Unless you’ve just swung into the multiverse swaddled in a stork’s napkin, you’ve no doubt heard of Matthew Mercer. He’s probably the world’s most famous Dungeon Master thanks to the popular Youtube gaming series Critical Role – although I personally discovered him taking charge of Wizards of the Coast’s own web series ‘Force Grey‘.
I never would have thought in a million years that watching other people play D&D could be entertaining, but I absolutely loved tuning into the first seasons of this series, where the PCs were played by some very amusing characters, particularly Utkarsh Ambudkar, Chris Hardwick and Jonah Ray. As the series has gone on both Chris and Jonah left, and with them went some of the charm of the early episodes, but nonetheless I found myself just as keen to switch on. That’s when I realised the draw for me was not watching the players’ smash foes and trade banter (amusing though it is), it was rather tuning in to watch Matt Mercer arbitrate the game.
Why? Because watching Matthew Mercer Dungeon Master is like watching Lionel Messi play football. You’re left captivated and fascinated by someone operating at the top of their game.
Watching Matthew Mercer Dungeon Master is like watching Lionel Messi play football. You’re left captivated and fascinated by someone operating at the top of their game.
And whilst, like watching Messi, I simply have to accept that I’m never going to be in the same league in terms of my own performances (be it on the soccer field or at the table), I am at least able to pick up some really cool tips on how I can improve my own Dungeon Master skills.
After recently binge-viewing the whole Lost City of Omu series, here are some things I’ve learned from watching Matt Mercer DMing that I wanted to share with you…
1. More detail brings the game alive
Matthew has a talent for both imagining and describing the world his players inhabit, and not only every backdrop is depicted in detail, but every monster, spell and every swing of the sword is rendered in technicolour so that you really feel like you’re almost watching a movie as the action unfolds.
Before I watched Matt DM I played the game in a very much mechanical bare bones style. If a player told me, “I cast magic missile on the orc,” I would no doubt reply. “Ok roll 3d4+3 damage.” “10 hp of damage. Is he dead?” “Nope he’s still alive.”
Matt however would say something along the lines of: “Three fizzing white bolts of arcane energy shoot from your fingertips and speed towards the hapless orc with the accuracy of heat seeking missiles. Boof, boof, boof, they explode one by one on his chest, as he staggers back from the pain. Gritting his sharp animal-like teeth, he shouts a war cry in his native tongue and charges towards you.”
I don’t think I really have to tell you which is better do I?
Needless to say I’m trying to up my game in this respect, the challenge being dealing with the chaos of combat and the dozens of things you need to keep track of whilst still finding the mental agility to dish out the power descriptions… but improvements have been made.
2. Don’t say no, say “you can try”
I confess, I’m always been a very restrictive Dungeon Master. I love realism and additionally I like players to earn kick ass hero status, not expect themselves to be able to pull off death defying stunts from the get go. This means, historically, I’ve often simple ruled out the more outlandish manoeuvres that PCs have thrown at me. This is of course is frustrating for players, and takes some of the fun away from them.
There are two things I’ve noticed Matt does when one of his players comes up with a particularly unfeasible plan, and I’ve started doing the same. The first is to make sure the PCs understand the logistics of what they’re trying to attempt. As D&D happens in our heads it’s natural that what one person imagines is not exactly how another person does… in fact, although I obviously can’t get into other peoples’ heads to verify this, I’m pretty sure they’re often wildly wildly different! Simply going through the scenario again in more detail is often enough for a player to drop a plan that wouldn’t work… once they understand that the river is swollen with winter rains and that Michael Phelps himself wouldn’t last long swimming in plate mail, then they might not be so keen to drown themselves.
The second response to a crazy ass idea that Matt often gives is to simply say ‘you can try!’ I really like this method a lot as it gives players full creative control over their characters and a chance of success… how big or small is up to you to decide! And if / when they fail it often leads to something epic or memorable happening. That’s better than ruling out their creativity and having them resignedly make a boring melee attack from having nothing better to do.
