PAX Prime is, first and foremost, a convention for fans of digital games. But these past few years it's also become home to tabletop experiences of all kinds. No event is more hotly anticipated than the annual one-shot Dungeons & Dragons play session with Acquisitions Incorporated, to be broadcast live on Twitch this Friday.
The Acquisitions Inc. game was played live Aug. 28. When the archive is available, we'll embed it here.
Twitch and YouTube streaming has become incredibly important for the growth of D&D, lead designer Mike Mearls recently told Polygon, and the Acquisitions Inc. games were among the first to make performing D&D online popular.
Polygon sat down with Chris Perkins, principal designer for D&D at Wizards of the Coast, to learn more about how the Acquisitions Inc. show is influencing the growth of D&D and get a preview of this year's action. He's is one of the best Dungeon Masters around, and has been the man behind the screen for Acquisitions games since the very first session.
What is Acquisitions Inc.? At its core, it's an adventuring party made up by the founders of Penny Arcade — Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins.
"We have such a great relationship with Penny Arcade," says Perkins, the man who first introduced them to the game's fourth edition ruleset way back in 2008. "They are all over D&D. They love this game, and we love their passion. When we get together with them in a room to talk about what we can do, that’s fun. It’s always energizing and exciting, and they’re always just so so happy to be doing stuff related to D&D."
Holkins plays the leader of Acquisitions Inc., a half-elf cleric named Omin Dran. It's Krahulik who gets the biggest laughs however, playing the narcissistic human wizard named Jim Darkmagic. Over the years they've augmented the group with the likes of Wil Wheaton and Morgan Webb, but at this year's show they'll be joined by regulars Scott Kurtz (dwarven fighter Binwin Bronzebottom) and Patrick Rothfuss (rogue Viari).
This year Acquisitions Inc. will help Perkins kick off a new campaign season for the D&D brand. Called Rage of Demons, it features a storyline focused around the Underdark — D&D's most dangerous netherworld. In fact, Acquisitions Inc. will square off against one of the franchise's most iconic characters.
"This is being billed as ‘Darkmagic vs. Drizzt Do’Urden’," Perkins said, "because in the Rage of Demons story ... what’s basically happened is someone has opened the floodgates ... and demons are spilling into the Underdark — as if it weren’t dangerous enough already. And when the demons arrive, their madness spreads [causing] creatures to succumb to it. Drizzt is no exception."
Acquisitions Inc. will come face-to-face with Do'Urden, and have the unenviable task of pulling one of D&D's most important figures back from the brink.
Of course, there's always the risk that something could go wrong.
"You never know what’s going to happen, because these games are entirely improvised," Perkins said. "I never know beforehand what the guys are going to do, or what crazy stunts they’re going to pull off. So we shall see.
"As far as I know, we still have some Drizzt novels on the horizon, so I don’t tend to worry about accidentally killing him off. We’ll let the audience just sort of fret over that one for now."
Acquisitions Inc. games are famous not only for the drama and the comedy in each session, but for the hardware Perkins brings to the table in the form of masterfully painted miniatures and massive, detailed dioramas.
One of Matt Smith's recent models. You can find more at his Facebook page.
"We’ve got a fellow named Matt Smith who used to be a Wizards employee," Perkins said. "Now he’s off kind of doing his own creative sculpting work and other projects, but he is once again delivering the hotness this year with a tabletop diorama that is Underdark-themed as well as a new toy for Acquisitions Incorporated."
That toy, Perkins said, will be a powerful airship — with, of course, proper Acquisitions Inc. branding.
"We figured it was time to break out another sort of James Bondian super weapon for them to mess around in."
While the sessions are always well attended, with hours long lines to get in and thousands viewing live on Twitch, Perkins says the biggest benefit to the D&D community is in literally showing how to be a good Dungeon Master.
"I think four years from now these Acquisitions Inc. games will probably be the thing I’m remembered for," Perkins said. "I think part of the reason is they demystify the D&D game, and they help people realize that they can do it.
"I’ve discovered over the years, that DMing is not that hard. I think some DMs make it hard on themselves by over-preparing and fretting about what could happen, instead of just living in the moment and improvising when things go off the rails. I think the way you learn to improvise well is just practice and experience. Some people might be just inherently good at it, but for me it just took a lot of time. It took a lot of DMing, a lot of campaigns, a lot of not-so-good sessions and a lot of great sessions for me to kind of hit my stride and feel comfortable not doing too much work beforehand — just kind of riding the wave during the game."
We asked Perkins if there's any risk in so closely associating the D&D brand with Penny Arcade, given their checkered history. Krahulik and Holkins have at times been accused of intolerance and not representing Penny Arcade as an inclusive community. Just last year the pair made waves by reopening the wounds created by a rape joke printed in their online comic, and there was much controversy surrounding the level of security given to game developers at the keystone conference last year. D&D, in stark contrast, has gone out of its way with the fifth edition of its game to be welcoming to a diverse audience.
Krahulik and Holkins on stage at PAX East in 2014.
"The D&D brand is resilient," Perkins said. "It is indestructible, so I don’t concern myself with that. In fact, I’m willing to poke at the edges of it, and let other people poke at the edges and see if we can we hurt this brand. And, as it turns out, the brand can take it.
"I don’t certainly feel like D&D is in any way endangered by the fact that there are these people hosting all of this entertainment and trying to bring people together to play. Yeah, there are things that always sort of erupt in the background in events like this. That doesn’t really concern us. At least it doesn’t concern me.
"Mostly, I think about things like how the Acquisitions Inc. game which proves that D&D is absolutely mainstream entertainment, and that you don’t have to be a D&D player to even enjoy it."