I Swing the Vorpal Spork of Irony like some Hyperborean Usurper through the Hordes of the Unwashed.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pay to Play Pen and Paper: Good Idea or Bad

In general Dungeon Masters and /or Store Owners foot the majority of costs associated with running a D&D Campaign. Now, these costs are borne voluntarily, but they are costs none the less. I sat down and made a list:
  • Miniatures
  • Snacks
  • DDI subscription
  • Terrain and Tiles
  • Books and Modules
  • Tokens and Trackers
  • Utilities (store owner)

When I first started playing D&D, we shared a communal set of books and used graph paper from school. As the times have changed, players expectations have increased as well. What I am wondering is if players would be willing to defray some of the inherent costs of running a good game. If you go to the movies you will pay approx. $8 for two hours. At $4 an hour and most RPG sessions lasting 4 hours times 6 player that would be $96. At that rate you almost start buying Dwarven Forge terrain. Obviously I'm not going to charge my player's $4 an hour. But, charging them $5 a session would not be out of the question.

If I was charging $5 I could justify spending more time on preparation. I could order Minis for the campaign and the Dungeon Tiles I would need. I could also pony up the cash for an Obsidian Portal Membership and D&D Insider. I could print out more cards, handouts and character sheets. I'm guessing that players would be more likely to show up on time and maximize their fun if they had some skin in the game.

I would love to have some feedback from the blogosphere. Please complete the poll to the right if you don't wish to comment.


  1. Well, I'm GM-ing a Truth and Justice campaign just now, alongside four other GMs running various things. Other then the cost of the books, dice and paper, we have no costs what so ever and no complaints. You don't need all the bells and whistles to run a good game, which people seem to be forgetting with the current emphasis on 4e and WFRP3.

    The most extravagant accessories any of us use is a whiteboard, poker chips and an iPad.
    If one if the GMs started splashing out on fancy terrain tiles and expecting us to pay for them, I'm pretty sure that myself and the rest of the players would point out that we were happy without.

  2. There are other things to consider, too. Some members of the group may be better able to handle the cost of some things. As always, the best advice is to talk to the whole group about it -- the rest of your group may not even care that you don't have the latest tiles or the extras that paying for Obsidian Portal gets you (which mostly amounts to more campaigns per DM and a forum for the group).

  3. I don't know. Being a GM is a hobby, not a profession. You won't make a living just because you play well.

  4. I'm with Hammer. And why not share the burdens by making them bring the snacks? And we never used miniatures, unless you count Homies, Axis and Allies guys, and beer bottle caps.

  5. I understand your reasoning but it's based on some pretty specific assumptions:
    1) The players haven't invested in books, or anything else.
    2) Most of the stuff you bought is necessary for the game, which in reality it isn't - you don't need tiles, or a lot of minis, or a DDI subscription. Those are all luxaries. The same goes for pre-published modules. Of course, as Hammer points out, 4E comes with a certain expectation that you're going to use that stuff, but most of it still isn't necessary.
    3) Your players don't incur any costs in getting to the store which unless they live upstairs isn't true. Gas costs money, so does the bus. My closest LGS has no parking which means I have to shell out $3/hr to park if I want to play in the store.

    I also question why you're buying the snacks.... The bottom line is that RPGs are supposed to be, at least ideally, a social experience in which everyone contributes to the fun. Turning it in to a "pay to play" situation completely changes those dynamics and not in a good way: If I'm paying to play, I would want a complete experience and your A game. You can be sure I wouldn't pony up money if you had an off-night. All of which is to say that "getting paid" to DM would likely suck all the fun out of the game for the DM since it would suddenly become a job - "No, you can't take a smoke break...." "No, I'm paying for 4 hours, not 3.5 so you can't call it quits early." "No, you can't make jokes at the table because time is money..."

    Although, all of this is a bit of a moot point because I virtually guarantee that the minute you started charging to play you'd lose most of your players as they move on to something that's free. That's the nature of how the hobby works and is the bane of game stores as well: The idea of organized play is to get bodies in the store who will spend some $$$ in return for the opportunity to play. Unfortunately, most gamers buy nothing and that's why many game stores focus on CCGs and CMGs for gaming nights since the "crack addict" nature of the games at least ensure you'll sell a few boosters from time to time.

