TAZmaniac: Graduation, Episode 1 Recap

Hail and well met! Welcome to the first edition of TAZmaniac, a series of episode recaps for The Adventure Zone: Graduation.

If you’re new to the McElroy family of products, here’s a quick refresher: The McElroy brothers (Griffin, Travis, Justin) got into podcasting with their comedy advice show, My Brother, My Brother, and Me (MBMBaM), which they launched in 2010. Since then, they’ve become a veritable podcast dynasty, with thirteen podcasts among them and their kin, including The Adventure Zone (TAZ).

Image: Noxbatty

TAZ started as a one-off episode released in the MBMBaM feed. But thanks to the family’s storytelling chops and the fan reception, it snowballed into a 69(nice)-episode series and three graphic novel adaptations (so far). In the first campaign, Balance, Griffin, Travis, Justin, and their dad, Clint, played largely by the rules of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, with Griffin as the DM. In my humble opinion, Balance is the best McElroy creation so far and one of the best podcasts out there.

I wasn’t as wild about Amnesty, the second TAZ campaign (not counting the mini-arcs they played in between). Justin, Travis, Griffin, and Clint analyzed their own issues pretty well in the The The Adventure Zone Zone (TTAZZ) episode “Amnesty Wrap Up”, but basically, they had the second-book problem: you write a smash hit and then try, and fail, to replicate it. They tried to start Amnesty where they had ended Balance, with well-developed characters and a robust plot, forgetting that they had only gotten there through a lot of playful exploration. (To quote Justin, they were all “just kinda pulling it out of our asses when we started [Balance], and I think that that actually made for more interesting characters.”) Much of the character development and world building in Balance came from the players playing for goofs and antagonizing Griffin, but Amnesty felt more stilted. For his part, Griffin both over and under-engineered the plot. He simultaneously tried to squeeze too many big plot arcs into too few episodes and swung too hard away from railroading , which meant there weren’t enough rails to push against.

This brings us to Graduation. I was nervous at the campaign’s start — first, that they wouldn’t be able to get back to the playful exploration of Balance, and second, about Travis DMing. Running a game is no easy task, the stakes are pretty high (this is after all, their job), and, Amnesty aside, I trust Griffin. But by the time I’d finished episode one, I was feeling optimistic.

We open on what seems like a typical morning in a world filled with unicorns, fairies, and accountants. The sun comes up, and the camera zoom in on one town — Hope (or, as it’s known, Last Hope) — which sits at the edge of the Unknown Forest. Just past the town is Hieronymous Wiggenstaff’s School for Heroism and Villainy, which we pan past before resting on the annex that was built for training sidekicks and henchpeople.

This is an A+ premise so far. There are some well-worn tropes — a school for magic, a forbidden forest, sound familiar? — but I am here for it. It’s a contained world, which works well for a game like D&D, and there’s an immediate reason for our protagonists to be there together, which works well for the narrative itself.

Our three protagonists meet in their shared dorm room, and there’s immediate conflict. Sir Fitzroy Maplecourt, the half-elf barbarian, played by Griffin, balks at bunking with two other students. He’s a stuck-up failed knight-in-training whose late-blooming magic got him expelled from Clyde Nite’s Night Knight School and who reminds me of Balance’s Lord Artemis Sterling, pre-Wonderland, and he is not accustomed to such meager lodgings.

The nameless firbolg, played by Justin, announces that he will sleep on the floor and shit in the woods, which further distresses Sir Fitzroy but pleases me. Justin does really well with characters who have a tricky defining characteristic. Balance’s Taako was pompous, conflict-averse, and (initially) dumb. Amnesty’s Duck became much more compelling when he lost his powers and had to adjust to being mundane. The firbolg has limited speech and very little experience with the ways of this part of the world (see: names), and I anticipate this will provide fodder for many goofs.

Argonaut Keene, who is a half-water genasi, half-human rogue, played by Clint, tries to keep the peace between his new roommates. Argo immediately strikes me as similar to Clint’s past characters, Merle Highchurch and Ned Chicane. They’re all rather crude and seedy characters, and I’m a bit concerned that Argo won’t have as much definition as I’d like. I hope his seafaring history prompts some interesting character development.

As it’s the first episode, there’s a fair bit of world building in the form of both narration and conversations among NPCs. These conversations showcase Travis’s ability to keep character personalities and voices separate — and there are many characters to contend with, including a magical-wheelchair-using necromantic villain-in-training, a secretive groundskeeper, and a Janet-like system of gargoyles who are all named Gary.

As the protagonists explore their new home, we get a sense of the school grounds: barns, battle grounds, forest, hut, dorms, classrooms, training tavern, dining hall, etc. The boys fight a trio of magical skeletons, Sir Fitzroy tries to get his credits transferred, and we meet a few other students and see the first hints of the power differential between heroes/villains and sidekicks/henchpeople.

We also get the first hints of a lot of different potential dramas. The boys meet Groundsy the groundskeeper, who warns them to stay away from both his hut and the Unknown Forest. This is some heavy-handed foreshadowing, but luckily, this isn’t a solo-author situation. Griffin quickly points out the foreshadowing around Groundy’s hut, so I trust the boys will throw some wrenches in that particular plan, whatever it is. We also meet a lost baby Pegasus who was attacked by a mysterious shadow, learn that the firbolg is alone but not what that means, and learn that Sir Fitzroy’s powers that have ruined his life but again, don’t learn any more details.

After establishing that the Unknown Forest is the #1 danger, Travis brings the boys right up to it. (Serious Harry Potter vibes here: detention in the Forbidden Forest, anyone?) Some older students have invited them to a hazing ritual in which they have to carve their names into a tree (and succeed in a wisdom saving throw). Argo and Sir Fitzroy fail and scramble away from the forest, frightened. The firbolg succeeds and has a brief conversation with a mysterious, red-eyed being who tells him this isn’t a safe place to be. The firbolg tells the others what he saw, they don’t believe him, and then Groundsy interrupts the ritual and shoos them all back to the main building.

The first episode of Graduation ends on an ominous note: “As our trio settles into their beds, somewhere in the abyss, a monster smiles.”

For a campaign opener, there are a lot of suggestions of a lot of plot lines, both micro (will Sir Fitzroy get his credits transferred?) and macro (what’s with the monster?). I’m a bit nervous about this campaign falling into Amnesty’s too-many-plots trap, but the McElboys now have two full campaigns worth of experience, and so far, D&D is their strong suit.

(Read the recap of episode 2 here.)

My favorite goof of the episode is the fact of Clyde Nite’s Night Knights School. 10 points for wordplay-based goofs!

Editor at the Bello Collective, co-founder of Etc. Gallery (etc-gallery.com), script editor of the podcast Writ Large.