Maybe it was Stranger Things, celebrity players, or maybe the pandemic lockdown created the ideal environment, as odd as that sounds, but Dungeons and Dragons capped off their 6-year sales streak with an additional 33% growth in 2020.
And owners Wizards of the Coast are promising rule expansions, new guidebooks, new campaigns, and a slew of in-universe tie-ins.
While Dungeons and Dragons has faced many trials over the years – protests, accusations of Satanism, mislaid blame for mass shootings, among others – one of the biggest challenges can be the nature of the game itself.
Campaigns can take weeks, months, or even years. Try coordinating schedules between players as varied as their character classes, races and special skills. Or building up newbie characters and players while not frustrating experienced gamers. New players finding a way to learn about the game without being crushed in the competition. And of course, finding a Dungeon Master willing to put in the hours to create and maintain a compelling, active game.
Masters of Their Universe
Beyond the formulaic rules of a board game or the built-in structure of video games, Role Playing Games (RPGs) emerged in the mid-70s as a hybrid adventure experience. At the forefront of the movement was the OG of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), created by cult icon Gary Gygax. D&D became a popular experience, beyond Midwest basements and college dorms, in part because it is deeply interactive and so involved as to require guides to lead players on their fantasy experience.
Enter the Dungeon Master (DM). These respected mentor-like figures create and lead games in what is swiftly becoming one of the fastest-growing side hustles.
What makes a good side hustle? It should look like work but feel like play, and that is precisely what professional Dungeon Masters – or DMs – are getting right. Part sherpa, part creator, DMs elevate the gaming experience, and users are willing to pay big numbers for their services.
Meet Devon Chulick, the COO and co-founder of StartPlaying, a popular site that hosts Table Top Role Playing Games, or TTRPGs. Devon has been playing these games since he was twelve, and for the past five years, he has monetized his passions.
TTRPGs are more than just a game. They offer a liberating and interactive creative escape. “It’s not just a video game. It’s not linear,” says Devon. He goes on to explain, “You have this endless amount of agency to explore and use your imagination.” Autonomy is a key component.
Where did this passion come from? He remembers a time when he was five years old, and his mother read to him. “It was a Choose Your Own Adventure book series with a dice rolling component,” says Devon via Zoom interview. This early experience ignited a desire within him. Today he is still choosing his own adventure and keeping the fantasy thriving for a growing network of DMs and players, almost all of whom are new to the game.
From the Tabletop to the Virtual Room
StartPlaying is the largest online platform for players. The site boomed partly because it created a pandemic-friendly community when Zoom fatigue was already taking its toll. The company launched during the very first Stay at Home Order in 2020. And its popularity has not waned.
Games range in price from $12 to $50 and have such bizarre and otherworldly titles as “Crestbone: Last Hope,” “Wild Beyond the Witchlight,” and “Queer Minds in Phandelin.” DM profiles list user reviews, RPG experience, number of games hosted, and fees. Reviews are essential for verification from StartPlaying, along with a detailed profile and a finished game template.
DM Bob Yo boasts 185 reviews and a $40 rate per game. With 376 games hosted, it is clear that users don’t mind paying more for top-rated Dungeon Masters. He started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1982. DM Bob Yo considers his role “a responsibility I’ve always taken the utmost care to be worthy of.”
Although StartPlaying does not regulate the maximum number of participants per game, a typical TTRPG will have between 3-5 players, which means DMs can make anywhere between $60 to $250 per game.
Leader of the Quest
More than just a side hustle, the role of DM (or GM) is intimate and important. Think Gandalf. Think Dumbledore. Think Obi-Wan. They really care about the players and take their roles as guides seriously. “Professional GMs love introducing people to the hobby,” explains Devon. “You create a community of players that are getting so much joy out of the game,” he says, “which is providing something great to the world, and you get to do something you love.”
Other user profiles shed light on their roles and vocations. “I fully believe that the job of a DM is to be a narrator and not a storyteller,” says Kyle Carter, a DM who has hosted 270 games. Another user called Roxcas has hosted nearly 200 games. “I went to college for eight years,” he explains, “and in the end decided that I would rather be a Dungeon Master.”
Hunter Fell shares his own gateway into this world: “Ever since I was young, I had two great loves: the theater and the fantasy genre.” A platform like StartPlaying allows Hunter to fuse his interests. And with over 400 games hosted and a $40 fee, his aspirations have transformed into financial success.
Where the Money Is
But how lucrative is this side hustle?
“We have 40-50 full-time GMs on our platform already,” says Devon, and he expects that number to continue to grow as more people escape their daily lives for a little bit of role-playing. As a company, StartPlaying is generous, taking a nominal 10% fee from their DMs. This is not an industry overrun by greed. Accessibility is the most important value for leaders like Devon.
The role of the DM is to eliminate any obstacles to playing. And even with DM fees, players can still save hundreds of dollars a month not purchasing physical boards, books, and dice associated with these games. “I want to make sure as many people can game as possible,” says Devon.
For experienced RPG gamers, there's plenty of room to get started while StartPlaying is still close to the ground floor. Plus, you can grow with the site while improving yourself and the gaming experience you offer.
Devon’s advice is simple for those DMs looking to monetize their hobby: don’t worry about perfection. “You don’t need the best mic, and you don’t need the best webcam,” he says. “So many people will put up these obstacles to their own success. We didn’t start playing as a perfect company. So don’t expect that you have to be perfect to start anything.”
DMs don’t just do it for the cash. Their dedication to exploring fantasy worlds and crafting a unique user experience offers unparalleled customer service. Devon’s encouragement and unique insight showcase just what a talented GM he is. “We can’t consume everything of the real world and not find an escape to let our minds wander,” he explains.
As our news cycle becomes increasingly grim, perhaps we would all benefit from an hour or two in a TTRPG, a world in which we have agency and adventure, the welcome world of fantasy.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.