Rolling the Dice
Behind the scenes of The Adventure Zone with Griffin McElroy
By Rosalind Faires,
12:03AM, Thu. Oct. 12, 2017
There weren’t particularly grand aspirations when the pilot for The Adventure Zone popped up in the My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast feed.
The episode – an amusing but unwieldy two hours of Griffin “Sweet Baby Brother” McElroy guiding his two older brothers and their father, writer and beloved Huntington radio personality Clint McElroy, through their first game session of Dungeons & Dragons: Fifth Edition – had been recorded in advance so Justin (“Oldest Brother”) could take paternity leave. It was a marked departure from the brothers’ long-running comedy advice show, where they offer dubiously helpful guidance to listeners and the brave and bizarre denizens of Yahoo Answers – after all, Dungeons & Dragons demands narrative clarity and a certain amount of rule-following. With the family’s irreverent approach to fantasy tropes (think the gleeful anachronisms of Robin Hood: Men in Tights), the potential for goofs was immediately evident. The possibility of this could evolve into an epically plotted, deeply moving three-year saga was a little less obvious.
Fan enthusiasm for more bumbling adventures from Magnus, Merle, and Taako (a human fighter, dwarf cleric, and elven wizard, respectively) and support from parent podcasting network Maximum Fun, meant that four months after that introductory episode dropped, The Adventure Zone (or TAZ, in short form) had its very own podcast feed. Within three episodes, Griffin, who had taken on the role of Dungeon Master (DM) – i.e., the person who decides what challenges player characters will come up against – began to stray from the pre-written story they’d begun with toward something of his own design. The show became rapidly more ambitious, with high production values evident in sound quality and concise editing and imaginative, far-reaching plotlines that built a vibrant world with rich inner lives for all its inhabitants. While the podcast never lost the playful humor at its core, more and more all four McElroys made room for ruminations on more complex subjects: the nature of loss, what it means to live joyfully, the weight of responsibility. Since December 2014, Griffin has been guiding our three heroes toward one final confrontation with evil, and on August 17, 2017, the last chapter on their story closed. TAZ isn’t over – the McElroys will start experimenting with new stories and tabletop roleplaying games this October – but before that kicks off, Griffin spoke with the Chronicle about the joys and terrors of driving a car that learned to fly.
(This is a continuation of the conversation Griffin McElroy had with me in the Chronicle feature story “Into The Adventure Zone With Griffin McElroy," Oct. 13, 2017.)
Austin Chronicle: In a fairly recent episode of [the podcast] My Brother, My Brother, and Me, you talked about how unappealing the prospect of doing stand-up or improv is to you. But, of course, a lot of the things that make improv anxiety-producing – it feels very related to the challenges of [playing as the Dungeon Master], where you have the obligation to create a comprehensible story that is appealing to the listeners and the people collaborating, without necessarily having an iron-clad framework. So, with that in mind, I’d love to hear about, at the very outset of The Adventure Zone – were you chomping at the bit for the opportunity to DM?
Griffin McElroy: No, not at all. When we were starting out, I would have preferred not to, because it’s a ton of pressure and a lot of work. It was just like, nobody else was really comfortable – like, Dad had never played, Justin had really never played, Travis had done a little bit, I had done a little bit, and so it just kind of fell to me to do it. And I’m glad it did, because it activated this new part of my brain that I didn’t know existed! But … [Laughs] that was not my intention. I was very, very nervous to take it on – I would have been just as happy to be a player when we started out, but I’m very happy that it turned out the way it did.
AC: You ended up taking on so many more roles than simply being charge of navigating this world. You started out with no fiction credits under your belt, and now you not only have this brick’s worth of outlines and story-plotting [for TAZ], but you’re about to have a short story [“Stories in the Sand” in the Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View anthology] being published this fall!
GM: Yeah, I just got the book yesterday – it’s very crazy, very, very strange.
AC: And on top of that, the podcast started with no background music – and I don’t know what it was like from your point of view, but as an observer, it felt like there was this moment of, “Oh, I think this thing could make the piece of art that we’re making better, it’s maybe not directly in my wheelhouse, but no one else is going to do it, so I’ll learn how to do it!”
GM: I had a little bit of musical background? Like, I took piano class in high school, and I learned to play guitar in college as all, you know, shitty dudes do in college. [Laughs] So I had a little bit of background. But really it came down to, like – this is going to sound really douchey – but when I listen to music, a lot of the times I think about what kind of scene it would be powerful background music for? And I’ve always thought of music that way, and I really wanted that in The Adventure Zone. But licensing music to use in shows is complicated, and this was really just like, “Well, if I make it myself, then I don’t have to worry about that. Can I make something that’s a, you know, fairly simple arrangement that still gets the job done, that can be my own?”
AC: Do you remember any particular light-bulb moments on the way to doing that?
