The Adventure Zone: The Return to The Test of Initiation

Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy (creators), Griffin McElroy (writer), Carey Pietsch (illustrator)
First Second Books, Dragon+ Magazine
June 2018

Listening to The Adventure Zone always gives me the itch to play some Dungeons & Dragons—and I know I’m not the only one! In fact, it seems like D&D playership has never been higher now that The Adventure Zone and other D&D comedy podcasts like it have gained traction. Maybe you’ve even wished you could play as the tres horny boys themselves. And if so, I’ve got good news for you: in the June issue of Dragon+ Magazine, Wizards of the Coast released the first ever playable Adventure Zone module, written by DM Griffin McElroy!

The module is actually part of a promotion for The Adventure Zone graphic novel, which was released by First Second books on July 17th, and includes a 12 page preview of the comic in addition to the 11 page module and 6 character sheets. The art for both is provided by the talented Carey Pietsch, who has brought our beloved characters to life in charming and adorable ways.

But while I am excited about the upcoming comic, I was even more excited about bringing the campaign to life right on my own dining room table. I ran it so you don’t have to! (Just kidding, I ran it so you could get hyped about running it yourself!)

The module itself is a brand new adventure that takes place on the Bureau of Balance’s moon base, in which our heroes are summoned to deal with a burgeoning rebellion of the automatons that are normally part of the Bureau’s Test of Initiation! And who exactly are our heroes, you might ask? The module comes with six premade level 2 characters, featuring the three PCs from the show as well as three NPCs-turned-PCs: Magnus Burnsides the human fighter, Merle Highchurch the dwarven cleric, Taako the high elf wizard, Killian the orcish barbarian, Carey Fangbottom the dragonborn rogue, and Johann, the sad bard who acts as the Bureau’s groundskeeper.

An image of Taako the witch's character sheet. The Adventure Zone: The Return to The Test of Initiation, Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, and Travis McElroy (creators); Griffin McElroy (writer); Carey Pietsch (illustrator), First Second, Dragon+ Magazine, 2018

I ran for a group of six players, meaning all six characters were taken, and it took us about five hours to play through the entire plot, which was perfect! I think it would play perfectly well for a group of four or even three, if you wanted to stick with the feel of the show. We tested it out on a pretty diverse group, a combination of experienced players, brand new players, fans of The Adventure Zone and people who were completely unfamiliar with the show.

First of all, this module was great for new players! The PCs are only second level, which means there’s not too much to keep track of, and they’re premade, which really lessens the time investment at the beginning of the game. Character creation can be really overwhelming for players who don’t feel confident with the complicated rules of D&D yet, and the beginners in my game really appreciated being given a list of spells and a brief overview of what they do, rather than having to decide for themselves what spells to write on the sheet. Having at least one or two players with D&D experience will be a huge benefit to your party, though. While the module keeps things pretty simple, we’re talking about a game that has a lot of rules, and having someone who can explain those rules when questions come up instead of diving into the rulebooks every time will make your game run much smoother.

For folks that weren’t familiar with The Adventure Zone podcast, on the other hand, the module was still fun but definitely not ideal. Although Griffin McElroy noted that he tried to write it in a way that would still work for non-fans, there were so many references that went over their heads that I worried they weren’t getting the same experience—plus, we had to spend a lot of time explaining background that came naturally to fans of the show. We only had one player who had finished the entire Balance arc, the first campaign in the podcast, and she felt some awkwardness knowing so much more about what happens than everyone else. The content is certainly good enough that anyone could enjoy playing it, but perhaps having a party where either everyone or no one had listened to The Adventure Zone would have created a more stable player dynamic.

I loved the module, particularly as a DM. As an experienced player but a novice DM, the way it was written, like a conversation from DM to DM, really imbued me with the confidence I needed to run the game. Griffin did a great job of not just laying out the information I’d need to run the module, but also suggesting strategies of how to effectively relay it to my players in order to create a fun game. The introductions to different locations and such were well-written enough that I read them verbatim at the table, and they did a great job setting the scene and the mood.

And of course, the content was all as excellent as I’d expect from the Adventure Zone team. My party particularly loved the items, many of which were items from the show, now given art and in-game stats, and I was really happy to see how creative my players got with their items! I gave Merle the Ring of the Grammarian, which lets you change a single letter of one of your spell names in order to alter the spell effects—and he used it to change Spare the Dying into Share the Dying, a spell that we determined gives a death-saving throw to anyone who touches someone else who has fallen in the past round. I gave Magnus the All-or-Nothing Coin, which replaces your D20 roll with a fifty-fifty shot of critical success or critical failure and he used it to… embarrass himself in front of the rest of the party. I gave Johann the Glutton’s Fork, which lets you to eat any inanimate object you can fit in your mouth in order to heal 2d6 hit points. Instead of using it for the healing, he ended up using it to eat a padlock and get through the door it was locking!

I was pretty happy with the difficulty as well, although I did adjust it to be a little harder because I had so many people playing. (I basically just gave monsters more hit points so the fights wouldn’t all be over in one round.) We didn’t use a grid for the first big fight and regretted it—and the second big fight was definitely better for using the grid! I don’t want to spoil any of the fun surprises of the module, but there was one monster I particularly loved that had distinct stages depending on how much of its HP you’d whittled down, almost like a boss fight in a video game. Very fun and creative!

The only things about the module that I didn’t love were due to the nature of playing a one-shot instead of an actual campaign. It worked under the assumption that the PCs wouldn’t be too difficult and didn’t give a lot of thought to planning what to do if they went off script, which is always a risk, especially with more experienced players. There was also some intrigue introduced, but there wasn’t really anywhere to go with it since we only played a single session. That said, I could definitely see Adventure Zone fans continuing to play past the boundaries of the one-shot, leveling up their characters and creating their own alternate universe versions of the PCs (which is a super cool prospect)!

Overall, I’d highly recommend this module! Everyone involved in my game really enjoyed it. It was really fun watching my friends roleplay as my favorite characters from the Adventure Zone, and even as the DM, I got to get in on the fun as the honorary Griffin McElroy of the group. If you’re jumping at the bit to play now, here’s a friendly warning: only the DM should actually read through the module, as reading it will totally spoil the experience for players. So grab your friends, grab your dice and get ready to enter: The Adventure Zone! *cue theme music*