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8 Lessons I’ve Learned from Watching Matt Mercer DM

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.

matt mercer dm tips

Force Grey hunt for the Lost City of Omu

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 almost feel like you’re 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 see things… in fact 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 that chance is, 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.

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 the hobgoblin’s helmet without dealing damage. A PC passing 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 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

Another thing I like about Matt’s style of DMing, is that 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, without prompting. 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, body language or thinly veiled instructions that lead 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 from viewing alone, 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 and bring some awesome immersion to the game.

Whatever your personality / talent limitations are, however, that’s no excuse or 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… update, seems like they made it unavailable, so I’ll leave you with the first episode of the second series instead.


The Gleaming Cloud Citadel


Review: Dungeon Tales volume 1


  1. What a wonderful read. I, like yourself have been running my games along the lines of ‘I hit with axe, ok roll, hit/damage, next’ variety.

    Since Chris Perkins started running the AI games with Penny Arcade I realised there is more to this than how ai normally run my games and defiantly since Matt Mercer came on the scene have I learned some different things. Much of which you have covered in your article.

    What I struggle with is the preparation technique needed to implement these lessons, and not accidentally forget to add in the embellishments that make their games sooooo interesting to watch.

    Also, it is clear that both Chris and Matt have their story telling skills up at a very high level of expertise honed over many years. But If I can harness a small percentage in each game I know my games are all the better for it.

    What I have found interesting watch Mr Perkins run his AI games is that sticking to the rules takes a total backseat, if fact he often just does things his way and lets the players move outside of the published rules. The lesson here for the rest of us is that’s it’s ok to do that. What I mean, is he does not let a rule get in the way of the story, if he gets it wrong himself it is corrected next time the rule comes up.

    On the story telling front, one of my favourite pieces of him doing his thing was during a live show at PAX, where he role played two Gargoyles watching the AI team blunder through a battle in the unferdark. The two Gargoyles being effectively the two old guys from the muppets show. What impressed me so much was the improv/ad-lib commentary he pulled off that had everyone rolling around in the audience.

    Another good fun DM’ing is on the podcast ‘How we Roll’. Although heavily edited for us the audience there is a different style there to learn from. The players have a lot more input into their actions, but the DM clearly has full control of everything else and there we see a good example of DM and Players working as a team to tell a great story.

    A question though for you as a follow up on your article. Now that you have these lessons from Matt Mercer, how do you plan and prepare your games to include elements of those lessons in your game?

    • duncan

      Hi Taggart thanks for the in depth comment, and the kind words. Yeah some of Acquisitions Inc. stuff is very funny and Chris Perkins is very quick witted, as are some of the players! I’ve only watched small bits so far, and from what little I’ve seen it’s more of a comedy show than a roleplaying one! That’s probably why you can learn more about D&D watching Force Grey for example because the story moves along and the action unfolds a lot quicker.

      Will have to look up How we Roll, haven’t tried that yet.

      Good question about how to implement these tips! Well a lot of them are to do with your mindset, such as points 2, 5, 7. Others are about remembering to do things a certain way… like 4 and 8, these are easy to implement if you remember (maybe making a note or printing this post and having it behind your DM’s screen!).

      No. 6 is probably could be improvised or given a little preparation and thought beforehand. ‘I know these guys are going to be fighting on a bridge in the next session… so what happens if the bridge starts to collapse, a huge wave sweeps across the bridge, someone sets teh bridge on fire…’

      No. 1… well you’ve given me a bit of an idea here! I think I’m going to start to work on short but dramatic descriptions of common spells and effects that I can refer to and slip into the game. Eg. Burning Hands

      ‘So placing your thumbs together, you spread your fingers in a fan and direct a burst of searing hot arcane flames at the [insert monsters!]. They howl in pain as the fire scorches their skin. The terrible stench of burnt flesh fill your nostrils.’

      If you had a little prepared description or two for every common spell or effect your PCs use I think that would bring a lot of flavour to your game, and save you the stress of trying to make it up on the fly…

      I’m not suggesting you read them out from the sheet, but a quick eye flick should help you recall the meat of the phrase to recite when the time comes



      • wwaxwork

        Look up Chris Perkins DMing on his “Dice, Camera, Action.” Twitch stream. You get a much better idea of his DMing style than from AI which is more for entertainment for an hour than a long running game. . While he’s not Matt Mercer style of acting, he is still amazing at playing NPCs & plays things a lot less for laughs. He motivated me to make sure my NPCs are a lot more fleshed out & have personalities & aren’t just Blacksmith #2, Barkeep etc. He also still does that thing where the rules are more guidelines & letting the players have hero moments, pretty much everything you liked about Matt Mercers DMing.

