When it was initially conceived by a group of longtime fans, Acquisitions Incorporated was a scrappy product with a simple purpose: Spread the word about a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons by playing it on a podcast, so people could get a sense of the experience. It's hard to imagine now, when role-playing games and podcasts are about as mainstream as it gets, but before a few years ago, D&D was about as niche as it got.
The podcast, which launched in 2008, soon spawned games played live at conventions and streamed online, and soon a whole fictional world was created, capturing the imaginations of players around the world. The decade-long journey has led to a new kind of legitimacy, with Wizards of the Coast this year releasing the first official D&D book created in partnership with a third-party company, Penny Arcade, which brings Acquisitions Incorporated into the Dungeons & Dragons canon and accessible to players.
Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade co-founder and the player behind the AI character Omin Dran, told SYFY WIRE that the idea for a podcast originated with his fellow Penny Arcade co-founder Mike Krahulik, who plays Jim Darkmagic in the AI campaign. While it may now be perfectly normal to propose a podcast as a way to promote something, back then it was fairly unheard of. Still, they brought the idea to Wizards, which was forward-looking enough to see the potential and greenlight the experiment.
"For some people, it's hard trying to figure out how to promote something cool, but with D&D it's pretty straightforward," Holkins said. "D&D is an awesome game. Everybody who plays knows it, so if you show people who maybe don't play it as much, or who maybe haven't played in a long time, if you just show people playing it that will probably solve all your problems right there."
The two Penny Arcade founders invited their friend Scott Kurtz of PvP to participate (he ultimately created the character Binwin), and the three players started a campaign led by a dungeon master from the company. This grew into a series of podcasts, and eventually live games were taking place at PAX events, the gaming conventions founded by Penny Arcade.
Over time the three players led by DM and D&D lead story designer Chris Perkins would be joined by occasional guests, like actor Wil Wheaton and author Patrick Rothfuss. People would wait in long lines to fill huge rooms at conventions, and PAX games would be streamed live and then posted on YouTube, earning millions of views from rabid fans. Eventually, it would inspire a dedicated and passionate following, with fans just waiting to participate in classic interactive moments like those involving green flame. Their AI story was unique, but the characters would often face elements of upcoming D&D adventures as it continued to be a platform for showing what people could expect from the latest D&D releases.
The world would even eventually grow beyond the core original team to show what life was like for others working for AI in a weekly live-streamed game called The C Team. Holkins was the original dungeon master for the game, which featured four players and expanded the AI universe, while also filling in the backstory of the characters in the original game. This year, Perkins stepped down from his spot as DM, handing the reins to Jeremy Crawford, D&D lead rules designer. For Crawford, AI's longevity is partly due to how it taps into a vein of silliness that's been a part of D&D since its creation in the ‘70s.
"I love that Acquisitions Incorporated provides a play space for a looser, funnier form of D&D to serve as a counterbalance to the also delightful epic serious stuff that many of us are playing in our other D&D games,” Crawford said. "Also, D&D going back to the beginning in the early days, when story was less emphasized, many adventurers were just about the characters getting rich. That's another funny way it taps into an element that has been in D&D for a long time. You could play heroes or you could play these pretty amoral guys roaming around the universe trying to build their business and get as wealthy as possible, and that's the kind of craziness of Acquisitions Incorporated. It's almost like a workplace comedy that has dragons in it.”
That's a common descriptor for AI, as Crawford, Holkins, and fellow Penny Arcade employee Elyssa Grant all refer to it as "a dark office comedy."
Since AI started, there has been a proliferation of live play D&D games, in the form of podcasts, streams, and convention games, such as The Adventure Zone to Critical Role. All have helped usher in an era where it's widely accepted that anyone can play D&D and D&D is for everyone. Grant told SYFY WIRE that when AI started there was a question of if people would want to watch others play D&D and now it's fairly normal.
"I think generally speaking Acq. Inc. has changed a lot in the way of performative role-playing,” she said.
Crawford believes AI played a very important role in helping spread the D&D gospel, since it was one of the first major examples of people watching others play the game.
"For many years people watched other people play D&D at conventions and settings like that, but Acq. Inc. was the first time hundreds if not thousands of people would show up in the theater or watch online other people performing their characters in a D&D game,” Crawford said. "I think it definitely was a part of that snowball that has been rolling and getting bigger and bigger over the last five to eight years that now includes things like Critical Role. I think Acq. Inc. was one of the very first that got that whole phenomenon rolling.”
To Holkins, it makes perfect sense that these shows are one of the biggest ways people are engaging with the game.
"Like the initial pitch that we sent, if you can see people doing something and having fun and enjoying it, then you're probably going to want to do that,” Holkins said. "There's never been more people having more fun where someone can see them with Dungeons & Dragons than there is right now.”
Now the AI world is in players' hands and what they've been watching for more than 10 years can be brought into their own games easier than ever. Looking through the copy we received from Wizards, the official 224-page Acquisitions Incorporated book for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons offers players everything from how to start their own AI franchise to new character options to an adventure featuring AI's unforgettable characters.
Penny Arcade had initially intended on publishing the book with funding from Kickstarter supporters. When executives told Wizards about the idea. After some discussion, Wizards asked if they would like to make it more official, the first time third-party IP would become canon. The answer was obvious, but it did take some careful consideration.
First and foremost, Wizards and Penny Arcade have very different art styles. Instead of merging them, they used both, with high fantasy art styles rendered by Wizards artists for larger pieces and then smaller illustrations more reflective of the Penny Arcade comics style. Browsing the pages, it feels like a standard D&D book in many ways, infused with that unique AI spirit throughout.
Crawford said Wizards gave Penny Arcade plenty of creative liberty, stepping back and offering advice here and there especially for game design but leaving storytelling to their new partners.
"We've had some postmortem discussions about the book and it was gratifying that both teams' main takeaway was it was a good experience because the two teams respected each other and also each team had a lot of people on it who have years of experience not only with Acq. Inc. but also with D&D,” Crawford said. "Even when we had a few disagreements, things worked out fine. It was the usual kind of back and forth that we experience on all our books. In a way, it was almost like working with extended family rather than strangers at another company.”
At PAX Unplugged this weekend, AI gathered once again to play yet another game and continue the story of these characters with epic costumes, amazing props, and a new engaging fun story in front of a packed audience — and it all grew from a podcast.
"Ten years hence there is an official volume of more than 200 pages detailing that campaign and what's more, essentially canonizing it so that those are all things that really happened in the context of Faerûn," Holkins said. "It's humbling stuff for somebody who's been playing D&D as long as I have."