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Art Credit: Evan Palmer

With 'Amnesty,' The Adventure Zone enters a whole new world — and beyond

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Jul 17, 2019

It's the end of the world. Again.

Clint, Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy have been playing tabletop RPGs for four years now, for our listening pleasure. They began with the three-year Balance campaign, following heroes Magnus, Merle, and Taako as they save the world(s). After that sprawling, beloved epic, the McElroys decided to take it a bit easier for their next effort — in terms of quantity, not quality, and certainly not in terms of stakes.

Amnesty follows Aubrey (Travis), Duck (Justin), and Ned (Clint), who discover that monsters are real, live among them in small-town West Virginia, and need their help before the bad monsters destroy the world as they know it. In just around 30 episodes, Amnesty managed to do things even Balance didn't, to the shock and heartbreak of fans everywhere.

SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS spoke to the McElroys about Amnesty, moving on from Balance, and what comes next. (Spoiler: Griffin FINALLY gets a break.)

Spoilers for Adventure Zone Amnesty below.

Obviously, Bureau of Balance was a huge massive story and a huge undertaking for all of you, but especially for you, Griffin. Amnesty has really felt more collaborative.

Griffin: For sure. That has been the defining thing in my mind that Amnesty has brought to the table that we never really got so deep into Balance. Balance was this grand, huge, dimension-traversing fantasy epic, and Amnesty was never going to be that. Amnesty was, by design, a smaller story, but I feel like Amnesty didn't really click until we changed the way that we shaped the show. I stopped preparing a whole bunch of stuff each episode, and we all just kind of figured it out as went. Which, I know there are people who have GM-ed games before who are like, "Yeah, man. That's how it's supposed to go." But we were always afraid to do that in Balance because it was not only us playing a game — it was us trying to make a show. And a show has to have a story that people give a sh*t about and a story that is coherent in some way, and we could manage if we all were shaping it equally as went.

And it's been scary. I'm sure it's been scary for all of us. It's been scary on my end because we're going to record later today, in two and a half hours or so, and it's close to the end of the story, and I have no idea what's going to happen. Compare that to Balance, where I had been writing this 100,000-word-long document where I had a really great idea of what would hopefully happen at the end. I do not have that for Amnesty, and the story we're getting out of that is different in scale, but it's a story that I have become really happy with as we've moved on.

Travis: It was weird to transition, right? It's like if a TV show finished, and then they announced a new TV show with the exact same writer, director, and cast, only it was all different characters set in a different world with a completely different story. Where now they have to tell the story in a different way with all the same pieces.

It's like podcast American Horror Story.

Travis: Yeah. Yes. Yes, exactly. And so we went into it having, I think, just by the end of Balance, and now we know how to tell good stories, and it was like, "OK. Now let's tell another one." And so finding new characters in a new world and all that stuff, there was a lot of — it was like finding your sea legs, you know? We had to find it all over again.

Clint: And I think we leaned into the acting more, too. I think we swung the balance a little bit more towards being the characters and not necessarily being Justin, Travis, and Clint talking about the characters, talking about the action. I think we leaned into the Duck, Aubrey, and Ned a little bit more.

Talk a little about the performances, because at the start of Balance we tentatively meet these characters, and who they are becomes explained over the course of time, predominantly during the Stolen Century when they also learn their own history. With this, you've had a shorter period to create an entire lifetime and backstory for these characters. How did it feel playing that, and how did it feel as you created and got to know these characters?

Travis: It was such a different experience from Balance. It was like with Balance, we started from completely blank slates. We started with the premade character sheets that came in the starter kit, so every character decision was a brand-new thing. Whereas with Amnesty, we went into it with them a lot more fully formed in our minds, and it was more about revealing things we knew about the characters to the audience. It became a different narrative structure of character building, where it was more like, "I already know about this character, and I can't wait for you to find this thing out about them."

Justin: That may be true for Travis. He always does a lot more legwork up front than we do. I think that for me it was easier just because we were starting from an area we grew up in. Duck is based on guys that I knew growing up in high school and some people in college who didn't reach their potential and didn't do everything that they could've done. Which unfortunately I think in our region [Huntington, West Virginia] is too common. People who just decide that they're not going to have the kind of success that they might be capable of. Duck was very much patterned on that — it is already an in-place sketch that makes a lot of sense to me.

