Welcome to my listen/read-through series of the first arc of The Adventure Zone! Each installment of this series I will listen to an episode of the first arc of TAZ: Balance, then the accompanying pages of the graphic novel adaptation. We’ll compare, contrast, and see what the McElroys have done to retroactively massage a fully-formed narrative into a Dungeons & Dragons starter kit.
It’s here, the beginning of the adventure. I’m thrilled to be taking on this quest with you, dear reader. Let’s get tucked in.
For those playing along at home, this will cover episode one of the podcast and pages 1 – 26 of the graphic novel. If you’d like to listen or read along, I’m including a link to the episode and a link to the fan transcript. The McElroys are working on getting TAZ transcribed officially but the fan transcript on the wiki is what we have for now. It’s also gorgeously color-coded.
Strap on your fantasy seatbelts and brace your asses for…Announcer, Here There Be Gerblins episode 1.
THE ADVENTURE ZONE.
The podcast that launched a thousand D&D campaigns starts with awkward jokes and the sound of rustling paper. These first few seconds are a painfully realistic interpretation of playing TTRPGS with strangers for the first time, even from four outspokenly close family members. They’re going to play pretend on mic and upload it for millions of potential listeners to hear, the heat is on.
It should be noted: this is probably going to be the beefiest installment of Pod to Page for a few episodes. There’s a lot to talk about here as we set the stage for what will become TAZ: Balance.
I’ll touch on this more in the essay for next week’s Pod Report Monthly newsletter (which you should subscribe to. Oh, whoops, this text is a link?) but for the sake of brevity here let’s address the roots of the show: TAZ started off as a one-off episode of My Brother, My Brother, and Me.
The McElroy crew start with humble beginnings, playing the pre-baked adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. This is akin to playing World 1-1 in Super Marios Bros, as it’s the adventure booklet that comes in the $20 D&D 5th edition starter kit. If your D&D crew used the starter kit to get familiar with the game, this episode is chock full of familiar locations and names. While this does cause some copyright headaches the graphic novel will have to overcome by re-naming anything Wizards of the Coast owns, it also adds a layer of charm.
Here There Be Gerblins is the roleplaying version of machinima: the McElroys, much like any D&D group, are taking a pre-existing thing and making a whole new piece of art from that baseline. All four of them are having fun to have fun. At the time of recording there are no allusions this will become a thing. Yes, it was probably produced with the idea they could continue to play D&D, but this is still produced in a vaccuum of not knowing where things will go.
Throughout the introduction we morsels of information about the three player characters in the rare moments they actually play the game to progress the story. Griffin is more reacting to the party uncovering events that the D&D book specifically told him to have prepared. You can hear the seeds of him learning to adjust to how buck wild the party can make things, but it’s not quite there yet. Nothing that happens in this episode is meant to be part of a larger arc, the only bespoke content are the player characters themselves.
Even Barry Bluejeans, a character famous directly out of spite for his name, is a stock character that gets a goofy name after Clint snarks off about it. I can relate, having run a Savage Worlds game set in the Cowboy Beebop universe. I had grand schemes of seeding details from the show into the world to make it feel more legit, only to find one of the people at the table who hadn’t watched CB couldn’t call the in-game currency “woolong” with a straight face. They were “credits” from that moment onward.
Are you naming your goddamn wizard “taco”?Griffin McElroy
What important things do we learn?
Merle is, well, Merle. There’s a comment about his military background that doesn’t ring true in the fog of my memory, we’ll see if that ever comes up again.
The seeds of “Magnus rushes in” are planted. He feels the most well-formed of the characters out the gate but that’s in large part due to how pre-formed of an archetype Travis went with. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. He knew what he wanted to play and played the ever-loving fuck out of that character for years on end.
Taako is, in fact, good out here from the very start. We even get to witness Justin’s short-lived snooty high elf voice devolve into the Julia Child-adjascent sass-machine we all know and love. Also Griffin is 0% prepared to do character voices.
Again, as I said in the newsletter: It’s awkward. Real awkward, but in an aggressively real way. It feels like every first D&D session I’ve ever been in (which isn’t many, but still). The players are feeling each other out, the dungeonmaster is fit to burst with details and is noticably anxious for the PCs to stop dicking around with minutia.
