Review: Acquisitions Incorporated

When someone writes the history of tabletop gaming for the first decades of the 21st Century, 2019 will go down as an unusual year, being filled with D&D partnership products that tie-in to other media. There’s the Stranger Things boxed set, the Rick & Morty comic books and adventure, the big storyline adventure tied into the video game Baldur’s Gate III, and lastly—the subject of this review—a book related to an online live-streamed comedy campaign.

Penny Arcade, the webcomic, gaming convention operator, charity organizer, and streaming channel has decided to add “RPG publisher” to its portfolio and create a Dungeons & Dragons compatible book. Reportedly, they initially planned to Kickstart the book, but after talking with WotC/ the D&D team, it was decided to co-publish the book: Acquisitions Incorporated

Staff at both companies worked on the book. Which makes this product kinda sorta official. (Like the early 5e adventures that were done as a partnership with other publishers.) The book is mostly written by Penny Arcade staff with A-list freelancers who have a long history writing for D&D. As it’s published in partnership with Wizards of the Coast, it doesn’t use the Open Game Licence and can use D&D-owned monsters (like the Mind Flayer who adorns the cover) and also makes use of the official trade dress (aka the logos and look of the book, such as the red streak on the cover). 

But it’s mostly a Penny Arcade book focused on Acquisition Incorporated. 

Which means there’s a heck of a lot of backstory here…

What is Acquisition Incorporated: the Brand?

A brief-ish introduction for those unaware, such as D&D fans unfamiliar with Acquisition Incorporated and/or Penny Arcade. 

Acquisition Incorporated is interwoven with the webcomic Penny Arcade’s live streamed D&D games. These started in 2009 as official podcasts to hype the release of 4th Edition and sell that edition to a new generation of kids & video gamers. After three recordings (over a year or two), the game moved onstage and were performed live during PAX conventions, where the players could directly feed off the audience’s energy and play to the crowd. It was during these games that the characters moved to the Forgotten Realms, shifted to the D&D Next Playtest, and then changing to 5th Edition proper. Since then, the group has been involved with most of the major storyline adventures to one degree or another.

“Acquisition Incorporated” is the name of the player characters’ adventuring company. The name was brainstormed on-air by Jerry Holkins, the writer of Penny Arcade and player of the cleric Omin Dran. Because of the official sounding name, Dran declared himself the CEO of Acquisition Incorporated rather than the “party leader”, and the adventuring company was presented akin to a modern corporation more than a guild or adventuring band. This rapidly evolved into a form of corporate satire, with a focus on branding, contracts, and hiring employees (read: interns).

Two years ago, Penny Arcade also started a weekly side-game: the C-Team. This campaign is streamed on Twitch and run by Holkins. The C-Team was established as a “franchise” of AI, operating out of a different location. A couple players from this campaign have guest starred onstage during the live shows with the main cast. 

What is Acquisition Incorporated: the Book?

Acquisition Incorporated is a 224-page full cover hardcover book. It features a five-page introduction to Acquisition Incorporated that is largely in-world, twenty-five pages on running your own AI franchise, and thirty-two pages on designing characters that fit AI. This chapter also includes five new backgrounds. The bulk of the book is a 117-page adventure that takes a party of PCs from 1st level to 7th level, while awarding the characters management of their own franchise. 

At the end of the book are a number of appendices, which include stat blocks for four members of the core AI team (Omin, Jim Darkmagic, Viari, and Môrgæn), the C-Team, and the B-Team, plus five new monsters and a couple vehicles.

This book is ostensibly set in the Forgotten Realms, but apart from referenced gods it could largely work in any setting. The adventure might take a bit of work to move into a homebrew setting or another published campaign world, but the concept and AI material will be effortless to lift. (Heck, given there might be AI franchises in the Nentir Vale and Ravnica now, you don’t even need to “move” things per se.)

The Good

The book is an interesting concept, a type of gaming product I don’t think I’ve seen before. It’s not a fantasy world or a full adventure, but a sourcebook on a type of campaign. Somewhat akin to a book entirely about playing pirates or merchants, but much more specific. It has the kind of laser-focus typically seen in later products for a campaign setting, such as a supplement on a specific faction—like the Harpers or the Veiled Alliance—if 

those also had a very different tone and a dash of satire.

The two centerpieces of the book are the adventure and the “company positions”, which are roles in the organization. Such as a cartographer or loremonger. Each character chooses or is assigned a single role, which gives them a handful of new features (typically including a minor magic item). New features are unlocked as the franchise’s rank increases (done as the player characters increases in level). This is a bit of a power buff as a character who works for a franchise will have more options than one who doesn’t belong to a faction, but since all the PCs should be members, it balances at the table. The benefits are also small and flavourful, being unrelated to combat and unlikely to break your campaign. They’re smaller than the faction bonuses in Ravnica.

