Lightheart



Adventures

060: How Donathin Frye became a fulltime professional Dungeon Master

 

How would you like to be a full-time, professional game master? It sounds like a dream a lot of us have in this industry, and so I am thrilled to introduce you to Donathin Frye who does just that. Donathin supports himself as a full-time Dungeon master with some additional freelance game design work, through Patreon subscriptions. He tends to run 6-8 full-length campaigns at any given time, and truly does spend 40 hours a week working on those campaigns. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about how Don does this and what a typical week looks like for a full-time GM. There’s a lot of good advice, even if you’re just looking to improve your DMing skills for your home games!

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Time Stamps

  • 00:00:00 Introduction & Updates
  • 00:03:36 Donathin Introduction
  • 00:10:35 How Donathin became a professional game master
  • 00:15:47 Using a subscription model for campaigns
  • 00:28:33 How to encourage newer players to role play
  • 00:31:04 Prepping for sessions & staying motivated
  • 00:38:20 Note taking as the GM
  • 00:40:50 Donathin’s game design
  • 00:45:47 What has been the most challenging part?
  • 00:49:01 Figuring out rates
  • 00:51:34 What has been the most rewarding part?
  • 00:57:20 Upcoming projects
  • 00:58:41 Where can people find you?
  • 00:59:45 Wrap-up

Find Don:

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Transcript

Courtney:

Hello & Welcome to Episode 60 of Roll Play Grow, the podcast for tabletop entrepreneurs, creators, and fans. I am Courtney Stover of Lightheart Adventures, and in this podcast, we talk to the creators behind the brands in the tabletop roleplay gaming space about who they are and how they are turning their passion for gaming into a career. 

How would you like to be a fulltime, professional game master? It sounds like a dream a lot of us have in this industry, and so I am thrilled to introduce you to Donathin Frye who does just that. Donathin supports himself as a full time Dungeon master with some additional freelance game design work, through Patreon subscriptions. He tends to run 6-8 full length campaigns at any given time, and truly does spend 40 hours a week working on those campaigns. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about how Don does this and what a typical week looks like for a fulltime GM. There’s a lot of good advice, even if you’re just looking to improve your DMIng skills for your home games!

Before we jump into the interview, just a few items of business. If this is your first time tuning in to Roll Play Grow, hello! This podcast is a part of Lightheart Adventures, which is a small company I co-founded with my husband. We also do blogs, one-shots, and maps that you’ll find over on our website, lightheartadventures.com. This podcast updates on Fridays, and I get to chat with so many amazing folks across a wide spectrum of industries within the TTRPG scene, so be sure to subscribe to Roll Play Grow on your favorite podcast player. I’ve got some absolutely AMAZING guests coming up, and you will not want to miss them!

That is all for now, so sit back and enjoy this conversation with Donathin.

Courtney: 

Hello friends. I am happy to now introduce you to professional game master and narrative designer, Donathin Frye. Don, how are you today?

Don: 

Hi. I’m great. Thank you. Thank you for having me on and chatting. I’ve been really looking forward to it.

Courtney: 

Yeah, me too. Well, to kick things off. Can you just tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from and how you got into gaming?

Don: 

Yeah, I, you know, I have been gaming for a long time. And I think I have a pretty common story. Like my dad taught me how to play tabletop games. When I was a kid, we played the Marvel superheroes role playing game back in the eighties, we played his box set of Dungeons and dragons second edition that he wasn’t allowed to play because when he was a teenager you know, there was the satanic panic. And so his parents didn’t really like role playing games. So as soon as I was old enough to play, you know, like six or seven years old my dad was like, it’s time, you’re gonna do this. And so I got into it pretty young. And I played, you know, as a hobby, throughout my life. I got really into, and I think this is maybe like part of my story. Everybody kinda has their own path, you know, really into the text based role playing game community online. So they’re called muds multi-user Dungeons, and they’re sort of like a, MMORPG, but really role play focused all text based– a lot like tabletop games. But you could log-in whenever you want. Play, log out whenever you want. And a lot of people played those. Those were really popular, you know, back in the nineties and the early two thousands. And I didn’t get into professional side of role playing games until a little bit later. I, I went to school for theater. I did stage acting and directing for many years. And you know, it was only a few years ago when I started to maybe get a little burnout on theater you know, emotionally, mentally, I was ready to try something else, something that I owned or could create myself. And so I kind of leaned back on bartending for a bit, which is something I had done here and there throughout my life. I started writing comic books and web comics, and that’s actually kind of how I got introduced to like the, the professional side of the industry. As some people read my dark fantasy web comic and hired me to do a thing and introduced me to people. That’s how I started anyway. Uh,

Courtney: 

Awesome. So anytime that theater comes up, I always have to go on a side tangent mostly because I was also a theater major. I was a stage manager professionally for a number of years. So my question around that is, do you have a favorite show that you either like performed in or directed or just worked on in some way?

Don: 

I’ve done so many, and I have so many good memories. I had the, the good opportunity to do adeus when I was still fairly young. And I just, I, I love that play so much. So acting wise, you know, I, I got to, I got to do, you know, do Amadeus. And that’s a role that I would love to play again, now that I’m a little older and as I get even older you know, I would love to play the villain in Amadeus. love to play Sellier Directing, you know, I’ve done a lot of work in both musical theater, opera and stage straight, you know, plays. And I always enjoyed the process of the plays the most. I love getting to spend as much time on the character development as possible, through elements of that work. You know, doing Proof, directing Proof directing The Glass Menagerie– some really great plays that I have great memories of, but it’s a tough industry. You know, like many industries, our creative industries are, theater’s a really hard industry.

Courtney: 

is it, I, I miss it, but it was definitely exhausting.

Don: 

Yep.

