TAZ Graduation: Honour Roll or Drop out?

The Adventure Zone is an actual play podcast in its third main story arc or season, which is called Graduation. The podcast was created and is hosted by the McElroy family, consisting of brothers Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy of My Brother, My Brother and Me fame and their father, former radio host Clint McElroy. Previous seasons, Balance and Amnesty, have respectively been campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons and Monster of the Week. This season is Travis McElroy’s first full arc as DM, with Griffin having helmed the other two seasons. 

The setting of Graduation is a school for Heroes and Villains and their respective sidekicks and hench-people. However, these heroes and villains are not the classic heroes and villains divided and distinguished by morality, but are shown to be more heroes or mercenaries for hire, with morals being incidental to how their abilities can be presented. Within the school, there are multiple mysteries happening concurrently—imagine if all the Harry Potter books were compressed and happening at the same time period—with secret societies, mysterious powers, and a situation where not everyone is who they say they are. 

One of the aspects where Graduation feels most alive in is its worldbuilding. The world’s history is fascinating and complex. The world feels vast and full. There are events in Nua’s history that either the players are not aware of yet or if they are, they only know one side of the story. These events can be on an interpersonal scale or on a much bigger level than the characters are currently on. 

The NPCs feel real, which is not often seen in typical D&D campaigns, as things can feel more like a video game where the NPCs stick to a specific script. They have their own motivations and will not simply wait for players to interact with them. Instead, if they are left alone they will make their own decisions that affect the story. The only notable examples of this in previous campaigns are Pidgeon, Barclay, and Agent Stern in Amnesty, and in Travis’ experimental arch, Dust. 

For the most part, the player characters are not joke-characters either, and are a lot more fleshed out, but not as much as in Amnesty. We are uncovering the mysterious and multifaceted past of Griffin’s Sir Fitzroy Maplecourt at the same time that we are seeing Clint’s charming yet surprisingly innocent rogue Argonaut Keene slowly learn more about the world while being continually optimistic.

On the other hand, The Adventure Zone: Graduation’s pacing is appalling. Things seem to be happening slowly, yet we are somehow already near the end of semester 2? It feels like certain events will be played out in real-time and at a normal pace, but Travis will then ignore an interesting plot thread in favour of fun. This means that we don’t get to even hear of the central mystery and its stakes until episode 10, and in the meantime they are simply setting up mysteries for a secondary story arc.

This touches on another thing: at times TAZ Graduation can feel like a giant overcorrection for the ending of Dust. Occasionally, at least in the earlier sessions, Travis removes player agency so that players only look at certain things or seemingly get distracted by general school life over genuinely terrifying situations.

An issue that some of the players themselves have brought up is that there are not enough dice rolls in the campaign. Justin at one point commented that his dice had stuck to his desk from the thick layer of dust on them. While The Adventure Zone has always preferred telling a good story over gameplay rules, it has never gotten as bad as Graduation. A few episodes have gone without a single dice roll. I personally won’t mind this if the story arc was being given a lot more attention than it has been. 

However, there is no point looking at The Adventure Zone Graduation without looking at the intertextuality. It is part of a series, and thus we must ask how it holds up to previous entries. 

Before we discuss the previous full seasons, let’s see how Graduation holds up to Travis’ other (experimental) arch: Dust. It should be noted that Dust had to stand on its own, so it had to have a cohesive narrative. The most prominent thing about Dust was that it had a good mystery with multiple options for the perpetrator and it had a countdown. Everyone was suspicious and, like the players, it helped if the listeners took notes. Travis made it so that even when the players were not investigating the right thread the story was still incredibly engaging with payoffs. The stakes were established in the first episode – they must solve the mystery in one night or an innocent man dies and a town goes to war. This was also a very good use of a countdown, as it kept Travis and the players on track. That said, while countdowns can work for full story arcs, it is important for the GM to remember that they can’t overwhelm the players and make them feel like they are all working towards a goal. In later episodes of Graduation, a countdown of sorts has been established, giving the story more of a definite direction.

