“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”
Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.
I’d somehow stayed dried eyed since I’d left the post-funeral luncheon, during my three-hour drive home, and then fell apart on my couch as the music swelled and Griffon narrated the end of the penultimate chapter of the first podcast story I’d ever heard. I cried a lot during those two episodes, just about losing my shit as Griffon McElroy, his two brothers Justin and Travis, and his father Clint worked their way through the epilogue of their sixty-nine episode adventure. Especially during Travis’ epilogue. It really hit home for me. It still does, whenever I listen to it again.
The Adventure Zone is an on-going Tabletop Role-Playing Game podcast. It sprung out of a special episode the McElroy brothers did on their hit comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother, And Me. They’d invited their dad along and tried out the Starter Kit for Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition. This first story arc, or season, was eventually labeled the Balance arc, and has inspired people all over the world. It was a part of springing Dungeons and Dragons into the mainstream; a contemporary of Critical Role.
Balance follows three characters who have more titles, individually and collectively, than I’d care to list. Travis McElroy played Magnus Burnsides, the Human fighter. Justin McElroy played Taako the Elven wizard. Clint McElroy played Merle (Hightower) Highchurch the Dwarven Cleric. Together, they set out to find some lost treasure and instead found a few powerful magical artifacts, a lost century, and the friends they made along the way (a statement that’ll make even more sense once you’ve listened to the podcast).
While the story seems to change and shift as you listen to the McElroy family play D&D together, looking back shows you just how much of the narrative was woven into the early episodes. It wasn’t entirely laid out from the beginning as any DM can tell you that telling a story over the course of years means the end of the story is typically only loosely connected to the beginning, but Griffon not only managed to tie it all together, but pull in all the miscellaneous details and backstory elements from his three players. Everything that happened either tied in to the story or had a real effect on the world. The narrative winds, builds, and crescendos like a masterfully conducted orchestra.
At its heart, The Adventure Zone is still a comedy podcast. The McElroys are a hilarious family with great chemistry and that extends to their characters. Their years working together on their comedy advice podcast show when they manage to continuously “yes, and” each other as they play through each session. What is true of stand-up and free-form comedy is also true of good D&D storytelling: take what the other players and the DM givens, and add to it. Together, the four of them absolutely knock it out of the park and continuously step up their game (D&D game and comedy game). I want to say the final episodes are better than the first ones because they constantly improve, but Magic Brian is absolute comedic gold and that’s in the first handful of episodes. Some of my favorite lines are from the first episode. There is gold throughout the entire story, though I will say the production value goes up over time and the aptly named “Suffering Game” chapter is one of the best.
In addition to being an amazing storyteller, capable of weaving a touching and brilliant narrative even with the chaos of his brothers and dad in the mix, Griffon McElroy is also a composer and he created a song or two for the third chapter and then created whole albums for the subsequent chapters. I don’t know if the music is amazing on it’s own or if it’s all in the association I’ve made between the music and the story, but my favorite songs evoke some of the most incredible beats of the story the McElroys told together and I frequently listen to the music when I’m feeling down or need something to pick me up. The emotional weight of it all carries me even now, after I’ve listened to the story three times in a year and read the comic book adaptions of the first two chapters (those are a review all their own, which will happen some other day).
The only warning I will give you is that you should not go into this podcast expecting expertly played Dungeons and Dragons. For one thing, the fifth edition of D&D was brand new when they started this podcast and by the time the more solidified rules came out with the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook, they were deep enough into the game that it would cause more problems than it would fix to shift the rules around. Additionally, much of this game followed the “Rule of Cool” approach to dungeons and dragons which, in a story-oriented game like this, makes for an incredibly fun narrative approach to the game. The numbers and the rules don’t matter so long as everyone is having fun, even if that means no one really tracks spell slots or casting times. Just keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun and there’s literally a sentence in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that says the DM is the final arbiter and rule-maker.
So, if you haven’t checked out this podcast, go listen to The Adventure Zone. Their Balance story is the best, but the rest of the podcast is pretty great, too. The only reason the rest of it doesn’t get mentioned more is that I’d need maybe double the words to write about the whole thing. Check it out for the Balance arc and stay for a family having a good time playing games together while making us all laugh.