I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ve spent 40 hours over the last month listening to other people play Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve become borderline obsessed with The Adventure Zone — a D&D podcast featuring (Polygon’s own) Griffin and Justin McElroy, as well as their brother Travis, and dad, Clint.
I tuned into the show because its stars are veteran podcast personalities. The McElroy brothers have hosted their own show — My Brother, My Brother, and Me — for years, and I knew going into The Adventure Zone that I liked their fraternal friendship and positive humor. But while I listened to MBMBaM, I quickly got invested in The Adventure Zone. I mean that literally, as well as figuratively: as well as searching for fan art and monitoring the podcast’s Wiki, I now donate $5 a month to keep the show running.
That particular appeal, I initially assumed, came from Dungeons & Dragons. But if I was apparently so into D&D, why had I never played it? I’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities to try the game before, with a complement of willing and nerdy friends, but until recently, I’ve just never had much interest in sitting down and talking about imaginary adventures.
That’s changed over the last year. I’m suddenly finding fantasy lands more interesting than ever, craving stories about orcs and elves, goblins and ghouls. I had assumed this new predilection was just a phase, or a reversion to my natural nerd instincts, but I increasingly think it’s a reaction to something else — to the real world.
It’s my job to monitor the news. It’s a task I’ve always enjoyed, so much so that I found myself building my own breaking news feeds to keep up even when I’m off the clock. But it feels like recently, there’s a lot more news than usual — and not much of it has been good. The last year has seen the cementing of vicious harassment as a standard arguing tactic, the total polarization of political factions, the success of a new and nasty populism across Europe, a violent reaction to women striving for equality, and the rise of the “alt-right.” Underneath it all, while tracking world news, there’s the constant threat of that most powerful weapon: the Trump tweet.
Escaping to The Adventure Zone has become a ritual for me at the end of my day. I’ll finish off a story, close hundreds of tabs, take a deep breath, and immerse myself in a world ruled by four lovable goofs for an hour. And it’s not just that imaginary world I’ve ducked into. I’ve found a renewed desire to play huge fantasy RPGs, delving back into Majora’s Mask on 3DS, finishing up the DLC for The Witcher 3 on console, and even digging out 1999’s isometric classic Planescape: Torment for another run-through.
Over the past few years, I’ve played games because they’re competitive, because they felt good in the hand, and because they offered meaningful progression. But recently I’ve played them purely to live in other worlds — at least for a short time. These places aren’t exactly utopias. Termina is about to be destroyed by a snarling moon, Planescape’s Sigil is a dangerous, shifting city of impossible doors ruled over the knife-faced Lady of Pain, and anyone who goes for a walk in The Witcher 3 is likely to get eaten by a troll. But they have the edge on our world because they’re not our world — they’re weird and mystical places, full of talking dragons, rock-eating cutie-pies, and spiteful ghosts. There’s no Twitter, and no Trump, in other words.
Looking back over 2016’s annus horribilis, I can now see that this is part of an ongoing tweak to my media habits. When the real world has a constant supply of bad news, I don’t have the energy to slog through as many murky HBO potboilers as I used to, and I can’t face the kind of cynical snark that punches everybody down. I’ve instead found myself fleeing to the warmer climates, to the sun-drenched California shown in TV like Santa Clarita Diet and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both shows have plenty of darkness, but they feature strong friendships that consistently support the main character, making them feel like a conscious reaction to the overwhelming TV trend for grit and violence.
These changes have their analogs online, too. The Verge’s Adi Robertson spoke about recently about the rise of “cybertwee” on Tumblr and other networks, an aesthetic and movement typified by its almost revolutionary niceness, its acceptance, and its social awareness. The Adventure Zone, and MBMBaM before it, are similarly positive in tone. The McElroys have said this was a conscious decision after their “furry moment” — when, after receiving a letter from a young furry wrestling with their identity, the trio mocked the subculture.
“Afterwards, we got these tweets from people who were like, ‘Hey, I’m a furry, and I like your show, and that sucked,’” Justin told Brooklyn Magazine. “I don’t know who we thought was listening, but we certainly didn’t think furries were, ‘cause we didn’t know any growing up. Once we realized that we hurt these people, we felt like garbage about it.” The trio made the decision to become “really into everything,” a reaction they also explore in their new TV show.
That acceptance bleeds over into the fantasy world conjured up for The Adventure Zone. Griffin — “your Dungeon Master and best friend” — plays fast and loose with some of the harder rules of D&D, allowing for the kind of wild stories that let the boys solve crab murders on trains, delve into crystal caverns, and ride shotgun in high-stakes battlewagon races. A cast of fleshed-out non-player characters also makes the imaginary world feel like a warm and welcoming place to spend time, despite the presence of malevolent sorcerers, bad robots, and evil relics.
While the news cycle brings its share of negativity, it does also tell of a new swell of activism, of first-time protesters and participators stepping into politics in both the US and Europe. This is a positive thing for democracy, but the human body isn’t built to be plugged into the political Matrix 24 hours a day. Mine isn’t, at least — I need to make a quick stop in The Adventure Zone first.