It’s dangerous to go alone

My least favorite phrase in The Adventure Zone

By Dave Menendez
Thursday, August 3, 2017, at 11:45 PM

Summary: I really enjoy the McElroy podcast The Adventure Zone, but I don’t always like the way Griffin tells the story.

One of the podcasts that always works its way to the top of my listening queue is The Adventure Zone, an “actual-play podcast” in which the McElroy brothers and their father play a Dungeons and Dragons campaign which started out as a vehicle for jokes and silliness, and gradually became… not exactly serious, because it’s still full of jokes, but compelling.

I’m not really doing a good job of selling it, but I do heartily recommend it if funny, fantasy-themed stories are something you like. When these guys get going, they are very good.1 There's only one episode left in the current story, so you won’t have to worry about waiting for the next episode.

Anyway, while I overall am enjoying TAZ, there are a few small things that bug me that I wanted to talk about, and Twitter didn’t seem like a good medium. They’re not about the story itself, but some of the techniques Griffin McElroy, the Dungeon Master, uses to tell the story.

As we’ve gotten towards the end of the larger storyline, Griffin has started inserting bits where he describes things that are happening somewhere else or which had happened in the past. I haven’t listened to other actual-play podcasts, so I don’t know if that sort of thing is common. To me, it creates a distance between the listener and the characters, as we are being given information none of them could reasonably have. That is, instead of having first-person or tight third-person narration, we suddenly have an omniscient narrator telling us a larger story in which the main cast are just one thread. We’re no longer experiencing the story along with the characters; we’re hearing a story involving the characters.

For example, a character recently reappeared in the story after a long absence, and Griffin essentially narrated a flashback montage instead of having the character describe what they’d been up to. That’s a fine choice in a non-interactive medium, especially a visual medium like film, but I feel like it goes against the grain of an interactive medium like role-playing games, because it skips the part where the characters learn what happened, which means they don’t get to react to it.

Again, the problem isn’t the story. It’s the tension between the way the story is told and the nature of the medium being used to tell it.

Which leads me to my second grumble: Griffin’s use of the phrase “we see” when introducing these side stories and flashbacks, and sometimes to describe what’s going on around the main characters. In some cases, he even talks about “the camera” and describes pans. Instead of telling a story, Griffin is describing a movie that tells the story. It’s like an inverse of the advice to “show, don’t tell”, only instead of showing, Griffin is telling how it would be shown. This isn’t so much going against the grain of the medium as importing the narrative language from a different medium entirely. It would be like a novel that started indicating what music would be on the soundtrack for dramatic scenes.

Neither of these ruin the show. I’m still looking forward to the conclusion in a few weeks, and it will be fun to be part of the audience for their next story from the beginning. Actual-play podcasts are a young medium, and I’m sure we all have a lot to learn about how best to present them.

  1. One of my favorite moments comes around minute 54 in episode 30, when they get into an elevator and launch into two extended jokes about snakes. I still remember listening to it when I was driving home one day and smiling so much my face hurt.