There’s so much I love about PAX. The giant, overwhelming, hubbub of the Expo Hall, with fifty thousand games jostling for your attention along with fifty million nerds. The great selection of panels on everything from women in games to game writing to RPG creation to religion in games. The warm, relaxed ambiance of the Handheld Lounges where you can curl up in a bean bag chair and drift away to Kirby and Pokemon surrounded by fellow gamers. The fantastic people you meet in line, the friendships you form – sometimes fleeting, sometimes lasting – that make you feel like you are, indeed, home.
I love all of it. And yet, for some reason, the one single thing I was looking forward to the most this year was four grown men (and their DM!) sitting around a table, playing D&D.
Mind you, when the four men in question are Wil Wheaton, Mike”Gabe” Krahulik and Jerry “Tycho” Holkins from Penny Arcade, and Scott Kurtz from Player vs. Player, you can be sure the D&D match will be something to remember. Acquisitions Incorporated hosted its third live D&D game at PAX 2012, and not only were audiences treated to the comedic stylings of four snarky geniuses, but they got a sneak peak at Dungeons and Dragons 5th ed, currently known as D&D Next, in person. How does 5.0 stack up, and are our heroes still as entertaining as ever?
“Is this crystal ball bigger on the inside than the outside?” – About the Players
For those that aren’t aware, Acquisitions Inc. is the name of a D&D campaign featuring the titular adventuring team, a mercenary group dedicated to the acquiring and “liberation” of magical artifacts. Led by the avaricious and common-sense cleric Omin Dran (Holkins), the group also consists of the vain and amoral wizard Jim Darkmagic (Krahulik), the snarky and self-centered dwarf Binwin Bronzebottom (Kurtz), and the long-suffering emo eladrin Aeofel (Wheaton). Their previous adventures have run the gamut from the first tentative explorations of an abandoned keep to rescuing dead comrades from hell to attending awkward family dinners with the New Hampshire Darkmagics. In the last adventure (last hosted at PAX 2011), the party had wrangled control of Jim’s ancestral, dimension-hopping house thanks to a magic crystal ball, and on a whim decided to go hurtling through the void to some unknown destination. One year later, at PAX 2012, they find themselves in said destination: an old-school temple of evil taken from Gary Gygax’s sweetest dreams. Omin, Jim, Binwin and Aeofel struggle to survive against an army of lizard men, an owl bear, a deceptive drow ally, and worst of all, the wrath of professional Wizards of the Coast GM Chris Perkins.
The last two live campaigns at PAX 2010 and 2011 were quite different in character. In 2010, it was very much like a “regular” D&D campaign where four friends and their GM simply played as normal and chewed the fat as gamers do; with the exception of some entertaining audience participation (a voting system for targets, types of monsters, etc), it was very lean and authentic to the average roleplaying experience. In 2011, it went in quite a different direction with a slick intro production, elaborate costumes, musical accompaniment from Paul and Storm, and a liiiittle too many perfect, awesome lines to be entirely unrehearsed. It was absolutely hilarious, but it felt a bit more like improv theatre than a D&D game. This year, the team split the difference with a return to a more “natural” style of playing along with the costumes and a series of adorable animated shorts which introduced the group’s prior adventures and highlighted critical misses and hits. This seemed in keeping with the scaled back nature of the campaign (more on that later).
Part of what makes Acquisitions Inc. such a pleasure to watch and listen is the chemistry between the four players, all funny guys in their own right (as is Chris Perkins), which made me a little disappointed when it was less pronounced this year. Part of the problem may be chalked up to poor audio (they kept saying things to each other that cracked them and the audience up but that I couldn’t hear), and part of it may have been the lack of setup before being flung into action. I didn’t quite get the same sense of gritted-teeth camaraderie as their previous games, and I noticed it took them a while to really warm up to the action. Due to the nature of the campaign, they didn’t quite get the opportunity for their characters to shine in the way that the other live shows or the podcast managed.
Having said that, that’s not to say that there were not laughs to be had. In fact, there was plenty of sidesplitting content, mostly thanks to the acting talents of Wil Wheaton, who clearly has far too much fun with this sort of thing. His reactions to the dice rolls were absolutely priceless, and his faux-dramatic pronouncements both in and out of character really built a great atmosphere. He particularly played off Chris Perkins very well, as the latter strutted out layer after layer of bizarre twists to the encounter and the former responded with either incoherent rage or razor-sharp wit. How many times do you think Wesley Crusher himself says, “This is the first time in 20 years of D&D that I’ve ever said this… I crawl up the @$$hole?” Not to be outdone, the rest of the team delivers more than their share of moments, with highlights being Jim’s hilarious rope antics, Jerry Holkins’ legendary bad luck with dice, and Scott Kurtz’s struggle with his beard.
