Dungeons & Dividends (Or, D&D's Monetization Problem)
D&D has a monetization problem.
Recently, while running a D&D game at a Friendly Local Gaming Store, a gentleman approached the Helpful NPCs crew, intent on recruiting GMs to his business venture: he reserves table space at bars and similar locales. GMs rent table space at these “events,” paying him a modest sum, which they then pass on by charging their players the low, low price of $10/hr. The gentleman assured us that this multi-level gaming hustle would be doing the tabletop roleplaying hobby a service by exposing it to the wider public. Although paying good money to volunteer in a pyramid scheme was tempting, the Helpful NPCs team politely declined and realized:
D&D has a monetization problem.
Not since the Satanic Panic has D&D enjoyed such cultural relevance. Stranger Things is practically obligated to name their villain of the season after a Monster Manual entry, and the D&D boom ushered in with the wild success of D&D 5e and Critical Role has created a gold piece rush. Electronic services like D&D Beyond, Roll20, and Obsidian Portal offer their vast userbases the option of premium subscriptions. D&D Kickstarters and fan Patreons are a dime a dozen. Yours truly shamelessly sell our own D&D-adjacent product, Character Case.
These aren’t the problem. These products and services enhance tabletop gaming in some way. They’re legitimate business ventures offering a quality product or service at a reasonable price. They are value-added products, unlike gimmicks that funnel wealth from hobbyists to profiteers. (I’m certain that we can run games without paying to volunteer at some dude’s event.) Regrettably, the tabletop gaming boom and the revenue generated thereby has created an attractive market for hucksters to capitalize on unwary gamers.
This trend isn’t limited to individuals. The Helpful NPCs team rejected several potential FLGSs due to their exorbitant table-rental fees–one even had the gall to offer free spaces unless the group was playing D&D, at which point they’d have to pay to rent a table! (Presumably, this fee was an attempt to siphon off of D&D’s popularity.) Companies crowdfunding vaporware and shovelware products are all over the Internet, and it would be remiss of us not to mention the audacity of Larian Studios charging early access fees for Baldur’s Gate 3. Expecting gamers to pay to bugtest your unfinished cRPG is low.
The most egregious example of this is paid GMing. The runaway success of Critical Role has ignited the imaginations of GMs everywhere, kindling the hope that they could one day be the next Matt Mercer. How to start? It’s not by being a professional voice actor, investing hundreds of hours into the game, and slowly cultivating an audience. No, it’s to charge players the privilege of playing in a game you’d otherwise run for free.
It is difficult to fully articulate why paid GMing is so problematic, but it feels wrong. Tabletop roleplaying is a creative outlet and social event, and paid GMing violates the spirit of the hobby. What once was a period of entertainment amongst friends becomes an experience for clients. Paid GMing also creates an artificial hierarchy of gaming. Anyone can run a D&D game with a pencil, paper, and handful of dice, yet paid GMing pretends that there is an elite masterclass of GM. It gives the false impression that kids cackling in their mom’s basement aren’t playing “real” D&D.
But most of all: paid GMing is greedy. These people are charging their friends to hang out with them.
The Helpful NPCs team is passionate about this issue because it signals a perversion of the hobby, one that must be reigned in, lest it proliferate. Alarmist? We don’t think so.
A broad audience means a broad marketbase, for better and for worse. We can only encourage other hobbyists to play games for free, run games for free, and host games for free. D&D has a monetization problem, but we can all do our parts to ensure that the hobby remains open to the kids in their mom’s basement.