Should Game Masters for Role-Playing Games be Paid? It Depends.

by Hawke Robinson published 2018/02/20 20:45:00 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:26:08-07:00
Increasingly heated debate has been growing in recent years about whether role-playing game masters (RPG GMs) should be paid or not. It depends... NOTE: This article focuses on pure entertainment RPG Professionals, not RPG Professionals in educational or therapeutic settings. To be clear, this is a blog posting, as an opinion piece, not a formal essay or research paper. For more formal essays, see the research sections of the site. This informal article is from the first-person experiential perspective, that attempts to include persuasive argument components, as someone involved with RPGs since the 1970s running many sessions per week, and paid as a GM (when desired) since the 1980s.

Should game masters of role-playing games be paid for what they do? It depends.

  • Are you an amateur or a professional?
  • Are you representing or delivering services for a non-profit or a for-profit venture?
  • Have you achieved, or at least making significant strides toward achieving, mastery?


What is the distinction between an amateur and a professional? This is also a debated topic overall, but lets see if we can go with some accepted standards.

UPDATE: Before proceeding further, it should be noted that this is written for people that are not too literal minded as to think the examples provided here are apples-to-apples comparisons to role-playing gaming. RPGs provide a unique combination of experiences, with the GM and players involved with a complex interdependent relationship. The GM in multifaceted roles of entertainer (in a more collaborative fashion with the players, much more interactive than your typical entertainment media), facilitator (but rather than typically unbiased, with an important bias of maximizing the immersive and fun experience of everyone at the table, ideally facilitating group flow state as much as possible), when necessary the arbitrator, and many other roles. There are concepts here that require the reader to have developed sufficiently beyond just the concrete operational (or similar) stages, able to embrace broader concepts using both inductive and deductive reasoning skills, and be able to step beyond the specific examples used as approximate parallels in part, to represent broader portions of concepts, without getting stuck in rigid modes of tit-for-tat thought. So please, do not get stuck with the specific examples not being an ideal match to RPGs. As far as I know, after many years of research, while there are aspects that can be linked, there is not an identical parallel to RPGs. While there are some activities that fit the Intragroup Avedeon Interaction pattern that (especially tabletop) RPGs fit, most do not. These distinctions are both part of the beauty and benefits, and very much the challenge, of addressing the complex topics of role-playing games. So, with these caveats in mind...

Regarding literal definitions of a profession.

Merriam Webster defines an Amateur as (the bold text is added by me for emphasis.):

 1: one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession
    She played soccer as an amateur before turning professional.
    a tournament that is open to both amateurs and professionals

2 : one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science
    The people running that company are a bunch of amateurs.
    He's a mere amateur when it comes to cooking.

And a professional as:

1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession
b : engaged in one of the learned professions
c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession
(2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
2 a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs
    a professional golfer

b : having a particular profession as a permanent career
    a professional soldier

c : engaged in by persons receiving financial return
    professional football

3 : following a line of conduct as though it were a profession
    a professional patriot

That seems pretty straightforward, and I think addresses much of the debate, which includes supporting both when, and when not, to pay for RPG Sessions and RPG Professionals.

"...pastime rather than as a profession..." Everybody started as an amateur at some point, but that does not preclude the possibility and opportunity to become a professional in your favorite activity. However, most amateurs lack the "experience and competence" to consistently deliver services in a professional manner.

"...conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession". This is a problem for the relatively young RPG industry. There aren't any real technical or ethical standards established for the profession. Efforts are being made by the non-profit organization RPG Research, and the for-profit company RPG Therapeutics LLC, developing professional standards of technical and ethical requirements, player and GM codes of conduct, certifications with background checks, etc.



If the Game Master (GM) is your average (99%+) game master, the GM probably is not a professional and should not expect financial remuneration, though snacks and goodies are just considered "good gaming etiquette". This considerate politiness of taking care of the GM and players I have noticed diminishing considerably in the past 10 years btw, but that is a topic for another discussion.

If the GM is running games for their friends at home, or your local friendly neighborhood hobby store, school, community center, etc., and they are running them basically in the same fashion same as they do for their friends at home, as an amateur, then they should probably receive amateur wages. This would typically be around zero monetarily, or maybe some food & drink, or some "goodies" from the game store such as free dice, books, miniatures, other gaming paraphanelia, "swag", free con tickets, etc. Although conventions providing anything to GMs, should be VERY careful, and see the consequences of providing anything to "volunteers" at your event or venue, as per the Emerald City Comicon lawsuit settlement.

Some people are outright "religious" about not paying for RPG sessions or RPG professionals, and no amount of logic or reasonableness is going to adjust their opinion. Some feel it is somehow inherently "evil" or "prostitution" (quoting the descriptions of the detractors of paid RPG professionals) to charge for services rendered for something that is also available for free. Of course, if they are strongly self-proclaimed communist/socialist, then such a viewpoint may be in line with their perspective, but for the vast majority of people, it may just be some misunderstandings, and hopefully they are more open to persuasive discussions.



