The Adventure Zone’s “Stolen Century” Closes As a Benchmark in Storytelling (Spoilers)

Before this review begins, please note that it will be filled with spoilers. If you’d like a review to explain why you should listen to The Adventure Zone, this is not it, but I can tell you that at the close of this arc, The Adventure Zone has set new standards for how I rate any fiction podcast.

Last Thursday, The Adventure Zone closed its Stolen Century arc, leading the listeners right up to the moment where the series began. The show has had 66 episodes over about three years, and in that time it, like its characters, have developed into something more profound than any of us could have imagined. By the end of its 66th episode, The Adventure Zone has become a benchmark in both audio drama and emergent storytelling.

When I discuss fiction podcasts, there’s been a holy trinity of shows by which I rate all others: Wolf 359The Bright Sessions, and Limetown. Each of these shows have had specific moments to solidify their place in my audio canon: for Limetown, it was “DDoS,” which perfectly blended genres without straying from its horror roots; for The Bright Sessions, it was Julia Morizawa’s stunning performance as Dr. Bright in “34 – Frank”; for Wolf 359, it was the deeply moving writing in “Memoria,” which remains the most impressive single episode of a fiction podcast I have ever heard.

For The Adventure Zone, there is not a single moment that has canonized it as one of the greatest pieces of audio drama. In fact, the lack of a singular moment is what makes it exemplary. The slow unraveling of the story as something bigger than how it started, specifically in regards to its medium as a piece of emergent storytelling, is what makes it so phenomenal. The combination of dramatic irony, the stochasticity of dice rolls, and the shared surprise for character and story moments directly adds to the immersion of the show. While these are all common features of the “Let’s Play a Tabletop” genre of media that has, blessedly, gained a popularity boom as of late, its depth of writing–a term I will use throughout to describe both Griffin’s planning and the player’s improvisation–makes it unique in the genre.

In the early episodes of The Adventure Zone, Taako gives us one of the most iconic moments from the show so far:

You know, not everything has to be a joke. Sometimes you just be honest about your feelings, and that’s how I see myself, you know? I may not be the most threatening silhouette, but I like to think of myself as someone who can stand up for–you know, it doesn’t always have to be “goof goof dildo” [. . .] okay? I’m-I’m traveling around with the boner squad and I never get to say how I’m feeling. I have emotions! It’s not all abra-ca-fuck you and what have you. I have a beating heart! I’m multi-dimensional! I’m a fully-realized creation. Fuck!

The moment happened in Episode 23, two years ago. It marked a small shift in gameplay towards more genuine, immersive roleplaying; mostly, though, it served as an unintentional moment of foreshadowing. D&D is emergent storytelling, so there’s no way that Justin could have known how multi-dimensional Taako–and the rest of the “boner squad”–would be. By the end of The Stolen Century, Taako kills his more-or-less-brother-in-law, who is begs to be killed when they both forget about Lup. This is after Taako bonds so deeply with his sister, after he struggles and fights with her, after he shows how terrified he is that she’s going to become a lich. The gamut of emotions that Taako goes through during this arc alone is staggering, but he always remains, firmly, the chaotic elf wizard the listener has come to know so well over these hours and hours of audio.

Taako, obviously, isn’t the only character who reached a new level of writing over this arc. All three characters stand out in how intimately they’re written. Take, for instance, Magnus, who has gone from a bit serious and intense in the main game to excitable, charismatic, and youthful in The Stolen Century. Travis’s understanding of his character, who only became so dark after the death of his wife in the main campaign,  makes the contrast such a subtle stab of heartbreak when the listener realizes his trajectory. Magnus has sobering moments throughout the arc, culminating to his presentation of the wooden duck to the Voidfishes. By the time The Stolen Century ends and the campaign itself begins, the listener has heard Magnus mature and find himself.

By the end of the Stolen Century arc, all three of the main characters have reached depths nobody could predict from the early episodes, including Griffin. Take, for instance, Merle’s final conversation with John, a.k.a The Hunger:

JOHN/THE HUNGER: Is there something you want to know, Merle?

MERLE: Yeah! There is something I’d like to know. Are you my friend?

JOHN/THE HUNGER: Hm!

TRAVIS: Not what I was expecting!

GRIFFIN: But very fucking good! Give me a minute. I’m reeling a little bit.

