New TAZ season giving me feelings

People who have been following this blog for a while know that I’m a big fan of the McElroy’s body of work. Their latest actual play podcast season, The Adventure Zone: Ethersea, looks like it’s going to be another cracker of a story.

Here’s the summary for those who are unfamiliar:

Travelers from four war-torn kingdoms – the Hominine, the Einarr, the Southern Archipelago, and the Delmer – congregate at the edge of a fearsome storm, following a divine invitation emanating from deep within the Ethersea. The first five episodes of the season form a Prologue, detailing the the events leading up to the formation of the city of Founders’ Wake in the face of the oncoming storm. These episodes were played using The Quiet Year, a worldbuilding and map-making game by Avery Alder. The maps created by the boys in those episodes can be viewed here. The subsequent episodes of Ethersea are played using a homebrewed Dungeons and Dragons 5e system, informed by the events of the prologue.

The campaign is being DM’d by Griffin again, so we know that there are going to be some intense, brain-bending twists along the way. And the finale is probably going to make us cry.

In the meantime, however, the thing that has gotten me so pumped for the series has not been the characters or the setting – though these are all delightfully weird and wonderful. Instead, it’s the framing device that Griffin used in the prologue.

Each prologue episode began with a short monologue from a character named Brother Seldom, who is ostensibly giving a class about the history of their world. He broadcasts his lessons to the masses, which is very appropriate for the post-Covid online school situation that the listeners are in. Brother Seldom’s monologues are not about the nitty-gritty of the world that the family was creating in the prologue (with the exception of the final episode, in which he gives an overview of what Founder’s Wake looks like and how it operates) – they are more about the flavour of the world. Brother Seldom makes a lot of comments about how he feels about what happened, and he makes comments about how history will judge them for the choice that they made.

In particular, he makes a lot of value judgements about the state of the world.

Because of the magic we wielded, many of you listening to this very lesson will never see sunlight. If the tribulations we faced on that beach were, in any measure, a kind of atonement… well, then, we got off very, very easy.

The Adventure Zone: Ethersea, Prologue IV: The Hierarchy of Terror, Published on June 10th, 2021

One could argue back and forth about the appropriateness of putting these kinds of value judgements in an educational format, but this is a fantasy show where people have catfish whiskers and keep horseshoe crabs the size of terriers as pets.

The thing that I find so wonderful about The Adventure Zone’s campaigns is that there is always a strong sense of community or hope that simmers throughout the show, culminating in the final arc.

In the first campaign, Balance, the final episodes were all about how the world would not go down without a fight – that even faced with insurmountable odds, and knowing that they were likely to fail, the world would still come together to do remarkable things. Every beat in those final episodes was focused towards the culmination of that narrative theme.

In the Amnesty campaign, the theme was found family (the same as Balance) but in the finale the crew went their separate ways; they took their skills and started working on building the world back up again, using what they’d learned in the series to make things better. There was a sense of promise and hope, but also this awareness that once the Big Bad is sorted out, the world needs to heal – and that takes time. Time and effort. And the characters don’t shy away from that.

In Graduation (DM’d beautifully by Travis), the theme slowly morphed into a ‘destroy capitalism’ arc that was very apt for 2020. The player characters sympathised with the Big Bad’s motivations – the world is messed up, and all of the structures in place are designed to keep it that way, so we need to tear it all down and start over – but they disagree with their methods. In the end, they work together to shake things up without compromising their own integrity as people, turning to violence to expedite the process, or falling into the trap of ‘burn it down and rebuild from the ashes’ that fails to consider what happens to the people who get burned with it.

Ethersea seems to be… not different, but it’s definitely starting with a different vibe. In the other campaigns, we learned that the world was not what it seemed, and that there was something that the player characters had to do to make it better. Instead of working to save the world, or working to adjust the paradigm to make it more equitable, Ethersea seems to be starting from ruination. The player characters are not tasked with fixing the world in the wake of massive change – like they were in the conclusion of Amnesty – but instead are tasked with learning to adapt to the new status quo.

They are trying to survive in the world that their parents and grandparents left for them; a world that is so wholly different from anything in history that they will likely never have similar experiences.

The core conceit of Ethersea is that the world is so broken from irresponsible magic-use that it is now uninhabitable. The storm that the characters are running from is the world’s attempt to restore itself, but this will likely take decades – maybe centuries. The storm keeps the characters from returning to the surface. It may not even be addressed in the narrative as something that needs to be fixed: after all, Griffin made it very clear in the beginning that this is cataclysmic. It’s the sort of storm that reshapes planets.

As Brother Seldom notes in one of the prologues, many of the people born in Founder’s Wake will never see sunlight. Can you imagine? Growing up in a world where there are people who remember the world before it was broken, and knowing that fixing it is beyond anyone’s ability?

It’s a vibe that I think a lot of Millennials and GenZers will likely sympathise with as they listen.

In particular, I found the final monologue of the prologues to be absolutely gut-wrenching.

I hope with wholehearted sincerity that knowing more of our history will in some way temper the anger that you might feel for the state of the world you were born into. However, and let this be my final, most imperative lesson: do not let that anger go completely. The avarice of our world’s founders, their hubris, their militarism, these are blights beyond any of our individual control. They have eroded the very ground we once walked upon, dragging us down to the bottom of the ocean. That word, founder, has another meaning; to founder is to sink, to drown. We live in the aftermath of Armageddon, but we were not the only thing purged by the storm. In building something new, we celebrate the death of a paradigm that led to our ruination. We celebrate the burial of the architects of our unjust world. That is how our city earned its name. That is why we live in the city of Founder’s Wake. Class dismissed.

The Adventure Zone: Ethersea — Prologue V: The Weight of History, The Adventure Zone, Episode 5, 24th June 2021

Brother Seldom’s explanation of the world’s modern history ends with a reminder that the world is broken, and there are people to blame, but blaming them will not actually fix what was broken. It is likely that nothing will. Anger at those who did this to the world should be a motivator and a reminder, but it will only be useful if it is a catalyst for action and not an excuse.

The vibe throughout all of Brother Seldom’s prologues is one of repentance, loss, and anger at the choices that led them to their current situation. It is not necessarily one of hope, but a reminder. I don’t doubt that Griffin and the rest of the McElroys will be able to end the show on a hopeful note as they have every other time. I just wonder how they’re going to do it within the confines of Armageddon. I’m very excited to see what they do with it.

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  🙂

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