Tuesday, 16 May 2017

My Thoughts on Pay-to-Play in roleplay, As a Full-time Paid GM.

At the height of my career, I was taking home almost 6 figures as a paid Gamesmaster. This is my story.

Pay to Play? Gotta be worth it

From 2003 to 2013, I was a travelling English Teacher, I started raw, I didn't know what I was doing, and frankly, it surprises me still that I managed to pull it off. The number 1. thing I did was to learn how to do what I was supposed to be doing every night, until I was as good as I said I was in the interview, it took 3 years.

In 2003, I left Australia to travel the world, and promptly ran out of money. So I needed money. I took on a bar-tending job in Shanghai during the evenings and started teaching English during the day.

I discovered after about 6 months, that I knew nothing of my own language, school had not trained me anything more than nouns, verbs and adjectives, and I still suffer to correctly Capitalise my words.. I capitalise when I emphasize, so if you want to read things in your head, like I say them, then raise your inner voice every-time you see a capital.

So I learned, I downloaded books on the subject of teaching, I studied English for myself and I got better at it.. and I discovered that there was a part of language teaching that I excelled at..


In Teaching, Roleplaying is a set of circumstance that puts the student into the 'role' of a person who needs to speak English, in order to get through the task. This might be getting through customs, or buying shoes in a shop, or business negotiations to strike a deal.

For a Gamesmaster, Roleplaying is of course So much More! These books on how to teach? were trying to tell me how to 'teach' with 'roleplaying' OMG I was laughing at it all..

So after getting my feet as a teacher, I started introducing the art of actual roleplaying to my students. I started with the TV series 'lost'. My students were to learn new words each week, so I would write up 20 new words that made sense to learn while being 'lost' on an island.. we put those words into sentences, played the scenario, the students would need to use the words, to survive.. plank of wood, hammer, nail, rope, rope bridge, chasm, I was feeding them clues on how to solve the puzzle, but since the words were not known to them, it was a puzzle unto itself.

the players... ahem,,.. students.. loved it, they came back for my, my classes got more interesting and the students grade went up.

The only problem was management.. when they saw we were playing games.. they thought it was a waste of money and dropped the courses.. until later, when I would provide them with statistical evidence that gaming lessons had a more than 30% improvement in language retention that all other lesson types.. I did this by running the same grammar lessons with one group and no roleplay, I had more than 50 groups, of around 4-6 students a group, at approx 2 years per student of learning, the lower end of the spectrum was 30% improvement, for students that were roleplaying..

That was when I went full time.

Now, jump back in time, remember how I used to run a games club for kids? That was Sunday afternoons, 5 hours, each kid paid $2 to come to the club each week, plus membership fees of around $10 a year, eventually we got up to 3 GMs and a profit of around $60 a week from sales of drinks, minis and entry fees, what I learnt from that was how to set up and run a game fast, how to keep the plot hooks going at the end of the session "Come back next week, same bat channel, same bat time" and how to keep the 'customers/players happy'

A few years later, Instead of catering to the Junior Roleplayers, I had a few phone calls to my club, asking if I could come out to their place and run a game. To begin with, It didn't quite feel right to ask for money, so I simply asked that they chipped in for the pizza and I'd supply the game, but after the first 2 sessions, I was losing cash on the deal as I had to transport myself across town, supply the dice, pencils and paper to the guys, charactersheets and such, so I asked them, would they be ok with chipping in for the costs, $20 a month would do it, else I couldn't afford to cross town for this group of strangers, they agreed and I got my next round of experience as a paid GM.

So, when I was showing my clients the difference between boring class results and roleplayed results, I had more than enough confidence to talk about how I'd been doing this years before and how easy it was to set up and run, I guess my sales pitch succeeded, because they agreed and I was roleplaying, primarily, for the bulk of my income from around 2009/2010.

I was, I consider myself, to be extremely lucky, to be in the right place, with the right experience, to be able to offer this unique service which had proven results, but I knew the laws of supply and demand, so I offered this service, but at a premium price. 2x 1.5 hour lessons, twice a week for $90 an hour, per 'group'. They accepted for those students who wished to participate. which was maybe 90%.

In such a closed environment, I was able to have groups run synchronously in the same world, meeting the same NPCs, either before or after previous groups, the logistics and economy of each group affecting any later groups, "Oh sorry sir, a group of adventurers just bought my finest sword just last week". I could even allow 1 of the groups to be the bad guys, having them just ahead of other groups, plotting evil, leaving traps and ambushes along the way, before they settled down in a well defended location, and only when a player from one group disguised his character as evil (and he asked the group if he could join, because he wanted to play an evil character too) could he then reveal himself at the last possible moment and foil their plans.

After watching this Legacy style play, I invited several other GMs I knew from other countries to participate. One from Estonia, one from latvia, Germany, England and the US, to have their 'groups' running in the same world, I sent maps of events via email to the GMs and their groups interacted, somewhat, with my groups.. I even got my old players from Australia to join in via skype for some epic moments.. it was amazing.

But real life, always seems to throw you a curve-ball.

My boss, who approved the games for the majority of my client base, and his boss who joined in once or twice, moved on, and the new guy was more hard-nosed to the idea of 'games as education', the country went into turmoil over govt restrictions, another of my clients warned me that things were going to get difficult in the next few years, so I left, returned to Australia and decided to knuckle down and get my degree, get my site up and running, and after raising some funds, publish my game.

I've run some Legacy style games since then, gotten my old Russian players and even the American players to join in, I think its the angle that sets my gaming apart from others, knowing that any NPC can often be a PC from another group, seems to wake players up just a tad more and take notice.

 So, my thoughts on Pay to Play

I've talked already in a previous post about how I think you need to bring more to the table than just 'run a game' to be a professional GM. To me, that's attention to detail in your world, your NPCs and being able to run your game without a rulebook. This usually means a working knowledge of Physics, Human communication, Psychology, Cultures other than your own, Sleeping outdoors, walking in caves, fighting in the rain, anything that gives you an edge from any other guy that just 'reads the rules and runs a module'.
When your paying to play a game, you're paying for the convenience of having a GM that is prepared and unable to flake and players of a like minded attitude of "I'm paying to be here, so I'm not going to mess around, or waste time with off topic chatter or argue about rules", Other players are there for the same reason you are, to have fun in the limited time you have, because you work hard, want to rest up, relax and play a game, and you only have 4 hours spare on a thursday night to do so. You could spend $30+ at any number of events IF you had the right friends and the timing was right for that particular time frame, so why not spend your $30 sitting down, relaxed at a table, with some like minded adventurers who wish to get their game on.

As a Paid GM, I love having players that are ready, attentive, pay attention to the details, play in character, don't cancel unless its actually important and bow out if its not the right group, the right setting or the right game, rather than stay 'because its your friends' and disrupt the game for everyone else.
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