In fact I’ve come to realise that many of the best moments of the game come from when a DM lets a player do something stupid. It’s that moment in the movie when things go from bad to worse and the drama is at its highest point… often with some hilarity thrown in.
Even if it means throwing out a DC 25 or 30, let the PCs have a go at whatever they want and enjoy the carnage that follows…
3. Use the dice rolls to inspire the description
This is a related to my first point, but what I really love about Matt’s style of DMing is how, what in black and white mechanical terms are successes or failures, turn into nuanced reality in his masterful hands. If someone fails an attack roll by one point, this is Matt’s cue to describe how their arrow flies true, but teasingly deflects off hobgoblin’s helmet without dealing damage. A PC passes a saving throw against fireball prompts Matt to describe how their character combat-rolls behind a nearby boulder to avoid the worst of the blast. The drama of an on-the-money DC Athletics check, and Matt describes how the character plants both their feet – just – on the other side of the chasm, before frantically wheeling their arms to avoid slipping backwards into a boiling pit of lava.
In other words he continually takes the binary mechanics of success and failure, and turns them into a story, and that’s awesome.
4. Let PCs describe the kill
Generally Matt takes the lead in describing the action… that makes sense. As the Dungeon Master he is the arbitrator of the world. A player can attempt anything, but what actually happens is up to the DM to interpret. However when a PC reduces a monster to zero hit points the DM can afford to give the player in question carte blanche to describe their actions as the outcome is decided, and how it happens is more a point of style.
When this happens at Matt’s table he typically turns to the PC with a sly grin and says (thus revealing that they’ve just killed the baddie!), “So how do you want to do this?”
This is the PCs cue to give vent to their (violent) fantasies and let them imagine exactly how their character delivers the death blow, often embellishing the strike with stylish flourishes such as “then I spit on his corpse,” or “then I wipe the blood off my blade and say ‘and stay down bitch'”. Every player likes to bathe in the power of their PCs and handing them the reins for a moment (specifically a moment where the result is already decided) allows them, not only to revel in being a badass, but also to join in the creativity and become a joint story teller along with the DM.
In fact it would be worth considering where else in the game, as a DM, you can do this… players love it and the game becomes a real team effort of imagination.
By the way there’s a great example of this in action in this episode of Force Grey as the druid in the party finishes off an undead T-rex in the jungles of Chult when the swarm of porcupines he summons unleash a volley of quills at the zombie lizard.
5. You don’t have to be a slave to the rules
Players often consciously or subconsciously interpret their skills to be a lot more powerful than the rules actually state, and I do think it’s important to keep them in check on these occasions… otherwise you’re going to make a rod for your back as players then expect to be able to exceed their powers on a regular basis, and you’re potentially going to get in all kinds of awkward situations down the line.
However, as Matt Mercer demonstrates in this episode of The Lost City of Omu it’s totally ok to allow a player to step outstep the rules in a key moment.
In the example I just shared the barbarian of the party has just lost her right hand… that’s not going to be much fun for her from now on in! Given that she fights with a two handed weapon, she’s going to be something of a lame duck for the rest of the adventure. The party are desperate to help out, and the paladin, having already been told that the lesser restoration spell won’t work, describes in detail how he takes his friend’s severed hand and places it next to the bloody wrist, and utters a desperate prayer to his God.
Now, rules as written, there’s no way his ability lay on hands is supposed to be able to reattach limbs, but instead of saying ‘sorry dude, but that’s beyond your powers’ Matt tells the paladin to make a religion check. It’s clearly a crucial moment and with some bardic inspiration and guidance he ends up rolling a 27. This is Matt’s cue to describe the paladin reaching beyond the planes of existence to the Nine Hells and coming face to face with his terrifying deity, Tiamat, whose five heads nod their assent to this boon. It’s not quite as simple as that though… a burst of white radiant light flairs up on the barbarian’s wrist, doing 10 hp of damage, and her hand feels numb and not quite its old self.
