I recently watched “Stephen Colbert’s D&D Adventure with Matthew Mercer” and was quite astounded with the sheer mastery Matthew Mercer has over the game. I wanted to do an analysis of all of the things he did wonderfully.
If you haven’t seen the video you can here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3658C2y4LlA
I’ll preface this all by saying that I’ve never actually watched an episode of Critical Role. I find 4-hour streams/videos simply too much to spend every week following it. Especially with such a visual medium that I can’t just listen to in the background.
However, I did find the 1-hour adventure to be just the right length to absorb. Typically when I watch or listen to folks run games there’s a counter in the back of my head on how to improve every moment; however with Matt Mercer I was enraptured with his ability to run a game. So here is a timestamped analysis of techniques and points that I think he did really well.
2:58 – Onboarding. By running the new player through how to read the sheet, it reduces the amount of time the player will be referencing it. He also gives an example of a basic roll.
5:54 – Added companion. Rather than choosing to involve a GM-PC there is a minor companion that was added here. Companions & Familiars allow you to assist the player in a way that doesn’t take away the spotlight and can act as a secondary target to take the heat off the player.
8:19 – Goes through examples of the spells. The important part here is that he DOESN’T explain casting spells at higher levels. There’s already a lot of information the player is absorbing. By holding this piece of information, he can reveal it at a good time and not distract the player.
10:32 – “We begin-” Matthew Mercer here shows a mastery of applying the ‘magic circle’ theory. He clearly uses a line that indicates ‘we’re starting now.’ It seems less important here with a single person but in a group, announcing you’re about to start is a critical technique because, given the opportunity, your players will chatter well into the official game time.
10:38 – By describing elements such as the ‘Summer months’ or that the area is temperate, coastal, and known for wine, further help draw the player into the world using all their senses.
12:02 – By giving the player purpose and goals and motivation, as well as already placing them in the forest, the player is already given the tools to move forward. It’s an arrow point in the right direction. I feel a lot of GMs in this moment would actually just start in the town and go ‘what do you do,’ leading to requiring an NPC interaction to then give them the purpose they need.
13:55 – ‘Fortune roll.’ I’m not particularly certain if a sheet or any statistical note was given for Eric, but by doing a simple d20 without modifiers, you also suggest to the player not to overly rely on the companion.
14:11 – Can I just say I love Matthew Mercer’s hand movements? The bee ok, the snaking hands, the canopy cover. It’s wonderful.
14:22 – More details like ‘the scent of fermenting fruit’ the ‘shaded canopy.’
15:00 – Snarling noises. Top tier.
15:09 – Hand movements plus the increase in noise. It REALLY sells the startle and you can see how invested Steven is when he jumps back.
17:08 – The happy ‘okay!’ and nod gives the player such a good feeling. Partly in that, you know a spell is a limited resource. So you should be cheering and positive in confirming the trade-off here.
19:06 – The lowered quiet voice draws the player in to listen carefully JUST like their character. It’s great for subterfuge, quiet elements. You can see Steven leaning forward to listen better, then leaning backwards afterward as if he was the character himself doing the action.
21:35 – I’m uncertain when it happened but you can faintly hear that the music definitely changed with the scenery.
22:07 – “You can certainly try,” is one of my favorite GM lines. It’s not as dangerous as say, the ‘are you sure?’ but it’s always best to encourage players to try all the options they have. Try not to punish someone for trying something clever.
22:53 – I believe this is where Matt Mercer is improvising. I doubt that he planned for the imps to be able to be knocked down, but he’s obviously rolling with the ingenuity of the player. With a solid roll, he showed there are directly positive results for trying new things. It would be easy for any GM to just say ‘it has no effect. it’s a tiny rock,’ but I love the follow-through here.
25:29 – ‘Almost throwing you off the bridge’ adds a lot of tension at this moment. I doubt there was ever any intention to actually throw him off, but the movement and physicality just add to the tension really well here.
28:31 – The body language is glorious. Not only does he describe the locale extensively using hand poses and shapes, but instead of just going ‘what do you do?’ he just leans forward and folds his hands over. He doesn’t NEED to say anything.
28:49 – Nothing, in particular, to note here, but Matt DOES know Capo’s sheet by heart. He knows Capo doesn’t have medicine. It’s fair to assume he knows his AC and HP at any given point. So anytime he’s asking his AC it’s probably facetious.
31:10 – I love the burst of 7 attacks then immediately coming to rest. This easily could have been either an encounter OR a trap and the ambiguity is lovely.
32:00 – Dark skin representation. Less of a GM skill and just something I really appreciate.
34:02 – For strong, critically character driven moments like this it is SUCH a good feeling to say the character’s name. Especially so if the player is as immersed as Steven is. Look at that happy face.
34:38 – Fun characters are always good to cut through seriousness. It’s like adding salt to ice cream. The difference of flavors enhances the other.
34:48 – Index cards for magical items are a MUST. It’s quick and easy to reference, and a lot easier than a player asking what it does and copying it down. Great for in-game speed.
37:16 – “Everyone can have [x] just [y] are really good at it.” Great way to explain proficiency, and to encourage people to try skills anyways.
37:59 – “Would you like to will it to?” is a really good way to enable creative use of magical items. This is especially true when the ability is at least within the ‘theme’ of the item. The exalting blade is evidently sun/bright themed, so it’s very fitting.
39:51 – There’s very little character/npc interaction in short games, so I liked the talking with the villain here.
41:14 – The persuasion check here was evidently a failure, but from what I see, Mercer is using a ‘sliding failure’ here. Rather than outright refusal, he uses this to extend the conversation, allowing the narrative or further rolls to dictate the scene.
44:28 – Pushing a fight using allied NPCs is typically something I enjoy, but it’s important here due to the limited time. It’s especially great that it’s in character.
45:30 – Matt Mercer 100% knows what HP Capo is at. I don’t know if the damage did <28 and he rose it up, or 30+ and he lowered it, but I feel the damage was definitely fudged to make this moment more dramatic.
46:02 – This is where Matt tells Steven about higher level casting. My 8:19 comment mostly covers what I have to say about this. Great timing.
47:04 – When the player evidently can’t take another hit, it’s the perfect time to target a companion. Even if Eric didn’t hit, I’d imagine the Zathkira would swat at him just for buzzing around him. That said, I love Eric. Let’s have a moment of silence.
49:00 – Mercer once again rewarding the player for clever ideas. I’m fairly certain the phylactery could’ve been behind the door and on some pedestal, or here in the bed. Maybe it would’ve been in the alchemical gear to the side. Normally I’m not the biggest fan of shifting the locations of things, as the choices you make are important, but for a short, quick, feel-good game this is great and makes the player feel amazing.
49:34 – Having the villain 100% sell how important this item is was great.
50:45 – The epilogue is always good for particularly heroic adventures. When the players complete a quest it’s a very… conclusive feeling to regale the adventure. Good work here.
And that’s all. Hope yall learned something?