Archives in Podcasts: The Adventure Zone
[SPOILERS FOR THE ADVENTURE ZONE]
The Adventure Zone (TAZ) is the D&D actual play podcast created and performed by the McElroy Brothers (Justin, Travis, and Griffin) and their father Clint. The podcast originated in the early years of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, the brothers' first podcast, when they needed some filler episodes while Justin was helping take care of his wife and newborn child. The result was a podcast in its own right that's become a beloved and lauded example of D&D accessibility along with Critical Role and Dimension 20. And wouldn't you know it, several campaigns features archives and archivists!
TAZ: Balance - Lucretia and the Voidfish
(Campaign Length: 12/04/14 - 8/17/17)
The first and longest campaign of the podcast (so far), Balance introduced audiences to the Tres Horny Boys of human fighter Magnus Burnsides (Travis), dwarven cleric Merle Highchurch (Clint) and elven wizard Taako (Justin), from TV, with Griffin as the GM. While the first adventure, "Here There Be Gerblins," is as much a learning curve for the players as it is for the GM, the meta-plot begins to unfold nicely once the players are introduced to the Bureau of Balance and its Director, Lucretia.
Lucretia is a stern and stoic human wizard determined to track down certain Grand Relics that pose a threat to the world. She enlists Magnus, Merle, and Taako to help in this mission and inducts them into the Bureau by inoculating them to the effects of the Voidfish, a cosmic jellyfish capable of erasing knowledge. The Voidfish, or Fisher, eats memories and once those memories are consumed the knowledge is erased on a cosmic scale. Those effected by Fisher typically hear static in place of the information, which the Tres Horny Boys experienced when they encountered the drow wizard Magic Brian. The only way to counter the effects of the Voidfish is to drink the ichor from their tank, which gives the recipient the knowledge that had previously been erased.
It isn't until "Lunar Interlude V - Reunion Tour Part Two" that the players learn how much they've been altered by the Voidfish when they discover Fisher Junior, a baby voidfish kept by Lucretia in her office. Once the ichor of Junior's tank is consumed, the boys discover that their lives for the last twelve years were of Lucretia's making and that she'd erased an entire century of their memories.
In the aptly named "The Stolen Century," we learn that Merle, Magnus, and Taako were part of an interdimensional exploration team, the Institute of Planar Research and Exploration (IPRE), along with Lucretia, Davenport, Barry Bluejeans, and Lup, Taako's twin sister. The team was originally a typical science and exploration team, but after taking off in their ship, The Starblaster, their world was consumed by the Hunger, an entity set on consuming all matter in the universe. Because of the instability between planes, the crew was able to escape, always staying just ahead of the Hunger, escaping and "resetting" with each new universe entered. Thus, an entire century passing without the characters aging.
Lucretia's primary role in the expedition was to chronicle their mission. During this story we learn that the mysterious Red Robes the boys encountered in the previous arcs were, in fact, their former group and they were actually responsible for making the Grand Relics as a means of hiding the Light of Creation from the Hunger. It's also in this arc when the Voidfish is discovered and taken on board the ship, forming a bond of friendship with Magnus.
Unfortunately, with each universe visited, the Hunger continued to consume worlds, leaving the IPRE exhausted and forlorn as the sole survivors of every universe. Lucretia became convinced that the only way to break the cycle was to cut off their adopted world (where the Balance timeline takes place) from the other planes, hiding it and the coveted Grand Relics from the Hunger and its spies. The others disagreed, barely giving her idea consideration, which pushed Lucretia to feed her journals of their adventures to the Voidfish's recently born baby. In doing so, she erased their time together and any knowledge of the relics from mortal memories.
While neither the Voidfish or Lucretia are a traditional archivist, their roles can be interpreted as archival in nature. Lucretia could definitely be considered an archivist given her chronicler role during "The Stolen Century," though her actions are morally questionable. Her intentional destruction of records brings to mind powerful regimes and corrupt institutions trying to erase evidence of their wrong-doing with archivists complicit in that erasure. And while I can understand Lucretia's desperation, her decision had greater consequences by leaving an entire world vulnerable to an entity they couldn't be prepared to counter until it was too late.
