The Adventure Zone: Amnesty – Episode 4

tl;dr Solid and listenable “in between” episode marred by some tension between players and GM but saved with a great characterization and performance by Justin.

Title: “Amnesty – Episode 4
Episode: 4
Season: Amnesty
Podcast: The Adventure Zone
Gamemaster: Griffin McElroy
Party: Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Clint McElroy
Game system: Monster of the Week
Rating: ★★★☆☆

I think Griffin and Travis McElroy have some beef. It could just be something between brothers — brothers can be rough on each other. But in the last couple of episodes of The Adventure Zone, there have been some impolite exchanges, bordering on the unkind.

In part this might be because Travis is playing the wrong game. The McElboys have a winning recipe for real-play podcasts: the three players lob off-colour zingers as the striver baby brother builds a (complex and fascinating) world for which he has not only written pages of copy but composed and performed a couple of original musical pieces. Baby brother does a slow burn as he keeps his Three Stooges on track, moving from carefully crafted scene to carefully crafted secene. Just about where he’s going to throw all his notes in the air and go home, one of characters does something so warm, intelligent, and amazing that it makes the whole show wonderful. Roll credits!

That’s how Dungeons and Dragons plays under the fingers, and the McElroys’ family dynamics help it along. But I don’t think that Powered by the Apocalypse games like Monster of the Week work that way, though. The rules system is much more improvisational and bidirectional — something that Griffin calls out several times in this episode. It’s something he’s looking forward to, and it’s taking a while for the party to step up.

Regardless: Travis keeps peppering Griffin with one-liners in this episode, and the pushback feels a little harder than I’d expect. I note that Travis is also saying “no” a lot — no I can’t think of anything interesting, no I don’t think Lady Flame would do that. These things can happen in families, at gaming tables, and in performances — I hope they find a way to smooth it out, because as a listener I found it distracting.

This episode opens with the ending of the party’s first combat against an undead blob of dead forest animals (for those keeping score at home, it ended in a draw). Fire magician Lady Flame, forest ranger slash chosen hero Duck Newton, and huckster Ned Chicane only met for the first time well into episode 3, and were almost instantly attacked. And this episode opens with them all dispersing in different directions for some more alone time with their support NPCs.

It’s tough to bring together a party — especially when the individual characters have independent lives of their own. One of the toughest parts of GMing is getting your characters to talk to, and interact with, each other. Especially in an abbreviated campaign like Amnesty, which is a mini-arc between the end of “Season 1” and the beginning of a hoped-for “Season 2”.

But it’s also where the magic happens. The game becomes a multi-way conversation around the table. Instead of a collection of characters with divergent goals, their goals converge. They have a shared purpose, and then the audience can share in that purpose, too.

The characters’ alone time doesn’t really move the story along very much, either. They’ve had 2-1/2 episodes worth of individual exposition, and there’s not much more to delve into, here. Of the three, probably only Lady Flame does much development, pointing out that her magic powers may originate with a now-lost family heirloom, the Flamebright Pendant.

The characters reconvene in the woodsy Amnesty Lodge the next day, where they are served radish stew by Bigfoot. (Really.) The Lodge’s proprietor, long-time local monster-hunter “Mama“, asks them to join her to defeat the Abomination, AKA that big dead bear-stag-wolf-cougar dripping black slime all over the Monongahela National Forest.

Griffin tells us during the commercial break that he’s really looking forward to having a battle planning session among the PCs, so it’s a little rough to hear him try to drag the players into some planning through the words of Mama. It’s working OK at first, but there’s enough struggle that when Duck stands up to leave, it’s not surprising or out of character.

Justin gives perfectly good reasons for why Duck wouldn’t go fight a giant monster in the woods. They’re the reasons you and I would give: he doesn’t quite believe in it. He doesn’t think he’d actually do any good. He just wants to go back to his life.

And the other three people at the table take time to convince him. Lady Flame lets him know that it’s OK to be afraid, but they have to take the emotional hit so this otherworldly creature doesn’t freak out hundreds or thousands of people. Mama tells him that it’s definitely his job to protect people and wildlife in the forest and he should really man up. Neither argument convinces Duck, though.

It’s not until Ned reminds Duck that he’s got a secret weapon back at Ned’s roadside attraction, The Cryptonomica, that Duck turns around. Duck had given Ned the “weird, bendy sword” that is his instrument of power as the Chosen, asking Ned to throw it away. Ned tried to get rid of it on eBay, but otherwise hasn’t really done anything with it. Duck cusses him out. “I asked just one thing!”

And this breaks the logjam for the attack planning scene. Together, the party and GM put together an arsenal, a battle plan, and choose their ground for confrontation. (Justin also gets to show off his impressively extensive research for his character and location.) As the gears actually start to move, I found myself more and more engaged, so that when Duck Newton delivers the final line, “I’m going to take back what’s mine,” I got some shivers. Convincing turnaround, there.

The show features, as usual, great original music by Griffin McElroy, who also shared the files on SoundCloud this week. It’s mostly atmospheric, but there’s something about the spicy jam that is the Amnesty theme song that just gets stuck in your head. Check out this great remix by seishun or this amazing animation by Mimi Chiu for example. She got it bad, apparently.

I think the fan community is really responding to the Amnesty arc, digging in with fan art and discussion. I haven’t yet seen Amnesty cosplay, but I’ve seen it discussed. I think the fanbase is willing to look up from their Balance arc action figures for a few minutes and give Amnesty a try.

Which is great for everyone. If you’re not into TAZ for the fan scene, you’re missing out. It’s the best around.

I ended up giving this episode three stars, mostly because it was a good episode but not a great episode. I have to keep the episodometer calibrated so real 5-star eps get their due. Amnesty 4 is a definitely-listen, but not a life changer.