Courtney: 

like, I never felt more live than when I was on stage or like, you know, in the booth watching like the perfect performance that happened, like maybe once of an entire run, but yeah,

Don: 

lot of my, a lot of my friends in, in college and afterwards were stage managers and I always had a great respect. I have a very organized brain and I always had a great respect for the level of organization and process and attention to detail that the stage managers had. Very, very underappreciated element of the theater.

Courtney: 

I mean, yeah, I’ll agree. no bias whatsoever. But cool. I mean, and it’ll definitely be interesting to maybe dive into a bit about how all of this time spent in theater has impacted your GMing. yeah. I mean, actually, let’s just dive into that. Is there anything in particular you think that has had like a big impact on the way that you GM?

Don: 

Yeah, I think a lot of different things have kind of informed the kind of game master that I am over time. Maybe from the theater side of things, less acting, I mean, you know, like I’ll do silly voices and voices for my characters, but I don’t put a lot of emphasis on. Voice acting as like, you know, kind of the, one of the tenets of what I do, but I’d say like the talent that I have, the skills that I created, directing theater, a lot of that I think is applicable to understanding how to guide a group, to have a fun, immersive experience at the table. I mentioned bartending before. I think there are so many parallels between what I do now and bartending in terms of making people feel comfortable and heard you know, GMing as a service to people. I, I think people, when they play games, you know, whatever element of the game that they’re most interested in the one thing that they always want is the sort of like communal experience with other people. And that’s something that I think. A lot of the little things that I’ve done throughout my life kind of contributed to. And a lot the writing that I’ve done, I think benefits I do have like a big passion for game design and that’s a side of the tabletop industry that I also work in. So I think that you know, my game design experience has helped me a lot as well. I wish that I could say, you know, that theater was a direct path for me, but I, I really don’t think it was. I happened to play D&D in other games with my theater friends, you know, throughout my life. So I, I guess I have have that connection, but I think he used a lot of parts of my brain that theater never did.

Courtney: 

mm-hmm yeah, that makes sense. So I’d like it to dive a bit more into the transition from doing like all of your theater career and you’re bartending, but like you’ve been playing these games all of your life. And then you decided to try and go more professional, like talk to me about that transition.

Don: 

so I created a number of those tech space games that I was talking about over the course of my life. And the last one I created was maybe a little over a decade ago now. It was called Atonement. It was a space horror game, and it had a pretty large following. I didn’t charge anything for it. It was free, but a lot of people played it. A lot of people really loved it. And a lot of those people, when I, –after about three years finished the campaign, finished the game, the story kind of came to a good end– wanted to follow. Whatever I did next. And so somebody who had played the game hired me for a little game design job to work on another game. And I did that. And at the same time, I started working on comics and submitting to publishers and, and, you know, launching a couple of web comics. And there was a guy named Will Smith who ran a streaming channel tabletop role playing game. It was called Encounter Role Play back when streaming was still pretty new, I think. Streaming actual plays was still pretty new. He hired me to produce a comic for his website for Encounter Role Play. And he asked me, Hey I’m running this Call of Cathulhu game. And it’s a stream. Would you be interested in trying it, and I didn’t even know what the word stream meant. I was like, what is that? I have no idea. He sent me a link and I watched it and it was actually rather theatrical. It was a great group of players. They obviously were performers themselves. I really enjoyed it. So I said, yeah, I’ll give this a shot. I don’t really have the setup for it, but I’ll give it a shot. And I kind of fell in love with it. I became a pretty big part of the streaming community for a few years. But really I was looking for, as much fun I was, as I was having, I was looking for a way to take what I loved and make it a sustainable living. Without sucking all the joy out of it. And I found that you know, streaming, professionally tabletop games actually really hard. The business side of that is its own thing. And it’s really hard to make sustainable. But I had a couple of games that I ran that, you know, got pretty good viewership and people were asking me, Hey, would you be interested in starting, you know, a game I don’t really wanna stream. I don’t necessarily feel comfortable, you know, in front of an audience, but I really like the way that you run games. And so. Because people were interested, I started my first private professional game. I launched it on a Patreon. I kind of built like a subscription based service. I know a lot of professional GMs use some of these websites that are almost like apps, like start playing games. But none of those existed at the time. And I actually kind of prefer, I mean, I could talk about that too, but I really kind of prefer the subscription service because of the flexibility for both the players and for me doing it that way. And I had one professional game. The pandemic happened, it started and I had another guy reach out to me and he said you know, my friends and I, we we’ve watched your games. We’ve never played a tabletop game before. Now there’s this pandemic and we can’t get together. Do you think you could put something together for our group? Even though we don’t know anything about the game. I said, yes, absolutely. I would love to teach you how to play the game. And I started running a second campaign for them and that’s still going on right now. Once I had two is when I started to realize that, you know, if I thought about this a little bit more forward a little bit more strategically in terms of my process and the amount of work I was putting into it, I could probably like turn this into a thing and I loved doing it. I had so much fun actually found that like, My professional games, my private games, I had more fun running them than I did on stream. I had as much fun running them as I ever did running games for my friends, I really loved creating that experience for people and bringing people who maybe don’t all know each other together so they can build relationships with each other when people pay for a game in my experience maybe I’m just lucky. They’re really invested in the game and in each other. And you don’t have so many problems with scheduling that people have in real life a lot of times. And so, yeah, that’s, that’s kind of how I started to get into it more and more. It took me a few years to kind of get to where I am now in terms of sustainability, I was able to make a, you know, Sustainable like good living wage off of it. But I was working for a couple of years. I was working maybe like 80 hours a week and that was getting to be a little much, but now I’m, I’m down to about 40 hours a week and it feels like a, you know, very, I could feel like I could do this for a very long time.

