Monday, May 2, 2016

The Price of Doing Business

It's been two weeks since I made an atrocious suggestion - which turned out to be far less atrocious that expected, something that has given my friend much delight in saying "I told you so."  In light of a long comment from Scarbrow, I'd like to come back to the subject of paying DMs to play.

Let me begin with the question, "Should DMs be paid; is that ethical?"  Like most aspects of amateur ethics, we're addressing yet another situation where we're asked to judge an activity in which all the participants are actively consensual, where no participant is compelled or coerced into the activity.  One of the truly heinous characteristics of most moral discussions is the premise that what I believe is right and wrong applies not only to me, but to all people.  It isn't enough for me to pose the question, "Would I personally pay for the activity?"  It is necessary - and this applies to so much more than just DMing - to impose a structure in which every person on earth must also adhere to my personal decision on the subject once I have made that decision.

Recognizing, as most do when applying this reason to things like prostitution or abortion, that others are not going to stop these things simply because they have been named "wrong," it is necessary to cast around for arguments that promote the side I've happened to take on the issue.  Thus, the adult woman is 'forced' into prostitution due to circumstances, though no argument or logic is applied to the millions of situations where women in like circumstances do not feel forced into prostitution.  Thus, the shapeless, senseless, thoughtless protoplasm is accorded the dignity of full human status, though no effort is made to help millions of humans who actually have that status where it comes to healthcare, sustenance, the dignity of being alive and so on.  The arguments that support ethical premises are always arguments of convenience, as the actual rightness or wrongness of the question has already been established.  DMing for money is wrong; others need to understand that; here are seventeen reasons that support my position without acknowledgement that the reasons themselves are merely extensions of the same prejudice that determined the original moral position.

For example, it was argued to me that only people desperate for a game would be willing to pay for one, these people being characterized as "desperate suckers."  This implied negative context implied ignores that only people desperate for food are willing to pay a supermarket to provide it.  Only people desperate for insulin will buy it from a pharmacist.  Only people desperate for a parachute will reach for the rip cord to keep from dying.  Doesn't the fact that these people are in desperate need make the commercial aspect of the service more imperative?  Doesn't this ensure that commercial success is more likely?  However, we choose to characterize the need as "bad" because a good need doesn't support our premise that DMing for money is inherently wrong . . . for everyone.  Certainly, it must be wrong for the vendor.

With such moral positions there will always be some on one side and some on the other.  The question itself can never be resolved because no 'right' answer exists.  That is why the question cannot contain words such as 'should' or 'ought.'  Only the identifier 'is' has relevance.  That is why the question I asked wasn't "Should people pay" but "Will people pay."  The evidence indicated that people will, in fact, pay.

A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he would pay her a million dollars.  She replies affirmatively.  He then names $20 as a proposal and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him.  Greatly offended, the woman asks, "What sort of woman do you think I am?"
To which he replies, "We've already established that.  Now we're negotiating the price."

Addressing this problem, Scarbrow in his comment yesterday attempted to break it down according to the price he is used to paying for entertainment: such-and-such for the price of a movie ticket, such-and-such for the price of a stage performance, such-and-such for the value gained from buying into an MMO and so on:

"The problem is, if I expect, on average, 20 hours of gaming time (four sessions of five hours) for that amount of money, then the DM is receiving just €2.5 (CAD 3.6) /hour from me. Even if attending to six players at a time (again, on average, some times more, some times less) that would be €15/CAD 21.6/hour. Not a bad rate for salaried work (~2400€/ 3456 CAD month, assuming an 40-hour working week), but rather low for a contractor."

This is a fair point, so far as it goes - but it attempts to squeeze what is essentially an artistic practice into the ordinary method of paying people to work jobs that primarily amounts to attendance.  Consider the work I have most recently been doing: kitchen work.  I am paid a flat rate of $13 per hour to make food that is of a certain quality.  In my case, I was let go for "not keeping up" - which is to say that I was not, in the opinion of the management, earning my $13.  I do not personally feel that this was the case, but I must assume the management had their reasons - it was what it was.

If the restaurant is slow, I am paid $13 an hour.  If the restaurant is very busy, so busy that we are tripping over each other and causing damage to ourselves (every cook can identify a litany of burns, cuts, scrapes and so on in a dozen places upon being asked), I am paid $13 an hour.  As a compensation to balance this, most restaurants offer 'tips' - a % of the front-house server's ring out during their shifts, collected together at the end of a fortnight and then distributed to the back house according to the number of hours people work.  However, as with all things statistical, regardless of the business of a particular night or a particular hour, spread over the week the amount received in tips tends to be very stable.  At best, as tips usually amount to one to three dollars an hour, depending on the restaurant, the difference between a very busy week and a very slow week might amount to as much as 25 cents an hour.  This is the sort of 'compensation' that compensates only if the compensated does not give it much thought.

