tl;dr The party stepped up to a color-by-numbers episode with strong character development and some tearjerker world expansion by the GM
Title: “The Stolen Century – Chapter 5”
Podcast: The Adventure Zone
Gamemaster: Griffin McElroy
Party: Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Clint McElroy
Game system: Dungeon World (modified)
The Stolen Century arc of The Adventure Zone has been going on for a few months now, and it’s surprising how well it’s doing. The whole idea is a recipe for failure — a classic example of GM overstepping. The conceit is that the party doesn’t know their own back-story; they’ve been given amnesia by a former colleague for mumble mumble reasons. The entire arc is a flashback to their “real” lives, hundreds of years before the first campaign. So, instead of being a fighter, wizard and cleric in a magico-technical high fantasy milieu, they’re actually dimension-traveling adventurers who spend one year in each of a hundred planes, trying to mitigate the worst of the damage from an all-powerful enemy called The Hunger.
Amazingly, instead of having a lot of shouting or players leaving the game — what would happen at a real-life table — the whole thing is working pretty well. I think there are five reasons for this.
- The McElroy family trusts Griffin implicitly, and they have a strong belief that he’s got 100% creative control of the show.
- Griffin has earned this trust. He’s provided an incredibly creative campaign with complex NPC and a deeply intricate narrative.
- Justin and Clint are kind of casual about the game overall, and they’re mostly interested in firing off some zingers when they get a chance.
- They have great zingers, and Griffin weaves them really well into the world, so that they become more than just masturbation jokes or surrealist silliness.
- Travis McElroy, the middlest brother, takes his work as a player seriously, and brings emotional depth to the story by staying true to his character.
I think the Travis-Griffin relationship is potentially the most endangered by this Stolen Century gambit. Travis has asked several times on mic what the story means for his character and who he is. Griffin has done a good job assuaging his concerns, but I think the moment of truth is going to come in the next few episodes as the Stolen Century timeline catches up with the beginning of the campaign. Can Griffin mesh the two together in a way that gives the players (well, the players who care, at least) a sense of control and autonomy, while still providing a satisfying narrative for the listeners? I’m cheering for him. It’s going to be hard.
But back to chapter 5. The Stolen Century arc uses a new game system, Dungeon World. Griffin has modified DW’s D&D-like stats (strength, wisdom, charisma, etc.) to have only three stats: body, mind, and heart. It’s a really good idea for a simplified game, and it sounds like the kind of game system that I’d actually like to play with. It’s nice to see TAZ, which has been true-blue D&D 5e since day one, experiment with other game systems. Griffin explicitly calls out Friends at the Table’s use of different game systems when introducing Stolen Century.
I think the problem with it, in this case, is having two casuals playing puts the onus on Griffin to teach them the game (again), while walking them through a pretty complex new world. Along with the fact that they have to meet up at the end with the beginning of the first arc, it somewhat puts the entire arc on rails. Griffin has picked a clever conceit: the three players plus four NPC allies visit each plane for a single year. Each plane is different, with different challenges. The party can either succeed by finding a MacGuffin (“The Light of Creation”) and saving the plane from the world-destroying Hunger, or they can fail. Or, if there’s no one intelligent on the plane, they can just kick it on the beach for a year.
In this chapter, the party has landed on a plane that focuses on creation of artistic works. They have an annual event where they present performances and artworks for judging to a central mountain, called “The Light of Creation.” The IPRE team realizes they have to create artistic works to get access to the mountain, so much of the show is about what artworks they create.
It’s a nice balance of sweet and silly. Clint’s dwarf cleric, Merle, learns “interpretive jazz dance” well enough to start teaching the class. At the performance, he drives himself into a sexual dance frenzy, collapsing in a “sweaty, dwarven heap.” Taako, Justin’s elvish wizard, uses borrowed self-help aphorisms to put together a book of wisdom that gets rave reviews from the plane’s literary community. And Travis’s Magnus uses the time to develop wood-working skills, creating a pretty good carved wooden duck.
The performance goes well — a combination of Taako and Merle’s oblivious self-absorption with Magnus’s humble submission of his carving. The high point of the performance event is when fan favorite NPCs, shy scientist Barry Bluejeans and Taako’s trans twin Lup, play an impassioned duet that results in a full blossoming of their love for each other. The Barry-Lup story (inevitably called “Bloop” by shippers) is an amazing fan favorite, inspiring a flood of art and comments in the community. It’s made all the more poignant because we know how it ends for Lup (badly — at least for now).
Despite their maestro performances, the party is not allowed access to the mountain directly. So they’re unable to retrieve “The Light of Creation” to save the dimension from The Hunger. With only ten days left before the year is up, they’re worried. But Magnus is later invited into the mountain by one of its residents — a floating, glowing jellyfish child who has fallen in love with his humble duck. Magnus repeatedly visits the mountain, getting to know the jellyfish’s community, and making “three wooden ducks a day” to satisfy the child’s apparently insatiable need for duck carvings. He discovers, also, that the mountain is not actually the “Light of Creation” they are looking for — it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that both have the same name.
This gets to one of the hard parts of the Stolen Century arc — the apocalyptic end of the world. The IPRE team has an OK track record on saving the dimensions, but they’ve had their share of apocalypses. In this one, we get a kind of “Last Night” sentimental glimpse, as Merle and Taako make a last-ditch attempt to find the Light. But it doesn’t work, and they have to say goodbye to students and teachers.
The show closes on an epic scene, which is what bumps up the rating on this story to four stars. Travis asks, at one point, “We have to address the elephant in the room. I’m not leaving this world without that jellyfish.” He and Griffin have done a great job establishing the emotional bond between Travis and the future Voidfish, and by this point the listener entirely believes that the stakes are high. And that’s one of the great things about TAZ: you can believe that a dimension-traveling wood-carver and a baby levitating jellyfish who have bonded wordlessly over some duck statues are willing to do anything for each other. We are rooting for Magnus and the Voidfish, without reservation. When he saves the fish, the tension resolves accordingly — despite the billions of other people blinking out of existence as they are consumed by The Hunger.
This is a solid episode without any major distractions. It’s not a world-changer, but the relationship progress between Barry and Lup and Magnus and the Voidfish are top-notch and deeply personal. As usual, great production quality from the team, and some very nice original accompaniment by Griffin as well as the lovely Salute d’Amour by Edward Elgar, which Barry and Lup play. It’d be a hard entrypoint for a new listener, but for fans it’s a no-miss.