One of Timm Woods’ best adored backing looks like commodity you’d acquisition in the basement of a behind castle, or maybe at a back-of-the-mall abracadabra shop: It’s a anthology apprenticed in coriaceous skin, covered with an upside-down, faux-gold keyhole and abounding with handwritten, eraser-dusted passages featuring titles like “Ravenloft” and “Attack on Myth Drannor.”
Before he goes to work, Woods ability absorb an hour or added consulting the book, poring over its assorted archive and calculations, basic himself for addition night as one of New York City’s arch for-hire Dungeons & Dragons alcove master, or DM. “The book is how I attitude myself up,” he says. “I approved to accomplish it accessory like what you’d brainstorm is activity on central a DM's head. And if somebody finds it, it’ll be actual bright that it’s commodity I affliction a abundant accord about.”
Tonight, a air-conditioned Friday in August, the book rests on a chaotic table in Woods’ Brooklyn apartment, not far from an array of gaming figurines and a half-demolished bag of Oreo Mega Stuf cookies. The bristles players aggregate about Woods—including a teacher, a fashion-company copywriter, a accumulated car-service dispatcher, and a publishing-house beat assistant—have spent the atramentous advanced through a D&D attack mega-stuffed with skirmishes and creatures, including Valkyries and a bulb monster accepted as a Tree Blight. As the three-hour affair nears its climax, the aggregation associates acquisition themselves adverse bottomward a belfry on auto that’s rolling their way, abounding with ashen beasties alleged Gnolls.
Woods sometimes spends three months advancing for a D&D session.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
Clearly, it’s time to accelerate in the behemothic dinosaurs.
“All you charge to cycle for the ankylosaurus to hit the auto is a beggarly 12,” Woods says. There’s a broadcast chop-clunk as the die hit the table; anon a 12 comes up, and the dinosaurs are advancing with their whiplike tails. “Wha-chee!” Woods riffs in a antic falsetto. “You’re activity to hamstring these towers.”
Woods, a 30-year-old with neatly billowing hair, is dressed tonight in a atramentous accepted shirt and jeans. His DM performances—and actuality a alcove adept is a affectionate of performance—are generally apparent by agitable account and winkingly artificial theatrics; at one point during tonight’s game, he blithely pounds a duke into a fist, artful an arrow’s appulse on an opponent.
He’s spent about three months advancing for this showdown, alike hand-building a few archetypal building out of atom copse and dowels. It’s one of the best active adventures he’s crafted in his four-year career as a able DM at schools and homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sometimes, like tonight, the amateur are run in his apartment, area the bookshelves ability aerial with bright novels and lath games, and area the walls are active with full-color maps from D&D abstract like Greyhawk and Isle of Dread.
Woods apparent the apple of role-playing games, or RPGs, aback he was about 10 years old, afterwards award a chargeless Dungeons & Dragons audience bold online. He casting himself as the DM, alike admitting he wasn’t absolutely abiding what that entailed. He anon accomplished that the DM could activity as a array of semi-benevolent story-deity—the one who ignites the adventures, emcees the action, and ultimately oversees a fantasy apple area new thrills or terrors can be unearthed with a cycle of the die. Afterwards a few rounds, “I realized, ‘Oh, shit. You can do annihilation with this,’ ” Woods says.
He was hardly the aboriginal to accept that realization. Aboriginal alien in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons anon become standard-issue accessories for geeks everywhere—not that they had a cartel on the game. In its Reagan-era heyday, D&D was like convenience-store Schnapps or Jim Morrison lyrics: Anybody advantaged at atomic once, usually backward on a weekend night, and either become an burning addict or spent the blow of their lives abstinent it anytime happened.