When times are slow, cooks clean.  When everything that can be easily reached is clean, cooks pull apart all the things in a kitchen that can't be easily reached and clean.  Cleaning is dull, unrewarding monkey work, made worse in that most of what is 'cleaned' is already clean, particularly if the restaurant experiences multiple slow nights.  After a certain point, it is obvious that we are not cleaning to make things clean, we are cleaning to assuage the management's unhappiness at the prospect of paying us $13 an hour to do nothing.

Step over into the office-model of work and it becomes apparent that 'make-work' is irrelevant, so long at the actual work meets a certain quality and fits with expectations.  At $60K a year, I could comfortably stop working, open my email and spend half an hour talking to a co-worker in Toronto, or chat with a fellow on the floor where I worked, go for a walk to clear my head and think about a project problem, join in with my fellows as we watched the World Cup on the jumbo tron that the TV Department I worked in had (for I was in TV) and speak of these things openly to my bosses without fear of disapproval or shame.  The work was done, the work was quality, all else was considered part of the merit of participating at this level of society.

There is a reason I speak of morlocks in kitchens and eloi in office towers.

When I was let go from my last cushy office position, it was due to policy changes and a desire to cut costs.  My expertise did not enter into it.  In fact, I was subjected to a months-long expression of disappointment, dissatisfaction and high regard from the management, up to four pay-grades above me, for the work I would no longer be doing.  My point here being that while I was unquestionably sluffing off at the office work I was doing (hell, I was running the D&D campaign hourly while at work), I was respected; whereas total commitment of every second of my time at the morlock job earned me only disrespect.

Any and all attempts to judge value by the clock suffer a perception problem.  Time is intangible.  An hour in a kitchen's slammed dinner rush passes with wild abandon.  An hour cleaning the front, sides and back of a kitchen freezer passes with interminable fatigue.  A morning in an office where there is work to do flies by until reminded that it is lunch by the gnawing of hunger.  A morning in an office meeting passes muster as the fifth ring of Hell.  The amount I am paid "per hour" has as much meaning to me as the number of inches between me and the bathroom when I need to pee; I am barely conscious of rising from my desk as my mind works on a problem, barely conscious of the biological process as I deal with it, barely conscious of pouring out coffee and putting cream and sugar in it - and entirely unconscious of the cream being left in the cupboard next to the sugar until it is pointed out to me an hour later by my partner, who has found it there.  Because my thoughts are all and my thoughts do not adhere to a time clock.

Only three things are relevant where it comes to the amount I am paid to DM per month.  Do I have the time in a 30 day period to raise enough money to pay my bills with a commitment of time that allows me to continue blogging, writing books and working on my game?

How much I am paid per hour is a matter of complete indifference to me.  In no way did running the campaign online ever seem like "work"; time-consuming, yes, but not onerously so, since I was able to complete my assigned tasks and responsibilities, work on my game, spend my money in my off hours and run offline D&D every week.  I only needed to suspend the game for short periods while finishing a large project, such as a book.

As my income became increasingly tenuous, however, my stress level rose; as that climbed, the amount of energy I had to commit to tasks such as creativity-on-demand (the very core of DMing) became increasingly difficult.  Creativity does not rise out of stress; seizure and impotence rise out of stress.  Methodical work, like the making of my maps, which are done on a fixed methodology that do not require innovation (that part was settled long ago) - that rises out of stress, in that by avoiding stress many, many maps get made.  In many ways, my world is far more a product of avoiding stress than it is of choosing to work - except that it is a particular kind of work that knocks stress into a cocked hat more effectively than other time-wasting things like meditation, hiking or macrame.  Just as time-wasting, yes - but more effective.

Practical payment for DMing would have to mean, therefore, an absence of stress.  The surety that my rent will be paid, that food will appear in the refrigerator, that there will be cream to be put in the cupboard absent-mindedly, that there will be toilet paper and money for the internet, that comfort will be assured and so on.  If these needs are met, the fuck the number of hours or what the price is per hour.

Stability does not come cheap.  $13 an hour for 28 hours a week was not bringing me stability - it was making my bills less and assuring that I was still going to be here come the first of June.  I am sick of this first of the month thing being doubtful from month to month.  However, there have been miracles in 2016.  Pure, undeniable miracles.  I am beginning to believe anything is possible.

With these things in mind, it would be best not to look at D&D as a job or as an object that is sold.  For one thing, the participant in the game is also paying for the privilege of their own participation, their own energy, their own fulfillment.  We go to a restaurant for the food, the service and the ambiance - but the conversation and the fulfillment is our own responsibility.  Without the participation of the restaurant-goer, there is no experience . . . and this is something that has to be intrinsically understood in the exchange.