Following the flawed logic that paying for RPG sessions or RPG professionals is somehow evil, this means that all of the following are just as evil for receiving payment for services that are also easily available for free:

  • Musicians (bands, soloists, drum circle performers, drum circle facilitators, music therapists, composers).
  • Visual Artists (painters, photographers, sculpters, etc.)
  • DJs
  • Bloggers
  • Podcasters
  • Theater performances (and all the staff and facilities involved in making them happen)
  • Vidcasters
  • Recreational facilitators (coaches, parks & recreation staff, recreation therapists, etc.)
  • Actors (stage & screen)
  • Many crafters and raft providers (soap, knitting, etc.)
  • The list goes on extensively, but you get the point (I hope).


Avedon Interaction Patterns for each:

Musicians =

Some, rather than saying this is evil, are more worried that paid RPG sessions, and paid RPG professionals, threaten the availability of the free game sessions. Fortunately history shows to date that this fear is likely completely unfounded. Odds are that there will always be far more free games, and free GMs available (though always a shortage of GMs in general), than professional paid GMs, just as there have been for most of the above listed services, some for eons.

So, if we could please lay those arguments to rest, and focus on much more reasonably salient discussion on this topic.

Many of you are already paying for RPG sessions and RPG related professionals (though not GMs directly). Every time you buy the latest computer-based RPG (CRPG), or pay your monthly subscription to World of Warcraft (WoW), Twitch, or similar service, and many have to pay at the door for cons to attend the gaming that many are exclusively there to attend. Some of you prefer to use the free to play services, and receve a different caliber of service than those paying for the services. Also consider solo adventure books and modules (SABMs) like Choose Your Own Adventure, Lone Wolf, and many others, not to mention the vast array of rulebooks, modules, miniatures, etc. The debates about paying for RPG sessions and GMs generally focus on talking about tabletop and live-action RPG formats, but people should remember this about CRPGs, SABMs, and paid events like gaming cons.

If you are running a game at a for-profit company, such as a game store, bar, etc., and you are an amateur, you probably should expect the same level of compensation (zero), for being there with your friends or doing pickup games.

If you are at this location because the venue owner specifically states they hope you will help increase sales, that gets a little trickier. And venue owners need to walk carefully when considering any kind ofg compensation for "volunteers" or "contractors", since most don't actually meet the legal requirements for those roles, and may either be considered by local, state, and federal agencies actually as an employee (requiring minimum wage and many other items), or at best a business to business relationship, incurring all kinds of tax, insurance, and legal liability concerns.

Think of it as you would for any other profession, that has many amateurs, including some "wanna be's".

There are some great musicians out there, but they are definitely amateurs (as well as not so great ones out there of course). There are some great musicians out there, that are definiltey professionals, some get paid, far too many do not. There are also some terrible musicians out there, they are technically professionals, some are paid quite well, most are not, but that is yet another topic of discussion.

From my viewpoint, at a bare bones minimum you need to meet at least one of the following requirements:

  • You are paid for your professional services.
  • You have invested at least 10,000 hours directly involved with the skill development (more about mastery than paid professional). "An amateur practices until they get it right, a professional practices until they fairly consistently don't get it wrong."

 Some consider this too high a bar to set, and of course there is room for flexibility. Some may prefer higher standards, but others may be more comfortable with lowering the bar by various increments, and that is fine, as long as there is a means for consumers to differentiate the lower standards from the higher standards. Hopefully the efforts toward professional RPG certification can help make this easier for consumers and organization to make informed decisions.

There are many other variables required to be a GOOD professional, but the above are pretty straight forward without getting too far into the weeds.

To the first point, getting paid for your services, the percentage of your total income to live on, doesn't not have to be 100%. If you are at 100% of your cost of living (assuming living on your own and not your parents or welfare), then you are probably in the professional category, though again that doesn't necessarily mean you are a good professional.

To the second point, at least 10k hours, this is really about mastery, but an important consideration for becoming a competent and worthile professional, and not just good at selling yourself and being a potential scam. You can be a paid professional with far less than 10k hours, but if someone does have 10K+ hours, it seems a stronger argument supporting paying someone with such a well developed skillset. Note this means you have to spend a lot of time gaming. A full-time job around 40 hours per week typically takes around 5 years to achieve those hours. Again, having only 500, 1,000 or 5,000 hours doesn't preclude you from being a professional, but if you have 10k+ hours, it is an easier argument for you to make that you are in the mastery category, and a good candidate for being a professional. There are many veteran GMs out there with more than 10k hours, at just 3 groups a week/weekend around 18-24 hours a week they could be there in about 10 years. Some may consider this overly stringent, but the RPG industry is in sore need of higher standards. Additionally there should be increasing pressure to include background checks to protect the youth and vulnerable populations. They don't have to be about every mistake a person has made, but just to make sure there aren't any predators using this activity to gather victims. I don't have any hard research numbers (yet) unfortunately, but I have personally run into 3 convicted sex-offenders in the past 3 years in active groups, using RPGs for them to get access. They are back in prison last I saw, but those are just the ones I know about. I now require all of my staff and volunteers to pass a background check before they are allowed to work with clients or have access to sensitive data. This is just one of many areas where professional standards need to be documented, implemented, and disseminated.

