Wondering what all the hubbub over The Adventure Zone is all about? Missed some episodes and want to get all caught up? Our explainer covers what’s going on with the show and why you should care. WARNING: plot summaries and character details inside!
The Adventure Zone (TAZ) is a sweet, emotionally deep actual-play podcast. It is game-mastered mostly by Griffin McElroy with his brothers Justin and Travis and his father Clint making up the party. The show is primarily (?) comedic, but Griffin’s creativity and the trust between the brothers and their dad makes for a great narrative with interesting details. And the McElroys’ colourful characters and progressive and LGBTQ-positive storylines have encouraged a flourishing fan art and cosplay community.
The primary party and GM of the Adventure Zone are three brothers and their dad. The brothers are also the hosts of My Brother My Brother and Me, and they’ve brought their trademark foul-mouthed but good-hearted brand of humour to TAZ as well.
- Griffin McElroy. The youngest brother and game master for the Balance and Amnesty campaigns (see below). Griffin carries most of the load in terms of creative content and style of the show. As well as doing most of the writing and world-building, he also scores the show and has written all of the theme songs for the different campaigns. Griffin’s role is often to play an increasingly annoyed GM while his brothers and Dad make jokes and go off on tangents.
- Justin McElroy. The oldest brother. He plays Taako, the elven magic user, on the main Balance arc, and various characters in the other arcs. Justin has a creative, lateral-thinking play-style with a lot of humour and forethought. He also does a great job reining in the silliness before his baby brother’s head explodes.
- Travis McElroy. Travis is the “middlest” brother. He plays human fighter Magnus Burnsides on the Balance campaign, and he’s also the gamemaster on the “TAZ Nights” premium content campaign. Travis takes his characters very seriously, but he also mouths off a lot — often interrupting Griffin’s descriptions with a zinger or coming up with ridiculous plans for his character. But he also takes the work he’s doing seriously and shows some real compassion for his character and the others.
- Clint McElroy. The patriarch of the McElroy clan, Clint plays the dwarven cleric Merle Highchurch in the Balance campaign, and also GM’d the Commitment campaign. Clint is goofy and hilarious and often makes racy jokes that make his sons around the table squirm. In other words, he’s a dad. A running joke is that he comes to the table unprepared, with only a few spells that he knows, and that his sons need to lead him through rolling dice or role playing. How much that’s true, and how much that’s dad-trolling, isn’t 100% clear.
There are very few guests on TAZ, mostly on premium content, doing one-off characters for special occasions. The cast of The Flop House Podcast play a campaign with a party called the Hogsbottom Three in a couple of premium shows, and Stuart Wellington also plays a character in another episode. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a fan and friend of the McElroys, plays in an episode of “TAZ Nights”.
The show is on the Maximum Fun network. Episodes typically come out every other Thursday, and are usually about an hour long. You can subscribe by RSS or iTunes.
The podcast is divided into several campaigns, mostly named after abstract nouns. Each campaign has different characters, and often they use different game systems. Warning: spoilers below!
The Balance campaign is the first and most extensive campaign. It uses DnD 5e (mostly), and features a party of three main PCs.
- Taako (pronounced like “taco”) is an elven wizard, played by Justin. He’s sassy, queer, and stylish. He’s also quite dumb, and usually misses the point of a lot of conversations. But he’s a powerful wizard, loyal to his friends and family. He carries an umbrella for focusing his magic. Before the beginning of the campaign, he had starred in a traveling cooking show, Sizzle It Up with Taako, until he accidentally poisoned a few dozen people.
- Magnus Burnsides is a burly human fighter (who dual-classes as rogue in later arcs) played by Travis. He is honest, upright, and courageous. His catchphrase is “Magnus rushes in”, and he often charges into uncertain situations without first consulting the rest of his team. He had been a carpenter in a previous life, and he still does wood carvings. He led a rebellion against the ruler of his town, however, which resulted in the death of his wife, Julia.
