There are few things in this life that bring me joy like finding diamonds in the rough when it comes to my pop culture consumption habits. Performed by the McElroy brothers (of My Brother, My Brother and Me fame), The Adventure Zone is a comedy Dungeons & Dragons podcast that features three brothers — Travis, Justin, and Griffin (the Dungeon Master) McElroy — and their father Clint, sitting down every two weeks to play Dungeons & Dragons. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be into Dungeons & Dragons to enjoy The Adventure Zone. What started out as primarily a comedy podcast has, over the past three years, evolved into one of the most compelling, heartfelt, story-driven shows I have had the pleasure of experiencing in a long, long time.
The adventure itself stars Magnus (played by Travis), a human fighter known for his battlecry and combat philosophy “Magnus rushes in!” Merle, a dwarf cleric played by Clint, and Taako, an elf wizard (played by Justin) searching for the secret arcane ingredients to his namesake. Together, they embark on an epic quest to reclaim the grand relics — artifacts of unbelievable power, but especially temptation (as none who have attempted to reclaim them, aside from our intrepid heroes, have been able to resist the impulse to use these relics for their own gain) being sought after by the Bureau of Balance, who intend to seal away the artifacts so that they may never be used for evil ever again. What starts off as a relatively straightforward quest, however, quickly transforms into an adventure that takes us across an epic fantasy landscape from an old country western town doomed to repeat the same day over and over, a Crystal Kingdom, a Mad Max-esque fantasy drag race, and even a murder mystery aboard a speeding locomotive.
But these things alone are not enough to set The Adventure Zone apart from any other Dungeons & Dragons podcast. The first thing that differs is the McElroy’s synergy and comedic chemistry. They are, if nothing else, just straight up hilarious. No strangers to comedy and showmanship, having done many years performing My Brother My Brother and Me and many other podcasts on the Maximum Fun network, they possess a certain kind of authenticity, charm, and bond with one another that allows for humorous, fast-paced riffing on the events as they unfold. These digressions can range from one-liners to entire parodies, one such example being the recurring “Fantasy Costco” visited by Magnus, Merle, and Taako in between adventures, which is hosted by none other than Garfield, the Deals Warlock, who is happy to make you a deal you can’t refuse, even if you don’t have enough gold … So long as you depart with just a tiny drop of blood, for reasons that you probably, definitely should not be worried about at all, whatsoever. Or perhaps when Merle the cleric casts Zone of Truth to compel truths from all non-player and player characters alike, so that when one non-player character asks our heroes if everything is going to be okay, Merle responds:
Merle: “I know you’re worried about your friend. But just trust us …”
Clint (breaking character from Merle to speak directly to the Dungeon Master): “Is Zone of Truth still in effect?”
Griffin, the Dungeon Master: “No.”
Merle (back in character): “… everything is going to be just fine.”
But there’s more to it than just humour. Griffin’s ability to weave a complex and flexible narrative that adapts to his players, and a compelling story as the podcast evolves is just astonishing. There have been multiple times where the story has been so heartfelt, so poignant and emotional that I have experienced genuine shivers listening to this podcast (and several embarrassing tearful moments). The Adventure Zone manages to be more than just the sum of its parts, and this is why I think it is an enjoyable experience for anyone: the show is really about the three brothers playing and spending time with their father. Unlike the brothers, Clint (a former radio DJ) has little to no experience with role-playing games outside of video games like Fallout, so the podcast is as much about the brothers teaching their father the rules of the game as it is about the story. And in this, I think, the charm of the series is found. As we grow into adults with ever-growing responsibilities, we naturally find we have less and less time to spend with the ones that we love. But such fundamentally social gaming experiences like Dungeons & Dragons find ways to bring family and friends together and share in a common experience, compelling us to cast aside the beckoning of the real world if only for just a little while, to share in the very personal adventure and bonding that can only be brought about by such gaming experiences, strengthening those bonds and familial ties.
I can prattle on forever about the virtues of The Adventure Zone, but it really is something you have to experience for yourself. As a former graduate student, the McElroy’s and The Adventure Zone have been my constant companions for over two years now, providing both comedic relief to my life, and heartfelt, emotionally resonant stories that have in turns brought me from fits of laughter to fits of tears. But in addition to that the show is about family bonding, and how games can serve to bring us closer together even when we are distant from each other (the McElroys often record the podcasts over Skype), showing us that even in adulthood, there is always room for family, friends, and a little adventure. I implore you: give The Adventure Zone a chance. I recommend it to any student looking for a little escape in between stressful study periods. You won’t regret it.
You can find The Adventure Zone podcast at the link below: