October 11, 2019 | Arts and Culture
adventure of a lifetime
dungeons & dragons & podcasts & lost youth
“It’s not all abraca-fuck-you and what have you. I have a beating heart! I’m multidimensional! I’m a fully-realized creation! FUCK!”
My friends and I first played Dungeons & Dragons right after high school graduation. For those of you who haven’t seen Stranger Things, and even some of you who have, allow me to explain the premise: The essential action of D&D lies in creating characters with various strengths and weaknesses and assigning those strengths and weaknesses to dice rolls, determining whether the character succeeds or fails at the task they’re attempting. These tasks are part of a greater narrative created by the Dungeon Master, the one in charge of all non-player characters and settings. My best friend Becca dredged up her dad’s old rulebooks and begged me and a couple other friends to try out the classic role-playing game. We were hooked right away. It didn’t even matter that the gang never got beyond three sessions in a given adventure: We were a bunch of theater kids hanging out during the summer when we couldn’t get roles. It was a joy just to act and to still have an excuse to get together after high school. Even during freshman year, at every chance, we’d get whoever we could on Skype and roll some dice together. It became our main method of staying in contact.
“Magnus rushes in.”
There’s a podcast called The Adventure Zone. Jonah, another of my high school friends, had been raving about it the whole summer between our freshman and sophomore years. According to Jonah, the podcast basically involves three idiot brothers and their idiot father playing D&D together, with one of them playing a wizard named Taako whose goal in life is to invent the taco. Soon enough, I was lying on my bed in Caswell Hall, sobbing as Magnus (the fighter physically incapable of thinking ahead), Merle (the cleric with a Kenny Chesney ass tattoo), and, of course, Taako faced off against a threat to reality itself. Once again, I was hooked.
In episode eight, the three players, known as the “Tres Horny Boys,” must participate in a complex trial to prove their worth to join a shadowy organization. Taako is fighting three ogres, Merle is sending him potions via cannon, and Magnus is stopping an army of robots from pressing a button that’ll kill everyone. Magnus can see that he’s outnumbered. Rather than put his full strength into fighting each robot, he decides to neutralize them as quickly as he can by pulling off their arms. Though the group laughs at his grotesque plan of action, the Dungeon Master agrees with Magnus that it’s the best course of action; he has him roll a die to determine his success in mutilating this poor android. He has to roll higher than six to do it, and he rolls a seven. To capture this hair’s breadth success, the DM announces: “You very, very slowly tear his arms off.” It’s as hilarious as it is agonizing to the robot. Twenty-nine episodes later, the THB face off against three deadly robot enemies. Magnus grins. He goes for the arms. The Adventure Zone excels in the art of the comedic callback. I don’t want to spoil any more, though, because these payoffs are what make the story so beautiful. It’s one big joke, and you’re in on it. But the fun of The Adventure Zone isn’t just in the comedy; the action and the drama are equally important. In fact, this balance holds the entire show together. A joke is never at the expense of the story—it only enriches it. Even when the adventurers decide that they want to assign a silly trait to a non-player character, it’s often given a deeply moving backstory later. The little things the players do to amuse themselves are never dismissed or forgotten; the things that make them happy make them who they are.
“Taako’s good out here.”
Like all things, good or otherwise, The Adventure Zone ends. The finale had actually come out right when I started working my way through the archive. I called Jonah, and we sobbed for a little bit. I called Becca and told her to start listening. I called Becca and Jonah at the same time and demanded we play D&D again soon. I called someone I knew who was into the show, and we talked about it for so long that we ended up dating. I was sad to lose the stream of new adventures, but the note they ended on was so perfect I wouldn’t dare ask for more. I was, above all else, happy.
“Is it over, sirs? Did we win?”
When The Adventure Zone ended, the creators were faced with a choice. Sequel rot was a threat, but they had a good thing going and didn’t want to cut it short. So they compromised: the story was over, but the first season would no longer comprise the whole of The Adventure Zone. They rebranded it The Adventure Zone: Balance, and the title of The Adventure Zone became a catchall for multiple seasons of different role-playing games with all-new narratives. The second season, The Adventure Zone: Amnesty, had its finale on September 23, 2019.
I didn’t listen.
“But that is the limit of my knowledge. You’re all caught up now. Whatever happens next, well… we’ll just have to find out together.”
I have a few complaints about Amnesty. For one, the characters were never really fleshed out, which I chalk up to a system much more open to character death than D&D ever was; it wasn’t built into the rules that we’d get attached to them. Moreover, in Balance, there was a set number of magical items to be collected, a set final boss to be fought, a set intention for just about every action. The arcs of Amnesty usually hinged around the central conceit of “stop the monster and save everyone”; a worthy conceit, but after a few monster hunts, you wonder where it’s all going.
But when I step back, I have to ask myself, was it really Amnesty’s fault I wasn’t interested?
“Sometimes there aren’t good decisions. Sometimes there’s just decisions.”
Since Balance ended in 2017, my D&D group of high school friends has stopped talking. Jonah’s always busy, and Becca spends most of her time with her girlfriend. I’m no longer in a relationship with the person I met through the show. What do I have to show for the intervening years besides a couple of other podcasts I’ve come to enjoy?
Maybe I need to listen to Balance again and recapture the magic. Maybe I need to try listening to Amnesty and accept the future. Maybe I need to write to make sense of my feelings. Maybe I need to leave podcasts behind entirely. Maybe I need to let go of the past. I think the DM put it best when he said:
“When someone leaves your life, those exits are not made equal. Some are beautiful and poetic and satisfying. Others are abrupt and unfair. But most are just unremarkable, unintentional, and clumsy.”