The Adventure Zone: a hymn to the power of story

Note: this essay does not contain explicit spoilers of any kind for the first campaign arc of The Adventure Zone podcast, even if you have never listened. However, it does contain “conceptual spoilers”, which may or may not be a thing, including for the *finale* of the Balance arc; therefore, proceed at your own discretion. There is also a reference to a not-that-cool musical act. You have been warned. 

Full disclosure: I can say with absolute certainty that The Adventure Zone has brought me to tears more than the sum of its closest fictional competitors. And I mean really cry, honestly and unexpectedly in the way that you can only do when you genuinely connect to a character’s heart, beyond a phantom of your own. Sad is easy; it’s much rarer for fiction to manage to roll a crit on your full range of emotions and draw out reactions you didn’t know were there. And it’s certainly the last thing I expected when I followed up on a lot of word of mouth about a podcast of some dudes playing Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s actually a little absurd to write an essay on The Adventure Zone, as if the text needs any help, or the audience needs any guidance. If you haven’t listened, do. If you have, you probably know what really makes it exceptional already. It does its job so well it does not require a strategy guide to find your way to its truth. You just get there, and you know when you arrive. What a joy that is. But with so many varied options for entertainment, it’s not only fantastic but so boldly original as an experience that it warrants being feted for it, repeatedly.

Usually in fiction, the audience comes on board to the story after it’s been through many stages and many hands. We are privy to very little of the process as it is ongoing, and receive a polished, complete work months or years after its inception. With the rise of social media, we’ve become much more accustomed to an almost immediate relationship between action and result. It’s not simply a lack of patience or attention span, but rather a symptom of a shift in how we expect to engage with narratives. Podcasts, with their relatively streamlined production needs, are slowly starting to lay new tracks into the storytelling wilds of new media.

There is an extraordinary, maybe inherently postmodern pleasure in hearing the McElroys themselves discover their characters and map out their stories, in more or less real time as you do as a listener. The experience of the podcast is already keenly personal; there are no distractions from slick SFX or explosions, few if any ad interruptions, and the audio effectively places you mere feet from the action. But the participatory, collaborative nature of tabletop gaming intensifies the sensation that we are included in the story and not manipulated by it, contrary to the coy modern trope of creator as inscrutable secret-keeper.

This is not to say that Griffin as DM doesn’t have plenty of secrets; in fact, the complexity of the storyline is fairly astounding. He has a gift for tormenting characters and targeting emotions with surgical precision, too. But his real talent lies in payoff, pulling subtle hints or even unintentional happy accidents from years in the past as recording time goes and deftly weaving them into a larger, meaningful storyline. Some of this payoff could easily play as cloying fan service, but because both he, his siblings, and father understand the characters so well, they’re delivered with the delight and weight of a chest of gold pieces at the end of a long and dark dungeon. It’s not about trying to please everyone, or catering to them at the expense of drama; it’s making room for them. But a good story can serve everyone, and take us to a truth together. And the McElroys have been unegotistical, but not unconfident, in the ways the storyteller serves the audience. It’s that lack of ego, the lack of trying to prove some esoteric genius, that lets them succeed. No one will ever tell a story better than someone who truly loves it, left in an environment where they can, without oversight.

There is an emotional honesty about their own relationship to the story, likely helped by an atmosphere of trust and familiarity that not much besides a family could produce, but also proof of their passion for the work. On reflection, I noticed that it’s much less often a specific story turn that made me cry, or deliberate acting (I think this term is reductive in this case, as it doesn’t encompass their direct involvement in the story’s creation). The moments that elicit the strongest emotion as a listener are when it’s possible to hear a slight shift in the timbre of one of their voices. It might be futile to try to describe their specific audio “tells”, but you will know instinctively when you hear them. In the instant that the danger of a tense situation, or the pang of a sad one, or the certainty of a decision become real for them, they become real for us. These moments are present, and intimate, in a way that might not be possible to duplicate in another medium, as the line between creator, actor, character, and audience becomes far less relevant than we’ve come to expect.

Once upon a time in our history, sharing stories was a cornerstone of civilization, and we were much more honest about using them as a tool to navigate our existences. In the course of modern dramatic progress we’ve added not only overlays of technical constraints in mediums like film and TV, but ridden “canon” with a heavy hand across sprawling media projects controlled by corporations that use phrases like “it’s all connected” not to increase meaning but to motivate consumption. Stories once traveled more, shifted more, became warped and rewoven between listener and retelling. The message of the tale mattered more than how many thieves Ali Baba met. We’ve taken wild rivers of story and driven them into canals and locks, redirected and dammed them. There’s something to be said for that structure, even as our ancestors relied on cycles of flood and drought. But in distancing story from its more interactive, organic roots, we may also have stifled some of the most critical services art provides us as humans.

In The Adventure Zone, the McElroys bring story back to these roots; around a virtual campfire, where the storytellers[1] can draw how they wish on a canvas as expansive as the night sky and their imaginations. And the audience, in turn, uses those outlines to individually paint in the details in the colors of their choice. It’s no shock that fans unable to find the variety of representation they wanted elsewhere flocked to TAZ, with joyously diverging visions of the characters and world it was creating. And, really, none of them could ever be wrong about characters which were, otherwise, the sound of a voice. It was a sandbox where everyone could play, even a little, with far fewer restrictions than other mediums incidentally enforce.