- Merle Highchurch is the dwarven cleric. He is played by Clint. His main tool is an Extreme Teen Bible, and he often proselytizes for his god, Pan. Because Clint doesn’t know a lot of spells, he often overlooks typical cleric responsibilities like healing and buffs. Merle’s catchphrase is, “I cast Zone of Truth!” He is a “beach dwarf”, separated from his former wife, but with a daughter and son who live far away.
Together the party are often called the Tres Horny Boys or THB. They work for a secret organization called The Bureau of Balance, headquartered on the moon, and they are tasked with finding highly powerful magic relics in the world and bringing them back to the Bureau to be destroyed.
The Grand Relics were created by powerful but mysterious wizards called the Red Robes, and caused so much jealousy in the world that they instigated almost non-stop destructive wars. The Bureau of Balance managed to wipe the memory of the relics from all the people of the world using a powerful creature called a Void Fish. They’re now busy collecting the relics and destroying them.
The campaign is divided into arcs; each arc centers around retrieving one relic from a different part of the world.
- Here There Be Gerblins is the first arc. It’s based on the Lost Mines of Phandelver pre-built campaign that ships with the D&D Starter Set, because the group originally planned to only play for a few episodes. The party are hired by the dwarf Gundren Rockseeker to provide security as he tries to stock the mines he has recently rediscovered. After Gundren and his bodyguard Barry Bluejeans are kidnapped, the party rescues them from a band of goblins led by the bugbear Klaarg and a magic user named the Black Spider (aka Brian). But another adventurer, half-orc Killian, tells the party that Gundren was drawn by the Flame Gauntlet. They try to stop him, but he goes insane with the power of the gauntlet and burns down the city of Phandolin with thousands of people in it, including Gundren and Barry. Killian, a retriever for the Bureau of Balance, brings the party back to the moonbase and gets the leader, Lucretia, to enroll them as retrievers, too.
- Murder on the Rockport Limited is the party’s first adventure as part of the Bureau of Balance. They’re tasked with retrieving a Grand Relic from a train. But while they are trying to pull off the heist, there’s a murder on the train. With the help of Angus McDonald, boy detective, the party interrogates NPCs like the conductor Jenkins, gladiator Jess the Beheader, and Gram the Juicy Wizard. Eventually they defeat the murderer (it’s Jenkins), crash the train, and recover the relic. Oh: they also cavalierly kill Tom Bodett from the Motel 6 commercials. Angus joins the Bureau.
- Petals to the Metal is a Fast and Furious clone arc. The party is sent to the chichi town of Goldcliff to retrieve a magic girdle that gives a drag racer, Sloane, power over all nature. Unable to pull off a direct attack, they team up with her former partner, Hurley, to win the Battle Wagons race and mumble mumble Sloane will be neutralized. With the help of Taako’s smooth-talking magic steed, Garyl, they defeat the Hammerhead Gang and a host of other racers. Sloane and Hurley join together into a lovely flowering tree. As they brief the local police chief and secret Bureau member, Captain Captain Bane, the chief is poisoned, and a Red Robed spectre hovers over him.
- The Crystal Kingdom is an arc about a Bureau ally, Lucas, who is having problems in his flying laboratory. The team arrives to find ghostly creatures singing haunting riddle songs about a Crystal Kingdom. With the help of Bureau members Killian, dragonborn Carey, and the short-lived Boyland, they crawl through puzzle-mazes and push back the crystals that are engulfing the lab. A robot, Noelle, and a group of helpful bugbears also lend a hand. Merle loses an arm to the crystals. At the climax, the team discovers that Lucas has been using a relic to copy technology from other dimensions, to keep his scientist mother alive in robot form. But Death itself, in the form of reaper Kravitz, comes to fight the party. Taako smoothly gets Kravitz to agree to go on a date.
