The Adventure Zone is a bi-weekly Dungeons & Dragons podcast hosted by Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy (who you may know from their hit podcast My Brother, My Brother & Me), and their father, Clint McElroy. The show has been running since August of 2014 but is currently in the midst of airing its final episodes.
The show follows the quests of three adventurers: Taako, Merle and Magnus (played respectively by Justin, Clint and Travis), with Griffin as their DM since the first episode. There are, of course, an absolute wealth of D&D podcasts available right now for free, but The Adventure Zone has a dedicated and passionate fanbase which far outshines the kind of attention that most tabletop podcasts receive.
So what makes The Adventure Zone different? Why should we care about the current campaign coming to its end? What’s so great about a bunch of guys rolling dice and pretending to be Elves, anyway?
The McElroys are no strangers to popular podcasts. Their hit comedy show My Brother, My Brother & Me has been an international success and has been praised by a wealth of celebrities including Lin-Manuel Miranda:
This background in podcasting helps The Adventure Zone to be a delight to listen to from its very first episode: the production quality is excellent, as is the pacing and editing of the show. Even the sponsored messages don’t pull you out of the adventure, positioned so that they provide a natural break during the tenser or more complex moments of the show.
But, for me, a lot of the show’s strength is in its medium. I personally don’t think it would have left such a large impact on me if it were, say, a web-series or a comic. There’s something about our fondness for podcasts that’s different than our fondness for other forms of media. We’re used to bringing media with us wherever we go these days, on our phones or laptops or tablets, but listening to a podcast is a slightly different experience than, say, watching a TV episode, or even listening to a piece of music.
Podcasts create narratives for us, but their audio-only nature means that we still take in around the world around us. The imagined audio world and our real world conflate to the point where I associate The Adventure Zone with parts of my life: I listened to the Murder on the Rockport Limited arc while hurriedly studying for University exams, and listened to The Eleventh Hour whilst in the car on the way to my graduation ceremony. I can stare out of a train window or sink in bath water whilst imagining our three adventurers on their quests, and their trials and tribulations are forever etched into parts of my real life.
Much of The Adventure Zone’s heart lies in its characters: three hapless heroes who began their podcast life as little more than improv-fuelled joke machines and quickly became emotionally intelligent, well-rounded characters who listeners began to relate to and care about. The McElroys’ family ties have seeped into their alter egos, and the three heroes who met via Craigslist (which, in game, is a physical list put up on a tree by a guy named Craig) have become more of a family throughout each episode. Though the podcast is officially a comedy, Griffin has led the trio through some complex and emotional narratives which rival (and, in a lot of cases, actually exceed) the work of high-budget Fantasy narratives. The podcast manages to take Fantasy tropes and turn them on their head, creating fun adventures that manage to feel dramatic and important without relying on cynicism or nihilism from either the characters or the players.
The Adventure Zone has also spawned an absolute wealth of fan content as people fall in love with the adventures of three heroes who have been lovingly dubbed as Tres Horny Boys (a name given to them in episode 43 of the podcast), and this fan love spans all mediums, from cosplays to fanart to fanfiction and beyond. One of my favourite forms of fan creation are animated shorts, where people take audio from the podcasts and animate scenes around them:
As well as these, The Adventure Zone fandom is also full of amazing composers and musicians creating fan songs, like the following emotional, Taako-inspired track, “An Idiot” by PhemieC (small spoiler warning here for those who haven’t listened to episode 67 yet):
Though the games rely on Dungeons & Dragons mechanics, Griffin is always quick to choose character building and roleplaying over what he considers to be “boring” mechanics (for example, he often won’t make the group participate in strength checks) and so this helps make the podcast accessible to listeners who may not be familiar with D&D, and may be intimated by other, more rules-heavy tabletop podcasts.
