Dungeons & Dragons was once, as the McElroys so eloquently put it, “the last bastion of nerdom” — the one thing you could point out, no matter how dorky your interests, and say “well, at least I’m not into that!”.
But that isn’t the world we live in anymore!
Nowadays, we all seem to relish in our and each other’s unique “nerdiness”. Nerd culture has hit the mainstream, with superhero films topping charts left and right, swarms of fantasy novel fans all over the internet and, as it happens, Dungeons & Dragons has become one of the most popular games to play with friends and family! Not only that, though… in fact, entire careers have been predicated on the success and popularity of Dungeons & Dragons! One such story, funny enough, begins with three people who never wanted to play the game…
The McElroy brothers — Justin, Griffin, and Travis — are the collective sons of Clint McElroy, a famous radio entertainer from Huntington, West Virginia. Following in his footsteps, the three brothers themselves became podcasters, debuting the highly popular My Brother, My Brother, and Me. My Brother, My Brother, and Me (otherwise referred to as MBMBAM, Muh-bim-bam, and The Mamba) is an advice show where the brothers intentionally give comically bad advice to listeners who send in questions or day-to-day problems, or more harshly judge strangers on the internet who post insane queries on Yahoo! Answers. The podcast was wildly successful, becoming one of the most recognizable audio shows of all time and has, at the time of writing this, produced over 620 hour-long episodes.
When Justin McElroy goes on paternity leave, however, the brothers decided to fill that week’s episode vacancy with an “experimental” episode. They’d all three rope their dad into joining them for a session of Dungeons & Dragons in which Griffin occupies the role of “Dungeon Master”, while Travis plays a head-strong human Fighter named Magnus Burnsides, Justin plays a barbed-tongued elven Wizard named Taako, and Clint plays a devout dwarven Cleric named Merle Highchurh. Aside from Justin, who played it once, none of the family had played Dungeons & Dragons before. Although the episode was framed as reluctant and essentially them playing it as a joke to kill time, it was met with clamoring adoration by fans of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, who all but demanded more The Adventure Zone. Perhaps realizing they liked the game more than they thought they would, the McElroys were happy to acquiesce, going on to produce, at the time of writing this, 189 episodes across nine different campaigns called “Arcs”.
For those who are only tangentially aware of the game, Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular game in the now widely-replicated genre of tabletop RPGs. While all tabletop RPGs differ in one way or another, they’re all fundamentally the same in that they’re a combination of board game and improvisational collaborative storytelling.
Almost universally, one player occupies the role of “Dungeon Master” (or some other variation of “Game Master”), who is responsible for creating the game world, and laying down the framework of the plot, as well as controlling the obstacles the players overcome. In turn, the players create characters who occupy the world created by the Dungeon Master. Character creation is usually a very rule-heavy process, where players fill in a handful of boxes provided to them to determine exactly what their character is capable of, with the most basic and common elements being: “Classes”, such as Warrior or Wizard or Thief, which determine the character’s specializations and abilities; “Races”, such as Elf or Dwarf, which determine the physiology of the character; and “Stats”, like Strength or Intelligence, number values that are used to help the player characters perform better in certain tasks. Things like personalities and backstories are decided entirely by the player.
The basic structure of a tabletop RPG goes that the Dungeon Master narrates the story, presents the players with characters to interact with, a world to explore, or enemies to defeat, and the players respond by performing actions and interactions in their character’s respective personalities. Whenever there’s a conflict, or a particularly difficulty activity, the outcome is decided by rolling a die (in Dungeons & Dragons, it is most usually a 20-sided die), taking stats from the character to modify the roll, and attempting to beat a certain number value. Through this process of the Dungeon Master describing the scenario, the players responding, and outcomes being determined by dice, a tabletop RPG allows players to construct complex storylines (called campaigns) across multiple gaming sessions.
