There are costs to improving in any endeavor. If you want to be a great writer, artist, or 70’s disco champion, you have to pay your dues. Folks may think that good gamemastering (GMing) is just a result of natural talent. In reality, we know that there are costs to running a session right. In this article, we’ll look at some of those costs. The goal is not to be negative, just realistic. Also, we’ll look at some ways to lessen those burdens or to view them in a positive light. The first obvious cost is time.
It’s difficult to estimate prep time required for gaming. Some GM’s can put together a memorable session quickly, while others take a lot of time to get things ready. However, there’s always some time required. You have to prepare maps, session notes, tokens or minis, etc… If you’re running online, you have to load them into your virtual tabletop (VTT) ahead of time. Even if you are running a commercial, prepackaged campaign, you still have to read all the material. You may have to learn the basic rules for new systems and perhaps prepare pre-generated characters. Preparing for a game will always take at least some time away from other interests or family time.
However, we can look at this in a different light. The time spent preparing a game can often be a joy, a way to escape from daily troubles. Other hobbies can be incorporated into prep time. If you enjoy writing, you might love to write a campaign journal or blog. If you enjoy art, you can draw and paint maps or images for your game. You might even be fortunate enough to fold family time into your gaming time. My family was kind enough to help me playtest my first convention scenario, even though they are not gamers.
Another time cost involves logistics. As a GM, it falls primarily on your shoulders to recruit players and arrange gaming sessions. (You may also need to clean the house!) Also, between sessions you may need to update character sheets and your notes. There are even times when you’ll have to rewrite the next part of your adventure based on players zagging when you expected them to zig.
You can alleviate some of this cost by asking players to update their character sheets or write a session summary. Ask them if they know anyone who might like to play to help with the recruiting process. There’s no law that says the GM has to shoulder everything. (Though they probably won’t help clean your house. Sorry).
There are some expenses associated with the hobby. For face to face sessions, you’ll spend money on gas and snacks. Any convention or game day will also charge a fee. Adventures, settings books, maps and miniatures aren’t free either. When a game launches a new edition, you may be looking at buying one, two, or three hardcovers just for the core rules.
However, the hobby doesn’t have to turn you into Oliver Twist. Many gamers stick with older editions primarily for economic reasons. Find some players and party like it’s 1982 forever! Cloned versions of many old games are also available so everyone can have a copy of the rules. (I run Basic Fantasy as my primary old school game. And it’s free.)
If you’d like to move into newer games, many companies provide free starter kits or basic versions for download. That’s a great way to try the latest and greatest without mortgaging your house. With an internet connection and printer, you’ll have more maps and tokens than you could ever use. While minis and professionally printed maps are nice, you can get by without them. If you are crafty, you can turn junk into viable scenery. I used giant mushrooms made from empty yogurt containers recently. No one complained.
This last item is something that’s probably not discussed all that often. When a GM has to deal with difficult players, it can take an emotional toll. We all have enough chaos and drama in our work and personal lives. It’s a lousy situation when it invades your game life as well. Also, there are times when you have to cancel a game at the last minute which can bring great disappointment. Sometimes, even when you do get to run the game, it comes across as flat and “meh.”
Unfortunately, these emotional costs are the hardest ones to avoid. Often, you have to do the best you can with tough situations, learn what you can from them, and then try to move on.
Prepping and running games is a lot of work. And there are times when it isn’t going to be a bed of soft puppies and kittens. However, it’s all worth it when something you’ve created takes on a life beyond your intentions. Sure, you had to spend some time and maybe even money creating the scenario. Occasionally there will be emotional bumps in the road. But when you and the players are really digging deeply into your world, the costs all fade right away.
How about you? What other costs are there in being the GM? Why do you keep at it year after year? Let us know below.
Excellent article John! Concise and well worth the read. I especially liked your explanation on emotional costs. Many gamers out there forget how draining, and/or frustrating being a GM can really be. Thanks!
Thanks for the kind words Michael. I often find that GM’s are sometimes the most sympathetic players. As you said, they understand what it is like on the other side of the table.
Here are few more from my experience:
Travel Time and Money – I currently run a game that’s about an hour from my house (old friends; I’m the one who moved away). That not only adds 2 hours to my session time, but also economic costs in gas and food.
Host Money – When I do host, I often provide food and refreshments as well (obviously, this can be mitigated by having everyone bring their own, but there’s always that one player…)
There’s a lot more to Emotional Costs as well. Inter-player problems often end up on your shoulders and running a regular game can take an emotional toll with SOs, friends, and family outside the game.
Great additions Walt. I agree whole-heartedly. Balancing gaming life with family commitments is tricky as you said.
And I forgot about snack money! Since I run mostly online, they have to get their own snacks. I can only provide virtual ones.
Another great article.
I find there is also an emotional cost to simply being the GM. I stress about finding enough time to prep the game, even with a prep-lite routine. After all these years, I still feel nervous just before a game, hoping I have enough prepared, and that I can improvise entertainingly about wherever the Players choose to take the story. The worst thing it seems a Player has to worry about is whether they remembered their dice.
Troublesome Players are definitely an emotional cost, but I cannot be the only GM who finds the game itself imposing an emotional cost.
Of course, when a session sings, then it is a magical experience and totally worth the effort.
Thanks Philmagpie, glad to hear I am not the only one who has emotional costs attached to GMing. I agree about prep stress, I get it too after all these years. It is especially true before a Con game when things will be all brand new.
As you said, though, it’s worth it when things come together (which they seem to more often than not). And it is better than just binge watching TV!
In our regularly weekly RPG theory gatherings, we actually discussed what kinds of fun there is to be a game master during the last meeting:
Quite the opposite topic of this article, but closely related. We started to discuss this when someone dropped a question why there are so few game masters, and one could get beginners to game master.
One cost that may not come up as often, depending on your choice of game, is the impact of the TPK. While the adversarial school of GMing might see that as a feature, the impact both to the GM (whose work has now come to naught) and even to the group (where such a negative experience could have long-term repercussions in terms of what gets played next, if anything) is something the community doesn’t talk about much.
I might be out of the loop here, but what does TPK mean?
Total Party Kill. Every player dies
TPKs are just awful. I want my games to be challenging. There must be a risk of failure to create the drama, but when it is a TPK then it can kill a game entirely. Sure, you could create new PCs and then charge at the adventure from another direction, but the momentum of a campaign is forever altered after a TPK. Even if the show goes on, it’s just hard to recover the campaign’s momentum.
It’s been about 14 years since my last TPK but that game session still lingers as one of the most disappointing campaign killers in all of my years of gaming. It was D&D 3.x in the World of Greyhawk. The game had been highly successful to that point. The session in question ended in a TPK due to several factors: Playing too late (peeps were tired), bad player tactics, bad player dice rolls, and just when it might be salvaged a troublesome player decided they should lose and made what can only be called an “insane decision” (Sorceror charged into melee combat against two prepared Ogre equivalents that were on higher ground).
It was such a shocking TPK that we just sat there in silence for about ten minutes after the session. Only one player wanted to continue the game with new characters. Everyone else wanted to move on. The game sapped my confidence level for a decade. I’m not sure I’m actually over it yet. It sucked.