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Cultural Capital

It’s Not Just You: NYC Has a Serious Dungeon Master Shortage

As the pandemic ushered in well-publicized worker shortages, Dungeons & Dragons is experiencing its own labor crisis.

7:03 AM EST on November 10, 2022

(Mattie Lubchansky / Hell Gate)

Mar Salazar, one of the relatively small number of Dungeon Masters struggling to keep up with the exploding Dungeon & Dragons community in New York, led our adventuring party across a barren plain—where we encountered two wyverns, small dragon-like creatures with wings for arms, feasting on some sort of carrion.

It was a rainy Monday night at Hex&Co., a bustling board game cafe with two locations, this one on the Upper West Side. Our party, six players and the DM, sat in a partitioned area with Magic the Gathering players noisily engaging in a tournament around us, drinking beer and picking at snacks as our DM brought us into the world of the Shattered Dragonlands. This was the second introductory session, with the option to join a full campaign later, one of twenty-five sessions run by Hex&Co. every week. 

As we drew closer to the wyverns, Salazar narrated a human hand extending out of the mangled mass with a golden ring adorning its finger. Taking advantage of the wyverns' preoccupation with their meal, we rushed in weapons drawn and spells prepared.    

The 23-year-old Salazar was dressed in sharp business casual, performing different accents for every character. Like other professional DMs throughout the boroughs, he is responding to the demand for Dungeon Masters in New York that attended D&D's surge in popularity as the game came out of the basement and attracted a broader community of fans. At least 50 million people have "interacted" with D&D in some way since its invention in the '70s; it has exploded in recent years thanks to live streams, high-profile pop culture references to the game, and the proliferation of D&D-specific online communities. But as the pandemic ushered in well-publicized worker shortages, role-playing is experiencing its own labor crisis. In 2020, D&D sales jumped a third, which exacerbated an age-old problem: the Dungeon Master shortage. 

“There's a DM shortage in the tabletop community like there's a top shortage in the LGBTQ community.”

Briefly, for the uninitiated: In D&D a group of players collaboratively play out a story in a world created by a Dungeon Master or pre-written source material, rolling dice to simulate chance as their characters travel through the game and encounter various challenges—like the aforementioned wyverns. Characters are assigned specific abilities, and a complex set of rules, arbitrated and enforced by the Dungeon Master, standardize the game. Typically the DM spot would be determined by seniority of experience with D&D or other role-playing games—the person who'd played the longest would run the game. Alternately, it would be the person in the friend group who is the best with logistics and plan-wrangling. Back in the day, game shops would have physical bulletin boards featuring players or DMs looking to pair up.  

"I never thought it would be a big deal, just a little thing that I did," John Heath-Clark, a professional DM and administrator of Hex&Co.'s program, told me of his hobby-turned-job. "Then it all became a big deal with Stranger Things." (Later, he added, he found it "hilarious" that Stranger Things had gotten so much wrong: "The Demogorgon is the name of an archdemon," he said. "It's like they named the monster 'The Lucifer.'")

Playing the role of Dungeon Master can be a rewarding job but it is sometimes thankless, and always taxing. D&D can be overwhelming to any new player; this is especially true for a DM, who needs to know all the rules, adjudicate them, create or manage the story, plan logistics for their group, and cater the experience to what each player wants. The amount of effort involved makes it inaccessible for new players and difficult for experienced ones to sustain long-term.

All of which has conspired to make it harder to find people to actually run the spiking number of campaigns. "I think a lot of DMs just want to sit back and let other people run a game," one Dungeon Master on hiatus from running campaigns told me. "There's a DM shortage in the tabletop community like there's a top shortage in the LGBTQ community."

Wersan tries to cater the clients’ experience to the best of his ability, even accommodating the bachelor party's request to incorporate a clown that they had hired.

The shortage has made it difficult for many players to find games, especially ones that are high quality and in-person. On websites like Lex and Reddit, posts of players in the city looking for DMs outnumber the opposite significantly, with the latter consistently getting more traction. For Hex&Co.'s program alone, there are nine hundred on the email recruiting list to join one of their organized campaigns.