The Adventure Zone is a collection of campaigns, which themselves are collections of sub-stories called “Stories”. The first campaign the McElroys played is called “The Balance Arc”, and opens with “Here There Be Gerblins”. Initially regurgitated from an officially-produced storybook called The Lost Mines of Phandalin, “Here There Be Gerblins” has the three heroes Magnus, Taako, and Merle helping Merle’s cousin Gerndrun transport his goods to Phandalin. Diverging from the storybook, the heroes get caught up in a battle for a magical gauntlet which ends up destroying a whole town and killing countless innocents. Following this, the three are recruited by the Bureau of Balance to help them retrieve dangerous magical relics leftover from a magical war before they can cause more damage!
In “Murder on the Rockport Limited”, representative of the Bureau of Balance Leeman Kessler locates a relic and loads it onto a magically-propelled train before being murdered in the town of Rockport. In order to reclaim the relic, the heroes Merle, Magnus, and Taako must impersonate Kessler and his servants and infiltrate the train to reclaim the relic in his place.
Unfortunately, all of the passengers’ luggage is kept in a vault in the backmost car of the train under a magical crypt-lock, which can only be opened with a full hour of sustained contact from a member of the train’s crew, which the entire crew summarily refuses to unlock until the train’s arrival at its next stop. Only, it seems that the journey would be more than a test of patience… as Jenkins, the train’s chief attendant, who can use teleportation magic to trade two locations’ doorways to entertain passengers, is found burnt to death, with his head and hands cut clean off. After defeating a giant firecrab that destroys the crime scene, the heroes realize that the killer must be using Jenkins’s hands to open the vault in the back of the train, and they quickly rush to the rear car, only to find that nobody is in there, even though they’d have to be by that point if they planned to steal the luggage…
When a young boy detective named Angus McDonald, who is on the hunt for a serial killer and master thief from Rockport, identifies our three heroes as frauds in disguise, he keeps them in check as they all get to work stumbling their way through this murder mystery…
The Adventure Zone is my favorite podcast of all time. The first story, “Here There Be Gerblins”, almost turned me away, and it would’ve been a shame if I had to go the rest of my life without experiencing the rest of this fantastic tale. The story is weak, since it has to deal with the normal issues of getting new people into this foreign style of gaming, with lots of time spent on correcting rule misunderstandings, along with the transition from an officially-produced storyline to something more unique. What kept me listening was the McElroys’ sense of humor, which is as salient in The Adventure Zone as it was in My Brother, My Brother, and Me. Yes, it is often crass humor, but the McElroys are smart entertainers with an ear for timing and presentation, and a natural skill with improv. Even when they’re slumming it and grabbing the low-hanging fruit, they do it with such confident and chutzpah that it’s impossible not to get swept up in listening to the family banter and harass each other in and out of the game.
But then, the series does eventually progress well beyond just being a goofy game of Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a goofy game of Dungeons & Dragons, but as the series’s style finally comes into form, the overarching story becomes more prominent, and the family get more involved and immersed in roleplaying their characters and interacting with the characters around them, the series is not only be silly, but it manages to be silly while still being a genuinely smartly-realized, very high-concept and imaginative fantasy tale with chilling shocks and emotional losses. From a town that’s been stuck repeating the day of its demise on a time loop for centuries, to a gameshow hosted by a lich designed to extract suffering from its contestants, to spelunking in a lab overtaken by crystal and rogue machinery, an angry dwarf and a murder on a train are the least of the lengths The Adventure Zone goes to dazzle you with creativity and adventure. The whole thing is spectacularly surreal, and even people with no interest in Dungeons & Dragons can listen along (as it’s played by people who also have no experience with it, and therefore don’t stringently respect rules or tradition of the game!), and a dozen times over I’d recommend it for people looking to laugh while crying while laughing while riding a bus to a more private place to laugh-cry.
The second arc, “Murder on the Rockport Limited”, is as good a fantasy story as the rest of the podcast! It’s the beginning of The Adventure Zone’s evolution from silly to high-concept surrealism, and showcases more creative gameplay and roleplaying from the boys. But how does it fair as a murder mystery?
