You saw our Five Dungeons and Dragons Roleplaying Tips Inspired by Critical Role article from the other week, right? Time to go one step further. Vox Machina really are incredible role players—acting is kind of their job—but our favorite Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer, is a veritable gold mine of D&D wisdom. He’s a role model to DMs everywhere and if you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in what skills you can take away from his expert DMing.
Of course, Matt already made a series of videos on this subject, and you should definitely watch them, but let’s approach DMing (or GMing, for non-D&D gamers) from a practical perspective. Let’s dive into actual episodes of Critical Role and see how Matt creates an incredible world of excitement and danger for his players—and how you can steal his best tactics.
Let the Players do the Hard Work
Remember how the Vox Machina character backgrounds played at the beginning of the first few episodes? With Travis Willingham as Grog bellowing “All right, listen up…”?
[Clip starts at 1:09]
Beyond introducing us, the viewers, to the cast of Critical Role, this character introduction sowed the seeds of future conflict. Matt basically got his players to do the heavy lifting of creating a plot for him! They came up with both the villains—Travis mentions Grog’s uncle Kevdak, Taliesin introduces the Briarwoods—and the quests—Marisha introduces Keyleth’s duty to visit the elemental Ashari tribes. When you begin your next campaign, whether it’s for Dungeons & Dragons or another RPG system entirely, try giving your players a Character Questionnaire.
You’ll get dozens of hits by Googling “d&d character questionnaire,” but here’s a quick one that won’t overwhelm newer players and will help them create a ready-made conflict:
- Why did your character become an adventurer?
- Who or what is most important to your character?
- Who is their worst enemy, and what did they do to your character?
- What is one place that your character never wants to visit again?
- What would make your character the happiest they’ve ever been?
That last question is there to help you figure out how to reward your players. Do they want gold and magic items? Or is there a roleplaying reward that will make them just as happy? Maybe they want to be royalty, or just to be loved.
Let them Try Anything… If they Dare
“I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I’m gonna try,” said Marisha. “So you could argue that, like, our bodies are made of, like, 70% water, right? So if I cast control water, could I move her blood?”
Matt paused for almost ten full seconds. “Uh… You can certainly try.”
[Clip starts at 4:09:35]
A lot of DM advice suggests that it’s best to tell players “Yes, and” or “Yes, but,” as if you were performers in an improve show. This is generally good advice, but we can go deeper. Saying “yes” to everything can get you in a dangerous situation—sometimes there are truly impossible tasks. Where’s the conflict if everything the players always succeed at what they want to do? All “yes, and” and “yes, but” means is that they can try.
For 5th edition D&D, remember that there are standardized DCs for ability checks in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. DC 20 tasks are Hard, DC 25 for Very Hard tasks, and DC 30 for Nearly Impossible checks. If a player wants to do something is literally impossible (e.g., growing wings and flying away from a monster) you should obviously nip that idea in the bud, but if there’s even the slightest chance of success… you might as well let them try.
One last note on literally impossible tasks. Assuming that this player isn’t just trying to troll you (sometimes people get bored and do silly things), this means that they want to do something incredible. Magic can do impossible things. Remember what they wanted to do so you can eventually reward them with that awesome thing!
Force Your Players to Make Tough Decisions
If you can’t tell, I’ve been rewatching the epic Whitestone chapter. Throughout the entire campaign, Percy’s main character quest was to get revenge on the Briarwoods. Then, in episode 34, when he had the chance to kill Lady Briarwood, Matt made him question if that was the right thing to do.
[Clip starts at 4:21:42]
Killing Delilah might cause something even worse than the Briarwoods to be summoned into the world. Would killing Delilah make her a sacrifice to whatever dark malevolence she was trying to summon? Vox Machina wasn’t about to let Percy get his vengeance at that great a cost, and even No Mercy Percy let himself become Merciful Percival for just one moment.
This one’s a bit silly, but the best GMs are a little bit silly. We know Matt is.
Truth is, not everyone in the group needs to know a secret. Matt is known for whispering in his players’ ears when things get enigmatic, and his players love it. You can send secrets across the table on notecards. You can even take the players who need to be in the know outside and talk to them in total private. Or… ham it up for your players by breaking out the whispers.
[Clip starts at 35:40]
Mysteries are exciting for both the players who are in on the secret and those who are left in the dark. Is it sometimes a little frustrating? Maybe, but surely the secret will come out in time. And that tension between telling the secret and revealing it makes learning it all the sweeter.
Matt is a role model to GMs everywhere. What are your favorite Matt Mercer moments? Let us know in the comments or tweet to us at @GeekandSundry!
Featured Image Credit: Geek & Sundry