November 29, 2018
When it comes to dynamic storytelling, the radio drama stands out as a highly influential example. In the age of instant access to content and the need for content to be portable, podcasts have risen to fill the need for radio on demand. Though podcasts come in many forms, the ones that most closely resemble the traditional radio dramas, without being one, are actual-play podcasts. Or, podcasts where the hosts play tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. They incorporate a written story and fleshed out world, courtesy of the Dungeon Master (or DM for short) alongside improvised storytelling on the part of the players. Both parties are expected to maintain a mindfulness towards storytelling and an awareness of their character in order to make the whole thing work. Actual play podcasts have become a genre in their own right. Prominent among them is The Adventure Zone, hosted by the McElroy family who self-identify as Clint McElroy, the father of the three brothers, and “Your oldest brother: Justin McElroy, your middlest brother: Travis McElroy, and your sweet baby brother and Thirty under Thirty Media Luminary: Griffin McElroy” (My Brother, My Brother, and Me). Their podcast follows three player characters through a fantasy world crafted by the DM Griffin. Justin, Clint, and Travis play respectively as Taako, Merle, and Magnus: an elven wizard, a dwarven cleric, and a human fighter. These three heroes work for an organization called the Bureau of Balance in an effort to reclaim dangerous magical artifacts called the Grand Relics. This essay will focus on the first four episodes of the fourth arc in the campaign, titled “The Crystal Kingdom”. This arc is the turning point in their campaign as a true solidification of the campaign’s plot, as well as establishing a more complex soundscape with the increase of music and voice effects.
The Adventure Zone fully utilizes its mode as a podcast. It blends its radio drama-esque format with its status and form as an actual play podcast, feeding back into its thesis and theme of found family and acceptance by trying to make you, the listener, the fourth brother. The Adventure Zone is a story that leans into its own hypermediacy while still upholding a rich and engaging narrative story. The McElroys offer you a chair at their family table and invite you into their space to play Dungeons and Dragons. By blending descriptive storytelling with irreverent meta, The Adventure Zone has a uniquely immersive story. The soundscape is built from vocal improv and short spats of music. It is simple but effective. If it leaned more towards standard Dungeons and Dragons gameplay it would not be engaging for those not playing, and if it were all sound effects and music it would lose the heart of the actual play. By combining improv comedy with Dungeons and Dragons in the medium of audio drama, the McElroys construct a fiction experience unlike any other. In addition to hypermediacy, The Adventure Zone also thins the line between diegetic and non-diegetic parts, playing with player and character knowledge, and a deep understanding of the immediate connection to an audience that the podcast medium provides.
Hypermediacy is the most defining feature of an actual play podcast. Because the McElroys are not simply acting in an audio drama and are in fact playing Dungeons and Dragons, there is an ever-present nod toward the fictionality of the story. In the first episode of the arc Travis says “I wanna say that I know that this is a fantasy world in which Griffin is painting a picture with words, I literally just had like a real-life reaction [Clint laughs] to the idea of having a hole in the middle of my room that looks down thousands and thousands of feet-”, explicitly calling out the unreality of what Griffin is describing (“Crystal Kingdom” Episode 1, 7:46). This is a special affordance that comes with an aural medium, especially one that is so heavily aligned with improvisation and role play. This particular line draws attention to two important aspects. First, it comments on the quality and impact of Griffin’s world building. It caused a visceral reaction in Travis and he underlines the moment for the audience to pay attention to. Secondly, it creates a base against which to judge the story. By giving the audience a taste of the inner workings of the show, that is, the players reacting to the DM’s words out of character, the audience is able to see the depth of the story when all the players are in character and they are using the full breadth of their storytelling capabilities.
The line between diegetic and non-diegetic is usually quite clear in media. Very rarely is there a debate over if something is part of the world of the characters or not. By the grace of the medium, everything, aside from the DM’s scripted narration is completely improvised role play, so sometimes things can happen within the episode that are not part of the actual canon of the story. With the combination of in and out of character conversations and even some “in character” conversations that are not actually real, diegetic and canon become colloquially synonymous. In the second episode of the arc, the McElroys have an argument about whether or not something was actually in character, or more simply, if something said in a character voice was heard by the other characters or not:
Taako [Justin]: Oh, money’s no object to me.
Griffin: That is patently untrue. That’s not in character. I’m just telling you that’s— I’m calling horseshit on that on behalf of our listening audience.
Justin: No, no, no, no, no—
Justin: No, no, no, the fact that money is patently important to Taako is patently untrue. That Taako would say that—
Justin: —is not.
Griffin: Okay, fair.
(Crystal Kingdom Episode 2, 59:38)
Taako is, within the show, is a whimsically selfish character who will do anything to obtain treasure often at the risk of his companions. He is also rather grandiose in self-perception, so this line, in jest, makes sense for him. In Dungeons and Dragons, particularly well role played Dungeons and Dragons, a character voice determines what your character does and does not say. Because Justin said the line in question as Taako, it is initially understood to be in-universe, however, Griffin’s assertion throws that into question. If it was not in-universe, then Merle and Magnus did not hear it and it was non-diegetic. This also calls into question other instances throughout the show when character voices are used but nothing relevant to the plot is being done or discussed. During a sequence in which Magnus tries to force Taako to get into an elevator, Taako says “You will not like how this ends! I will burn a spell slot on you,” (“Crystal Kingdom” Episode 3, 11:20). Though Taako canonically has magic, he has no canonical knowledge of spell slots which are, in terms of Dungeons and Dragons, player knowledge. Though no player or character offers an opposition to Taako saying this as Griffin did before, it is understood that Taako does not actually say this in canon, or more specifically that Magnus and Merle do not hear him say this, or that this specific line was replaced with Taako just threatening Magus with magic. This balancing of what the characters do and do not know or say adds a constantly evolving nature to the narrative, allowing, within the confines of a mainly improvised comedy world, for the players and the DM to have multiple chances to shape their world. Good additions can be left in while offhand comments that add nothing to the storycan be left as player quips. A structure like this also allows the listener to shape their own narrative within the larger story, a key part of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Without this element, the podcast would lose some of what makes it recognizable as a Dungeons and Dragons game and make the lister feel like an outsider.
