The Highest Paid GM in the Land

I was going to write about something else this week, but I came across another topic that caught my interest. This essay on Facebook compared sports as “played for fun” and “played for money” and then went on to discuss the idea of paying Game Masters for their time. I’ll start by saying that I roundly reject the idea of paying GMs. So I was struck by the number of people chiming in with things like, “I’m glad that table fees are becoming an accepted idea,” or, “if more GMs would charge for their services then an actual market could grow up around it.” Quite a few people also took issue with the sports analogy. The original poster was trying to make the point that playing “for the love of the game” is always seen as more pure than “playing to make a living” even though only the already affluent can afford to “play for fun.” This is true. But I think that the sports analogy is useful in another way that I’ll come back to. I’ll start in a different place.

I see the issue being more that paying GMs assumes a paradigm where the GM is providing a commercial service to players. Game Mastering as service has so many problems as a core premise. From a purely “market-based” view, it creates a clear line of demarcation between the players and the GM. The player is a customer; the GM a provider. This relationship creates a tension that undermines what I’ve been writing about lately – that the work of a GM can only be at its best in an environment of trust. And the relationship is so predicated on trust because the player is turning over a measure of authority to the GM – willingly – to allow the game to happen. As soon as this relationship gets converted into customer/service provider it becomes inverted. The GM is offering a “gaming experience” for money and the player expects to get their money’s worth. The player becomes the customer and the customer is always right (even when they aren’t).

This commercial transaction creates a set of challenges that a GM should not be dealing with at the table. What if the customer feels cheated? What if the GM is pretty good but the rest of the group are jerks but, hey, since they paid to play, they get to play? What kind of waiver do you have to sign before you join a group with a paid GM and what happens when you want a refund? (Before the paid GMs out there freak out – I’m sure that many of you have policies for this, but who enforces them?) I want to be the judge who has to adjudicate the first case where a group of players sues their GM for breach of contract.

I mentioned in an earlier post that GMing changes radically when you do it with strangers. You are no longer expected to run a game – you are expected to become an amateur event organizer, capable of balancing the personalities who show up at your table just because it is a public event. You are expected to become the shepherd of everyone else’s fun – even at the expense of your own. And sure – that sounds a lot like a job and it sounds reasonable to want to get paid for it.

But – and I mean no real offense here – who determines whether or not you are good at it? Who determines what “good” even means. I’ll give you a high-profile example… I hate Critical Role. I can’t watch it. I’d hate playing with that group. If that were my group, I’d probably try to find another group. (Disclaimer: I don’t hate the people – I hate the way they play.) And it’s all fine and dandy to talk about a “market” evolving around the cottage industry of professional GMs but it’s not realistic. Most areas can’t support a game store or a game club; how the hell are they going to support a diverse stable of paid GMs? They aren’t; it’s that simple. And you’ll end up with a small monopoly on local gaming where a few GMs get paid – no matter the quality of the game – because it’s the only game in town. This seems likely to lead to cult-of-personality style issues where people get angry when you criticize their GM because they pay the guy and they don’t want to feel like the sucker who is throwing money at a bad GM. It also means that literally every other GM in the area who is not getting paid is going to be “stupid” for doing it for free – or, to go back to the sports analogy – clearly superior because they do it for free, “for the love of the game.” It might work in large, urban areas with clear channels for gamers to communicate with one another and public spaces to game in but it’s not going to work as well in the vast majority of locales where it is already nigh-impossible to scrape a group together even for free.

I could go on. I could expound on all the inherently capitalistic failings that this idea of GM for Money falls prone to but I want to close out here with a very specific point that gets at the worst part of the problem for me. I think that GM for Money/GM as Service fundamentally misunderstands the role of the GM in a game – and fundamentally misrepresents the GM. The GM is a player in the group. The GM is a part of the group. They take on a different role than the rest of the players while they are GMing, but they are still a part of the group. The GM is only given their unique place in the group at the assent of the rest of the group. Pretending otherwise – that GMing is “work” is fundamentally failing to understand that you are a part of the group – you are not set apart from them by your role, you are trusted by your peers to take a slightly different part in a shared experience. GMing is not a service you provide to the group, it is a just another part of the shared experience. To treat it otherwise is to change it into something else entirely.

As always, thanks for reading.

PS – I mentioned that I’d get back to the sports analogy. I’ll keep it short. Here it is… Look at any professional sports league today that is a business. Look at the NFL, the NBA, the MLB (I’m from the United States, these are my examples…). They are extremely messy and corrupt businesses prone to all sorts of abuses of power and shady dealings. And their athletes are expected to take money in exchange for shredding their bodies and minds while being given a virtual hall-pass on their worst behavior. It’s not about entertainment and it’s all about entertainment. But first, it’s a business. And that is a very chilling idea for me when I consider reducing the GM’s place at the table into some kind of market-economy dog-and-pony show.

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