What to say about The Adventure Zone… Is this the first podcast I ever enjoyed? No. That honor goes to Welcome to Night Vale. However, is this the podcast that is currently devouring my every waking thought, slowly eating away at me every day I have to wait for a new episode?
In all honesty, the only reason I use Twitter nowadays is to promote #thezonecast in hope that I’ll be lucky enough to be made into an NPC on the podcast, which started back in 2014. For those of you who don’t know, The Adventure Zone is one of the shows in the McElroy audio empire, the family’s most notable credentials including My Brother, My Brother, and Me and the Polygon series Monster Factory on YouTube. The podcast records the McElroy brothers and their father playing Dungeons & Dragons.
For a brief overview, The Adventure Zone follows the human fighter Magnus Burnsides (Travis McElroy), the dwarf cleric Merle Highchurch (Clint McElroy), and the wizard elf Taako (Justin McElroy as they journey through a humorous and surprisingly moving campaign written by Griffin McElroy. And, like all other M&Ms, I believe that The Adventure Zone is a story that is best told by a podcast.
First things first, I’ll be the first to say it: As much as I love D&D, it’s not for everyone. Some people find playing it boring. And then beyond that, it is pretty darn boring watching other people play it. There’s only so much entertainment to be had in watching a group of people, sitting at a table, trying to tell a collaborative, improv story with nothing but their voices and faces and a satchel of dice. The people involved in the video are often aware that they’re on camera, and their physical mannerisms are affected, which often has the game – which is usually a fun session between friends – feel unauthentic. D&D can open up the imagination for those playing, but often it is difficult, at least for me, to imagine action-packed battles when all the actors are sitting around the table.
The Adventure Zone is a podcast, a purely auditory medium, and the McElroy family uses that to its full advantage. Detailed descriptions of environments, characters, and actions are used extensively, and they aren’t hindered by an actual visual image of the people playing, sitting at a table. Arguably this is also a podcast that wouldn’t exist in a table format, since through the podcast I have picked up that the family members seem to live in different areas and play the game over skype.
Further, the McElroy family has extensive radio/podcast experience, and they are committed to making their podcast an enjoyable experience for the audience. When something is stalling the flow of the story, they make it a priority to make the scene funnier or to swiftly move on to the next interesting event. Number-crunching and rules aren’t held as law, which is great because that is also how I play D&D, and I am biased.
There are some people in the fandom who make gorgeous animatics or animations for their favorite scenes from the podcast, and let me tell you, these are the highlight of my week. However, there are also several people who say that they hope The Adventure Zone becomes a novel or an actual animated series, and I hesitate on those notes.
Arguably, The Adventure Zone‘s delightful nature comes from the spontaneity of the people playing the game, the improv, the pop cultural references and casual breaking of the fourth wall. I feel as though there is no real effective way to portray this charm in a written prose format. A novel would become purely about the storyline which, while wonderful, is not the reason most people watch the show. A novel would lack the voice acting, the players’ own surprise at certain changes of events, the bickering over what to do, and it would be doing the spirit of the show a disservice.
As for an animated series, there is a difference between a variety of fan animatics and a full-fledged, canonized animation. I think one of The Adventure Zone’s greatest strengths is how loose it is with the details of characters’ appearance. There are vague characteristics thrown about – magnificent sideburns, lanky build, full beard, vague car-engine-like shape – but the fine details of the characters’ coloring, facial characteristics, hair, and more are left up to the audience’s imaginations. Everyone is free to invent their own image of The Adventure Zone characters based purely upon that characters’ actions and personality, and the results are fantastic. Foraying into The Adventure Zone fanart really brings to light how amazing character design can be, and it’s a wonder how there can be so many variations of a character that all capture the essence of that character.
There is so much more I would like to say, but again, M&Ms are not full reviews but simply my explanation of why a certain story works best in its chosen medium, and this week I simply lack the time (Thanks, Thanksgiving;;). Perhaps I can elaborate further, in time.