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D&D Acquisitions Inc Interview with Writer Shawn Merwin
Posted By Flames On June 28, 2019 @ 11:00 am In Game Designers,Interviews | No Comments
FlamesRising.com is pleased to present an interview with Dungeons & Dragons writer, game designer, and Dungeon Master extraordinaire Shawn Merwin to celebrate the release of D&D Acquistions Incorporated .
Acquisitions Incorporated (Acq Inc) started as a podcast partnership between the popular web comic Penny Arcade and D&D producer Wizards of the Coast. The original podcast was meant to show a group of news, new and old, playing 4e D&D, both as a marketing opportunity and as a way to show how the game is played to potential new players.
The game ran like most D&D campaigns I’ve experienced–lots of jokes and goofy stuff, with some dice rolling in between. The difference was that the jokes were worked into the game, until it became a premise of the group. They were a fledgling corporation called Acquisitions Incorporated, and the group really gelled around that concept. As the group grew more powerful, the corporation did as well. So the game took on a very interesting tone of office comedy and pretty serious D&D campaign. From there to podcast turned into a streaming series, and now it is a live event that plays at the various Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) events. There is even a spin-off called “The C-Team” which delves deeper into both the serious side of D&D and the corporate satire side.
Originally, before Wizards of the Coast’s involvement became clear, I was one of the lead writers on the project, along with Teos Abadia. As the scope of the project grew, more people were brought on, and this book was definitely a full team effort. As far as how the project differed, I like to say that every project and different, and some are more different than others. And this project was definitely more different than others for a lot of reasons.
The biggest difference was the tone. I like writing comedy, even though it is probably the most difficult type of writing to do well. In a normal D&D project, you have to tamp down that part of the creative process that foments comedy. With Acq Inc, you have to unleash that part of your brain and guide it in the right direction. At the same time, the content had to be mechanically and thematically appropriate in a D&D game. There was a lot of rewriting and a lot of deliberating about whether a joke went too far.
Wizards of the Coast’s involvement was obviously welcome, but as a writer that also becomes problematic. We had a pretty solid draft of the book done when Wizards joined the party, and there was content that would have been perfect in an Acq Inc book that might be a little less appropriate in a Wizards-backed Acq Inc book. Fortunately, we had great editors like Scott Grey, Chris Sims, and Michele Carter – all veteran Wizards of the Coast editors and developers – who could provide a sense of what was too much and what was just right.
Much of the humor of Acq Inc is the same humor that takes place at hundreds of thousands of game tables around the world every week: slapstick, pop culture references, endless movies quotes, and the like. But one of the things the Acq Inc players latched onto early, especially because some of them, like Mike Krahulik, were new to D&D, was the absurdity of the whole enterprise. I’m not saying the game itself is absurd; I’m saying some of the situations, tropes, and stories are absurd. Some people try to treat D&D campaigns like they’re medieval European scholars running a simulation of a feudal town, when Willy the Wizard over there can create items out of thin air. The term “murder hobo” is now used commonly to illuminate that absurdity: many D&D characters are violent vagrants that would be arrested upon sight in any semi-civilized society, medieval or otherwise.
And the Penny Arcade folks, being wonderful comedic minds, picked up on that immediately. Rather than making the joke and throwing it away, Jerry Holkins and the rest of the players latched onto the joke and made it a part of the game. And not just part of the game, but part of their entire backstory. It was genius, because the corporate satire grew at an equal pace to the plots of the adventures, and then become intertwined. And the DMs, Chris Perkins and Jeremy Crawford, are brilliant story facilitators who make it all work together.
It’s probably going to sound strange, but if you set aside tone, the crux of both products is similar. Both have adventures to go on. Both have new monsters, magic items, and NPCs. Both have vehicle rules. Ghosts of Saltmarsh gives DMs and players tools to run a great seafaring, coastal D&D campaign. Acquisitions Incorporated gives DMs and players tools to run a great corporate intrigue and treasure-hunting campaign.
The default assumption is that the players are going to create new characters who want a piece of what Acquisitions Incorporated is serving up. Because there are definitely benefits of being associated with Acq Inc: equipment, magic items, new abilities that are tied to your position in the company, and more. But on the flip side, Acq Inc is a soulless corporate machine that chews people up and spits them out unless they can stay way ahead of the game. So while there are stats for all the great characters that you see in the Acq Inc and C-Team shows, I think they fit better as NPCs of all stripes: quest givers, plot movers, assistant providers, and, in some possible cases, villains.
A lot of the tips I have aren’t much different than character-creation tips I’d give to any players in any campaign, but they might have a slightly different slant. As a player, know what your character’s goals, fears, and quirks are. Create those without thinking of the setting you are in. Then a lot of the drama – and the comedy – revolves around how those fears or dreams or goals align with or chafe against what’s happening in the game.
We give a few new character Backgrounds that can help with that. For example, the Plaintiff or Rival Intern Backgrounds do some of that for you. You already have a relationship with Acq Inc in those cases, so the dramatic and comedic elements are waiting for you.
