Do you need adventure? Tales of gallantry, bravery, goofery and just a dash of celebrity chef-ery? With Brians, magical and spider-wise; kobolds and gerblins; Grumpy cousins; guys with the last name “Bluejeans”; and machines named Louise? Bugbear hugs, mysterious moons, ancient relics and words that cannot be understood because they sound like static? Some diversity in your fantasy? And the promise of fantasy elevators in later stories? Do you need more “Yes, and” in your life and less “No, but?” The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins (First Second Books, 2018) is here to tell you that story. And it’s a story that relies on both the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and the spirit of improv comedy with the charming art (and lettering) of Carey Pietsch.
The book covers the first storyline of The Adventure Zone, a podcast in which the McElroy brothers, Justin, Travis, Griffin and their father, Clint, play role-playing games. When the McElroys began this podcast, it was a break in their advice/comedy podcast, My Brother, My Brother And Me. Over 69 episodes, the McElroys used the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons to tell a story that starts out silly–and with more dick jokes than I personally enjoy–and becomes engaging, hilarious and moving by the end. The story that started out as a way to pass some time and provide a fill-in show became something special. Here There Be Gerblins covers the shakiest storyline in The Adventure Zone‘s years long “Balance” arc. And the book smooths it out, in part because it is easier to structure a story in retrospect–once you have a story and you know how it ends.
In the book, Magnus Burnsides, dwarf cleric Merle Highchurch and elf wizard (and celebrity chef) Taako are charged with delivering mining supplies. Hijinx ensue as they start out guarding a shipment and end up with a new cool destiny. Plus, gerblins, kobolds, jerky cousins and my favorite bugbear ever. Griffin McElroy, our dungeon master and “best friend” appears now and then to comment on the action or to initiate some particularly tough bits of business for our heroes.I had seen the McElroys in cosplaying as their characters at live recordings of The Adventure Zone. And I had looked at art they had commissioned for the podcast. While I had a strong sense of the characters, I never really had a strong sense of how the characters looked. But I like Pietsch’s design for all the characters. I particularly like Taako’s fashion choices. He rocks the pointy hat and I love that his sash is tied in a bow in back. I also think going with a full beard for Magnus was the right choice. The whole thing where he had only sideburns was funny, but this just works so much better.
I’d also like to note before I go on about other business, how good Pietsch’s lettering is and in particular how her sound effects give a strong sense of action to something–say, a wizard duel–that first existed only as narrative description and dialog and now exists in a visual but silent and static medium. I can only assume her designs will now lead to the inevitable The Adventure Zone animated series on the Cartoon Network.
One thing that has consistently interested me is how The Adventure Zone uses the conventions of role-playing games as a series of narrative constraints and prompts for story-telling. It reminds me a bit of Delicious In Dungeon, in which Ryoko Kui uses the conventions of D&D to write about monster ecology and, well, recipes for cooking monsters among other things.
The McElroys use D&D as a form of improv and a kind of formal structure–the same way poets use formal structures. Only it’s the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set module, “The Lost Mine of Phandelver” that gets them started, not trying to write a good sestina, ballade, rondeau or villanelle.* Here There Be Gerblins was created using the rules, conventions and available pre-packaged world of Faerûn almost as a series of improv prompts. I mean, Taako the wizard got his name as a joke because they did not think this game was going anywhere. But the jokes don’t necessarily become serious so much as they become jokes and more. The McElroys use the improv tradition of saying, “Yes, and…” to tell this story. It’s a way of working with someone else in creating a sketch where you don’t try to take control of the story. You build on it. In the podcast, they even admonish each other now and then with “Yes, and…” In a recent live episode in their new storyline, “Amnesty,” Justin tells Clint, “No, but,” to block Clint’s improvisation around poutine when Justin has something in particular in mind involving French onion soup.
Here There Be Gerblins says, “yes, and…” to a gay Elf wizard who is also a celebrity chef, a cleric who is a Beach Dwarf and [possible spoilers] whose marriage ended badly [end possible spoilers], and a human fighter who rushes into danger heedlessly because he wants to protect people and never wants to lose anyone. At first, as in the tradition of improvisation, the “yes, and” works toward creating jokes. Like Taako the wizard who wants to invent the taco, but doesn’t know what it is yet. Ultimately, using dice, rules and a D&D module as a story telling tool, the McElroys create something engaging for an audience, complex and moving. Something that even flourishes in another medium, which is no easy thing.
In adapting the story for the book, Clint McElroy and Pietsch manage a tricky transition from silliness and looting to something much more difficult and serious. And Here There Be Gerblins ends on a heroic and optimistic note. (It is hard for me not to include spoilers when I write about stuff, but I am trying for you!) There are also a few changes to make the story more copyright compliant. On the podcast, Magnus, Taako and Merle have their adventures in the legally actionable terrain of Faerûn, wholly owned by the Wizards of the Coast.** In the book, the names of the mine, several, cities and at least one bugbear’s name have been changed from ones that existed in the starter set module. Most of the changes, though, are about tightening up the narrative, or bringing the story more in line with the overarching arc narratively and tonally.
I don’t think any familiarity with the podcast is necessary. Though I will say I think Magic Brian remains funniest in audio form.*** The book is a fun, self-contained adventure, pointing towards another, which is, as you know, very much in the tradition of both comics and fantasy. But I admit I am impatient to get to the later storylines, when things really sizzle it up with Taako, Merle, Magnus and an amazing array of characters who are diverse in every sense of the word–characters and things I can’t talk about here without making staticky noises so I don’t spoil anything. I am looking forward to the next book, Murder On The Rockport Limited. And I hope they get to do the entire Balance arc in comics form. Meanwhile, I’m listening most weeks to the new Amnesty storyline episodes with characters living their lives among the mysterious happenings of modern day Keppler, West Virginia.
*That’s right, knaves. I’m comparing what they do to the troubadour forms. Medieval and not easy to use at all!
**You might think I’m joking about those wizards, but I am not.
***Listen here are your spoilery peril!
A Dungeon Master has recently informed Carol Borden that her alignment is Chaotic Awesome.