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Don't Dish on Mercer

We've (almost) all heard about it: the 'Matt Mercer Effect', the idea being that Matthew Christopher Miller's GMing (I'm talking about GMing rather than DMing because the criticism is actually applicable to far more RPGs than just D&D) shouldn't be encouraged because GMs are fearful that it'll raise the bar too high. I'm wholeheartedly disagreeing.

Different Styles of Play

Even though I'm mostly into RPGs because of the acting, creative elements and improvisation involved (even though I love tactics, more realistic rules and crunchy mechanics), as a journalist, coach, author and game designer I recognize players and GMs alike may enjoy roleplaying because of different reasons... and it's important for your enjoyment as well as the enjoyment of everyone involved that you're able to get together a group that can enjoy the elements that have you playing. Obviously, it's not a problem if one or two or even three of your players like different things, but as long as your style of play fits within their top 2 of 3, chances are that you'll be able to keep together a stable party and lead the PCs through numerous different adventures and maybe even long-lasting campaigns.

If no-one minds that you keep talking in 3rd person, even when you're playing an NPC, and if the other players prefer to keep that distance from their characters, you should be fine. Heck, there's even a distinct possibility they don't even like shows like Critical Role and they even think it's too zany or melodramatic.


To me, the attraction of roleplaying games has a great deal to do with immersion and suspension of disbelief, and it's really tough to immerse gamers in a setting and make them 'believe' in the NPCs they meet if you've got poor acting skills. More likely than not, if you have players who are into roleplaying because of the same reasons I am, they'll quickly volunteer to GM a game themselves or they'll even leave the group... and that's okay: if they don't fit your playing style, you probably won't enjoy being their game master for long anyway. But if you're of the same mind, and you'd love to be as good as someone like Mercer is, I would argue that your GMing skills would better serve as inspiration and motivation than as something you something you should dish on.

You see, all scientific research out there supports the fact that we improve our skills by practicing. Sure, natural affinity definitely plays a part as well, but that shouldn't deter you. If you think Matt Mercer is setting the bar too high, instead of telling people you feel their expectations our too elevated, maybe you should take a long, hard look at yourself and tell yourself: 'Hey, I'm not the best there is, but I definitely want to improve and I'll work on it'. Oftentimes, players will actually start to appreciate you more and more as they see you're becoming a better game masters. You might want to use Matt Mercer as a model, or anyone else who's GMed for you, or other GMs who are active on YouTube or Discord or Stream or similar streaming channels... But don't demotivate THEM. They're getting a lot of flack just because they're good and, honestly, isn't that a little bit strange? We're handing out Academy Awards, Emmies and Golden Globes to great actors, but if they're doing what we're trying to do and doing a good job at it, they shouldn't be doing that because we're afraid the bar is too high? Does that sound like a positive, logical mentality to you? Honestly?

The Journey

During the first two decades I was GMing, the thought that any roleplaying style other than talking in 1st person when you're in character, changing your voice or the words you use, adding quirks and doing other things to immerse yourself and others into the game and have a better experience never even came to mind. It's only by reading what other people have been posting and by reading RPG books that point out other playing styles are possible that I started to realize 'acting' isn't what all roleplayers are looking for in their games. In the past, I've always figured that a focus on other things is more suited to wargaming or boardgaming or miniature battle gaming (which I also love) than to roleplayers. But I respect everyone who is into the hobby for different reasons and who's trying to find different things in their experience... and none of those persons should point at Critical Role or Matt Mercer and complain about the high bar, because you know what? If that's the playing style you're most fond of, you'll almost certainly going to be happier playing with other gamers who also like or at least appreciate your idea on that. BUT, if you're watching Critical Role or a similar show and you're thinking 'ow, that's just too difficult for me', maybe you can use that as a motivation to improve.

There may be different reasons for wanting to be able to GM like Matt and still dishing on him: envy, jealousy or - most often, I believe - insecurity, and I know I may get some very angry comments on this, but I really can't think of a lot of good reasons. We're all flawed as human beings and God knows I have a lot of flaws as well, but I've always been taught to look up to my examples, model what I would like to learn from them, and try to improve my own skills... and it's great to have those examples so readily available, instead of having to scour gaming groups in our home towns or attend conventions, trying to find that elusive X-factor that we can actually learn from. I've always loved to get my players' feedback. I started to GM when I was 9 and when I was 12, I had adults in my gaming group, some of whom absolutely HATED the (incorrect) way I was interpreting many of the rules... So I took their comments to heart and started studying up, because you know what? They were absolutely right. As soon as we get ego get into the way, as long as our vanity or insecurity takes over, we'll be less prone to improve and learn. I know it's how I was able to become a very respected acting/singing/improv coach - without RPGs, I probably would never have gotten there, or even taken an interest, and without the drive to improve, I may even have given up GMing entirely after a year or two. I don't believe I'm better than anyone else, but I do believe I'm a pretty decent GM and coach, but I know it took a while to get there and that's okay.

My Personal Opinion

Personally, I don't like watching shows like Critical Role all too much. I think they're a major boon to the industry and I'm almost sure they brought a lot more people into our favourite hobby, but I enjoy an actual series like The Legend of Vox Machina a lot more than watching other people do what I'd rather do myself. Still, I watch it regularly, often in the background while working, and the acting seems decent. Do I believe it's THAT great? Not really. The show is often too railroady (maybe necessarily so, just to fit the format), the acting is sometimes too melodramatic, I feel too many players snap out of their roles to make 'modern era' jokes too often, and I've given open reading boxed texts ad verbatim after a year or two of GMing because it can sound to disengenuine (I prefer ad-libbing), BUT even though I actually find the acting and the GMing skills lacking instead of a 'bar set too high', it's still pretty good. It's tough for me to understand why people would think it's so great - there's better to be found even on YouTube - but I do understand if I put myself in the position of someone who's just starting out or who hasn't been able to hone his or her GMing or acting skills yet. I hope that doesn't sound too arrogant, but I analyze scenes with my acting students every week and I'm just giving my honest opinion. It doesn't change the respect I have for Matthew Mercer and the actors who are willing to break out of their standard career choices and put themselves on display for a YouTube show, oftentimes as more vulnerable human beings than the characters they're allowed to represent on the small and big screen. Many of them are amazing and why don't we applaud that and learn from it instead of dishing on it?

If there's a Matt Mercer Effect at all, let's all agree on not using that as a pejorative word anymore, and applaud the fact there's something to look up to: a great example on what gaming sessions can be. If we don't have the acting chops yet and think this way of gaming is remarkable, let's just try to improve. If you do THAT, your players will love you for it and they may want to step up their game as well, but more importantly; they may show more patience and willingness to give you the time and space to improve. If you're insecure, their support may mean a lot and help you to become a more self-assured human being. I've seen it happen as a psycho- and hypnotherapist multiple times. It can be a life-changing experience, but dishing on someone just because (s)he is better than you and you're not there yet very rarely is.

Join our acting classes through or reach me at or +32 (0)494 38 27 44.

Dirk Vandereyken


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