The Adventure Zone: This comedy D&D podcast is a critical success

"Strap on your fantasy seat belts and brace your *sses for.... The Adventure Zone!" — Announcer, Ep. 1

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Dana Kullgren

"The Adventure Zone" is a podcast with comedy, storytelling, and D&D all wrapped into one.

by Dana Kullgren, Editor

The short URL of the present article is: https://lhslance.org/r1o3l

A human, a dwarf, and an elf walk into a cave and change the world of podcasts forever.

The Adventure Zone is just one of the many podcast and video products created by the McElroy family, but for me and over 193.7K other D&D-loving fans of the show, it’s the best of the best.

This is a promotional image for TAZ featuring (from left to right) Justin, Griffin, Travis, and Clint McElroy.

The McElroys are a family that have built an empire in the world of entertainment and, in particular, podcasts. Some of their media includes My Brother, My Brother, and Me, Schmanners, Sawbones, Wonderful! and many more. Griffin McElroy, youngest of the three McElroy brothers, is a 2017 Forbes 30 under 30 Media Luminary in part for his role as the cofounder of the video game website Polygon.

The oldest and one of the most famous of their podcasts is My Brother, My Brother, and Me (MBMBAM), a comedy-advice show. This podcast is hosted by the three McElroy brothers: “oldest brother” Justin, “middlest brother” Travis, and “sweet baby brother” Griffin.  MBMBAM began in 2010 and includes over 500 episodes.

In The Adventure Zone (TAZ), the brothers three are joined by their father, Clint, to play tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Since its beginning as a one-off extension of MBMBAM in 2014, TAZ has grown incredibly popular among fans of podcasts, D&D, and the McElroys alike. Justin McElroy said, “MBMBAM has an audience. TAZ has a following.” The show is one part tabletop role-playing (like D&D), one part compelling storytelling, and, like most McElroy products, one part comedy podcast.

TAZ is split into “campaigns,” which are like seasons. Each campaign tells a story with its own setting, characters, and plot.

Through their campaigns, the McElroys have experimented with a variety of games in an effort to bring new ways of storytelling to their audience. Their first campaign, titled “Balance,” used D&D in a (mostly) fantasy setting, but since then they have used Monster of the Week, the Fate system, and the Powered by the Apocalypse system to develop new ways of furthering the plot.

My favorite of the Adventure Zone campaigns is “Balance” because it is the longest running one to date so the audience is able to form a meaningful connection with the characters and story. “Balance” features Griffin as the Dungeon Master (the game organizer), Clint as the dwarven cleric Merle Highchurch, Travis as the human fighter Magnus Burnsides, and Justin as the elven wizard Taako (yes, pronounced like “taco”). Though these characters were conceived without much detail, they grew and changed as they interacted with non-playable characters (NPCs), fought enemies, and solidified their backstories.

Balance also features twists and turns that I can only describe as delightful. So many plot twists in present-day media rely on shock value with no real lead up, but Griffin uses hints and clues throughout his narrative that leave the listener saying “It all makes sense now!” when the final twists are revealed.

Though it is my favorite campaign, “Balance” is not without its flaws. At its beginning, the McElroys were inexperienced at the game, having played only a few times (if that) in the past. This showed in their gameplay, particularly in conjunction with the fact that they seemed to  want to focus more on the comedy aspect, like in MBMBAM, than the storytelling aspect which is more important in D&D. The story moved slowly and without direction for some time, so it isn’t until Episode 4 that the McElroys really hit their stride during an exciting and hilarious battle with the Black Spider (who Griffin dubs “Magic Brian”).

The sound quality is also not excellent at the beginning of TAZ, but the story and humor of the show more than make up for the subpar recording equipment.

Once the McElroys figure out what they’re doing, TAZ shifts from a comedy podcast to something much more profound. It mixes heartfelt monologues and exchanges with ridiculous goofs and running jokes to create a type of media which is both thrilling and feel-good. The characters that the McElroys create, after they take a few episodes to develop them, are always interesting and entertaining. Justin has a streak of giving his characters bizarre names, such as Taako, Duck, Pepsi, and, in the newest campaign, “Graduation,” his character has no name at all.