I can run a world but I can't run the players' characters for them.  This is something they must do themselves.  As such, the player doesn't pay ME for the experience, the player pays the charge to enable them to have the experience themselves - just as we pay to carry our gear and living arrangements physically up nine miles of trail when we go to a National Park.  The park ranger is not going to carry that gear for us.  We can pay a guide to carry the gear but in this case, the DM is not the guide.  The DM is the park.  What we do in the park is our problem.

For most players this is inherently understood - but it is entirely forgotten when people step up to evaluate the financial particulars as accountants.  D&D cannot be described as buying gum at the convenience store; it cannot be described as a contractor who comes in to build your kitchen.  I really am saying that the payer is paying for the privilege of sitting in my kitchen - and that is all.  I will serve the food I want, in the time that suits me and the walls will be painted whatever color I say.  If the payer is unhappy with that arrangement, the payer is welcome to seek another kitchen or to see no kitchen at all.  But what can happen in my kitchen is not up for negotiation.

It is acknowledged, however, that I have a pretty sweet kitchen.

Realistically, from the poll, I can see there is the potential to earn something between $600 and $900 a month from between 9-13 participants.  The work load does not worry me.  13 participants is three-four parties, sixteen nights of running a month with additional time to answer questions and build sets for (all of which can be used potentially in future or even sold in the same manner as Ternketh Keep).  The issue is not time; it is that $900 a month does not relieve my stress.  It means still having to work some kind of job, which wants either my mental commitment or my physical exhaustion, meaning that I am wrecked and beat the day after when I have to be interesting, imaginative and compelling on demand.  This was easy when I worked at the office.  My income was very comfortable, the expectation was clear and manageable, the work was physically minimal and I felt great upon coming home each day.  Coming home from the kitchen is exhaustion, painkiller, cleaning of filth, sleeplessness from torn ligaments and joints, management of injury and the general destruction of a 51-year-old body.  It has been high maintenance for a miserably paid job.

It isn't enough.  That's the key.  All the measurements per hour or practicalities of time don't matter because I cannot commit to solving those problems exclusive to other shit that will make this intellectually and effectively viable.  Ten people at $150 a month; Twelve people at $125 a month; those are realistic numbers.  Two parties of five or three parties of four.

Those people who worry that this would make a 'living wage' but not a 'successful wage' should realize that if the result were positive enough, the bidding war for those twelve slots would be inevitable.  Right now the bidding is $50 to $75, however.  While I am thrilled to find out there IS a bid (who knew?), it isn't enough to pay this prostitute.

I love you people.  You're amazing.  I am pleased to be able to tell you to keep your money, keep working at your games and thank-you for the offers.  Right now, I'm better off figuring out something else you'd be willing to pay for, something else that would be worth your while that wouldn't fall under anyone's ethical radar or promote feelings of elitism.

I'm certainly open to ideas.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

I was about to suggest another attempt at what you did back in the early days of the hobby - making maps and selling them. The only trouble is, probably about 50% to 75% of modern DMs have had the same idea, and combined with the glut of free products of moderate to good quality, there's no way to make an actual living from it. (And considering your description of how the majority of your "clients" back then ended up stiffing you, I'd say that most such people will go find a halfway-usable free map rather than pay for a great one.)

I ran into this same issue; my father suggested that I try for a career in writing and drawing D&D material, but I had difficulty explaining the saturation of product in even a relatively small and new hobby as this one. Granted, your own material (from what I've read on your blog and in Ternketh Keep) is excellent, but there's still the distribution/marketing to take into account.

Then there's the issue that a very reasonable price from the consumer's point of view is often insufficient to support the producer, as you demonstrated. Ideally, there would be a way to attract people who are unfamiliar with the hobby, but wouldn't mind paying a reasonable (from your perspective) sum to experience it. The issue there is that an "outsider" might balk at having to pay money and flex their reading, thinking, and socializing muscles... even though, as you point out, people go to restaurants and clubs all the time. The digital equivalent of a tip jar would certainly create less resentment (among those inclined to be bitter about spending any amount of money on anything), but would probably bring in even less than its restaurant equivalent.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't know about that, Fuzzy. Things have changed since those early days; I'm selling maps through Patreon Come and see! Unlike those other maps you mention, I'm trading publisher files to my patrons that are interactive and can be adjusted, adding roads, details, notes, removing cities, changing river courses or borders as desired. I just sent a raft of these off to people, including updates for things I've changed on maps in the last month.

As well, my donations in the last 12 weeks have been $3,323. This is keeping me alive at the moment. I don't see this commitment as 'tips' - but gratitude is certainly involved.

Tim said...