The Adventure Zone utilises D&D characters and tropes that are also widely familiar to most listeners who know at least a little about Fantasy writing, but they often turn tropes on their heads and try to create something unique with each new character or location:
You’d probably expect a Fantasy podcast by four white dudes to be fairly lacking in diversity, but The Adventure Zone is actually full of characters who look like (and experience life) nothing like the McElroys do in real life. Justin’s character Taako is canonically gay (featured above with a male character named Kravitz, whom he briefly dated–the Pasta Pass is a McElroy in-joke), and is often presented as typically feminine or even genderqueer in the majority of fanart. The podcast also features canonically transgender characters whose identity is not made fun of or fetishised, and their being trans is simply briefly mentioned as part of their introduction.
The McElroys are also excellent at listening to player feedback and reacting appropriately whenever people feel as if they’ve been let down in terms of representation within the podcast. A good example of this is when fans were left disappointed with the way a pair of LGBT+ characters were killed off and Griffin apologised and corrected his mistake with new narrative arcs, as TV Tropes explains: “After Griffin was informed of the greater context of the fully-subtextual lesbian relationship ending in Bury Your Gays in the “Petals to the Metal” arc, he brought in an explicitly mentioned relationship between Carey and Killian.”
There’s also some complex ongoing discussion about Taako’s skin colour, which is being handled more delicately than would probably be by most podcasters. When Taako was first created back in the first episode, Justin admits that he didn’t put much thought into the character, as the podcast was experimental, and Taako was mainly created for comic relief. The character’s personal quest -to invent the first ever taco- has been the subject of debate as some fans have been left worried that this takes away from the dish’s Mexican heritage, or that Taako is actually a Mexican stereotype. This is something that the McElroys have been considering for their upcoming graphic novel, set to release next year. The characters were all originally portrayed as white, but then Taako’s skin colour was changed to Fantasy blue, and the McElroys posted the following on their Tumblr page:
“Yesterday, we revealed some pages for our graphic novel adaptation of the first Adventure Zone arc, and received some criticism of the direction we went with for Taako’s coloring…More or less all of the criticism we’ve received centers on Taako, whose skin is a pale blue color in these designs. What we’ve heard most is disappointment that Taako is not realized in these pages as a person of color — or, to be more specific, a Latinx or explicitly Mexican character. There was concern we had failed to follow through on an opportunity to get better representation for Latinx listeners, instead opting to take a safe route, and make Taako a fantasy color without any kind of real-world connection. Much of the criticism also focuses on how that color (or, to be more specific, green skin) has anti-semitic connotations.”
It’s a complex situation that doesn’t really have one easy answer, especially as being a non-visual medium means that fans each have their own versions of the characters that they are protective of. It’s not a situation that can be resolved quickly, but I praise the McElroys for constantly listening to fans’ concerns and criticisms, and for trying to change things for the better where they can.
It’s always uplifting when people can see themselves reflected in media, and I always appreciate it when creators don’t take the easy way out when it comes to character creation and development.
Teach Me How To Say Goodbye
Though there’s currently no final air date for the very last episode of The Adventure Zone’s current campaign, the podcasts airing are labelled as finale episodes, and we’ll probably get a final episode air date soon.
This won’t be the end of the McElroys’ Dungeons & Dragons adventures, only the end of the current campaign. They’ll be rolling a new set of characters, and it’s likely that Travis or Justin will also take over as DM. We don’t have to say goodbye altogether, but we still have to say farewell to the characters who we’ve followed since 2014. Magnus, Merle and Taako will go off to do their own thing (if they survive, that is) and we’ll stop following the adventures of Tres Horny Boys.
If you’ve never listened to The Adventure Zone, I beg you to go and find it now: it’s completely free to listen to on iTunes and via the Maximum Fun site. And if you’re already a fan, thank you for being part of the journey with me.
I know that whatever the McElroys come up with next will be just as good as the current campaign. I’ll fall in love with a new trio. It’s just hard to say goodbye to the family of misfits who’ve given me just a little more faith in the power of creativity and kindness since 2014.
Thank you to all of the fans whose work features above, full credits for each creator can be found beneath each image.