Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer shares advice for being a successful and respected DM, & much of this is applicable for all Dungeons & Dragons players.
Anyone who has been a Dungeon Master knows just how challenging it can be to build a world, bring it to life, and immerse others in it, and Matthew Mercer of Critical Role has certainly set a high standard for his Dungeons & Dragons tabletop sessions. Thankfully, this self-proclaimed “nerdy-ass voice actor” shares his own thoughts and strategies for running a successful campaign.
Critical Role has become somewhat of an authority on D&D since gaining popularity after airing its first streams back in 2015 on Twitch’s Geek & Sundry channel. It’s one of the first groups that come to mind when fans think “online D&D streams,” and has even partnered with Wizards of the Coast to create an official D&D campaign setting, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. Outside of Critical Role’s weekly sessions, the team is also working on the D&D animated series – The Legend of Vox Machina – which is based on the group’s first campaign.
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So how does Mercer run his D&D sessions? In an interview with Kotaku a couple years back, he states that “A DM creates and directs a story for your friends to live and play in, and working with their ideas, collaborates with them in real time to write the next chapter together.” For Mercer and likely many other DMs, after establishing the game’s setting, it’s all about uniting with friends to figure out which direction the plot will go.
Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer Shares D&D Dungeon Master Tips
Admittedly, part of Critical Role’s success is due to Mercer’s adept storytelling and the cast’s excellent roleplaying and improvisation. Of course, not all D&D players have these tools in their toolbelt, and that’s okay. But something Mercer does that all DMs have the ability to do is let the game play out organically. DMs can – and perhaps should at times – take a player’s story and influence and challenge that role into a desired direction, but they shouldn’t continuously force an outcome for every scenario. It’s common and sometimes unavoidable for players to completely thwart a DM’s plan, and this is one of the beautiful and entertaining aspects of D&D.
Some DMs are excellent planners and may have extensive detailed outlines for every possible outcome their players may run into. Surprisingly, Mercer’s preparation process is mostly reviewing events from the previous session and simply contemplating where the story could go depending on a player’s choices, successes, and failures. Because a campaign’s story can have dramatically different conclusions, Mercer does not marry himself to any specific one. Instead, he generalizes possibilities and goes from there.
When it comes to creating engaging NPCs, Mercer considers what about a certain character will make them as important to his players as he imagines them to be, then plants that seed. For example, the charming and grandiose Gilmore’s Glorious Goods owner, Shaun Gilmore, was actually inspired from someone Mercer actually knew with an obviously impactful personality. Translating that into a game created a beloved character who’s now cherished by both fans and the players.
Above all, Mercer provides a cooperative space that inevitably connects and strengthens bonds – both in and out of character. He states, “an adventuring party is, at its core, a family,” even if it takes some time to get there. He advises DMs to “consider narrative beats that emphasize that relationship, enable them to put their skills and teamwork together to surmount a challenge, and really appreciate each other.” This unity allows a Dungeons & Dragons group to explore shared desires, and support others’ decisions by encouraging everyone to have fun and to succeed. These are wise and wholesome words from Critical Role’s DM, as only good can come from boosting up others and nurturing comradery – and this is true for both playing Dungeons & Dragons and between sessions.
Next: Which Critical Role Episodes Are Best To Start With (& Why)
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