That kind of flexible interaction with story is more often looked down on than celebrated. “Play”, generally, gets a bad rap. It’s easy to dismiss games as something children do, that we should set aside as adults. Dungeons & Dragons itself [2] had a tradition of being used as shorthand about people who supposedly couldn’t function in the “real world” and so had fled to a weird fantasy realm controlled by dice rolling. Though most never subscribed to the more outlandish claims about its players, even in the geek community D&D did not conjure images of “cool” people.[3] But play serves incredibly important evolutionary purposes in young mammals; they use it not just to develop critical motor skills for survival, but equally important social skills. Adult mammals use play to reinforce those skills and keep the peace. In the human kingdom, there is scientific research that experiencing other people’s stories makes us more empathetic, and endless anecdotal evidence that fiction is not just an escape, but a survival tool; a light in dark places when all other lights go out. It’s something all of us need, to see some more heroic version of ourselves triumph over the seemingly insurmountable.

The “Tres Horny Boys” are hardly typical heroes, even though they sprang largely from pre-made, intentionally generic characters, which makes their depth that much more impressive. Simple archetypes are quickly subverted, first maybe largely on impulse and later more subtly as the McElroys develop their characters. Faith is balanced against disillusionment, bravery against self-disregard, ego against self-reproach. An effort to fit them into any familiar hero arc would involve at the very least disregarding a lot of fairly casual (if hilarious) murder early in the game. But for all that seeming unlikeliness, the characters’ heroism is all the more powerful; because it’s earned more than it is innate. They make mistakes. They make bad choices. In the end, they are more heroic for having had so many opportunities to step off that path, and still ultimately choose to value their bonds above guilt, or fear, or temptation.

And we are, perhaps, at a point in time where we desperately need to remember how much we need each other, and how the bonds we form when we acknowledge that fact make us stronger. The best flights of fancy may be less about what we’re running from and more about what we’re running to. Maybe this story could only have been achieved rooted in a goof, free of the leviathan weight current trends have placed on genre fiction, with the air to grow organically. We see humor as the ultimate in artifice, but it has always had power to reveal the profound; most effectively, about ourselves. We almost always come at our truths sideways. Like Medusa’s defeat, we can face the fears that paralyze us if we look at them in a mirror.

The most subtle genius in The Adventure Zone is that rather than avoiding or being derailed by the rise of an electric undercurrent of distress in the zeitgeist, it deftly interwove it with its narrative. It is, finally, about the triumph of the spirit – and the community – against the overwhelming. And in its final arc, Griffin’s particular genius utilizes the very essence of what makes art matter to not only make these ideas resonate, but give this particular story incredibly elegant, meaningful closure. It recognizes not only the story itself, but the importance of all stories, the importance of creating, and how we are never – not truly – passive participants. Story and reality, self and other, are a shared continuum. And briefly eschewing anything remotely poetic because it warrants it: I fucking cried like a baby over that shit [4], not because it was sad, but because it was genuinely beautiful. Even more, it came at a time when the beautiful and the hopeful feel like the most precious commodity.

More than just reveling in the joy of the journey of the Balance arc, or taking its already eloquent messages at face value, I hope that The Adventure Zone has and will continue to bring more people to the extraordinary powers of play in one capacity or another. Griffin McElroy did not come to this believing he was a writer, or a composer; Travis, Justin, and Clint are not professional actors; and none of them were perhaps quite sure what they were making beyond the desire to make it. There is room for everyone at the table, and no one should be locked into certainty about what their place there is, by themselves or anyone else. It should be an endless round of musical chairs amongst creators, audience, and points in between. The games we play, the stories we tell, the songs we sing are all a critical release valve on the pressure of just being, a salve for the innumerable, unspoken wounds of living.

Art is powerful, maybe more so when we don’t ask it to be. Like revealing the statue which was already in the stone, the act of creating excavates what is already in the soul. Participating in art helps us set ourselves free of the things we subjugate in ourselves. Shared art becomes a thread that binds us together. “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable[5], but that joint experience of art is an indomitable force that does translate to the “real world”. Life is the story we’re writing together; it should always begin with love, and we are all responsible for making it end there, too.

And when you feel like that’s a futile pursuit, be comforted that there are incredible, painful, joyous stories told by good people to remind you that it isn’t. [SPOILER; HIGHLIGHT] We’re going to be amazing.

 

[1] Story is almost always collaborative, this is the best kept secret of “auteur” film/TV/comics/etc, goshdarnit it’s hard to make sure to cover everyone’s contribution here without spoilers, and also not accidentally make it sound like the Griffin McElroy show; but I’m highly aware. Also, same family name = let’s either talk like they’re the Osmonds, or like we’re Definitely Friends.

[2] It may be worth mentioning that I’ve never *really* played D&D, and definitely thought it was too geeky even for me as a kid. I did do tabletop gaming in high school, with a very iconoclastic DM who had shelves full of guidebooks from every conceivable system and kit bashed them into his own universe of stories and rules. In hindsight, he was a damn saint for putting up with a group of first timers who refused to learn most of the mechanics; though he did once set me on fire for opening a door in a dungeon without checking for traps (or stairs). The trappings were definitely there, regardless; character sheets, dice that always skittered off the table, chips, and a 2-liter of Mountain Dew that our intrepid DM would polish off single-handed, straight from the bottle. It took us a while to warm up and let go of our preconceptions about feeling foolish, but more or less like The Adventure Zone ultimately plans to, we sped along from dragon fighting to vampires in the Wild West to the Spanish Inquisition in space. It was great.

[3] This lazy clubhouse attitude still exists, we just keep changing the scapegoat we use to make us feel comparatively cool. See: LARPers, furries, “fake geek girls”…

[4] No one paid me to write this, I am not a professional, I have no obligation NOT to go “but holy shit, tho” if I want to. They’re good boys, Brant.

[5] Listen if I can drop a f-bomb I can drop an Indigo Girls quote, it’s relevant and they probably cancel each other out, edginess-wise. 

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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