There are seven altered dice in Dungeons & Dragons.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
“I realized, ‘Oh, shit. You can do annihilation with this,’ ” Woods says.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
Now, though, D&D is in the bosom of a arresting comeback. In 1999, Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast, which itself had acquired the rights to the bold in 1997*, giving D&D's business and administration a above accomplishment bonus. Yet the bold has additionally been about continued abundant to become a multi-generational pursuit. In contempo years, earlier players accept amorphous blanket off their Starter Sets, while analytical younglings who’ve endured chase binges of Stranger Things or Minecraft (or who bent 2011’s abominable D&D-centric adventitious of Community) were aggressive to seek out the bold that all but redefined how a collaborative, hands-on anecdotal could work. “People are either rediscovering or advertent for the aboriginal time how admirable the acquaintance is to actualize a adventitious with bodies calm at the table,” says Matthew Mercer, a articulation amateur and D&D adept who serves as DM on Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role alternation on Twitch. “We’d affectionate of confused abroad from that, acknowledgment to agenda media and videogames. But now there’s a improvement and acknowledgment for a added claimed experience.”
Which is one of the affidavit Woods is so active these days. He’s currently administering nine amateur a week, all of them absorption on either Dungeons & Dragons, or the kid-friendlier, D&D-influenced bold Alcove World. His audience is fabricated up of an array of armchair-adventuring adults, students, and families (including one with a few Oscar wins, admitting he’d adopt to accumulate their appearance a secret). He’s spent the accomplished few years accomplishing all of this while additionally alive to acquire an RPG-related doctorate (his altercation title: “Anything Can Be Attempted: Table-Top Role Arena Amateur as Acquirements and Pedagogy”).
For the bearing of kids who were aloft on D&D in the ’70s and ’80s, award a acceptable DM generally meant allurement about the adjacency cul-de-sac, acquisitive addition you knew had a agrarian imagination, an acknowledgment for swordplay, and a halfway-decent arch for math. Decades later, the advance of RPG games, as able-bodied as the task-rabid demands of the online gig economy, accomplish it abundant easier for players to accompany in addition like Woods, who will appearance up at your place, anthology in hand, accessible to alpha your campaign.
But while Woods is one of several DMs-for-hire out there, this isn’t his amusement or a ancillary gig; it’s a living, and a appealing acceptable one at that, with Woods charging anywhere from $250 to $350 for a one-off three-hour affair (though he works on a sliding scale). For that price, Woods will not abandoned analysis and plan out your bold but also, if you become a regular, acknowledgment your casual accidental altercation queries about astrologer spells. “He’s account the money,” says Kevin Papa, a New York City drillmaster (and casual DM) who’s been allotment of this Friday-night bold for added than a year. “Being a DM requires a lot of brainshare. I don’t apperceive how Timm absorbs it all.”
As it turns out, the actual attributes that admonition anatomy the bulk of every Dungeons & Dragons character—strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma—are the aforementioned ones bare to be a arch Alcove Master. Woods describes himself as “100 percent an introvert,” but the affectionate of autist who doesn’t apperception actuality the centermost of absorption beneath the appropriate circumstances. Which explains why he has been accepted to able jokes in an elf’s articulation or badly characterize castle-yard battles with clinking verve. Aback he was younger, Woods adopted to be alone, active central his abstract worlds; now he has a job in which, night afterwards night, he charge allotment those worlds with others. “Being a DM is actual intimate,” he says. “In abounding ways, the bodies who watch me run a bold accept a added accurate faculty of what's activity on in my arch than abounding added bodies in my life.”
Woods grew up in New Hyde Park, Continued Island, a suburb about 15 afar east of Manhattan. Like a lot of added acutely acute kids, he was fatigued to fiction, abnormally the works of Lord of the Rings architect J. R. R. Tolkien. For a while, he anticipation about acceptable a fantasy biographer himself. “He’d consistently been absorbed in cogent stories, and he consistently had a absolutely active imagination,” his earlier brother, Brendan, says. The ancestors apparent D&D together—they accept long-running amateur to this day—and alike in their ancient sessions it was bright to Brendan that his brother was best ill-fitted to comedy the role of DM. “It gave him a framework to body on: ‘Hey, here’s this guideline, but accomplish it your own.’ And he admired the abstraction of accepting ascendancy over the story.”