Continuing in more depth, another key feature in The Adventure Zone is its incorporation of player and character knowledge. This differentiation was mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it is another crucial part of what makes actual play podcasts work. Player knowledge is information that while the players possess, their characters do not and should not act on. In The Adventure Zone, there is sometimes character knowledge that even the players are unware of. In episode three of the arc, Merle, Magnus, and Taako face a robot named Hodgepodge who plays what can only be described as “Tomorrowland-esque” (“Crystal Kingdom” 3, 15:05). At the time of recording, this music did not exist. The music was added in post so the characters could hear it, but the players cannot. Related to this split, there is a moment later in this encounter during episode fourth of the arc where Justin insists that though he, Justin McElroy, does not know the answer to a historical trivia question his character Taako should, saying “Like, Griffin, I love you, you’re my brother, but if my skill called HISTORY does not literally help me with HISTORY [Griffin laughs] trivia questions in a category called HISTORY, what are we even fucking doing here! This is Calvinball!” (“Crystal Kingdom” Episode 4, 5:42). These interactions are the hallmarks of an actual play podcast and define the format. The music shows the polish of production while the debate captures the spirit of real Dungeons and Dragons. For a negative example in a similar vein, during the third episode of the arc, Merle says “I’m saving my good rolls,” (“Crystal Kingdom” Episode 3, 6:27). Like how Taako has no knowledge of spell slots, Merle should have no concept of rolls but it is not remarked upon. Of the players, Clint McElroy is the most likely to mix what he does in and out of character. There are many occasions in which he uses player knowledge while doing Merle’s voice or neglects his character voice all together while acting as Merle. Though he does this much to the ire of his fellow players and DM, his mixing of in and out of character actions add to the realistic feel of the game. These asides, these imperfections in the narrative telling are what make the audience feel like this is a real game of Dungeons and Dragons rather than just a scripted radio drama. A vital part of The Adventure Zone is how well it replicates a regular game of Dungeons and Dragons and gives you a seat at the table.
The media format of the podcast is perfectly suited to the story of The Adventure Zone, as well as to the genre of actual play. William H. Cordell and Kathryn Coe Cordell note in their piece “The Future Theatre of the Air” that “Mr. Gielgud early discovered that most of the works produced on the three-dimensional stage were ill-adapted for broadcasting,” and that the pieces that performed well on air were the ones that were more about the auditory experience and the words than the gestures or costuming. Dungeons and Dragons’ defining feature is that it is done through dialogue. The Dungeon Master describes the world and the players describe their actions. Its system transposes itself almost flawlessly into the podcast medium. It is exactly because of this non-visual format that engagement with the podcast is so active amongst its fans. Fans of the show draw fanart and make cosplays, all imagining their own version of how these characters might look. This engagement is addressed too in Vince Meserko’s article “Standing Upright: Podcasting, Performance, and Alternative Comedy” where he writes “If the user feels compelled to participate with media he or she consumes, then something must exist within these texts that makes engagement with them attractive to those who seek them out”, indicating that it is something about the actual play podcast format or simply the McElroy family that draws listeners in (Meserko). Meserko states also that it is the absence of third-party influences and regulations that make podcasts so engaging and loved by their listeners, something that suits the McElroy brand of humor in a perfect framework.
In short, The Adventure Zone works as an actual play podcast because that is the only way it can work. As an audio drama, it has to tell a formatted story, but as a game of Dungeons and Dragons, it also has to be improvised and able to change course on a whim. The entire show keeps the audience aware that they are listening to the game, allowing them to flex their control over hypermediacy. Debates over rules and rolls, character voices and character actions, and diversions from the story maintain the audience’s awareness that this a podcast but also serves to emulate a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Only an actual play podcast would allow this type of story to be told.
McElroy, G. (Dungeon Master). (2015, December 19). Ep. 29. The Crystal Kingdom – Chapter One [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone?page=9
McElroy, G. (Dungeon Master). (2015, December 31). Ep. 30. The Crystal Kingdom – Chapter Two [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone?page=9
McElroy, G. (Dungeon Master). (2016, January 14). Ep. 31. The Crystal Kingdom – Chapter Three [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone?page=9
McElroy, G. (Dungeon Master). (2016, January 28). Ep. 32. The Crystal Kingdom – Chapter Four [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/adventure-zone?page=9
McElroy, J, T, G. (Hosts). (2018, October 1). Ep. 31. MBMBaM 427: Face 2 Face: Adult Big Green Reptiles [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/my-brother-my-brother-and-me
Cordell, William H., and Kathryn Coe Cordell. “The Future Theatre of the Air.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 44, no. 4, 1936, pp. 405–419. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27535274.
Meserko, Vince M. “Standing Upright: Podcasting, Performance, and Alternative Comedy.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 20–40. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/studamerhumor.1.1.0020.