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September 04, 2019 News » Cover Story

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Running the Game

Natasha Ence turns the storytelling of being a role-playing game master into a career.
By Bryan Young

COURTESY NATASHA ENCE
  • Courtesy Natasha Ence

Natasha Ence remembers being 7 years old when she played her first role-playing game. Her father thought Dungeons & Dragons would be a little too intense for her, so he introduced her to Traveller, a science fiction role-playing game that came out in 1977 and is one of the more complex RPG systems out there. Together, they played everywhere.

"I remember taking all of these different road trips with my dad where we would play Traveller in the car. We used the little cup holder as a dice tray," Natasha, now 25, says. "It was great"

The role-playing adventures that began all those years ago haven't ended for Ence, but they certainly sent her down her career path. Today, she's a professional game master (or GM). Ence is based in Utah, and juggles dozens of clients and games—both in person and online—under the banner of Tales off the Table (talesoffthetable.com), the business she started to bring gaming to those who couldn't find a group or game master of their own.

This wasn't exactly the career she expected to find herself in. She wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do, but her love of gaming fostered a love of storytelling, which is why she went to college to study literature, teaching and creative writing. In 2017, Ence was in graduate school working on her Master's degree in creative writing and was teaching literature, writing and introductory English. She began looking around for something that could combine her love of gaming and her degree. That's when Tales off the Table was born.

"Role-playing is more popular than ever," Ence says, and it's hard to argue. The most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the best-selling version of the game ever, and Ence has some theories as to why that demand for social storytelling games is on the rise. For one, it's part of pop culture. "Almost every comedy or retro show will have a Dungeons & Dragons episode or a roleplaying game episode where they bring it in. Community did this. Stranger Things did it. Big Bang Theory did it. It's becoming more widely recognized as a thing, so there's naturally more curiosity about it. It's to the point where I can go to the salon, and my hairdresser knows what Dungeons & Dragons is."

There's also the element of parents like Ence's who grew up on these games bringing their kids into the fold. Dungeons & Dragons has only been around since 1974, so the culture is just now seeing second and third generations that grew up on the game.

Role-playing isn't just popular, though; Ence feels that it's important. It builds communities and relationships, and seeing that idea play out with strangers through her business is a rewarding prospect to her. "Any time you're playing a game that's designed to help you cooperate, you're going to strengthen a relationship," she says. "I've always said that role-playing games are like a form of therapy. Playing them allows you to put yourself in someone else's shoes and consider things from someone else's perspective."

Ence designs her games to broaden that diversity and strengthen empathy in her players, whether they realize it or not. And she plays to that concept, righting wrongs in fiction and real life through the use of the games, taking elements from established universes and twisting them in subtle ways to help teach subtle lessons to players.

While Ence believes hers could be a valid career path for burgeoning storytellers, she also adds a caveat. While she estimates that she spends about 60 hours a week on this job, and much of it is spent gaming, there is also the logistical work that comes with running a small business. "I'm writing and I'm producing work," she says, "but I do panels and travel and do taxes and invoicing, and keeping my website up to date, and all of these other things that you don't think of when you decide you want to be a professional game master."

She has enough demand to hire more game masters, but doesn't want to. "Then what would happen," she says, "is I would transfer to the back end and I would end up just hiring and managing people and dealing with HR issues, and that's not what I want to be. So, I decided to keep my operation small, and I'm happy there."

For those who want to book Ence for a game, she has options to work with any budget and time availability. Some of her gigs are one-shots, like special events or birthday parties. There are games one could play online in a bespoke chatroom with her, stretching a four-hour game into a week so you can sneak in a few minutes here or there. She has regular openings, as well as a waiting list for her more established games that are played online. She's not limited to Dungeons & Dragons, either, running any system in any setting. And her prices are affordable. "I try to match my prices to what it would cost you to go see a movie and buy concessions," Ence says, with a typical rate coming in at $15 per three-to-four-hour online session. More than that, she'll even turn a gaming session into prose for a small fee.

But Ence doesn't play just for money, either. "I still play for fun," she says. "I just love it. I play with different friend groups for social aspects, and others to just deconstruct mechanics of games and how they tell stories. It's just part of me."

And really, that's the sort of person you want running a game for you.

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