To the best of my knowledge, the McElroys have no formal connection or history with the mystery genre, so to hear that they’re trying to run a mystery in Dungeons & Dragons was scary! It’s one thing for a person with no history with mystery to try to write a normal mystery, but a hybrid mystery with fantasy elements is something else entirely.
Those unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons might not quite understand, but those who do play the game will quickly see the issue with trying to run a fairplay mystery story inside of this game: magic. Strictly speaking, magic in Dungeons & Dragons does fit the criteria for being “fair” in the context of a mystery story. Magic is further divided into spells, and there is a limited number of spells in the base game, each of which is rigidly defined by rules dictating how they may be used. However, the normal game of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has four-hundred and ninety-five individual spells contained within! And functionally anything and anyone can be magical, and there’s absolutely zero way to determine what spells a person is capable of casting. In other words, magic is an infinite well of potential in all of the worst ways, allowing a Dungeon Master to write their way out of any mystery corner with a wave of the hand (or a wand)!
It is therefore a pleasant surprise to see that despite his lack of experience with the genre, Griffin McElroy smartly understood what it is that makes a good mystery story fair and fun, even inadvertently following Knox’s rules. If magic is ever utilized in the commission of the murder, it is only ever magic which the narration has explicitly shown you a character is capable of using. In fact, a pleasantly clever piece of misdirection is played using magic which isn’t at all hidden from the listener/players! While it isn’t perfect, because the story never actually establishes that this magic is the only magic which can be used in this setting, thereby leaving room for magical contrivance, the fact that the murder actually only utilizes magic which the listener already knows is part of the story and of which the listener already knows the precise limitations is a surprisingly smart piece of mystery-writing intuition from Griffin McElroy.
Unfortunately, though, even if the rest of the plan is a clever hybrid of magic and murder, the identity of the killer is incredibly obvious. From reading this review, I’m sure no less than seventy percent of you have already guessed whodunnit. It relies on an age-old dodge that screams the killer’s identity out the second it occurs, and disappointingly is a pretty straight application of the trick that doesn’t even rely on magic. It’s almost maddening to listen to the McElroys stumble around the crime scene and act the fool over one of the oldest mystery tricks of all time. It’s possible, in fact, that by figuring out the killer this easily, you can end up spoiling the rest of the plot for yourself by following the revolution to its natural conclusion…
So, perfect it is obviously not, fairly simple and short on surprises, but “Murder on the Rockport Limited” is a fairly smartly-realized hybrid mystery that makes for a good detour on an otherwise wild ride of surreal fantasy fun. Griffin’s keen intuition on mystery stories lets him concoct a pretty suitable answer to the problem of magic when writing a mystery in Dungeons & Dragons, complete with a solid although not totally awe-inspiring trick surrounding the attempted theft of the luggage. “Murder on the Rockport Limited” is not an absolute must-read for fans of mysteries — even of hybrid mysteries — but what it might be is a fun and charming way for someone to introduce themselves to the surreal, absurd gem of The Adventure Zone through mystery and murder…
The cover I used is actually from the graphic novel adaptation of “Murder on the Rockport Limited”. The graphic novels have fantastic, charming art by Carey Pietsch, and are extremely faithful to the podcast, so anything I say in the review about the mystery applies just as well to the graphic novel. However, I don’t think the graphic novels are the best ways to experience The Adventure Zone. My main gripe with them is that they often try to regurgitate popular jokes from the podcast, but in scripted form. A lot of the jokes do lose a lot of the charm in this repackaging, as they lose the context, timing, and presentation that give them all of their magic. Many of the jokes aren’t so clever that they’ll have you bust a gut laughing when they’re divorced from the natural showmanship of the McElroys.
What the graphic novels do do well, I think, is further refine the characters of the players as separate entities from the McElroy family! By making it scripted and being able to retcon elements from earlier, rougher, episodes, the graphic novels are able to tell the story in a neater, tidier way. To this end, I think The Adventue Zone‘s graphic novels make for fun recaps for established fans of the series who want to see what it’d be more like as a fantasy story, instead of as a game of Dungeons & Dragons. But if you’re interested at all, listen to the podcast! And be patient with the first story too!