Ah, Paid-vs-Free GMing. The age-old question, pondered by Conan himself in the Hyborian Age.
When I started playing D&D (to use the most famous representative as the example), I was 11 and none of us knew what we were doing. I got the box set for Christmas, with its pale blue books and its chits-instead-of-dice (yup, that long ago). When my cousin, who had played before, said, “Yeah, this game has players, and then there’s the Dungeon Master,” I said, “Oh, that sounds cool; I’ll be the DM.” Hours of reading later, I gave it a go.
Living in a very rural town in very rural Missouri, there weren’t a lot of options for players at first, so it was me and my mom (thanks, mom!). But a year or so later, we had a small group of four – people who would become my best friends, and who are still among my best friends. That’s been a theme: many of the best friends I’ve had in my life, I met through gaming. But, anyway, when we finally had a ‘group’, I splurged and got the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, ‘cause I thought, “Well, that’s probably the important one to have.” Thus it came to be that we had a list of how spells acted differently in other environments, say, underwater, but not what the spells actually DID. So we figured, “Sure, an Erase spell can ‘erase’ the bad guy. Roll for it!”
Later we got the other books and played the game ‘right’ … whatever that means. But I would never deny a group of players, or a budding GM, the chance to have those experiences if they wanted them. To dip into analogy, that aspect of gaming is like a kid with a video camera (let’s go 80s and call it a Super 8) filming a monster movie in his backyard with his friends, using cardboard props and a cape made from a bedsheet. Holy crap! The most awesome thing ever! And let me be clear: there is not a single ounce of sarcasm in that. The joy of doing that makes me tear up a little bit, because it really is the most awesome thing ever … for what it is.
Professional GMing, to keep the analogy, is when that kid keeps making those movies, time-after-time, working on technique, working on getting better equipment, learning how to tell a better story (because even GMing a pre-made module requires bringing that module to life, using it as a script, the same way a director does. No two GM’s will run Curse of Strahd the same way, for instance, just as no two directors would make the same Batman movie), filling every project with love, even if the props ARE still cardboard, until they are able to make a movie that shows at Sundance, and/or gets picked up by a major studio. then they can charge for their services … because they want to be able to do the thing that they love, but they aren’t kids anymore and (especially if they live in the US), society demands that they have a job. Society (especially in the US) also tells them, “If you want to have a good life, figure out what you love doing, and then figure out how to turn that into a job.” But, when we do, that same society tells us, “Oh, no, I didn’t mean THAT … I meant, love accounting or stock brokering or something and go sit in a cubicle.”
I would love to do the things that I love and not have to charge for them. In fact, I have a podcast that costs me money (The Gothic Podcast — go listen to Season One RIGHT NOW … after you read this). I and the rest of the cast do it because we love it. I have a group of friends I GM for free, because I love THEM. But … because GMs who GM out of pure love don’t get paid, we have to have other jobs. Because we have other jobs, doing the things we love (GMing) takes time away from family, from other friends, from self-care time (soooo important these days, especially) and, as is apparent to anyone who GMs (and hopefully to players), more time than what it takes to sit down and play the game – time, again, focused on THAT rather than on anything else. To GM also takes money (game books, equipment and hosting fees for online gaming, miniatures, maps, and other paraphernalia for in-person gaming). And, you know what? I don’t begrudge any of that to my ‘friends’ group. If I did, I wouldn’t do it. Even so, my gamers, when they can, throw a few bucks my way because they know the effort that goes into giving them the experience they crave. Equate this to, if you like – and I can’t keep the director analogy going — playing a guitar on the street corner with the guitar case opened at your feet.
But … but … I’m also a ‘Pro’ GM. I charge for my services. Why? Because someone needs the skills I have, and since gaming has given me great friends, taught me social skills and problem solving and what to do if I meet a zombie in an alley, I want to help others have those experiences, too. But I also don’t want to just give away time I could be spending with my loved ones, or, hell, watching TV. And another why: because I want my paying job … the one that covers rent/utilities/food/what-the-hell-ever to be something I enjoy doing. Something I love. And ALSO because being a pro-GM means I can pay other artists what they deserve to be paid, too (frontispiece art for my listings, music for background ambiance, maps/tokens/art for use in the games; logos).
If I could offer up my services to everyone who wanted them without charging, while still being able to live my life in the world in which we live, I’d do it. But I can’t, and we don’t. So…if you have the luxury of not needing to hire a professional GM, then by all means, don’t. No one is going to force you. But if you live in a place or circumstances where you don’t have that luxury, or if you want to give yourself or your own GM a break, or if you want to try out a different style, or a different game system, or want a team-building exercise for your company, or want your kids to learn to play well with others, or want to play WITH your kids, or just want to be entertained, or, really for whatever reason you have… well, maybe spend what you’d otherwise spend going out for dinner and a movie, break out a bag of chips, and pay for the storytelling art of a GM.
And if you want to pay ME to be your GM, hey, I’m doing that sort of thing now and you can find me on StartPlaying.Games as GM Mr Patrick.