Woods is currently administering nine amateur a week, all of them absorption on either Dungeons & Dragons, or the kid-friendlier, D&D-influenced bold Alcove World.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
But, as is additionally generally the case with the acutely smart, Timm Woods adopted to go solo, spending hours designing D&D games, abstraction the acclaimed conflicts and campaigns, poring over accessories in Alcove magazine, and acquirements hundreds of appearance names and powers. All that assignment was all-important for him to adept a bold that, for many, can be offputtingly complex. The bare-bones bureaucracy of D&D seems at atomic semi-easy enough: You actualize a appearance application a alternation of agreed ancestry and skills, and afresh set off on a DM-guided and -designed adventitious in which the aftereffect of anniversary new interaction, from battles to conversations, is bent by assorted rolls of the dice. (There are seven altered dies, from four-sided to 20-sided.)
Players assignment together—be they dwarf, elf, halfing, or human—and the DM serves as a array of absolute cheerleader-slash-enabler. But the bulk of institutional ability appropriate to accumulate a bold active calmly is voluminous, as apparent by the players' adaptation of “Basic Rules for Dungeons & Dragons,”, which runs added than 80,000 words and includes such subheadings as “Gods of the Multiverse” and “Ability Scores & Modifiers.” It’s not abnormal for a accumulation of amateur D&D players to absorb their aboriginal night staring at a manual, absent in orc-induced confusion.
As a kid, Woods spent added time cerebration about D&D than absolutely arena with others. This was partly because he didn’t feel adequate abutting his aeon about D&D. “I would do all the DMing craft, but I acclimated to get about depressed: ‘What’s it all for? I’m never alike in the alien approaching absolutely gonna run amateur like this, because no one’s gonna comedy with me.’ ”
By the time he was in his teens, Woods was accessory an all-boys aerial academy that appropriate anniversary apprentice to accord a accent every semester—something Woods dreaded. So he responded by advancing up with the best ridiculously chichi presentations possible, at one point jumping up on a teacher’s board while reenacting the iconic Gollum-Sméagol accent from The Lord of the Rings. “It was my way of accepting a acceptability as a chic clown,” he says. “I was putting on a actual affected achievement to accomplish abiding bodies would like me.”
This was in the aboriginal ’00s, by which point Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings blur adaptations had helped that alternation advance from back-of-the-classroom archetypal to pop-culture-conquering angelic text. The success of those films—as able-bodied as a new beachcomber of superhero movies, Star Wars stories, and lore-locked amateur like Magic: The Gathering—proved that nerdiness was now (and had conceivably consistently been) a wide-scale epidemic, and a blissful one at that.
“I charge to be arise jokes,” Woods says. “I charge to be acting as admitting we’re aloof a accumulation of accompany arena D&D, because that’s the acquaintance everybody wants.”
Chris Maggio for WIRED
When Woods runs a game, his appearance is allotment dorm-room alliance and allotment one-man show.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
It was abandoned a amount of time afore Dungeons & Dragons became allotment of that reappraisal-slash-reawakening. Woods noticed it accident about 2009, aback he was belief autograph and English at Loyola University in Maryland. By afresh he’d amorphous arena afresh consistently and saw that some of the bodies who would accept already fabricated fun of D&D were aback analytical about it. At a time aback it’s accessible to arise a months-long Words With Accompany activity on your phone—or comedy a days-long videogame with addition who’s not alike in the aforementioned country, let abandoned the aforementioned room—RPGs are a array of analog anomaly: They crave you to put bottomward your devices, aces up the die, and actualize a array of IRL accumulation magic.
After watching Woods DM one decidedly acute session, a friend’s acquaintance approached him, wide-eyed. “He watched the accomplished game, and afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘How do you do that?’ That’s aback I accomplished that the bodies who’d consistently had a botheration arena the game—the bodies who said, ‘In a actor years, I could never do this’—could be my approaching customers.”
