I certainly didn’t expect to develop an interest in podcasts. Although I held nothing against that form of media, they didn’t seem like one that would appeal to me. I hold very little focus on audio that isn’t music; I honestly have difficulty paying attention to conversations that happen around me, and the idea of listening to someone talk for an extended period of time sounded dreadful. However, I decided to take a chance on one to see for sure whether or not they would be something I would genuinely enjoy. I don’t normally write, but I want to shed some light on the podcast that changed my perspective and has now become an important fixture in my life: “The Adventure Zone.”
“The Adventure Zone” is a comedy and adventure podcast distributed by the Maximum Fun network and hosted by brothers Griffin, Travis, and Justin McElroy, and their father Clint McElroy. The McElroys hail from Huntington, West Virginia and are involved in nearly 11 podcasts and video series. Justin McElroy works as the editor-at-large for the video game website Polygon. Travis McElroy lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and works as a fulltime podcaster. Griffin McElroy resides in Austin, Texas and is the senior video producer for Polygon, and Clint McElroy is a former radio personality. “The Adventure Zone” originally started as a filler episode for the brothers’ flagship podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me” while Justin McElroy was on paternity leave in August of 2014. The positive feedback of the episode lead to “The Adventure Zone” becoming its own show on the Maximum Fun network on December 5, 2014. The show consists of the brothers and their father playing through the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and has recently expanded to include other RPGs. That may seem somewhat daunting to those that aren’t familiar with the gameplay of D&D, but I can assure you that the podcast is still very enjoyable even without knowing the rules or having any interest in the game whatsoever. Part of that stems from the fact that when the podcast started, the McElroys themselves had little to no experience playing the game, so the listener basically gets to learn the gameplay alongside them. The other contributor is the way the podcast is recorded. Because the hosts live in different states, they play the game and record audio remotely over Skype. This has lead to “The Adventure Zone” being very exposition-heavy and ultimately shifting the focus of the show to be more narrative-based than a traditional Let’s Play style. If the D&D is still making you uncomfortable, you can think of it as improvisational storytelling. While there is an overarching story, D&D adds a layer of unscripted chance that allows the storyline to progress naturally, which in the case of this show has led into some exceptionally memorable scenes.
The show is broken into different story arcs based off of each campaign. The first campaign, titled “Balance,” had Griffin McElroy as the role of the Dungeon Master and narrator. Because of the show’s unplanned continuity, the first few episodes are somewhat crude and joke-based but establish the comedic tone of the show. Eventually, the family found themselves being invested in the characters they created and Griffin McElroy had fully crafted a plot. A major driver of the general quality increase of the show came from the addition of music in later episodes. Prior to the fourth story arc in “Balance,” the only music featured in the show was the theme song, “Déjà Vu” by electronic music pioneer Mort Garson. To add to the almost 15 hours of work he already put into the show, Griffin McElroy decided to start writing and recording original music to feature in the podcast. After positive fan feedback, his compositions are now regularly featured in episodes, which greatly assist in adding emotion to the already compelling storytelling.
The plot of “Balance” follows three characters: a fighter, Magnus Burnsides, a dwarven cleric, Merle Highchurch, and an elven wizard, Taako. The three of them find themselves being recruited by an organization called the Bureau of Balance, whose mission is to find and destroy seven magical artifacts called the Grand Relics, supposedly created by a group of rogue wizards referred to as the Red Robes. As the story progresses, the adventurers are introduced to a variety of other characters who aid in their quests and eventually start to unravel the mystery of their pasts and the fate of the universe as a whole. Audience participation is incorporated by naming non-playable characters after fans who Tweet using the hashtag #TheZoneCast.
Despite being white cisgender heterosexual men, the McElroys have made an active effort to include good and accurate representation of minority groups, with “Balance” in particular having a fair amount of LGBTQ inclusion. The brothers acknowledge that because of their backgrounds, they may make mistakes, and they encourage the fanbase to call them out whenever that is the case. For instance, one of the story arcs introduced two characters that were implied to be a lesbian couple and ended with the two of them dying and turning into a tree. Griffin McElroy was unaware that this was a common trope (known as "bury your gays") and apologized when this was pointed out, calling it “a lack of mindfulness.” With that feedback taken into consideration, the depiction of a lesbian couple that lives (and gets married) was included, along with the exploration of other LGBTQ identities, such as Taako (who was stated to be gay on Justin McElroy’s Twitter) getting a boyfriend and the addition of canonically non-binary and transgender characters.
“Balance” concluded on August 17, 2017. At that point, the McElroys were unsure of what the next major campaign would be and made the decision to explore other RPGs in a series of experimental arcs which they called “mini-arcs.” The first, titled “Commitment,” uses the FATE system and tells the story of three people who work for an organization called the Do-Good Fellowship and develop superpowers. “Commitment” was run by Clint McElroy with the brothers being players. Following “Commitment” was “Amnesty,” run by Griffin McElroy using the Monster of the Week system. The arc is set in modern-day West Virginia in a fictional mountain town called Kepler, located inside the real-life National Radio Quiet Zone. Based on shows like “Twin Peaks,” “Supernatural,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Kepler is infested by eldritch creatures called Abominations which the protagonists find themselves having to fight off after being brought together by fate. The final mini-arc, run by Travis McElroy using the Urban Shadows game, is “Dust.” Inspired by the Old West, “Dust” tells the story of a town called Dry River where creatures such as werewolves, ghosts, and vampires live alongside humans, though not necessarily on friendly terms. After a murder one night, three members of the Grayson Agency are instructed to find the killer in eight hours before the town wakes up. On March 29, 2018 the McElroys announced that season two would be “Amnesty” and pick up from where the mini-arc left off and officially premiered on April 12. Because the arcs aren’t related to each other, listeners are able to start the series in whatever order they please.
In December of 2016, First Second Books announced a graphic novel adaptation of the first story arc in “Balance” titled “The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins” set for release in July of 2018. Because “The Adventure Zone” is a podcast (an audio-only medium), there is no canonical visual portrayal of any characters, including the illustrations in the graphic novel, allowing fans creative freedom with how they visually interpret and depict characters. After “Balance,” the mini-arcs were more direct with people of color (POC) representation with specific characters, but it still holds that there is no canon appearance.
A lot more can be said about “The Adventure Zone,” (I merely wanted to provide an overview) and I encourage anyone that’s interested to learn more about it on their own. “The Adventure Zone” releases episodes bi-weekly on Thursdays. Episodes can be found on MaximumFun.org, iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else that podcasts are distributed.