Let’s Reframe the Matt Mercer Effect on D&D

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| May 4, 2021

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for years and is frequently referenced in pop culture. That said, in its earliest years, D&D was not popular and considered not appropriate for kids. Some people wouldn’t even mention the game to avoid being bullied in school. The media had made it even worse for some by depicting those who played D&D as “nerds” or “geeks,” terms that carried a negative stereotype in the 1980s to early 2000s. 

Critical Role official logoIt wasn’t until the last decade or so that being a nerd or geek was considered a good thing. D&D became more mainstream when certain group of friends were approached by a company that streamed content on Twitch. That company wanted to stream their D&D campaign. The show would be called Critical Role, and it now brands itself as a “bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons.”

In D&D, the dungeon master (DM) is the person who runs a particular D&D game, called a campaign. At the bare minimum, the DM finds out the background of all the players’ characters, then plans the adventures those characters will encounter as they play.

Matt Mercer, photo from IMDbMatt Mercer is a voice actor who serves as the DM for Critical Role. Some say Matt is the best DM ever because of his approach: creating a fully immersive experience through music, sounds, and more. He has definitely set the bar high for a lot of DMs. He has inspired others to create worlds of their own and challenge themselves to make their worlds more detailed (including myself). He encourages people to be more open within their home tabletop games, even if it’s someone not interested in games.

Unfortunately, there are some D&D players who have watched Matt’s skills on Critical Role and project their expectations on the DMs in their own games. According to most people (and Urban Dictionary), the Matt Mercer Effect is when players expect their dungeon masters to be super energetic and descriptive and fully immersed in the world they are creating, and maybe even do fun voices for each NPC. But not everyone is comfortable doing these things, and not everyone has the experience that Matt has when he plays with his friends. The Matt Mercer Effect puts pressure on the DMs who may love the game but not want to act or perform in their campaigns. The internet is not always the nicest place, and Matt Mercer and the cast of Critical Role tend to get a bit of backlash about the expectations they’ve set. 

So why does Matt also get so much backlash from just being himself and having fun with his friends? Those friends, by the way, are also seasoned DMs. Liam O’Brien from Critical Role runs home games with his kids and Taliesin Jaffe played for years before playing with the rest of the Critical Role cast.

Is it just that Matt’s an amazing world builder and DM? Or is it something else that rubs people the wrong way?

Critical Role Campaign 2 Players, photo from Critical Role
Critical Role’s Campaign 2 Players

Let’s consider three DMs I’ve encountered that try to imitate Matt’s skills and how they interpret the Matt Mercer Effect…

Intense Stan put his players in almost impossible situations and pushed them to their limits before their characters died. He made encounters for characters at level 10 when the party was at level 3. For example, Stan had a player defeat a bloodwitch at level 10 that was in a science laboratory, then guided the level-3 party to that laboratory to search for a cure to a rare disease that only that lab made. 

Humble Hannah DMed a one-shot adventure, which is a small story that can be dropped into any bigger campaign. We all said, “You don’t have to be like Matt, just be you and have fun with it.” She knew we all loved the show and didn’t want to disappoint us with her heart of gold. We ended up having a blast, and she ended up as one of the best DMs I know through patience and explaining how to play the game to new players.

Dungeons & Dragons campaign board with diceCreative Clive knew I was new to D&D and decided he was going to do a series of one-shot adventures within the Monster Hunter world. The super helpful guy gave me suggestions on creating my character and which spells to use for my cleric. When it came to the game itself, he tried to make it as immersive as possible with sound effects and music. He is a laid-back guy, and that translated to the party as we went through the adventure. He just wanted all of us to have fun.

As you can see, my experiences have varied. I will say from the world-building perspective, though, that I think we need to change the definition of the “Matt Mercer Effect.” For me, the Matt Mercer Effect is inspiring others to better themselves. Through large descriptions of the world he built, he inspires young DMs and new players to try D&D. When my friends got me started watching Matt stream his D&D games on Twitch, I had already started making my own world just for fun. Once I saw Matt describing the world around the players, I wanted to make my own world better. This was Matt’s influence that inspired me to better myself as a world builder.

Have you seen the Matt Mercer Effect in your own D&D campaigns? What do you think we can do to help D&D players and DMs feel free from expectations and just have fun? Share your stories and ideas in the comments!


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