Storytelling With “Tres Horny Boys”

I originally had a much longer and very different post planned for this week. It was going to be more or less a follow-up to last week’s post addressing an example of a piece of media that I think does the depiction of mental illness and suicide well.

However, to be frank, the topic was too huge to tackle for a second time on a more specific level in the limited time I ended up having this week. So instead, I decided to discuss something a little lighter.

See, a while back I talked about how obsessed I am with “My Brother, My Brother, and Me,” a podcast by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. Definitely go back and read my review of it and check them out because that podcast is still one of the most genuinely funny pieces of content the internet has to offer. But recently I’ve fallen hard for another McElroy podcast product… “The Adventure Zone.”

“The Adventure Zone,” or TAZ, as I’ll refer to it for the rest of the post, is a podcast chronicling the Dungeons and Dragons campaign of the McElroy brothers and their father, Clint McElroy. It’s DM’d by Griffin and it’s honestly and truly a masterpiece in its own right. And because I always like to take a deep look at things I love to determine why it is I love them so much, I want to take a look at why this podcast gels so well with me and with so many others.

Now, I went into this podcast with high hopes, of course. I have made no secret of my love for the Brothers McElroy and their brand of comedic genius. And, on top of that, I adore Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve, admittedly, not played nearly as much of it as I’d like, but I hope to change that going forward.

See, Dungeons and Dragons is unique in just how, well, unique it is. There’s no other game quite like it, that can so easily appeal to so many different kinds of players. Every D&D campaign is usually unique in one way or another, some focusing on minute details for those who are picky and analytical, some focusing on action or character development for those who enjoy that. I’ve heard of honest-to-god D&D strategies! People who play it like a real competitive game, creating characters not for their intrigue but rather for their stats. And that, for me, is something to get excited about.

Because with a game that lends its players such flexibility, it becomes a powerful tool for building some really creative and diverse worlds with fascinating stories and compelling characters. Or not! And that’s the beauty of it.

So what kind of world does Griffin use D&D’s powerful world-building tools to create? Well, one that’s surprising and comical and beautiful and so obviously McElroy.

Their campaign is an interesting one, for sure. For one, Griffin makes it clear right off the bat that he doesn’t want it to drag on the small details. He refuses to focus on how adventurers Magnus Burnsides (Travis), Taako Taaco (Justin), and Merle “Hitower” Highchurch (Clint) eat, sleep, or travel on any of their adventures. They literally are shot out of a cannon to each new journey, and are given free rein to focus on the story and the story only.

And while this method was at first a bit novel to me, since my few forays into the world of D&D tended to focus on the “journey” aspect of the adventure rather than the episodic structure TAZ employs, it quickly became clear that it was the perfect method to tell the story Griffin wanted to tell.

For one, he knows his tools. And in this case, the “tools” are his family members, the main actors in his story, Justin, Travis, and Clint. Knowing their penchant for goofing off and getting distracted, Griffin constructs a world that simultaneously keeps them focused but also gives them some material to play with.

Griffin sheepishly berates himself in several episodes for “railroading” his players into doing what he wants them to, but honestly as a listener I’m glad he runs his campaign the way he does. Personally, I think he does a wonderful job at balancing free choices and unchangeable story beats to the point where it’s really not noticeable which are which, especially to the players and the listeners, which is the most important part anyway.

And if it’s not obvious at this point, I really want to commend Griffin in this post. It’s not easy at all to be a Dungeon Master, especially one overseeing the frankly sometimes flaky playstyle of Justin, Travis, and Clint. Yet Griffin pulls off his duty with grace and a good sense of humor, as well as, and this is most important to me, a lot of passion.

I think this is also what makes TAZ work so effortlessly for me. In the first few episodes, when the boys are just feeling everything out for the first time, some of the situations are funny, sure, but the plot doesn’t really get compelling until Griffin’s vision for the campaign as a whole begins to take shape. When the passion and effort he clearly puts into the campaign becomes apparent, that’s when TAZ really starts to shine.

And… I love that. I love that TAZ’s success hinges so heavily on its creator’s love for it. That’s something that resonates strongly with me, as a creator myself.

