Currently in the middle of a spin-off series featuring Blades in the Dark, The Adventure Zone is an RPG actual play show starring the McElroy family: made up of brothers Justin, Griffin and Travis, as well as their father Clint. First airing in 2014 with its Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaign, entitled Balance, the show has since produced several more campaigns using other tabletop roleplaying game systems such as Monster of the Week and The Quiet Year.
Ahead of their appearance at this week’s PAX Unplugged convention, we spoke with Griffin, who was dungeon master for The Adventure Zone’s first campaign, and Travis, DM for its Graduation arc, about the origins of the series and the challenge of hosting a long-running actual play campaign.
The Adventure Zone began as a joke about the four of you playing D&D as a family. But then it became this huge actual play series - how does something like that happen?
Griffin McElroy: I don't know that I would characterise the whole launch as a joke. We definitely talked about it in in passing as a goof on [the McElroy brothers’ long-running podcast] My Brother, My Brother and Me before. But when [Dungeons & Dragons] Fifth Edition came out, it was when Justin and I were still at Polygon and I had been writing about 5E a lot and really wanted to play it. I had played the previous edition as my first step into D&D. After talking to Justin and Travis and Dad, I found out that they also were interested.
2014 was when Justin's oldest daughter was born so we wanted to have a backlog of episodes to publish during his absence. When we recorded the first, I think, two episodes of Adventure Zone, we didn't have plans to make it like an actual show that we were going to keep doing. We kind of assumed there would be some interest in that. But it wasn't until we published it and heard from people that we decided to keep this thing going.
We proceeded Critical Role I think by, like, four months - so they’re idea thieves is what I'm saying.
Travis McElroy: We came to it without any Dungeons & Dragons background at all. We approached it in a layman kind of way. I think that allowed people who also had no Dungeons & Dragons background to come on board with us as we went. We've heard from a lot of people over the years that we were the introduction for them getting into Dungeons & Dragons and TRPGs. I think that it was a very easy entry point for people who had always been interested in it, but never had people to play with or never felt like they knew enough about it to try.
Would you say that there was an element of timing to the success of Adventure Zone? Pre-Critical Role and post-5E release?
Griffin: We proceeded Critical Role I think by, like, four months or something like that - so they’re idea thieves is what I'm saying. They would be nowhere without us! No, I mean, there was definitely a huge groundswell right around when Fifth Edition launched. 5E wasn't quite as tabletoppy as Fourth Edition was; Fifth Edition felt like it was a lot more possible to do over audio-only. Of course, there's the infinite array of other pop culture spotlights that shined on Dungeons & Dragons at the time and more recently - like Stranger Things, obviously.
Travis: Community, as well. I also think it should be noted, you know, there was a big burst of online tools as well like D&D Beyond and Roll20. Publishing podcasts and streaming D&D got easier. Similar online platforms like Twitch and YouTube became a big thing. I think it's also important to note that we had an existing audience base from My Brother, My Brother and Me and our other shows. I don't know if it would have caught with an audience so much if there weren’t people who already knew what our whole thing was.
What is it like to run and play an actual series as a family? What kind of unique challenges does that present?
Griffin: Honestly, I don't know that there is a huge difference from playing with a group of friends that you've been playing D&D with. The stuff that made Adventure Zone natural for us to fall into is the same stuff that makes My Brother, My Brother and Me natural for us to fall into. We don't have to overthink every little thing that we say and do on My Brother, My Brother and Me because we've been joking together for our whole lives. Those improvisational instincts are the same exact ones that you use whenever you're telling make-believe stories in the way that we do.
Travis: There is some trickiness with romance stuff, that's a little bit different than just playing with some friends.
Griffin: We don't do a tonne of that on The Adventure Zone. But yeah, it, it felt it was not. I think if you have a group of people that you trust so completely, then that opens a lot of doors for you to make a lot of really cool stuff with them in many, many forms.
People only have so much patience with the middle part of stories.
Have you ever experimented with safety tools?