But even if you pick standard Backgrounds, work with the DM and other players to make it all fit together. Let’s say you picked a Background like Hermit, and your character just wants to be left alone. As the DM, I would say that finding the tension is the first step. As a hermit, you just want to be left alone in your cave, but precious stones were found in that cave, and Acq Inc acquired the rights to mine them. When their advanced scouts arrived to set up the mining operation, they found you and offered you a lucrative position in one of their franchises to act as the “local surveying expert” to help with the excavation. Right there you have your dramatic/comedic hook that can start your relationship with Acq Inc and the other franchisees in your party.
Once you have that background, building your character as you normally would. Then think about what position you’d like in the company. The positions are brilliant, as they mimic things that happen with the players outside of the game. Some players like to draw maps. That characters should be the Cartographer. Some players like to keep a list of the treasure: that player’s character becomes the Hoardsperson. So these roles are both positions in the company (with corresponding mechanical benefits and magic items to help you), and roles within your player group. Again, lean into that.
Then I would say just play the game, get a feel for what story the DM and the rest of the players want to tell, and lean harder or softer depending on the group consensus. The corporate backdrop works just as well in a deadly serious game as it does a comical one, so if that’s what people want, roll with that.
I hesitate to even try to pin down what a typical Acq Inc campaign might look like, because right now there are only two such campaigns that I’ve seen: Acquisitions Incorporated and the C-Team. I will, however, say this: If you think of Acquisitions Incorporated (the in-game corporate entity) as one of the many Factions presented in the Forgotten Realms, you can see how to start. In a typical campaign, the Harpers may play a big role for the party. They provide quests, supply information and other assistance, and generally be a guiding star for the adventurers. Acq Inc is like that, except they are not as “goody-goody” as the Harpers (which is actually saying something in some cases), and they may not have your – or the world’s – best interest at heart. But if you want that promotion or want to upgrade your franchise’s home base (like getting access to the ever-popular battle balloon), then you have to keep the bosses happy.
So it really could look like every other campaign, with just this corporate framework behind it. Or, if the DM so chooses, the party could end up saving the world from Acq Inc as the foolish urge for more profit overwhelms any sense of right and wrong. You know, like most adventuring parties!
Gladly! I have been working in the RPG/D&D industry since 2001. I started as a volunteer in the Living Greyhawk organized play campaign for Wizards during the 3e D&D days. Through the years since, I have worked on too many projects to count, from continuing my involvement in organized play, to working on special convention-related projects, to working on hardcovers.
I recently took the leap into full-time RPG freelancing, so I’ve worked with other companies on both D&D and other RPGs. I contributed to the Star Trek Adventures  book from Modiphius Entertainment, as well as the Dracula Dossier  project from Pelgrane Press, for example.
Though I have fun writing for other games, I keep hearing the siren’s call of D&D, which means I got to contribute to the upcoming Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus  and the adventures that will act as the sequel trilogy to the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure from the new D&D Essentials Kit . Most of my work is on the DMs Guild as well. You can find my releases by clicking this link: Shawn Merwin on DMsGuild.com .
I did several playtest sessions of the adventure before Wizards partnered with Penny Arcade to produce it. Very few of the playtesters knew what was happening, because I’d filed off all the bits that would be recognizable as Acq Inc. I ran it as a pretty standard adventure, emphasizing that the characters want to impress the person who hired them.
All of the best stories about those playtests contain spoilers that I don’t want to reveal, but I will give some advice for DMs and players: lean into it. Living this far into Earth’s breathtaking history, we are all intimately familiar with where business, capitalism, and the corporatization of the world has taken us. Whether you flip burgers at a fast food joint, sit through hours of company training videos on how not to set yourself on fire at a coffeemaker, or stand in line waiting for fill out form KRZE8-PDQ, you’ve lived it. You know the absurdity of it all. How you want to express that absurdity in relation to the ongoing plot of your D&D campaign, your group can decide. But it can be cathartic to let it all out through gaming. And it can, surprisingly, be as dramatic and touching as it is funny.
I really hate to pick one thing, because it is all so good on different levels and to different audiences. Non-D&D players who are buying the book because it is genuinely funny to read and contains Acq Inc lore love that part of it. D&D players who have no idea what Acq Inc is are digging the new mechanics for company positions that gives some bonuses and direction for roleplaying. But I think where it all comes together is in the adventure. The adventure, called “The Orrery of the Wanderer” is Acq Inc enough that even players who don’t know the brand can easily get into that mode of play, while the Acq Inc fans who don’t play regularly can look at the adventure and see how that they themselves can do what they watch other people doing every week. I think the adventure brings the best that both have to offer and melds them nicely. But I could be biased!
This interview with Dungeons & Dragons writer and game designer Shawn Merwin was conducted by Monica Valentinelli.
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URLs in this post:
 D&D Acquistions Incorporated: https://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/acqinc
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 Star Trek Adventures: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/214552/Star-Trek-Adventures-Core-Rulebook?affiliate_id=185516
 Dracula Dossier: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/195799/The-Dracula-Dossier-Core-BUNDLE?affiliate_id=185516
 D&D Essentials Kit: https://amzn.to/2JaA3ui
 Shawn Merwin on DMsGuild.com: https://www.dmsguild.com/browse.php?keywords=Shawn+Merwin?affiliate_id=185516
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