    The bottom line is that if you find yourself feeling like you're being taken advantage of, I'd look for a better gaming group: Your group should function like a circle of friends in which everyone contributes what they can, whether it's bringing their dice & showing up on time, or bringing a half-dozen donuts, or buying some D&D minis for the group to use.

  6. Quick, I own & operate a game/hobby shop (2nd time around) & have GM'd for near 25yrs.

    We've tried this on more than one occasion & it never works, it more times than not discourages players! The best scenario is to just ask for donations in a discreet manner (I passed out a voluntary "survey/homework" paper in an envelope at the end of every session, if you turned it in at the beginning of the next session you earned a few experience points, I also asked for donations, once in awhile someone would throw a $5 in there, but not very often) so nobody's feeling get hurt because they can't donate or game with a group that's willing to share the burden, i.e. its your turn to buy the pizza etc...

    Having to pay 2 play is a recipe for disaster.

  7. I guess that being a 1e player/DM and having available the free download retro-clones makes the issue less of a burning one than it might be for players/DMs of newer editions where it seems that the books just keep on coming.

    If I had downloaded OSRIC or LL Advanced Edition companion, I'd have all I needed for a game. I've bought the old 1e books on Amazon because I wanted to (didn't need to). I was lucky that my brother still had the collection of figures we used back in the day, so I use those, but again, because I want to, not because it's obligatory.

    That having been said, I did vote for the $1 option, simply because the tea and biscuits need to be paid for somehow. But if the DM/host/whatever said "Don't sweat it" I wouldn't.

    So the amount that it costs to run a game really depends on which game you're playing and how much the system handcuffs you into buying stuff.

  8. I agree with the prevailing sentiment... pay 2 play = bad idea. Between making it a job vs. a hobby and your players now being customers, it just seems like asking for a headache.

    That being said, my "overhead" is pretty low. Players are responsible for their own food and drinks, we almost never use minis/tokens and maps, and the books we use are ones I'd buy anyways. Every once in a while someone will chip in a pack of paper, which more than covers what little printing we do.

    Now if they wanted to chip in and pay to have a maid come over to clean the rooms we use, I wouldn't complain. ;)

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. didn't mean to delete the post, lol

    "See I go all out and blow $50 per session on props, mini's, and then spend more on food, I even need to have a new gamer shirt for each session, but I can do that, it def adds to the "fun" factor. But I know we could still have great sessions without it, thats the beauty of PnP RPG's...

  11. Here's what we get "free" now - music, movies, pdf's of old rpg rules and lots of books. Hugely profitable software companies with small staffs and overhead rake in money, even in the economy of free: ebay, amazon, adobe, etc.

    What did America lose? Record stores, movie stores, book stores, hobby stores and antique shops. My downtown would embarrass the citizens of Zimbabwe. If I knew a store that would provide the books, but charged $5 a session (a variation on a subscription model, really) I would play there in a heartbeat. That way the average player could try new game systems without a big investment.

    Basically, the gaming community, much like the music community, doesn't want new material. Quite happy with old/free stuff. The only difference is people will still pay to see a band live, but we won't pay to play d&d, either through buying new books or helping the DM with minis or a store with sales. The future of the medium is bleak as Wizards, Paizo, et al careen towards bankruptcy. Enjoy those .pdf's!

  12. What you're describing is a convention environment.

    If you wanted to distribute costs, you should ask the players to bring the snacks, or have them spin up a stat block or two. Things like tiles and minis are extras-- you can perhaps get a communal battle mat, but even that could be obviated with a dry erase board or pad of graph paper.

    I think you're adding costs when you don't have to. I look at convention play as a place to try new games or games I don't play often. I've looked at the idea of creating a 501c nonprofit where I could run games and do events with schools and get matching corporate funds, but you're looking at floating around 20k with what I could figure on the back of a napkin (assuming 10 people/$100 a month and corporate match) *shrug* It's not a stabile or lucrative gig, but hey, it might be something you'd want to dig on further.

    For someone just running a table with friends? Yeah, you're either accepting the time and monetary costs of running the game for friends or you need a new hobby or someone else to GM.

