I started playing D&D in the early 90s with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since. I only stopped when 4th edition was released in favor of other systems available at the time. I lost most of my player base not long after, so I stopped playing altogether until about two years ago when I had a chance to give 5th edition a try. When I came back into the game, I was surprised and pleased with the options available for players in the form of DnDBeyond and DMsGuild. What intrigued me the most was the overwhelming popularity of using services like Twitch and Discord to live stream a D&D game to an audience beyond the players at the table. I found it wonderful that this game that I hold so dear was in the midst of a renaissance. The surge in the game’s popularity and realizing that playing was now cool pleased me to no end. I made a point to join all the Facebook group and Reddit forums related to the game so that I could catch up.
There was one thing that surpassed everything else I read about the D&D game and community. It seemed to be held in such high regard among players that it was referred to as an unofficially official requirement for players and dungeon masters. This juggernaut is the show Critical Role. At first, I thought it was another show about the game – rules, techniques, lore etc. It didn’t take long before understanding that it was a show based around an ongoing D&D campaign played among friends who also happen to be professional voice actors; with Matt Mercer acting as the host and dungeon master.
For a moment, I considered checking it out. I decided against it for a long time simply because I know what a D&D game looks like. I didn’t need to watch the game of a bunch of strangers, regardless of how amazing everyone in the D&D community said it was. I think that my disinterest in the show came in part from a lack of time to devote to watching a game while trying to plan and play my own. There was another part in me that had no interest in watching Critical Role for much the same reason I never watched (or even liked) The Big Bang Theory. I know what those characters were like. I knew the general scope of the jokes. I know those people. I don’t need to watch something that I was more or less already living out.
Cut to a few weeks ago. I was out of episodes of The Mandalorian to watch, and Critical Role popped up in my YouTube feed. Owing to a lack of new episodes and having absorbed all the Baby Yoda memes on the internet, I settled on season 2 of Critical Role to show me what the big deal was. I think I made it a grand total of 40 minutes. I had to turn it off. May Pelor forgive me for saying this but here goes…
I hate Critical Role.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I like the cast – to a point. I like the game they play – to a point. I have since cultivated a lengthy list of things about the show that sent me into a frothing, twitching ball of rage. However, in the interest of brevity and not having time to devote to bitching about a thing I don’t like on the internet, I feel that I should comment on an artifact of the show’s popularity. Something that I have come to see as a rather damaging to the D&D game and to the people who play it. I am referring to something called “The Mercer Effect.” From what I have gathered, “The Mercer Effect” is condition that arises in D&D players, particularly dungeon masters causing them to doubt their abilities as a DM and stress over the quality of their own game. The immense popularity of Critical Role appears to come from an audience who are active D&D players or people who had never played because the game didn’t show up on their radar or because they could never find a group.
When it comes to regular players, the Mercer Effect makes sense. An activity they do is now wildly popular and can be readily absorbed and enjoyed by the people for whom they run their game. They see a fantastic game with a top notch DM that keeps the players engaged and interested. Hell, it keeps perfect strangers just as enthralled. Campaign after campaign these countless DMs see a refined, polished product and can’t help but begin to compare their game to the one they’re watching. They find themselves at a point where the show stops entertaining (whether the audience admits it or not) and instead begins to cast their game in a harsh light. Those dungeon masters see the foibles and innocent shortcomings of their game then unfairly compare their hard work to the end result of a professionally produced television with all the writers, designers, cast and crew that goes with it.
I’ve lost count of how many posts in Facebook or Reddit from obviously frustrated DMs that plead for advice on how to overcome “The Mercer Effect.” They want to know how they can be better, how they can be more like what they see on YouTube. It frustrates the hell out of me. There’s nothing at all wrong with a desire to be better at something. You should always strive to improve yourself, to learn more. However, when that desire for improvement arises from chasing an unrealistic standard that’s when the desire becomes harmful to you and your enjoyment of the thing you like. It can only bring about a deep feeling of resentment to the game. It’s not all that different from a man or woman who looks through the pages of an airbrushed and Photoshopped copy of the Victoria’s Secret catalog and thinks that’s the standard – that’s what women are supposed to look like. No! No! No! What you are seeing is a carefully, thoughtfully crafted illusion designed to command an audience and ultimately to sell you something. Why would you compare yourself or your game or whatever to an ultra refined product? It’s an impossible standard that just isn’t realistic much less attainable. (I mean unless you somehow land a sponsor, a production staff, a sizable budget – then yes, you should absolutely be striving for perfection because what you now have is a product. If you aren’t on point with your product you won’t have those other things very long.) Why on Earth would you do that to yourself?