Travis: Definitely, especially if we have any non-McElroy people playing with us. One of the downsides of knowing each other so well is that we just like, inherently, have gotten to know each other's comfort areas. Taking that for granted can be dangerous when we add new people in.
We very much have a policy of being able to stop at any moment and talk about anything. We also debrief afterwards. We've used X-Cards before, but there’s a lot of pre-production of us knowing each other so well. Of knowing that I'm not going to introduce this thing into here, because that's not a thing they like to play with.
The Adventure Zone has experimented with a variety of RPG systems and release formats, like The Quiet Year. What advantage do you think this has over just having one continuous series with just one system?
Griffin: I don't think any campaign can go on forever. I do know some people who have been playing with the same group for decades in one grand story, but other people don't usually have to listen to that. And you can get really into your own shit, explore that and extrapolate that out to an infinite degree. But I think for a programme that people are going to watch and listen to, they have to be stories. People only have so much patience with the middle part of stories. Making it an anthological format lets us read the room or be honest with ourselves whenever we're playing a game – so that we know when it feels like we are nearing a natural conclusion.
Travis: When we think about making the show and planning where there's a beginning, middle and end to a campaign: that is the thing that makes most sense to us. I'm sure that there are shows out there that just run the same campaign for years, where it's much more character based and a lot more episodic. There are two kinds of TV shows in the world; there's TV shows that are building to a conclusion and then there are TV shows that can run 20 seasons. The stories we want to tell are more arc-based.
Griffin: The example I liked to use is that our TAZ live shows had started to become pretty formulaic to a fault. They were always fun to do and people enjoyed going to them. But for us, we had done a lot of the stuff with the characters of Magnus and Merle and Taco in live shows before. You can only get clever with Mage Hand in so many ways before it feels like I'm solving different problems with the same answers. That's not fun for us and it's not fun for the audience.
We're playing Blades in the Dark right now, which is just like an infinite ocean of opportunity and possibilities for us to use that we haven't really had in the playbook before. And that's super, super exciting and has revitalised the experience of making the show for us in a way that maybe it never has since we started it.
To answer the question: the best RPG is Lasers and Feelings by John Harper.
Sticking with the same system – such as Dungeons & Dragons 5E – for long periods of time can be restrictive, it’s great to see an actual play feature other, sometimes much smaller, RPGs.
Griffin: I feel it’s easy for people to turn on D&D, which is only natural because it's the big dog in the RPG space. I feel like when we did the second season of TAZ using Monster of the Week, it was easy for us to say ‘this is where the hot shit is.’ But whenever we came back to D&D with new characters in a new setting and new source material – or we just approached the game in a different way - it was a totally different thing. Being able to take a break from it for a bit and come back with fresh eyes has let us play D&D in completely different ways.
Travis: People always ask which is your favourite game system you've used and I think I've reached a point now whereI don't know if I have a favourite. Depending on the story we want to tell in the arc we're planning, there are game systems that are better suited for that kind of story. If you're doing a gritty, mystery thing, then Urban Shadows would work in a different way than Monster of the Week. Monster of the Week was such a slam dunk for [TAZ’s third campaign] Amnesty. D&D is great if you're doing a more adventurous or combat-focused scenario - it's so flexible in there are so many different prompts and cues you can use.
Griffin: To answer the question: the best RPG is Lasers and Feelings by John Harper. We have used that for so many live shows and have played so many hacks of it for so many different things. It is perfect for what we do. But I also don't think we could do a whole season using it. But that's my favourite RPG.
You’ve already had Aabria Iyengar on a mini-series for The Adventure Zone. Who would be your next dream collaborator?
Travis: Vin Diesel.
Griffin: I feel like his energy is a little too intense. That’s a great question, though.
Travis: I think James Acaster will be fun to play with.
Off Menu James Acaster?
Travis: Yeah. Acaster would be a blast to play with us. And Richard Ayoade! I like awkward British comedians. Any awkward British comedian - I'll take them.
