“I love gaming,” he told me when I asked the question. “I am told I am a pretty good Game Master.”
Acel Loren Jenkins seems to have the chops for a career as a professional GM. His history with role playing goes back over 20 years. Like many of us, he started with Dungeons and Dragons. As a teen, he participated the Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs. Since then, he’s run tabletop or live action sessions for Shadowrun, Mutants and Masterminds, Aberrant, GURPS, and Iron Kingdoms. When he, and his then girlfriend, started reading about people making money from leading games, an idea started to crystalize in his head. With the support and encouragement from his friends and his now wife, he started sketching out a five to seven-year plan that included owning his own shop where he could run games for customers in virtual and meat space.
But how easy is it to make a living from something a lot of people do for free? What backgrounds to the pros have? What skills does GM-ing professionally require? What does a day look like in this world? What challenges do pro GMs face? Chicago Geek Guy took the opportunity to chat with two professionals in the field to talk about how they got there, how they plan to stay there, and their two very different approaches to the field.
What Did You Do Back in the Day?
Houston “StitchTheAlchemist” Robinson started with D&D in high school but quickly moved into Pathfinder. A roleplaying group on Skype introduced him to virtual gaming and The World of Darkness. After a few years of financial difficulties, a stable job afforded him to run regular campaigns, again. A local shop introduced him to FATE in the form of the Dresden Files RPG and even 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. He quit his “real” job seven months ago to focus on GM-ing and still makes enough to feel comfortable.
Tara Clapper followed a different path to gaming. A school trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia sparked an interest in history and storytelling. Challenged to journal as someone who would have lived in the town, she created a character with a rich backstory: an Irish immigrant, married young to a doctor, a midwife. Tara followed these ideas of characterization and imagination through the creation stories, plays, and sonnets landing a job as a production editor then freelance journalist.
Then Tara discovered Live Action Role Play, moving quickly from a theatrical player to a behind the scenes role as game marketer and blogger. She continued to cover local geek events, started The Geek Initiative, and embracing LARP as an opportunity for self-discovery. Her first LARP, “She’s Got a Gun,” embraced a Feminist message and embraced the differently abled. Erin “The Geeky Gimp” Hawly, credited Tara with coming up with solutions to enable the disabled to fully participate in the game and creating a space where other players could comfortably interact with her.
In addition to playing LARP in the meat space, Tara also writes and runs LARPs, such as First Bite, Second Birth: A Contemporary Vampire Digital LARP Experience and Chariot LARP in a virtual space.
Given the disparity between their backgrounds, these two GM’s experience the professional world differently. Houston never thought about accepting money for running a game until it was offered to him. Looking back, Tara told me this is what she should have focused on from the beginning and feels it’s what she’s meant to do.
Developing Mad Skillz
This burgeoning profession requires certain skills. Success in the field requires an ability to regularly provide constant and consistent entertainment. Houston considers himself “fluent” in four games and works to expand that a little bit every day. Tara writes; new material, articles, interviews, marketing documentation.
Both Houston and Tara rely heavily on word of mouth and the success of previous efforts to secure new gigs, but both also maintain a presence on social media. In addition to The Geek Initiative, Tara offers nearly daily reflections on the industry via Facebook Live. Houston’s social media presence is a bit more nascent.
A Day in the Life
The days of these two pros also differ. Houston usually runs two, four-hour games a day, preparing between 30 minutes to two hours for each. He spends days without games negotiating with new clients, learning new rules systems, and studying to GM better. On a day off, he tries to get as far away from gaming as possible, choosing to take a break from the table.
Tara spends her days editing rulebooks, scouting locations, consulting with game companies, and securing the next event or commission. An effective marketer and self-promoter, it’s not unusual for private organizations to hire Tara to run one of her games or another game. People seek her out for industry guidance and advice and she’s started to offer more official mentoring programs. When she gets a day of holiday, it’s usually spent playing in a LARP or hiking.
It’s Not All Fun and Games, Literally
The relative newness of the field poses challenges to these pros. The idea of paying a GM rubs many people the wrong way. Many gamers still view tasks involved in running a session or campaign as a labor of love. With interest in role-playing exploding, any number of GM’s still provide their services for free, or for a few bucks on the side. “A lot of them,” Houston told me, “haven’t considered that people expect professionalism from paid GMs and it can really turn the clients off of the whole idea.” As both a game designer and marketer, Tara explained the dichotomy:
Marketing does require you to sell your soul and it’s generally an unethical business if you want to make money.
Game design is not something you get into for the money, but the number one complaint people will have is that you charge for it.
Marketing your own games is a demoralizing process because of the above combo.
Technology offers assistance and resistance to the professional GM or storyteller. Both Houston and Tara rely on digital mediums to run games. However, improvements in player matching applications make it more likely for potential clients to discover someone who will provide these services for free, if not as well, professionally, or consistently.
Outside of succeeding in a new market, both Houston and Tara struggle with the obstacles facing any entrepreneur in the United States. It’s still very difficult and costly for the self-employed to secure health insurance. They handle it with a combination of “I just hope nothing happens,” carefully rationing the medications they can afford, and efforts to find part-time jobs that provide some benefits and protection.
Is there a future?
Tara and Houston hold two very different views on the future of the field. Tara firmly believes the future of LARP lies in virtual space and has committed to the field as a lifelong career. “Things are about to explode and large companies are taking notice. We’ve seen steady growth in interest in the last decade and probably beyond,” she told me. “There is especially a need for inclusion; for GMs with a variety of voices to make inroads. We need to do better there. It’s a big challenge not just for marginalized designers, but for the emerging industry.”
Still, her future as a professional GM hinges on whether she can secure health insurance.
Houston doesn’t see the profession as sustainable or well suited outside of a few individuals with a massive online presence or people already big in the business with other sources of revenue. “I get to do my favorite thing for a living right now, which is amazing. I am happy with my earnings and my situation now, and I have plans on expanding the business. I just also have a nice fallback if this doesn’t work out. I believe I can keep this sustained for five years or so, without any major improvements.”
Words of Wisdom
“It’s really rewarding but a lot of work!” said Houston. “Not everyone realizes that playing the game as a hobby and doing it for money is a totally different ball game. Whereas in a regular game it’s everyone’s responsibility to have a good time, in a paid game the GM has to be the one making everyone else have a wonderful, memorable game. There’s no more ‘I’m not feeling inspired’ or ‘I’d rather do something else today.'”
“All that said, if someone wants to do what I do, just keep trying! If you’re a good enough GM, someone will be happy to be a client. And don’t worry about not taking off at first, nobody does. Be reasonable, get the money up front, and do everything in your power to run the best game you can.”
Tara offers more practical advice. “Establish the basics first – day job, stability, etc. Your work has value — don’t feel bad about getting paid. The right community isn’t going to complain about it (for the most part), either. I have a much easier time getting paid by gamers than businesses who hire me for other freelance work. Make storytelling an integral part of your life. For me, that meant integrating marketing jobs and innovations in LARP. For you, that could mean observing Critical Role or reading a lot of books. Storytelling is key; being secure and comfy with players having agency is mandatory to a great experience.”
It is a huge change in the gaming market that some folks are able to create a space for themselves as professional GM. Although its unclear what the future holds for the field, Tara and Houston forged their own paths, a path that Acer might follow. For those of you who are dreaming about a professional GM career, creativity, hard work, professionalism, comfort with uncertainty, and a backup plan may hold the recipe to success.