Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Does It Take To Be A Professional DM?

So, you're one of those relatively few people in the gaming community that actually likes being behind the DM screen. You enjoy the heavy lifting of world crafting, the swift motions of acting out the drama, and watching your players' frustration or tension turn to joy when that die comes up with a natural 20. You know you're a rarity, and if you're any good as a dungeon master, then your skills are going to be in fairly constant demand.

And, of course, you know what that means.

If you're good at something, never do it for free.
That's right; the basic law of supply and demand says that for every need, there's a profit to be made in filling it. And if you're already going to be a dungeon master for your friends, putting in all the hard work and careful plotting, then you might as well earn a living behind the screen.

Can you do that? Of course you can. The gig economy is responsible for some amazing things, and one of them is that you can carve a niche with practically any skill. However, not everyone out there is like Timm Woods, a professional DM covered by Wired. So, if you want to duplicate that success, there are a few things you need to do.

Step #1: Git Gud

The first thing you need to do is pick your system(s), and drill to kill. You don't have to memorize the game guides, but you need to be able to help people build characters, design entire encounters, internalize your world lore, and make damn sure you are running a game where people are having fun. That is the most important thing to remember if you want to take your show on the road as a DM; you are no longer doing this for your personal enjoyment, or just to share a story with the group gathered round your table. You are a professional entertainer, and win or lose, you need to make sure every player at that table has a good time. You should also make sure you have access to all the accouterments your game needs (minis, dice, map, markers, etc.) in order to run it, because if you're providing the service, you need to have the tools on hand to do your job well.

Step #2: Get The Word Out

Once you've polished up your dice, invested in your campaigns, and you've got all the materials you need to run your game, you need to get the word out about yourself. If you want to at least get a little compensation while you do that, there are a few ways you can get started.

Stack that gold, son.
The first thing you should do is have a talk with your friendly local gaming store, if you've got one. Store owners know that DMs are essential when it comes to having games run, so see if they'd be willing to compensate you in the event you run a regular game, and bring in players. A lot of the time DMs can earn store credit, allowing them to get more gaming resources without forking over cash. And if there are folks walking through the store, you can set up a sign, or hand out cards, letting them know that you will perform the same service for their group for a reasonable fee.

If you don't have a store game (or even if you do), you should consider broadcasting one of the regular games you already run. All it takes is a webcam, and a good group, to show off your skill behind the screen. Start a regular vid cast, and maybe intersperse it with DM advice during the week. Build a following, and let people know about the service you offer. Advertise your rates, where you host (or if you prefer your clients to host, then the area you're willing to travel to), and really pitch your skills.

Lastly, get involved on the convention circuit. If you volunteer to be part of the gaming department (or if you're going to a gaming convention like Gen Con), you can often get all sorts of stuff comped. Badge, room, and sometimes more, all while giving you a chance to strut your stuff, and hand out your card to people so they can tune-in, if you have a channel, or so they can hire you the next time they need a DM.

Step #3: Schedule, Run, Repeat

Being a professional DM isn't all fun and games. It's your job now, and you need to be on top of your form every time. So that means your work life is, essentially, going to be game prep, and keeping a dozen different groups straight in your head, while ensuring that some folks get to run individual mods, while other clients can enjoy long-term campaigns.

Not only that, but you might even have to handle downtime actions and questions from your clients. Providing advice on character builds, filling in the gaps with what happened in last week's session, and making sure everyone is updated on what they need to prep for.

I recommend investing in a lot of these.
If you live in an area where there are a lot of folks willing to hand over a c-note for a a few four to five hour gaming sessions, then you may quickly find your schedule full. However, if you still have days where you're not working, then you'll have to hustle to get them filled. That probably means you're going to be working a lot of weekends, since that's when average groups have time off, but that's the price you pay when you want to go pro.

Additional Things To Think About

So, if you still want to try your hand at being a professional DM (especially if you're hoping to do it full-time and not just for pizza money), there are a few more things you should carefully consider.

Assuming, that is, I haven't murdered your enthusiasm yet.
First and foremost is you need to establish a code of conduct, both for yourself and for your players. Make it clear what your customers are paying for, and what is not included. For example, you might want to have a policy that states your dice will be rolled in full view of the players, and that no mechanical alterations will occur as part of the game. If you win, you won, if you died, that's how the dice rolled. You may also want to point out that you will run certain lengths of game (one-shot, three-game arc, and campaign), and that you will run certain systems, but not others. You should also make it clear the behavior you expect from your players, themes you will not run or allow, and even the age of players you will run for.

This accomplishes a lot of things for you. Number one, it lets players know what they're in for up-front, and it sets expectations. It also stops you from getting hired to run for a game of four players, whom you assume to be adults, but who in actuality are a group of twelve-year-olds, which means the content you were planning on running is a little inappropriate. It also stops you from being corralled by a group of gamers entirely made up of that guy. You know, that guy who has a reputation in the local gaming circuit. That guy no one wants to play with because of his tone, his temper, or because he just sucks the fun out of the game. The sort of guy who, unfortunately, might be forced by circumstance to look up a mercenary DM in order to get a game going on the regular.

Here are a few final thoughts. Consider the benefits of technology. Thanks to PayPal, you can accept money digitally, so there's no need to wait until the end of the night to find out you're getting stiffed or short-changed. Consider running games over the Internet in order to fill your schedule, and perhaps reduce the overall cost for players since there's no physical meeting place you have to go to. Talk to your potential players first, and find out the sort of game they're interested in to create a tailored experience. Ask your players to evaluate you after the game is over, and listen to their feedback. Also, keep your receipts, since you can write off gaming expenses, card printing, travel, and a slew of other stuff on your taxes as business expenses if you are doing this professionally.

Lastly, this sort of thing takes time to build. While you might already be an accomplished dungeon master, if you're not known on the convention circuit, on the Internet, or by the folks who game in your area, then you need to start building your legend. So, while it is possible you'll be able to DM for a living, it isn't going to happen overnight. You'll need expertise, a soap box, exposure, a whole lot of hustle, and when all is said and done, more than a little luck.

May the dice roll ever in your favor!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday, even if it is a day late. If you want to get even more gaming content from yours truly, then check out my archive over at Gamers, and head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio on YouTube where I and other talented gamers put together our own little world. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For at least $1 a month, I'll be sure to send you some great gaming swag as a thank you.