While most of this article tries to avoid spoilers, there will be marked spoilers for certain characters in The Adventure Zone: Balance towards the end of the article.
Critical Role‘s become a phenomenon over the past few years, popularizing Dungeons and Dragons through professional voice actors bringing fantastic characters to life. It’s also inspired nerd entertainers far and wide to produce their own D&D videos or podcasts, but standing head and shoulders above them is the McElroys’ The Adventure Zone. Gut-bustingly hilarious and heartrendingly emotional in turns, The Adventure Zone’s first campaign, Balance, came to its epic conclusion in August. The McElroys have rotated DM and started a new campaign, Commitment, now an episode and a half in. It’s intended to be the first of several small experimental arcs while they decide what their next long-term campaign, so there’s never been a better time to start listening.
Who are the McElroys?
First off, it’s pronounced “Mackle-roys”, despite how it’s spelled.
The McElroys are a family of entertainers, creating podcasts for the Maximum Fun network, videos for Polygon and a TV show that was initially shown on Seeso and is now on VRV. If you listen to podcasts, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of their most famous show, My Brother, My Brother And Me. This “advice show for the modern era” has a sizable celebrity fanbase, most notably Lin-Manuel Miranda. LMM has appeared on the show several times and included one of the brothers’ catchphrases in Hamilton. Each of the three brothers also makes at least one podcast with their wives on a bevy of subjects ranging from medical history to The Bachelor. Each of them also makes a half-dozen other shows on the network. This family makes podcasts the way Stephen King writes.
If you’re fond of Youtube Let’s Plays, you’ve almost certainly heard of Monster Factory, where the brothers have defined the art of making abominations in character creators. They also have a dozen other shows with various other members of the Polygon network, usually more concerned with breaking games than winning them. In one case, the name of the game is discovering which amiibos can and cannot fit into a human mouth.
Four members of the family play together on The Adventure Zone, and they are:
- Your oldest brother Justin McElroy
- Your middlest brother Travis McElroy
- Your sweet baby brother (and Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Media Luminary) Griffin McElroy
- Your daddest dad Clint McElroy
The McElroy family are noted for their off-the-wall comedy style that involves weird word usage, absurd trains of thought, overuse of the word “boy” to describe people, and generally being very wholesome, lovable boys. The whole family have wonderful chemistry with each other that makes listening in on their conversations genuinely delightful. The unique addition of their father Clint to The Adventure Zone shows where they got it from–Clint is a lifelong professional radio host with an even wilder sense of humour than any of his sons.
Language and sexual content in their humour generally make their shows unsuitable for kids–though one scene in The Adventure Zone is arguably unsuitable for everybody, especially Clint’s three horrified sons. Otherwise, though, they’re remarkably wholesome. Many of their shows include a lot of dialogue between the McElroys and their listeners, and The Adventure Zone is no exception.
What’s The Adventure Zone?
The Adventure Zone is a podcast dedicated to tabletop roleplaying games. For three years, this was exclusively a D&D 5e campaign run by Griffin, starting out in a basic starter kit fantasy setting that spun off into something very unique just after the end of the first arc. A second campaign that’s just started uses the customizable FATE system for a superhero story run by Clint. Episodes come out every other week and are usually 60-80 minutes long. Live shows usually last for around 90 minutes and occasional special episodes, such as the finale, run from 2-3 hours. If you’re a Critical Role fan, you’re probably laughing right now. If you’re scared of the size of Critical Role episodes like me, you’re sighing in relief. The show is free to listen to on the Maximum Fun website or whatever podcast app you prefer.
Starting out in a basic, generic D&D campaign, Balance started introducing plot elements (and a moon base) towards the end of the first arc. Griffin then wrote multiple original arcs, including creating an entirely homebrew play system for the semifinal arc The Stolen Century. The main party, Tres Horny Boys, consists of:
- Justin as Taako, elven sorceror and former TV chef. Taako starts out on a vague quest to discover the greatest dinner food of all time, the one he was born to create, except he forgets about this pretty quickly in favour of just stealing anything not nailed down. Known for casting the spell “Abracafuckyou!”
- Travis as Magnus Burnsides, a human fighter out to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and destroyed his village. This quest also falls by the wayside fairly quickly in favour of reckless heroics. Known for rushing in.
- Clint as Merle Highchurch(/tower/castle/cliff/?????????), a dwarven cleric out to spread the word of Pan far and wide and meet some attractive plants. This, unfortunately, he manages. Known for basically only using Zone of Truth and almost never doing any healing.
Griffin also developed a vast gallery of NPCs for Tres Horny Boys to ally with and/or fight, ranging from dwarven pro wrestlers to possessed robots to Barry Bluejeans. Damn near everybody’s favourite is Angus McDonald, Boy Detective.
It’s difficult to talk about the plot of Balance without spoilers. Suffice it to say that the introduction of a moon base just after the end of the initial arc is only the first hint that this is not a straight fantasy story. But the most notable thing about the plot is the way it grows out of and develops with the characters. Griffin doesn’t railroad–twice, he threw out entire arcs because Tres Horny Boys finished The Eleventh Hour and The Suffering Game in unexpected ways. Griffin shows incredible skill in taking overlooked moments from early on in the show and making them into crucial plot points. Making the natural development of the characters central to the story is a great move, creatively. The plot is incredible, but the unique characters are what make the show memorable.
Most of the live shows are unusual, one-off stories that don’t really fit into canon, often with guest players. They can be skipped without losing anything important to the story, but if you skip them you won’t hear the high school AU.