By letting one of the player’s bend the rules of the game Matt allows them to create an epic moment – which he does more than justice to in his description of how it unfolds – and something truly memorable in the game. The fact that is happened outside the ordinary rules of the game made it even more epic. And the fact that this clearly required a very high roll, and carried some negative consequences, prevented it from ever feeling like the DM was throwing the PCs a bone here. It felt like they earned it.
The moral of the story is that if you do want to step outside the RAW for a moment, Chris Perkins and Jeremy Crawford aren’t going to turn up at your house, confiscate your Player’s Handbook and ban you from every playing D&D again.
In fact it’s explicitly written in every edition of D&D that I’ve ever played (namely 1st, 2nd and 5th) that the rules are meant to be broken and reinterpreted. (None of which unfortunately has ever stopped a certain type of rules lawyer throwing a fit on a forum whenever someone suggests a different way of doing something. But that’s another post…)
6. Dial up the drama
One thing I’ve seen Matt do on a number of occasions is allow a bad situation to get worse. As I mentioned earlier, letting PCs attempt dumb stuff means this can happen naturally without any help from you as the DM. However even if the players are making tight decisions and operating as a slick well drilled machine – or maybe especially if they are – it’s good to be open to the idea of things getting worse. One moment stood out for me in a recent episode of Force Grey I watched. As the party tried to abseil down a cliff, they were attacked by gargoyles half way down. That sounds bad enough, but then, after someone cast fireball, Matt seized the opportunity to casually mention the fact that the rope had now caught fire. Now the game is getting interesting!
7. Buy into your players’ vision for their characters
As a DM you’re effectively there to facilitate the fantasies of your players, and not the other way round. I struggle with this to be honest. I have a quite narrow vision of fantasy – I like it gritty and I find aspects of high fantasy to be too silly to be enjoyable. But… I think a good DM has to remain as open minded as possible. When the druid in the party summons a troop of beavers and has them talk like Chicago gangsters maybe you just have to roll with it… and enjoy it!
8. Don’t give the game away
One thing I like that Matt does is he doesn’t really engage with the players out of game – or at least keeps it at a minimal. Once he has described the scene he tends to steps back and let the players decide what to do. Sometimes when I DM, I get drawn into the ‘you’re getting warmer… colder… warmer’ game, subtly responding to the players’ desire for direction, by offering them facial expressions, verbal clues or body language etc that leads them along the right path.
But for the game to offer real autonomy to the players I think whenever the PCs are faced with a dilemma or big decision you have to put your poker face on and let them head off in the wrong direction occasionally or make a massive mistake.
As a player I naturally try to read between the lines of what info the DM gives us, but I always appreciate it more when they give nothing away and we’re forced to decide for ourselves, for better or worse.
Unfortunately for me, a bit like the fact that Messi is fucking fast and can control the ball as if he had superglue on the surface of his boots, there are other things that Matt can do that can’t be learned, or at least not so easily.
As a professional actor he’s got a range of voices and facial expressions that I’m never gonna have, and to be honest I’m not really confident about hamming it up to the max., so I’ll never be able to keep up with the more theatrical DMs who can go the extra mile here.
Whatever your natural talent limitations are however that’s no excuse, or sound reason, to not do what you can to improve your DMing skills. After all, improving at something you love doing is going to give you a lot of satisfaction, and in this particular instance deliver a lot of extra joy to the players at your table.
So my goal when I’m watching an expert DM like Matt do his thing is never to completely emulate them, but to pick up as many easy-to-implement tips as I can, and bring them to my game.
Anyway enough from me… what have you learned from watching Mr. Mercer preside over the table? Or who else have you learned from, be they a celebrity DM we can watch on Youtube or a friend of yours who is a master of the art? Please share any stories, anecdotes and links in the comments… would love to hear from you on this!
I’ll leave you with the very first episode of Force Grey…