They won’t be grocery shopping. This is VERY important to the longevity of TAZ, I argue. The fact that they don’t have to go buy and keep track of mundanties like “I have 50 feet of plain rope in my pack” or “I have seventeen arrows” is a godsend. There are groups and specific systems that make that kind of item management fun, and more power to ‘em. You do what makes you happy, but it does not make for good audio with a party like the McElroys. In future episodes we’ll get to experience Griffin’s spin on shopping, which I love. Whenever the boys go buy something it’s treated like an event, a fun diversion that makes the lunar interlude episodes some of the most fun listening experiences. One of the things I kind of miss in Amnesty is the knowledge the PCs will get to go shopping and get cool shit on a regular basis. It makes total sense why Amnesty’s Heathcliffe system is the way it is, but I still miss Fantasy Costco.
I’m fiiine! Don’t worry about Taako!Justin McElroy
Before diving into the actual content I have to take a second to address the physical novel itself.
This book’s a hefty boy, has stunning print quality, and a bookmark built in. I know the blurb from Justin Roiland on the back with the quote “Good comic book, fantastic paper” is supposed to be a quirky Roiland-being-Roiland bit but, honestly? Good comic book, fantastic paper. Also like, holy crap, a blurb from Adam Savage on the back.
The fact that Adam Savage is aware of TAZ is delightful, given Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project was one of my first podcast listens.
Eating, avoiding work, and masturbation are the first three topics broached in the graphic novel adaptation, which is quite fitting for the characters. Let’s be honest: I know I’m destined to come across some fan-service throughout these novels that’ll trip my “too twee” meter. That said, from a comedic standpoint I love this move of switching the final joke of the podcast episode (“I got too horny from the killing, I’m masturbating!”) to be the first scenes. Also, it makes room for a “Taako’s good out here” reference right off the bat, which is best to get on paper immediately. Some fans would’ve probably rioted if they had to wait four years for the graphic novels to catch up to Crystal Kingdom.
Comics can achieve so much in relatively tiny amounts of real-estate. I’m focusing on just 11% of the novel, and in that space Gerblins has deftly established the dynamic between Taako, Merle, and Magnus. The secret sauce of Balance, in this reviewer’s opinion, was always been the interplay between the PCs. Perhaps that sounds like the podcasting equivalent of a film review saying “my favorite part of the movie was I could clearly see what was happening”, but even in later TAZ arcs where the worldbuilding and plot could be the most interesting facets the PCs shine.
On the flip side: the weakest moments of Balance came when the McElroys would press the pause button and riff. So many hours of podcast are burned on moments that could have been edited out and would’ve made the overall product more fun to listen to. I partake in a hearty laugh at Justin giving his father shit for not knowing how to play D&D on a regular basis. That said, there are only so many times one can make the “this is bad audio” joke before I start to agree and ask why it wasn’t cut. The comic saves some of the meta-humor that can be grating over hours of podcast and distills it into short, punchy punchlines that work. Having your fantasy character make references to Marvel movies is a joke that better be super good to work. Having the out-of-world DM character at the top of the panel make a Marvel reference? Funny as hell.
Speaking of humor: holy hell is the new material gold. The gang’s first encounter with gerblins is capped off with the final gerblin arriving with muttered apologies of “traffic in the brush” being horrible. The fact that the McElroys (sans Griffin) wrote the new additions is obvious in how not-obvious the jokes are. What better way to ensure new material fits in an existing framework than just have the original crew write the jokes?
All told, a rip-roaring good start to the adventure in the comic, and a muted but promising beginning to the podcast. Now that I’ve spent some time with the comic and the podcast I’m more excited to experience this illustrated version of Gerblins. After years of telling people to skip the first arc because it’s so rough around the edges, I’m excited the graphic novel is retroactively breathing life and story into the beginning of this epic story without overwriting the original thing.
Until next installment: stay zesty, my friends.
If you liked this and all the other things I write for The Pod Report, I’m putting up drafts of my thoughts on the podcast portion and notes taken during the listen-through on my Patreon. The notes for episode two go up soon!