How to DM Like Matt Mercer
More and more, this question gets thrown out at every person who hands out advice on how to run 5e Dungeons and Dragons. With the rise in popularity of D&D 5e and tabletop games streaming, it seems like everyone is watching Critical Role on Thursday nights. I suppose I can’t really blame them. It’s a pretty entertaining show. It’s a full cast of voice actors, each doing the funny voices and riffing off of each other as only experienced improv actors can. Sitting at the head of the table, in the DM’s seat is Matt Mercer, an engaged DM with fantastic improvisational chops, a campaign setting detailed enough to be released as an official supplement for fifth edition, and the experience with the game to adjudicate with an eye for drama. What’s not to love, right?
I think a lot of new people are being exposed to the hobby through Critical Role, and they’re seeing this as the ur-example of what a game should look like. A bunch of friends, doing voices in an expansive world that feels alive and fresh and exciting. There’s dungeons, and romance, and dragons, and jokes, and friendship, and undead, and powerful magic, and all of the various things that make this game fun. So, why wouldn’t an aspiring DM look up to Matt Mercer? He’s running the kind of game we should all strive for, right?
I listened to the first season of Critical Role. It was a pretty good story, overall, and it killed a lot of road trip hours as I was commuting between San Antonio and Clovis, New Mexico (don’t ask). But it didn’t make me go, “that’s D&D.” It was a TV show, or an audio book. Because the cast worked seamlessly together to tell stories as only actors really could.
Matt Mercer and his cast are professionally likeable people, playing the game like actors. I do not know about your gaming group or your friend group in general, but I do not count many actors among my own. They do not commit to a moment, portray vulnerability, or have intense heart to hearts in character without some serious prodding. No amount of out of game discussion or custom-built content will make them do that organically.
But, that’s fine. My game is not Critical Role.
Let me talk briefly about the “Mercer Effect.” This term was coined on Reddit a while back, speaking to the unrealistic expectations of players and dungeon masters who believe that their games will be like Critical Role. It’s cropping up with startling frequency, and it’s leading to disappointment from people new to the hobby. It’s a sad fact that very few first games are good right out of the gates. It takes experience to get comfortable with the game’s systems, and unless you’ve got some system mastery, you aren’t going to feel comfortable enough to improvise. Improvisation is the key to the kind of narrative freedom that so many people point to as virtuous in games like Critical Role. Furthermore, there are a lot of people who don’t want to play a game like Critical Role, and their games will never be that kind of experience. Both of these things are fine.
When I started playing this game, the five players went to the local dungeon–or started at its gate–kicked in the door and began looking for treasure, often killing masses of monsters to get it. We cleared rooms, navigated traps, and never once spoke in character. And it was a blast. Don’t let a new touchstone supplant what is fun for you.
Matt Mercer runs a very narrative-focused game for players who are intimately familiar with what makes a satisfying story. They are aware of when to step in to provide a narrative beat, and when to step back to let one of their fellow actors have a moment in the spotlight. They have a budget for props to add dynamism. They have music controlled off-screen, so the DM doesn’t have to fumble. Table talk is kept to a minimum. The game is a platonic ideal for some people.
At a home game, you can’t count on any of this. Your players’ attention will wander, they’ll step on each other, fight for spotlight, joke around, go on tangents, and quote Monty Python. You’ll have technical issues. Maybe you have to draw an impromptu map and have to contend with downtime. They’ll forget something. You’ll forget something.
That’s fine. That’s part of D&D. It’s the part that doesn’t make it into the streams every Thursday.
But, if you want to DM like Matt Mercer, and your players want to play like Vox Machina, there are ways to push your game in that direction. It won’t be it exactly, because DMing and play are necessarily idiosyncratic, but it will get close.
Let me highlight some things that Matt Mercer does well, just a couple of things that stand out. They are things that I think can improve games measurably if they’re handled correctly, and they’re things that a lot of fledgling DMs sort of forget to think about.
- Establish the “Reality” of the fantasy world.
- Provide narrative stakes with emotional weight.
- Be a fan of your characters.
If I had to point to a moment where Matt Mercer helped my willing suspension of disbelief, it was the moment when someone asked what the official flower of the city-state of Whiterun was. Matt didn’t hesitate, just casually said that it was the white iris. Improv? Probably. Irrelevant. A player had a question about the world, and Matt had an answer. He could have just as easily brushed it off and said, “I don’t know. Who cares?” But in that moment, having the answer, even having an answer, was fundamentally necessary to make that player believe that this was a world that existed.
