Twitch TTRPGs, Critical Role, and the Mercer Effect

I’m trying to get into the habit of doing more frequent blog posts. I struggle with social media – because it’s toxic, which is by now simply an established scientific fact – but I’m a fuckin’ writer. I’m a content provider. So, I need to do a few more blog posts. Y’know. Provide content. This one is about Twitch TTRPGs.

Because I’m a grognard, I only recently learned about “the Mercer effect.” It’s what happens when a person watches and listens to the webcast Critical Role, a D&D game involving a group of voice actors. After watching the show, some people hook up with a D&D group and then leave because the experience of a normal D&D group is nothing like what happens on Critical Role. The gamemaster is named Matt Mercer, after whom the effect is named – which he finds heartbreaking. He loves Dungeons and Dragons and is simply looking to put on a show, a show he gives away for free, him, and his fellow performers. Even when I’m highly critical – which I will, because I’m a critical person – I absolutely, positively, do not doubt his love of the game or his sincerity or pain that he’s causing people to dismiss TTRPGs because they’ve followed his show.

To be quite honest, the Critical Role show is not a typical D&D game. I’ve been doing tabletop RPGs all of my life, from coast to coast, so I’ve had to change groups more times than I’ve ever wanted. Everything about Critical Role is, overall, superior to the average D&D group. In particular, the GM and players are extremely focused on the game. They’re taking this seriously (and I suspect the game pulls in quite a lot of money, so that helps) and treats it as much as a performance as a game. For his part, Matt Mercer shows up highly prepared. While I’ve only watched three complete episodes and a spattering of others, I have yet to see him needing to flip through books or folders in the twenty-or-so hours I’ve watched the show. His preparation is exceptional.

Then there are the players themselves. They’re focused and attractive and quite literally professional actors.

So, sure, you go down to your local game store and find a game… it isn’t likely to be that way. The GM is likely to be only barely organized, and during the game, there’s going to be as much bullshitting as playing. Every potentially tense scene will be interrupted by a player looking to relieve tension rather than allowing the intense RP to continue. The GM will spend a lot of time shuffling through papers and books. There will be disagreements and misunderstandings about the specifics of the rules… not to mention that the average group of gamers is not nearly so polished in delivery and damnably attractive as the Critical Role group.

Even worse for new players brought to D&D by Critical Role might be the actual content. Combat is relatively rare in Critical Role – but in most other D&D games, it is the primary focus. I haven’t played 5th edition D&D (though I have played every other edition of D&D going back to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, y’know, when there wasn’t even an edition number because the idea you’d need multiple editions of D&D was bizarre) and D&D evolved from a wargame and has kept those roots. Most D&D games are a house built of bricks and mortar – the bricks being combat and the mortar being role-playing. Role-playing is simply the connecting material between violent encounters. With Critical Role, it’s the other way around, and that’s going to be a shock for newbies who know about D&D only from listening to Mercer’s show.

Again, I want to emphasize, none of this is the fault of anyone in Critical Role. On a personal level, the games I run resemble Critical Role much, much more than the average D&D game. Four combat encounters per game is daft to me. If I wanted to play a wargame, I’d do that, and I have. I’ve played wargames at great length and enjoyed most of the time I’ve spent doing it. (These days, not so much. Mostly because my feelings about war have changed. I no longer find the battles very interesting, but the social context of those battles, which can be done in role-playing games far more easily than in wargames. Why a battle is happening is more important than the outcome of the fight. Which is not to say my games don’t have action – they have more action than most D&D games because you’re as likely to spend the game climbing a glacier or running from a monster you can’t beat as fighting – but I need more connective role-playing content than the average game provides.) But Critical Role is not only a highly atypical tabletop game. It’s an even more atypical Dungeons and Dragons game because no TTRPG is as combat-focused.

Which is to say, I feel for the Mercer and his group. They’re a bunch of geeky people who are looking to have fun and make some side money. They look to be having fun, and that’s the goal of every group. And there is likely nothing they can do about the Mercer effect – it happens with everything, right?

Like, I do woodworking, and I’m entirely self-taught. When I need to learn to do something, I go to YouTube, and I watch videos on how to do it. Then I spent hours – often humbling hours – learning to “do it right.” Nothing I do is as easy as the people on YouTube make it look. The things I build are never as polished as the stuff on YouTube, which is expected. I’m a hobbyist who spends maybe two or three hours a week “doing stuff” in my shop, and a bunch of that is cleaning. The YouTubers are professionals who have spent years, if not decades, honing their craft.

Of course, there are a bunch of other YouTube woodworkers who are a lot more “like me.” I don’t watch their videos because they’re not as skilled and polished (often for reasons of time – the polished videos are shorter and provide more concise information even if the woodworkers are more “like me” and might provide context for my struggles with wood.) Like Matt Mercer, I’m sure none of the professional woodworkers whose channels I watch want to drive people from the hobby. Indeed, I’m sure it’s the exact opposite! They want you to love it as much as they do.

Personally, I don’t suffer the Mercer effect – I’m a gamer for life, yo – but my experiences with woodworking provide a recent example of how a person can get into something and then get out of it because of uncharitable comparisons between yourself and the people you know and the people who are, quite literally, the best in the world at what they do.

Which is, I think, the other side of the equation: the players who think that their local gaming group is going to be anything like Critical Role. I mean, seriously, peeps, you think this? Why would you think this? That’s nuts.

Additionally, those new gamers have to realize that they’re not the players in the Critical Role game, right? That they’re the ones that are contributing to the lack of polish and skill? D&D – even 5th edition – is a complex game. They’re likely to be bombarded with a mind-swimmingly large number of weird terms whose significance they do not understand. Like, why there so many damage types, and what’s the difference between them? Or what’s going on with saving throws? They won’t know the numbers on their sheet like the back of their hand, as the Critical Role players obviously do. Heck, they’ll need a lot of help figuring out where the numbers are, much less how they’re derived.

(As a counterexample, a professional wrestler, Brandon Cutler, has a few streams of a D&D game with other professional wrestlers on his Twitch channel. It has some of the same issues at Critical Role in the sense that pro wrestlers are seasoned performers, but in the game, several of the players are new to TTRPGs and clearly are not “getting” what is going on. It’s a lot more what playing D&D with new players is like and what a “normal” D&D game is like. Which is to say, a chaotic mess.  That’s not a criticism, guys.  My whole gamin’ style could be described as a chaotic mess!)

When you learn anything, you’ve got to learn to do it. It takes time and effort. And if a person goes to one game and is driven away because it’s not very much like Critical Role? Maybe they’ve got to remember that’s partly on them.

Anyway, that’s it for this post. Next, I’m likely to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Twitch tabletop role-playing games. It’s definitely… it’s a thing! It’s definitely a thing that I can talk about.

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