These dungeon masters play D&D for a living
David Lindsay had no plans to become a professional dungeon master. For years he’d worked as a corporate writer, but when the pandemic hit he was laid off from his corporate job.
Lindsay, 28, began writing through the freelancing platform UpWork and nursing a hobby guiding Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaigns on the site StartPlaying. He had been playing the fantasy game for over a decade but it was always just for fun. Quickly he realized people were coming back to his events and paying him $20 per session—and now, the Salt Lake City-based writer finds himself hosting events about 30 hours per week.
“I put on music, put on voices, a lot of stuff goes into it. I drink a lot of coffee,” Lindsay says. “A lot of late nights.”
Lindsay is one of a growing group of people to turn the fantasy game into a career—and in Utah, access to online communities has opened up a wide world of interaction for players. As the pandemic played out, more gamers shifted from tabletop, in-person gatherings to digital meet-ups, and as a result, D&D exploded in popularity.
D&D is a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) released in 1974. Each player has their own character with a rich backstory and set of skills and experiences that they bring to each game and adventure. Originally structured as an in-person, tabletop game, one person serves as a dungeon master, guiding players through a storyline and presenting challenges and enemies for them to overcome as a group.
“I never considered making this my career. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Dax Levine, an Orem-based dungeon master, first played D&D with friends as a 10-year-old and then immediately moved states. He suddenly had no friends who also played the game, and spent years imagining what his character would be. He wrote fantasy stories and channeled his interest into other hobbies.
“I would draw maps on the graph paper in math class, I would write stories for English class based on D&D characters I knew I would never get the chance to play,” he says. “I got really into theater and performing arts and improv.”
But during choir practice in college at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, a friend pulled out a 20-sided die—a classic piece of D&D culture. Levine went up to them immediately afterward and asked to start playing.
“I had not seen one in person in years,” he says of the die. “I got to play one of the characters I’d written about.”
After moving back to Utah, Levine found a srtong community built around fantasy and science fiction conventions, and eventually decided to give professional D&D a try. He built a website, formed a business—all in January 2020. By March, he was fully set up to host online groups and process payments. Then the pandemic hit, and demand skyrocketed.
“I never considered making this my career,” he says. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
For decades, the game has enjoyed immense popularity among gamers and is legendary for helping create the RPG genre. A few years after its release, D&D was earning tens of millions and being shipped to countries around the world. By the early 1980s, 3 million players had adopted the game.
“All of us at times feel a little inadequate at dealing with the modern world. It would feel much better if we knew that we were a superhero or a mighty wizard.”
Almost through its entire existence, though, players have endured widespread condemnation from religious groups looking to cast them as satan-worshippers, suspicious state actors, and sensationalized media portrayals. Evangelicals in the 1980s declared the game would lead to witchcraft and demonology, while US Army agents tried to infiltrate D&D founder Gary Gygax’s gaming circle on the belief that the group posed a threat to the government. At the same time, nationwide media coverage erroneously linked teen murders and suicides to the game.
This kind of cultural backlash against fantasy role play is a major piece of contemporary pop culture: Netflix’s popular show Stranger Things, set in the 1980s, built its story arc around D&D during its first season in 2016. The most recent season, released earlier this summer, depicts the school bully labeling the protagonists as satanists and cultists. A mob is even organized to attack players in the belief that they are agents of supernatural evil.
Since the beginning, the game has drawn a following because of its ability to make players feel empowered and part of a community—all through a shared, imagined reality. “All of us at times feel a little inadequate at dealing with the modern world,” Gygax said in a 1980s TV interview. “It would feel much better if we knew that we were a superhero or a mighty wizard.”
For Levine, this kind of culture is a big part of what appeals to him about the game. He’s a storyteller, and he found this fantasy world and the ability to inhabit a character to be an incredibly fulfilling emotional experience. When he wanted to teach his comedy improv friends how to play, for example, he found the story to be the best part.
“They were terrible at it,” he says. “They couldn’t remember the rules or the numbers or how the dice worked. But they were so good at making these characters that you fell in love with, telling these stories that mattered.”
With stigma around fantasy and gaming culture melting away, hobbies like D&D have become more mainstream. Many of Levine’s clients are corporate groups that see it as a team-building exercise. He says these types of clients can gather for years at a time to work on campaigns and grow their characters; he has colleagues who earn a living in places like Silicon Valley just hosting corporate games, without having to host anything online. This entire culture together has created a massive boon for the game’s parent company, Wizards of the Coast, which has claimed that 50 million people worldwide have played D&D.
"They were so good at making these characters that you fell in love with, telling these stories that mattered.”
Once the pandemic hit in 2020 and in-person games were impossible, players adapted. Online communities grew, and players were joining from across the globe by video conference for their campaigns. D&D had its biggest year ever in sales, and Wizards of the Coast earned nearly a billion dollars in revenue during 2020.
The culture that has launched around the game for people like Levine and Lindsay has been an incredibly creative one. They don’t have to pay licensing fees or anything to Wizards of the Coast to work as a professional dungeon master—other than buying the game materials, which they would be buying as casual players. This means they can invest more into paying other artists and gamers to help create the worlds they build for clients.
According to Levine, the community is incredibly supportive and artistic, allowing for immense collaboration. As a result, clients from all over the world keep coming back to him.
Lindsay says the shift to online gaming during Covid made a career in D&D possible for him. Otherwise, he says, gaming shops might pay $100 or $200 for someone to lead one-off events—it could never be a full-time gig under those circumstances. Now, with players gathering online, it is easy to find people to join a campaign every day—and he estimated that he leads nine or 10 adventures per week.
“Personally, I do a lot of voice acting,” he says of his approach to work as a Dungeon Master. “I’m on webcam the whole time, so they see my face… they do voices back, and they get into it.”