost two years. With the money I earned and my other business pursuits I was able to start a general contracting business as the owner and business manager.
    Of course I didn't just start as a Pro GM, or as a businessperson, by mistake or overnight. I ran games at my own cost for friends for about three years in high school and occasionally during my time in the military. My first online game was done via Skype and Theater of the Mind-style D&D while I was a college student, and when I heard about "virtual tabletops" I thought I'd give Pro GMing a shot. I had already been doing some Twitch streaming so it seemed like a great offering to add. It was a resounding success, and I'm sure other's mileage will vary.
    The thing you have to remember is that professional services like this will only be for those with a lot of disposable income. Most people might abhor the idea because, well, the service is not for them, and probably will never be for them. They don't have the talents and skills to run a small business based on storytelling, and they don't have the money to be a player or friends that would give them a spot at a table for free. Also, the constant wailing of those that believe money is evil doesn't have any. It's more important to be virtuous when you have means because you can actually carry out malicious or destructive desires. I'm sorry to say that if they don't have the ability to be malicious, that DOES NOT make them virtuous. It just makes them pathetic. Those who have virtue are those that could do harm but do not. "The meek shall inherit the Earth" is an awful translation of the original text. "Those who have swords, and know how to use them, but keep them sheathed will inherit the Earth" is much closer to the original meaning.
    If you are 35 and taking up the reigns of the professional storytelling phenomenon cold, I'll see you in 20 years when you finally start to make about the same amount of money you could working part time at McDonald's, because even when you are amazingly successful, that's about the cash flow unless you are spending every waking moment promoting yourself when you aren't performing. I am fine with the criticism that this profession weathers, because frankly everyone weathers criticism from someone. Pro GMs are a hybrid of performer, producer, and salesman, and the world has no idea what to do with us. I will tell you that most of us have the personality that couldn't care less about the complainers because we're too busy looking forward, making money, and adding the experience to our long list of lifelong accomplishments. Personally I'm taking the time to respond here because I'm pretty much finished with Pro GMing myself, but I'd be more that happy to lend some advice to those who would take a crack at it, and would love to debate on the topic more. I also was featured on the Pro GM Podcast at lookingforgm.com and hope to see that site's vision grow and flourish.

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