About six months ago, if you had told me I’d fall so in love with a podcast that I willingly listened to about 80 hours of it, I wouldn’t have believed you. I struggle with audiobooks, and have never gotten along with podcasts, because my brain absolutely hates absorbing information through audio alone. I am a visual learner, and podcasts are the enemy.
But then I met The Adventure Zone, and everything changed.
I feel like I’m somehow the last person on earth to get into TAZ. All my friends got into it well ahead of me, and by the time I started listening, I already knew a few spoilers about what was going to happen (though not so much that I was disappointed; totally the opposite). What was the point of tossing myself into such a massive backlog of podcast episodes when I knew that my auditory processing skills would fight me every step of the way? But I tried it anyway, because I heard it was funny (and oh my god, is it HYSTERICAL), and because I love playing D&D.
For the uninitiated, The Adventure Zone is a tabletop RPG podcast, and its Balance arc, 69 episodes long not counting the live episodes scattered throughout that don’t actually adhere much to the main podcast plot, primarily uses 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons as its base. It’s made by the McElroy brothers and their father, Clint, and initially, it was just for goofing around. With Griffin as DM, Clint as Merle Highchurch the dwarf cleric, Travis as Magnus Burnsides the human fighter, and Justin as Taako Taaco (yes, you read that right) the elf wizard, it’s supposed to be ridiculous and silly and enjoyable.
And while it stays ridiculous and silly and enjoyable, it gets INTENSE.
If it hadn’t upped the ante, I don’t think I would have stuck around thanks to my frustrations with audio. But each arc built on the one before it, and piece by piece, the McElroys took the goofy beginning bits of the podcast and shaped in into a cohesive story that made me laugh often and very much made me cry as well. I didn’t count how many times I ended up genuinely weeping because of how emotionally invested I was, but it was often, and it was cathartic as hell. Somehow, totally surprising me, this podcast pulled me in deep, developed incredibly complex and amazing characters, and best of all, managed to weave a story I didn’t even realize you could weave with D&D as your base. Of course, I’ve never played a 69-episode-long campaign (my longest campaign was barely 10 sessions, I think?), but still. I hadn’t anticipated the sheer scope of the storytelling that would come about, how intricate and clever and complete it would be. Somehow, even small things left unfinished early on find their resolution, and every piece has its place in the final puzzle. There’s a completeness and cleverness to the Balance arc that I am so enamored with, something I want to one day emulate in my own writing, but something that also might be unique to the spontaneous nature of tabletop RPG.
But really, if the structure isn’t your thing, that’s okay, because it’s still a blast! The settings are so rich, the individual arcs filled with plot twists and shenanigans, and the ability of the McElroys to somehow deliver the STRANGEST phrases makes listening a delight. And bonus, it’s super queer, getting queerer and queerer as the episodes roll on! It’s one of the very few pieces of media made by cishet creators that I haven’t been itching to get away from because of the way the queer characters are treated, and on top of that, when the McElroys make some mistakes (which they do), it gets addressed, and they do better in the future. I need to find more content with queer creators, but until I do, I definitely feel comfortable with the way the McElroys approach their queer characters, and I’m thrilled that they exist so frequently and casually in their sci-fi-wearing-a-very-very-convincing-fantasy-hat setting. It gives me the fantasy escapism and joy I love with the myriad of queer characters I want to see.
And hey. If after all this, you still aren’t sold because you’re like me and don’t like audio input? The first mini arc of Balance has been made into a graphic novel!
I’ll say that it doesn’t quite match up to the full podcast experiences (you miss out on the silly voices and the player interjections), but it charmingly captures Griffin’s role as the DM, and puts the entire first chunk of episodes into a gorgeous visual format. The first arc, Here There Be Gerblins, is also one of the weaker arcs, simply because it’s the starting arc and lacks the later powerful development the others has, which means future installments are probably going to blow it out of the water, and it’s already such a fun time!
And if you do want to listen to the podcast, you can listen through Maximum Fun, McElroy Shows (which has ALL their other content, which is a lot), or through the iTunes podcast app! All options are totally free, which is super cool, though, there are ways to donate if you like what you’re hearing.
AND, after the Balance arc, there are still more arcs ahead that try RPGs other than D&D! I haven’t had the time to start Commitment as of writing this post, but I’m looking forward to it, followed by Dust, and then the ongoing Amnesty arc (which I hear has a rabbit with a PhD, so OBVIOUSLY I’m interested, but also have to ask my rabbits why they haven’t got PhDs yet). The Adventure Zone is just an endless source of joy, and I can’t wait to find time for more.
You don’t win today, audio processing problems. Not today.
Have you listened to TAZ: Balance? Who’s your favorite character? (Mine’s [REDACTED BUT ON FIRE WINK WINK NUDGE NUDGE], but Magnus is a very close second.) Have a favorite arc? And if you haven’t listened to TAZ, think you might try it now? If you do, have fun, and (I’m so sorry, I totally have to steal this bit from the show it’s too good IT’S TOO GOOD) welcome to The Adventure Zone!!
(Oh and by the way? There’s super cool music, and this is a link to the official OST, as found on Griffin’s SoundCloud. Beware some sorta spoilery things in the track titles, though.)