How The Adventure Zone Taught Me to Remember Fun
When you design games for a living or even just as a hardcore hobby publisher, it’s super common to get wrapped into a headspace where you need to evaluate and execute the game with the rules as written. When it comes to roleplaying games, there’s intentional and necessary room for interpretation—that’s part of what the medium demands—but designers often need to focus on a narrower, consistent set of interpretation that’s commonplace to a broad player base. We need to plan for non-optimal play environments with conflicting interests.
tl;dr: We don’t get to have as much silly game-breaking fun with our game, and in the moments when that happens, that indicates something we need to potentially address or even patch.
Enter The Adventure Zone, a D&D 5/e actual play podcast by the McElroy Brothers and their dad. They play D&D loose as fuck—there’s enough adherence to the rules for it to be D&D, but then they throw some rules out the window because they’re having fun and in a supportive environment (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not). It helps that they have an agenda: make a comedy podcast for other humans to devour with their earholes.
For instance, they take magic item solicitations from their audience, which are funny and a little broken, but the make that work because of their agenda, their loose interpretation of the rules, and how the DM handles magic item distribution: a random drop at the end of a story arc. A lot of groups wouldn’t work with that, and either reject it outright or get into bickering about it, because their shared expectations aren’t quite so shared. The game designer in my was cringing at first with some of them, but I got over that and listened with fascination at how the DM handled the use of those items.
The time economy in D&D is meant to be strict, so spell slots have concrete meaning. The Adventure Zone crew uses a more dramatic sense of timing—in their Fast & Furious/Mad Max-in-fantasy story arc, the wizard conjured a spiritual horse that lasted for multiple episodes. It might have not lasted as long as it did or work as they played if they got deep into the rules, but I’m super glad they played the way they did. I want more Garyl action. BEHOLD THE MAJESTY THAT IS GARYL.
I could continue with specific examples, but really it’s just worth a listen. I’ve learned a lot about intended play—or rather, unlearned some shit that got calcified over the years—by listening to the show and relating that to stuff I’ve worked on.
For us designers, that won’t stop the need for rigorousness in some cases. I’m in particular thinking about the couple years I worked on Pathfinder and having to get super deep into how aspects work in Fate, and how we couldn’t really write to a “fuck year Garyl” audience. But thinking about a looser sense of play is a good exercise when designing a game, because it’s an audience we should embrace more than we do. (And Garyl-style play is probably the only way to make Katanas & Trenchcoats work.)
The Adventure Zone cast likes to poke fun at themselves and explain they’re really not good at D&D. I say fuck that: they’re goddamn wizards at D&D, playing from a vast tower of dreams and humor for all to enjoy. I recommend a listen for designers who know enough about D&D to know where they divert.
P.S. At some point I need to auction off that creepy doll I got the Brothers to sign for charity.