Into The Adventure Zone With Griffin McElroy
Griffin McElroy tells how his brother, his brother, and he turned a game of Dungeons & Dragons into podcast magic
One of my favorite movies just ended. It was roughly 80 hours of audio from start to finish, with no visual components whatsoever. It's coincidentally also one of my favorite books, and not only is it not on paper, it was largely improvised. To be technically accurate, The Adventure Zone is an actual-play podcast, which means it's a recording of three brothers and their father playing the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. But nothing about that one-sentence description does anything to communicate the precision, humor, and beauty of the story that the McElroy family has been telling over the past three years.
You might recognize that surname from another podcast chart-topper: My Brother, My Brother and Me (MBMBaM), through which titular siblings Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy have been dispensing comically dubious advice since 2010. The brothers each have their hands in about a dozen pies: podcasts that they host with their respective wives (Sawbones, Justin and Dr. Sydnee McElroy's medical history show; Shmanners, Travis and Teresa's guide to contemporary etiquette; and Wonderful!, essentially an audio Oprah's Favorite Things hosted by Griffin and Rachel), all uniformly charming and informative; a six-episode television adaptation of MBMBaM shot on location in their hometown of Huntington, W.Va. (currently streaming free of charge on VRV); and a longstanding friendship with Broadway beloved Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Griffin, the self-described "sweet baby brother and Forbes' 30 Under 30 Media Luminary" (the latter a real title bestowed on him by the financial magazine in 2017), has been residing in Austin for the past few years, earning a digital name for himself as a founding editor of Vox Media's video game website Polygon. He was also the driving force for the filler episode of MBMBaM that became The Adventure Zone's first saga.
After doing a write-up for Polygon on Dungeons & Dragons' Fifth Edition update, Griffin floated the idea of playing the game on their podcast with their dad, Clint. Justin, Travis, and Clint would all design character players, and Griffin would be the Dungeon Master (DM), the person in charge of creating the fictional world and guiding the players through an overarching story. After the enthusiastic response to that episode, Griffin would also become the podcast's editor and producer, cutting out dead air and rule checks that might take away from the audience experience. Since 2014, he has guided thousands of listeners through the heroic adventures of a human fighter named Magnus, an elven wizard named Taako (yes, pronounced like the food), and a dwarf cleric named Merle, and this August, brought the tale he's been spinning for three years to its tearfully awaited close. He was kind enough to speak to me about the joyful and terrifying work of making something brand new with people you love.
Austin Chronicle: I was introduced to D&D through listening to y'all play it on The Adventure Zone, and I immediately connected it to theatre. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you have kind of a family background in theatre –
Griffin McElroy: Yeah, we all did theatre growing up in Huntington – like, my mom produced a lot of shows, my dad directed and acted in a lot of shows, and me and Justin and Travis all did. I probably did 30 community theatre shows – in the children's theatre company, and a couple at Marshall University, once I was in college.
AC: So did you find that informing your love of [D&D]?
GM: Yeah, I think so! Especially once we got more comfortable playing the game – like, the idea of role-playing characters with some level of nuance? It took us a while, and I think this is a learning curve that is integral to tabletop role-playing games. If you listen back to the first five or so episodes [of The Adventure Zone], it's a lot of, "Here's what a wizard can do, here's what a fighter can do, these are my stats," and then as it goes on – and this is one of the most interesting things about the podcast – we move pretty far away from that into the relationships these characters are in and what their backstories are and what drives them. None of us had any sort of RPG skill set coming into it, but we did have an idea of how to play characters and how to make interesting things happen with those characters. So that was definitely informative.
AC: You're making this work with your family, and we got to see you give these little narrative gifts to your brothers and your dad. Were there any moments where you had a, "Oh, I know he'll really love this, so I'm gonna try and find space for XYZ"?
GM: Throughout, I knew what kind of beats Travis preferred as Magnus: beats of like noble sacrifice and heroic feats of strength and emotional connections with people. For [Justin's character] Taako, it was an exploration of the deep, intricate web of motivations, and for [Clint's character] Merle, discussions about his faith and his children.
But it's also like, they gave me tons of narrative gifts! Where the rubber really met the road was the final episode before the three-part finale arc. I was really nervous about that arc because it basically rebooted everything. I was the one in charge of taking it in this direction; if it didn't work out, I would feel responsible for ruining the whole thing. Then in the final episode of "The Stolen Century," all three of them were like, "No, we got you. We're going to make sure all of this stuff pays off." That episode coming together was one of the most joyous creative experiences of my life.
On another note – you talk about creative gifts – because of The Adventure Zone and because of the success we've had and the listenership we've found, Dad got to retire from his job and now is doing this full time and spearheading the graphic novel adaptation [of The Adventure Zone]. Having the creative work we made is great, but knowing that we are, because of the thing we made, responsible for our dad's new career and success is something else entirely.
AC: You've talked on the podcast about the pieces of art and media that you pulled inspiration from. Are there are any parts of Austin that informed your work?
GM: I'm the happiest I've ever been, living in Austin. A lot of that is because this is where I met my wife and I have a big group of friends here. But there is just this feeling in the creative community here of, "Go ahead and try whatever you want, and if it fails, there isn't going to be a lot of judgment for it." Before I moved to Austin, I lived in Chicago for a year and I didn't really know anybody and it snowed 13 months out of the year and I was kind of bummed out. And then I lived in Cincinnati with Travis and we lived really far out from the city and I didn't know many people and I was kind of sad there. I don't think this is a story I could have made if I was bummed out all the time. Living in Austin has made me – I can't imagine never living in this city.
AC: Any specific thing you're looking into the future and really excited for?
GM: I'm mostly worried about the experimental Adventure Zone episodes. I think they're going to be really cool, and we're going to come out of it knowing exactly what we need to make for season 2. Also, we're asking people who have been listening to one thing for close to 80 hours to be patient with us, because when we do episode 1 of these mini-arcs, they are not going to be these rich worlds that we developed over the course of three years. But I was talking to Rachel about this yesterday – I don't do very well when I have nothing to do? When I have a workday where I'm home alone and I don't have, like, music or stuff to write for The Adventure Zone or something else to make, I get kind of antsy. So I'm excited to not be antsy anymore.
For an extra interview with Griffin McElroy about the inside workings of The Adventure Zone, visit austinchronicle.com/daily/arts.