Tabletop RPG podcast The Adventure Zone recently bid farewell to its second longform arc, a monster-hunting urban fantasy set in West Virginia known as “Amnesty.” Run by the McElroy brothers, who basically head up a podcasting dynasty at this point, TAZ ensnared many a heart with its first arc, “Balance” – a Dungeons & Dragons-based campaign that’s currently enjoying a second wave of NYT Bestseller List-smashing success as a graphic novel adaptation. When that nearly three-year-long journey came to an end, many listeners were jittery at the news that the show’s next story would be changing not just genres but game systems, employing a Powered by the Apocalypse game called “Monster of the Week.”
The plot of “Amnesty” is simple. A mysterious gateway in the woods is a link between Earth and another realm called Sylvain, where all the beings we think of as urban legends come from. But while they’re just trying to live incognito, some decidedly unfriendly creatures also keep finding their way through. The requisite ragtag group of resistance comprises a middle-aged forest ranger who rejected being the Chosen One as a teenager, a magician whose actual magic powers tend to rage out of her control, and a theatrical former thief trying to lay low in a local tourist trap (yes, they know; no, Clint’s never seen Gravity Falls). Two years later, I can tell you that the new arc found its own compelling path, and managed to punch me in the gut more than once. In a good way.
The great struggle with recommending “Balance”, at least before the graphic novels were released, was that it was a comedy podcast that grew a plot as it went along. Its first few arcs thusly tended to sacrifice characterization for whatever joke was funniest at the moment, and the length and number of episodes were likewise daunting. “Amnesty” builds on everything the McElroys learned during that three years.
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Particularly impressive is youngest brother Griffin’s work as the game master, editor, and composer. His skill for character-focused worldbuilding sets the show apart from more plot-focused TTRPG podcasts, and the easy familiarity between the three brothers and their dad feels just as inviting as a weekend gaming session with old friends — minus the tedium of checking manuals and wrangling players.
Like the best sophomore outings, “Amnesty” wasn’t afraid to take risks. It experimented with guest voices, expanding on the use of individual versus group scene work from “Balance,” and let bad rolls have serious consequences for how the story unfolded. It’s also downright heartwarming to watch Clint, Travis, and Justin grow into playing very different characters than the ones they embodied the first time around. And of course, the series continues to do its best to include respsectful trans and queer representation throughout.
If you’re not a podcast person, the graphic novels are probably still the best way to try out one of the single most popular iterations of the “actual play” genre. But if you’re a “Balance” fan who got scared off before “Amnesty” got going, maybe give it another try. It might surprise you.