For the past several years I've taken improvisational theatre classes, which basically amounts to 2.5 hours a week spent with 10-12 other people laughing, playing theatre games and performing scenes. For seven weeks of classes we pay $366 (Canadian dollars), which works out to about $20 an hour per person. It's a pretty decent gig for our instructor, who runs 4 or 5 classes at a time and also works as an actor. With twelve students in each class, assuming five classes she's probably totalling about $1200 a week.
I bring her example up because I think people should think of D&D in much the same way. I keep doing improv despite the costs because it's enormously therapeutic to let go and play every week, and my classmates justify the costs in the same way. Most people are in their forties or older and they have some disposable income on hand to pay for these classes, and many of them are performers so they can justify the expense as part of their own work.
D&D provides many of the same experiences especially when given the chance to work with someone who's been doing this as long as you have, Alexis. Furthermore, it's an opportunity for people with that disposable income to get some reprieve in their weeks. Given how valuable an improv class might be, I think it's entirely fair to charge a similar price for a D&D game. While a D&D game you play with a few buddies may be free, the analogue in theatre of putting together a show or an improv troupe with some buddies won't necessarily provide the same opportunity to learn and develop (or even have fun) as a paid class. Maybe that's the angle you need to take? I'm not saying the actual model needs to drastically change: running players in your game still provides an enormous opportunity for teaching the techniques of D&D, and even after seven years of improv classes I still keep it up regardless of my own skills as an improvisor. Interest in my classes has spread mainly through word of mouth, as lots of new people join us after their friends recommend the classes. If you get things going and provide a great experience like the online campaign before, I'm certain you can start more parties and get bigger groups going.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Things I'd pay money for:

History lectures or essays (like the post on the Don Cossacks)

Private consultation regarding my own personal game world. We all love that you give advice away for free and that a lot of it applies regardless of what our own world looks like, but how much cooler would it be to get direct Alexis access regarding one's desired level of world building and entity placement? You could charge a pretty penny per-hour (I won't suggest a figure), or maybe have some kind of rate per-question. Additional costs if a client wants your help building out a set of rules or a table or what have you. (I suppose one bit to consider here is that if someone wants help that would also be good as a blog entry they might feel cheated if you wrote something up for them, then turned around and blogged it shortly after. So the consulting angle might be more fruitful)

This one might be a bit farfetched: tuning in to a viewer's game live via webcam or watching a video they record and post for you (the latter seems much more practical), then giving commentary on what aspects of their DMing needs improvement or attention -- player management, presentation, tension, etc.

JB said...

The problem isn't one of getting folks to pay for playing. The problem is building a business. While it's possible Alexis could get his rent paid...sometime down the running a number of sessions for a number of people and charging "what the market would bear" (based on demand spurred by word-o-mouth), that doesn't solve the lack of income coming in NOW, nor the issue of needing to find other work and (thus) not having the energy needed to start and grow the business.

Have you considered doing some classes on Udemy? You've got a lot to say and are pretty good at saying it; you're handy with the tech and presentation stuff, and you could probably speak to a number of interesting subjects, not just game and writing-related. It could be an additional revenue stream and it could circulate your name if you do (down the road) start charging for your services as a DM.

Just a thought. There are some great courses with terrible presentation that are still making (some) money out there.

Scarbrow said...

Thanks for expanding about that, Alexis.

My line of reasoning was trying to help myself (and maybe others) to put such-and-such amounts into perspective. Tim's suggestion of improvisational theatre classes seems like another one, and a very good one at that. However, now I feel I need to explain myself a little. I'm a very frugal man, right now. I save and save like there's no tomorrow (well, I expect it to be: I will be retiring from the workforce (at least a few years) when biology calls and my firstborn appears in this world). As such a frugal person, I'm used to have to reason with myself to justify every last expense. It's a good exercise. But that's ultimately just one part of the equation: how much will I offer, if this is a bid. Lots of other parts of the negotiation have to happen (start with an anchor, I don't think I need to tell you about the rest) before a final price is settled and money is exchanged. More people and perspectives may still tilt the balance further in the direction of possible. I also suspect your US potential customers are both much richer than me (in terms of monthly income) and way more accustomed to higher spending on their hobbies.

You're putting here another convincing part. How much do you need to relieve stress and allow you to live. "Ten people at $150 a month; Twelve people at $125 a month; those are realistic numbers. Two parties of five or three parties of four." Well, there you have it. Some amounts for bid, some amounts for ask. Since it seems there is a spread, it certainly isn't a done deal. But now you can start a real auction, if you want to, starting bid and all. If enough places are filled, gig starts. If they don't, well, you tried and found out more information, possibly much more than with the poll. As you may already know, people behave differently (and sometimes, very differently) when the time comes to show the color of their money.

I will advance a last angle. Wouldn't you consider that running a single group of, say, the five highest bidders, four times a month, to be a productive test of the system even if it doesn't allow you to wholly live from it? I wouldn't know, not being as creative as you, and not ever having to juggle two part-time jobs, but I have a few friends that have been surviving the last few years in similar ways. A day job and a creative side-enterprise, that is how the paradigmatic starving artist makes do.