Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer: The Man, The Myth, The Dungeon Master

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Meet the mastermind behind Critical Role‘s epic stories, Mathew Mercer, the Dungeon Master himself. When Matt is not indulging in a tabletop game, he’s working as a voice actor. You may have heard him as Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil, Captain Levi in Attack on Titan, Gangplank and Kindred (wolf) in League of Legends, and Rexxar in Hearthstone.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to DM this game:

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Hi, I am Matthew Mercer, and I am an actor, voice actor, and huge geek. My decision to DM this game stems from my love of storytelling and watching others play in a sandbox of my own design. I’ve been DMing/GMing nearly exclusively for over 18 years, so it was a natural fit.

How and when were you introduced to Dungeons & Dragons?

When I was in my freshman year of high school (1996), I befriended the current leaders of my school’s Popular Arts Club… which was essentially our school’s anime/gaming club. A few months into my year, one of them invited me to make a character and join in on their Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition game they were running, and I eagerly dove into any of the books I could get my hands on! Mind you, I’d been playing video game RPGs most of my life, but this was my first opportunity to play the ancestral roots of those games I loved so much. I made a Wizard with the Militant Kit (because I wanted a Gandalf-like Wizard with a sword) which… proved to be fairly useless as far as kits go. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it so thoroughly that four months later, I began DMing my own campaign.

How did Critical Role go from pitch to reality?

Well, we would have never guessed this would ever have translated into a show, let alone one that people would watch! However, as time went by, industry folks began to hear about our mysterious “Voice Over D&D game” as epic stories and geeky conversations during recording sessions spread. Eventually, Felicia Day got wind of the game via (I believe) Ashley Johnson, and we were contacted by Geek & Sundry to discuss perhaps developing our game into a show. We were curious to hear their ideas, but were a guarded about the prospect. We loved our game so much, we didn’t want to do anything that would alter the nature of the fun for us… let alone the fear that there wouldn’t be an interested audience! After many discussions with the awesome folks at G&S, we all felt the emerging platform Twitch would best suit our game, as we wanted to just keep playing D&D, unedited, rough spots and all. That… was when Critical Role was born!

What are some of your “house rules”?

We started our game in the Pathfinder RPG rules set, and converted over to D&D 5th Edition right before the stream, so we’ve had to house-rule a few things. Namely, Percy’s class (Gunslinger), which I had to convert over as a Martial Archetype for a Fighter. I also House Rule resurrection magics, as I feel at higher levels, they rob the game of a respect for mortality. Thus, I make any death impactful, and any major attempt to revive a challenge. I also reduced the time it would take to enchant a magical item by 75% (to promote player creativity without dragging down the narrative too much), and have allowed the creation of some custom spells and magical items.

How has Critical Role changed since its inception?

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Our biggest fear was that the game WOULD change too much, yet thankfully, it’s only grown more enjoyable and personal each passing week. The big change, of course, is the addition of a HUGE live (and post-stream) audience, which as a Dungeon Master… is EXTREMELY daunting. Consider that every mistake, every less-than-fleshed out NPC, every lapse in rule memory is watched and judged by hundreds of thousands of people every week. You thought entertaining 4-6 players was pressure! That being said, I think it’s driven me to be a better storyteller. I am FAR from perfect, and I make errors all the time, but if anything I hope that reminds others out there who are also GMs/Prospective GMs that it’s okay if you mess up. Just own it, justify it, and move on.

What are some of your favorite moments from the game since the show started? From before the show started?

Too many to pick from! I really enjoy any moment when a player really embraces their character’s story and any crux moments: Keyleth talking about her mother, Percy hearing about the Briarwoods, etc. I feel the siege of the Temple of Yug’Voril was incredibly dynamic and out-of-the-box thinking. I ADORE weird, unexpected solutions to the complex problems I present, and rather enjoy being somewhat outsmarted at times.

Before the stream? An emotional moment: the death of Pike was one of those edge-of-your-seat, tear-jerking, race against the clock moments that really cemented the relationships and the true impact a tabletop RPG can have on a group of friends. Alongside that is Tiberius leaping 170 ft down into a dark cavern to save a fallen and unconscious Grog bring harried by an Umberhulk, knowing he had a 30% chance to succeed a concentration check for Featherfall while falling… and failure meant death… then succeeding!

How do you prefer to create your stories?

It can vary, but I usually start with a basic plot hook or mystery. I then flesh out where it would likely happen and how it would affect the surrounding people/cities. If nothing fits, I create a new location to match! Then I create and flesh out NPCs surrounding it, how they are involved in the plot, what they want, what they fear, what their alignment may be, etc. I try to loosely consider many different paths they players can take to tackle the challenges, and where the paths can veer. Beyond that, prepare to improvise!

Image credit: Antonio Cambareri

How hard is it to keep the story secret from your good friends?

It’s hard to not talk about any cool ideas you’ve had, or be able to bounce story hooks and threads off your significant other because they are in your game. I generally keep secrets well, but whenever I get a chance to sit down with an uninvolved fellow DM, we tend to open the floodgates and excitedly talk about all of our future, secret plans for our respective campaigns!

Tabletop RPGs can get bogged down from all the player interaction. How do you keep the pace moving?

Well, it helps to let the players know if their methods (or lack of attention to the game) is hindering the pace of the game. However, it’s also YOUR responsibility to facilitate the flow of the game. If you feel the game is slowing, or losing player attention and investment, interrupt the current scenario with one of a few pre-made, back pocket encounters or stake-raising RP moments!

Playing usually involves the DM to improvise. What are some stories you have when the party went in an entirely different direction than you had planned?

Well, them finding Clarota in the stream as early as they did was a surprise, let alone convincing him to join them! They surprise me often, and I’m continuously kept on my toes, which I enjoy thoroughly. They’ve convinced enemies to let them go, leaving plot points behind… for now. I have an old campaign that completely went off the rails when a series of failed social encounters and rolls led what was to be a patron NPC to despising the party, shutting down MUCH of what I had planned. Hehe.

How do you find your balance between wanting your players to succeed and wanting to punish them horribly?

Haha, well, I don’t believe in “punishing” players as much as “justifying how the world would react to terrible player decisions.” I want the players to succeed, as I am hoping to guide them along a heroic journey to glory and victory, but you have to constantly be aware that the dangers of the world around them take no sides. I feel you must play a game that doesn’t exude a “DM vs Player” mentality, but instead a “Players vs The World: DM is just the neutral judge and jury” atmosphere. That being said, it’s also okay to enjoy a little sadistic peril every now and then.

But seriously, how hard it is to keep a straight face when you know the players are about to walk right into your trap?

It is quite difficult, but the surprise is what makes such a great trap! It takes concentration and a practiced poker face. OR, you would just be grinning evilly the entire game. Either or.

Tune in to Critical Role tonight at 7pm PST on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch Channel, or catch it on our website next Monday.

Feature image credit: Geek & Sundry

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