  13. I needed some time to think about this. I see 2 audiences here. The first is the group of guys that come to your house to play. Shared property gets a little dicey here. If everyone pitches in for a new book, who gets to keep it? On the other hand, having one guy buy the new underdark setting and lend it to his buddy DM, that is very plausible. Hell, I could even see everyone pony up $5-8 dollars so the DM could get a DDI subscription (which would likely pay for half the thing right there).

    The second is a non-regular group of mostly strangers meeting in a public venue. I think a pay to play model here is not the way to go. Make a club. First time is free, or allow people to sit in on games, but make it a point that club members get priority for having a seat at the table. Folks get a 6 month membership. Their dues help defer costs for printing, minis, all that jazz. If you have an organized group, you can get a mailing list and forum up. Host lots of events (including non RPG games) at the local venue. Stress to visitors that members get priority. With something like that, I can see people spending $10 or so. But a direct pay to play (unless it was a convention game), I don't see to enticing.

  14. I guess playing old versions of D&D has its advantages. Your list/my comments:

    * Miniatures -- We don't really use them. I have some people can use for their characters in a battle order or they can bring one. Or use a chess piece. That's all the minis we need.

    * Snacks -- We all bring some.

    * DDI subscription -- Don't need it as we aren't playing 4e. We shouldn't need it even if we were. I did buy the original three books, we could play 4e from them if we wanted to.

    * Terrain and Tiles -- Don't use them. We don't use minis or battlemats. We play very old versions of D&D that don't require such things. If a map is needed, I draw it on a piece of paper.

    * Books and Modules -- I've already got them all. I bought them years ago. Retroclones allow players to download what are basically the same rules free.

    * Tokens and Trackers -- Don't need these either. I do use my own character sheets, but I can print all I need on my laser printer for less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

    * Utilities (store owner) -- we play at my house. I suppose having 8-9 people over pushing up the cooling bill during the Texas summer, but not enough to complain about.

    This is the way I've always done it since I started playing in 1975. I've never saw any need to charge players.

  15. Back when we started gaming, our local pub offered us a room in their barn for £10 a night. We each chipped in £3 (about $5) and that covered the cost to hire, buy snacks, etc.

    Time passed and the pub changed hands. The new (and very generous) owner waived the £10 hire charge so long as we were happy buying drinks. Heck, he didn't even mind if we brought our own food on premises.

    But still, we chip in the £3 a session and over the years that has more than covered the cost of a huge pile of dice, funded replacement books for our gamers due to spilled drinks and accidental damage (an early and popular policy caused by a flying drinks tray one time). That £3 has paid for emergency taxis or gas when players need collecting and loads of pens, pencils, paper and art supplies that stay in the barn for all to use.

    What it doesn't pay for (beyond the replacement policy) is anything the gamers can take away with them. What the barn buys stays in the barn. Players are expected to beg, borrow or steal their own books, buy their own drinks and brink their own food 'n' snacks.

    Hey, it works for us :D

  16. Conversely, and what I think is uncommon, I have run two distinctly different professional GMing gigs. One was at a community center for kids in our middle school. The community center paid me $6.50/hour to host the games, and I had 35 (yes, that's 35) kids come every session for one season. It was hell on wheels. Though it was a great campaign and a lot of fun it was not worth that amount of money.

    The second gig was for 12 kids ages 10 to 12. Their parents paid $4/hour per child. It was, from the parents point of view, a glorified baby sitting service. They loved it. The game itself was fantastic as kids that age have incredible imaginations and enthusiasm. However, it was also an incredible amount of work, and required a lot of creative management on my part to keep the kids focused and the story moving forward smoothly. It worked great for the Spring Season in 2004. After that I had enough due to the amount of work involved. However, by the end of 12 weeks I had made $1360. That is a fair chunk of change, but not enough to make a living on, of course. Great for pocket money. Everyone was happy and I had a great time.

    Moral of the story: it can be done. it has been done. But for me it was under special circumstances where the bones all fell into the right place at the right time. I am not at all certain I could set up another venue of this sort again. Possible... but not definite.

    What this does not say at all is that you could do the same with your friends in a casual setting. I certainly would not try it. Instead I would just say to my friends occasionally "I want to buy XYZ for the game... who wants to pitch in?" and take it from there.


Let me know what you think. Please watch the language.