On Wednesday night, less than a block from the White House, you may run into hundreds of brightly colored and costumed people dressed as elves, beach dwarves, liches (a kind of undead spellcaster), gnomes and humans who look like lumberjacks. Those folks are dressed up, cosplaying, as their favorite characters from “The Adventure Zone,” a wildly popular podcast that showcases its hosts playing different role playing games (RPGs). “The Adventure Zone” started as a one-off Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) adventure and special episode of “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” a comedy advice podcast hosted by three brothers: Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy.
The three-hour game was so popular that it became its own critically-and-popularly beloved biweekly show (also featuring their dad, Clint, playing) with 120 episodes and millions of downloads under its belt; as well as a graphic novel series whose first two books hit the top of the charts on the New York Times’ Bestsellers list.
The McElroy family started taking the podcast on the road in 2015, playing Dungeon & Dragons, and now other, pen-and-paper RPG systems in front of audiences of hundreds and thousands; to be rebroadcast later in podcast form. They’ll roll their dice across the stage of DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday, September 25, playing a yet to be announced system.
Travis, the family’s “middlest” brother, will run the game, or act as “Game Master” (“GM”), for the game in DC after spending much of the podcast’s 120 episodes playing characters like the heroic, axe-wielding bane of trees and robots Magnus Burnsides and the magical, mysterious Aubrey Little. For those who’ve never been to a live podcast taping, especially one that involves the hosts playing games onstage for hours, Travis McElroy wants people to think of it as a show just like any other.
“I think it’s the same as any performer; whether you’re talking about improv or musicals or stand-up comedy or any kind of theater,” McElroy explains. “A good performer feeds off the audience and then returns that energy back. We’re not just playing DnD and people are watching. We are putting on a show in which we use role playing games as a springboard, as a prompt.”
“The Adventure Zone” is just one example of how this gaming genre has penetrated the core of mainstream culture after decades spent on the periphery, and in cool basements. Picture the opening scene of Stranger Things. The mechanisms of the game are simple, but vast and expansive, as people use numbers to define their character’s strengths and weaknesses and then interact with their fellow players to create a story based on those character’s actions.
“One of the nice things about it is, because we work together and because it’s the four of us, not one of us ever has to carry all the load,” McElroy says.
McElroy credits revisions in the rules as allowing things like his show, as well as HarmonQuest, Critical Role and countless other shows and podcasts to thrive in this media environment.
“The mechanics themselves really started focusing on a story,” McElroy says. “That led to this huge upswing in actual play podcasts and streams and led to a lot of interest in it. I think a lot of actual play shows started showcasing to listeners that you can play this for fun and it isn’t all just math and mathematics and pens on paper.”
The way that translates onstage can be difficult at times. As GM, McElroy has to lead his family through the story he’s crafted to last the duration of the live show, including setting up puzzles, fights, interactions with other characters that he does the voices for and narrate all the settings, people and items the characters and the audience encounter. It can be a lot to juggle.
“It’s finding the balance of – this will take two and a half hours – so you don’t want it to be like ‘They’ve solved everything in 45 minutes,’ and you don’t want it to be ‘Whelp, it’s four hours and they’re still not done yet,’” McElroy explains. “Another part of it is will this be interesting? Will there be enough action and story and character that people will like sitting in the audience and watching it? There are some one-off games that we’ve looked at where like ‘This is hilarious, this is such a funny premise, but will it actually contain enough story? Will it actually be enough that someone will be glad they bought a ticket to it?’”
Part of the joy of listening to and watching “The Adventure Zone” is the dynamics between the three McElroy brothers and their father. When the players are facing down impossible odds, fighting some wicked beast of untold power, the whole thing can derail into a session of family-dinner-table ribbing and familial mockery at the drop of a hat.
There’s a strong pull in that, a common bond of experience that can cut through to someone who might not grasp all the rules, numbers and words flying across stage. It also helps the McElroys keep on track, strangely enough.
“One of the nice things about it is, because we work together and because it’s the four of us, not one of us ever has to carry all the load,” McElroy says. “So that’s one of the things I like playing with my family: You’re never up there alone. Whether it’s in recording or in a live show, if you find yourself without the answer you have three other improvers who are going to help you figure out the answer.”
For those still unsure about seeing a RPG actual play podcast taped live in front of them, think of it like this: going to see the performance is kind of like going to see a comedy improv show, just with more hijinks and hilarity caused by dice rolling and monsters as prompts. Plus, the McElroys’ incredibly inclusive, welcoming familial spirit will make you feel right at home, even as they’re dodging aliens, werewolves, falling rocks or whatever else their brother throws at them. That’s what being in a family is all about.
For more information on “The Adventure Zone” podcast and other podcasts the McElroys host, visit TheMcElroy.Family. For information on The Adventure Zone graphic novels, visit MacMillan Books. For tickets to the Become the Monster Tour, visit here.
DAR Constitution Hall: 1776 D St. NW, DC: 202-628-4780; www.dar.org/constitution-hall