The book is full of helpful tools for setting up a franchise, including quirks for the NPC manager, upkeep costs, and lots of random tables for establishing a headquarters. Franchises are ranked from 1 to 4, which is a neat way of managing how well known your business is and the number of employees. These guidelines are useful, so the DM doesn’t have to handwave how many workers are present. 

The prose feels very different from most official D&D books, and even most 3rd Party books. It’s even different from a more conversational book, like Strongholds & Followers. It retains the goofy tone of the live games, possessing silliness and absurdity paired with the corporate satire. Normally I’m not a fan of jokey gaming products, as comedy is often unnecessary in adventures: you don’t need a full joke, just a set-up allowing the gaming group to produce the punchline. But I don’t think presenting Acquisitions Incorporated entirely straight and seriously does justice to either the concept or the brand. Humour is not only implied, but intrinsic. Expected even. 

Additionally, this is a bit of a niche product: I don’t know how many people will ever play a full AI corporate franchise game. As such, this product needs to be entertaining on its own and should be a fun read (which it is). The entertainment value needs to come from the reading as much as the playing. Adding to the entertainment value are the little notes. Like most 5e D&D books, negative space on the pages is filled with small in-character annotations. These are attributed to name members of Acquisitions Incorporated, either the main characters or members of the C-Team. 

The art in this book is very different than the art in other D&D books. Mostly. There are a few choice pieces that could comfortably be used in any D&D product. Traditional tabletop RPG art. But most of the art is cartoony pieces unlike those in other D&D books. These help establish this book as something untraditional and atypical. I’m using “cartoony” to demote the style and not the quality: these pieces are still quite good. Cartoony does not equate with amateurish.

The book includes a number of new Downtime activities, which are very much appreciated. I rather like Downtime, but it is seldom used in the game. (There is even a sidebar listing all the existing Downtime activities and their source.) These new Downtime options are tied into running a franchise, but could be used for any business.

The class option chapter is filled with fun quirks and roleplaying suggestions for all the classes in the game and many of the subclasses. Thought is put into how each character class fit into a franchise and how they might work as part of a corporate satire campaign, including an amusingly little in-character blurb from sample members of each class.

The adventure is solid. It’s a lengthy part of the book and is really six smaller linked adventures, which are each chapters in an unfolding story. Unlike the other published D&D storyline adventures, this isn’t just a giant sandbox and a couple dungeons being called a single “adventure” because of a linked backstory or initiating event. This is one big adventure with the PCs establishing their own franchise, slowly collecting a powerful artifact, and facing off against established antagonists before saving the C-team… and the world (and, more importantly, the brand). Each chapter adds more to the story. Really, the adventure is a showcase of the various factions of AI canon, while still feeling original and not just a retread or akin to a “clip show”.

Near the end of the book are several new traits that can be added to existing monsters, which are tied to the various faction and corporate roles. These can be effortlessly used to make NPCs members of any of the included factions, including Acquisitions Incorporated. This is a nice and easy way of adding additional NPCs without duplicating stat blocks and having five different types of guard. 

The Bad

The title of the volume is problematic. “Acquisitions Incorporated” is both the name of this book, the organization, the live streamed games, and the brand in general. It’s like a book just named “Star Wars”. It tells you what’s inside but googling the name is going to produce a lot of false hits. It could have been called the Acquisitions Incorporated Franchise Guide or Acquisitions Incorporated Field Manual. Anything really to help distinguish between “AI” the brand, “AI” the shows, and “AI” the book. 

The book contains no stat blocks or even firm references to former members Binwin or Aeofel. This was likely for legal reasons, as those characters are owned by their players and might not have given permission. It’s still a little sad that an arrangement couldn’t have been worked out for a cameo or nod. I’d love a one or two page Binwin web enhancement or PDF from Scott Kurtz. 

The new race doesn’t wow me. It might be a huge part of the C-Team show for all I know, but having only watched the shows with the live cast I have no idea. They’re not very iconic or unique, lacking both a strong societal role and a unique look. They’re just sorta there.

The Ugly

There’s only 5 new monsters that aren’t NPCs. Which feels like a small number, and a missed opportunity for more comedic monsters. I wasn’t expecting dick wolves or the fruit f***ker to make an appearance, but the Penny Arcade comics are filled with inventive foes that could have been added. And of the new monsters, we get the chaos quadrapod, which lacks art and *really* needs a visual. The clockwork dragon is also a let down, being only Medium and CR 1. (Three or variants might have been nice.)