GM: I took a trip with a few friends for a bachelor party, and we went up to Breckenridge, Colorado, and there’s a long drive from the Denver airport up to Breckenridge, so I got my iPad out – there’s a lightweight version of GarageBand on that – and we spent basically the entire drive making terrible, terrible songs. But while we were doing that, I realized, “Oh, there’s some decent loops on here.” So over that trip, just like using the bad iPad version of GarageBand, I made some songs and I was like, “You know what? Using the full version of this on my Mac, I think I can do this.” So I got back and that was pretty much when we started putting music in the show. I remember [my wife] Rachel and I were in Hong Kong – we love to take big trips, and that was our last big trip before we had [our son] Henry – and that was when the [the first episode with original music] dropped, while we were overseas. And it went up at some weird hour in Hong Kong time, and I was so nervous because like, what if it sucks? Like all things when I was DMing, I had no feedback ‘til the thing was up because I couldn’t tell anybody else about it or talk to anybody else about it. And fortunately, people were really into it, and it inspired me to keep going and make more stuff.
AC: You mention the isolation [of being Dungeon Master] – I mean, certainly you couldn’t share it with your family who’s doing [the podcast] with you, but it seems like you made a very conscious decision to play your cards very close to your chest in developing all this stuff.
GM: Yeah, it was – I wanted those moments that were going to be surprising to be surprises to Justin, Travis, and Dad. And I’m glad I did, because the pay-off in those moments – like at the end of “The Eleventh Hour” when Magnus realizes the truth about his backstory – those moments I got such great reactions out of Justin and Travis and Dad that I thought, “Oh, I gotta keep doing it that way.” The only other person I guess I could have told was Rachel. But she was listening, too, and asked not to be spoiled on that stuff. I mean, I would spoil like, some light stuff, like, “Oh, this arc is gonna be like my Groundhog Day arc, and it’s gonna take a ton of work, but if I pull it off, it’ll be really neat.” But no story spoilers! Because I also liked it when my wife came home from work and would say, “Oh, I listened to The Adventure Zone today – I can’t believe what you did.” And that was cool. I’m glad I did it that way because there was a great pay-off.
But like I’ve talked about before – it was very isolating and it’s very scary and I never know whether something’s going to work or not. And fortunately I think we hit more than we missed, but I had no – I didn’t have a writer’s room where I could take something to and say like, “What do you think about this?” I didn’t have an editor that once that we had the thing recorded, I could say, like, “Oh, how was this? Can we make it better?” Like once it was done, it was done. And it was very – I use the word “isolating” – it was kinda lonely. There was never any, like, drama between me and Justin, Travis, and Dad, but it felt like we were recording two different shows sometimes? Just because our roles were so completely different. And I don’t even know if it’s the best way to do it! Like moving forward to doing these experimental short-form arcs, we’ve been more open about talking about who our characters are and maybe spoiling a little bit of stuff for each other. But I think that’ll end up with richer characters because we’re all on the same page, instead of four different pages. It’s just really complicated.
AC: You’ve talked about feeling a responsibility to the listeners, and it feels like there’s more than one component to that. Like first, there’s the lack of self-indulgence, of saying, “Oh, we’re gonna cut things that were maybe fun for us but aren’t gonna serve a greater story.” But there’s something completely different where you guys chose to build a fantasy world that gave LGBT listeners not just visibility but real and true happy endings. It felt like there was a journey over the Balance Arc from, “We want to be kind to all our listeners” to then this very active, “We’re choosing to make space for these narratives.”
GM: This was something that is incredibly important to us now. When we started out, we did not even know that it was something that could be important. We are all four white, cishet dudes who have been catered to by literally every form of fiction since the origins of time. So this was stuff where if we had known about it, we would have definitely made the effort; we just didn’t know that these conversations were happening. I think a big misstep was – we introduced a lesbian couple in the third arc, who at the end of that arc, had kind of a tragic fate. And I did that, thinking, “Okay, this is our first romance on the show, I want to make sure it’s a good romance, I want to make sure the arc is good and dramatic. And so at the end, there will be a noble sacrifice and it’ll be a powerful moment.” And we made the episode, and I was proud of it, and we put it out, and people let us know, “Actually, that’s a really common trope in fiction, like LGBT characters not having happy endings and dying as a means to justify these powerful dramatic moments.” So I heard that and read up on it, and I was like, “Oh. Shit! Our attempt to do this – we can’t just do it blindly. We have to be a little bit more informed about it.” Finding out that we had fallen into that trope was obviously disappointing because we wanted to do a good job with representation, but also I don’t want to tell the same story that everybody else has told. So from that point on, I think it was, “Let’s avoid these tropes,” but it was also an attempt to tell a more positive story. And there were definitely sad moments going forward from there, but I wanted this world to feel inclusive, and I also wanted it to feel like at the end of the day, everybody’s going to come together for the side of good and earn the happy ending. And that informs everything from that point in the show forward. And we tried to include more inclusive characters as we went on. Which is a tough thing to do just because it’s a tricky thing to get right when you’re not writing from that perspective. You have to be extremely careful and thoughtful about how you do things. And retroactively trying to make that a focus of the podcast when it definitely wasn’t when we started out because we didn’t know about these conversations was tough, but I’m really happy that we put in the effort – effort is maybe a crappy way of putting it, but it is effort to try and learn to write inclusive characters correctly and not fall into shitty pitfalls. And I’m glad we did because what we got was something really special.