It might seem strange that the first blog post on this website would be about a Podcast that's 3 years old and pretty well-known in the gaming/podcasting community. It's not so weird when you consider what The Adventure Zone (better known by creators and fans alike as TAZ) has done for me personally.
TAZ was created by brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy and their father Clint McElroy in December-ish of 2014. The brothers McElroy are also pretty well-known for their podcast-and-television-show My Brother, My Brother and Me (MBMBAM), along with a slew of other podcasts on the Maximum Fun Network produced by various members of their family (as well as Justin's wife Sydnee Smirl McElroy's family). TAZ is a podcast where the three brothers play Dungeon's & Dragons with their dad.
When I told my parents I was listening to a podcast about D&D, they were amused and bewildered. You just listen to people play a game? was the most question I got most often. That's fair enough. It's a strange premise to get past. It's hard to just listen to something with focus, without doing anything else. No reading, nothing to engage you with visual stimulus. It's easy to get frustrated and fidgety.
Listening to TAZ--my first podcast that I actually stuck with past one episode--meant I had to learn how to listen properly while still keeping myself busy. I cross-stitched, drew, carved, showered, did chores, and fell asleep to TAZ. All activities I didn't have to really think about while I was doing them. I've used the same method when listening to other podcasts, and now I have a whole library full of them. They're what I turn to when I need to do something that takes a long time, but that I don't necessarily need to keep my whole mind tuned towards (mostly when I carve and delve into digital art).
I was introduced to TAZ through fanart of one of the characters on Tumblr at the same time one of my friends was trying to convince me to listen to MBMBAM. I was interested in the character designs I saw on Tumblr, but highly skeptical of a show, any show, made by three cis het white dudes and their dad. Especially when I learned that two of them were fairly big names in the gaming community. I've seen the way that community treats queer people. What the hell would be in it for me?
Things were a bit of a struggle at that time. I was living in a state 1000 miles from my family, I was stuck in a job that took all of my energy, and I was really struggling with my depression and anxiety. I needed a distraction, so TAZ it was. I would suck it up and see how this podcast could possibly hold up to my impossibly high skepticism. I began listening sometime in 2016, so I had plenty of episodes to catch up on before I had to wait the two week intervals between uploads.
The first few episodes were a bit slow and clunky; the boys and Clint had to get their bearings and figure out what they were doing, Griffin especially as the DM. But there was something special there that kept me coming back episode after episode. Not the story, not yet. Something else. There was a chemistry between the McElroy family, a camaraderie and love that's palpable the longer you listen. It felt like I was in the room with them while they argued and laughed and played; like I was sitting quietly in my chair and doing my own thing while I watched over them and enjoyed what they were creating. It was strange and wonderful. Not having that close a bond with my family, I've never known what it's like to have that sort of easy openness. But listening to this podcast? I was a part of the McElroy family, in a way I didn't know I desperately needed.
As the chapters progressed, the story unfolded into something magical--no pun intended. I won't spoil any of the chapters or major plot points, but the emphasis on family (found or blood) and friendship and caring for one another is woven throughout. And more importantly, the characters that Justin, Travis and Clint play, as well as the myriad of NPCs Griffin controls, are beautifully fleshed out and realized. Merle is trying his best and self-conscious about his own status in the group, Magnus is full of courage and hope and faith, Taako is trying to put himself back together again. There are a lot of goofs and fuck-ups and dick jokes, but at its heart, this is a story about love.
Listening to TAZ did two things for me:
The first was something I thought I'd given up on--writing. Griffin's growth and evolution as a storyteller inspired something in me. I wanted to write again, to create. But I wanted more than to just write for myself. I wanted to do something I didn't think I could do; become an actual professional writer. So I decided to apply for grad school and get my Master's in creative writing. And somehow, I was accepted. I've been producing some of the best work I've ever created in my life. I've got two pieces that have been picked up to be published (one PAID for) and a myriad of others being shopped out. All because of listening to the sprawling universe Griffin McElroy created unveil itself week after week.
The second was to make me really examine myself and my thoughts on gender. The reason for this is because of two characters in the story, Taako and a character I won't talk about because it would spoil those of you who haven't listened to the podcast yet (but for those who have, let's just say they really lit a fire in me, wink). Taako is a gay man (elf) who eschews gender norms in his mannerisms, dress, everything. He doesn't give a shit what other people think of these parts of himself, because he's much more worried they'll be thinking about other parts. His confidence and self-assurance about his sexuality and gender non-conformity really made me look at myself. I started thinking that maybe my complete dissatisfaction with myself about my own gender presentation was because I was frustrated with gender altogether. I didn't fit being a woman and I didn't want to be a man. I was something in between, or maybe nothing at all. I'm not sure, yet. I don't know if I'll ever be sure, and that's okay. I've decided on the label "non-binary" for now because it feels right. Maybe that'll change one day. I'm not worried about it anymore. I've got other things to focus on.
In one of my classes, I listed TAZ as an influential work for me. Not because I want to write high fantasy, and not because I'm interested in collaborative writing, but because of how amazing it was to watch this thing come together over two years. I re-listened to episodes to gather clues, I waited impatiently for two months to pass so I could listen to the finale altogether, I wept when the final words were spoken in "Balance". TAZ became something that introduced me to new people and groups and hobbies. It became a banner to rally around. It made me break out my tablet and draw digitally for the first time in years, made me join a weekly D&D group, made me decide on a huge path for my future. That's so astounding to me.
I know I'm not the only person who has been so affected by this piece of media. I can't guarantee that if you do listen to TAZ it'll change you as much as it changed me. I can't guarantee that the humor will hit you, that you'll love the characters, that the story will move you. All I can do is tell you to give it a chance. There are shorter one-off arcs that the brothers and Clint are experimenting with before they do another big arc like "Balance". You could give those a shot, too ("Amnesty" is amazing, just saying). All I can really do is gently offer you the opportunity to join in on something that's become something so important to me, and hope you take it.
Whatever you decide to do, hail and well met, my dudes.