There’s an entire chapter devoted to classes (literally called “Player Options”) but no actual new options for classes or related options like feats. While it is useful having advice for how each class fit into the organization, at 20-pages (almost a tenth of the book) the space used far exceeds that topic. The class options chapter could easily be half the length. It also feels unnecessary to include details on almost every subclass in the game. The advice here isn’t bad by any means and is often amusing and entertaining but it’s size and inclusion makes the book feels slightly anemic in terms of new player mechanics: there’s precious little content to add into this game apart from advice. You’re effectively paying for suggestions, which feels like contents more worthy of a blog than a hardcover tome. 

The above is arguably the key issue with this book. It is so narrowly focused, it does feel like topic better suited to a blog or PDF on the Dungeon Master’s Guild than a hardcover book purchased in bookstores. I’m uncertain what the unwitting  new player who has only been playing for six months and buys this as their second or third book will make of this product.

The Awesome

I adore the portmanteau names for many of the company positions. Like documancer and occultant. They amuse me greatly. I also like how each of these corporate roles was given an iconic member, an NPC with a name and backstory who appears throughout the book. I like having “iconic” npcs that appear in multiple places, where you can see different artist’s takes on a character. 

(There are no stat blocks for these characters in the book, but a web document with these characters was released on the AcqInc website: I love free online expansions and bonus content. Love.)

The book makes good use of monsters. With such a small number new beast in the book (and not assuming ownership of any of the other monster volumes) the adventure makes heavy use of the Monster Manual, but frequently modifies or alters foes in creative ways. I particularly like the big giant tentacle in the sewer that is mechanically a constrictor snake without a bite attack. Elegantly done.

While I’m calling out monsters, I adore the fact that Deep Crows were included. For those unaware, the deep crow is a creature that appeared in Penny Arcade comic strips and is included here as both a CR 9 and a CR 15 monster. That’s the content I wanted!

The book also has a great map of the Sword Coast by Jared Blando. He’s done a few before, but this one looks perfect for handouts and is definitely something to look for online from the artist’s website.

The adventure returns the town of Phandalin, last seen in the original 5e boxed Starter Set. The town here feels much more like a living town. It was a little sad in the Starter Set, when all the NPC’s in the town were tied to the Adventurers League factions, but this time there’s actual people in town who exist for purposes beyond introducing player characters to organizations. The players can even get involved in such local shenanigans as the town mayoral election.

The book includes two vehicles making use of the new vehicle stat block format introduced in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Given that book was so recently released shows some very nice coordination between Wizards of the Coast and Penny Arcade to get the proper formatting into this book. And, of course, who doesn’t want a balloon-powered airship; that’s almost worth the price of admission alone. (The mechanical beholder is just icing on the cupcake.)

Final Thoughts

This is an exceeding tricky book to evaluate. 

The audience for this book is the narrow group that plays D&D but also enjoys the Penny Arcade live games. I’m uncertain how it will be received by D&D fans who aren’t Acquisitions Incorporated fans: even as someone who has watched the live games but not the C-Team games there was a lot of references I didn’t get. Like the new race. And because the book is so heavily focused on making your own franchise, it’s not really going to appeal to Penny Arcade/ Acquisitions Incorporated fans who don’t play D&D; the amount of lore & background on AI is very limited and viewers who have watched all the shows are unlikely to learn anything new. This is NOT a book of lore on the organization.

But, as a counterpoint, the book is just plain fun. It’s oozing with flavor and a distinct style. There’s also the great adventure that’s an excellent choice if you need four to eight sessions of adventuring. Even if you don’t plan on running an AI franchise for longer than this adventure, after it ends you might find yourself wanting to tell a few homebrew tales or figuring out what happens with the business next. If you’re not planning on running the adventure it’d be easy to adapt the franchise rules for use with generic adventuring companies or a different business, making this book useful if you plan on having a game focused around a mercantile guild or mercenary company (perhaps even a tavern). And while the book is dripping with humor, the actual mechanical elements of the rules are not inherently jokey and those aspects can be stripped away. (Such as the amusing names for the corporate roles.)

If this were one of the three official releases by Wizards of the Coast I could see a lot of people being upset by this product. But as it is a bonus fourth book and only semi-official it feels like a nice bonus. Even if you never plan on running an Acquisitions Incorporated game, the book is still an entertaining read and has a lot of fun ideas that might inspire your campaign, be at a traditional dungeon crawl or a much more fantastic guild-based Ravnica game.

Shameless Plugs

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