We're listening to: 'Acquisitions Inc.' and 'The Adventure Zone'

We're listening to: 'Acquisitions Inc.' and 'The Adventure Zone'
From Engadget - April 16, 2018

I never played Dungeons & Dragons when I was young. My role-playing was limited to a vampire LARP in high school and a d20 Star Wars game post-college. I was aware of D&D's existence, but it always seemed like something I would forever miss the boat on.

Now, 20 years later, D&D is having a bit of a moment. Some of this is due to its publisher, Wizards of the Coast, updating the rules and embracing digital tools to make it more accessible to new and returning players. But a lot of its newfound popularity has come from groups recording or streaming their games for audiences, producing podcasts and shows like Critical Role and HarmonQuest.

About two years ago, my book club started up its own campaign, and it did not take long for people in the group to gravitate toward their favorite D&D shows. Some are partial to Penny Arcade's Acquisitions Incorporated (Acq Inc), having seen the team perform in person at a few PAX shows. But, for the majority, it's all about The Adventure Zone (TAZ).

I was a bit hesitant to jump into TAZ: I never got into My Brother, My Brother and Me, the comedy advice podcast by the McElroy brothers, who also host TAZ, and it was starting to feel overhyped. My fellow gamers talked it up nonstop, Tumblr was full of fangirling and then one night I found my favorite bar filled with Taako cosplayers because (surprise!) the after party for the MBMBAM show was there. RIP to my peaceful night with a drink and a book.

Eventually, I relented and gave the show a try, starting with the first arc, "Here There Be Gerblins." The first few episodes were understandably rough as the guys sort of figure out how to play D&D and what they want their characters to be. I got as far as the second arc, "Murder on the Rockport Limited," which, I am told, is when it starts to get good, but even as the flow improved, I still was not feeling it. So I moved on.

A week ago PAX East took place in Boston, and I went with my brother and a few friends. The Acq Inc live show is always a highlight for us and, needing a new podcast in my rotation, I decided to give the early episodes a try in the week running up to the convention. It did not blow me away, either, but I am impressed with how well-drawn the characters were from the start. Sometimes revisiting old things can be a bit of a culture shock, but all the base ingredients were present from the very beginning. It surprised me to notice little jokes and character traits that survived to this day. I can only hope my group can be this solid in 10 years.

Of course, that was a simpler time, and now Acq Inc has grown into a beast, with costumes! Props! Special effects! (The animated recaps are my personal fave.) It's veered away from being a mere podcast, which I do not mind since I have discovered that maybe D&D is as much visual as it is audio for me. Yes, it's ultimately supposed to live in my imagination, and good storytelling should be able to do that. But D&D is also a game -- one that can get bogged down in its own rules sometimes, and that can be rough on listeners as players try to figure out things like bonuses and damage. I also like being able to see the players and the maps.

Acq Inc has embraced its spectacle more and more with each episode, and that was on full display at PAX East as the team was dropped in the middle of "WizardUnknown's Battle Royale." Yes, that name should invoke a certain popular genre of computer game. It was not just a few in-jokes, either -- the players were stripped of their equipment and the available area was cut down as time passed. The screen graphic displayed recent kills and how many players were left, and it got pretty intense as that number dropped into the single digits.


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