As mentioned above, one issue I have with Graduation is that it feels like Travis is overcompensating for the end of Dust. While it wasn’t bad, as there was an interesting sequence at the end, it did feel very sudden and how they got there seemed like a deus ex machina. Even then, getting that information had consequences and there was player agency involved in obtaining it. While Travis has gotten better at bringing up plot threads that need following up, in Graduation, he has removed the player agency that would encourage players to investigate or not investigate those plot threads. 

Next, we get to comparing Graduation to the McElroys’ other sojourn into D&D, the narrative darling that everyone and their mother seems to adore: Balance. The one thing that Graduation does have over Balance is the player engagement with plot, at least at the start. The players seem interested in the ominous occurrences at the school, while in Balance, they only started taking it seriously when they met The Director. 

A criticism that has been leveled at Travis often is that he seems unsure as to how to balance the RPG elements of plot, and gameplay. People forget that Griffin had nearly 18 to 27 episodes before he understood that balance. Additionally, the parts of Balance which are held in absolute reverence by the majority didn’t start happening until around episode 59-60. People tend to hold moments later in the campaign on a pedestal while ignoring the issues at the start, such as the lack of plot being taken seriously in any manner for the first ten episodes and no foreshadowing until nearly 30 episodes in. If we are counting Dust, Travis is currently at his 19th episode of being GM, and we are starting to see him understand the balance and show his style of gameplay. This rather interestingly coincides with people actually beginning to praise the episodes. 

[OK everything from here is spoilers! Scroll down past the voidfish if you don’t want spoilers for The Adventure Zone: Graduation]

No imps here? 

Good let’s continue into The Spoiler Zone.

Since episode eleven of the show, it looks as though some of the issues that I’ve derailed above are being fixed. Since the characters have been focusing primarily on Higglemas Wiggenstaff’s mystery with The Firbolg, Leon, and Higglemas’ brother, it finally feels as if the stakes have been raised. Not only do the protagonists have to contend the fact that Hieronymus is slowly turning into a collie, but now they have to ask themselves: who is the fake headmaster? That character is very much a threat to our protagonists. 

The side story of Fitz and his powers has been interesting. It even made sense for it to start taking just as much precedent in the story. We know that his magic is similar to that of the Godscar Chasm, which appears to be tied to Higglemas, and that Fitzroy made a deal with the god of Chaos. These events are tied into each other but we, the audience, don’t know how they are connected, which intrigues us enough to keep us hooked. There is a chance that fixing the situation with Higglemas may have consequences for Fitzroy. Also, the fact there are forces on the show, namely fake Hieronymus, attempting to push Fitzroy towards villainy is somewhat worrying. 

So now there are stakes. The plot finally seems to be going somewhere. Events that initially seemed arbitrary are all tied together. With these newly raised stakes, along with many interconnected plot threads, the pacing has also begun to even out. Digressions to other locations and threads of the investigation no longer seem as random and out of place. While this is not to say the show still couldn’t vastly improve on this, it has taken steps in the right direction.

Voidfish Art by Literallyjustanerd. Find more of their art on Istagram at @Seriouslyjustanerd

To conclude… I like Graduation, it’s something new. While it initially lacked the stability of the second half of Balance and Amnesty, I believe that Travis is finally understanding how to maintain that stability, and in the process is gaining his own DM style. I do think there are some major pacing issues, particularly in the first ten episodes, as the mystery was introduced really too late in the story. However, now that the mysteries have been established, they have been so engaging that I spent most of the last episode at the edge of my seat.  I enjoy the characters, and even some of the NPCs appeal to me – specifically Rainier and Leon. Let’s hope now that Graduation is getting into its groove it can keep its grades up and graduate with honours into The Adventure Zone pantheon. 

The Voidfish Art was made by Literallyjustanerd. Find more of their art on Istagram at @Seriouslyjustanerd