        If you like a well woven story with depth & twists & turns, check out .
        “The C Team”, DM’d by one of the players from the AI game. Again story before rules there with some very fun twists & mechanics he makes up himself. Has inspired me to have more fun stories & to make them a lot more in depth than they first appear & to play against tropes.

        • duncan

          Hi thanks wwaxwork for the comment, I didn’t see it until now!

          Will definitely check out the C team then, and maybe some more Chris Perkins stuff…

          Currently watching Girls, Guts, Glory which I’m enjoying a fair bit.

  2. Sam T

    I definitely admire Matt Mercer as well! I’m not super deep into the Critical Role podcast but one thing he does surprises me – and you’ve actually talked about this (Insight Checks post). He allows the players to call out when they’d like to make a skill check, followed by the player making the role himself. I’ve always been of the opinion that asking the DM to make a skill check breaks the “spell” of the game. In the spirit of roleplaying the player should describe what he wants to do and the DM will determine if a roll is necessary and who should make the roll. So that surprised me a little to see that happening.

  3. DnDPaladin

    You should !
    You don’t need a range of voices to do what matt does… you only ned to be going all in in movement and gestures. take on the role of your characters. you imagined them so its easy to just go for it. i have lke 3 voices, my high pitched one, my low pitched one and my normal voice. but somehow as i had emotions to the mix, i seem to get more and more. and i think thats what matt does. overall in the 5 years of critical role i have been watching, my game has been upping and upping… i could never reach that far in the 20 years prior to that.

    you just have to let it go and start gesturing. start playing what you know, playing emotions and getures, doesn’t matter if the voice is always the same, as long as you take on the personnality of your NPC.

    As Matt said, many a voice actors are actually doing right with only 1 voice. their own, as long as you know that voice well. then there is nothing stopping you from using it. i started there, and 5 years later, i’m a much better DM then i was prior to doing this…

    Just do it man !

  4. David

    I would like to add a thought from your article, Mathew is a great DM but because you are not a professional actor or voice actor don’t count yourself short. There is things im sure you probably might do better than Mathew if you had the time or not. You have to remember His players are professional actors as well.

    I do believe in sitting back and letting the players determine the best course of willful actions but at the same token, players are playing characters that may be good at things that they are not in real life. So lack the ability to fully comprehend certain aspects that their characters are capable of. Its kind of the job of the DM to sometimes step in and explain key things about these character moments. Like a Director would to his actors but be careful as you still need them to ACT (most obvious example with slightly if not overly exaggerated an average Intelligent player playing a genius intelligence of 18 is hard to pull off in real life since not many people in the world have this IQ score as described in the book. so I always get annoyed when said wizard does something stupid even though he is genius or a moment in which a smart person would recognize things and they dont because they are not Sherlock Holmes. (and often Dms and players in my opinion depend to much on the dice now a days vs early ed. D&D) lets face it almost no average person would even come close to role playing a Sherlock Holmes level of reasoning and intellect of deductions but a great DM can help a character with an int score of 18 seem like this type of intelligence. This is an artform lost in modern roleplaying and I think Mathew can improve on this as well. I guess im old school as even Mercers games sometimes feels to much like a video game at times to me. But he does have magical moments in some of his shows with his players as the most important thing about D&D is the synergy between the players and the DM in both the expectations of the game and the delivery of the game. Some groups are better off dungeon crawling with miniatures with little character banter in-between as they dont have fun unless they hacking and slashing constantly, other players want to power game and have groups grow into living gods. So its about the Synergy of players and DM. Then you have players that want the drama over action and the intrigue of the suspense and subtilty nuances of the flirtations that end up leading into a vampiric situation like Johnathan Harker in Dracula’s Castle when they first meet into what happens later. (another thing you can try is get a player to roll a check but that dice roll has nothing to do with the current player rolling the dice in fact it might not even be related to the current situation at all but setting up a dc check for an upcoming situation. keeping it suspenseful for the players as to why and when will this roll becomes role of the story. example, you guys and gals are walking down the stairs, in which the torch’s are illuminating the path and the smell of fresh torch oil permeates the air. everyone roll a d20 please. take note of the rolls and then tear them up into a cup so you can randomly draw them out when ever you need to check against a DC modifier situation and then proceed to tell them what’s down the hall or next room. Its kind of a bluff but setting things up in future with out having the game lag waiting on dice rolls or giving away a clue you didn’t want to at the moment you ask for a dice roll.)

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