- The Eleventh Hour is a time-travel arc. The party must recover a time-altering chalice from the Western-style town Refuge. The town is caught in a time loop; it goes from 11am to noon over and over. They work with the town deputy, Roswell, an animated suit of armor with a bird on the shoulder, to get the town unstuck. The town features a statue of a Red Robe in its central square. The seer Paloma, Sheriff Isaak, and bartender Ren all help the boys out, but for one reason or another they keep dying before noon. When they finally stop the looping, they see that a giant purple worm is about to devour the town; they take it away. The relic, a chalice, tries to convince each party member to keep it rather than destroying it by offering to go back in time and change their past. It offers Merle a chance to get his arm back; Taako can save the people he poisoned; or Magnus can save his wife Julia. But the heroes resist, and the chalice is destroyed. Magnus learns that the statue of the Red Robe in the town square is him.
- The Suffering Game is set in a funhouse-like magical environment called Wonderland. It is run by two powerful liches who offer adventurers their greatest desire as a reward for completing the challenges in Wonderland. The party must go there to retrieve the Animus Bell, which the Bureau’s director, Lucretia, failed to do many years before. They meet the liches in the form of two fashionable, vogue-dancing elves, Edward and Lydia. The party grinds through the dungeon’s levels, unable to heal, offering up significant sacrifices (Merle loses an eye, Magnus loses 10 years of his life). Each time they complain, the dungeon absorbs their suffering as power. Magnus senses a phantom Red Robe that helps them through the dungeon. When the party finally refuses to continue, Lydia and Edward attack, and although they are defeated, they kill Magnus. Merle and Taako pull Magnus’s soul back from the astral plane and put it into a wooden mannequin’s body. The Red Robe leads the party (including wooden Magnus) to his own secret lair, where he reveals himself to be… Barry Bluejeans!
- The Stolen Century switches up the story considerably. Barry convinces Merle, Magnus and Taako to break into the Bureau of Balance itself and discover what’s really going on with the relics. On the moonbase, with the help of Angus, they find a second baby Void Fish, which Lucretia has used to wipe their memories. When they drink the ichor of the Void Fish, their memories rush back, and they realize they are part of a seven-person explorer group, the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration (IPRE). Along with Merle, Magnus, Taako and Barry, the IPRE also includes Lucretia, her assistant Davenport, and Taako’s twin sister, Lup. The IPRE launched its ship the Starblaster 100 years ago, but as they left a monstrous force, The Hunger, ate their own plane of existence. They have traveled for a century from plane to plane, seeking the Light of Creation, the only thing that keeps The Hunger at bay. Using a modified Powered by the Apocalypse game system, the IPRE team works its way through the century, visiting different planes. They finally manage to stop the Hunger’s progress by creating the Great Relics — at incredible cost to their own plane. Plagued by regret, Lucretia has destroyed the relics, since she has another idea for how to stop the Hunger. As she tries to destroy her magic staff, the last relic, the Hunger comes crashing into their reality.
- Story and Song. Under attack, the party and the Bureau team fight off the creatures of The Hunger — ghostly creatures absorbed over centuries of planar conflict. Taako frees his sister, Lup, from her magic bondage in his umbra-staff. She is reunited with her beloved Barry. Together, the team figures out a way to defeat the Hunger. The biggest group, including most of the series’s NPCs, is led by Lup and Barry, goes to defend the gates of the city of Neverwinter. Merle, Magnus, Taako, Lucretia and Davenport fly the Starblaster into the heart of the Hunger. They defeat the Hunger’s central creature, John, and put a magical bubble around the Hunger to prevent it from attacking again. The party are returned to the Bureau by a mysterious god-like creature. They live out happy lives in a nearly utopian world. The story closes a year later at the wedding of Carey and Killian, with all the families and friends reunited.
The second mini-campaign is a superhero setting, GM’d by Clint, with Griffin, Travis, and Justin as the party. The game is run with FATE.
The party are members of a secret benevolent organization, the Do-Good Fellowship, headquartered on a floating base in the Gulf of Mexico. The Fellowship is inspired by Ben Franklin’s junto, a club founded to better the community. They ask 24 questions at each meeting; for example, “Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?” The Fellowship has recently discovered a way to give super abilities to regular humans, and so they include the three party members in the program:
- Remy (Griffin) is an athlete whose personal shame was washing out early on American Ninja Warrior. He gains super gymnastic abilities.