Clint: I think it was great having Justin and Travis as co-adventurers, because they are a really good balance of prep but at the same time being true to the character. I used to give acting lessons to them, and now they give acting lessons to me. I really think that the characters were so fun, and we didn't really have relationships between them. I think Duck and Ned were acquaintances before, but I think the relationships grew a little bit more organically. Also, we didn't try to mess things up as much as we did in Balance. We weren't quite as anarchic in Amnesty. I think we really tried to tell a terrific story right from the get-go, whereas with Balance we goofed off quite a bit.

Griffin: My favorite thing about Monster of the Week, and it's a staple of a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse system games, is that you all did not need to try and run things off the rails, because the game has systems to do that for you. One of the defining things about this game is that if you try something and you fail to do it, the GM is allowed to hit you as hard as possible. As hard as the danger they have described can possibly hit you. So in this game, in this story, I have tried to create dangers that are scary to people in this world, and then if you try to do something and you don't do it, the entire story can change around that. The entire story changed around some petty thing that Aubrey did in one of the break episodes. The entire story changed based on that.

Travis: Was that the melting the snow thing?

Griffin: Yeah. And that set off a chain of events that led to some pretty wild transformative stuff happening later, and that is what is exciting about the game. I'm sure D&D is like this too if you play it a certain way, which isn't how we played it, but it allows you to put not only the control into your player's hand. It allows you to just completely deconstruct the stuff that you've done so far and throw these really, really big serious curveballs at players, and that is some of my favorite story moments that we've gotten out of Amnesty. They've come out of the failures and not the successes.

Was there a conversation that you guys had like, "Look, some of these characters might actually die this time." And at that moment where Ned does die, was that an in-the-moment decision where you all trusted in each other and the story, or was there any kind of discussion beforehand that this was a possibility?

Clint: I think we tried to stay honest to the characters, and I think that we tried to stay honest to the story. It just kind of felt like the trajectory of the story was leading it in that direction. I mean, we didn't rush into it, but it also wasn't completely planned either. I think that we were totally prepared for any of the characters to die. I think that we had a much more realistic spin on things in Amnesty than we did in Balance. Duh, because that was fantasy, but I think that that was the very basis for making it what we did. We wanted it to be a little bit more grounded.

Griffin: Yeah, and I feel like another thing that Monster of the Week allows me to do is to completely excise this idea of "You fall into the pit of acid and take 30 hit points of damage, which is double your max hit points, so you die instantly." That is how D&D works but in this one it's the real world. If you get shot, you can die, and so I can spend a whole arc establishing a threat and setting up a really, really dangerous situation and then give them a chance to try and disarm it, and then if they don't, it can go as bad as I want it to go. I think that we all talked about this before we started playing Monster of the Week, and I think that there is probably a clip from one of the break episodes or The The Adventure Zone Zones where I talk about how I did go easy on them in Balance, and how in Monster of the Week and all the Apocalypse world games, things can cascade into these terrible situations that can kill you with no ish.

Justin: I think, Griffin, I would also say — not to put words in your mouth — but I think that you were able to go harder in this game, or rather you had to take it a bit easier in Balance, because a lot of it was more structured and set up, and if you knocked the wheels off too much, it may not be able to get you where you are going. Whereas with this I think it's all a lot more open-ended, and so you have the freedom to take those hard moves and trust that we're going to be able to find a satisfying way to handle them.

I would also to give you an idea of how not planned that was. I wasn't in that part specifically, so I kind of let myself go a little bit, treating myself to a little bit of a zone out, and at the end of it I was like, "Oh, what happened?" And it was just like, "Oh, Ned died." I was like, "No, but really? What's up? What's going on? What is that? What does that mean? What happened in that bit?" I was like fully zoned out. Ned died? That's wild. OK, I'll definitely listen to that. That sounds pretty good, I'm going to check it out. But that caught me completely by surprise. Completely flat-footed.

There are things that happened between the characters pre-campaign, like Ned being the one who broke into Aubrey's house. Was that at all discussed, or did that just come up narratively where it kind of made sense and you went forward from there?

Travis: When you make characters in Monster of the Week, it encourages you to have pre-existing relationships. So have they met? What is the connection? And once it was established that Ned was a thief. I thought it was really interesting to not just have it like, "They're friends from high school!" But like their relationship is he has stolen something precious and we don't know it, right? And — because this is back from when we were still doing the experimental — we didn't know that this was going to continue on, so it was just like, "This is an interesting thing that may never come to light ever." But it was just an added layer of a kind of interesting story. It's always my favorite thing in a TV show where you get to Season 3 or 4 and something big is revealed that you know they've been laying the clues for since Season 1 and it's like, "Man, I'm really glad they made it to Season 4 so we go to that point."