This is the unique joy of The Adventure Zone’s combination of lush character writing and emergent storytelling. There’s the story that is being told in-game, but there’s also the meta-story: the story in which we hear Griffin react to Clint’s writing for Merle, the story in which Griffin has to react and we get to see how that plays out. This isn’t just the story of three adventurers trying to save their world against an evil force; it’s the story of a family coming together to do something silly that becomes art. It’s the story of a youngest brother devoting so much of his time and energy to a work of art that ultimately stuns not just the rest of his family, but a massive audience. It’s the story of a man working through the grief of losing his mother through a character who lost his wife. It’s the story of another man learning to be more empathetic by playing a character so different from himself. It’s the story of another man realizing that an outlet for creativity he had written off initially is something he loves. It’s the story of one of those men becoming so invested in this beautiful piece of art he has made with his family that he, too, carves a wooden duck, just like his character:

DUCK

All of this can be said about The Adventure Zone without even going into the masterful gameplay, sound production, acting, and writing done by Griffin. While Griffin does have a tendency of stealing certain scenes, he always does so to benefit the fiction–something so few pieces of “Let’s Play D&D” media seem to understand. Everything Griffin does serves the story and, therefore, his player characters. The NPCs are written to make the protagonists’ quest more pressing and important. The sound design is built to make the world more immersive and emotive; without the energy of actually playing the game, the emotional depth of certain moments would be lost on the audience without Griffin’s additions of music, vocal effects, or–most upsettingly–static. Unlike most “Let’s Play D&D” producers, Griffin understands that just having a good story in the campaign isn’t enough. The show, as a whole, needs to be something worth listening to.

The clearest moment of how well Griffin understands driving the emotional depth of the show is in Episode 66’s Lucretia montage, in which Griffin has gone through the full archive to pull the most important moments of Lucretia’s development throughout the show. Like Taako’s “multi-dimensional” rant (but much, much more emotional), these moments with Lucretia were likely not intended to be used as foreshadowing or a piece of some emotional montage later on. Any writer can tell you that writing moments specifically to be referenced later is much easier than writing references to smaller, more intimate moments earlier, and this talent shines through in Lucretia’s montage. Instead of Griffin explaining the tenderness of these moments while they happened, highlighting them in the final episode of this arc is a stark depiction of who Lucretia is and has always been, and recontextualizes so many of her story moments beautifully. Silly moments like responding, “Hot diggity shit,” to Taako’s macarons go from hilarious to twinged with the understanding that Lucretia spent so long having to distance herself from the friends she had spent years away from, especially after doing something so dire to them. Giving hyperbolic descriptors to characters usually discredits any emotional depth in writing, but when Griffin explains how Lucretia has felt all this time, it doesn’t come across as just believable–it comes across as truth:

. . . And Lucretia was tormented by these failures, by how long this was taking, by how distant she felt from her friends. Few people who have lived have ever experienced such loneliness, such hopelessness.

Lucretia’s profound loneliness isn’t just genuine in spite of lines like “That is a baller cookie”; it’s more profound because of lines like that. When the montage switches to Lucretia discussing how she “took her life into her own hands,” the listener doesn’t need an auditory flashback to the century in which she saved the team; the meaning is understood automatically, giving depth to what seemed like a standard ominous fantasy line in the campaign proper. Some of these moments were clearly planned in advance, which is a feat unto itself, but in playing characters like Lucretia three-dimensionally, the truth of who she was during and after The Stolen Century make for an even more heartbreaking experience on a second listen.

As the DM, Griffin has also given both the players and the audience a story that unfolds slowly while still being riveting episode to episode. This gradual progression makes the emotional benchmarks in the show feel natural and hard to place, in the best way. I’ve heard people give so many different accounts for when they realized the show was something uniquely moving. So many people have different moments, and so many people have many moments. This show doesn’t require one standout scene to push its quality over the edge. Each moment builds on the others, and that build itself is one of the things that makes the show so incredible. None of that would have been possible without Griffin’s writing and production.

And, of course, there is the structure of The Stolen Century itself. The structure of The Stolen Century renders the entire campaign as told, shockingly, in media res. When the listeners meet the characters in the first episode, they don’t yet know that this is the middle of their story instead of the beginning, and neither do Clint, Justin, Travis, or even Griffin yet. As the structure develops with moments of foreshadowing (for instance, Kavitz telling them each how many times they’ve died), the listener realizes that the plot as a whole is leading to the same circular structure as each year in the arc itself. In The Stolen Century, the characters do the same things over and over, hoping that one day, they will accomplish their goal, that they will learn and grow enough to win over something that seems insurmountable. The end of The Stolen Century leads the listener to the end of one of those loops, which both the listener and the protagonists had no idea they were even in. Telling stories in media res is often so easy and tired, but here, it’s a revelatory and exciting device that actually adds to the plot of the show.

On July 13thThe Adventure Zone will begin its finale. The end of The Stolen Century marks a bittersweet but thrilling rush towards the end of the story before someone else takes the helm as DM. If these last seven arcs have been any indication, I’m not going to take Griffin’s warning that it’s going to be “wild” lightly. You can, and should, listen to The Adventure Zone on any major podcast streaming platform. It can also be streamed directly from their website.

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