“Kids, stay off the acid.” – About the Game
Aside from the theatrics, what of the game itself? For the first time, Acquisitions Inc. diverged from D&D 4.0 in favor of D&D Next, the new system in development to become “5.0” in the future. As such, the audience were able to get an interesting spectator’s view of the changes in the system, even people who only knew 4.0 through listening and watching Acquisitions. Firstly, the action point system appears to be gone, as is this healing surge system. While Jerry’s cleric spells used to allows allies to use their own healing surges to gain a set amount + Jerry’s bonus roll, they now deal out large amounts of genuine healing, which definitely helped keep the party going at several points. Another new element, albeit one that was somewhat unclear, was the experience dice, upgrades to their dice pool that were given for every couple of levels. These could be used for damage or traded in for new abilities; Binwin used several of them to upgrade his attacks to Cleaves or Deadly Strikes, while Omin got a crit and was able to get max damage plus 6d6 additional damage worth of experience dice (that was one dead lizardman!)
The thing that really struck me about this mission vs. the 4.0 precursors is how many more skill checks and physical checks were demanded. For example, during much of the mission, Jim Darkmagic was dangling from a rope held up by Omin Dran out of an extradimensional hole (I swear to god, this made sense in context!) In the 4.0 missions, it would have consisted of a single dex or strength roll and that would be that. In this game, Omin was forced to roll strength checks every turn, and when he failed, Jim had to make a dex save and continue doing so for the next two rounds. It certainly added a dimension of tension to the game as well as some funny moments as the players and audience groaned in horror when prompted for a skill check. I am concerned, however, that the more complex and “realistic” ruleset for skill checks might make some players too scared to try cool or exciting moves in fear of all the skill checks (not that Jim let that stop him…) One welcome change for me is the removal of the grid system in favor of a more organic movement which gave the players a large sense of freedom.
The characters themselves also seemed vastly changed from their 4.0 roots. Aeofel in particular, as an Avenger, used to be a melee class with damaging holy attacks; under the new ruleset, he is suddenly a longbow user who claims to have cleric healing spells. Jim Darkmagic seemed to suffer hugely from the transition as well; while he used to have a spell for almost any occasion in prior adventures thanks to his At Will powers + Encounter + Daily powers, here he was really struggling with a small selection of spells, even reduced to charming a Lizard man (to amusing fangirlish results) This may not be a problem for new groups, but I can imagine that players attempting to convert their old team to D&D Next may find themselves frustrated to find their characters so totally changed.
The game definitely feels like an attempt to return to the roots of D&D, and that design principle was reflected in Chris Perkin’s choice of game. His prior missions with this group tended to be rather story-driven with quite an “epic” quest baked in; the players would have to save a town from marauding cultists, or ruin the main rival of the Bronzebottom clan, or have dinner with Jim Darkmagic’s family. This, in contrast, was pure old-school structure of an evil temple with no other buildup other than, “you’re here, kill things.” Indeed, the mission was advertised as a meeting of Gary Gygax and J.J. Abrams, and the Gygax influence is there. There was a definite Tomb of Horrors vibe given the number of traps and other lethal ways for the environment to murder the players, and Chris kept on piling worse and worse stuff. First there was a pressure plate, then an acid pit, then lizard men, then an owlbear, then an evil talking sword that tricked Aeofel into picking it up… the list goes on and on. Mind you, some of those ideas were pretty darned strange… I’d definitely count “stone demon statue has a butthole which functions as the entrance to a passage that then leads to a fabulous treasure trove,” as one of the more unusual things I’ve ever heard in a game (and something which quickly became a running gag as well as leading to the best use of “Oh $***!” in a game ever).
“This is the crappiest Cirque du Soleil ever.”
Although this installment of Acquisitions Inc. was a bit of a letdown thanks to the barebones plot, bad audio and slightly “off” chemistry, it did warm up, and when it was good, it was absolutely brilliant. If you were not at PAX, the videos will at some point be uploaded on the official D&D YouTube channel, and in the meantime, you can check out the awesome PAX 2011 and 2010 sessions in the same channel. If you want to catch up on Acquisitions Inc and their past adventures, the podcasts are all here or on iTunes. Go ahead and skip season 4; that actually takes place with a different group in a different campaign. The podcasts are lengthy but well worth a listen whether you’re a GM looking for inspiration, a shy newbie, or even a non-gamer who finds funny people being funny… well, funny!
The verdict is still out on D&D Next; some of the mechanics are better streamlined, but they seem to have sacrificed some of the neater “game” aspects of 4.0. But don’t take my word for it! You can sign up for D&D Next playtesting at http://www.dndnext.com and try for yourself! Just think of it this way… no matter what you come up with, at least you’re not climbing up a demon statue’s butt.
What have your experiences been with D&D Next? What are your thoughts? What are your favorite celebrity games, if any?