Friday Favourite: DM Compensation

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 4, 2015

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From February 13, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: DM Compensation.

With another season of D&D Encounters coming to an end this week we’ve been having some discussions at my FLGS about who’s going to take over the reigns as the DM for the next season. I continue to volunteer my services as the primary DM at two FLGS in my community, but in both cases we have sufficient numbers to need additional DMs pretty much every week. During the discussion about who will step up to DM more than one prospective DM asked about compensation. They wanted to know what they got if they agreeing to DM. At first I was a bit surprised that they’d even ask, but as I gave the question more consideration I realized that it’s not an altogether unreasonable question.

Free Swag!

The short answer is that DMs get to keep the adventure. Regardless of anything else, that is guaranteed compensation. Now the adventure itself may not be of much use to you after the season is over, but the maps have been excellent season after season. Personally I find that we use a map from D&D Encounters in our home games at least once a session. But even the maps may not be enough incentive for newer DMs, especially those who only play D&D on Wednesday nights during D&D Encounters.

Although there’s no guarantee that the reward will be more than the adventure, during each of the past few seasons additional trinkets were included with the DMs kit. Condition cards, initiative cards, and condition tokens seem to be fairly consistent. After the completion of Keep on the Borderlands the DMs were given a Wizards of the Coast calendar. And for DMs who ran at least one session of D&D Encounter in August last year they were eligible to received the DM reward “The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan,” a 4e reimagining of the classic D&D adventure from Wizards of the Coast.

Should DMs Get Paid?

I’ve seen this kind of thread discussed on the forums many times. Without DMs there is no D&D Encounters program. In my community there is a great lack of DMs willing to commit to an entire season of D&D Encounters (which is a big part of why I run sessions at two stores every week). As we’ve already discussed, the only tangible recompense for making this commitment is that you get to keep the adventure. So is it out of line for DMs to talk to the store owners and ask for some kind of payment?

Although there is no charge to participate in D&D Encounters at either of the FLGS where I play, I know that in some markets, especially where there is a very large turnout, players are charged a small fee to play (usually only a couple of bucks a session). My understanding is that a) the DM does not have to pay, and the b) in most cases the stores take the money collected from such fees and use it to purchase D&D materials that are then raffle off to everyone who paid. In a way your gaming fee is basically a mandatory purchase of a raffle ticket. The advantage to DMs is that their names go in the raffled without having to pay the fee.

Experience is its Own Reward

So how do you entice DMs who may not otherwise be interested in running a season of D&D Encounters? There are a lot of additional up sides to being the DM. Since D&D Encounters an introductory level program the adventures are always designed for characters between levels 1-4. This usually makes the encounters easier to prepare for and easier to run. This makes it idea for people who have never DMed before or DMs with minimal experience.

If you want to get good at something you need to practice, practice, practice. Ask anyone in the arts and they’ll tell you that rehearsals are essential to developing the craft. Being a DM is very much the same. The more you DM the better you get. I know that this is another reason I like to DM D&D Encounters – it lets me keep my DM skills sharp. Playing the same session twice in the same week also provides me with valuable insight into the adventure and I’d like to think that I’m a better DM for the group that gets to play the second time through (which is not to say that the first group gets a mediocre experience).

The simplicity of the D&D Encounters program provides an opportunity for new DMs to gain the experience they need to become better DMs. This can often be a more valuable form of compensation that any of the other possibilities mentioned in this article. By developing their DM skills newer DMs gain the confidence to branch out from the D&D Encounters program and try running a home game.

The Down Side to DMing

I want to reiterate how big a supporter I am of the D&D Encounters program. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least address some of the down sides.

DMing for 12-20 consecutive weeks is a huge commitment. Taking on the commitment to be there every week during the entire season of D&D Encounters is a big responsibility. Players can come and go as their schedule permits, but if the DM misses a week than everyone feels the repercussion. Worst case scenario no one plays that week and the store falls behind. If you’re lucky you can play two encounters the next week to catch up, but in some cases the gang just skips the week they missed.

