To say Dungeons & Dragons is in something of a golden age right now would probably be an understatement. Tabletop roleplaying has had an incredible resurgence in pop culture, thanks in part to its inherent timelessness and accessibility--you don't really need much more than a handbook, a sheet of paper, and a few dice to stir up a game--but also thanks to technology Streaming shows devoted entirely to the playing of D&D campaigns have entered the cultural fray just as '80s nostalgia has reached a fever pitch and the results have been explosive, to say the least.
The dominos of a cross-platform, cross-media tabletop-playing empire have been set up, so of course, it was only a matter of time before someone came along and knocked them all down.
Enter the McElroy family, brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin alongside their father Clint. Comedians, podcasters, and content creators, the McElroys have amassed a massive following for their work on shows like My Brother, My Brother, And Me, an "advice show for the modern era" and the oft-meme'd Monster Factory, a youtube series in which the character creation mechanics of various video games are pushed to their absolute limits. But mixed in with the gags and the goofs is a McElroy show that stands apart from the rest. The Adventure Zone, which started, ostensibly, as a fun way for the three brothers to play D&D with their dad has since taken on a life all its own--not only as a podcast, but as a burgeoning line of graphic novels.
Alongside artist Carey Pietsch, the McElroys have successfully taken the D&D craze to its logical, genre-bending extreme, transmuting the dice-rolling, roleplaying story found in their hours and hours of podcasting into a "kindhearted epic fantasy" that stands on its own, independent from both its tabletop and broadcast roots.
But does the charm of the actual D&D playing get lost in the translation from podcast to page? Travis McElroy doesn't think so. In fact, in a conversation with GameSpot at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, he was confident that the graphic novel adaptations were great ways to introduce yourself to the characters and the world the show exists in.
"If it's somebody who has been kind of weary of getting into the podcast, the graphic novel is the perfect way to do it," He said. Because one, you can pick it up, read two pages, set it back down, and go about your day and come back to it as opposed to--I think if you listen to three minutes of a podcast and then pause it--well."
Clint explained that, though TAZ in all its forms is exploring the same story, they still tackle them in very different ways. "We kind of view it as a different project from the podcast. The podcast is an entity, the graphic novels are a different entity and it's, the thing I tell everybody, is if you're looking for a great fun read, then it's a great fun read."
The process of converting the show wasn't always an easy one. "The podcast was kind of like the pitch meeting, the writers room round table," Travis explained, "and once we start working on it, we go through and we say, 'This moment, this line, this scene, doesn't really play without tone of voice, without inflection. Can we make it work with facial expressions? Can we make it work with pauses and timing? No? Well, is there a different form of the moment we can tell using [the art.]'"
"The process is less about cutting things and more about translation," Pietsch agreed. "All four of the McElroys are involved throughout, not just the scripting process, but also the artwork. So, at every stage, everybody sits down to review the pages. We want to make sure the characters are looking and acting like themselves. Like, what further tweaks do we need to make or what small changes to make sure that [a character like] Magnus really sounds like Magnus who is played by Travis, you know?"
This was particularly true for Murder On The Rockport Limited, which Clint described as "a very linear story. You get on a train and you go. So that freed us up to expand the two ends of it. It's like a really good cannoli, okay? You got the big globs of icing on the two ends so we expanded those to expand the universe and flesh out some of the other characters."
And while the relative ease of being able to read a graphic novel versus spending hour after hour listening to a podcast is still very much there, Pietsch and the McElroys don't recommend skipping around in the story. You certainly can start your TAZ adventure by jumping right into Volume 2--but that doesn't mean you should. "Hypothetically, it could stand on its own. I think story-wise, it is self-encapsulating; you could read it, especially if you looked up a one-paragraph synopsis of book one," Travis explained, "but I would say you would miss out on a lot of character investment."
Both volumes of The Adventure Zone graphic novel, Here Be Gerblins, and Murder On The Rockport Limited are available now, everywhere books are sold.