Ask the GM: Pay for Play

By John Serpico on


Joe L asks – I’ve been running games for a while and was thinking that I could probably charge people to run a campaign for them. How do you think running a paid campaign would differ and what do you think I should charge? How many other people out there do this?

Joe, there are folks out there that run campaigns for a per-session or flat fee, so there is certainly precedent for you wanting to do so. But paid GMing is a very different beast than good old-fashioned gaming with buddies. There would be elements of professionalism and power dynamic that you would have to navigate, so you need to go into that situation with open eyes.

While I’m a very strong believer in tabletop roleplaying as a collaborative storytelling experience, the fact of the matter is that GMs usually have more power… or at least more status… that everyone else at the table. It is the GM that makes angry beasts emerge from the woods to attack the party’s campsite. It is the GM that gives voice to the villain that killed the barbarian’s tribe. And it is the GM that can put her thumb on the scales to make an encounter more interesting. When the GM is an employee, there is a shift in that dynamic. Yes, the GM manages the story, but the GM is ultimately providing a service that should make the players happy. So all of a sudden player happiness is more of the absolute end goal than anything else. There will still be collaborative storytelling and team problem solving, but those are now means instead of ends in themselves. Customer happiness is now where the road ends.

Ideally, players are happy when they are challenged; they should be thrilled to be stuck in an oubliette filling with magic snakes, or have their cherished equipment turned to sand by a curse. But a situation may arise in which you throw a complication at them that they don’t enjoy. And all of a sudden you’re an employee that made your patron unhappy, instead of a narrator telling a thrilling story. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you relent for sake of customer satisfaction but at the expense of continuity or gravitas? That’s a question that has a lot of layers if you’re collecting cash at the end of the night. One way to blunt some of that awkwardness is to set expectations when you agree to take on the clients – let them know that you’re ultimately in charge of the narrative and their characters may die, become imprisoned or lose everything they hold dear should the situation warrant it. But even that’s not airtight, so you just have to be prepared to feel that pressure.

In addition to that existential concern, you also need to think what could you provide that would add value. Summed up in a question – what makes strangers paying you a better deal for them than strangers asking a buddy to run a game for free? Think of your value proposition. What do you do well and is what you do worth money? In my opinion, there’s a list of specifics services you have to be willing to furnish in order charge money. Customization is one of those services. Offer your players a survey that they can fill out to really articulate the gaming they want to do – combat-focused, espionage-focused, roleplaying-focused, exploration-focused, etc. Be very hands-on with character creation, and offer advice on builds. Be prepared with music, character voices and really polished encounters. And know the rules as well as you possibly can. If you’re being paid, you’re a pro, and pros know the rulebook.

On top of all that, treat every session like a business meeting. Show up on time, prepared, and ready to work. You can still have fun, but your fun as a GM should be a side effect of running an effective and engaging game, instead of your fun as GM being a goal.

There is a lot less room for error as a GM in a paid game. Frankly, there should be. You are being paid to go above and beyond a normal gaming experience, so you have to add value at every step. As far as what you should ask for fee-wise, that ultimately depends on who you’re running the game for, how often they meet, how long the sessions run and how many weeks or months the campaign will be. Think also about how many hours each week you’ll be putting into the game and take that into the rate. I’m not going to quote a number, but I suggest that you charge an amount you feel good about receiving for your efforts. Like any small business owner, your goal is to provide a service both parties feel good about for a price both parties feel good about.

Happy GMing!

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  1. I know several gaming shops that offer the floor for table top. As an appreciation all players chip in $2 and the store gives the gm a gift card so he continues to give up his free time away from doing something he would do otherwise for a dm session.

    • Kari, I’ve seen that too. It’s a nice way for folks that have pre-generated encounters to show up and get some beer money (or gift cards).

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