Dungeons and Dragons and podcasting may not sound like a great combination at first, but between playing the game and talking about it, the mix has become one of the most popular podcasting genres on the internet.
Some shows, such as “Critical Role,” fall into the actual-play category in which the hosts, as the name suggests, actually play D&D. Other podcasts serve as guides for players, such as “Dragon Talk,” which is the official D&D podcast made by the publisher of the game, Wizards of the Coast.
But one show, in particular, managed to turn the fun tabletop roleplaying game into a gripping and emotional story that made me laugh and cry harder than I have in a long time.
“The Adventure Zone” is a comedy D&D series created by a popular internet group known as the McElroy Brothers: Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy. The trio is most known for their “advice” show “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” in which they take questions from Yahoo! Answers and give the least helpful and funniest answers they can.
The D&D series began as a bonus episode for “My Brother, My Brother and Me” and included their father, Clint. The four of them began using a pre-written campaign, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver” with Griffin as the Dungeon Master and Justin, Travis and Clint creating their own characters.
Justin created the elf wizard known as Taako with a quest to invent tacos and bring them to this fantasy realm, all the while aligning fireballs, summoning suave phantom horses and making jokes. Travis played the human fighter Magnus Burnsides, known for his rustic charm, wood-carved ducks and recklessly rushing into danger. Finally, Clint voiced the dwarf cleric Merle “Hitower” Highchurch, a follower of Pan, occasional healer and frequent voice-changer.
I first began listening over a year ago at the recommendation of a close friend. While I enjoyed listening to it, I had trouble finding the time to listen to the hour-long episodes and thus stopped for a few months.
But soon enough, I would have the opposite issue of having too much free time on my hands as COVID-19 reshaped our world and pushed everyone inside. I picked the show back up and could not pull myself away from the vibrant world that was being built in my ears. I would listen to an episode or two every weekend, fighting to keep myself from binging until the early hours of the morning and to savor each episode.
The show’s first major arc became known as Balance, spanning 69 (nice) episodes with eight chapters. From the pre-written campaign, the show soon found its own story and tone, as Griffin grew the show from a simple fantasy adventure to an epic tale spanning multiple genres and emotional highs and lows.
The main plot involves the trio, who title themselves as Tres Horny Boys, working with a secret organization known as The Bureau of Balance and tasked with destroying seven powerful and deadly items known as Grand Relics that have been erased from the world’s memory.
Their quest brings them through a murder mystery on a train, a wild-west town stuck in a “Groundhog Day” time loop, a twisted game show run by fashionable, yet cruel twins and so much more.
I first found myself entranced in the chapter known as “The Crystal Kingdom” in which our heroes are tasked with retrieving the philosopher’s stone from a rogue scientist, all the while running from an ever-encroaching crystal that crystalizes everything it touches. I began the chapter as my bank account was draining thanks to bills and my ineligibility for the stimulus check or unemployment as a student. I finished the chapter luckily with a job at a grocery store.
The job sucked, but it was made bearable by listening to the show at every given opportunity: pulling carts from the parking lot in the summer sun, mopping the bathrooms away from cameras, or in the last hour before closing when my manager had left or was out of sight.
I had to hide my laughter as not to attract suspicion, but that was a challenge I regularly failed. I even began looking forward to working, despite the anti-maskers and the poor working conditions, just so I could listen to the next episode.
What really makes the show shine are the characters, from the three main characters to all the supporting and side characters that Griffin voices. I fell in love with characters like Angus McDonald, a genius detective and Lucretia, the mysterious leader of the Bureau of Balance.
Every character throughout the show felt truly human. They would react to the players’ actions, pushing them to deal with the consequences, whether it was a snide remark or a story-altering decision.
Speaking of consequences, usually, an overarching story would not fit well with the improvisation D&D is known for, where the players make the story and the Dungeon Master implements that into the narrative. Yet throughout the show, there are moments where the players’ decisions completely changed the outcome of the immediate and overarching story, creating iconic moments of quick thinking and displays of friendship.
Even after I left the grocery store for good, I continued to find joy in listening to the series, as the stakes escalated and each and every knot was tied up to connect characters and hints from the very beginning of the show, filling in all the details and creating a gorgeous final image. The story of the heroes facing adversity head-on with a smile on their face and their friends by their side helped push me through the semester.
Finishing the show and listening through my tears, I carry with me a reminder the characters received in their final battle that brings light to the darkness.
All of this from a comedy D&D podcast.