- Irene (Justin) is a nice HR bureaucrat. Her ability is to change into Inuit goddess Kardala, a mighty warrior with weather-control powers.
- Nadiya (Travis) is a scientist whose research is the basis of the supers program. She gains the ability to change her body’s shape.
The team’s first assignment is to retrieve a rogue Fellowship superhero, Mary Sage, who has the power to control technology. Driven a little insane by her powers, she has escaped to the Christian theme park Halleluland. The party comes to save her, but she throws animatronic Bible monsters at them to keep them from retrieving her. But they defeat a robot Goliath to rein her in.
When they get back to the Fellowship base, they’re met by Richard Poer. He’s the distant descendant of Ben Franklin himself, and claims to hold the secret royal sovereignty over the United States. He demands the party commit their loyalty to him, but they refuse, and in the ensuing fracas they destroy the base. As they fly with Poer in custody to the White House, the team wonders what will come next.
The most recent campaign, GM’d by Griffin with Justin, Clint and Travis as the party. The campaign uses Monster of the Week, a Powered by the Apocalypse game for paranormal settings.
The mountain town of Kepler, WV has seen better days — but not much better. Its skiing economy is slow, and its revival as a cryptozoology destination is tepid. The party are:
- Ned Chicane (Clint) is a grifter who has set up shop in Kepler with a tourist trap called the Cryptonomica, specializing in cryptids and mysteries.
- Duck Newton (Justin) a ranger in the Monongahela National Forest. He has been called by supernatural forces since his teen years to become a hero, but has refused the call, and given his “weird, bendy sword” of destiny to Ned for safe keeping.
- Aubrey “Lady Flame” Little (Travis) is a novice stage magician with the secret power of controlling fire. Her rabbit, Dr. Harris Bonkers, accompanies her everywhere.
Each player starts off separately. Duck, on patrol at the forest, meets a shaken camper, Pigeon, who claims to have been attacked by a giant bear. He goes to find her friend, lost in the woods, and meets the giant bear-creature as well as a spectral figure who (yet again) calls on him to pick up the mantle of heroism. He flees the bear through a Stonehenge-like gate into another dimension with fantastic creatures, Sylvain. He’s captured by a goat-headed man who warns him to go back to his own world and never speak of their.
Meanwhile, Aubrey Little accidentally sets fire to a nearby ski resort when her powers manifest on stage. She is spirited away by a tough older woman, Mama, who drives her to the Amnesty Lodge in Kepler. They confirm Aubrey’s powers, and Mama reveals that the other guests at the Lodge are from Sylvain — werewolves, etc. — and that Aubrey’s powers are related.
Ned’s tourist trap is going to be foreclosed. With his tenant, newsletter editor Kirby, he plans a new grift: planting Bigfoot evidence around Kepler. Ned goes to the woods to film Patterson-like footage of himself dressed in a Wookiee costume. He meets Barclay, the cook from the Amnesty Lodge, who suprisingly turns into the real Bigfoot fights a giant undead bobcat.
Ned, Duck, Aubrey, Barnaby and Mama all meet at the mysterious Stonehenge gate. While Barclay and Mama go through to parley with the leaders of Sylvain, the party is attacked by the giant bear-creature, a blob of undead monsters. They fight it off, and when Mama and Barclay come back, they agree to meet the next day at the lodge.
There, Mama recruits the three to join her in the Pine Guard, a secret society that protects Kepler from evil cryptids from other planes who come in through the gate. Duck initially demurs, but is convinced by Ned, who still has his sword.
The team comes together to defeat the Abomination in a fiery battle in a cave. Unsure of their future, the party trio tentatively commits to become the next generation of the Pine Guard.
