The Misconception About Matt Mercer's Impact on D&D
Critical Role has sparked a revolution in the tabletop roleplaying world. Watching a bunch of nerdy ass voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons (it’s compulsory to quote the show’s tag line whenever you mention it, didn’t you know that?) has provided a compelling and, more importantly, easily digestible D&D product that continually draws new players into the game. However, it’s also created a rather unfortunate phenomenon known as the “Matt Mercer Effect”.
The premise of this is that players come into a game expecting their dungeon master to ‘be as good as Matt Mercer’. Allegedly, this means that if you don’t do the following, your players will leave in short order and never play D&D again:
- Present all of your characters with the same degree of accomplishment as a career voice actor (and on-screen actor too, it should be observed)
- Pour hours into building physical battlefields
- Paint custom made models for your party
- Provide specific homebrewed content for your min/maxers to break the game with
This is one of the best cases I have ever seen of taking a bad thing from a good thing. Many people have made the case that anything that gets people sat down at a table to play D&D is good for the roleplaying community at large. Others have pointed out that the effect cuts both ways - people who spend huge amounts of time on perfecting their DMing skills and providing an exceptional experience for their players should be entitled to expect player performances that rival Taliesin Jaffe, Laura Bailey et al. Good point well made. In the real world, having that kind of expectation either way is unrealistic - some people may be at the level of Critical Role cast members but most people just show up as themselves, looking to enjoy or run a game as best they can.
So what if I tell you that there is a “Matt Mercer Effect”, that it's not what's described above, and that it’s actually a very positive thing?
A Positive Impact
The world of Exandria is full to brimming with detail, right down to tiny minutiae, but it’s not even Matt Mercer’s ability to create this both behind the scenes and on the fly that should be recognised as the "Matt Mercer effect". It’s his ability to maintain player interest by expertly juggling multiple plots. Never mind the voices, or the intricately assembled battlefields, this is the absolute bread and butter of Critical Role. It flies under the radar for some, which is arguably a good thing (you don’t want to be sitting at a table thinking “hey, the DM really is doing a good job with this plot", you just want to be absorbed in it). Things like the Vecna fight from Campaign 1 are rightly heralded as great examples when it comes to encounter construction. However, recognition is also due for one of the devices that fed the Vecna plot being expertly threaded through all elements of the contributory story arcs that led us to the finale.
So what does Mr. Mercer do, and how does he do it? Can you replicate it as a DM?
Using Back Stories
The D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook incorporates a background for every character during character creation. The expansion, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, goes as far as providing tables that you can roll on to generate ideas for your character’s background. Now, in the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, we have the Heroic Chronicle to take things one step further in terms of creating detail for your character's back story. The Critical Role players put a lot of thought into what they want their background to be. The reason that this integral part of the character creation process is significant is that every background has the potential to generate its own story arc or, at the very least, thematic concept that can colour and flavour the overall plot. Matt Mercer never fails to pay attention to his players' backgrounds.
For example, let's say you rolled a smuggler. You did it because you want to use a pirate voice at the table and drink rum at every available opportunity (yes, you’re that player). Suddenly, you find that the fact you have a chequered past actually has in-game consequences for you. You’re hounded by the town guard, but only in some settlements. In others, you’re hailed as a hero, and you find other people from your former crew have integrated themselves into the town’s underground or even ruling hierarchy. You are presented with opportunities to make choices about what happens to these people, whether to confront the hostile guardsmen wherever they appear, or whether you want to attempt to redeem yourself for your previous crimes. All the while, you talk like a pirate and drink rum - you still get to do that thing you thought would be quirky and cool. Your DM has embraced it. Not only that, they’ve woven it into the plot. Sometimes, to make progress for the main plot, the whole party has to acknowledge your subplot, because you need to smuggle something through a town or country where it’s not legal. The thing you're smuggling is essential for you to have a shot at defeating the big bad at the end of this plot arc.
You, as a player, feel completely engaged with the world because the back story and character you created are involved in the action in an intrinsic way. This is the Matt Mercer Effect in action.
Let’s zoom out a bit, away from an individual player and to the party, who each are as involved as the smuggler in the above example. Their individual storylines are always simmering away, sometimes on the front burner and sometimes on the back, but they’re presented with a series of involving plots that contain multiple quests, each one culminating in a final boss that gives players a sense of closure and satisfaction. Let's dive into another example.
Story plot one has an undead theme - players find themselves in a town that’s plagued by zombies after nightfall, and residents are carried away to become new members of the army of the undead. The party investigates, getting to know the town mayor and their administration, as well as recruiting some allies from the next town over. They retrieve a low level magic item from a nearby dungeon that will give them a way to protect themselves from the undead plague. At the end of the plot arc, the party faces down a necromancer in a challenging fight that involves waves of enemies that continue to get back up at regular intervals until the big bad is dead.
Story arc 2 has nothing to do with the undead, it involves fighting through a swamp setting, reptiles and trolls abound. It’s a complete change of tone. The arc-ending fight provides the party with a jewel that was pressed into the forehead of a particularly large troll, and was responsible for giving it the same level of intelligence as the head of the wizards’ order in the city they will be headed for next.
Story arc 3 relates to a political struggle within the city and a discredited but benevolent ruler vying to regain their throne from a tyrannical usurper. They can only do this by following difficult rites that require proof of their lineage, and to do this they send the party out to find several lost artifacts. They also need to remove some of their more malevolent political rivals. The final encounter is built so that the ruler may or may not regain their throne, with a risk of the party being cast out of the city if they fail - but either way there will be another story arc.
Things continue until the characters are beginning to reach level 20 and the final arc is triggered. At first, it seems that things are taking a swerve turn - we’re in a brand new location with brand new characters to get to know, and everything seems a bit alien. But, very quickly, we find out that the gem that increased the troll’s intelligence is not the only one in existence - a whole group of people have them pressed to their heads. We learn that they are part of a cult of necromancers that once controlled most of the country. The ruler who was trying to regain their throne was part of a family that had long been opposed to their tyranny and they either act as an ally now they’re back in power, or the villains get support if the party failed in that particular quest. The final battle is against a council of necromancers, each with a unique personality and tweaked power set, and at least one detail from every one of the story arcs that formed the campaign is present and relevant during the final fight.
All of the plot arcs were fulfilling on their own, but the grand climax to the campaign features call backs to every plot arc that has happened since the adventure first began. This is the Matt Mercer Effect in action.
It all boils down to this - Matt Mercer is undeniably a great DM, but he is an even better writer, and he provides a great lesson for people writing their own games, over and above the voice acting, over and above spending time creating exquisite physical representations of the action. The technique is to always keep in mind the fact that your plot comes in strands, and that they can be woven together to create a satisfying end product. If you build your adventure so that everything is relevant, your players will get a moment when it all comes together where they realise the pieces are slotting into place. It will feel great for them, and it will be really rewarding for you, and it’s a sign that your campaign has been as successful as one penned by everyone’s favourite dungeon maestro.