The Adventure Zone: adaptation from RPG podcast to graphic novel

Some of you may know that one of my academic areas of interest is in adaptations. Specifically, I’m interested in how stories change when they move from one media type to another (see here, here, and here if you’re interested).

Usually, creators who are adapting stories will make changes to the characters, storylines, or scenes, either because the new format has more or less space to work in (a film, for example, only has a couple of hours to tell a story while a TV series has as many as the studio will pay for) or they’ll have completely different methods of storytelling (the audio medium of podcasting vs. the visual medium of graphic novels, for example) that necessitate different approaches to getting the same information across.

Adapting a book to film is one of the primary examples of how switching to a new media type can affect a story. In film, it’s all showing and minimal telling – either the audience gets information through mis-en-scene or dialogue – no long blocks of text describing key details. If you’re adapting a book to film and the story has a lot of descriptive writing then you have to get creative with the storytelling devices available to filmmakers.

Some media franchises actually rely on a transmedia storytelling experience (where the audience experiences the story through multiple platforms). That way, the creators can use as many storytelling devices as they like; though if the audience does not experience all of the media types, then they may become confused when key information is not adapted properly.

For example, if you don’t engage with Harry Potter beyond the movie franchise, that you wouldn’t really know the differences between the Hogwarts Houses – except that ‘there’s not a witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin’ in the first movie, no one actually explains what that’s all about. You have to go to the books, merchandise, or Buzzfeed quizzes to learn about what makes a Hufflepuff different from a Ravenclaw. Also, what’s up with the stag in the third film? Because no one ever actually stated that James’s animagus form was a stag – or even that James was an animagus at all. Harry just randomly produces a stag patronus and goes ‘It was my dad’ and that’s that. The significance of James, Sirius and Peter becoming animagi, and why it was so important that nobody else knew about it until then, isn’t really addressed. In fact, you’d better brush up on your Latin, because without the context clues of ‘ani’ and ‘magus’, you would have no way of knowing what an animagus even is because that’s not explained in any real detail either.

Now, an argument can be made for the fact that film simply doesn’t have time to go into detail about every little thing. I agree. But I once met a woman who was twenty-seven when she learned that James was an animagus and that his form was the stag – for years, she’d thought Harry had just named his patronus ‘my dad’.

I can’t go on a tangent about how the Harry Potter franchise is designed to be consumed through as many different media outlets as possible right now. But please know that I could.

What you need to know right now is that the storytelling devices available to a media type will impact how a story gets told. Film uses visuals and dialogue in a shortened time-frame, while books use description and narration to give backstory. Different devices = different narrative experiences, with some necessary changes if a story is migrating from one platform to the next.

The point of this blog is to talk about The Adventure Zone – an actual-play Dungeons & Dragons podcast that I’ve gushed about before. The Adventure Zone is, according to its wikipedia page, “a biweekly comedy and adventure actual play podcast based loosely upon the popular Dungeons & Dragons game series, along with other role-playing games… hosted by brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, and father Clint McElroy.”

Over the last few years, the McElroys have been collaborating with artist Carey Pietsch to adapt the first ‘season’ of the show into a series of graphic novels. The latest one, ‘The Eleventh Hour’ has just arrived in my mailbox and I have a lot of feelings about it.

The Adventure Zone graphic novels make no secret that they’re adaptations of a D&D game. Consider, in contrast, The Legend of Vox Machina, another D&D game adapted into an animated series. While the series does have a lot of the ~vibes~ of a D&D game – the high fantasy aesthetic, different races in a party chasing MacGuffins, various magical items and stylised magic – it is not explicit about its source. It is possible to watch the whole series without knowing that it is an adaptation. The group that made Vox Machina also have a series of graphic novels like TAZ does, about a different campaign, but those are also very implicit about their D&D roots.

In some cases, that’s what you want. If creators want to reach multiple audience types through adaptation, then they don’t want there to be a barrier for entry or too much assumed knowledge. I think the Vox Machina adaptation is really good at maintaining narrative integrity across platforms, especially when you consider that they’re adapting hundreds of hours of content into 20-minute instalments.

Adaptations might often include callbacks, nods, and inside jokes that can alienate an audience who is coming to the adaptation before the original.

