Many dungeon masters and players alike have heard of the Mercer effect, and it’s one of the most prevalent issues of D&D at the moment. Today we’ll be taking a look at what it is, how it might affect your table, and what to do about it.

The nature of the beast

For those who haven’t heard of it, the Mercer effect is when players, or DMs, expect a D&D game to have the same level of quality as the famous D&D stream, DM’d by Matthew Mercer, Critical Role. Now, while it’s OK to have high hopes for a game, expecting your game to have that level of immersive roleplay, fleshed-out world-building, drama, set design, etc, is the equivalent of expecting a backyard football game to match the Superbowl.

Why is this a problem, you ask? As a player, chances are, your DM has next to no budget, and preps for a session in their off time, in between work, travel, and social commitments. It’s hard work. But then expecting them to keep up with a person who does this for a living, with many years experience, professional voice acting skills and a budget that most dungeon masters can dream about? If a player has a DM that’s even inspired by all of that, then that player is quite lucky. Which is not to say that the work they do isn’t impressive. Dm’s working with oppressively small budgets can make some great games using vivid descriptions, fantastic world-building, intimate settings, or with improvising left-field solutions.

Learning from the greats

While it’s absolutely, one thousand percent okay to be a DM with your own style, it’s also fine to be inspired by the masters of dungeon mastering if you want to. If you do look at the famous, full-time pro dm’s and feel like you want to get closer to that standard, there are a few lessons to keep in mind, that I learned the hard way.

First and foremost, don’t expect too much from yourself. You can marathon Critical Role, Dimension 20, The Chain, and all the other D&D streams until the cows come home, but without the same kind of budget, support team, and years of experience of running games full-time, it’s simply not realistic to expect yourself to have the same crazy maps, well fleshed out characters and worlds, music and lighting setups, and custom monsters and character classes that they do.

Focus on the little things

What you can do, is learn individual lessons, and take small inspirations from them. In my case, my third watch-through of Escape from the Blood-keep brought me to want to be a more “rule of cool” style of DM – I used to be a total stickler for the Rules As Written and anything that deviated a bit from that was immediately quashed, but I realise my players and I both have more fun when we let things get a little bit weird. The smallest things, from how you approach your music in-game (if you have any) to trying to do voices or accents for NPC’s (Even really bad ones) can make a huge impact on your game.

The other, most important piece of advice is to be true to yourself as a DM. Brennan Lee Mulligan’s “Rule of Cool” style of running the game may have inspired my DM style but if you prefer a more rigid style or if you prefer hand drawing your combat maps instead of massive Dwarven Forge setups (like Mercer brings out for every single encounter), then that is your style, and that’s okay too. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career (as a programmer, not a dm, strangely enough) is that if you’re enjoying something, it probably means you’re good at it, so if you enjoy DMing in a specific way, then that actually makes you better at it.

To be clear, what I’m saying is that if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, that means you have a talent for it. So enjoy it, and don’t let yourself or anyone else judge your style. Even if you never take a single lesson from any of “The Greats”, every game you run is experience, and every time you play, you’re getting better at it. If you’ve read this far, I know that it’s because you really want to have the best game that you can have, but I promise you, the best game in the world is always the one you’re in, playing with people you like, and having fun.

And once again, I’m so proud of you for all you do for your players, and yourself, to have a good game.

Now get out there and have fun.


Dylan Beckbessinger

App developer by day, Chaotic Neutral dungeon master by night, Dylan has been a DM for 10 years, and an avid fan of all things geekdom for far, far longer than that. Favorite class is eldritch theurge, because raw power doesn't need any limits.

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