Courtney: 

Yeah, that is a really cool way to get into it is just having a couple people say like, Hey, you know, you’re really cool. I’d like to also play with you. And the fact that it’s grown into something that is sustainable and full time is just awesome. Yeah. I have like so many follow up questions from that story. So for, yeah. The subscription model. I find really interesting. Cause I, you know, I feel like a lot of times when I’ve heard about being a pro DM it’s for like one session or a couple of sessions. So tell me a bit more about that breakdown. Like, do you have times that you’re only doing like one or two sessions or is it pretty regular that it’s full campaigns?

Don: 

I it’s almost always full campaigns and I do make exceptions, you know if somebody hires me to be on a stream or something like that for a one shot, I try not to do now most of the time when I stream or do an actual play, I try to make it a charity thing. Because I feel a little bit better about that. But people can hire me for short run games. Like sometimes I try not to do less than three sessions. My subscription model sort of works like :you sign up for a tier. On my Patreon and I guarantee you a certain number of games per month in a specific campaign. And we have set times, you know, we, we schedule to find a time that works for everybody, but generally I try not to run the same campaign more than twice a month. Doing that allows me to handle reschedules when somebody’s sick a little bit easier if I’m sick or let’s say maybe I’m going to an event, or I just need a vacation for a week helps me kind of reschedule around that so that I’m not just working constantly. And I think it’s helped my retention a lot to do the subscription model with long term campaigns. I don’t think I’ve had a campaign that was shorter than, you know, 50 sessions or so 40 sessions or so and I know that a lot of other pro GMs– and I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to do it. You know, you sign up for a seat for a specific time on a specific day, you buy like a ticket basically. And I think I would imagine it would be harder maybe to retain your players long term that way. Whereas I have a little bit more flexibility with the subscription model and I, you know, of course like sometimes people come and people go, but most of my players you know, have stayed with me now for years.

Courtney: 

How many seats do you have in each campaign?

Don: 

Never more than six. I’ve gone as low as four, but I would say usually five and I, I change the pricing based off of that, you know, I have a campaign that this setting is maybe a little bit more intimate. It’s a little bit more social focused and characters kind of split up and do their own things and then come back together. So there’s a lot more splitting the party in that campaign. And they wanted an, an intimate game, an intimate group. And so, you know, that that group, I, I capped it smaller than most of my campaigns. But the pricing, you know, always ends up being the same or, or very, very nearly the same, all things considered. So, you know, those smaller, more intimate groups, maybe they’re paying a little bit more further subscription.

Courtney: 

So how many campaigns do you have going on? Like on a weekly basis?

Don: 

It does vary a little bit when a campaign runs out a lot of times before starting another one immediately, I will use the extra 10 hours a week, or, and I’d say 10 hours a week is on average how it takes me 10 hours to run a game prep, a game, handle all of the admin. When you put everything together, each session is worth about 10 hours of work. So sometimes I’ll let a game run out and use the extra 10 hours a week to work on freelance work for publishers game design work. So I can kind of like, make sure I’m getting ahead on all of that. And then I’ll start another one, but generally speaking right now with the new setup that I have, it’s, it’s three right now because I’m finishing up a big book for a publisher. Then I’ll go back up to four afterwards and that’s about 40 hours a week. So I guess four per week is maybe more like eight together.

Courtney: 

Because I, I am assuming you alternate?

Don: 

I do. Yeah, I, I do like, not exactly biweekly, but I do twice a month for all of my campaigns.

Courtney: 

Okay. That’s a lot.

Don: 

Yeah. Yeah. and they’re all very, very different from each other too.

Courtney: 

yeah, I was. So I was gonna ask like, cuz I know you don’t only do D&D like you do some other systems. So like right now what’s kind of the breakdown?

Don: 

Well, most of it’s still D&D. I always like try to go with what the players are most interested in playing. Even, even if I pitch them a setting or a game, you know, an idea for a game if they wanna play D&D I can make D&D work with it. I know some people would say like you can’t hack D&D to be other games, and, you know, there’s some merit to that, but I think you can hack D&D a lot. And I do all the time. So even my D&D games are very different from one another. Even the, the home brew rules and whatnot that I create for them are different, but let’s see, I would say. I’ve got mostly D D. I also have a Mothership game which is a space horror system that is like, I’d say it’s like 50, it’s like 33% Mothership, 33%, the Alien role playing game, which is also space horror and like 33%, you know, brand new rules that I’ve created. So it’s super hacked up just specific to that game. I have a cyberpunk powered by the apocalypse game. It’s based, it’s kind of based on the skeleton of Urban Shadows second edition, which is like a city politics, supernatural city politics game, kind of like vampire a little bit kind of like White Wolf’s material, but powered by the apocalypse. And so I’ve hacked that into cyber punk and created all, you know, new classes and playbooks for that. There’s a Star Wars campaign. That’s kind of a hack of multiple star war systems the same way in my original rules. So a lot of what I do is manipulating a lot of games that already exist to try to make it a specific and tailored to that group and the experience we’re trying to have as I possibly can.

Courtney: 

So, what is your process when you’re first starting out with a new group for a new campaign? Like how do you work with them to find out what it is that you want? Like what kind of questions are you asking and how does that determine how you’re gonna hack whatever system you wind up going with?