Clint: We did reach a point where we, after that moment like Griffin was mentioning, that we knew the situation had to be resolved between Aubrey and Ned. It was fun playing a dishonest character, an unreliable character. Those are fun to play, but we knew there had to be some kind of standoff. We also knew that we didn't want it to be all sweet and saccharine and "Oh, I forgive you." We really wanted it to be a little bit more grounded than that. Man, I keep using the word "grounded."

What did you guys like about playing these specific characters this time around?

Travis: Aubrey is a lot like me. She has ADD and she has some impulse control issues. It also ... for as long as I can remember the dream of being able to spontaneously light my hands on fire to impress people, getting to do that, it just makes me really happy.

You also specifically made the choice to make her bi, too.

Travis: Mhmmm, yes, well, she's based on Gaby Dunn, Tybee Diskin, Kate Leth, and Aubrey Plaza. So she's named after Aubrey Plaza, and she's Puerto Rican like Aubrey Plaza, but her kind of style and aesthetic and everything originally when I pictured the character was based on that. Because originally it was going to just like a — when you think of like a dude-in-a-tuxedo stage magician. Then I decided to make it a woman and base it off my friends, and she became a whole lot more interesting.

Justin: I really like with Duck trying to playing someone who would react in the most naturalistic way possible. I really wanted to do a character that would like — how realistically could I react to any given situation, devoid of heroism and when, unless it was forced into me, it's a lot more relaxing, I would say. Taako kind of got this reputation for always having these big plays and these big ideas and the big spell that would turn everything around or outsmarting the DM, but it was nice to do a character that was much more relaxed. I'm much more content to follow the story than sort of pushing it.

Yeah, there's kind of weariness to Duck like, "Well, this is happening."

Justin: I mean, I think that that's earned, right? We just did this epic, years-spanning adventure, and we did have a little bit of weariness with that. With the story always working out exactly how you think it's going to and epic challenges and massive stakes, it was nice to do something that was a little quieter, I think.

Originally Griffin didn't want someone to be a chosen one. Was that part of your idea, that "Well, I'll be the chosen one, but he doesn't want to be the chosen one?"

Justin: Yes. I think it was always a concept we did of somebody who was going to be the chosen one and then shirked it, and that worked pretty well with the story we were trying to tell. But also the game is built in a way that he is not incredibly powerful. He's tough, he's hard to kill, but it's not really a solution to every problem to just have a sword.

Griffin: Yeah, the thing that I wanted to avoid and why I didn't really, until Justin pitched me his character, want a chosen one, I did not want the entire story to be like "Duck Newton and His Pals." In the same way that show is not called "Buffy and Willow and Xander." And so I wasn't crazy about it, but the way that Justin sort of framed Duck's chosen-ness I think helped get around that.

Clint: My favorite thing about playing Ned was I got "Saturday Night Dead." I got to trot out all the old horrible movies, and I think that was as close as I was ever going to get to being on MST3K. I really tried to lean into it.

It felt very MST3K. Very Joe Bob Briggs. It was great.

Clint: Yeah. I did more research on those than I did on anything else we've ever done.

Travis: Good to know.

Because of this Monster of the Week setup and obviously coming off of this massive arc, you've had such a short time to create these characters and get very close to them and into their heads. With that, how has it been to hit those harder emotional beats, like Ned dying, Aubrey's tragic backstory, Duck losing Minerva, things like that?

Travis: I will say for Aubrey it's been a lot more acting than I was expecting. Whereas playing Magnus, even in the emotional ones was, I was just pretending. When you're like the high fantasy-ness of it and it's an emotional moment as a mannequin, it's so silly that I wasn't really thinking about it, and with Aubrey, I'm trying to do the character justice.

Clint: I always wonder about those situations in any kind of story where a character is kind of painted into a corner and can't think of anything to do. And there were a few times with Ned where I think Ned had to make some tough calls and I don't think he made the right calls, and that really formed that character, and I enjoyed that quite a bit, playing a flawed character. That kind of leaned into my wheelhouse — playing a character who's screwed up anyway — but I liked Ned's flaws. I like his feelings and his inability to do the right thing until he absolutely positively had no choice but to do the right thing.