This game has a built in information economy. You know your world, your players are learning about it. Your players will look to you for information, and however trifling, that information matters to them. It’s never just a guard, it’s never just a mountain, it’s never just an official flower. That guard has a name, the mountain has a story, the flower is important. If you want your players to look at your world as something that is alive and breathing, you can’t just give them the broad strokes and expect them to think that it’s enough.
Be careful about your details, because it’s easy to overcorrect. When I say that there’s an information economy, I mean that there’s a balance here. If you drown your players in detail, they will resent you for it. It’s easy, when you over-explain, to look like you’re overly precious about your setting, and no one wants to play a four hour travelogue. When they have questions, answer them. If you don’t have answers, tell them that you’ll get back to them. Or ask them how their character would know that. That will get their wheels turning.
Stakes with Weight
I’ve already briefly mentioned stakes in another article. It’s a hard subject to cover exhaustively, but I think I can boil it down to a couple of sentences here for anyone who doesn’t want to follow a link and read another long page of musing. “Stakes” are what your PCs stand to gain or stand to lose over the course of the game. If the answer is treasure or their life, you’re probably going to get an eyeroll. I mean, unless your players are in for that sort of game. That’s old-school, and I’m still very much into that.
Matt Mercer is good at plumbing his players character backstories for emotional nuggets that he can spin into adventures with stakes. Vex and Vax didn’t have to think about whether or not they were going to chase down the dragon that killed their mother. Percy had to take the shot at revenge for his family’s murders at the hands of the Briarwoods. Lot of dead parents in Critical Role. Grog’s eventual confrontation with Kevdak who had expelled him from the Herd of Storms felt weighty because it tied into an arc that Travis Willingham obviously cared enough about to include in his backstory. Every conflict in a PCs backstory is a knife that you can twist.
But in new games with new players, you often won’t have that kind of backstory prepared. Instead, you can look at the bonds, ideals, and flaws that players choose to inform what sort of emotional resonances might work best. These are purpose-built pick up and play “Well, why should I care,” buttons. Press them.
Being heavy-handed with emotional buy-in can feel a little overly dramatic if it’s handled without care, but if you are looking for the melodrama of those powerful sobbing moments in Critical Role, you need to start thinking about what your characters could stand to lose or gain over the course of the adventure. These are the things that make a game story-shaped, and we remember stories better than we do encounters.
Being a Fan of Your Characters
This is one that I think really needs to be foot-stomped, so bear with me, guys. If you are one of the antagonistic DMs who is designing death-traps with obscure activation triggers that deal tons of damage and are nigh impossible to disarm in attempts to “win” Dungeons and Dragons, take a step back and look at yourself. If you win, the story is over. The game has ended, and one person at the table has maybe had a good time. But probably not.
Matt Mercer has earned his players trust by being excited by their successes and sympathizing with their failures. When they have a plan that they are excited about, he doesn’t find the ways that it doesn’t make sense. Instead, he points at the dice and says “You can certainly try.” This, in a nutshell is what I mean when I say to be a fan of your characters. While they are in a world that is, increasingly, trying to kill them, alone, and beset by horrible monsters, cruel and unusual geography, and misfortune at every turn…it means a lot to have someone giving you the thumbs up.
Your players built characters they thought were cool. You approved them. You had to, or they wouldn’t be in your world. Let them be cool. Let them try things and succeed. Let those successes cost them, but let them be heroes. Be excited for what might be coming next, and your excitement will spread. This game is fun, and your enthusiasm for it is what is going to keep players investing.
This does not mean that you should let anything they try work, but compromise, tell them what they don’t realize about the situation that makes their plan unfeasible. Work together to make their intent possible, and then pick up the dice. Nothing comes of a flat “no.” That kills forward momentum faster than an unopenable door. Better to figure out something together that might work, even when it takes three spells.
In short, I don’t think that you should really be overly concerned about DMing like Matt Mercer. He’s got his own game, and he’s running it for his friends and letting us watch. That group has a DM and your group doesn’t need Matt Mercer. They are not Vox Machina or the Mighty Nein. They aren’t voice actors with a lifetime of performing experience. They’re your friends, and they need you. They need you to bring enthusiasm, narrative weight, and some believability to fantasyland so they can play their game of D&D.
You can do it. I believe in you.
How do you wanna do this?