Don: 

Yeah, I, I love to ask a mix of direct. So I use Google surveys and I don’t just do it before the campaign, but I’ll also do it like kind of throughout as I’m touching base. I start off by finding a group of people who are interested in an idea. I always, if people subscribe it, like, you know, even if they subscribe to my Patreon at like $1 a month just to get my newsletter, they always have like kind of first dibs on open seats or when there’s a new campaign that I’m launching. So I’ll, you know, fill as many seats with the people who already subscribe as possible. And then if I need to put together a little promotional video or, or something I can release on social media to get other folks interested, I do that. And once I have a group I create a survey to take a look at schedules and times. So instead of like, you know, if you do start playing games or something like that, you say, this is the time the exact time, the exact date of the game. But instead of doing that, I, I ask the players their schedules and I give them my availability and we find something that looks like it’ll work for everybody. And then the survey it’ll ask, you know, direct questions, like what elements of the game are you most interested in? Do you love combat? Do you like to see battle maps? Do you like puzzles? Social intrigue, you know, and I’ll list a, a bunch of different, both gameplay elements and narrative elements. And I’ll have them not just like, say yes, I like this, or no, I don’t like this. I usually rate it on a scale of like, you know, one to five or one to 10. Because the math there gives me kind of like an aggregate score that I, I can kind of start to see the shape of how something might come together. I’ll do the same for systems too. Do you want to try this in D&D or here’s some other options and I’ll tell them, you know, in case they don’t know these systems, what I think the pros and cons might be of each system. I did that for the space horror game that I’m running right now. And I walked away from that picking mothership as the base, but that wasn’t even an option on my survey. So a lot of times I’m reading between the lines, because what players want can be very different from one another. And so it’s not about like hitting every single thing that every single player wants. Sometimes it’s about, well, where’s the, where’s the best intersection for the group as a whole. And then that’s kind of how I start.

Courtney: 

That’s really interesting. And then do you do you have a ,session zero with them where you’re creating characters together? Are you sending them off with homework to like, Hey, read all of these rules before we get started?

Don: 

I I do. I offer a lot of help to my players in terms of the character sheets. You know, if we’re playing D&D, I have D&D Beyond, everything, every book unlocked, they can access all of the character options through my account that way, because I, I have the subscription. I share that I, I provide a lot of resources. So there’s some overhead with the business that’s involved there. Regardless of what system we’re playing, I provide a lot of resources. If they need help with their character sheets, I will handle their Roll20, which is the platform we used to play with. I’ll handle their character sheets for them and update them between sessions. I’ll help them level up if they need it. If they want more, you know, like now I like doing this stuff myself, then that’s great. And if we’re playing a game that they don’t know then I’ll create as many like simplified handouts as possible to make it easy to learn. So they don’t have to read through the whole book, but I’ll give ’em the whole book too. We always do session zeros. Sometimes we’ll create characters during session zeros. Sometimes, you know, I try to give us about a month when I start a new campaign before we start playing. And so that gives people plenty of time to like play around with their character sheets and they’ll send me stuff, you know, throughout the month and I’ll be like, oh yeah, that’s really cool. Or if they get stuck on something, I can kind of help ’em out as we have time. Our session zeros, we do safety tools, you know? So I care about, you know, people’s lines and veils, elements of the game that they don’t want to see because it makes them uncomfortable for any reason at all. Or they would like to see like lightly described, you know, for instance, I don’t know, they, they don’t wanna see they don’t want descriptions of spiders how they move that sort of thing. Totally understandable. I want to know that before the game starts. I use stars and wishes, which is another safety tool. It’s a little thing you can do at the end of sessions, where everybody gets to name one thing they really enjoyed about the session or a moment they really liked and they get to name one thing they wanna see either for their characters or for the group, or in general, moving forward. And I find that kind of like positive, soft feedback, extremely valuable. It also, a lot of players might not be in the habit of thinking about and describing what it is they actually want out of a game. And I find it a really great way to get people to start becoming more comfortable, you know, very gently saying what they want and knowing what the players want helps me make the game better for everybody.

Courtney: 

I like that. I haven’t heard of the stars and wishes one before.

Don: 

It’s my favorite. It’s so simple, but it it’s so helpful.

Courtney: 

I probably start doing that for my home games. Do you feel like the majority of your players are kind of new to tabletop role playing? Or is it a mix?

Don: 

It’s definitely, I would say it’s definitely a mix. The, the experience levels, you know, vary from people who they’re playing for the first time with me to people who have maybe played a little bit, but you know, struggle to find a, a group wherever they live or, or maybe can’t find the right experience, the kind of experience that they’re hoping to have wherever they are to people who have been playing longer than I have. You know, I’ve been playing tabletop almost for I guess it’s been about 30 years now. And I have a few players who, you know, have been playing for 50 years. And, and my, my players, I don’t have anybody younger than 18. I, I don’t take, you know, anybody younger than 18 at my tables. I think maybe I have a couple of people in their early to mid twenties, and I have people who are, you know, in their mid sixties and of all different genders and all different backgrounds; is a really diverse group.

Courtney: 

Do you have any advice for if there’s like a newer GM that is trying to coach a brand new player on, you know, like, okay, this is it’s okay to experiment and like have fun with what you’re doing. how do you help those new players?

Don: 

I, I think it’s active listening for me which is something maybe this is something that actually background in acting in theater does help with: Not just listening what people are saying, but what they’re not saying when they’re engaging, when maybe I, I’m not sure that they’re engaging or they fall away. for instance, I have this group that they were all new players, every single one of them, but just because they were new players, they weren’t the same players or interested in the same thing. So I have some people who are maybe, you know, they’re a little less interested in the really story focused or the really role play focused things. But they’re very interested in, you know, the tactics of it or, you know, the way that their character impacts the world when they make decisions. And so if I notice that like they get excited or, or engage more when their character can do something that impacts the world, then I try to provide more opportunities like that for them. And I think stars and wishes actually helps with this getting people to talk about that. In terms of like getting them comfortable, i, I think starting a new group or, or new players with simple scenarios at first, right. I think it helps. Encouraging them, like you said just have fun with it. Just play uh, reminding them, like, you don’t have to talk in as your character, you know, you can also just say what your character talks about. You can say what your character does. You don’t have to be in character. You can ask as many questions as you want that doesn’t slow down the game. As a matter of fact, questions make the game better for everybody. And you know, and I follow up with them a little bit too between sessions just to let them know that, you know, if you have any questions or if there’s anything you’re confused about, you can talk to me at any time. But I think, you know, getting to know the people at your table is, is important. And so I might not have known them before, but I, but I do try to get to know them and what they’re interested in. And, you know, if I know what their job is or what they do for fun besides games, then that might be information that like actually helps me make the game better for them too.