Not, of course, to diminish the role of the three main actors in the story. The “Tres Horny Boys” are certainly unconventional heroes, but they’re so genuine in the way they’re portrayed that they’re hard not to root for.

I think if Griffin succeeds in the balancing act of free choice and railroading, then Justin, Travis, and Clint succeed in the balancing act of playing their characters seriously and humorously.

I mean, it’s clear that all three main characters were conceived in a slightly joking manner. I mean, “Taako Taaco?” Magical wizard elf chef? You know, Taako, from TV? Magnus Burnsides, with magnificent sideburns, a ridiculously tragic backstory, and a vehicle proficiency? Or Merle Highchurch, a cleric who doesn’t know how to cleric and knows way better how to “ZONE OF TRUTH?” They’re all silly… and yet…

And yet, they’re played with a sense of reality. Despite their ridiculous names and roles in the story, the campaign more or less takes them seriously. They’re treated as incredible heroes in their world, and they are! And that’s inspiring, and endearing, and really easy to care about. And even as the boys crack jokes about their characters, at the end of the day it’s clear that there’s care and… well, passion, in this story.

So, whatever you do this week, consider putting on the first episode of TAZ. It starts a little slow, but trust me, once it hits its stride you’ll be hooked. You’ll be carrying your listening device around your house like a fool, hanging onto every word, laughing and crying along with the Tres Horny Boys as they fumble their way through Griffin’s beautiful and intricate world.

(I know, because it’s what I’ve been doing.)

Listen to the first (condensed for ease of listening) episode here!

A Story in Song

While talking to my friend Marie, she mentioned listening to a classic song with her mom and dancing around. She highly recommended this song, (“Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies) to me, and because I’m not one to turn down a song recommendation, I looked up the song on Youtube.

Marie’s taste in music is a little different than mine. I would say in general she’s more appreciative of the “classics” than I am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it whenever she throws an older gem my way, and this time was no different. However, I made the terrible awful mistake of scrolling down into the comments, where I found this gem.

YoutubeComment

And, unsurprisingly, I was peeved. My problems with people like this is one of the biggest reasons I’m not more into classic music. I’m no stranger to music elitists. One might call me one, to be honest. But as far as I’m concerned this commentor has never even heard a modern song before.

See, I’m a huge fan of music that tells stories. And, as a caveat, I should say, most songs tell a story. Even your cookie cutter radio hits tend to follow some sort of plot. I mean, just cherry picking from the current Billboard Top 100, the so-called scourge of music according to classics fans like this person, “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars tells a distinct story of the narrator wanting to shower their lover in luxury goods and experiences, “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran recounts the singer’s physical attraction to their lover and tells the story of their first date as well as several sexual encounters… I mean, even the most vapid 2008 pop has some kind of story. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” is a clear story about the singer’s lifetime devotion to partying! To say modern songs don’t tell stories is ridiculous because all songs have to have some sort of story, or else they’re just incomprehensible gibberish.

But, okay, I’ll bite. Maybe what this commentor means is that no modern music tells such a romantic story as the one in “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”. And not romantic in the love, coupley, sense, but more along the lines of a novel put to song. And even then, this commentor is wrong, as I will prove today.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I really love lyrics. They’re probably my favorite aspect of music. Whenever I get into a song, I like to delve into the lyrics and discover their meanings and the story behind them. So, why not talk about some of my favorite musical stories? So, here we go, five songs that tell fascinating stories… true or not.

In Another Life – Vienna Teng

I’ve touched briefly on this song before in my Women in Music post, but I didn’t get to focus specifically on what it is that makes this song magical. Vienna Teng uses her usual theatrical style to tell the tale of two lovers over the course of many different lives. The song traces these two lovers through various points of history and through various occupations. I think the story is told just beautifully, with some really poignant images, and even though the song never directly states that the two subjects of the song are in love, it is clearly conveyed through the tiny details in the way they interact.

I love the tone of this song. It’s really disconnected, very objective. You get the feeling that although the singer of the song identifies themselves as living all of these very tragic lives, they are happy and distant enough from the tragedy to describe it objectively. Even when this song gets morbid, the narrator remains disconnected and simply describes the scenes.