The other possibility is that someone else steps up and fills in for the absent DM. This isn’t ideal, but at least people get to play. This of course assumes that there is another copy of the adventure available and that someone is willing to be the DM.

In addition to the time requirements that the DMs put in, many players take for granted that many DMs (me included) will have pre-gens, minis, dice and pencils available for new players or those who forgot their own materials. Although this kind of support isn’t mandatory, good DMs will take the extra step to be prepared for these common eventualities. This is another one of those less visible parts of DM prep that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated by most players.

Who’s Running the Show?

I play at two different FLGS and they are run very differently. At one store the organized does a lot of the heavy lifting. He is constantly advertising the program and encouraging people to come out and try D&D Encounters. This store has a lot of other organized events (Magic tournaments, board game night) and at each of these the employees advertise D&D Encounter and actively recruit new players. Each week the organizer comes around, talks to the participants, records all of our names (which he knows) and reports the data.

At the other store where I play the DMs are doing all the work. The store offers us tables and that’s it. The DMs have done all the leg work to recruit players and keep them coming back. We are responsible to for gathering all the players DCI numbers and providing a list to the store owner after each session. However the owner does not always report the data and as a result we’ve had some hardships. Last August we had new DMs step up in order to earn the free DM Reward “The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan” from Wizards. Since the store owner didn’t report the data we didn’t get the rewards. It took the diligence of one of the other DMs to follow-up with Wizards and after many emails between them and the store owner we finally got our rewards (on February 8).

When I play at the first store I feel welcome. The store offers the D&D Encounters players discounts on products (not just on D&D stuff either). The employees are knowledgeable and take an interest in the D&D Encounters program, even though none of them play D&D. The second store seems indifferent to our presence. None of the employees play D&D and none of them seem to care at all for the D&D Encounters program. Although I’ve met a lot of great gamers at this location, playing here week after week feel more like work than anything else.

It’s Just a Game

In my mind DMs are adequately compensated for their services already. It’s not mandatory for anyone to DM. It’s a choice that some of us make and we know going in what we’ll get out of it (tangible or otherwise). The other baubles are nice, but I’m not doing this because I want a payday.

That’s not to say that I would turn down some kind of individual compensation offered by Wizards or my FLGS, but I don’t think that DMs should expect Wizards to pony up any additional stuff as compensation. However I also don’t think it’s out of line for DMs to talk to the owners of their FLGS and see if they’d be interested in offering DMs some kind of compensation. Even discounts on materials may be enough to get a player to move behind the screen for one season.

In the end we get together Wednesday nights to play D&D. It’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. If you find that being the DM seems like too much work and you’re not having fun then perhaps you should take a season off rather than look for justification (in the form of compensation) to continue being the DM.

Visit the Dungeon’s Master D&D Encounters Archive for all of our ongoing weekly coverage as well as other great D&D Encounters articles and resources.

Related reading:

What are your thoughts on DM compensation? Should DMs who commit to an entire season of D&D Encounters get more for their services than just a copy of the adventure? What about DMs who offer their services in other public-play forums like LFR? Does your FLGS compensate DMs in any way, shape or form? Let us know?


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1 Coreyartus September 4, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Wow, this article is eerily still relevant a couple years later… Things haven’t changed much. There are still issues with DM recruitment and retention, and I’m not sure that will go away any time soon. This article may still be pertinent in another couple years… hehe…

The fact that things haven’t changed much is what is interesting to me. I personally missed the 4E version of Encounters entirely, but it seems to me that the most significant similarity between now and then is how the entire endeavor has so much store-to-store variation, which can significantly impact a DM’s perception of their contribution to playing the game. There are some stores that create a “culture of camaraderie” at their locations that encourages DM interaction and involvement, so the commitment of 15-20 weeks feels less of a burden somehow. Some stores offer their own “rewards” programs for their DMs, which can also make a significant impact on assuming the “DM reins”.

It feels frustrating that so much is left to a store’s own volition for the success or failure of the program. I, too, have experienced different store “commitment levels” and it’s unfortunate. Seems that after all these years, DM recruitment and retention would have been addressed by the OP itself more directly (somehow) instead of relying upon the good graces of the individual stores.