If you’re running a game, you know how much work goes into planning your sessions. It’s long, tedious work that could all be undone by the next murderhobo. If you have the time to run a game or even a whole campaign the last thing you should be concerned about is making what happens at your table look as close to what happens at Matt’s as possible. Your only concern should be creating a fun story for your group. If they demand Critical Role every session, you need a new group. The pressure to craft all that by yourself is insanity and when you think about it is quite selfish of your players. I’ve met many career dungeon masters in my time and not one of them ever ran a game the exact same way. Not one of them ever delivered a performance like Critical Role and one of those DMs was an actual classically-trained actor! You want to be a great DM? Read the rules inside and out, cover to cover. Learn to improvise and learn to love taking notes. Improve your skill base and your knowledge of the system and you’ll be in the upper 5% of dungeon masters. Don’t believe me? Read the posts that Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins answer on Sage Advice. I don’t think most of the people who ask those questions even opened the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Seriously, I admire their patience.
“The Mercer Effect” isn’t a problem exclusive to you long suffering DMs either. It poses a similar situation for players although I believe that it is a far more damaging to new players. Once again, we have fans of the show who now have a desire to play D&D because after all the campaigns Critical Role has under its belt at this point they may mistakenly believe that that’s what a typical D&D game looks like or how it plays out. When they finally sit down to play, they have an expectation but there is no game anywhere that will satisfy what they have been watching online. The disappointment must be overwhelming. They idea that a new player might sit down for a session or two then walk away from the game for good because what they experienced wasn’t at all like the show. Or worse, maybe they decide that they’ll run a game. That they can run a table like Matt Mercer. They sit down behind the screen only to discover how difficult it is. If they survive their first few games as a DM they will invariably end up asking questions to the hive mind of the internet about how to make their game look like Matt’s. It’s a vicious cycle, one that might be doing more damage to the hobby that we are willing to admit.
A far stranger aspect of “The Mercer Effect” has been an overwhelming though I suppose understandable hoard of players and DMs who watched Critical Role and cried out “ME TOO!” The amount of livestreamed games or podcast based games out there is staggering. After attempting to absorb Critical Role I did some digging around the depths of the internet to see what else was available. I thought that perhaps that particular show wasn’t my jam. Maybe there was a similar show with the same premise that I preferred. How wrong I was. Each show, each podcast is worse than the last. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something wrong with me or if I’m in the midst of an unusually long “Old Man Yells At Cloud” sort of moment. For a time, I ignored my own advice and like a fool, I keep looking for online shows, podcasts or anything similar to a show that is nothing more than a bunch of people playing D&D. It’s just not out there. I know it’s possible I’m the only one saying this but it needs to be said. Your digital show? Your podcast? The one where you sit around with your friends and play D&D? It’s terrible. It’s terrible and you ought to consider stopping. It’s as compelling as a stranger describing to you the dream they had last night. The majority are clumsy, uninteresting games that have no business being offered to anyone beyond the people sitting at that particular table. All the effort you put into making this show is effort that could have been spent improving your skills or your game.
I absolutely love the enthusiasm behind them. It’s part of the explosion in popularity D&D has enjoyed in recent years. Are there people that enjoy all these shows and podcasts? Of course! Great! If you dig watching or listening to other people play D&D, right on! If you and your group have the time, talents and energy to create a online show or podcast, sweet! More power to you. I’m not going to condemn anything that celebrates D&D. I’m not going to lie and say that I wouldn’t have done it too 20 year ago when I had the time and strength for it. I will however say to whoever is willing to listen that all these shows, Critical Role included, are awful. The bandwagon production games are, in my opinion, a tragic waste of talent, time, effort and energy. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t record your games. Far from it. If you don’t record your games on audio if nothing else, you’ll live to regret it. I’m just pointing out that maybe you don’t need to share it. They’re not good and are kind of a part of the problem. If everyone is having a good time doing it, and nobody is getting hurt. By all means, continue to ignore me.
If you’re looking for D&D based entertainment there are a few shows I would recommend. I’m sure if you’re reading this you’re already at least marginally aware of some (if not all) of them.
Harmon Quest– It’s silly and very tongue in cheek, but if you’re wondering how a D&D game normally turns out, it’s close to this. Lots of jokes, weirdness and fooling around with your pals.
Puffin Forest – Again, it’s fun. It’s silly. It’s close to the heart of D&D. It’s equal parts hilarious, thoughtful and poignant.
Dingo Doodles – Manic fun, cute animation. These D&D videos are funny and adorable. Seriously, give it a watch.
JoCat – A splendid example of a the irreverent fun that underlies most D&D games.
The Animated Spellbook – This is my favorite. The content is always top notch. I learn more about the game. It’s great.
In the end, we should all remember that this is a game. We’re here to have fun together. If your game (be you DM or player) is causing you stress, especially from chasing the perfect game, you need to stop and reevaluate your situation. You’ll wind up exhausted, frustrated and resentful. I can’t let you do that to yourself. I want you to have fun. I want you to tell fun stories and make memories with your friends. Talk to some of the Old Guard D&D players. They’ll tell you tales of the weird stories they’ve played out in their time with all the fond memories and old friends that go with them. In the end I can guarantee you will come to cherish that far more than chasing the perfect game, even if by some chance you find it. Turn off YouTube and get ready for your next game. You’re awesome.
Until next time, keep your nose clean.