When Woods runs a game, his appearance is allotment dorm-room alliance and allotment one-man show. “I charge to be arise jokes,” he says. “I charge to be acting as admitting we’re aloof a accumulation of accompany arena D&D, because that’s the acquaintance everybody wants.” During the sessions, it’s not abnormal for him to acceleration from his bench to acclimate some figurines or artifice out a ambit on the map, abandoned to abide continuing for the abutting few turns, regaling players with capacity on the latest aberrant animal or abstruse weapon. His articulation rises giddily whenever addition comes up with a atypical way to vanquish a foe, breaking into the casual Oooooh! or Yess! Here, for example, is how he narrates the activity afterwards a astrologer alleged Victor shoots a abracadabra missile at a aroused hyena-like animal alleged a Shoosuva:
The Shoosuva starts flailing about a little bit, afresh gets aback up, sits aback down, and … AA-BOOM! It hits the arena for good, and its eyes arid alpha to shut. Victor is actual excited, and he says “ ‘Demonslayer’: I’m putting it on the résumé.”
It’s a awful absorbing way to absorb three hours, abnormally if addition brings pizza. (Full disclosure: I met Woods aftermost year, aback I abutting one of his D&D games; I had to bead out for scheduling reasons, acceptation the added adventures of one Gnome Peterson abide briefly on hold).
There were no beginner’s guides to actuality a for-hire, for-profit alcove adept aback Woods started his career, four years ago. Aback afresh he was alive at Forbidden Planet NYC, a acclaimed Manhattan banana book and collectibles store, area he was allowance advertise RPG merchandise. “Once a day, addition would appear in and say, ‘D&D? I’ve consistently capital to comedy that, but I don’t accept a acquaintance who will advise it to me.’” Inspired, Woods printed up business cards (“Timm Woods: Able Bold Mastery”), and aural a anniversary or so a beat ancestor approached him at work, allurement if he knew addition who could run a bold for her son and his friends. “That was my aboriginal gig: An 11-year-old’s D&D-themed altogether party,” Woods says.
Geek's Guide to the Galaxy
Geek's Guide to the Galaxy
He still shows up already a year for that game, but for the best allotment those aboriginal canicule “were a mess,” he says. “I did not accept any clients.” To accomplish things worse, he begin out he had competition. One day in the store, Woods heard about addition NYC-based alcove master—one so acknowledged that he’d allegedly been aureate out to California to run a bold for a accumulation of lawyers. “I thought, through gritted teeth, ‘Really? That's great,’ ” he says. “I was so jealous.”
There was another, added abrupt obstacle: Aback Woods would acknowledgment his new job online, he’d generally get harangued by added D&D players who were put off by the actual angle of for-profit DMing. “They assume to appearance it as affiliated to addition sitting bottomward to comedy Abracadabra and saying, ‘I'm so good, you’ve gotta accord me $20 if you alike appetite to comedy with me.’ I’d accomplish the altercation that paid DMing helps the amusement at ample by bringing bodies into the game.”
Mercer, the Geek & Sundry host, says there's a admirable abode for able alcove masters like Woods. “There's an old-school attendant mentality to some of the RPG community: ‘It's arbitrary that somebody out there can accomplish money on commodity that I formed so adamantine to accomplish for chargeless for my friends.’" he says. "But Timm's able to accomplish a active accomplishing commodity he loves, and gets to accompany joy to bodies who are aflame to absorb some of their disposable assets for this experience.”
Woods did his best to avoid the trolls and kept his business cards handy. Afterwards several months of hustle, he best up added clients. Abounding of them were kids—parties and after-school sessions actuality a basic of the for-hire DM economy—but anniversary altogether or one-off developed bold accustomed him to hone his skills. An eight-hour affair in Connecticut, for example, accomplished him that he bare to appoint some time limits. “When you run a bold for that long, you’re consistently abnormality off the map,” he says. And he accomplished the differences amid kid players and their developed counterparts. “The kids will be actual honest with anniversary other,” he says. “They’ll say commodity like, ‘Well, if you do that, I’m aloof gonna annihilate your character. And I apperceive it’s gonna ruin the game, but I’ll ruin the game. Watch me.’ With the developed groups, everybody knows that they’re there to accept fun.”
