You’re Going To Be Amazing: The Adventure Zone and Crowd-sourced Representation
The following contains spoilers for the plot of the Balance Arc of The Adventure Zone.
Last week, I spent my Thursday night pacing around my apartment listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts, The Adventure Zone. After three years and 69 episodes, the D&D comedy podcast had finally reached the epic conclusion to the story the show’s creators had set out to tell together, and at over two and a half hours long, it did not disappoint. I can’t remember the last time I spent an evening bouncing so rapidly between scream-cheering and jumping up and down in my apartment to lying on the floor sobbing because of an emotional overload. I took to the internet and saw thousands of similar reactions from others who had spent their evening listening to the finale, all of us emotionally drained and absolutely joyous, because the story, despite all of its tense highs and harrowing lows, had concluded with one of the happiest endings I’ve experienced from a work of fiction in years.
Modern media and the internet have created new opportunities and methods of storytelling, and nowhere is this more clear than in the world of podcasting and audio. Calling back to the radio dramas of the mid-twentieth century, the podcast does what radio has done before it, but on a grander, global scale. What was once local is now available across nations and countries, and the shows being produced can do everything from inform people of world news issues to entertain them with an intense mystery story. The possibilities are endless, and nowhere is that more evident than in The Adventure Zone.
At first, I found The Adventure Zone funny and nostalgic. I’ve played a lot of D&D over the years, and the hijinks of human fighter Magnus, dwarven cleric Merle, and elven wizard Taako warmed my heart, reminding me of the stories my friends and I had told together through our own die rolls and character shenanigans. It didn’t take long for me to become invested, however, because the story, referred to by Griffin as The Balance Arc, delves deep into questions of mortality, human nature, and hope. I didn’t expect to become this invested in this story. I didn’t expect to shed tears over it. I certainly didn’t expect it to become my favorite piece of media.
Most of all, I didn’t expect to see such positive queer representation coming from a podcast created by four cisgender heterosexual white men.
Not long after I first started listening to the archive to catch up with the show, a post began circulating around Tumblr with a request voiced by Travis McElroy during an episode of another podcast, Interrobang, on April 6th. He and the rest of his family were looking to make an important but risky choice for the upcoming arc of the Adventure Zone: Introducing a major NPC who was transgender. He requested that transgender fans email him to share their thoughts on how they could best introduce a trans character in an upcoming Adventure Zone arc.
I have a lot of thoughts about representation, as anyone who has read my work here at NYMG might know, and one of my biggest issues with queer representation in modern media is that feeling of it being utterly half-assed and something done with no consultation of actual queer people. A lot of the biggest pitfalls of this kind of representation, particularly trans representation, could be so easily avoided, and it’s that carelessness that has made me so vocal about getting representation done right, not representation done as lip-service or to put a check in the representation box.
My boyfriend wrote Travis McElroy a long email after he saw this post, sharing his thoughts as a trans man who feels much the same about representation as I do. We shared the post widely across our social media and encouraged our friends to do the same, and for a change, we had some hope about a work of fiction and how it would handle representation of people like us. We already felt good about The Adventure Zone as a whole, which had previously gone out of its way to include queer characters as NPCs and even had Justin’s male character, Taako, going on a date with Kravitz, a male NPC. So we spread the word, shared our thoughts, and waited to see if anything would come of it, cautious.
The initial expectation from the fanbase was that this trans character would pop up in a side campaign or the story that would follow the Balance Arc, especially since by April, the Adventure Zone was rapidly approaching the sub-arc that would lead directly to the story’s finale. What we got was an announcement from Griffin McElroy that one of the characters he was about to introduce, Taako’s once forgotten twin sister, Lup, was a trans woman. Not a minor NPC by any means, Lup was one of the four major NPCs essential to the story, and had played a role in The Adventure Zone’s plot since the very first story arc.
Explicitly stated representation is difficult to come by in modern media, and a lot of queer representation is complicated by the fact that content creators are not willing to come out and confirm the gender identity or sexuality of their characters. Worse still, the representation they make use of is mediocre, half-assed, or just plain offensive. Queer fans and advocates go out of their way to try to mitigate this, trying to share our views and have our voices be heard by content creators, both mainstream and niche, so we can see accurate and well-crafted examples in fiction of characters who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual. Unfortunately, it’s rare that anyone actually pays attention.
My reasons for appreciating the Adventure Zone as a story extend beyond the representation. At its core, it’s really just three dudes having fun playing D&D with their dad. It’s also a positive story about found family and finding strength in unexpected places, it’s an epic adventure where the good guys sacrifice and struggle but pull through in the end, where the ultimate message is that whatever we’re facing, we can win against the darkness. But what really made me fall in love with it was the characters, all of whom were genuine, diverse, and crafted with awareness and compassion.
I want more queer content. I want more voices of color and stories from marginalized peoples and identities. And I want the dominant voices, those of cis white straight men, to use their powers for good and tell stories about people who aren’t like them, encourage the voices of those without that kind of privilege. I want them to normalize men going on dates with other men and trans women falling in love and the use of singular they as a pronoun.
The Adventure Zone has all of those things, and because of that, it means everything to me, and countless other fans of the podcast. It means everything to me because it reminds me that the more people there are loudly and proudly including this kind of representation in their stories, the more these kinds of stories can thrive. More people are using their platforms of privilege for good, to raise up the voices of queer and trans folks instead of ignore or harm them. The Adventure Zone is the opposite of Mass Effect: Andromeda in that the representation isn’t half-assed or poorly executed. The McElroys have told a dynamic and creative story with well-written characters who come from marginalized queer identities, and have actively communicated with their fanbase and used their popularity as a platform to help the people they make the effort to represent. Griffin joined the rest of Bandcamp in donating 100 percent of the money spent on the music he’s written for The Adventure Zone to the Trans Law Center after the President’s remarks about the ban on transgender people in the military. After the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, he’s also donating 100 percent of the money people spend purchasing the soundtrack during the month of august to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Adventure Zone has also been a reminder to me of the power of collaborative storytelling, the importance of listening to the voices of people with different experiences, and that there’s a future in feedback-based, crowd-sourced media content. The Balance Arc may be over but I’m looking forward to what the next adventure holds (and seeing The Adventure Zone live in Nashville in October). As I start my second year of my PhD, I think about how I spent the summer listening to the adventures of Magnus, Taako, and Merle, and I feel like all hope is not lost, and that the show’s messages, that we can fight and we can win, and that whatever we do, we can be amazing, will stick with me for years to come.