Courtney: 

Yeah, that’s a really good point. Okay. So I have a couple of patron questions that relate, and so I’m honestly wondering this one too, but like you’ve mentioned a little bit about the time that you’re spending each week, which obviously is not just DMing. It’s also prep time. So how do you prepare for each of your sessions?

Don: 

say it’s changed a lot. This is probably the part of me being a game master that’s changed the most as I’ve leaned more and more into the professional side of things, like things that had to, how I was doing it before wasn’t sustainable. Once I scaled up my business to run, you know, six, eight campaigns, however many campaigns at one time. So now I have a very, I always follow the same process. I, before I run a game, I review my prep for that game for maybe, you know, 30 minutes tops. I run the game, I record my sessions as long as everybody in the group wants to be recorded. I record the video. We use zoom and I store the video in a special folder that only they can access. So like if we ever wanna go back and watch some of our old sessions, you absolutely can. After the game and during the game, I’m taking scratch notes of the important things that are happening. Not good notes, just like nobody would know what this means, except for me. So after the game I upload the video, I say, goodnight, we’ve done our stars and wishes. Maybe I’ll chat, you know, as I’m uploading the video with folks a bit, cuz people are still excited about the session. And then at the start of the next day I take my scratch notes and I turn them into a thousand to 1500 words on average, worth of recap, like a detailed recap of the session. I post that and save it or our discord so that people can go back and read the recaps and remember what’s going on. So those are really well organized and that also leads me into my prep for the next session. So I write that recap and then I immediately prep the next session and its entirety. I, even though we’re not playing, you know, probably for two more weeks. And then I set that campaign aside and I try not to think about it until the next time I have to review and run it. And I move on to reviewing and running, whatever it is that I’m doing that day.

Courtney: 

So are you spacing it out? Like with days off in between actual play sessions?

Don: 

I am now, I wasn’t for a long time. And so I’d hit, I’d hit streaks just because of like, if you know, one or two campaigns, if they needed a reschedule because a couple of people were missing, I won’t always reschedule. Like if just one person’s missing, if I can do it. And everybody else is cool with rescheduling I, I will, but, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. So somebody misses a session, but if two people miss a session, then I’m always gonna reschedule. So if I had a couple of reschedules, I got into some streaks where I was running, like. I think the most was ever like 21 games in 18 days, like in a row. Cuz I just had, that’s how it’s stacked up and I had to do that, and that was rough. Now I, unless I’ve had to reschedule a game from a previous week, I always have a day off in between games. I’m running three to four a week. Some weeks are, you know, some days are long days with everything together. Maybe they’re like 12, sometimes 14 hour days. But then I have, you know, the next day is like three hours of work and so it all kind of balances out in the end.

Courtney: 

Mm-hmm and it’s nice to just be able to have that flexibility so that you can plan it around other life things. For sure. So I am interested though, because you said that this is what your process is now, but how has that changed over time?

Don: 

I, it used to be that I would spend an entire week prepping one session. Like not like I could not prep enough. Right. I, I would go over the top as much as I could, and I still do a lot. I’ve just gotten more efficient with how I go about game design. I trust my instincts a lot more than I did before. So if I designed new mechanics or, you know, maybe I design a boss fight for a game or something I would like test it out meticulously before my players would see it. You know, I used to do a lot of video and other elements, like multimedia elements of the game. And I do still do some of that when I have time, but I, I do less of those really time intensive things now. But I also had the luxury of time, you know, if I was only running one game a week or, or two games a week and they were for stream and they were production, I could kind of justify like throwing, you know, any time that I happen to have at it. I can’t really do that anymore. And so it took me a while to kind of create this system that I have that is balanced and repeatable. I tried, you know, I tried a few other things that kind of sucked the joy out of it for me too. Like the actual joy of writing and running the game. And I didn’t like that either. So this is fun for me. It kind of equally engages my like creative side of my brain and then the math side of my brain.

Courtney: 

Yeah. That’s fair. And does, I have been kind of wondering, like, it seems like it helps with the fact that you are able to do some different systems. You’ve got a bunch of different campaigns going on, but it’s just like, how do you keep yourself still interested and motivated and as energetic as the players, you know, deserve?

Don: 

Yeah, I think I’m in, I just love stories in so many different mediums, you know, I absorb a lot of talked about theater, but I, you know, I read a lot, I watch a lot of television that I I think is really compelling and all different kinds of storytelling, just like really energized me. And with my campaigns, they’re all different enough that, you know, I never feel like I’m constantly repeating the same ideas over and over again. Mechanically or naratively, but it is, it is tough. And I think for some people you know, I, one of the things I say, people say a lot is don’t take your hobby and make it your job because then you’re gonna hate it. And I think that’s, that can be really true for a lot of people because you know, when I started doing this, I had to change my process to be, be able to make it sustainable. If I didn’t love my process, if I didn’t lo if that changed how I ran games and I didn’t love how I was running games anymore, then this would be a bad job. It just happens like for me I do enjoy it, but, you know, I think you could always dip your toe into it a little bit. Like I started with one game before I ran a second game and find where the limit is for you. But yeah, I I’d say I, maybe in maybe at some point I will say like, I’m just out of ideas, I’m creatively drained. That’s a possibility it hasn’t happened yet. And I think it’s because I’ve been very mindful about trying to make everything unique to itself and also giving myself permission to forget about it between sessions so that I don’t have, I’ve got a campaign that has like 150 NPCs with different names and motivations. And that’s just that one campaign. If I’m thinking about those characters all the time, that story all the time, then I think I would start to become exhausted by it.