And the subject matter of this song gets… well, really morbid. I mean, we go from mine shafts caving in to Tiananmen Square to stillborn children yet the same up-tempo style continues, which really drives home the bittersweet message of the song. Even through the death and suffering these two lovers experienced over the course of their many lives together, the song is ultimately a positive one. Ultimately, the lovers end up happy and together in modern times.

The Mariner’s Revenge Song – The Decemberists

The Decemberists is no stranger to fantastical stories told through song (part of the reason I keep meaning to familiarize myself with more of the music). I also considered discussing their equally fantastic song “O Valencia”, but I decided this one fit the song storytelling category in a more straightforward way.

This song is a shanty fit for a pirate ship, and that makes sense considering the subject matter. The story is told at the end first, with the narrator stuck in the belly of a whale. From there they go into the tale of how they arrived there. What follows is a tragic tale of revenge after the singer’s mother is cheated by a rakish young man and left to die penniless and heartbroken. The singer follows this man all the way to sea, where the two are ultimately swallowed by a whale, bringing the song back full circle.

I think this song is an absolutely beautifully told story. The instrumentals always match the emotion of the story. Plus, I think the story itself is loaded with some great dramatic irony. I mean, the fact that the singer’s quest for revenge leads him to dying himself alongside the man he swears revenge on, in the belly of a whale, a tried-and-true symbol for hopeless and self-destructive quests. (Think Moby Dick). Plus, the repetition of the mother’s voice, and her sweet, singsong tone contradicting the violence she wishes upon the man who did her wrong… it’s all so great. I always get chills at the end.

Jenny Was a Friend of Mine – The Killers

This song is actually one of a three-part series of songs, all of which describe a man murdering his lover. Yep, some real happy stuff, I know, but trust me, this song is really fascinating. While the other two songs tell the story leading up to and during the murder, this song recounts the questioning of the murderer afterward. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of a murderer, and the way he justifies his actions and proclaims his innocence.

Paired with the police sirens at the beginning of the song and the tense, dark instrumentals, the repeated admission of the man that his lover Jenny was a friend of his becomes sinister and chilling, and that’s the mark of a really well-told story. This song always gets me singing along and then feeling bad about it because the lyrics are just that twisted.

Unfinished Business – White Lies (Mumford and Sons Cover)

I always feel bad recommending the Mumford and Sons version of this song because it’s not the original, but to be honest, the jangly banjos just fit this song so perfectly that I have a hard time with the original. The title is a play off of the idea that ghosts remain on earth because of unfinished business – in this case, the narrator is the confused ghost of someone who has just been murdered by their lover (… yeah there’s a bit of a pattern here, I know).

The interesting thing about this song, though, is the narrator is completely unfazed by their own demise. Instead, they seem more concerned about their lover, noting their fearful oaths to God and urging them in the chorus to “get off their low” so they can “dance like they used to”. This song is tragic and also somewhat beautiful – the murdered lover vows to wait for the one they love in the afterlife.

The reason I recommend the Mumford and Sons version over the White Lies version is I think the upbeat instrumentals match the ultimately positive tone of the song better. Sure, the situation described is dark, but the real interest of the song is the singer’s positive attitude over their own demise, so I think the jangly banjos fit this perfectly. But hey, to each their own.

Cleopatra – The Lumineers

And finally we arrive at one of my favorite songs of all time. This song took my number one spot in my top 30 songs of 2016 list, and that’s hugely because of the beautiful and tragic story told within its lyrics. Based on the real life of a taxi driver the lead singer met, “Cleopatra” is the story of a woman who refuses to marry the love of her life and how she lives with the regret. It’s told as if the woman is telling the story herself, and hits that perfect combination of tragedy and hope as the woman struggles to live her life to the fullest despite her sadness over the loss of her lover.

The song is warm and nostalgic, and I’ve yet to find a single person who isn’t touched by the real-life story behind the lyrics. I have a hard time describing it here, so I’ll just advise you to give it a listen and read through the lyrics yourself.

But this isn’t even the half of all of the songs out there that tell poignant stories within their lyrics. I advise people like that youtube commenter to give more songs a chance – to really read into their lyrics. You’ll find some fantastic stories there.