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!