Part 1: The Podcast
Late last autumn, a friend of mine told me about The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that he absolutely loved; “They’re starting a new season, and you should totally listen to it!” The Adventure Zone was starting their third campaign; a story set in an original D&D world where people train at a Hogwarts-style school, to be Heroes and Villains, as well as Sidekicks and Henchpeople.
Now, having heard of people who fervently loved Matthew Mercer’s series Critical Role, I couldn’t quite see the appeal. I’ve played D&D in the past, but I didn’t ever picture myself listening to such a series. (“The episodes are how long?! No thank you!”) But I gave the new campaign a try. And I found myself entirely enthralled. The Adventure Zone: Graduation is a total blast. I found myself really immersed by the world, and wanted more. While TAZ:G was coming out on a bimonthly schedule, I started working my way back through the first season of the podcast. While the immersion took longer, I eventually found myself equally enthralled with the world in TAZ: Balance as I did with TAZ: Graduation. I burned through all 69 episodes within the space of a few months.
It’s worth mentioning that the podcast has a certain rapport that others might not; it’s produced by veteran podcasters and genuine nerds, the McElroy Family. The three sons, Griffin, Justin, and Travis, already have their own podcasts, including the one they host together, an advice show called My Brother, My Brother and Me. The Adventure Zone started as an episode of MBMBaM in which they played D&D with their father, Clint. The filial bond that they bring to the show is definitely the secret ingredient that sets it apart from its competitors.
(Please note, the rest of this post might be considered spoilers for the first season of The Adventure Zone, but none of it is particularly in-depth; most of it is what’s shown in the above trailer.)
I know that this post won’t do enough to explain just how thoroughly I felt the thrall of the story that Griffin – the DM of Balance – weaved throughout those 69 episodes. The amazing thing is that the story began as a pre-made, officially-licensed Dungeons & Dragons quest, before evolving outward into a wider world that Griffin made all on his own.
Over time, the lunch breaks when I would listen to TAZ became the highlight of my day. The Adventure Zone’s episodes aren’t quite as long as other shows, but they often run longer than an hour, and the later episodes run much longer than that. But most episodes fly by quicker than you’d think (except for The Suffering Game arc, those episodes are sad and draining by design).
And I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with this series. The online fan community is outrageously passionate, and many of them have taken to depicting fan art or animations of the characters and events. There’s absolutely no shortage of wonderful content outside of the original podcast. YouTube has a truly staggering amount of “animatics” which are short adaptations of any given TAZ clip.
And the story lends itself very easily to depiction, especially given how alive and vibrant the characters are…
Part Two: The Graphic Novel
…Which brings me to my next point.
As the Balance Campaign was still going on, the four podcasters began to put together a graphic novel adaptation of the first arc of the campaign. In 2018, First Second Books published The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, which adapted the first six-and-a-half episodes of the podcast into comic format. I recently had the book from the library, and it is beautifully-illustrated, and does its best to capture the overall humorous tone that the podcast has.
Perhaps the fact that I was aware of the graphic novels before I was familiar with the plethora of online animations or fan art, but these end up feeling like the truest versions of these characters I’ve encountered. If I were to listen to the podcast again, these are certainly the images my mind would conjure when envisioning the characters.
What interested me is the question of the Dungeon Master’s voice. Griffin McElroy’s rapport with his brothers and dad, in addition to his rich narration, essentially makes the podcast what it is. His narrator voice is just as much of a character as any of the others. The comic’s solution to that was to have Griffin as something of an in-universe narrator who pops into the corner of a frame from time to time to share information with the characters.
Griffin’s vocal fingerprints are all over the story. In adapting the story from podcast to page, but he’s obviously not alone. It’s impossible to separate the three player-characters, Magnus (the party’s fighter), Merle (their cleric) and Taako (the Wizard) from the humans who voice them
Part Three: Television!
Earlier this year, it was announced that NBC would be launching their own streaming service – “Wow,” he said sarcastically, “What a groundbreaking idea” – and that NBC announced that, with their forthcoming streaming service Peacock, they would be working with the McElroy family to produce a series of The Adventure Zone: Balance. Sure, an announcement is only the first in a long list of hurdles TAZ would need to clear before we get an actual series, but that first step is huge.
But I find myself wondering – just how much do you rely on the D&D narration? Would having Griffin McElroy, the TAZ character, popping up in the corner of the screen to explain to the Player-Characters what’s going on, hinder the viewing experience? What’s more, will those Player-characters be voiced by the McElroys? I certainly can’t picture any of them being voiced by anyone else.
One thing – I do hope they either involve Carey Pietsch, who illustrated the graphic novel, or at least try to mimic her animation style.
Listen, there’s a lot to say about the comics and a lot to say about the potential for a television show. Frankly, if it’s an animated show I think it could be the best thing we’ve seen in a while. I’m not kidding when I say that if The Adventure Zone: Balance makes it to TV/streaming/whatever, it has the potential to be the next Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I hope that indicates the crazy amount of faith I have in the potential of a TAZ TV series.) The world and characters are amazing, and drove me to tears several times. TAZ: Balance has genuinely been one of the most moving stories I’ve consumed recently – in any medium.
All I can say is simply: Go listen to The Adventure Zone. Or, at the very least, go play Dungeons & Dragons.