I think this is usually acceptable to the new makers because the adaptations are riding on the success of the original. That’s arguably the case here; TAZ is a New York Times bestseller because the podcast had an audience that preordered copies of the books. Similarly, Critical Role’s kickstarter for their animated series adaptation of the Legend of Vox Machina garnered the attention of Amazon Prime because they got backers so quickly – proving that their built-in audience was a safe bet. The adaptations thus don’t need to worry too much about potential gaps in the audience’s knowledge because if there’s something that didn’t get through because of storytelling restrictions, the audience likely already knows the original and will fill in gaps on their own.

TAZ takes a different approach. They don’t shy away from the RPG-ness of it all. Their graphic novel clearly demonstrates the roots that the story has in D&D and how they do it is very interesting because they use as many of the RPG storytelling devices as they can, while still confined to a purely visual medium.

So let’s take a look at ‘The Eleventh Hour’ together, shall we?

First, the Dungeon Master is in the story. Griffin is the youngest brother and the season’s Dungeon Master. Here, he is presented with his own character description that contextualises who he is and why he’s there, he gives directions and prompts, and asks questions of the player characters.

This is not a traditional fourth wall break, because the characters don’t really address the reader – just each other. It’s more like Griffin is behind the scenes of the story, almost between the walls, aware of his place but still buying into the core conceit that the characters are real people with agency, and not players at a table.

It’s a break in expectation because the characters are able to address the person who is essentially in charge of their story, but there is a difference between their interaction with Griffin and their interaction with a more literal version of a ‘god’ later in the story. Griffin is not the god of this world, but he is an influential figure, and the characters are portrayed as recognising that. The acknowledgement of the DM and his role – separate from the characters and the narrative, but still integral to the overall world-building – is a device drawn directly from RPGs. Their dialogue also creates opportunities to discuss the characters’ choices, their potential consequences, and the metanarrative as a whole.

Second, every character has a race, class, and proficiencies – and they’re clearly labelled. The player characters have cleric, fighter, and wizard, while NPCs have their jobs instead of their D&D class. This creates a clear distinction between the PCs and NPCs, but regardless of their place in the narrative everyone gets a description that explains who they are and their role in the story. It’s a quick way to give information about the characters to the audience, as well as creating a space for quirks or backstory to be signalled to the audience without taking time away from the main story. So this RPG tool has become a visual storytelling device in the graphic novel format.

Third, spells and weapons are explained mechanically. This similarly allows important information to be conveyed without interrupting the main story. In a D&D game, the characters don’t just find items or use spells – the DM will offer you the item and tell you ‘this is what it’s called, this is what it does, and this is how it affects gameplay’. Often there’s a stat card that comes with magic items or a spell description that you can spend many hours dissecting so that you can figure out how to abuse it. The item and spell stats had to be verbally conveyed in the original podcast, and here they are translated loosely to the graphic novel through a few sentences written on parchment notes; they’re not perfect one-to-one replications, but they act as explanations for the type of item/spell and its limitations and uses for the benefit of the reader.

Fourth, the nature of the game is built into the imagery. Whether Taako is getting crushed by a literal Nat1 or the page has been divided up to look like a level on Donkey Kong, gaming as a concept is referenced visually throughout. The characters’ entire world is a game and that is made clear not just through narration and dialogue – which could arguably be a storytelling device just as readily available to podcasters – but through the medium that it has been adapted to: graphics. Now, would a reader who doesn’t know the mechanics of D&D make heads or tails of these images? Maybe not, but I think a die with a big ol’ 1 sitting on a beloved character’s crushed corpse might give some of the significance away. Either way, it’s a way to visually convey the original’s audio-only game format. It is a way to use the visual-only storytelling devices to convey information that otherwise might not have made it through.

A lot of adaptations tend to fall into two camps: either they’re offering a standalone text that you don’t need to have engaged with the original to understand, or they’re creating a transmedia experience that cannot be enjoyed or understood in isolation.

Regardless of which camp the adaptation falls into, it will often include gaps in the story left because the restrictions of the new media type necessitated the change.

What TAZ does so well is acknowledge and adapt as many of the RPG tools and storytelling devices into the visual format as it can.

These deliberate callbacks to the original story format serve an important function: they ensure that the reader isn’t missing anything.

Important information gets through via these RPG tools that would have been lost if they weren’t included. The McElroys don’t have to explain the significance of the characters, their position in the narrative, or the items and tools that the PCs have access to: they’re in the little parchment note stat blocks. They don’t have to explicitly state that this is all a game, because the graphic style and the elements of the scenes express that well enough to those who are interested in that sort of thing.

It’s fascinating to see how the adaptation is able to draw on the conventions and devices of the original, and I’m very interested to see how the series will continue to explore audio-only RPG storytelling in a visual medium.

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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