Actual Plays for TTRPG including Dungeons & Dragons have exploded in popularity. While a lot of the driving force might be attributed to series like Critical Role and Dimension 20 Actual Plays have been going on for far longer. In 2008 a podcast called Acquisitions Incorporated was started to promote the release of D&D 4e and now 15 years later it's still going strong.
This week we got to sit down with Jerry Holkins, cast member of Acquisitions Incorporated, to talk about his contributions to Actual Play history and the finale of Series 2 that will be played this Saturday, December 2nd at PAX Unplugged. Others may be more familiar with him under his pseudonym Tycho Brahe, Penny Arcade's co-creator and PAX's co-founder.
Alongside talking with Holkins about the origins of Acquisitions Incorporated we also spoke about the current season, how Chris Perkins and Jeremy Crawford DM, and what might be in store for the future of Acquisitions Incorporated.
Actual Plays and Acquisitions Incorporated in 2008
Acquisitions Incorporated is like a fantasy MLM where we franchise our adventuring brand
To start at the very beginning of Acquisitions Incorporated I wanted to know how it all started. Holkins explained that they had been approached to highlight D&D 4e "perhaps because [Wizards of the Coast] were nervous, perhaps it was part of the regular promotional cycle".
"We were asked by Wizards of the Coast if we had any ideas about how to put this new version of Dungeons & Dragons on people's radar," Holkins continues "Mike [Krahulik]'s first idea was to do a podcast where we play D&D and then we just decided to not do any of the other ideas."
Being in 2008 it was a different era of technology and being able to track what people were doing. Podcast listeners weren't listening using modern tools like Spotify or YouTube where instant feedback can be provided to the creators. "It wasn't always 100% clear [...] you might not know with something like a podcast if people enjoyed it or if it's something people listen to again and again especially since they're grabbing that file and playing it locally"
Reminiscing on the first live Acquisitions Incorporated show at PAX East Holkins talked about their regular convention room with a max capacity of 800 people.
"Because it wasn't a theater the only room you had where you could prepare was literally a maintenance hallway. I can see the rows of cable piping, and we're there and I've got a gorget and my friend has a cloak and maintenance workers are walking by us"
"It was difficult to find out online and then every now and then you'd have an experience and realize 'I guess people really engaged with that'"
"I had looked out at an empty room, and then I had gone into this conduit to marinate in my shame, and then when I came back in the room was so full that people had to stand up. Thank god, because I had been feeling very very dumb"
What Makes Acquisitions Incorporated Resonate With People?
Asking Holkins what he believed the 'secret sauce' of their success was he said that he is always surprised to find when people enjoy what he likes. Referencing the popularity of not just Acq Inc but also Penny Arcade's comics and PAX as a series of expanding conventions
"Mike had never played before and had an antipathy towards it as a pastime. That's a pretty novel person to put on something that's a marketing project. [...] I never stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons, except for a brief period when I was playing other games because my Mom [believed] Dungeons & Dragons and Satan were synonymized. Other than that I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was six."
"We also brought in our friend Scott Kurtz, of PvP and Table Titans fame. He was a lapsed player. You have the current player, the player who is 'maybe this is not for me actually', and then the lapsed player who just stopped playing for life reasons. Each of those is a reasonable point of ingress into the hobby. It's pretty crafty actually, if you think about it!"
Acquisitions Incorporated Within Dungeons & Dragons
Holkins brought up that Acquisitions Incorporated is one of the few home games that have been canonized into an official D&D supplement joining the ranks of Dragonlance "It exists in that continuum of home games that have ascended somehow."
Not only has Acquisitions Inc. transitioned from 4e to 5e over time, but their games have moved across realms taking place in settings like Arthas from Dark Sun, Nentir Vale from Points of Light, but also Ravnica from Magic: The Gathering.
"[Wizards of the Coast] started tying in with Magic worlds, and they're messing around with Spelljammer and Planescape which basically allows you to touch any two points of their multiverse. Just depends how long you want it to take you."
