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The Adventure Zone: The Best Fantasy Movie of the Last Ten Years Is a Dungeons and Dragons Podcast

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The first episode of The Adventure Zone was a joke.

The hosts of the comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me (MBMBaM, to friends), Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, were joking about how to handle Justin’s paternity leave when one of them suggested they record themselves playing Dungeons and Dragons. Nobody expected that first session—of the boys and their dad, Clint, playing the Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign from the 5th Edition starter set—to go anywhere. They released it as an episode of MBMBaM, thinking it would be a one-off. But unexpectedly, listeners loved it, and soon Griffin, the dungeon master, was leading his characters through a story of his own devising.

Two and a half years later, the show is a fully-realized serial fantasy narrative with a twisting plot, a uniquely McElroy-inflected setting and huge cast of characters, and an original soundtrack by Griffin. Nearing the end of its initial campaign, the show that started as a goof has become one of the most original and exciting fantasy narratives in recent memory.

The story follows Magnus Burnsides (a human fighter, played by Travis), Merle Highchurch (a dwarf cleric, played by Clint), and Taako (a high elf wizard, played by Justin) as they hunt down a series of powerful magical artifacts called the Grand Relics.

That outline might look like typical dungeon-crawling fantasy fare, but the world Griffin and the players construct, one episode at a time, is unlike anything else, drawing on everything from The Fast and the Furious to Groundhog Day to the synths of the pioneering electronic music producer Mort Garson.

There are many other D&D podcasts and YouTube shows, but The Adventure Zone is the only one that’s managed to turn this game into something non-players might want to listen to, without relying entirely on humor. They’ve done that in large part by veering clear of gaming stereotypes—both the tired fantasy tropes associated with the game itself and the boys’-club image of the community who plays it. It’s jokes, but it’s not one big joke. It’s a fantasy story, but it’s not a Tolkien-inspired high-fantasy cliché. In short, it’s a good-ass story that happens to have been built in an unconventional format.

What exactly is that format? Is it a radio play? A dramatic reading of a choose-your-own-adventure novel? A single long improv game? It’s pretty clear that although it has features of many genres of fiction and performance, this form of narrative is a new genre altogether.

People have been using tabletop RPGs to tell stories with their friends for decades, of course. But The Adventure Zone is almost as different from an everyday D&D session as D&D itself is from the wargames that inspired it. When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson wrote the game, they started with a game called Chainmail—a system where players armed with dice and rulers pitted miniature armies against each other—and turned it into one where each player controlled a single hero, inserting the possibility of plot and characterization where it didn’t exist before.

The Adventure Zone (not that it’s the only show in this genre—Griffin cites Friends at the Table as another example) takes a game system and uses it to build engaging, listenable fiction. This isn’t four people playing D&D. It’s four people collaboratively telling a story, with D&D as a skeleton.

Where a typical DM has to balance the role-playing, exploration, and combat elements of the game, Griffin has to balance all those, plus chart a course down the show’s major plot arc, plus make each episode engaging to listeners. “It’s a totally different way of playing,” he says. “[We can’t do] a more traditional dungeon dive where we try to get levels and find cool armor and swords and stuff … that’s a boring show to listen to.”

The magic of the show, like that of the game itself, is its collaborative nature. That can occasionally be maddening for a DM (Griffin admits he’s occasionally been guilty of the well-known DMing pitfall of “railroading,” or forcing players down a single path), but in The Adventure Zone, the player characters doing something Griffin didn’t expect has led to some of the most incredible moments on the podcast.

He recalls an episode in the Suffering Game arc where Taako and Merle literally pull Magnus back from the brink of death. “I was going to drag him, basically, to the death plane, and Justin and Dad were like, ‘Nope!'” he says. “I had to throw that story completely away. But that moment where they save Magnus is a lot of people’s favorite moment of the entire show.”

There’s another layer of collaboration, too: the one between the McElroys and the show’s listeners. At the same time as collaborative, gamified storytelling isn’t new, that extra layer makes this podcast new media in the truest sense of the term—a kind of fiction that simply couldn’t have existed in the pre-social media dark ages. The player characters, in particular, have been heavily shaped by the audience.