TAZ Nights is a D&D 5e campaign available on the Maximum Fun bonus materials feed for subscribers only. Also called TAZ Knights, it is GM’d by Travis, with Griffin, Justin, and Clint as the party.
Nights is set in Capital City, a low-fantasy city on a hill run by a complex interlocking network of guilds and cabals. The party consists of:
- Tom Collins (Griffin), a half-elf sorcerer and bartender. He fakes being a magic user to hide the shame of his geometric sorcery.
- Troth (Justin) is a female tiefling monk.
- Lenny Manolito (Clint) is a lounge-singing bard who plays the keytar.
In their first adventure, the party is forced to go through an initiation into the Beasts of the Ring, a thieves’ guild in the city. As they make their way through the dungeon solving puzzles, they’re helped by the ghost of the former Beasts leader, Canis. At the end, they join his living sister Terra as leaders of the guild.
In the second adventure, they must rescue the magistrate Atreyus Kannon (Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his captors, the city guard. They discover Atreyus in an attic of his own house; fighting their way out through magical robots, they escape to the Beasts’ base, and Atreyus discredits the guard.
The Hogsbottom Three
This is a special campaign run by the cast of the Flophouse podcast. There are two adventures in the D&D 5e campaign.
The game is GM’d by Stuart Wellington. The party are:
- Scales Fangbattle (Elliott Kalan), a dragonborn bard who sings extemporaneous songs of the group’s own glory. (His sister, Carey Fangbattle, is in the Bureau of Balance in the Balance arc.)
- Lucian Buttwatcher (Dan McCoy) a half-elf druid
- Tanzer Silverview (Zhubin Parang) the ne’er-do-well scion of a rich family
In their first adventure, the group discovers a plot by Arthur Tapwell that defrauded a family of halflings, the Redcheeks, from their apple-growing land. The party defeats Tapwell’s cronies in the Battle of Hogsbottom, and Scales names them “The Hogsbottom Three”. Scales marries Hathaway Redcheek, daughter of the family.
In their second adventure, the party infiltrates a fancy gala to pull off a heist. But Tanzer’s sister, Tayana, gets there first. They team up for the caper, and barely escape with the goods.
The Hogsbottom Three make a quick cameo appearance defending the gates of Neverwinter in the Balance arc.
The upcoming mini-campaign on the main feed. It is an Urban Shadows campaign, GM’d by Travis, adapted to an Old-West-like setting.
In Dust, the town of Dry River in the Crescent Territory is the site of a family feud between a vampire mining dynasty and their werewolf rivals. The party are members of the Grayson Service, a Pinkerton-like private security firm that tries to keep the peace in this lawless land. They are:
- Augustus Parsons (Justin McElroy), the ghost of a cashew-company magnate who still haunts his successor as CEO
- Gandy Dancer (Clint McElroy), a one-time orphan, raised by railroad workers, who is now a wizard with a haunted doll familiar
- Errol Ryhuis (Griffin McElroy), a werewolf politician, permanently stuck mid-transition
The party’s initial adventure is to solve a murder mystery that threatens to ignite the tangle of tense rivalries in Dry River.
TAZ fans put an emphasis on inclusion, acceptance, and creativity. The McElroys have stated that there are no canonical representations of the PCs or NPCs, so fans have created thousands of pieces of fan art with wildly different visions of the characters.
Some places to fine TAZ fans are:
- The Adventure Zone Wiki which is great for research for articles like this
- The Adventure Zone FanZone on Facebook
- #thezonecast on Twitter (You can also follow Griffin, Justin, Travis, and Clint on Twitter; they re-tweet a lot of fan creations)
- #taz or #thezonecast on Tumblr (a lot of fan art originates here and migrates to other platforms)
- /r/TheAdventureZone on Reddit
- #thezonecast on Headgames has all the reviews of TAZ episodes and other TAZ articles
The community features a robust cosplay scene, with TAZ cosplayers showing up at most major cons. Taako is by far the most cosplayed character, but even the most obscure NPC gets detailed and loving treatment.