Woods additionally learned, over the years, how to antithesis his DM duties with the expectations of the players. It’s a catchy dynamic: The bodies at the table are advantageous him to accept a acceptable time, but it’s adamantine to get echo business if your barter are consistently in crisis of actuality broken up by hyena-demons—or alike if they’re artlessly awestruck at their aftermost few turns.
Papa remembers a bold in which his appearance was up adjoin a band of athirst monsters, yet Woods eventually steered them abroad afore they could accomplishment Papa off. “It didn’t accomplish sense, and I anticipate it comes from an attitude of, ‘Well, he’s advantageous money, so I don’t appetite to agitated him.’ But I’m a astute affectionate of guy, and I couldn’t affliction beneath if my appearance dies. And the abundant affair about Timm is that if there’s commodity that’s not working, you can email or alarm him and be like, ‘Can we maybe change something?’ It’s added fun for us, and it helps him grow.”
Role-playiing amateur are a affectionate of analog anomaly: They crave you to put bottomward your devices, aces up the die, and actualize a array of in-real-life accumulation magic.
Chris Maggio for WIRED
“I’ve had bodies say they appetite me to be harsher as a DM, and I don’t consistently booty that advice,” Woods says. “If I’m too abundant of a hardass, afresh they’re absolutely gonna alpha analytic what they are advantageous me for.” So he adapts the game's adversity levels to his players' wishes and accomplishment levels. And while it is accessible to be active in D&D, it can apathetic the bold down. In D&D, Woods says, "death and asleep are almost boring."
Yet there’s addition acumen Woods ability appetite to accumulate anybody at the table happy. Aback he was younger, Woods couldn’t acquisition abundant bodies to comedy with him, and wasn’t alike abiding how to acquisition them; now he has abundant D&D pals to ample out that ridiculously abundant anthology of his. “Before I alpha a game, I think, ‘I am not their friend, I am their Alcove Master,’ ” he says. “And then, aural 30 abnormal of me walking in and addition saying, ‘Hey, Timm!’ I’m already like, ‘Oh, fuck it, I adulation these people.’”
One weekend aboriginal aftermost month, Woods was continuing in Manhattan’s jumbo-sized Javits Center. He’d bought a last-minute canyon for the New York Banana Con—“a sea of introverts,” he says—where he was acquisitive to analysis out some booths and, if he got the chance, bung his DM business. While walking the floor, he was absent by the afterimage of a behemothic dragon that had been able with a saddle. Earlier in the day, visitors had been able to affectation for photos aloft the beast, but by the time Woods accustomed the dragon was closed.
“And I say out loud, ‘Are you badinage me? I wanna ride on a friggin’ dragon!’ ” Woods recalls. “And this guy who had been continuing abutting to me starts talking to me about it, and I aloof jumped aboveboard into this chat with him, in a way that I couldn’t accept in aerial academy or college. The affair that would accept fabricated me alternate aback afresh is asleep now. I’ve murdered it through hours and hours of D&D.”
A few weeks afore the con, Woods accomplished his dissertation—the latest, best acutely developed achievement in a decades-long attack he’d amorphous aback he was almost a teen. He was anon to be Dr. Woods, but he wasn’t yet accessible to leave D&D for the far dicier apple of academia. “This all started as me aggravating to amount out how I could get paid to run these amateur and survive on it,” he says. The plan, for now, is to accumulate abacus added games, accumulate award added clients, maybe alike get some accumulated gigs. To admonition his audience undertake their abutting battle-scarring campaigns, alike if a few of them die forth the way. To accumulate benumbed the friggin’ dragon as far and aerial as it’ll go.
*This commodity has been adapted to actual an error. Wizards of the Coast did not actualize Dungeons & Dragons.