"SOMEONE TOUCH MY DICE, i wish this was sexual but i just desperately want to play dnd soon," a user on the queer personals app Lex wrote on a post back in June. The response was good, but not exactly what they'd hoped for: They later edited it to say, "like 40 of y'all liked this but no one invited me to their dnd group or to a group date to hex and co."

One solution that has emerged to this problem are players paying for a professional DM. In New York City, some of these DMs are functionally gig workers, contracting with a service like Hex&Co.'s where players pay the store $90 per month for four sessions, and the proceeds are split between the store and DM. Others do it as a paid hobby and pitch their campaign idea and nominal fee in places like Facebook Groups: "Are you tired of experimental nuance? Craving a less complicated tabletop roleplay experience?" reads one post in a Facebook NYC D&D group.

Some have managed to make a full career out of organizing bespoke games for a significantly higher fee. Charging upwards of $100 per hour, they'll create campaigns for a group of players tailored to their interests, experience levels and playing styles, providing a suite of game terrains and miniatures they'll tote to players' homes.

Adam Wersan is one such DM. Wersan, based out of Astoria, quit his job to pursue full-time DMing just before the pandemic. He had to rely on doing online games during lockdown, but once COVID restrictions eased, players began asking for live games as well. For sessions with his clients, he brings miniature figurines of monsters and entire scaled models of various settings and landscapes. (Wersan also brings a fantasy setting he’s been developing since he was sixteen based on Ancient Egypt and high fantasy.)

A typical day for Wersan looks like a morning of planning for the day's sessions, including story prep. He'll paint and prepare miniatures before embarking on the day's games, working with kids in the afternoon and adults in the evening. Occasionally, he will do the odd event like a bachelor party. Wersan tries to cater the clients' experience to the best of his ability, even accommodating the bachelor party's request to incorporate a clown that they had hired. Demand has picked up as the pandemic has eased and especially as the weather gets colder.

That said, Wersan's business isn't quite to the point where he has been able to live solely off the income from being a DM. "If I get a couple more clients at my current rates, it should be good, and I've been steadily pumping up my rates from the get-go," he said. But he's thrilled he's gotten this far as a professional freelancer. Regarding his professional DM status, Wersan says: "It’s tight."

"I feel like anybody should be able to do anything that makes them happy for a living and make an honest, real living wage doing their art.”

Lauren Bilanko, another professional DM, is hoping to ease the Dungeon Master shortage by making the practice more accessible and sustainable. In addition to offering private sessions, Bilanko owns and operates Twenty Sided Store, a Williamsburg game shop. For years leading up to the pandemic, Bilanko and the store's employees organized multi-DM campaigns, where tables would run simultaneously and 56 players would switch DMs and party members every week, allowing each DM to show off their unique style and each player to figure out the kind of DMing they like and dislike while following the same story. It blossomed into a community where DMing was more fluid, and everyone would go out for drinks after each session.

These events, which Bilanko hopes to scale back up in the future, allowed new players to become familiar with the game. But they also allowed people who wanted to be DMs to learn the art of the Dungeon Master to do without as much of the burden that comes with running a game on one's own. Bilanko is also developing her own game system that would offer DMs a table-top role-playing experience with minimal prep and without the high entry cost of books and rules that come with D&D. Additionally, she's given seminars for aspiring DMs and hopes to establish a certification course for professionals: The idea is that anyone who wants to make their DMing more sustainable by getting compensated financially for it can feel more comfortable doing so.

Among some hobbyist DMs I talked to, the prospect of getting paid for their craft would add too much pressure to deliver something special to their players. For one, it would ruin the sanctity of the game. For others, though, including myself, it is an enticing prospect. From a simple economic standpoint, there are a certain number of hours in a week I need to devote to earning money. Being able to use some of those to DM would make it more feasible. And on a broader scale, it might also allow more players to play, creating more potential DMs down the line, professional or otherwise.

Bilanko agrees, and her attempts to expand the pool of Dungeon Masters reflect a sense that even D&D players should be paid for their labor. "I feel like anybody should be able to do anything that makes them happy for a living and make an honest, real living wage doing their art," she said. "I look at it that professional DMing is becoming a professional freelance artist, and there needs to be support around it."

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