On Monday I talked about how to play like the players on Critical Role. Today I want to talk the other side. Lots of advice - here included - will tell you to not expect your GMing to be as good as Matthew Mercer's, and I'm not going back on that. The man is not only gifted, but he is skilled and has clearly put the hours in behind the screen. Not to mention that he has the benefit of his professional career skillset being so perfect a match for this hobby we know and love.
That said, a lot of what makes Matt Mercer a great GM at the table can be replicated and practiced without being a professional voice actor. Today I want to talk about those things.
1. Put In The Work
You can tell at a glance that Mercer puts in the work. I don't know how he does it with how busy his life must be, but he comes to every session prepared. He has the setting prepared, the city, small shops. He's ready with small encounters. He's ready with the major encounters. Some of these are improv, but improv as good as Matt does only happens when you have the groundwork done ahead of time.
This is how being a good GM matches up with being a good Shadowrunner. You need to do the ground work if you want the job to go smoothly.
2. Get Into The Act
This may be from his background as an actor, but Matt isn't afraid to get into the act with his GMing. it is not uncommon to see him pantomime the actions and move his whole body as he narrates what is going on. GMing like this frankly terrifies me for some reason - and it is something I've been trying to get better at - but the more you can get into the narrative of what is going on, the more emotion you can convey and bring out, the more it is going to ensnare your players.
The other way to headline this would be to call it "be fearless" because that is largely what it is. Baby steps here may work better for you. Just remember the benefit of letting yourself get into your own story.
3. Villains Are Characters. Treat Them As Such
D&D gives the benefit of sometimes someone or something is just evil. However, that doesn't mean the rules of a good villain changes, and the best villains quite often are the heroes of their own stories. This is one place Matthew Mercer shines as a GM and storyteller. His villains are compelling because they are more than just stat blocks for his PCs to fight, they are characters with their own goals, motivations, personalities, and quirks. Not all of it comes out at the table - the Briarwoods are proof enough of that - but you can see the layers and depth in how they play out.
It sometimes means things go ways he's not expecting, but it keeps things genuine, and makes for a cast of rogues that are truly memorable.
4. Play Up The Little Moments
This, like #2, is one I really need to work on - granted my #1 and #3 aren't exactly top knotch either. There are so many little moments we let slip past in games. So many moments where you can add character, add tension, add drama, or just add some world building or other narrative tick...but we don't take advantage of them.
In L5R I can't remember how many times I've gone through the mechanics of a duel, but not narrated what is going on in the duel until the very end. In D&D I've let lots of small mechanical moments go by without narrating them: the picking of a lock, the handling of a negotiation, an attack that misses, or does low damage.
These are all chances to liven up the game. They don't need minutes of prose and explanation, but a line or two can make all the difference.