Another reason fans love the characters is because the McElroys make a conscious effort to create and develop diverse characters with varying genders, races, sexualities, and backgrounds. Because of this, The Adventure Zone is particularly meaningful to the LGBTQ+ community. “Balance” includes several gay couples and a canon transgender character, while one of the main characters of the “Amnesty” campaign is bisexual. In “Graduation,” there are also several characters that use they/them pronouns.

THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS. Though the McElroys have been overwhelmingly praised for incorporating diverse characters, they are not without their mistakes. The third story arc of “Balance” concludes with the tragic death of a lesbian couple, the only confirmed non-straight couple in the show at that point. Griffin had intended to kill off the couple to give the story arc a bittersweet ending, but many fans pointed out that the McElroys had inadvertantly fallen into the homophobic cliché of killing off their gay characters. This trope is common in mainstream media and referred to as the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Instead of refusing to acknowledge the concerns of their fans, the McElroys vowed to do better and introduced more LGBTQ+ characters to their narrative. In fact, at the end of the campaign, the couple is brought back to life as dryads and they live “happily ever after.”

Throughout the various TAZ campaigns, the McElroys have played a variety of games in a variety of settings. If you prefer D&D in traditional (and nontraditional) fantasy settings, I would recommend the “Balance” or “Graduation” campaigns. Want a story about cryptids and magic in West Virginia? Check out the “Amnesty” campaign.

If you don’t want to commit to a long story, you can try one of the many TAZ live shows, in which the McElroys play one-off games in front of fans. You can choose from many options such as “Dadlands” (a post-apocalyptic world in which only dads remain), “The Adventure Zone: Hootenanny” (a “space opry”), and “The Ballad of Bigfoot” (which ties into the Amnesty campaign). In “The Ballad of Bigfoot,” the McElroys play my favorite of their role-playing games, the aptly named “Oh, Dang! Bigfoot Stole My Car With My Friend’s Birthday Present Inside” (and you’ll never guess what the plot is).

Carey Pietsch’s colorful illustrations bring the world of TAZ to life in the first “The Adventure Zone” graphic novel: “Here There Be Gerblins.”

Once you’re hooked on the show, be sure to check out the graphic novels based on the podcast. There are two out thus far with the third scheduled to be released in July. Each follows one arc of the story of “Balance.” The colorful and inventive art by Carey Pietsch brings the story to life and creates opportunities for jokes and drama in the visual medium that weren’t possible in the audio format.

 In the current Adventure Zone campaign, “Graduation,” the McElroys have returned to their roots (D&D in a fantasy setting) with one major change: their Dungeon Master. The role of the Dungeon Master (DM) is to create and manipulate the world and characters that the rest of the players interact with. For the past two main campaigns, “Balance” and “Amnesty,” Griffin has been the DM and done an excellent job. In “Graduation,” however, the new DM is Travis, who certainly has a different style. As an actor, Travis uses more voice-acting for his characters than Griffin did. This took some getting used to for listeners, but I believe that it has improved the podcast by giving listeners a more engaging experience.

“Graduation,” with Travis McElroy as its DM, is the most recent TAZ campaign.

Some fans complain that the new campaign feels like it’s moving too slowly due to Travis’ inexperience as a DM, but compared to Griffin’s first campaign, “Balance,” Travis’ characters, world, and plot are already more fleshed out than they were at the beginning of “Balance.” Travis is also scattering seeds throughout this story that have the potential to blossom into a compelling narrative over time, and if fans stick with him, I believe that we will get a campaign on par with or even better than previous campaigns.

Episodes of TAZ range from one to two hours, and, with over 150 episodes, getting into the show can be intimidating. This is especially the case if you have never played D&D before and are feeling very confused, but have no fear—I had no idea how the game worked when I started TAZ, but I was able to pick it up along the way. No matter which campaign you start with, I guarantee that this podcast makes up for its few shortcomings with its unique sense of humor, inventive plots, and memorable characters.

Episodes of The Adventure Zone are available on Spotify or the Maximum Fun website