How Do You Structure a Good Narrative? Find Out... In the Adventure Zone!

So everyone who reads this blog probably knows that I am a huge fan of audio books. Last month, I had the opportunity to take advantage of Audible's two-for-one sale to pick up Seraphina and A Darker Shade of Magic.

I promptly devoured both books in under a month.

The only problem with getting through more than one book I really enjoy that quickly, is that my expectations run so high that, unless my next book really grabs me off the bat, I tend to kind of slough through it. No discredit to the title I'm currently on, but I've only gotten about half an hour into it so far... and it's been a few weeks.

What I have been listening to, as a sort of palate cleanser, is a ton of podcasts. One of which is the purpose of this long-overdue post; a fortnightly D&D podcast called The Adventure Zone.

The podcast follows a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign played by the McElroy family, who are behind a number of the other podcasts I've found myself addicted to over the past months. Griffin, the youngest brother, DMs the homebrew campaign, and his older brothers Justin and Travis, and their father Clint, play the roles of Taako the elf wizard, Magnus the human fighter, and Merle the dwarf cleric respectively.

The campaign, now a little over two years running, started out as a side-episode of the brothers' flagship podcast, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, and was essentiallythe family running through the Lost Mines of Phandelver module that came with the 5e starter set. As one might imagine, the quartet weren't taking themselves too seriously. I mean, 5e was still brand new, only Griffin and Travis had ever played any D&D before, and c'mon, Justin named his character Taako.

Quickly, however, the pet project took on a life of its own, with Griffin crafting his own spin on the Forgotten Realms setting, setting the heroes up with an organization known as the Bureau of Balance, charging them with the reclamation of a number of potentially world-ending artifacts. Taako, Magnus, and Merle are often flippant, if not downright ignorant as to the dire implications of their mission, and with often cartoonish NPCs being manned by Griffin, the podcast and the narrative it weaves goes heavy on the humor with an occasional beat of seriousness, probably as a means of making sure the game didn't devolve into little more than MBMBaM with dice.

About a year ago, however, there was a noticeable shift in tone. The stakes with each new mission were getting higher. More of the world and the inhabitants that Griffin had created were being revealed. The PCs, while still generally maintaining their devil-may-care attitudes, started to form real connections with one another, and with a number of the NPCs. Each of the missions, or story arcs, has become a little more nuanced, a little more serious. Comedy has become less the backbone of the narrative, and more the necessary pressure-release-valve. The past two episodes, the last two of the arc The Eleventh Hour, have been some of the most emotionally taxing storytelling I've come across in a while.

I've never talked about it here before, but one of my most favourite storytelling techniques across media is this sort of sliding scale of levity and seriousness. Final Fantasy IX, Trigun, Love Hina, The City Stained Red, Riyria, and so many more I can't think to name all share this pattern of starting off light, humorous, borderline irreverent in some cases, only to gradually reach the point of throat-punching your heart repeatedly by their eventual resolutions. It allows the audience to more quickly connect with characters, I think, when their quirkier sides are allowed to shine so completely. It plants the seeds of real investment that get cultivated as the characters start to really get put through the ringer, and by each story's climax the audience finds that they, like the characters they've grown to love, are now hanging on for dear life. This technique is one that I've desperately tried to hone in my own storytelling, and frankly it's almost infuriating to see that the McElroys have managed to capture it with such elegance.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I cannot recommend The Adventure Zone enough. It transcends being simply a real-play Dungeons and Dragons podcast and is truly just quality storytelling, regardless of whether or not you're a fan to tabletop RPGs. You can probably start off with the next episode, as it will be the start of a new arc, but you're doing yourself a disservice by not starting from the beginning.

Oh, and I mentioned this on Tumblr, but it bears repeating: If Travis McElroy, or anyone Travis-adjacent is reading this: I will make time in my writing schedule to aid in the novelization of Magnus Burnsides' backstory, happily.