Another important note about asking for payment, one should be careful about setting and changing expectations up front. If you start GMing with your friends, and a few weeks/months later you suddenly demand they pay you, that is not only uncouth, it is also unprofessional. If you want to start charging for your groups, start new ones that have a contract up front setting expectations to pay, don't ambush those currently in your unpaid group(s).

For those concerned about experienced GMs no longer being available in the free gaming pool, bringing it in to a more personal perspective, while I have been paid for some groups (if desired), since 1983, for running groups beyond counting (anywhere from 1-12 groups per week, sessions ranging anywhere from 2 to 16+ hours), I still run some groups weekly or every-other-week for free. These free groups are more relaxing, I don't have to be fully "on" in professional mode and so are not as much "work" as the paid groups. Though I also still have fun with my paid groups, it is also like the (more stressful) fun of performing at concerts, than in my basement studio jamming with friends. I may play just as well (or not) in the jam as the concert, but there are a lot of professional differences between the two in effort, focus, behavior, attire, mannerisms, expectations, etc.

As a musician, in addition to developing your music and performance skills, if you want to get paid, you generally need to build a following. You will likely have to perform for free, for a long time, (unless pure luck is on your side), before you build enough of a following that people will be willing to pay for your performances (if ever).

As a musician, if you are even remotely half way decent, it is pretty easy to get free food and drink at a coffee shop or bar (heck I've easily done so as a musician with no following, since the 1980s), but for the owner to break open the cash register and hand you precious bills, that is a whole other thing.

If you want to actually get paid gigs at bars and other public for-profit venues, you need to provide some kind of audience draw.

An audience that will come to see your performance, and help increase sales for the public venue.

As a GM, it is difficult, and generally against the recommendations for optimization of the gaming experience, to run groups larger than 5-8 people (I've run 20+ per table quite successfully, but I don't recommend it long-term). Only bringing 6-8 people once per week, unless it is an absolutely tiny venue, isn't a lot of bottom line improvement for a business, so keep that in mind. Maybe for very small venues, if you provided sessions daily, 6-8 people might help the a little, but that is a really small venue.

If the GM is taking a more professional approach, even if you have taken the professional rpg courses, and worked your way to becoming a fully certified RPG Professional, don't expect public venues to pay you (or pay what you are worth), if it doesn't help the venue's bottom line. You have to think like a capitalist if you want to make this work. This is not an "evil capitalist" thing, this is just how the world works if you want to build, grow, and remain in business as a for-profit venture.

Non-profit settings have a wide range of considerations that are outside the scope of this document, and maybe good for discussion in another article at another time, but they also have to make enough money (or receive funding from somewhere) to remain functioning.

If you can run your game in a way that you have 4-8 players, but have an audience also being drawn to the location, and successfully entertain that audience, well that is a horse of a different color. Or if you are someone that can provide multiple game masters to run many groups at many tables, so that you bring an audience of 20, 50, 100, 1,000, or more people (depending on the size of the venue), now you are talking about something of financial value to the venue owner, and they are much more likely to happily pay you.

If you have professional certification, meeting some professional standards of practice, you may more reasonably expect remuneration, but that does not mean that venue owners have that expectation. You may have to educate them, and proove to them that you are not "just an amateur", and that your professional services will help improve their bottom line.

Regarding the "known commodity argument" about movie theaters, professional sporting events, whether going to a movie or stage theater, paid professional sports games, paid gaming convention, etc. there is not a guarantee you will enjoy, nor enjoy the people around you, either.

Also the analogies of a plummer, computer repair main, etc. do not equate, since the RPG sessions are more about providing entertainment services (in the context of this document), not repair services or physical products, so the closest analogies would be other entertainment services.

For the above though, it is all about having a professional level of service, and supporting professional services to address.

Another example venue growing increasingly in popularity, is something like the Game Truck, increasing numbers of parents have been asking for GMs for their children's birthdays, seeing how much better tabletop RPG is for their kids than the video games for their social skills and cooperation. This is typically around $200-$400 for around 2-4  hours of gaming fun. For example pulling up with the wheelchair friendly RPG Trailer and/or the RPG Bus parked in front of their house, and herding the 6 to 12 kids into the trailer and/or bus, rather than making a mess in the hosting parent's house (ah the parental bliss of not having the noisy kids in their house for 4 hours!).