"It's hard to know" is the answer I got from Holkins when I asked how he feels Acquisitions Incorporated has impacted the growth of Actual Plays. "The reason I say that is because that space is really really vast."
He went on to talk about how his Spotify has "identified him as a dork." He'll see all manner of Actual Play shows running D&D or any other TTRPG and he hasn't heard of them "not because they're bad but it's so big." Holkins also paused for a moment to comment on how scary it must be to launch something new in such a populated space.
"Then you have something like Dimension 20 that has managed to construct a subscription product around it. The truth is, now this is a normal thing to do and so maybe if anything [Acquisitions Incorporated] [...] got the ball rolling to where now it's one of the most basic forms of streamed content."
"If you have the right storytelling and you have the right personalities as a form of theater it's quite obvious"
Acquisitions Incorporated From An Audio Podcast To Live Show
Growing a product can lead to a number of growing pains, especially if you're scaling D&D up from an audio-only show, to a stage show in front of thousands.
Holkins was actually pretty happy with how little they've needed to change. He analogized Acquisitions Incorporated, as well as PAX, to the base of a fractal. "The shape was already there, and so scaling it was really just a matter of being confident that we had something people thought was fun and then simply providing larger venues for people to experience it in.
"It comes down to great storytellers, in our case we have some of the best. The lead rules designers of the game [Chris Perkins and Jermy Crawford] have been our DMs the whole time"
A Good Adventure Is 'External Conflict' As Well As 'Internal Conflict'
"The shape is to have a down-to-clown, skilled DM behind the screen who really likes all of the participants. Out at the table, you want to have a combination of personalities that have a couple of fractured connections."
To use an example from Acquisitions Incorporated Holkins explained there were a number of characters with conflicting opinions. "There's tension out there in front as well. Each of these characters is a way in, Evelin the optimist or Bobby this orphaned barbarian who gets crazy and goes nuts and then has built up a trove of lore."
Some conflict that his own character, Omin Dran the Paladin, has been working through has been brought about by his in-game daughter Certainty Dran, played by Jasmine "ThatBronzeGirl" Bhullar. "Omin is starting to feel like he has lived his live incorrectly but [Certainty] has learned all of the skills to take on his role and supersede it. Right when he's saying 'this is a bad way to live and be' she is taking what she thinks are sacred lessons from her father and made them into a personal ethos."
"The basic structure is really the things that make D&D great, we just do it on a stage"
How to level up your roleplay and adventuring
I was surprised by Holkins' answer when I asked if he had any tips from years of participating in Actual Play games in ways players can up their adventures and roleplaying.
"You see, I think that stories are getting too good. My contention is the exact opposite, you have to be out there engaging in this in your own way, with your own voice. My fear is that Actual Play and the rest of this stuff is warping people's home games. It might be producing things that make the lives of DMs at home fraught."
Here Holkins refers to what some refer to as the Mercer Effect, where home players view the level of DMing of a professional DM such as Matthew Mercer of Critical Role or any other professional DM and expect that level of performance and storytelling at their home game.
"Sometimes we have the ability to do these things as their job and receive direct compensation. If you're looking at these [Actual Plays] you're looking at increasingly complicated executions."
Holkins even confirmed that their production is lower-fi than the rest, but that "everything you need to play the game is in those books and at that table"
The Three Questions Jerry Holkins Asks Of His Players
Talking not as a player but as a DM Holkins taught me about the three questions he asks of any new players. The answers to these questions are secret to everyone else at the table, but can be used to create a campaign.
- What is your secret reason for joining the party?
- Who have you wronged?
- What would you kill to know?
"Once I know these three things from four people I can run a game for ten years."
"The whole exercise is designed to give the characters more interiority" Holkins expanded "A more thoughtful approach. A lot of time these idealized characters don't have faults. It makes you ask questions of the character and of the character concept."
Holkins explained that by knowing this information about the party he "can start activating them like a cell one by one and meshing together their worst fears. Basically looking over those and connecting what they would kill to know with other people, connecting who they might have wronged and the rest of the people, and then the idea that everyone has a secret changes the energy of the room."