Many things changed during my absence from the hobby. In fact, so many things changed in the 10-15 years I spent away from RPGs that I am almost tempted to say that RPG culture has changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty years that preceded it. Take a gamer from the late 1970s and drop them into a game shop in the late 1990s and it would not take them all that long to adapt. Take a gamer from the 1990s and drop them into the hobby today and I seem to spend my time reeling from one conceptual stumbling block to another.
One of the biggest differences between RPG culture now and RPG culture twenty years ago is that it is now possible to get paid to run games. It’s not just that this is now a socially acceptable thing to do, it’s also that there is an infrastructure and a set of norms governing how to present oneself, how to find customers, and how to build your reputation as a professional game-runner.
My first impression of this development was to be somewhat opposed to it… Every session I have ever run has been for friends, family, or fellow travellers and so the idea of getting paid to run games conjures images of people being invited to dinner and offering to pay for their meal. However, the more I thought about the phenomenon, the more I realised the wrong-headed and out-datedness of that first impression…
Firstly, the emergence of the professional GM must be understood in the context of fandom’s broader movement towards the monetisation of skill and clout. Back in the day, niche hobbies only ever seemed to interest small groups of people and so, rather than passing a small pot of money back and forth, people took the view that sub-cultures should function like a semi-cooperative commonwealth where those who could did and those who couldn’t tended to contribute financially. While this made perfect sense in the days before the internet, the arrival of the internet meant that niches that were once geographically isolated could not only work together but also pool their collections of people with more money than skill. As the teenagers of the past have advanced to middle-age and money has become less valuable than time, the amount of money in the niche has increased and those with the most skill/clout can now get paid in money rather than just esteem. While the growth of sub-cultural niches means that it is now possible to make money from your hobbies, the problems associated with increased fame/visibility mean that doing stuff in public often means either doing stuff for money or not doing stuff in public at all. It is one thing to do stuff for a bunch of people you know, it is quite another to do stuff for ten thousand strangers who feel they know you. I am as old school and anti-commerce as you get but the cost of visibility is bullshit and nobody in their right mind puts up with nerd-related bullshit when they’re not getting paid.
Secondly, I think it’s important to recognise the fundamental differences between child and adult social interaction. As a child, you spend almost every day with your peer group and you are subject to the same institutional structures. What this means in practice is that it’s pretty easy to do things as group of friends and because everyone operates according to the same basic timetable, group activities are easy to schedule. Unfortunately, once people leave education and enter the workforce they become subject to sometimes radically different timetables. They also begin moving through very different emotional landscapes as some people might have relatively stress-free jobs that do not blur into their private lives while other people are never completely free from work-entanglements and even if they do switch off their phones, they are still mentally at work.
The radical differences between different people’s working practices mean that it is very difficult to keep a group of people together for an on-going social activity, especially one that can sometimes involve lengthy sessions. The difficulties involved in socialising as an adult mean that it is a lot easier for people to do stuff by themselves than it is for them to do stuff with their friends. The atomisation of post-school interest and social availability goes some way to explaining why there remains a thriving adult training and education sector. You might not be able to meet up with your friends as often as you like but you can probably lock yourself into going to the gym on the way home from work or attending an evening class. Playing in a game run by a professional GM are not an alternative to playing with your friends, it’s an alternative to taking a class in pottery or conversational Spanish.
Thirdly, people tend to take things a lot more seriously when they’re paying for it. If you were to hang out your shingle and offer to run a weekly game of Call of Cthulhu for complete strangers you would most likely end up with a couple of regular players, a larger group of people who drop in and out because they’re busy, and a much larger group of people who are interested but never turn up. Ask people to put down money – any amount of money – and you not only get rid of the time wasters you also find that people make more of an effort to show up and participate.
Fourthly, while introducing money serves to discipline players, it also serves to discipline GMs. Even the best intentioned GMs have sessions where they are under-prepared or in a bad mood. In fact, the vast majority of the gaming horror stories come from GMs either abandoning or abusing their responsibilities as game-runner. If you introduce money into the equation, people instantly begin acting in a more professional manner. Not only will paid GMs take more time to prepare and monitor their behaviour, they’ll also put more effort into their performances. Friends are by their very nature forgiving… clients much less so.