Justin recalls how big an influence the piles of Taako fan art that started appearing had on the character. “He would always look so cool and so stylish, and that made me feel like, ‘Wow, they’re seeing him in this way that I hadn’t seen him previously.’ And that helped to codify who he was.”

Justin used that seemingly superficial change as the germ for a wonderfully believable, affecting character. It took a while, though, for him to get there, as the McElroys gradually figured out the show could handle a more serious tone. That the story shifts and solidifies over time is another unique feature of using D&D as an artistic medium, and it means that trying to pin down what’s “canon” is a very different exercise than it is with a series of books or movies.

As Justin puts it, “the character isn’t a straight line, it’s a bunch of data points.” Where the listeners made Taako a character who exudes foppish charm and effortless competence, Justin gave him a relatable vulnerability that would have been unexpected early in the show’s run.

***

Justin sees Griffin’s story as the strength of the show, saying, “I’d put my brother up as a storyteller against pretty much anybody on earth.” That’s not quite it, though. It’s true that he’s written a great story—a shockingly great one, for someone whose last attempt at fiction was a Pokémon novella he wrote in the fifth grade—but the defining feature of the show is the charming sincerity at its heart.

If there’s one respect in which the McElroys are the only people who could have made this, it’s that, in fan parlance, they’re good, good boys—which is a way of saying they’re four of the deep-down kindest and most caring people you could ever hope to meet. What they’re making is a rare and special thing not so much in that it’s continually exciting, funny, and surprising, but in that it doesn’t have a cynical or malicious bone in its body.

When “nerd” is used as an insult, what’s usually meant is that the insultee takes something seriously that other people perceive as frivolous or childish. D&D is considered nerdy because it’s make-believe dressed up for adults.

There are several ways of handling that accusation: if you’re a cis, straight, white male, you can turn bitter and paint yourself, Gamergate-style, as a persecuted minority while rolling your eyes at actual oppression. You can also defend yourself by treating the nerdy thing you like as a joke. You might play RPGs, but you’re not one of those nerds. What’s too rare is to decide to both keep loving the thing and invite other people to love it, too. That’s what The Adventure Zone nails.

Amidst a nerd culture that’s often exclusionary or downright hostile to women and minorities, the McElroys are willing to apologize when they’ve unwittingly done wrong by a particular group of listeners. When fans complained that the untimely death of a gay couple could be seen as an instance of the “bury your gays” trope, Griffin promptly introduced another queer romance.

And while the humor is occasionally dumb, it’s never cruel. “We made a conscious effort to make humor that didn’t punch down,” says Justin. “Or up. Just light on the punching overall.”

That makes the podcast a uniquely joyful, safe, and affirming place. For some, it’s a way to cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. “Whenever [I’m] overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts or panic,” said listener Breanna Robles in a Facebook post, “I listen to one of my favorite episodes, and that always helps calm me down.”

For the show’s legion of LGBTQ+ fans, the casual inclusion of queer characters is a breath of fresh air. “When I saw people saying that Lup [an NPC] is canonically trans I cried,” said a listener who asked to remain anonymous. “I still haven’t come out and it meant a lot.”

At the end of the current campaign, known as The Balance Arc, Griffin plans to go on a hiatus from DMing. There are no clear plans for what will happen next, but it will likely involve the other McElroys taking a turn at running the show (Griffin speaks glowingly of Travis’s DMing abilities, showcased on several bonus episodes). Clint has been poring over superhero-themed RPG systems. “We’ve had people say,I want more from Taako, Merle, and Magnus,'” says Griffin. “But I don’t want that story to overstay its welcome. I think that would cheapen it.”

And anyway, this isn’t really a D&D podcast.

Humans are wired to make up stories: children do it instinctively, but most of us, at some point, forget how. D&D, at its best, spreads the wonderful gospel that storytelling is for everyone. The Adventure Zone amplifies that message. Dozens of listeners told me they the podcast has helped them rediscover creativity, not just by trying D&D, but by drawing, or writing their own fiction. Listening to four lovable goofballs weave a fantasy world will do that.

(image via Griffin McElroy/YouTube screengrab)

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Excelle Sports, and The Toast. Follow her on Twitter @BestKabest.

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