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The Adventure Zone’s new season moves from Dungeons & Dragons to something even better

GM Justin McElroy is leading a campaign with the Blades in the Dark ruleset

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A line-art render with green on black. The text reads Steeple Chase. To the left is an eye, showing a cone below it. Image: The McElroy Family
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The Adventure Zone podcast, the popular actual play series featuring the McElroy family, kicks off its fifth full season today. Called Steeplechase, the campaign is set in a fictional theme park in an alternate future Georgia. Unlike some past TAZ seasons, Steeplechase will not use the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. Instead, game master Justin McElroy is relying on John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, another critically acclaimed tabletop role-playing game.

Blades in the Dark was first published in 2017 by Evil Hat Productions. The game is set in the fictional setting of Doskvol, a European-inspired city in the throws of an industrial revolution and plagued by undead spirits. Players take on the role of criminals, and are encouraged to play those characters like they are “driving a stolen car.” Sessions often take the form of elaborate heists, with players able to improvise solutions in creative ways. From our review, published in 2021:

The 327-page rulebook gives players permission to invent their own solutions on the fly to problems that they encounter at the table. It’s less about having the right skills at the right time, and more about using the world that you’ve created around you as the motivation for in-fiction inspiration. Want to get into that fancy party but don’t know how? Flash back to earlier that day and play out a scene where you try to bribe a guard to put you on the guest list. A fight breaks out and you need an edge? Just wave your hand at the game master, drop some dice on the table, and pull out those brass knuckles you packed earlier in the day.

The Steeplechase campaign began Thursday with a “session zero,” in which Justin McElroy introduces the setting and the game’s mechanics. Instead of a dark Victorian setting, the game takes place inside a vertical stack of Westworld-style immersive theme parks. McElroy said in an email to Polygon that Ustaben, the campaign’s first level, is actually a repurposed map of King’s Island in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“[It’s the same layout of the] theme park we used to go to all the time as kids,” McElroy said. “It’s pretty low rent, but I think it’s a good representation of how I’m putting my stupid theme park obsession to good use.”

A map of King’s Island ne Ustaben, featuring a location called “Super Slumber Party” and “Prize Palace.” Image: The McElroy Family

The first episode also introduces the three main characters, played by Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and their father Clint McElroy. The campaign has no end date, and is likely to run on a regular basis for several years. Episodes are free to download.

This is not the first time that The Adventure Zone has stepped away from the D&D ruleset. Following its inaugural Balance campaign arc, which concluded in 2017, Commitment relied on the Fate system, Amnesty was based on Evil Hat Productions’ Monster of the Week, and Dust used Urban Shadows. Graduation, which premiered in 2019, returned to D&D as did Ethersea.

Blades in the Dark has seen a surge in popularity over the last year. The Glass Cannon Network recently began a campaign set in Doskvol featuring Raised by Wolves’ Abubakar Salim; a BAFTA-winning production house is working on a TV adaptation; and start-up One More Multiverse launches a virtual tabletop solution to support the game on Oct. 13.

[Disclosure: Justin McElroy and Griffin McElroy co-founded Polygon before going full-time as podcasters and content creators. Though they still occasionally collaborate on projects at Vox Media, they’re disconnected from all editorial decision-making.]

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