From a Board Game to a Podcast Lodestar
How the McElroy brothers turned a DnD game into the wildly successful Adventure Zone series.
Thanks to their widely adored advice podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me, Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy earned a reputation as lovable, wisecracking goofs with a gift for odd improvisatory genius. But even they were surprised when they stumbled into The Adventure Zone—a spinoff series that began in 2014 as a friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons between the brothers and their dad, Clint. It's since become a small empire of fantasy storytelling known as much for heart as humor.
The McElroys now not only play gigs to as many as 3,700 often-costumed fans at a time, but also author a TAZ graphic novel series (with illustrator Carey Pietsch) that's topped the New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction best-sellers list two years in a row. That's because the brothers quickly saw the world-building potential of their new podcast and made the kind of creative decisions that happen to be excellent business practices too. As presales pick up for the third book adapted from TAZ's inaugural "Balance" storyline, Petals to the Metal, we sat down with the show's most frequent GM (game master), Griffin McElroy, to learn how all of this came to be.
Spotify for Podcasters: When you recorded your first episode, did you know TAZ could become so much more?
Griffin McElroy: We had no idea. Mostly, I really wanted to play [the new] DnD fifth edition. So we recorded it, then Justin had a kid and we wanted to give him some time off, so we backdoor-piloted TAZ into MBMBAM [pronounced "muh-bim-bam"] as a fill-in episode. The response was unlike anything we'd seen. After that, we had a pretty good idea there would be a big audience for it. But in terms of creative ambition, there's no way we knew how far it'd go. If you listen to the first episode, we named a character Barry Bluejeans—we were not playing the long game.
What signs were you seeing that led you to believe it could be something bigger?
I mean, cosplay is the most evident and still mind-boggling thing, especially at live shows where there are more people in costume than not. But for those early episodes, it was seeing how much lore people were coming up with on their own and sharing online. That made me feel more comfortable about us doing it in a more "official" capacity—getting a little bit more dramatic with it and not just using these characters for jokes or game mechanics. So it was that level of [listeners'] emotional investment that showed us it's okay for us to aim for these emotional beats in the story, and the more we tried, the more people got into it.
But the production value increased along with that narrative development...
Other media was inspiring, podcasts like S-Town, Serial, 99% Invisible, or Reply All, that are very well-produced and have these different ways of utilizing sound to tell a story. Also, my whole life when I heard a song I loved, I'd imagine how it would fit over a scene, so I thought, "Why don't I do that for this?" Then I found out that licensing music is expensive and hard, so I went, "Google: what's the easiest way to start writing music?" and saw I had GarageBand on my computer already. My early attempts were primitive but people began talking about what it added to the show, so I was like, "Okay, I'll learn how to do this better."
Non-listeners might be surprised to hear you reference those podcasts as inspiring an actual-play series, which ostensibly could be just four dudes rolling dice.
You only get to release your podcast episodes once. We had to reschedule the "Balance" finale recording a few times because one of us was ill-prepared or not in the right space for it. It's easy to treat podcasts as: It's just you talking and then you let people listen to it. But if you want to take it seriously, then really take it seriously. Our audience started to grow to the extent where I felt like it'd be wrong for the show not to grow in response. I wanted it to deserve the attention it was getting, so I started figuring out what else I could pour into it. And the answer—especially for this actual-play role-playing genre—was "anything."
Like live shows—how did you go about translating the podcast for crowds?
We were stressed at first because we were imagining a TAZ live show would have to be the next episode of whatever arc we were on, and how would that work? But every big TAZ arc is inspired by something I was into at the time, whether it was The Fast & The Furious movies or Alien, or whatever. So for the live shows, we decided to do that in a microcosm: "I just got into pro wrestling; this is our wrestling show." To know that this little world is only going to exist for an hour and a half, it's like, "Let's get in there with our characters and mess it up!" We saw that the more fun we had, the more successful the shows were.
Merch is another extension of your real-life reach. Any advice?
For years we had people tweeting at us, "Gosh, I would love a T-shirt," and we were like, "Well, we don't know how to do that, so..." And we would watch people make shit on Redbubble and sell it. I'm not super-possessive, but from a business perspective you kinda have to be. We all have kids now and that's made us realize how much skin we have in the game. But since we started taking merch seriously, it's exciting not because it's new product to sell, but because it's fulfilling a desire for our audience, and creatively, it's really neat. I can show this TAZ fanny pack to my three-year-old and be like, "Daddy made a fanny pack!"
Of course, the wildest thing you've made is a best-selling graphic novel series, which itself is an adaptation of a podcast adaptation of an RPG. How did you pull that off?
During "Balance" we were approached by an agent who suggested we pitch it. We loved the story so much and it was about to end, so we were like, "Wait, there's no reason it has to die!" Carey had done a ton of fan art, so we had, like, one meeting with her in Boston at a Panera Bread and were like, "Yup!" Halfway into the book we realized the same thing I did with the podcast: The more we work on this, the better it gets. It doesn't have to be a word-for-word, beat-for-beat adaptation. We can rectify mistakes, or emphasize stuff we now know is important, or drop hints about the end. We can make this its own thing.
Every business expansion of the TAZ universe still manages to feel organic. Do you think you've gotten savvy to this whole thing, or are you winging it as you go?
We are super-precious about our shit. We turn down more opportunities than we take because it'd be just cashing in to make something that doesn't live up to our standards. We even stopped doing "Balance" live because it started to feel [like pandering], so we aren't going to have our audience spend money on some sh**ty thing just because our characters are in it. That a thing has to make sense business-wise is, to our business manager's disdain, not the No. 1 priority. [Laughs] If it seems organic, that's because it is.