I’ve kidnapped Teos Abadia–one of the authors of the excellent D&D: Acquisitions Incorporated book–and hauled him back to Nerds on Earth HQ for questioning. I cast a 7th level Geas spell on him, so he has no choice but to answer my questions fully.
Clave: First question, Teos, what’s your origin story?
Teos: Thanks for having me on, Clave! I began in South America when I was 11. We played Basic and AD&D in a mix of Spanish and English and we barely knew what we were doing… but it was awesome.
Clave: I love stories about playing D&D a kid! It’s funny how people argue so much about rules nowadays, because we didn’t even know the rules back then. We were just having fun playing!
But it’s a long way from an eleven-year-old kid to being a developer for the latest D&D book. And rather than talk details about the book itself–Spoiler: It’s EXCELLENT–I’d love to hear about your experience of making the book.
Teos: It was a truly different world back then, and finding tips and tricks was much harder! Along those lines, in 2000 (and now in the US) I became heavily involved in organized play. Playing and DMing at many tables really improved my game and I began to volunteer by writing for the programs.
Someone at Wizards of the Coast saw something I had written for a Dark Sun organized play campaign during the 4E days, and it led to writing for them and later for other companies. Some of the coolest projects were ones meant to be played at conventions with several tables all interacting with the same adventure and each other.
One of those projects was the adventure Cloud Giants Bargain. This was an Acquisitions Inc (Acq Inc) themed adventure released in movie theaters as a Fathom event, where people could see the PAX West Acquisitions Inc livestream on the big screen.
[Editor’s Note: Here is a quick history of Acquisitions Incorporated for those who want to catch up on the basics before we move on.]
Teos: By amazing luck, at that PAX I ran into Jerry Holkins (of Penny Arcade and PAX and Acq Inc) and we began to scheme about his idea of someday writing an actual hardback book.
Clave: Hey, you call it luck but I call it providence, because I’m really happy that happenstance meeting got the wheels turning!
Teos: It was also perseverance. It was three years from the start of that conversation until the book’s launch!
Clave: You brought up that the book is a partnership between D&D and Penny Arcade (PA). That’s unusual, but it totally makes sense considering the huge success of the Acquisitions Incorporated live shows. Yet it sounds like a complicated process and I don’t even know how to ask a question about the steps of bringing together all the editors, writers, artists, and more that it took to make this book, other than just letting you explain it to me like I’m dumb. So, fill me in and I might interject with a followup. OK?
Teos: So, the way it happened was that Penny Arcade (Jerry and Mike) had the idea. In particular, Jerry had the impetus and the passion. He wanted an adventure and a book that could help anyone game in the Acq Inc (AI) world. To have the essential elements they need for that kind of play.
They hired Elyssa Grant originally to produce the book, though she ended up doing so much more for the conventions, the C-Team, and more. So, Penny Arcade was slowly but surely thinking over the project and finally they asked me to begin putting together a team and an outline.
Shawn Merwin had written an AI adventure for a PAX convention and he is an amazing writer and mentor, so he was an easy choice to help me. He has also written hardback books before. This was my first one. We both recommended Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who is an amazing editor and developer (and much more) and he came on and immediately made everything better.
The three of us worked with Jerry and Elyssa to create the outline and finally Shawn and I began writing. The PA team added a ton to that, adding art pieces, working with the AI stars to add quotes and comments, adding the intro and many super-hilarious tables, and much more.
Then, around the time we were finishing the draft, PA and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) were speaking and I would guess that the early conversation was around whether the Forgotten Realms could be used. It seems that the conversations grew into the idea of it being a WotC book, and the draft then went to WotC for approval.
Some sections were rewritten or adjusted to be in line with what they do and don’t want to be in a D&D product, but overall the final version was surprisingly close to what we started with at the PA level.
Part of that is probably that Shawn and I have worked with WotC many times before, so we understand the language of D&D and the approach of official projects. And Scott F Gray is involved in just about every official D&D product. He constantly coached us on staying within the lines of a WotC product, even before it was a WotC product.
But, yeah, it’s an incredible process. For example, the monster section has to consider where monster text starts and ends, plus the art. You can’t just write. You need a specific target word count based on the art for that monster and whether it’s 1 page or less for that one monster.
So, you have to know the art before you write, even at a hazy level. Each section of the adventure, even each chapter, had specific word count targets.
Clave: Wow, that really was a team effort! Add to that the perseverance you mentioned earlier and you have what you need for a proper D&D party of heroes!
One of the things I love about the book is that it certainly feels like a D&D 5e book, so it fits nicely with the other books in the 5e line, yet it also manages to add some real freshness to the line as well.