The second arc of The Adventure Zone is based around three new recruits to The Do-Good Fellowship, a humanitarian organization in our world that sends aid wherever needed. The DGF is experimenting with a new form of help–giving twelve new recruits superpowers. So far there has been one setup episode and one episode of play proper. The setup episode can be skipped if you want to get right to the gameplay, though it’s not recommended as the setup contains a lot of crucial worldbuilding and character background. The main characters are:
- Griffin as Chris “Remy” Rembrandt, superhero name to be Springheel. Remy is a famous athlete who infamously wiped out on American Ninja Warrior. Remy’s powers will be super-strength and super-agility, paired with the skill he already has at gymnastics and parkour. Griffin mentioned wanting to play a character like Spiderman.
- Travis as Nadiya Jones, a genius scientist who struggles somewhat with human interaction and would rather spend her time on science. Nadiya’s powers will be shapeshifting, with Reed Richards/Mr Fantastic specifically named as an influence. Travis also designed her to be as opposite to Magnus as possible.
- Justin as Irene Baker, a sweet, helpful Human Resources worker who will gain the ability to host the storm goddess Kardala. While Irene cares about people and wants to help people learn to get along, Kardala is not so gentle–all of her character stats are exact opposites of Irene’s. The superhero Thor was mentioned as inspiration, particularly the comics iteration, who has been multiple different people who transform into Thor when they pick up Mjolnir.
What will keep the team together is that, once they have superpowers, these powers will only work when all three members of a team are within 100 yards of each other. How this will play out remains to be seen, but given how much the boys have openly nerded about the superhero genre so far, it ought to be fun.
LGBT+ rep in The Adventure Zone
This section is gonna have spoilers ahoy, but I really want to talk about how the McElroys handle representation in their show as a family of straight men. In short, they handle it surprisingly well, despite a rough start.
The show got a lot of flak at the end of Balance‘s second arc, Pedal to the Metal, when the characters Hurley and Sloane died and transformed into a tree. The two had been implied to be in love, something Griffin confirmed outside of the podcast. As they were the closest thing to LGBT+ representation that the show had had up to this point, this understandably rubbed a lot of listeners the wrong way–and this episode was released in late 2015, before the Spring Slaughter. When accused of Burying The Gays, Griffin said he’d never heard of the trope but expressed sincere horror at taking part in it and promised to make amends. Almost immediately, he brought back a fan favourite from the first arc, the orc warrior Killian, and shortly thereafter introduced her girlfriend, a Dragonborn Rogue named Carey Fangbattle. These two (SPOILERS) not only appear regularly and never die, but the last episode takes place over the course of their wedding. Hurley and Sloane even (SPOILERS, SERIOUSLY) returned in the final arc, having been reborn as dryads, subverting their Burying.
Another development that was very well-received by fans was the revelation that Taako, one of the three main characters, is gay. While Justin initially decided to send Taako on a date with Kravitz the Reaper on a whim, after seeing how important this development was to fans, he decided to work hard on making it a permanent part of Taako’s character. While he mentioned in The The Adventure Zone Zone that he was worried about getting things wrong, that was no excuse to avoid a piece of representation that was clearly very important to fans. The brothers discussed researching problematic tropes like Bury Your Gays so they could avoid them.
Taako and Kravitz’ relationship is undeniably lovely and remains throughout the series. We only see one of their dates, though Justin insists that they went on several. Justin’s said that the reason they weren’t playing them out wasn’t because he was uncomfortable roleplaying a date with another man. It was because, as an NPC, Kravitz was being played by Griffin, and Justin was uncomfortable roleplaying a date with his baby brother. The development of Taako’s sexuality is a good example of how seriously the McElroys take fan responses to their show. They’re three straight, white cisguys, so they’ve got a lot to learn and they know it, but they do as much research as they can and are good listeners when fans tell them what they’re doing right or wrong.
One last well-used bit of representation is (SPOILERS, SO MANY SPOILERS, I’M SERIOUS THIS CHARACTER’S VERY EXISTENCE IS A SPOILER) Taako’s twin sister, Lup, a trans woman. That she’s trans is only explicitly stated in the bonus podcast, The The Adventure Zone Zone, but was stated as an explanation for why she looks identical to Taako, something that’s important a few times. Fraternal twins can look extremely similar but cannot be identical as they developed from separate zygotes. Lup is a phenomenally powerful lich and mage, has an undeniably heartwarming relationship with her twin brother, and is one half of the single most powerful romance in the show… and she’s a trans woman.
Griffin was also very emphatic that the twins’ difficult childhood was not due to them both being out from a young age, as that would be “cheap”. The twins were just poor as dirt and didn’t have any family except each other, so life was rough. Lup’s also, by the by, my single favourite character. Her pillar of flame is probably the single coolest character entrance I have ever goddamn heard.
So if you listen to the show, get involved–post on the reddit threads, message the tumblr, tweet using the hashtag #thezonecast. The brothers are always eager to hear about how they can do better at representation. By their own admission, entertainment’s got plenty of straight white boys to be going on with. Using #thezonecast also puts you in with a chance of having an NPC named after you.
It should also be mentioned that the issue of race representation has been more contentious, particularly in regards to Taako. Fans have been pretty divided on how well they’ve handled things. As a white girl myself, I don’t think I can call whether they’ve done well or not. They do encourage fans to draw the characters however they like, saying nothing is concrete aside from Taako’s beauty and Magnus’ sideburns. While they had to pick designs for the comic book, these are not the definitive appearances of Tres Horny Boys. It is worth noting that the only character with her skin character described is the “dark-skinned” Lucretia.
Go check it out. You’ll have fun for an hour a pop–more if you’re willing to check out the 80+ hours of Balance. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have a good good time with your wholesome new family. And you will probably scream when, sixty episodes in, Clint still can’t remember which dice to roll for initiative. It’s the d20, Clint! It’s ALWAYS the d20!