Courtney: 

yeah. Then that times eight, like, yeah.

Don: 

That’s right. Yeah. Good note taking good note taking helps me a lot.

Courtney: 

I know you said that, like in the moment you’re just doing kind of like chicken scratch notes and stuff, but yeah. I mean like what tips do you have for taking better notes while you’re in the middle of telling the story and leading a group of people?

Don: 

You know, however, however you run your games. I use Roll20 almost all the time. And you know, I have a lot of handouts that are private just for me and a little folder that it’s called GM prep. And I keep my notes. I make a copy of them. I put them every campaign has their own discord. I have a discord for my patrons and every campaign has their own discord and discord has a great search function. So as long as I make sure that like I’m including the key names of places and people, bolding them in my notes and posting those on discord, it’s really easy just to search and find a list in, in order of the times that they become relevant. I think too much information is hard to parse while you’re running the game. And so, you know, when I write notes for a session of I’m talking about a specific character that I know is gonna pop up or is in a specific place, you know, I’m really like I what’s their day been like in a few words, what’s their motivation. That’s most relevant right now. And what’s like a twist, something that could happen unexpected either they might do something unexpected or something unexpected might happen to them. And sort of just an optional thing there. In case I wanna kind of shift the scene in another direction and, and that’s really like for my notes, that’s enough for the NPCs. For the locations, it’s the same thing. As long as it’s not a new location, in which case I’ll write out like a narration block, an actual description of it. But once they’ve been there before, then all I need to do is remind myself of a couple interesting elements of that location. What kinds of people are there? Is there anything going on? And what’s a twist. And so with a couple of sentences, I can kind of lay out the sandbox that might come up that session just as, as brief notes. And if I need to remember something that I don’t, I use the search function. I can’t remember every single NPCs name all the time. My players love to ask me the names of every carriage driver and every fish monger that they meet. But I can always find it if I need to.

Courtney: 

it’s always fun when you’re like, it doesn’t matter. It’s Jim and that one’s James and

Don: 

They’re all, they’re all Jim.

Courtney: 

just pronounced slightly differently. Okay. I wanna switch gears a bit and talk about the other work that you do, make sure that we’ve got some time to dig into those.

Don: 

Talking about tabletop, like a publishing side of things? Game design? So Will Smith who hired me to write a web comic and asked me to stream and told me what streaming was. Uh, He also, and shortly thereafter, like maybe a month or two thereafter, he had kickstarted a campaign, fifth edition D&D campaign setting. Based on a podcast that he had run called Turncloaks, it was a dark fantasy podcast. And he wanted me to write the campaign book for it. And I said, yes. And I wrote that entire book by myself. It took me like four or five months and I, I learned a lot having to do it all by myself. I learned a lot about, you know, the basics of how you go about writing and designing something to be absorbed by the masses and published. And, and that went over pretty well. And it led to me slowly getting other writing jobs. And so the timeline’s really, the exact same for the GMing side of things .Professionally and the writing for tabletop games professionally early on, I would say that I was the bulk of my work and the, you know, my income came from the publishing side. But around when COVID hit and the pandemic really started to get bad publishing, printing, shipping, all of that slowed down a lot in every, almost every industry. And at the same time, the demand for people wanting to get into tabletop games, actually play them. But unable to find a game master an experience that they wanted that rose and their parts of writing for, I mean, there’s not much like writing a book. And holding it in your hands being like, that’s the book that I wrote and then hearing that people really, really enjoy it. The that’s a really cool, special thing. The actual process to get there is insane. It’s really, really uh, challenging. And so over time, I’ve kind of backed away from doing that as much, unless it’s something I’m really, really passionate about. And right now I just finished a book and I’m working on another book and I don’t have anything lined up after that. And I might take a break from that side of things and, or maybe I hope to create something for myself. You know, that I own rather than work for a publisher, something that is, is all mine. I might try that. I’m not sure yet.

Courtney: 

Are you able to talk about what you’re finishing up?

Don: 

Yeah, I can talk about it. So I am the, you know, I’m the lead narrative designer for two different tabletop games right now, the lines, one of ’em is Dark Matter. It is it’s Mage Hand Press is the publisher. It’s their D&D fifth edition in space setting. And it’s done really well on Kickstarter. You know, we had a few Kickstarters you know, a really good following of people who really liked the game. And I have worked on multiple books for that. I just finished a book called 100 to Oni, which is sort of like my homage to, to Mass Effect like that kind of like you have a crew, like you manage the relationships, you have companion quests, lots of variables, lots of things that can go well or poorly based on the choices that you make. And I’m also the lead narrative designer for Modiphius’ Fallout, the role playing game which is the fallout Bethesda video game series. So I’ve gotten to work with Bethesda a little bit on their intellectual property and on the world. So I worked on the core game of that and the starter set just was announced. They, they just went into pre-orders a couple of days ago. I worked on that. And I’m currently working on. I think I can say it. I think they announced it Winter of Adam, which is a big sandbox campaign book. So it’s a full campaign. That’ll take you from first level all the way up to high levels, but it’s designed like a sandbox, the same way that video games are you go, and you can go to different settlements and your reputation, the choices you make with those settlements have a huge impact on how they progress if they survive. And it’s set in the winter. So there’s a lot of survival and there there’s a whole like plot that’s progressing in the background. It was a really fun way. It’s been a really fun way to write a a tabletop game, but try to also capture some of the things about the video game series that people really like.