Griffin: This is gonna sound like bullshit. But I get really nervous when running the game, as it’s like you are an exposed nerve in that moment. Saying something and pitching something in the moment and my players will run with it and not say “That's ridiculous” or “I don't want to do that - that element always so terrifying. I don't have a good answer for this one.
Travis: I would like to DM for Brennan [Lee Mulligan] – from Dimension 20 - sometime, as he's DM’d for us a couple of times now.
Griffin: Yeah, it's our turn to take it.
There’s already a board game based on the Balance arc of Adventure Zone. Are there going be any more board game spin-offs in the future?
Travis: We have a tendency to be like, “Yeah, but we already did that.” And that's terrible for business. Once we do a thing and we’re fine with how it turned out, we immediately turn to what we’re going to do now. We're all basically bored children all the time. I don't know if we would necessarily make another board game. But we might if we ended up having a good idea for it.
Griffin: That project – the Bureau of Balance board game and its new expansion - was amazing and really fun. I know it was very satisfying for us all to work on considering how many games we've played over the years. But yeah, we don't have any other plates spinning in that particular department right now.
What about an RPG?
Griffin: I mean, we worked on Dadlands. Now that we've added cornhole as a gameplay mechanic, I think there's actually a huge merchandising opportunity for us there.
I feel like Marvel Snap has completely devoured our time.
What the hell is Dadlands?
Griffin: It's a roleplaying game we developed as a pledge drive bonus for our Maximum Fun network that a lot of our shows are released through, including the Adventure Zone. We playtested it live twice with Brennan Lee Mulligan as the GM, or Game Mom. We also did this sequel, which was filled with really intense cornhole sessions. So that's going to be that's probably going to be the next big thing. Honestly, I don't think people are going to talk about Dungeons & Dragons anymore, once they know that you can play roleplaying games and cornhole at the same time.
We’re hosting our very first Tabletop Awards ceremony at PAX Unplugged this year – I know you two are going to be there as well. What would be your pick for the best board game/RPG/card game? Doesn’t have to be from this year.
Travis: I love Hues and Cues. I like board games and I have friends who love board games. Now we all have kids, so anything that the kids can do is wonderful. Anyone with any interest level in board games whatsoever can play Hues and Cues. It's such a simple gameplay loop of describing colours in one or two words. It provides such a wonderful discussion of “Why would you say that?” and “Why would you think that is that thing?”
Griffin: I don't have anything recent. When I had my first son in 2016, I just stopped playing board games with other people again. I'm a big fan of games like Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy. I played the first season; I've never got back to the second season of it. If I'm ever reaching in a drawer and pulling out a game, it’s Splendor. It’s a sort of resource-building game that is so brilliant and always devolves into very intense matches whenever I play it with my friends. I also got swept up in the hidden role craze like everybody else - so I like Coup and Coup: Reformation.
Travis: I've been recently having this itch to finally learn how to play Magic: The Gathering.
Griffin: Hey, man, hit me hit me up sometime - I'll send you a Commander deck. I feel like Marvel Snap has completely devoured our time. We just went on tour a couple of weeks ago and all of us had our phones out during soundcheck to just knock out a quick Marvel Snap match. It was a real problem, actually.
The Quiet Year is just one of those games that just like has so much replay value.
I’ve been on the Blades in the Dark kick so much, as we are using it for the season we're filming right now. It continues to reveal itself to us, which is a fun way of saying we hadn’t read the rules all the way and now we've read the rules all the way. But we keep getting into scenarios and then having ideas for the show and the rules have a one-to-one application for how to make that happen. I've listened to other podcasts that have run it as a game and, without fail, it's always like my favourite season of that show. We're also all huge proponents of The Quiet Year.
Travis: The Quiet Year is just one of those games that just like has so much replay value. It seems like when a prompt comes up on the card it feels so specific to exactly what's going on in our community in that game right now. Like they just understood exactly what question you needed to be asked at that moment to make a huge change. There's no lose and no-win scenario. You play for a certain amount of time and then the game is done. It's just such a perfectly shared experience of just collaboration.