Being a good steward of a tabletop game experience is hard work. Any Dungeon Master can tell you that setting the right tone and crafting the perfect story is difficult, fiddly work. I asked Matthew Mercer, famed Dungeon Master, how he’s so good at what he does.
As the Dungeon Master of Critical Role, probably the most notable livestreamed Dungeons & Dragons game going, Mercer has a respectable amount of practical knowledge for how to run a tabletop gaming experience. Debuting in 2015, the show stars actors, including video game voice acting luminaries like Laura Bailey and Ashley Johnson, who Mercer wrangles every week into a longform, engaging D&D story. He’s also the DM of Force Grey, the celebrity-packed group that are on display in this weekend’s major Dungeons & Dragons streaming event named “Stream of Many Eyes.”
I’m no stranger to DMing myself, having performed the noble deed off and on for about a decade now, so I was eager to engage Mercer in some “shop talk” about how he runs the game. I hit him with the hard questions, too, putting him in an infinitely awkward position of telling me what the job of a Dungeon Master is in one single sentence. He graciously gave me this answer:
“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.”
This speaks to a fundamental way that Mercer approaches the relationship between his players and the fictional world that their actions take place in. Instead of a place for story to happen, or characters for a story to happen to, he sees the entire apparatus of D&D to be an opportunity for story and plot to emerge.
“I find many folks enjoy a balance of ‘being told a good story (especially if it involves their character directly),’ and ‘I want to influence and change the story you are telling.’ It becomes a game of push-and-pull between DM and players, where you are throwing the ball back and forth and weaving this tale together. Sometimes they want to just witness the tale you’ve made, and right when you have them on that hook... you present them that wonderful question: “So... what do you do?”
It is definitely possible to mess this dynamic up in a game of Dungeons & Dragons due to its long legacy of putting most of the storytelling and worldbuilding power in the hands of the Dungeon Master. As Gita Jackson wrote about this week, games like The Sprawl have a little more of that push-and-pull dynamic between players and DMs built into their rules. D&D, by virtue of its age and its legacy, can still fully be run as a Dungeon Master squeezing their players through a tightly defined, and limited, story of their choosing. What makes Mercer’s work on Critical Role so interesting to witness is his unwillingness to fully take control away from his players. His games feel organic and open to the contributions of people at the table.
In contrast to Mercer, I’m the kind of Dungeon Master who likes to over-prepare. When my rebellious party of miscreants and rogues travels across the Southlands, avoiding the evil Empire and negotiating with the rebellious Army of the Iron Harridan, I prepare for any eventuality that could arise. I try to create a big, weird sandbox of potential for my players where I attempt to predict what they will do. I see the world as a set of contexts out of which players create stories, and I’m maybe a little too controlling when it comes to how those contexts are shaped.
Mercer comes at it from a different way. When I asked him about his preparation process, he didn’t have any mindblowing secrets, just some practical, simple steps. “If I’m preparing a session picking up from a previous one, I look back and recall where it left off, where it COULD go from there, and how the player’s choices/successes/failures may impact the path ahead of them,” he wrote to me. “I implement those threads into the coming story, pulling in the consequences for what has already transpired.”
I did find real insight in the way that he talked about the non-player characters he creates and portrays, though. After all, Mercer is an actor, and acting requires taking on a role, thinking about how a character got to where they are, and then meaningfully communicating that mental and emotional state to an audience. At its core, this is what every Dungeon Master is trying to do with an entire world that they are presenting to their players. As he explained, “I consider the seed of what I am inspired to present to the players in the context of the story I’m hoping to tell, and expand from there. What about this character will make them as important to the players as I’d like them to be?”
This ethic is what separates a good DM from a bad one, or at least good sessions of tabletop roleplaying games from bad ones. In his YouTube Dungeon Master advice series “Running The Game,” Matthew Colville often discusses the alignment between the desires of a Dungeon Master and their players, and I see shades of that same thing in how Mercer understands what he wants from a game and what his players want. People are only going to have a good time at a table if what they want to do and what the game asks of them are in some way similar to one another. If I want to fight gods on mountaintops and my Dungeon Master wants me to roll to see if I’m getting drunk in the tavern, then no one in the room is going to have a good time.
I believe that thinking about this process of investment and shared desire is what separates bad DMs, good DMs, and great DMs. I’ve been all three of those at various points in my life (and even within sessions), and I take the way that Mercer conceives of the entire play experience as an opportunity for bringing players and the Dungeon Master tightly together as a serious philosophy for playing the game:
“An adventuring party is, at its core, a family. It may take some time to become one, but that’s the eventual path it takes in most cases. 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.”
While Mercer didn’t extend this to the DM, it’s easy to see how the person controlling the game fits into this. After all, everyone around the table should want everyone else to succeed, and being a great DM means facilitating those successes within the context of peril and danger. So the next time that Diese, the disinherited dwarf fighter, totally beefs a hit on a skeleton, I might have it cackle in her face and remind her of her dead father. But it will all be in service of bring the table closer together. Hopefully she’ll knock it into bone dust on the next swing.