The fourth wall is the first casualty when D&D universes collide

If you read my write-up of October’s Children you’ll know I’m a fan of those ballsy moments that make you go “you’re allowed to do that!?” I also love it when the fourth wall crumbles and we get meta. Today I bring you a moment from undoubtedly the most listened-to podcast I’ve covered, that satisfies both criteria.

If you haven’t listened to The Adventure Zone, you’ll almost certainly have heard of it. If it’s new to you, I’d suggest starting with this season rather than the first, as it’s something like 8 years old at this point.

The show started, as so many podcasts do, on a lark. The McElroy brothers – the Internet’s cleanest boys – already had a successful podcast in My Brother, My Brother and Me. But in 2014 they roped their dad into playing Dungeons & Dragons with them.

That first episode is a bit of a slog, but their DM, editor, and littlest brother Griffin put out a shorter, more palatable version, which – if you’re inclined to start from the beginning – will give you all the important info.

I speed-ran the binge process of this show, starting some time in January 2019 and ending up midway through the year, crying on my sofa listening to the end of their first campaign. I think watching Taako, Magnus and Merle grow up as their human operators became more adept was a major factor in how emotional I felt… and I know I wasn’t alone.

We also got to see the incredible multitudinous talents of Griffin McElroy: character creator, storyteller, musician, sound designer, and podcast editor. That boy put in a serious shift in those early years.

The latest campaign, Steeplechase, sees big brother Justin at the helm. It’s essentially Westworld meets Disney on steroids, with bits, goofs, and japes provided by him, the other brothers, and their dad.

I’m going to blow the spoiler horn now. If you’re not caught up with TAZ and you intend to check it out, then skip on down past the podcast player as I don’t want to ruin it for you.

OK, so.

The bit I’m highlighting is the very last minute of gameplay from episode 18 of the current season. In it, the worlds of Steeplechase and Balance collide, as the characters in this latest campaign meet Taako, the much-beloved level 16 wizard, now turned TV chef, who was played by current-DM Justin. That’s a lot of context, but these are all necessary ingredients for that moment I described, when you put your pinched fingers to your lips and kiss ‘em like a chef.

To be clear, up until this point, there’s been nothing – that I know of – to suggest any of the worlds created in seasons of TAZ share any kind of universe. But as Steeplechase is somewhat a patchwork of and love-letter to pop culture, it kinda sorta makes sense. I am, as the kids say, here for it.

Before I started listening to actual play podcasts, I made my own, and what started out as a silly one-note goof ended up as a sprawling narrative about the nature of storytelling itself. So I know what i means to go meta. I love it, I’m a fan of it, and the fourth wall can be knocked through to make room for a conservatory as far as I’m concerned, as it’s not load bearing.

I have an imperfect relationship with the McElroys. There exists within me a whole essay about what performative outrage is doing to their brand, and how its echoes are feeding back into the Internet… but you’ll have to get me drunk at a podcast conference to hear it.

Suffice to say that TAZ is a show I look forward to each week. I enjoy Justin’s haphazard DM style, Clint’s earnestness, Griffin’s voices, and Travis is there too.

That’s so mean! I like Travis. I just don’t think he has to try so hard. At least that’s my read… I could be wildly off-base.

Any other business

  • Do you have any questions about podcast marketing you’re too afraid to ask because you think you’re “supposed” to know the answer? Here’s a safe space to ask them.
  • Our next Vocal Brew virtual meetup is on March 22nd, and will be all about AI in podcasting. I’m pretty bullish on ways we can put AI to good, ethical use. So if that’s a chat you want to be in, come and join us!
  • My friend Anya Pearse is an expert on happiness. Each week I tip her upside down and rummage through the pearls of wisdom that fall from of her brain. On Monday 13th we’re talking insecurity, and how we can live with it rather than try and make it go away. Follow the show now – it’s good.

That’s all I have for you this week. You keep listening, and I’ll do the same. x

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