The Adventure Zone: Dust – Episode 1

tl;dr In these first shaky steps in the new Dust arc, there’s some over-explaining and exposition by the GM, plenty of plot holes, but the players manage to work through some good drama and shine a light on where Dust can go next.

TitleEpisode 1
Episode: 1
Season: Dust
Podcast: The Adventure Zone
Game-masterTravis McElroy
Griffin McElroy as Errol Ryehouse
Justin McElroy as Augustus Parsons
Clint McElroy as Gandy Dancer
Game engine: Urban Shadows
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“Look: we’re not detectives,” says Errol Ryehouse, pointedly, early in this episode. And it’s true: the party is made up of three interesting, complex characters, each with their own agendas. And those agendas are being entirely suppressed in order to solve a murder mystery.

I understand why Travis wants to do this story. The cowboy Gothic world is really interesting, and he’s set up some really interesting tension between rival vampire and werewolf dynasties in a mythical Old West-like setting. He’s taken a lot of time to set up parameters for a murder mystery that has a lot of interesting options.

But we’ve also got three really interesting non-cop characters. They’re not even Sherlock Holmes-y or Angela Lansbury-y. They should by all rights be pursuing some different goals, but for some reason they work for a security agency and are solving a crime.

Here’s the rough outline: the son of the major werewolf family has been found hunched over the dead (well, double-dead, I guess) body of the son of the major vampire family. The werewolf is covered in blood. He’s been arrested, but it’s late at night and no one has really heard the news yet. When the sun comes up, and everybody hears about it (except the vampires? Will they be just going to bed…? Coffin…?), there will be some kind of vigilante justice, and an all-out war.

So, we want to prevent that.

This game is making me feel forced to suspend disbelief a little too often. Like why the sheriff isn’t trying to solve the case. (It’d arouse too much suspicion.) Or why the Grayson Agency, the Pinkerton-like company that employs the party, wouldn’t take this opportunity to ship in as many armed agents as possible as a peace-keeping force while the wheels of Justice turn.

We’ve got this rationalist idea often in media that when a crime has happened, and bad consequences are imminent, the best way to handle it is to solve the crime and convince everyone of the truth. Sometimes that works, but often the truth doesn’t actually solve anything. People still operate on the lies, especially in an emotionally charged setting. We’re skipping that in this murder mystery setting.

One of the best moments is in the opening scene, where Augustus Parsons, the ghost, offers to interrogate the ghost of the recently deceased vampire, who is in this very room right now. Travis is caught a little flat-footed, until Justin laughs and says that he can’t really do that; it’s just a ghost joke. It’s a nice tension-breaker, but it’s also a reminder that we’re not letting these characters be themselves.

I also felt like Travis has a really deep and elaborate world that he wants to explore, which is great. He’s got clever and creative ideas, and he does a great job unfolding them for the audience. “Hell, yeah, that’s evocative as fuck,” says Justin, approvingly, of one of Travis’s descriptions. And it’s true.

But we’re also getting it all up front, sometimes a little too early. There are background reveals about the sheriff and the gravedigger (who has the body) that don’t flow out of the narrative — they’re just kind of stuck in there, because they’re, well, good rich backgrounds. I think if this were a longer arc, we could let these things sit for a while, and explore them at leisure, but the constraints of time require us to visit them now. We may never talk to that sheriff again, so let’s figure out what makes him tick.

So, I’m making this game sound really railroaded, but great characterizations by the players really give this episode some serious listenability. Griffin picks up the challenge of the murder mystery early, and his werewolf character Errol does the lion’s share of the investigation and interrogation of witnesses. He’s a little bit difficult, but mostly he does some good exposition.

This frees up Clint and Justin to provide some color. Justin’s ghost Augustus gets most of the good jokes in this episode; my favorite is when he tries to invisibly steal a root beer in the werewolf bar, and when threatened invisibly dumps it out and cleans out the mug.

Clint also gets a lot of spotlight. His wizard character, Gandy Dancer, does some occultist CSI work on the body of the dead (double-dead) vampire. Clint plays it up nicely, and his NPC bunraku-puppet assistant is cool and creepy. I love that Clint has such varied interests and knowledge and brings them to the show. It levels up the story lines for me.

Ultimately, the players settle into the pace of the system that Travis has laid out, and the goals they have to achieve. They bring their A game, and by the end of the episode it feels like the engine is hitting on all cylinders. It’s a good collaboration, and I hope that can work throughout the campaign.

As usual, great production values, good audio, nice pacing by the TAZ gang. They know how to put on a show.

I feel more confident about this campaign than I did during the setup. And I’m glad that the world and the PCs are working out to be so deep and nuanced. I am looking forward to the next episode of this campaign, so I’m giving this episode three stars, as a solid, listenable experience.