How DMs Can Deal With ‘Matt Mercer Syndrome’

matt mercer dungeon and dragons

Dungeon & Dragons Fifth Edition has seen a massive boost in the tabletop RPG’s popularity. This is in part thanks to a plethora of live-play shows, podcasts, and shows that even appeal to those who were not previously familiar with the game, the most popular of which is Critical Role. Many viewers have even decided to try D&D for themselves, though some go into the game with unreasonable expectations that lead to misunderstandings.

Many new players expect their first game of Dungeons & Dragons to go a certain way, and those expectations can sometimes be troublesome. Dungeon Masters may have a different style or format. Some use lots of maps and grids, while others prefer theater of the mind-style gameplay. All of the game’s variations can inevitably cause some confusion, which commonly known as “Matt Mercer Syndrome.” However, there are a few ways the average DM can deal with it.

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What Is Matt Mercer Syndrome?

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With Critical Role being as popular as it is, what comes to mind for many when they think of a Dungeon Master is the series’ DM Matthew Mercer. Those who start playing D&D after watching Critical Role may come in with some skewed expectations. For starters, Mercer’s production has a massive budget that was provided by Geek & Sundry until 2018 when it developed its own production company.

On top of that, Mercer himself is a well-known voice actor with a long resume and plenty of experience in performance and game design which has allowed him to hone his skills as a DM. Plus, the show’s cast is also filled with talented voice actors who are experts in creating and portraying characters, improvising creative solutions and playing off of the DM and each other.

Additionally, Critical Role is, first and foremost, an entertainment production. It’s meant to be enjoyable for viewers, but as any D&D player can attest to, there are always ups and downs in a campaign. New players often enter their first games assuming it will be similar to what they’ve watched on Critical Role, but simply put, the show is the exception, not the rule. This has caused many DMs to take a cynical view of the show, nicknaming the issues that arise between these players and themselves, “Matt Mercer Syndrome.” This name is a jab at the idea that every Dungeon Master can and should try to be like Mercer.

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Combat Matt Mercer Syndrome by Setting Expectations in Advance

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As they say, the first step to solving a problem is determining that there is one. In addition to being a good counter to Matt Mercer Syndrome, a pregame survey helps a Dungeon Master tailor their campaign to their players, helping things run more smoothly in the long run. Ask about the players’ experiences with Dungeons & Dragons, and encourage them to share their expectations and ideas for the game.

Other good things to include could be a few practice role-play scenarios or a short transcription of the typical session. By helping newcomers understand of how a typical game actually runs, players will have a good idea of what they’re getting into. Remember to always reserve judgment. Even the most seasoned adventurers were new players once, so be understanding. Laying down the groundwork will help new players learn the game and assimilate into the party with fewer issues and conflicts.

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Always Hold a Session Zero

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Equally important is the pre-campaign session widely known as Session Zero. Here, players work together to make characters, discuss setting, and establish boundaries regarding topics and behaviors that may cause discomfort. This can double as an icebreaker session, allowing a new party to get to know one another.

Once again, new players may have questions, so encourage them to share these ideas and discuss them with the party. Helping a new player create their character also lets them get a finer grasp on the mechanics of play. While it’s okay to make recommendations, it’s just as essential that a player has autonomy when building their first character. This helps them establish connection not just with the party, but with the game as a whole.

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DnD One-Shots Are Great for New Players

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Even after meeting the group and working with the DM, new players may still be nervous or have some misunderstandings about the game. The best way to handle this is by running a basic one-shot, either solo or with a small, trusted group. The one-shot doesn’t need to be complex or story-driven, but it should help them grasp the basic mechanics of D&D, sort of like a video game tutorial.

A good go-to is a training session at an adventurer’s guild or similar office where the player has to complete some tasks to prove they are ready to set out on an adventure. Perhaps they’ll need to scale a rock wall to practice ability checks, or have to dodge swinging sandbags to represent a need to make Saving Throws. Station a few targets for attack and damage rolls, then provide a low-challenge beast as a wrap up test to show combat works.

Giving the player some room to experiment with different skills and abilities will help them once they’re in an actual campaign. This won’t guarantee that they won’t have any questions later, but it will help them learn the basics and set expectations for what playing D&D is really like.


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