Teos: We were honestly braver at coming up with wild ideas because it was originally a Penny Arcade book. We knew that they like wacky ideas. If you watch the C-Team, Jerry invented the ideas of the Positions. Each character has this position/job, and the position grants these incredible loose powers, such as the cartographer telling a travel story and they basically “map travel” to their destination.
We embraced that kind of open wild creativity because originally it was a PA book. We worked hard to use the language of D&D and have it feel like D&D, but had it originally been for WotC we probably would have played it safer and more subdued. I think this was the best of both worlds.
Clave: Perhaps my favorite part is the humor. It’s very very in line with the Acquisitions Incorporated live shows. And D&D should be fun, so the humor is such a welcome add! I think what I’m asking is, who was your joke writer?
Teos: Joke writer? We are all joke writers!
Humor was a team effort. Each of us added humor as we wrote and then we would read over our bits and make suggestions. Scott is really good at knowing when to edit humor, adding more or changing the wording for maximum effect. He was great on Cloud Giant’s Bargain.
Elyssa, Jerry, the entire PA team added humor. And the callout boxes where famous characters add their humorous opinions – those usually come from the players of those characters. That was a goal from the outline stage.
Clave: Do you really expect me to believe the jokes weren’t outsourced to Nate Bargatze or somebody? I’m rolling a sense motive!
Clave: But, seriously, I love it.
Teos: Thank you. I do too! I would read a section that Shawn wrote and I would be laughing out of my chair.
Clave: What are your hopes for the new player content and it’s place in the D&D community? For example, are you hearing stories yet of groups designing their own Fan-chises® for their home D&D games?
Teos: I am! I’m addicted to following the #AcqIncBook hashtag and seeing what people are up to. There are at least two livestream shows using the rules already!
But, my big hope is that it serves multiple audiences. We are at this amazing point in time where RPG fans are coming from all kinds of places. Livestreams, conventions, video games, novels, comics, TV shows, seeing the product at Target, you name it.
We wanted the rules in the book to stretch D&D a bit, but not just for an AI fan. We wanted these to be really cool and useful rules for anyone that wants their party to own something. It can be a brewery or a spy ring, an eldritch laboratory or a trading house. To do that, I secretly playtested the rules in my own home campaign without any AI context at all. They worked really well.
Clave: I love it. Your creation is running loose in the wild! And I whole-heartedly agree with you that it the book serves multiple audiences, from hard-core Acq Inc fans to those who have never watched one of the shows.
*Looks around sheepishly* I’m, uh, not actually current with Acq Inc myself. Don’t hate me! I just couldn’t keep up when it went to multiple shows a year, plus spin-offs. But even with my dated familiarity with the source material, I loved the book! So, lots of audiences is what I’m saying.
Teos: It is mind boggling and intimidating and humbling and awesome to see something we created in people’s hands. An official book? This is honestly the most incredible moment in my gaming life/career. My kids are excited. My wife is excited. My mom (English teacher, poet) asked me to give her a signed copy.
It’s funny. A lot of my closest friends don’t follow AI. I’m in a very non-streaming crowd, other than me. But it’s clearly a huge audience. All my friends apologize for not watching, but no apology is needed. I hope they find the rules work well in any campaign, without AI knowledge.
The core concept of AI is hopefully universal. It’s the adventurer who is motivated by loot. I have this old copy of the A-series modules, the slaver series. And in A4 there is this town you are supposed to be helping. My copy has all these scribbled notes on it, IN MY HANDWRITING, that clearly shows that back in the ’80s I totally allowed the party to go around looting and stealing from every single shop!
Clave: I loved A4. I remember that one from when I was a kid as well!
But I actually want to detour from the book, if that’s OK. You brought up some good stuff. RPG fans very much are coming from lots of places. Let’s get meta. I’d love to hear your perspective on what you think this might mean for future D&D products or just some high-level thoughts on the state of D&D right now.
Teos: I wonder what it means for future products as well. I suspect this began as a one-off, but having sold so well I think it shows the potential to reach out to diverse audiences. We can write for multiple audiences, which is to say one audience that we’ve ignored and another audience that is the typical core audience.
I think it makes sense for the entire hobby to look at the international market, at livestreaming, at different fandoms, and identify ways to server all these atypical gamers.
Clave: Well, the effects of the Geas spell is wearing thin, so before you are released, I want to thank you again for your contribution to Acq Inc. It’s a great book and a great addition to D&D. And thank you so much for giving of your time to share the lore of how it came to be.
Next time we’ll reminisce more about A4. Better yet, I hope we get to talk about future D&D products you’ll be involved with!
Teos: I truly appreciate your kind words. This was the hardest work I’ve put in on any writing project. It was a ton of writing at a tough time, and required a lot to get the quality level we wanted. It’s an honor to get to help with AI and D&D. I’m really glad you like it. I look forward to the next time, Clave!