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Credit: Riley Silverman

Loving Lup, the unexpected heart of TAZ: Balance

Contributed by
Oct 9, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

When I first began my journey with The Adventure Zone, the comedic tabletop TPG podcast hosted by the McElroy Brothers of My Brother, My Brother, and Me fame, and their father Clint, I didn't know what I was in store for. The beginning of the first campaign, Balance, is a family stumbling through the process of learning to play D&D together, punctuated by hilarious goofs and multiple failed attempts to nail performing the voices of their characters. What I didn't expect were the deeper, emotional reaches that the Balance campaign would take over the course of its three-year, eight-arc run. And what I especially wasn't prepared for was the introduction to Lup, one of the first, and still relatively few, times that I've experienced a character in a fantasy adventure story that made me feel like I could belong in it.

Warning: the following contains major spoilers for The Adventure Zone: Balance.

Part of what makes Lup such an extraordinary character is that it seems so ludicrous that she would be notable at all. For starters, she's an NPC, which for non-gamers, means non-player character. She's one of many, many characters created and performed by Griffin McElroy as the dungeon master. While such characters can certainly have agency and depth, they do usually take a back seat or supporting role to the main characters in an adventure. Beyond that, while her existence is hinted at in some of the earlier arcs, even Griffin hadn't fully fleshed out who she was until later in the story and we don't actually meet her until the penultimate arc of the campaign, in a flashback storyline that takes place over the course of time prior to the start of the campaign.

When we do finally meet her, her presence is meant to be a bit jarring. She's the literal definition of a forgotten woman, the memories of her blocked from the minds of all who knew her, even her twin brother Taako, played in the game by Justin McElroy. Justin even admitted once during a behind the scenes conversation that he even felt a bit of resistance to the idea of Griffin taking such a liberty with his character's backstory without his knowledge, before realizing the journey he'd gone through on it was much the same as Taako's, not knowing he'd not known about her until suddenly it seemed absurd that he could ever forget her.

Yet, despite the fact that this NPC character is introduced at the zero hour and literally feels like she comes out of nowhere, Lup wastes absolutely no time making her presence on the show and in the world of it known. With even her first full episode appearance, "The Stolen Century chapter 1", she establishes exactly who she is, creates an arch-nemesis, Greg Grimaldis, out of a seemingly throwaway comment, and even performs a dab, which went on to become one of the go-to moves for fans of the show during meetup photos at cons across the world. She's definitely become my go-to character to cosplay from the show as well.

As the story continues to speed towards its conclusion, Lup becomes the undeniable heart of the group. It's Lup that pulls her own teammates back from the darkness, preventing them from violating the sovereignty of an alien world even in the face of an enemy who seems, by all accounts, unstoppable. It's Lup who feels the most broken when the team's efforts to save the world that the bulk of the story takes place on has devastating effects on it. And when Lup is finally returned to the group, it's she who takes the action of forgiving Lucretia, the woman responsible for everyone else forgetting that she existed in the first place. And when the citizens of the Forgotten Realms begin to prepare for their ultimate battle against the alien Hunger, it's Lup's rallying speech that unites them all against it on the Day of Story and Song.

All of that is amazing, and if you took Lup at her face value for just those parts of her story, it would be enough. What makes her even more remarkable beyond that, however, is that Lup is a transgender character. Assigned male at birth and transitioning young, Lup's identity matters naught to the overall story, the sort of move you can make in a fantasy setting and just move on from accepting that the magical world the characters inhabit can be better than our own.

I hadn't encountered many trans characters in genre stories prior to meeting Lup in Balance. But something even rarer to experience was the establishment of the romantic storyline that develops between Lup and Barry Bluejeans over the course of "The Stolen Century." Despite both being NPCs and characters largely absent from the narrative, the love story between them feels very genuine and very earned.

In the shadow of unimaginable horror, their love grows as a beacon of hope, something in the universe to show that there is a reason to keep fighting. And as a trans woman listening to the story in my headphones, there was something deeper and more personally touching about it. Growing up, I never saw trans women existing in epic stories of fantasy and adventure, and Lup as an extremely powerful and capable wizard certainly scratches that itch. But something I never realized I needed to see so badly, something I never knew was nagging away at me and missing from my life until it was presented so beautifully with Lup and Barry, was the depiction of a trans woman as someone to love.

It's a dark thing to admit about myself but at the time in my life when this story found me, I was having a hard time imagining that it was possible to see myself as someone worthy of love. That I even had the capacity to be loved. The sweeping, core romance at the heart of "The Stolen Century" between Lup and Barry felt so absent to me and yet so familiar when it finally appeared that I imagined this must be what it was like to be Taako when his own memories came rushing back. Here was Lup, all along, just waiting to be loved.

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