I had never even heard of The Adventure Zone when my wife picked up this graphic novel from the library. I just saw what appeared to be a decent-sized graphic novel that had a roleplaying theme and thought, “Haven’t reviewed anything like that before.”
But this book is far stranger that I expected. For one thing, it’s based on a podcast. The Adventure Zone, which started a decade ago, gets something like 6 million downloads a month, yet this was the first I’d heard of it.
What’s more unusual is that the podcast, which features three brothers and their father (the McElroys) roleplaying in a fantasy setting, is unscripted and improvised… basically just an actual roleplaying session, predating Critical Role.
But while Critical Role has professional voice actors and high production values, The Adventure Zone is, well, just four guys playing and not taking themselves seriously at all. This feels much more like how one of your roleplaying sessions might go, assuming you were all feeling a bit goofy, right down to leaving the room to grab some chips before the game even starts.
And here, they try to take those sessions and adapt it into a graphic novel. No small feat, that.
Obviously, I need to compare this to Knights of the Dinner Table. While KODT takes place in the “real” world, either at the game table and other locations, The Adventure Zone takes place within its fantasy world. The GM pops up in the corner of the panels from time to time, but the scene never cuts to the real world or any of the players.
The comic is technically meta and self-aware, yet it manages to do so in a unique way. The characters are aware of things like levels and dice rolls and all the rest, but never speak as the players. The dialog switches between in-character banter and meta pop references at the drop of a hat.
One huge difference between this and KODT is tone. In KODT, both the players and GM take the game one thousand percent seriously, but The Adventure Zone is about as far away from taking things seriously as you can get. This is more like The Three Stooges Visit Faerûn. The end result is a very interesting experiment. One that ultimately won me over.
The book starts right at the beginning, taken from their very first podcast, with everyone at level 1 (the characters even point that out themselves).
I made sure not to listen to any of the podcast until I was halfway through the book, because I wanted to judge it on its own merits. But I was also curious to see how the two matched up—what was left in, what was cut, and whether anything was added.
What I found was some scenes would match up mostly the same, while what connected those scenes was either original or loosely based on long meandering stretches of the game session. Also, character traits that (I assume) don’t appear until much later in the campaign (like the mage’s obsession with cooking) are referenced right from the start.
Which is a good thing, because if you listen to the podcast you’d realize just how clunky and awkward a completely faithful adaptation would be. It would be a mess.
What we get instead still feels like proper roleplaying banter and shenanigans, but with a healthy editing pass to remove much of the nonsense that naturally occurs at the table, but would only slow down a story.
Carey Pietsch’s excellent artwork is simple and comedic, matching the sense of humour perfectly. That said, glancing at the cover, you might think this comic is meant for kids, and unless your kids are already pretty foul mouthed, it probably isn’t.
The plot starts off loosely based on the 5E Starter Set adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, and includes the kind of introductory adventure structure you would expect. But that quickly merges into a larger original plot, and not a bad one at that.
This is also where it really starts to take off humour-wise. The first half was plenty enjoyable, but the second actually had me laughing out loud. Or maybe that was just the time it took for me to really “get” its style.
I was afraid that the plot would become as silly as the players, but it seems that while the McElroys don’t take their playing seriously, Clint took the actual crafting of his story seriously. This provides a contrast for the humour to stand out in. In some ways, I’d compare it to the movie Airplane!, which took the plot of a serious airplane disaster film and built a comedy around it.
Having recently revived my own roleplaying comic, Fuzzy Knights, it was interesting to check out a comic that had a similar, yet very different, approach. Consider checking this one out.