In the end, you are correct–it’s a game, and DMs should never take on that commitment exclusively for external reasons. But I find it frustrating that the same is never said for Players, nor would it be even articulated in the same way… The necessity of doing so seems to be a hurdle in itself. The personal satisfaction inherent to the act of DMing in an OP should never require DMs to have an inherent wellspring of selflessness that other participants aren’t required to have. That’s like saying, “Yes, we know you’re going to do more for this endeavor than anyone else is required to do. Suck it up, buttercup. You should feel guilty for feeling that way, you precious snowflake.” Hardly endearing to the OP regardless of the store…

DMs are a special breed, yes. But banking on that fact is a dangerous path to tread that–based on this article–hasn’t changed much in the last few years. Providing a venue for Player and DM development is an admirable goal–but the OP doesn’t necessarily have any strong reasons to retain DMs once that happens… I suspect at this point a lot of DMs have fallen out of the OP as they made those personal connections with Players and have to balance out the “benefits” (both personal and participatory) of continuing to DM for the OP vs. DMing for their own circle of friends. That is, it seems to me, a huge consequence of expanding and creating the RPG community, and participants eventually come to the point when they have to decide whether the benefits of continuing to participate in the OP itself are substantive enough for them to continue to do so.

No easy answers. Lots of hard questions.

2 marco September 5, 2015 at 8:26 am

I totally agree. The DM should be paid.

3 Joe Lastowski September 16, 2015 at 12:27 pm

The change between 4E & 5E encounters is so palpable it’s painful. There was a “history of D&D styles” article posted last month on the D&D page that effectively said that the style of play Encounters was designed around was a 4E thing that was over and done with (so why are we still running Encounters?). That has made it harder to recruit DMs, as they have to do more heavy lifting to make the adventures fit into a 2-hour block where folks could reasonably drop in and out.

Also, when I started DMing Encounters (season 3 of 4E), we got cool maps and the printed adventure as reward for running. For a short while, they offered other adventure rewards (I still have my DM-award copy of the 4E version of “Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan”). Plus there were often give-aways for players, too… like custom d20s for each season, or those add-on cards they published that you could get for attaining certain session goals.

Nowadays, the adventure isn’t even printed out for us (we have to use our own ink), there are no maps or dice or other “freebies” beyond a faction folder, and the adventures feel like the idea of running them in 2-hour blocks at a store with multiple tables of shifting players is an afterthought. Heck, I’ve even had to use many of my old 4E maps to create representations of the 5E encounters fight areas. It’s sad, and it makes it even harder to get new DMs. All the DMs at my current FLGS (including myself) work at the store, so at least we get our hourly salary while running. It’s just impossible to find volunteers willing to put in the work for no reward.

Recently I bought the new Zendikar/Eldrazi duel deck from Magic the Gathering, WotC’s other big property. It had lots of freebies, including 2 spin-down d20 counters, deck boxes, and (most importantly) playtested content designed to work well in the way they were presenting it (for out-of-the-box immediate play). The artwork was all fully printed, everything I needed was already there in front of me, with no PDF downloads needed. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that MtG is allowed to include stuff like that in their releases, because they bring in WAY more money than D&D ever could hope to, and stuff like freebies probably have to pass a profit test from the Hasbro parent company. But still, it was nice to see a product that reminded me of the old D&D Encounters.

4 Dillon November 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm

I own a store int he bay are called bigger better games that is going on its 6th month and I just started D&D encouters night.

I charge 2-5 dollar donation per player half of which goes to the DM ins tore credit to buy materials the other half is for raffle/prizes. We do a participation award, painted miniature award…etc…

It has been very popular in its first month and I have 3-4 DMs now and due to space I am limited to two tables so I had to open another night which is already filling up.

I just wish D&D had more product people bought…most players steal stuff off the internet… I support RPGs as they were my first love and/ I know it fosters store loyalty. Players do buy other stuff such as board games and card games…

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