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Fleen Book Corner: Good, Good Boys

The Adventure Zone: Here Be Gerblins is maybe the book that is least for me that I’ve ever looked forward to. I believe that I’ve mentioned that I don’t listen to any of the McElroy-related media empire — not because I’m not interested, but because I know that I would get sucked into listening to every. single. damn. one. they do, or are associated with. Every month or so I can go by YouTube and see which bits are attracting all the new animatics, and I quite enjoyed their guest turn on Bubble, but that’s as far as I can go. I have work, people.

But TAZ:HBG has brought me right up to the precipice. If I fall into a McElhole, it’s because of this book.

Which is weird, because it shouldn’t have worked. A story made up on the fly (and remade) by four different people (brothers Justin, Travis, Griffin, and dad Clint), and adapted to story form by two (Clint and artist Carey Pietsch) should be a mess. Griffin surely knows the pain of every dungeon master who’s ever lived as the players derail everything you’ve planned and go off in a million directions … and when those players are known for digressive goofery and several thousand tangents per second? There’s no way to get a single, coherent narrative from that starting point.

Except they do. Credit to Griffin for clearly having an idea of where he wanted the story to go and accounting for all the fuckery his family could throw at it. Further credit to Clint and Pietsch for finding a way to pare down to that story, while still coming up with means to include the best fourth-wall breaks, character introductions, scene shifts, and the flavor of the gaming sessions¹. It’s straddled the line between playing a game and what the lives of the collectively-created characters are like in the game rather nicely.

But that’s not why you should read the book. You should read the book for one exchange, during the last of the increasingly-difficult boss battles, when who the McElroys are comes through. They’ve spent 200 pages playing characters who are willing to tolerate each other, but who range between self-regard, self-delusion, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement.

Magnus (human, fighter, played by Travis) is cocksure, rushes in without thinking, and generally makes things worse. Taako (elf, wizard, played by Justin) full of himself, not above a bit of thievery, and generally makes things worse. Merle (dwarf, cleric, played by Clint) is grouchy, doesn’t like his family or the mission, and generally makes things worse.

Then the Big Bad threatens a town that they don’t care about at all. Taako’s fled to a place of marginal safety and for once, Magnus hesitates.

Magnus: I’m not leaving with all these people here!!
Merle: Magnus … you can’t save everybody.
Magnus: Maybe not — but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

And there it is. Despite playing a blundering jerk for hours and hours, Travis can’t help but find a place to inject the fundamental decency for which the McElroy boys are known. It’s going to cost Magnus his life, it’s going to derail the game (and the podcast series)², and Travis’s dad reacts the only way he can.

Merle: Well … shit.

And then they’re off, transformed from adventurers to heroes. Even Taako finds a way to to care — despite insisting that he doesn’t care — and act to help Magnus and Merle. They’ll still be jerks, they’ll still try to scam their way through life, but they’ve turned a corner without really intending to. Griffin may have set the conditions that made it possible, but when Magnus, Merle, and Taako could have cut and run, Travis, Clint, and Justin decided that they wouldn’t.

It would be a hard thing for one author to pull off — heck, it’s taken masters of character growth like Randy Milholland and Meredith Gran hundreds of strips over years to accomplish such redemptive arcs — and four people working occasionally in parallel (but just as often at cross) purposes pulled it off in the space of a minute. Pietsch conveyed the entire thing in three pages, and the centerpiece, that emotional turn from Magnus and Merle in three panels.

And that’s why this book that isn’t for me, one that I looked forward to from a remove, was ultimately worth it. Because in and around all the goofs and sniping and shit-talking and messing with the DM and each other, little grace notes pervade. You can be a bit of a dick, and still want to save the helpless. It’s a hell of a message.

Oh, and the whole thing with the sshhkxxx? That’s one great story hook you came up with, Griffin. Nice one.

Spam of the day:

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Okay, EMT hat on here — ketosis is your body’s metabolic mechanism to desperately attempt to keep your brain alive when you’re starving it of glucose. It is not a means to — as the subject line of this spam promised — get abs.

¹ My favorites, in no particular order:

  • DM Griffin appears in inset panels when he interacts with the story; on his first appearance, the players panic and he has to calm them.
  • Scrolls appear to introduce new characters and their defining abilities.
  • What must have been wildly looping, heavily descriptive role-playing (Well, I say ______. Okay then, I say _____ in response, and suck it!) is constructed into naturalish dialogue.
  • Running gags about game mechanics appear, as do repeated hints by Clint about popular songs; at first, the boys mock him out of character, but by the end, they’re referencing Oklahoma and The Girl From Ipanema in-character and it works.

² Unless Griffin can make with the DM magic, fudging rules and consequences to keep the story going that is.

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