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Dollars & Dragons: The rise of a professional game master

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Photo courtesy of Friday
Photo courtesy of Friday

Spurred on by podcasts of voice actors and other celebrities playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and games like it, the popularity of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) is growing by the year, leading to professionals being paid by players to plan and facilitate these experiences.

I spoke to one such professional "game master" (GM) to get her perspective on this burgeoning market. Friday (she/they), who asked to go by her online handle, is a Seattle local who started indulging in her role-playing hobby in online multiuser dungeons (also known as MUDs). She moved from other tactical games to D&D, 5th edition, in 2020, but her online profile says she has been playing TTRPGs for 14 years.

To understand what it means to be a GM, it's important to know at least the gist of what a tabletop role-playing game is. I've heard such games described as make-believe mixed with gambling, and as collaborative storytelling with an element of chance.

Friday's style, as a game master, meshes more with the latter description. She has a flair for collaborative storytelling, she said, and for project management. Though she only started her GMing business in January, she already considers it her day job, and it has more than paid the bills so far. She moonlights as a writer and game designer for even more tabletop content.

Why a GM might be needed
Some might see the word "tabletop" and think of board games, like Settlers of Catan or Monopoly. One might wonder, then, why a GM would be necessary, much less a professional one. Games like D&D have huge rule books already, so with all that structure, why have a referee?

What complicates TTRPGs is that they don't often have an inherent goal. In Catan, you win by earning enough points. In Monopoly, you win by attrition, and eventual forfeit when a relative's thimble lands on Marvin Gardens again.

But in both of those cases, narrative isn't the focus. One doesn't generally sit down at a game of Catan eager to inhabit the mind of their game pieces' leader, with complex motivations and a rich history that explains why the leader's people built their first town in a particular region, or paint everything they build red.

So with a narrative focus and no firm goal, things can get messy. Each player will arrive at the table with different desires and expectations. And some TTRPGs, as Friday put it, have problematic elements to navigate.

Setting expectations and creating a safe environment is a big part of Friday's job. Over half of her clients are Queer, she said, and even though TTRPGs are ever more prominent among Queer youth, the market remains dominated by straight, white, cisgender men and boys. That makes walking into a local game store and sitting down for D&D with strangers a risky move.

"For the most part," Friday said, "I'm a facilitator for safety and for fun," who guides the players through the stories they want to experience.

Many players, newbies especially, might find it hard to decide or express what kind of story they want. To address that, Friday interviews each player before their first gaming session — usually about their favorite media, their experiences so far, and the like.

Mind you, there are Queer-oriented TTRPGs, like the sapphic swashbuckling Thirsty Sword Lesbians and the modern gothic Vampire: The Masquerade. The latter is one of Friday's favorites, for its even deeper focus on narrative and its horror elements.

"The table's more important than the system," though, Friday said, meaning it's not so much what you're playing as who you're playing with that matters.

Finding a GM
Friday uses StartPlaying, a relatively new website built specifically for freelance GMs, to help players find her service. And while, according to her, the platform's GMs were guarded about their methods early on, its two founders have since worked to foster an environment where "shopping around" for the right GM and group is easy.

Most of the people who do drop out of a game do so after one session, Friday said, and that's one advantage of hiring a professional GM; players are free to take their business elsewhere if they don't feel like a good fit, or if life simply happens, as it often does. Because it's a professional transaction, there are no hard feelings.

People who play TTRPGs with groups of friends likely know from experience how tough it is to nail down a consistent schedule, and even then, one's friends might not all want the same thing from a game. The friend who just wants to goof around will arrive with Bozo the Murderclown, while the one who wants a gritty tone will bring Ebonshadow Backstab of Neverwinter.

On StartPlaying, there are GMs and groups who will accept Bozo or Ebonshadow with open arms, or even both if the characters' tones don't end up clashing after all.

For those who haven't had this experience, imagine that you and a group of friends are trying to decide where to eat. That's already a lengthy process on a good day; one friend might have allergies, another might be a vegetarian, and yet another could just be sick of pizza.

Now imagine that you and that group of friends will be eating at that same restaurant at the same time each week for a year. A game of Catan lasts for two hours at most. A game of D&D can last for as long as a group wants. It would be easier, in the end, to just find separate restaurants.

StartPlaying might make parts of tabletop role-playing and professional GMing easier, but it seems it's far from an easy gig, part- or full-time. Currently, Friday is running six different groups through the Curse of Strahd module for D&D, and a few more through custom Vampire: The Masquerade campaigns. Between prep time and the games themselves, she estimated that her workweek is around 60 hours.

A preview page from the Vineyard project — Image courtesy of Friday  

But for a storyteller with a long-term game plan, it seems that such a labor of love is worth it. On the side, Friday has been working with a team of 15 to kickstart and eventually publish the Vineyard Project, a custom module for D&D. After a year or two more of professional GMing and tabletop publishing, she wants to use the resulting portfolio to pivot into full-time game development.

You can find Friday and other game masters at https://startplaying.games/gm/isfriday/. She posts updates on the Vineyard Project, and tips, commentary, and guides on professional GMing on Twitter @isfridayTV.