Fisher and Junior, however, are essentially repositories of forgotten knowledge, though not by choice. There's a term in the profession called archival silence wherein the unintentional or purposeful absence of documents of enduring value creates gaps and an inability to represent the past accurately. If you really want to go on a deep dive into philosophy and archives (which I'm sure you do), Jacques Derrida's formative work Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression goes into great detail about archives as institutions of memory and the control or destruction of memory through that constructed space. Yeah, that's right, I referenced Derrida in an article about The Adventure Zone! This is the sum total of my life's work. Right here.
From an archival perspective, Lucretia and the Voidfish are nearly a textbook example of both a deliberate archival silence combined with Derrida's constructed archive. Even if we concede that Fisher and Junior are "neutral" by nature they're still complicit in Lucretia's erasure of the IPRE's story, taking away any agency on the part of her former crewmates as well as creating gaps in the memories of an entire universe. That's genuinely horrifying. There's another term in the archival profession called the right to be forgotten, which is the right of people to not be included in the record in order to preserve their privacy. It's a way for people to assert control over their lives and what archives and companies can and can't include in their collections or data. But the right to be forgotten requires agency on the part of those making that choice. Lucretia, and to a lesser extent the Voidfish family, takes that choice away. Again, that's horrifying on a comic scale!
Unfortunately, Fisher and son are incapable of correcting Lucretia's actions until they're prompted by a particular song that spreads the forgotten knowledge throughout the universe as the final battle begins. It's a dramatic moment and certainly one that brings goosebumps with Griffin's narration and the swelling music, but it begs the question: Could Fisher return knowledge the whole time? Can they still be considered indifferent vessels of lost memories, of archival silences, when previous episodes have shown thinking and feeling sentient beings?
I also want to point out that this is the second instance of a jellyfish used for a character as part of an archival situation. Again, I'm not saying our mascot should be a jellyfish, but I think we should be represented by a jellyfish!
TAZ: Amnesty - Arlo Thacker
(Campaign Length: 1/4/18 - 9/23/19)
I know a lot of people claim Balance as their favorite campaign, but I love Amnesty with the fire of a thousand suns. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of fantasy as a genre, but I'm more likely to gravitate towards urban fantasy because magic meets the real world is entirely my jam.
Amnesty, however, wasn't a sure bet when it was first introduced. After Balance ended, the McElroys were looking for a different system than the traditional 5th edition D&D they'd been playing for almost three years. What followed were three mini-campaigns using different systems with Clint GMing the superhero-oriented "Commitment" using the Fate system and Fate Core game setting; Travis GMing the weird western "Dust" using the Powered by the Apocalyse system (PbtA) and Urban Shadows game setting; and Griffin GMing what would be the first arc of "Amnesty" with the PbtA system and Monster of the Week (MotW) game setting. The MotW setting, for those who don't know, is essentially taking your monster of the week television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural and turning them into a role-playing game by using specific archetypes and tropes to tell the story.
Amensty is set in modern day Kepler, West Virginia and follows the increasingly weird events surrounding the town that are connected to the alien world of Sylvain. Populating Kepler are the player characters of park ranger Duck Newton (Justin), tourist trap owner Ned Chicane (Clint), new resident and magician Aubrey Little (Travis), and a supporting cast of cryptid and human characters supplied by Griffin as the GM. Trust me, it's worth your time to listen to Amnesty. There's a sentient sword, Beacon (also played by Justin), that is probably my favorite character in the TAZ canon.
But for the purposes of this article, we're focusing on a late addition to the podcast. Arlo Thacker has the rare privilege of being played as both a non-player character (NPC) and a player character (PC). He was first introduced as an NPC in episode 12 of Amnesty, found my Mama after being gone for six years in Sylvain. When he's brought back to the Amnesty Lodge, headquarters for the Pine Guard - the group tasked with protecting the identities of the resident cryptids and stopping alien interference in Kepler, he's a feral husk of his former self. He's infected with the Quell, an inverse force from Sylvain, that creates a hivemind with those who are under its control. Thacker is cured of the Quell in episode 29 by Aubrey, just in time for Clint McElroy to take over the character after Ned died in the previous episode.
