This post is sponsored by First Second. All opinions expressed in this post are based on the writer’s personal views.
If you’ve spent any time in the nerd community, then you’ve probably either listened to The Adventure Zone podcast or you’ve heard about it from one of your friends.
I myself fall into the latter category. Before reading The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited!, the second graphic novel in the series based on the wildly popular tabletop RPG comedy podcast, my familiarity with the work of the McElroys was liminal. I’d listened to other podcasts that gushed about their podcasts—The Adventure Zone having originally spun off from the also wildly popular My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast.
I’d also listened to more than one friend extol the virtues of a podcast journey that began as an excuse for brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy to play Dungeons and Dragons with their dad, Clint McElroy, and became a transformative storytelling experience that surprised even its creators with its depth and emotional complexity. Now, I am part of this delightful narrative world.
Murder on the Rockport Limited! picks up where last year’s Here There Be Gerblins left off and follows the second arc of the larger “Balance Arc” campaign, tagging along on the adventures of hero-adjacent-types Magnus Burnsides, Merle Highchurch, and Taako, as seen from left to right in the cover art below…
When we pick up with them in this second installment, Magnus, Merle, and Taako are just being recruited into The Bureau of Balance, from which this arc presumably gets its name. What is The Bureau of Balance, you may ask? It is an organization tasked with collecting and disposing of magical artifacts deemed too powerful to exist in the world. The Bureau is in possession of something called the Voidfish, a creature who can be used to erase specific memories from people’s minds—a power used to keep the relics The Bureau collects forever secret.
In Rockport Limited, Magnus, Merle, and Taako are sent on their first proper Bureau mission. The job? To reclaim a relic found by a Bureau operative who was killed before he could return it to the Bureau itself. The relic has been placed in a vault on the Rockport Limited train, which runs from Rockport to Eversummer. When a second murder occurs when our trio is on the train, the party works to solve the murder with the help of the genius child detective Angus McDonald, and to find the relic before it falls into the wrong hands.
For those who might be worried about jumping into this story that has already begun, the novel does just enough work to situate new readers (or readers who forgot some of the details from the first book—it happens!) in the narrative world. The book begins with a crazy wall-style breakdown of what happened in Here There Be Gerblins before diving into this next chapter. As the story evolves, we get helpful profiles of each character complete with name, race, class, and a list of proficiencies. New items also get their own profile scroll, too.
Knowing the basic structure of a Dungeons and Dragons game is helpful in parsing the world of The Adventure Zone, but it is in no way necessary. Not only has Dungeons and Dragons influenced mainstream nerd culture enough (and was influenced by basic fantasy literature itself) that anyone with a basic knowledge of fantasy story structure will be fine, but there are broad enough pop culture references that there will be jokes that everyone gets, no matter your brand of nerdiness.
This is the joy of collaborative storytelling, which, at its heart, is really what Dungeons and Dragons is all about. While the graphic novel may be more polished than the “live” experience of the podcast, with vivid visuals by artist Carey Pietsch that bring this world to life in another way, the spontaneity of the storytelling is impressively preserved in the jokes that were no doubt made by the various McElroys during gameplay.
In this way, The Adventure Zonegraphic novels represent the best of both worlds: the magic and unpredictability of gameplay storytelling and the intention and grace that can come with the editorial process. The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited! isn’t just for fans of The Adventure Zone podcast or even just for fans of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s for anyone who loves smart, silly, fantastical adventures filled with mystery, heart, and humor.