You can also take advantage of the growing gig economy and rent yourself out, just like Fiverr, Uber, OnForce, and other similar platforms, such as the RPG Network and related platforms under development. For the gig economy workers, keep in mind the gig method is increasinly in jeopardy as taxi drivers and others continue to push back against the gig economy threatening already established unions and other organizations that feel directly threatened. The non-binding U.K. Employment Tribunal ruling is one example of a warning shot fired across the bow, and lawsuits are popping up all over the USA and elsewhere, that will likely kill off the more laissez-faire gig economy alas, but it should take a few years yet to complete the stranglehold, so enjoy it while you can.

So, basically, 99% of you GMs out there, unless you are serious about treating this like a profession, (building a relevant professional resume, potentially acquiring credentials similar to those working toward degrees and certifications in computer tech, healthcare, or professional performers, for example), don't go in expecting payment. If you do get some reimbursement, that is great, but think of it as the unknown amateur coffee shop musician getting some free food and drink, just be grateful, and enjoy. Maybe over time build a following, and professional-grade skills, if that is where you want to go. Otherwise don't stress about it and just have fun!

If however you are serious about wanting to get paid as an RPG Professional. Then you should look over the hours you have spent on this wonderful hobby of RPGing. Have you invested thousands of active (not passive) hours in this skill development? 10,000 hours isn't required to become a professional, but if the answer is yes, then you have another data point toward selling yourself successfully. Are you acting like professionals do in other fields? Do you have your business license. Most cities require this if you are serious about making any real money. Do you have your general liability and/or errors & omissions insurance or similar protections in place? Have you created a business entity to help buffer yourself from personal liability? Are you marketing yourself? There are a long list of requirements to really becoming a professional in any field.

Ultimately, what really matters is what the market will bear.

Increasingly, the market demand for professional standards in Game Masters has been increasing. As has the demand from people happy to pay for a premium quality service. I have had the flexibility to be a paid as a GM for decades when I choose, but there is far more work than I can handle, and a significant number of people asking for the training to meet this demand in some sort of standardized, methodlogical way. I draw from many professional knowledge domains, and work with many professionals, including but not limited to: educators, recreation therapists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and others. From these extensive resources I have been developing standardized education, training, certification, and oversight services to help answer this overwhelming demand from the market.

Whether you like the idea of paid game sessions/GMs, or not, there IS a growing market demand for these services. While some rail against this "corruption" of this recreational activity, others are willing to adapt to changes. Those who do not adapt, become extinct. Nay sayers that are resistant to change aside, it is really more a debate of what is the best business model to make the professional role-playing gamer the most viable.

Again, much of this is just my opionion, and all of the discussion in this article is focused on standard entertainment role-playing gaming, and does not even touch on the subject of RPG Professionals in educational settings or therapeutic settings. Those are separate topics, and have been been covered considerably  throughout the RPG Research website over the years, so I won't go into them here.

I hope this has been a helpful blog posting to a wide range of people. Hopefully it will help some refine and define these topics, and hopefully reduce some of the rancor out there back to a more moderate simmer. I also hope it is inspiring for those thinking about whether or not they should try to head down the road toward real professionalism, or just enjoy what you do as a wonderful amateur supporting a most wonderful recreational activity.

Happy Gaming!

-Hawke Robinson

February 20th, 2018.

Full disclosure: I have been involved with RPGs since the 1970s. I have been paid as a GM since the early 1980s. I still run free games. Some for friends, some for communities. I am a Washington State Department of Health Registered Recreational Therapist. I am founder of RPG Research (since 2004), and RPG Therapeutics LLC (since 2014). More about the author: Hawke Robinson



Here are some threads related to this hotly debated topic:

GM in a bar:

How much to pay a GM?

What would you expect:


Associated links.

Merriam Webster online dictionary:


RPG Research:

RPG Therapeutics LLC:


ECCC Lawsuit:

U.K. Employment tribunal about Uber:

California 2015 ruling against Uber:

2016 Uber settlements to California and Massacheusetts to keep Uber drivers as contractors rather than employees:

Roll20 GM position (2015):

Game Master Salaries on Glassdoor:,11.htm

Paid to play:  “Games Master” finds his dream job:

Pay-to-Play RPG Paid GMs: Are You Worth It?:

Tips For Getting Paid Using Your Geeky Passions:

How is the tabletop Role Playing Game industry doing today? (2016):

Michael Tresca's series on the Fall and Rise of the RPG Professional (3 parts):




 All photos and artwork are copyright W.A.Hawkes-Robinson. Permission to use in conjunction with this article granted, as along as full attribution included.


Document Actions