Obviously, people at Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and Wizards of the Coast (D&D) do. What I have been wondering is whether there are ways in which people outside of such firms could do it.
The immediate inspiration for this post was an event on my campus where, after a day of academic talks by high-tech law types, the evening entertainment included D&D games run by hired DM's—for players most of whom, I would guess, had never played before. But the original source of the idea was my observation of quite a lot of people who devote levels of thought, effort, and talent to running dungeons or leading raids in WoW comparable to what other people spend making a living.
Three possible models occur to me:
1. A professional DM. Lots of D&D games nowadays are played online, with software by which the DM can control what appears on his players' screens. Suppose a DM is good enough so that some players are willing to pay a modest fee, perhaps a few dollars an hour, to be in his game. That would not make him rich, but it might pay him ten or fifteen dollars an hour—enough to support a life style at least one step above couch surfing.
2. A professional raid leader. I know someone in WoW who is a skilled player, a good charismatic leader, and good at running raids—groups of ten or twenty-five players working together to accomplish difficult things. I can imagine people paying to be in the raids of someone like that—most obviously people who don't have a good enough social network, or enough skills in and out of game, to be invited into a competently run raid. A four hour raid with twenty-five players could plausibly earn the leader a hundred dollars or more.
3. A professional trainer. I am again thinking in the context of World of Warcraft. One of the two characters I currently play consistently underperforms, does less damage to enemy creatures than other players in the group he is with. I am pretty sure I am doing something wrong and I do not know what. If there was someone online with a reputation for doing a good job of coaching players in how best to play their characters, I might well pay for his services.
All three of these approaches face the same problem: A lot of people enjoy running D&D games, leading raids, or giving
advice to friends or friends of friends on how to play their characters. It is hard to sell something when other people are giving it away for free. Possible solutions are either to provide something enough better so that people are willing to pay for it, the approach by which private schools compete with public schools, or to sell the service to people who are unable to manage the non-monetary mechanisms by which others get the same service for free. The business model of the oldest profession.
Something along these lines, people making a living by doing for money what others do for free, already exists for some older games. The example I am most familiar with is bridge. Sufficiently good bridge players can, and some do, make a living as paid partners, providing players a little less good a mixture of entertainment, teaching, and status.
I am not sure it would work for modern role playing games, whether D&D and its relatives or MMORPG's such as WoW. But it does seem as though there should be some way in which the level of skill and commitment shown by the best participants could provide them with at least a modest income.