Courtney: 

those sound really cool. I’m definitely excited to see those come to fruition. Okay. I do wanna make sure that I have time to ask some questions that I like to ask in all my interviews. Which I think you said you may have listened to some, so maybe, you know, this is coming but yes. So when you look back just over all the time, whether it’s doing the DMing or working on these publications, is there anything that you would say has been particularly challenging?

Don: 

I think a few things. I allowed myself because I didn’t really know. And there’s not a lot of, I think part of the reason that I’ve been starting to talk about this more and trying to engage people in conversations and share my experiences a little bit more recently, there’s a lot of mystification around the industry, how it works how to make it work for you. And because I didn’t really know, or have a, you know, any kind of mentor or anything like that. I allowed myself to accrue a lot of time debt. You know, I took on the number of projects that it seemed like I needed to, to survive. And I was right, but I put myself into debt for years where I was just working every day, working constantly. And I think, you know, knowing what I know now, if I went back, I could have, I could have raised my rates earlier. So that even if I was getting less offers for work, at least it made sense. And sometimes it’s good to have fewer offers, you know? I would’ve thought a lot more about how I could organize my time, my schedule, my process before taking on that much work. And I think those are probably the two main things, because when you’re talking about it professionally as a freelancer the rates in the industry can be really challenging. It’s hard to make a living in tabletop. You know, you can make some, you can make some money in tabletop, but to make a, a livable wage is really kind of difficult. And so I think people oftentimes, professional GMs included, I think they charge too little for, for what they do. Like when you really do the math, like I said, you know, a session for me is 10 hours of work. And I have to charge for 10 hours of work. Otherwise I have to work too much. And I have to try to, you know, and to keep those prices low so that people can afford them. I have to try to accomplish the same quality of what I’m doing, but reduce the number of hours too. And so streamline process, raise rates. If I had figured that out earlier then I probably would’ve been less tired for a couple of years. And it’s the same for, for publishers. You know, a lot of times when you’re working in game design, unless it’s something you own, you get paid a word rate, you know, And so, you know, I remember because I didn’t know, like, well, what do people get paid for this? Nobody was really talking about it at the time. At least not, not anywhere that I could see it you know, I was taking jobs for maybe like 3 cents per word. And that, that was once I realized how unsustainable that was, that changed very quickly. And I think those both industries, as they’re growing people are starting to talk more about wages, about what a fair rate is. I think those conversations are, are really important. I don’t think it benefits any of us to, especially if you’re a freelancer to, to not talk about the money part of a profession. And I wish I had it earlier.

Courtney: 

Yeah, that makes me wanna ask a little more about that. Cuz I realize we haven’t really talked about like rates in particular. So there’s 10 hours that go into, you know, every session. Are there any other factors that you use and to calculate what your current rate is?

Don: 

Yeah. I think about over you know, the, the things that I purchase subscriptions that I have, that I share with my patrons, the cost of actually doing business so overhead. And I think about, you know, I consider taxes, you know, cuz you, you have to, you have to think about taxes. Otherwise it’s a a very bad April for future you. But I take that into consideration as well. You know, if you use a site, almost any site you use for payment, there’s gonna be some kind of fee. Right. So Patreon is pretty good. I think Ko-fi is another one that does subscription services. That has a pretty fair rate. It’s not too high. So I think, you know, I think with Patreon, for me at least it’s like a 5% fee. You know, I, I take all of that into consideration too, before I set my rates. I didn’t originally, and that was another mistake I made was not thinking about those things. So the more resources I got, the more books I bought for my patrons or art, you know, or other things that I provided for them as part of our experience, the more expensive my business got. So I had to scale it by price. That way I take it, I would say for now I charge my current rate $350 a session divided by the number of players multiplied by the number of sessions per month. And that’s kind of how I figured out my, my price for my subscriptions.

Courtney: 

So I like with Patreon, of course, that’s, everybody’s paying a certain amount per month, right?

Don: 

I set it up per month. Yeah,

Courtney: 

Okay. So then are you just waiting until you have a certain number of players before you start a campaign?

Don: 

that’s right. Yeah. I, I announce it and we talk about it and we do the surveys. We find a time just so I’m sure it’s gonna work for everybody. And then I create, create the subscription and send them the link. And that’s kind of how I set it up.

Courtney: 

Yeah, like I noticed you had a lot of tiers on your Patreon like, I’m not sure. OK. But no, that, that makes sense.

Don: 

And some of my players too you know, they play in multiple games, a couple of ’em. And so I have to create a unique subscription just for that person that encapsulates, because, you know, whatever tier they get that gives them the permissions for discord and various things, they need to play the game. And so, yeah, I’ve collected. If you look at my Patreon and you actually look at all my tiers so it’s a lot of tiers.

Courtney: 

Yeah. That’s cool though. I think that’s really clever. Okay, so we talked about challenges, but I wanna flip that around and say, like, what has been the best part? Like what would you say has been really rewarding about doing this work?

Don: 

I think if you, if you’re a Lifelong GM or a GM in general, then, you know, the joy of running a game where everybody’s brains and their hearts are spinning when the session ends and it’s sticking with you and you’re thinking about it. And they’re thinking about it. They’re talking about it in between sessions. You know, if you can, if you can sustain doing a, a large number of campaigns or enough campaigns to, to make it a living you get that feeling all the time which is part of it. And there’s the, the other part of it for me, that’s most enjoyable is I was worried when I started, if people were paying me, you know, it’s the expectation going to be, that they, you know, I just wanna play a game where I always win and I don’t really care about other people’s experiences. I care about my experience. You know, almost like a certain amount of entitlement, but I’ve never experienced that with any of my players. They care so much about each other. And seeing that is really cool. And in some ways because my business kind of grew or I leaned more into it when the pandemic started, and I was maybe seeing people not as much, I just moved across the country shortly before that, so my family and friends were far away. That social connectivity, not just while we play, but you know, kind of on and off throughout the week is fantastic. And I think I’m really lucky the players that I have are really brilliant people really interesting people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. So there’s a lot of positive things in, in terms of the actual social aspect of it and creatively you know, I, because I’m paid for it, I can spend, I can put as much effort into it as I want. I can, and I can feel, you know, I’m not doing it for anybody else except for myself and for my players. And, and that’s a really good feeling to be able to, after working in the theater for so long and, and other industries where even if you’re being creative at the end of the day, you’re being creative for, you know, maybe somebody else, most of the time. Doing it for myself, that kind of freedom, personal and creative freedom is what I’ve always kind of been looking for in my life.

