Last year for my birthday, my wife bought the two of us seats in a professionally run Spelljammer campaign. Spelljammer has long been my favorite DnD setting, but one I never got to play as much as I would have liked. We didn’t know what to expect going in, having never used a professional GMing service. Fortunately for us we are having a great time with some characters we love and other players that make the game exciting and fun. All in all, this is the perfect Spelljammer experience that I never got to have back in the 90s. GM Thor has been an expert guide to the Spelljammer universe and this made me curious about the day to day of being a professional GM. What is it like? What are his secrets? So I asked if he would answer a few questions for the readers of Gnome Stew. Here is what I learned:
- Please introduce yourself to Gnome Stew’s readers.
Hail and well met! Thor Goodman, level 32 Game Master currently residing in Murfreesboro, TN!
- Where can people find you online?
@better_lore_thor for most socials, although I rarely post on twitter. You can also find my Pro GM page here: https://startplaying.games/gm/thorgoodman502
- How long have you been GMing, and professionally? Is this a full time job or a side gig?
I started out in the year 2000 as a chubby kid in the midwest. I received the DnD 3.0 starter set as a gift and was overwhelmed by the possibility. Of course, by introducing my friends to DnD, I received a one-way ticket to being a forever GM.
I’ve been playing weekly games for 23 years now for fun and just finished my first whole year as a paid GM. As of now, it is my full-time job and sole source of income.
- What did you expect being a pro GM to be like and how is that different from the reality? How is it different than just for your friends?
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I went in with the mentality of “well, I do this all the time and I think I am quite good, what’s the worst that could happen?” I had a few campaigns and a handful of RPG systems that I considered myself proficient in. My first paid games weren’t even DnD, but Dungeon World! But certainly my biggest difficulty was (and still is) mastering the Virtual Tabletop. It adds a whole other layer of complexity to game prep. I am still learning all sorts of new things and every day presents a new challenge to be overcome!
Secondly, I see no huge difference between playing with friends vs. running games for people online. Save for being sober throughout the session, that is. I tend to run more lighthearted games instead of gritty dark settings, and my players seem to enjoy the break from reality and have a few laughs while kicking evil’s butt.
- Is it still fun or does it eventually just become a job?
It IS a job. I certainly put more hours in now than I have ever worked in a week. It’s basically unending and in need of constant repair. The work is mentally taxing and you are basically always “on call” if a player wants to chat. And of course, you get your fair share of problem players. They expect a certain level of quality. It is the Mercer Effect in an echo chamber, and paying customers will simply find better games if you fail to meet their expectations. However, this is the most fun and rewarding job I’ve had. Each day I get to meet interesting people from around the world and tell a great story together. You make friendships and forge stories that last a lifetime. I think every job has its difficulties, and to dwell in the negatives is no way to live. At the end of the day I ask myself, “What else would you rather be doing?” and I remind myself just how lucky I am to have found a job that I am both good at and enjoy dearly.
- What skills do you use more than you thought you would? Less?
Hands-down the biggest stumbling block is mastering the VTT. Even after you become fluent in your virtual tabletop of choice, it more than doubles your prep time. Surprisingly, most players prefer published adventures over homebrew stuff. I assume it’s because there’s a guarantee of quality from a published source, and that a random player might not have trust in your writing skills.
- What things do you feel you do well? Where are some areas where you have challenges and how do you overcome them?
I studied theater in college and spent a decade in a touring band. Those previous experiences taught me a lot about the art of performance and storytelling. I stick pretty close to the ‘ol Joseph Campbell and his thousand-faced story circle. I think my greatest talents lie in that realm. From what my players have said, I do amazing voices, tell a fantastic story, and encourage creativity.
The challenges are all self-imposed. I want my games to be the best. That can be anything from providing interactive maps full of traps and animations to creating encounters that tie directly into a player’s backstory. It’s a constantly changing workflow, and the virtual tabletops out there are doing really interesting stuff on the technical side. Keeping on the cutting edge of a burgeoning technology while providing quality games 7 days a week really is a full-time job!
- What are some hard fast rules for your table? Do you think they would work universally?
The “rule of cool” is my daily bread. What makes TTRPGS so fun and unique is the element of human creativity in each and every action. I’m here to tell a great story, not play a video game. I really don’t think there is a “right” way to run your games, but my players really enjoy knowing that I am their biggest fan, cheering them on from behind the screen.
- What hardware/software/websites do you use and why?
I am a huge fan of Foundry VTT. It is a pretty complicated toolbox, but you can do some really nifty stuff. Virtual tabletops are still an emerging technology, and keeping on top of new developments helps me make my games the best they can be!
- Do you still play and does it change your outlook as a player?
Sadly no. I am a “Forever GM.” The last game I played in was Storm King’s Thunder years and years ago.
- How many games are you running and how often are sessions?
Currently, I am running 13 games. 11 weekly sessions averaging 3 hours each, and two bi-weekly games.
- What systems/campaigns/modules are you currently running? What would you like to run more of in the future?
Currently, I’m running heaps of Spelljammer in 5e. I love the cornball setting and it’s a blast. Mostly I’m running 5e right now, but also have done several paid games using Dungeon World, Pirate Borg, and Masks: A New Generation. I love PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) as a ruleset, but want to get into Pathfinder for obvious reasons.
- How many hours a week do you spend on prep?
Each game I run gets the prep time it deserves. Usually about one or two hours per week on each game, not counting the actual 3-hour sessions.
- How do you get most of your business? Do you promote yourself and how?
Most of my business comes from Startplaying.games. They do an amazing job of marketing, and aside from a few posts on social media here and there, I let them do the marketing. They do take a small cut of my earnings, but it’s well worth it IMHO.
- What would you say to someone to sell them on using a professional GMing service?
I’d say this: It’s purely for entertainment. If you have a group of friends that you love playing with for free, that’s wonderful! Inarguably the best way to enjoy the game. However, if you are a busy person who wants a quality game, guaranteed, every time without a hassle this might just be for you!
- Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start running games as an income source?
I’d say to be prepared to put in the work. It’s an incredibly rewarding job, but paying players have certain expectations. Think about the best game of DnD you’ve ever played and be prepared to replicate that multiple times a week. You have to be self-motivated and adaptable. But I recommend any GM worth their salt to give it a go!
Professional GMing it seems is not a job for the faint of heart. I wouldn’t want to do it, that’s for sure. But it brings unique benefits to both sides of the screen. For one, we’re closing in on actually completing a campaign, something that couldn’t often be said of the decades of weekends I spent around my dining room table. Given the opportunity, I would gladly foray into professional GMs again.