Oral storytelling has existed for as long as humans have been able to use language.
Every story told has a foundation that was built on stories told before it, starting at the beginning, in the tellings of ancient myths. The mythic structures utilized by storytellers have become the veins that run through and power all other stories.
One popular mythic structure is the hero’s journey. There is something special about being able to sit back and listen to a masterfully woven tale full of heroes and their adventures. As technology continues to evolve, there has been a return to oral storytelling, but in a new genre: Podcasts.
I was first introduced to the McElroy brothers in the summer of 2019. I was going to be playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time ever, and my partner thought The Adventure Zone: Balance, a podcast run by three brothers wherein they run a comedy style DnD campaign with their dad, would be a perfect segue into the world of table-top roleplaying games.
The McElroy family immediately captured me. The brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin, and their father Clint, were hilarious and heartwarmingly charming. More than just a play-by-play tutorial on how to, as the brother’s call it, “Dungeon and Dragon”, it was something new.
The podcast, while focusing on the comedy already ensuing from typical DnD roleplaying, also employs an episodic narrative that blends high-fantasy storytelling with RPG gameplay. I was previously unfamiliar with both elements.
The storytelling element was elevated, as the family played out the adventure for the listeners. This wasn’t some static thing, it wasn’t a book or a memorized tale, this was action and reaction, and it was all neatly recorded and edited into an hour-long podcast.
The brothers run many different podcasts, but this one was special. It was as if the characters of a book had come to life and were performing for me, and all I had to do was chillax and listen.
Griffin, as the Game Master, prepared for his family and listeners a deluxe experience. As Justin, Travis, and Clint played their characters, Taako the wizard, Magnus the fighter, and Merle the cleric, they began unraveling the story that Griffin had crafted. The story takes place in a world out of time, where three goofs and their pals are all that stand between the life and bonds they created in their chosen home and total evil’s annihilation of the whole universe.
Over eight ‘arcs’, the boys go on myriad adventures, full of hilarious quips and shenanigans. Taako’s my personal favorite, as a flamboyant wizard who at one point, goes on a date with Death.
The Adventure Zone’s first arc was adapted into a graphic novel, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins in 2018, and they have since released two other graphic novels that cover arcs 2 and 3, with another book covering the 4th arc on the way.
One of the most powerful things about the way in which the McElroy’s tell their story, is the fluidity and movement involved in the literal playing. As the GM, Griffin creates a base adventure, but the way the in-game story moves is wholly up to both the players and the actions they choose to make, and the chance involved in the rolling of the dice. The story makes itself as multiple different voices provide input, and the dice gods decide the character’s fates.
Another powerful attribute to this brand of storytelling is the defiance of genre. A DnD game is typically pictured as a group of friends playing around tables in basements or abandoned farmhouses, while eating salty snacks and drinking energy drinks. While DnD has always prioritized storytelling as its core element, with multiple books and videogames being created from its lore, this new adventure into a wildly broadcasted digital storytelling medium is a fantastic way to incorporate imaginative play back into creativity.
It is a reminder to all creatives to follow their gut and make weird things that push the conversation forward. What are your favorite works that defy genre? Let me know below!
Meet the blogger:
JESSICA ZICK (they/she) is a poet, essayist, and libra. They hold an AFA in creative writing from Normandale Community College, and they are currently pursuing their BFA in creative writing from Hamline University. They live in Northfield, Minnesota, the town that always smells like cereal, with their partner and two cats, Huckleberry and Valerie.