Everyone only really needs three things to start as a Dungeon Master or Game Master: a decent grasp of the game’s rules, dice, and imagination. To take it to the pro level, however, you’re going to need more–particularly in the tech department. That’s not to say that a professional GM needs an epic home studio like Critical Role. Like any career, you can start small and build up as you go.
Essential Tech Items
The importance of this equipment cannot be stressed enough, especially when you consider that many professional games are played online. Battling the fickle nature of 5+ people’s internet connection is challenging enough. You also can’t control that, but you can do everything in your power to make sure that the players can hear you clearly.
Decent Computer With Wired Internet Access
Anyone can play Dungeons & Dragons online. All you truly need is a chat service, dice, and imagination. But things will run much more smoothly if your tech is up-to-date and capable of running several programs without delay. To that end, your trusty laptop of many years might not be the best tool for the job. This is especially true if you run a TTRPG with tactical combat on battle maps. Personally, I like using a desktop with two monitors so I can have my maps on one screen and my stats/notes on the other.
Whatever your preferred setup, make sure your machine has an ethernet port for wired internet. You absolutely should not be relying on Wi-Fi if you want to run a consistent game. If your router is in a different room, find a way to run the ethernet cable along the floor or ceiling to reach your computer.
There are many microphones to choose from, but for simplicity (and cost’s) sake, you can go with something that plugs into your computer’s USB port. This ensures that no matter what kind of PC or Mac you’re using for your games, these recommendations should fit. One very popular option for beginners is Blue Yeti. They make USB microphones at several different price levels that are all plug-and-play and offer simple options to adjust your settings. If you want something closer to studio quality, take a look at Roccat’s Torch. It boasts fantastic user ratings and a Twitch streamer aesthetic at a very nice price.
Some clients will ask for video chat because seeing people helps with roleplay. This isn’t required, but having the option available will help you book more games. The trick here is to not work with your laptop’s built-in camera. As the Game Master, you’re the one that the party looks to set the tone of the session. If you’re coming in grainy or are sitting in darkness, it will impact your storytelling in a bad way. Do yourself a favor and buy a webcam with at least 1080p capability. Logitech makes such cameras that are affordable and compatible with most computers. If you want quality, check out Razer’s Kiyo cameras that are made for livestreams.
Another thing to keep in mind with cameras is lighting. You can do a lot by keeping your GM desk near lamps or a window. If that’s not possible, you can get a decent ring light to prop up behind your monitor.
I’ve played in a lot of online games at this point, and there’s one thing that pops up often: someone puts on their speakers without muting their mic. Suddenly, everyone else’s voice echoes whenever they talk and a copy of the background music is playing as a garbled accompaniment to the game. Point of story: get some headphones for your computer. You can get a cool wireless gaming headset or a cheap pair from Five Below. Your choice, but having headphones helps your game’s sound quality immensely.
There are a lot of chat services that offer voice and video for online meetings. Two, however, stand out as the most popular options for TTRPGs: Zoom and Discord. Zoom is well known for its widespread use in workplaces throughout the pandemic. It’s a solid platform for handling video calls, but users who want to chat for more than 45 minutes need to have a paid account. The good news there is that you can write the expense off on your taxes. Discord is billed as a gamer’s platform and works great for voice chat, but its video isn’t the most consistent.
A good chair is just as essential as a quality microphone or wired internet. In fact, I’d say it’s even more important. That lower back support will be a lifesaver since you’re sitting down for long stretches of time. A decent office chair or gaming chair will run anywhere from $250-$500. It’s an investment to be sure, but again one that you can write off. And it’s one that will pay off for years.
Some Little Extras
The above objects are things you need to run a quality online game while maintaining a professional look. Below are some optional offerings that can help you put on even more of a show and justify raising your rates.
Books/PDFs That Interest Your Players
In a physical game, handouts help players feel more immersed. That effect might be lessened in a digital game, but it still goes a long way towards drawing players into the scene. Having PDFs of scenic art and important NPCs is pretty standard, especially for D&D. You can go the extra mile by offering pre-generated character sheets and readily available PDFs of basic rules like combat actions or how magic works. Having this info in an easily-digested form eases the burden of learning a new TTRPG. The deeper side of this idea is having a library of expansions for popular TTRPGs. It helps your brand to be known as the GM that owns all the expansions and can share the latest character options with players.
I list this under optional because you can technically run an entire game with theater of the mind. This holds especially true for indie TTRPG systems that focus on narrative over elaborate combat. But once you start getting into the more popular systems, players often expect maps. Enter virtual tabletops, or VTTs. We have an extensive list here, but for the most part you’ll want to look into Owlbear Rodeo, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, or Foundry. Those are listed in ascending order of complexity to help you pick the one that’s best for you and your players.
When running a pro game in person, that wow factor is even more important. The players will likely be looking for a show, something with pizzazz that hanging with friends and roleplaying in between bites of pizza can’t provide. Again, you can give them that showmanship with good old-fashioned storytelling technique and handouts. But if you really want to catch their attention, you might want to invest in 3D terrain and figures that you can use to build epic battle scenes. This not only gives your setup flair, but it can also get players to visualize the battlefield and make more interesting choices, which in turn gets them more immersed. WizKids is a great provider for fantasy minis and terrain, or you could go with Bones if you want cheaper minis and love painting.
Many players hire professional GMs for a higher level of storytelling. Immersion is one word that gets thrown around a lot, but that’s because of how important it is. You can go far with handouts and practiced storytelling, but another easy way to achieve immersion is with sound. Whether it be dramatic music played under the big bad’s speech or animal noise ambiance as the party treks through a forest, good use of sound can set the scene before you even speak. Roll20 offers a selection of music and ambiance in its platform. You can also look into a paid service like Syrinscape that provides sound for specific campaigns like sci-fi or the latest D&D hardcover. Just be sure they’re royalty free or that the terms of your purchase cover using them for your paid games.
Professionalism begins before the game when you pitch the campaign to potential players. You want to show two things upfront: who the game is for and how you intend to run. Surveys can be used to vet potential players as well as offer a preview of what type of gameplay you’ll focus on. Are you offering an improv-heavy story experience or a classic dungeon crawl with expert-level combat? Let the players know and use the survey questions to see how they engage with these kinds of play. Matching likeminded survey answers helps one to form an ideal party so they can start off on the best possible footing. These can be made with Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.
Did this list inspire you to set up your own pro GM space? Is there anything you think we missed?