Fifthly, while the direction of travel in RPG culture has long been to strip the GM of their powers and reduce them to just another member of the group, the best GMs often understand that in addition to their responsibilities as providers of a service, they are also community leaders. I have taken many evening classes and the most successful teachers are those who position themselves as social a kind of social fulcrum. They not only work to ensure that everyone is having a good time, they also foster a sense of community that can result in people feeling empowered and willing to take on more ambitious projects. A lot has been said and written about para-social relations and the way that social media has accelerated the emergence of relationship structures that resemble friendship despite being professional in nature but there is a reason why that type of relationship thrives in an atomised world.
Though I do tend to view the emergence of professional GMs as a ‘good thing’, I am also struck by the complications introduced by the professionalization of a relationship that was once more-or-less a part of friendship.
Firstly, friends tend to be more forgiving than strangers. Spend a few moments browsing the many relationship advice sub-reddits and you’ll notice that almost every thread boils down to someone venting about something their partner does only for dozens of complete strangers to fall over themselves in their haste to describe said partner as toxic and advise the poster to run for the hills at the first opportunity. One reason for this pattern is that other people’s relationships make a lot less sense than our own because our perceptions are not affected by bonds of attachment. Simply stated, if your partner decides to help themselves to the content of your fridge, you might think it funny or rude. However, if a complete stranger decides to help themselves to the content of your fridge, you might well call the cops. The message here is that emotional context matters and people are far more likely to tolerate mistakes around the gaming table from their friends than they are from relative strangers. Of course, this cuts both ways… you are more likely to tolerate a friend doing a bad job of running a game than you are someone who is getting paid. Conversely, people are more likely to try new things and crack jokes when they are playing with their friends than when they are playing with strangers.
Secondly, anyone who pays attention to online RPG spaces will have noticed the rise of social justice-adjacent rhetoric. There have even been a number of cancelations based upon stuff that has happened during live streams. Cynics of all political stripes may view this as nothing more than the culture war opening up a front in RPG spaces. While it may be impossible to escape the culture war, attention economics and the associated politicisation of emotional response, it is interesting to note that when French-speaking gamers talk about cancelation, progressive social currents, and practical stuff like X-cards, they don’t talk about ‘social justice’ but rather about ‘emotional security’.
You can look at social mechanisms like call-outs, call-ins, and cancelations in terms of broader political struggles but I think they make a lot more sense when viewed from the perspective of emotional security. For example, the cancelation of the RPG designer who sexually assaulted a player character on a live stream is not so much about principled opposition to ‘rape culture’ as it is about sending a message that those kinds of jokes will not be and should not be tolerated. The creation of these norms and expectations make little sense if the assumption is that everyone is playing with their friends. However, if the assumption is that people play with relative strangers then there need to be not only stringent norms about content but also mechanisms to enforce said norms that don’t involve getting into massive emotive arguments. If you play with friends, you’ll most likely never need an X-card as your friends know you and you will naturally forgive your friends’ trespasses, but if you are playing with complete strangers then you need to be able to say ‘This shit is not acceptable. Please stop’ in a way that isn’t too socially difficult for everyone involved.
Thirdly, it still isn’t easy to find a ‘good’ GM online. This isn’t so much an issue of professional GMs lacking skills as it is an issue of different people having different ideas about what constitutes a ‘good’ GM. For example, during the first lockdown, I decided to try and join an online game of D&D5 and I decided to go and look for a game run by a professional for all the reasons listed above. When searching, I came across a website for a company staffed entirely by burlesque performers who couldn’t work because of lockdown. While I am sure that all of these people were excellent GMs, I don’t see any skill overlap between a ‘good’ GM and a ‘good’ burlesque performer. I mean… I’m sure it takes ages to learn how to dance in steampunk-themed corsetry or to do that weird growly thing that Christina Aguilera does when she’s stretching for a low note but I have never once sat at a gaming table and wished that my GM could play the saxophone whilst wearing a fez. Obviously, I am exaggerating for comic effect but the point remains that what makes a good GM for you might not be what makes a good GM for me and while I would expect a level of professionalism from a professional GM, it is really hard to know which GMs are worthy of one’s time and money but then the same is true for adult education courses. The more you know, the more your tastes refine, and the more your tastes refine, the more ways there are for people to disappoint you.