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Dungeons & Dragons
Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro

‘It takes a special kind of weirdo’: meet the professional D&D Game Masters

As the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons continues to rise, there’s now a need for Dungeon Masters, many of whom have turned their love of role-playing into a career

It’s Friday night, and in the basement of a former pub somewhere between London Bridge and Elephant and Castle, a group of strangers are about to set out on an adventure. They aren’t alone: spread throughout the two floors of the venue over half-a-dozen groups are preparing for their own quests. Some of those in attendance are veterans, while others, like myself, are complete newbies. Either way, experience is inconsequential. After all, everyone is there for the same purpose: to play Dungeons & Dragons

These games of D&D, as it’s known among players, are being put on by Mutant Freaks, a company that hosts and organises the events for a small fee. It’s a business that makes sense. Initially conceived nearly 50 years ago, D&D has never been more popular. The fantasy tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) is now a multi-million dollar enterprise, with video-game spin-offs, films, TV shows, comics and novels. According to Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, who publish the game, over 50 million people have played D&D since it began in 1974, with the company reporting year-on-year growth for nearly a decade.

Around it has spawned a cottage industry, from home-brewed campaign materials and mini-figures, to actual-play web shows such as the wildly successful Critical Role, now adapted into Amazon’s animated series The Legend of Vox Machina, and Dimension 20. No longer are D&D players thought of as basement-dwelling nerds. Nowadays everyone from Hollywood A-listers to famous drag queens are in on the action. 

But while more people might be playing D&D, the game’s rules haven’t become any easier. While being a player is fairly straightforward – all you do is create a character and hope for the best – every D&D game requires a Dungeon Master. They act as the puppeteer of your session, bringing the world to life. They are the plotters, the rule-makers and rule-breakers. They become bards and storytellers, performing a one-man show where they embody every non-player character, reacting on the fly should things go off script (which, in a game of D&D, they most certainly will). In the realm of TTRPGs, the DM is like a god; without one, there is no game.

For many, such a task seems insurmountable, especially for something that’s supposed to be fun. Not only does organising a game of D&D require commitment and excellent diary management, but DMing requires planning. You also need to be eager to familiarise yourself with three books’ worth of information: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

That’s where something like Mutant Freaks steps in. Instead of getting bogged down by planning and rulesets, all the player has to do is show up and they handle the rest. They’ll even talk newbies through creating their character and provide support as you get to grips with how to play.

They are not alone in this endeavour. As the popularity of D&D has boomed, a number of different companies, organisations and professionals have popped up, all offering to take the stress out of playing TTRPGs. “My friend and I had a bad experience when we went to a board game café to learn how to play D&D. It was a load of players who took the piss out of us for not knowing what the words meant and the game rules were. It's very unwelcoming,” explains Mutant Freaks founder Jamie Finch. “It’s a hard thing to learn. But it’s a fun thing to play.” 

As it stands, Mutant Freak has around 80 DMs, also known as Game Masters or GMs. “You start off as a player with us – it’s very important to us that you start off as a player – then you volunteer to DM where we look after you, give you pre-written stuff and a lot of support,” says Finch. “And if you do well at that and you love it, after a couple of months then we’ll start paying you for GMing.” 

Robert Bradley has played D&D for years. He saw a gap in the market for DMs for hire and so started Rolldark, an agency for those looking to get paid for being Dungeon Masters. They have 30 people on their books, most of whom are also trained actors that can bring the same flair and professionalism to a D&D session as, say, the cast of Critical Role. “Some DMs like to flesh out an entire world where you've got gods and seasons and plant life,” says Bradley. “They go all crazy with their world.”

“There aren’t that many games where, in order to understand how to play the game, you need three, 400-page rule books,” says Riley Routh, who leads the TTRPG programming at Sheffield’s board game cafe The Treehouse. “It takes a special kind of weirdo to want to sit down with and start from there.”

Like many creative endeavours, however, working as a professional DM isn’t an easy route to riches. “I think it's more as something that you’d do as a side hustle,” suggests Bradley. “If you could go full-time with it, I think you'd need to have your fingers in other pies that were associated with D&D, like being a writer who sells your campaigns.” 

There are other benefits, though. “Even if you don’t go down the route of getting paid or doing it for a job, being a GM is good for your confidence,” says Finch. “It's a really safe way to put yourself in front of people and improve your public speaking skills.”

This extends to players, too. “The more that people play the game, the more they start to realise how much it gives them,” says Bradley. “It's wonderful for your mental health as it puts you in the present.” 

That was certainly the vibe during my adventure at Mutant Freaks. As we ventured forth on our adventure, which involved killing some mutant trees and fixing a giant magical gramophone, everything else slipped away for the next three or so hours.

“If you are the kind of person who wants to be creative but doesn’t have an outlet, playing D&D is an excellent way to explore that without pressure,” says Routh. “The group you're playing with is your only audience. You've got to just give it a try.” They’re not wrong. And who knows, you might roll a natural 20 and find your calling. Your dungeon awaits you.

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