Learning from The Adventure Zone: A Takeaway

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In my last takeaway, I wrote about Friends at the Table, an actual play podcast that, I argued, relies on mechanics and player input to generate large amounts of the podcast’s narrative, as much as (or almost as much as) the GM’s input to the story. This week, I’ll take a look at another wildly popular “actual play” podcast, The Adventure Zone.

Brainchild of “30-under-30 media luminary Griffin McElroy,” The Adventure Zone is a family affair for the three professional-podcaster McElroy brothers, Griffin, Travis, and Justin, and their father, Clint. Calling The Adventure Zone an “actual” play almost does it a disservice, since the final product audiences hear is so polished. (And, indeed, so is Friends at the Table. Take a look at this article on First Person Scholar, where Austin Walker and Felan Parker talk about this very issue.) For those who haven’t listened, The Adventure Zone contains a suite of auditory insertions: Griffin writes music for each of their campaign arcs, which range from sci-fi techno warbles to old west-inspired grooves; he makes occasional use of voice modulators to emulate villains; and much of the show’s rules-fiddling gets pared away. They do this without straying into the use of full-on sound effects–this isn’t a radio play, after all, and the skeleton of roleplaying mechanics remain within.

So what can we learn from The Adventure Zone, especially those of us with full-time jobs and not enough hours to make our own music? Frankly, producing good shows (and stories) takes a lot of work. The trick, in my estimation, is figuring out what work we should focus on. So let’s take a few lessons from Griffin and the McElroy family, and figure out what work we can do right away to make our games funnier, more fun, and, who knows, maybe even more heartwarming.

While player agency absolutely has an effect on how The Adventure Zone’s stories go down, Griffin faced some flack early on for supposedly railroading his characters. My primary argument here is that a railroad might not always be a bad thing (just play Horror on the Orient Express sometime). A better analogy might be video games. Some video games supply massive open worlds in which you can explore every nook and cranny and do whatever the hell you want. That’s not The Adventure Zone. That’s Friends at the Table. The Adventure Zone takes a more linear approach, like a level-based shooter, where the characters move from one set-piece scene to another.

And there’s nothing wrong with this! My favorite game of 2018 wasn’t Breath of the Wild (okay, I couldn’t afford to buy a Switch…), but Wolfenstein 2, a level-based shooter. Roleplaying games, for all of their beauty, are ultimately about choice, but where that choice is implemented can change! Take, for instance, the incredible micro-game The Bite, whose setting boils down to a single room, with two people inside it. But the choices around and within that room are unsettling, disturbing, and tragic! And, when you take The Adventure Zone’s medium into consideration, what they’re ultimately creating is a narrative podcast, and not really a podcast of four dudes sitting around playing D&D. TAZ is both more and less than that.

This is what we can learn so profoundly from The Adventure Zone. Yes, the “scenarios” Griffin runs are a little “railroady,” in the same sense that linear video games are railroads that still offer opportunity for choice. Maybe your players want a sandbox, but even then sometimes it’s okay to push them along. Instead of always asking “what do you do?”, sometimes we can narrate for them, to progress to the scenes we know will hit. “Later that night you find yourselves talking….” While random encounters might be fun, sometimes it’s better to narrate the beautiful journey the adventurers have as they ride across the mountains, than to let the system get in the way of that beautiful vista.

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And actually, have you tried music in your games? While the music of The Adventure Zone gets dropped into post-production, for the benefit of the listeners, it can have just as much dramatic impact on the players at your table. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve written, but in the midst of a high-stakes battle in your favorite Fantasy game, just start playing this and see how your players react. Have your Call of Cthulhu investigators found their way to the icy shores of Antarctica? (Again?!) Try out this, or better yet, this.

And how might we port the idea of “editing” into our live games? Like I mentioned above, sometimes it’s okay to narrate, to “advance time a bit.” I’m not advocating retconning events that have already happened, merely cutting out the fluff in between more important (or inspiring, or dramatic) scenes. We’ve all probably done this when there’s a big scene we want our players to get to, but we have a hard out at 10 o’clock and the players are lagging–but we can do this intentionally, too. Not to rush anyone, and certainly never to interrupt a scene the players are having fun with at the table, but sometimes we can elide the journey to the base of the mountains, when the good stuff happens when the characters arrive there. What many players are here for (certainly not all, I recognize this) is the epic, or tragic, or horrifying tale we can tell together. The GM is part storyteller and part rules arbitrator; but in the wake of keeping the system running, don’t forget to tell that story.

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The following paragraphs contain spoilers for The Adventure Zone, “Balance,” campaign.

Griffin has made explicit the influence that Friends at the Table has had on his own production, and, in writing this article, I’ve noticed another mechanical similarity: both podcasts’ willingness to switch systems. Even during their first full-fledged campaign, The Adventure Zone pauses for a flashback to answer some of the arc’s overriding questions, where they switch systems, dropping Dungeons & Dragons 5th for a homemade Powered by the Apocalypse hack. Griffin uses this new system to tell a peripatetic story of plane-hopping and loss, and it completely changes the feel of the show. This plays into the narrative, as the flashback occurs during a period the characters can no longer remember–things were different, then. This is a small note, but is also trends with Friends at the Table, and it makes me especially interested to try out switching systems within the same narrative, and with the same players, to explore other corners of a world, to build more of that world, or to simply encounter the world in new ways.

The conclusion to The Adventure Zone’s first campaign registers as the first piece of roleplaying media that’s actually brought me to tears. In the final episode, after the major threat has been encountered and resolved, Griffin asks Travis (Magnus’s player) a simple question: “How does Magnus die?” Griffin and Travis effectively write the scene together in those moments, and as Magnus is reunited with his deceased wife in the afterlife, another one of Griffin’s (legitimately touching) musical pieces plays in the background. Despite primarily being a comedy podcast that inspires belly laughs I find hard to get anywhere else (especially these days), the players’ investment in their characters, and the whole framework developed by Griffin, managed to get me right there in the feels. The Adventure Zone often isn’t serious, but it is just about always sincere.

So try some of these recommendations out, and take a look at my Friends at the Table takeaway. Even though both podcasts are very different–one more of a political sandbox, and one more of a linear storybox–we can learn from both of them, and incorporate elements of both into our own games. No one can tell the same story–how might you tell it?

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