Griffin, what about you with the NPCs? You've had to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and it also seems like you've talked to yourself a lot more this time.

Griffin: Yeah, I've been talking to myself probably a bit more. Balance is very much about these three demigods who were chosen by fate to save the world and have the answers to every problem, and Amnesty is wicked not that, I feel like. They are not necessarily the three chosen ones who are going to get things done, and so there are lots of other people in the world, and some of them are going to have the advantage when our heroes don't. It's been really really hard to do those emotional beats. I feel like we had the benefit in Balance of catching our listeners off guard, where we could treat a character like a complete joke and every time they are referenced have it be in the context of joking, and then when we try to do an emotional beat with them, it is such a surprise that I feel like it lent itself to that beat landing with the listener. And we didn't really do that at all in Amnesty, because we tried to make these characters more human in a way, except the ones who are not human. So it's been tough.

We've also always known that this story was going to be half the length of Balance in terms of episode count, and we didn't have as much of a runway, and if you really think about it the characters in Balance didn't really become sticky in a way until "Pedals to the Metal" or closer to the end of it. That's about where we're at now with Amnesty and we're trying to wrap it up. So the moments that have landed, I've been over the moon about. Amnesty has turned from something that I was scared of because it was so out of our comfort zone to something that I am really proud of.

No spoilers, obviously. But how are you feeling about going into the finale? How are you feeling about the way that things are shaping up? Or have you no idea how it's going to go?

Griffin: I mean, I have some ideas. The way that this has worked for most of Amnesty, there are things that are true about this world and so I have those prepared, but I don't have a minecart that they're all going to hop into and it's going to lead them through this Disney World-style dark ride through my many challenges and puzzles. We're going to record here in two hours and I have no idea what they're going to suggest, and that's why I can't prepare the third episode of the finale, because it is impossible for me to do that until I find out what they want to do. So I lied before. I am scared again.

Does that make you super anxious? Just given how much control you've had in the past over where things were going versus now, where it's just "This could be anything."

Griffin: Yes.

Travis: I would say, though, as the player, the thing is, you sometimes see people feel like, "Wow Griffin's really leading them to this place or whatever," and it's like, Griffin doesn't know where we're going! It is a much more collaborative storytelling than I think it appears on the surface, and I think a lot of that has to do with, if I can brag for a second, we've been doing this for a while, and we're kind of good at playing off each other, and there's just a lot of trust in the thing of, if we make a hard right turn, if we make a weird decision, there's probably a good reason for it. We don't stop the flow to say, "Hold on, why did you do that?” And so it can seem like we are being led, but I think a lot of it seems that way because we're all kind of walking together at the same time and it seems like one of us knows where we're going but none of us do. We're all just kind of falling forward at the same time.

Griffin: In a lot of ways, too, it's less stressful for me. It's stressful in the sense that it's the unknown. I don't know what's going to happen, but now, more so than we ever did in Balance, I can bring a little bit of stuff to the recording, and the weight of telling this story has been pulled off of my shoulders because now it's all of us. And like Travis said, having the trust that we're all going to be able to get the story told makes it easier in a lot of ways.

Do you guys have kind of an idea for what comes next after this campaign?

All: Yeah! No. Yeah.

Travis: Yeah. I've been working on an idea for the next arc that I'm really excited about and I'm excited to start playing. I'm sad to leave Amnesty behind, but I'm very excited to get into the next thing just because it's a different kind of thing and just an idea that I really like.

Are you going to DM this one?

Travis: Yes.

Is that exciting for you, Griffin, to get a break?

Griffin: Oh, I am so f***ing relieved. At the end of Balance I was really nervous because I had to learn so much stuff doing Balance that helped me try and make the show what it was that the idea of all of us starting over and if somebody else DMed, picking up all that institutional knowledge again would be such a pain in the ass, and so with Amnesty we didn't necessarily have to deal with that, because I could just kind of hop back in. Now after DMing for, what? Five years now? I am so f***ing ready.

Will you still make the music for the show?

Griffin: Probably. The way that I make music for the show has changed in a lot in ways that have made it easier for me in a lot of ways, but we're going to change genres and so I'm going to have to f***ing figure out what that is all over again.

Travis: Yeah, so either Griffin will do the music or I'm going to see if John Williams is available.

I'm sure he can help.

Travis: I'm not holding out hope, but yeah. If he's free I'll probably get him.

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