Courtney: 

Yeah, that’s really special. Like it’s, it’s just so cool that you’ve been able to carve this little niche out for yourself and seem to be loving it.

Don: 

yeah, it just sort of happened over time a little bit. I, you know, I think people ask me you know, when they’re interested in getting into it and I think more and more people are interested in professional GMing you know, well, how do I get into it? And. I, I tell them that I think I’ve been in the internet and in internet communities for a long, long time since I was very young. And the one thing that I’ve always noticed is that platforms sort of change over time, which ones are popular. There’s always something new coming out. And the people who benefit most from any platform, whether that’s Twitch or social media, or, you know, AOL message boards back in the day, whatever it is you know, they’re the people generally who get in on it first and that’s just kinda the way things are. If I took the same path I took to get here, and now that I took a few years ago, you know, four years ago or whatever, I, I’m not sure if I, I would manage to, to succeed at the same level, at least a relative that I have. And so don’t follow in somebody else’s footsteps and, you know, like asking me how I did it or can I do the same thing? How can I do the same thing you did is not probably good because there’s always diminishing returns. I think everybody kind of has to find their own way to get there, but I do encourage them to think about their rates and make sure that they’re asking for an amount of money that you know, is actually good for them sustainable. They can, they can live off of you know, at least for the amount of time they’re putting into it and not undersell themselves. You know, people spend a lot of money to go out to the bar or to buy food, go out to dinner or go to the movies. You know, people are willing to spend money on the things that they’re passionate about and excited about. And as long as you’re providing them a great experience then, then don’t undersell yourself. That’s what I tell people the most.

Courtney: 

I have one last patron question, which I feel like is kind of partially what you were just talking about, but just in case it’s any different Zeke would like to know if you could go back in time, five years, or I guess to the beginning of this and give yourself advice, what would you say?

Don: 

That definitely would’ve been part of it. Um, you know, I think if I had like more than, you know, if I time traveled and I had like 15 seconds then, yeah. Don’t. Here’s how much you should charge. Here don’t play more than this number of games per week. Like simple like that. But. But I don’t know. I, I’m, I’m really lucky. I’m really happy with what I do right now. And, you know, it’s always a fun, a funny question to consider. Like if I, I don’t have a lot of regrets at least not over the past couple of years. So if I could go back further in time to 18 year old me, I would have lots to say. But you know I, I would just I, I would just tell myself maybe a little bit earlier to think ahead in terms of being nice to myself.

Courtney: 

Well, I know we talked about a lot of different things that you’re working on, but is there anything else, like project wise or anything cool coming up that you’re excited about?

Don: 

Yeah. Yeah. There’s one thing I can’t talk about yet. But I am very excited. I’m always excited about upcoming projects. I think it’s very likely that I will launch this Star Wars campaign that I’ve been working on for you know, a little while very, very soon. So that I’m looking forward to that. It’s set in the old Republic era of Star Wars, you know, when there’s tons of Jedi and tons of Sith and tons of Mandalorians and I’ve, you know, never run a Star Wars game before, and this is sort of a partial, like you know, original creation of mine in terms of the actual game itself. And I’m always excited to see something that I’ve imagined actually get used by players. So I’ll be looking forward to that. And I think this year I’ll be fingers crossed as long as, you know, Mask mandates and vaccine mandates and things like that are upheld. I’ll probably be returning to conventions. And it’s been since 2019, since I’ve gone to a convention, I used to go to a lot of those. So I’ll be looking forward to doing panels and talking to people that I haven’t seen in a while. And, and that sort of thing at conventions once I return this year as well. Yeah.

Courtney: 

Awesome. That’ll be good. It’ll be fun to see which ones you go to. Well, Don, this has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you for letting me pester you with all of the questions, but if people want to find you check out what you’re doing, maybe join your Patreon, where should they go?

Don: 

Well I do have social media barely. DonathinFrye is my Twitter. That’s where I sometimes post about stuff or, or share things that I’m up to. Patreon, where is where you can subscribe to my games or my newsletter. It’s patreon.com/Donathin. And if you’re interested in maybe like the tabletop side of things that I do, I do have a website. That’s a portfolio website. That’s just Donathinfrye.com. If you wanna check that stuff out, you can find me there. I would say, you know, if you are interested in having a conversation or, or just asking questions, I’m trying to make myself available to answer questions for folks who are interested in professional GMing. Shoot me a message on Twitter. And when I, when I have time, I would, I would love to get back to you and, you know, provide you any kind of answer that I’m capable of.

Courtney: 

Awesome. I’ll have those in the show notes. Seriously, thank you for coming on today. This has been a a great conversation.

Don: 

Thank you. Yeah, I’ve loved this chat. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Thanks for dropping by! We would love to know who would like us to interview, so please drop a comment here on the blog, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Discord to let us know who your favorite creators are! If you’d like access to more maps and content, including downloadable PDFs of our adventures, check out our Maps Patreon or Podcast Patreon. We’re able to do what we do because of all our amazing Patrons!

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