The following contains spoilers for The Adventure Zone.
Following a wildly successful three-year game of Dungeons & Dragons, the McElroy brothers are ready for a change—several changes, actually.
For the uninitiated, The Adventure Zone is a game-play podcast where the McElroy sons—oldest brother Justin, middlest brother Travis and sweet baby brother (and 30 Under 30 media luminary) Griffin, who all became podcast royalty thanks to My Brother, My Brother and Me—play D&D with their dad, Clint. What began as a one-off episode of MBMBAM, to air while Justin was on paternity leave following the birth of his and his wife Sydnee’s first daughter, shot into the genre-fandom stratosphere—inspiring fan art, videos and cosplay.
While the popularity was similar in terms of downloads (several hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode), the level of fandom they found with The Adventure Zone was unlike anything they’d experienced with MBMBAM, not to mention their other Maximum Fun shows like Wonderful!, featuring Griffin and his wife Rachel; Sawbones, featuring Justin and Sydnee; or Travis’s multiple podcasts, including Shmanners with his wife Teresa, and Trends Like These featuring Brent Black and, in the interest of disclosure, me (I first met Travis doing this interview). While each of their many, many podcasts and projects have a significant fandom, as Griffin explains, “The Adventure Zone is a different beast.” He would know better than most, having served as Dungeon Master of the show’s first arc, known as Balance.
As Justin summed it up, “MBMBAM has an audience. TAZ has a following.”
Since that arc’s end, the McElroy men have tested the waters of non-D&D games, such as the Fate system and Monster of the Week, with shorter campaigns that give each a turn running the game, currently with the Travis-helmed arc called “Dust.” Through these experimental arcs, they’ve been transformed into superheroes, gone to the Old West, and met Bigfoot (he’s a really nice guy), as they’ve sought out the next big arc to follow in the footsteps of Balance.
And those footsteps bring with them big, beloved shoes to fill. Within weeks of its debut, fans quickly started to create and share art and fiction inspired by the podcast’s original characters—Justin’s Taako, a wizard; Travis’s Magnus, a fighter; and Clint’s Merle, a dwarf cleric, as well as the non-playing characters Griffin created, as they work to collect seven artifacts that have a deeper meaning far more personal to the characters than they realize. The show became so popular that Clint left his 40-year career as a radio host in their native Huntington, West Virginia, to be able to travel with his boys for live shows.
“The first time we did a live Adventure Zone, we stepped out on that stage and people went berserk,” the McElroy patriarch said. “That was the first time I thought, 'Yeah, I could do this for a living.'”
But it’s more than just adulation that makes his new career so worthwhile. Clint relishes in making people’s lives a bit happier.
“I get a letter from somebody talking about how The Adventure Zone helped her when her husband was fighting cancer, or who says, ‘I had put down the pen and you inspired me to write again,’” Clint said. “If you can have a positive impact on somebody’s life just even in a small way to brighten their day—that’s the gig, man. If you can take somebody’s darkness away even just for the length of a podcast, that’s a blessing to be able to do that.”
With that level of impassioned fan devotion, the family got a lesson in representation and visual interpretation of the characters, as well as fan “headcanons” about the characters’ goings-on beyond the show—such as fan art portrayals of Taako as Latinx, or that same canonically gay character’s relationship with Kravitz, a sort of grim reaper.
“When we created the show, I mean, we did not put a lot of thought into pretty much any aspect of it. We just kind of did it because it seemed fun,” Justin explained. “As the show’s following grew and people very much cared about that story and these characters, that kind of snuck up on us, and we would inadvertently wander into discussions or debates about those characters that were happening online and that we were not privy to.”
Griffin, as the DM and developer of the whole arc, felt the weight of letting down his fans. “We should have been at least aware that they were happening.”
Understanding and calling out their own privilege as three straight, white, cisgender men has been a big part of the McElroys’ ability to receive criticism from fans.
“The criticism we receive is usually constructive,” Griffin explained. “It's a perfect example of the tone of what we get, of people saying, ‘We really love your stuff and this is disappointing, and here’s why.’”
One of those discussions centered around the ending of one early piece of the arc, a series of episodes titled “Petals to the Metal.”
“That was one of our big sort of stepping-in-its, trope-wise,” Griffin said. “It ended with this ‘bury your gays’ trope where there's a—spoiler alert—lesbian couple who have this tragic death at the end, which I didn't know was a thing. And I went from literally not knowing about this trope, because I'm a straight dude and I have no shortage of characters or stories directed towards me, to, ‘Okay, well, I'll never do it again. Good point.’”
The McElroys do note that this specific criticism, which they view as entirely valid, did bring up a narrative issue, which is to say that the characters weren’t actually gone for good. They return to save Merle’s daughter in the show’s three-part finale.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘Oh, Griffin fixed the problem.’ But that was always in the cards,” Griffin said. “I never explicitly refer to them as dead.”
“Yeah, but you can't say ‘I never said they were dead’ because then it's like ‘I'm bringing them back to life,’” Justin said, pointing out one reason it was difficult to navigate this particular issue. The other reason, for Griffin: “It also seems like you're trying to skirt your way out of this very legitimate criticism that people have.”
Out of that criticism came a desire to provide representation as best as they can—after all, they are still at the end of the day four white, straight, cis men playing a game—through their characters. Their female character voices are respectful and subtle, more Kids in the Hall than SNL, and notably absent of attempts at accents beyond the kind familiar to their Appalachian upbringing, including Nadiya, a Bangladeshi-British woman (in honor of Great British Bake-Off winner, Nadiya Hussain) and Aubrey, an openly queer woman, both played by Travis, and non-playing fan favorite Lup, a trans woman and Taako’s twin sister, played by Griffin.
"Honestly, when Griffin introduced Lup and mentioned she was trans, I started crying. It was the first time I’d seen someone like myself in a piece of media that wasn’t sexualized or harmful in some way," TAZ fan Alex Stanton told me in a Twitter DM last year. "It’s really refreshing to consume media and not have to sit wondering if the people you’re listening to can be trusted to be good people. Every time they have slipped up somehow in the past, no matter how unintentionally, they always go out of their way to apologize and correct, and that really means a lot."
These efforts have been a source of comfort for fans, especially as more and more men online are outed as problematic. But the brothers—along with many of their fans—are quick to push away praise for relative wokeness or a blanket of white saviordom.
“To be 100-percent frank, I’m uncomfortable with any sort of framing of us as ‘the good ones,’” Griffin said. “We still fuck stuff up all the time because we are fighting against a lot of programming. And our efforts to combat that, we take very seriously but they are still very recent. I get uncomfortable when people are like, ‘The McElroys are doing it right.’”
“It should just say ‘the McElroys are doing their best,’” Travis added.
The Adventure Zone's experimental arc cover art was created by Evan Palmer and is used with permission.