It's in episode 30 when Clint takes significant control over Thacker as the first half of the episode is spent showing Thacker's backstory: how he became a member of the Pine Guard, what drove him to go to Sylvain, and what happened to him for the six years he was gone. In the midst of this flashback, Thacker is packing for his trip to Sylvain when Mama shows up. Griffin asks Clint if Thacker has told Mama about what he's about to do when he says:
No, I don‘t think so. He‘s—listen, he is not much of a joiner. I mean, he works with them, but it‘s almost like he‘s a lone wolf. He‘s very independent, and y'know, I think he checks in, but since, y'know, he is kind of a self-appointed archivist, y'know, he feels it more important to keep track of all this information. But he‘s gotta get out there and find the information. Doesn‘t want to waste time sitting around, talking to a bunch of people about it. So I think he just kind of jumps in.
It's interesting that Clint equates a lone wolf type with an archivist, like that's something archivists take on by choice instead of by necessity. I can, however, respect the initiative Thacker takes to gather information rather than wait for a decision by committee. Sometimes it does behoove the archivist to take matters into their own hands, though I'd exercise caution when venturing into an alien world where vampires and werewolves are the norm, not the exception. And other than gaining more intel on Sylvain, it's unclear what Thacker plans to do with the information when he returns. Keep the journals for himself? Share it with the other members of the Pine Guard? Write an urban fantasy novel?
Whatever information Thacker collects would be heavily biased. From his outsider point-of-view, Sylvain sends it's criminals or violators of specific laws to the human world. The Pine Guard keep them safe, but it has to color their perspective of the other world. I can only speculate as to whether or not Sylvain has any record-keeping practices of its own, let alone an archives, but it's definitely worth pointing out that Thacker's journals wouldn't be the most reliable source of information regarding Sylvain, its people, and culture. It's something all archivists, self-appointed or not, need to keep in mind when doing our job.
However, for the remaining six episodes of the campaign, Thacker's knowledge of Sylvain and his connection to the Quell are invaluable as the Pine Guard attempts to stop the invading force. He ends up taking a bit of a backseat to Duck and Aubrey's story arcs, but that's to be expected since there's more to wrap up. His epilogue is a very sweet bookend as a loner becomes a reluctant mentor as he resumes his travels.
TAZ: Ethersea - The Curator and Prologue
(Campaign Length: 5/06/21 - Present)
The most current campaign, Ethersea is a return to the D&D 5e system, but with a bit of a twist. Before the campaign proper started, the McElroys decided to do a Prologue using The Quiet Year by Avery Adler, a mapmaking game using playing cards to define a community and its struggles in the year before their civilization collapses. Since Ethersea is a campaign set in a society driven to live beneath the water, what better way to show how those decisions were made? The premise of the Prologue involves four separate kingdoms (the Hominine, the Einarr, the Southern Archipelago, and the Delmer) working together to save what's left of their world by journeying beneath the waves to avoid a devastating, and apocalyptic storm that looms on the horizon. Over the course of five episodes, the McElroys do the literal worldbuilding of their setting, which acts as a cultural archive of the pre-Founder's Wake civilization.
Part of The Quiet Year involves drawing and altering the map as resources change, events occur, and discoveries are made. With each change of the map, the society acts in accordance and changes in order to survive. The map itself chronicles those changes, acting as a record. Even Justin comments in episode three of the Prologue that the map is a "living document" as they add and subtract drawings. Maps are historic pieces that compliment documentary records. They fill out genealogical and historical research and they're significant in showing how a society views itself, or controls how it's viewed, and what it determines to be worth showing on the map. The privilege of being seen can start with placement on a map.
Now is the map created by the McElroys a work of art? No, but it's still an historical document by the standards of the civilization depicted in the main campaign.
It's also worth noting that in episode three of the Prologue, "The Comfort of Guilt," Travis and Griffin develop a character named The Curator, a person designated to collect various pieces of art, architecture, and culture pertaining to the four societies. There's a lot of back-and-forth about preserving culture that seems to solely fall on the artistic side, but there is mention of records and blueprints, which one of the societies, the Delmer, consider art, but are also historic as Griffin brainstorms his way through the thought. One can only assume the Curator took whatever documents were available to them given the disparate amount of people gathered on the shoreline and the differing cultural values.
When we jump 25 years into the future, as the regular campaign begins, we see the fruit of the Prologue's labor with the formation of Founder's Wake and join the newest PCs on their adventures under the sea!