Acquisitions Incorporated (5e) (Priority Review)
Acquisitions Incorporated (5e) (Priority Review)
This book clocks in at 226 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page index, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 220 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
So, first of all, some context: Acquisitions Incorporated seems o be a phenomenon of sorts that has gone entirely over head. Until this book showed up on my virtual desk, I wasn’t aware of it being a thing, as a result, I started researching it. As such, I researched it, and quickly realized that the phenomenon, while fascinating, isn’t really for me. I’m just not that interested in actual play material, whether it’s podcasts or streams – I like playing, not watching other people play. That being said, I think I have developed a solid grasp on the franchise – at least enough to enable me to review this.
As such, I am not going to rate this as a product in a franchise, made for fans – I simply lack the know-how to get the in-jokes and the like. I’ll be rating this on its own virtues as a book, as processed by someone new to the whole shtick.
So, what is this? As the lengthy introduction makes clear, it’s a blend of high fantasy with office comedy – which is indeed an interesting angle and relatively novel angle. To be more precise: This is about adventuring parties behaving like MODERN corporations, no like e.g. the Medici, the Hanse or similar titans of commerce of real world history; instead, this focuses on the obvious comedic disjoint between high fantasy and its heroics, and the familiar mundane realities of the corporate world. Whether you like that or not is a crucial factor regarding your enjoyment of the book.
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The book kicks off with a relatively detailed summary of the history of the eponymous adventuring corporation Acquisitions Incorporated, and proceeds to present a quick franchise generator – this includes a d8 table of logos or livery, a d10 table for headquarters locations supplemented by a d8 headquarters quirks table, with d6 majordomos and d8 reliable connections. To give you an example, I got:
“Lathander is our copilot!”, “A Simple chapel to a long-forgotten god The pews are awfully uncomfortable, but fragrant incense burns without ceasing.” “A kettle used in the kitchen screams when it boils.” “A brusque, deaf, retired military captain.” And “Mustard Micah: Famous for being able to get goods and people past nay blockade. Provided you don’t mind said goods or people smelling strongly of mustard for the next month.” Not bad as a place to start, but not as detailed as I’d have wanted from even a quick go-play generator.
The next chapter is titled “Growing your Franchise”, and deals with explicitly running an Acquisitions Incorporated franchise. Franchise rank is contingent on the tier of play, beginning at 1 at 1st level, and improving by 1 at 5th, 11th and 17th level. The rank determines the region for which you’re licensed, ranging from a settlement to the extraplanar. The higher the rank, the higher the cost-multipliers get, and each rank lists new staff that is added. The staff is defined regarding tasks – e.g. untrained hirelings. The headquarters section provides a couple of basic suggestions, some cosmetic features, and at higher levels, transportation, expansion and weapon features. Beyond that, we have secret features, arcane features, etc. This does sound compelling, but effectively is VERY verbose dressing with few entries or actual in-game value. The section takes up almost 5 pages, and while it does have a few nice ideas like escape pods, it is perhaps the most toothless implementation of the concept I could picture, and puts a lot of the nit and grit on the GM’s shoulders. Where guidance is provided, it is rather rudimentary.
To give you an example: “Ships and other vessels with statistics can gain an increase to hit points or AC.” That is helpful to nobody. By how much? While guidelines for damaging effects are provided for franchise features, they are pitiful in scope. 10 damage to a single target per franchise rank? That’s a whopping 30 at 11th level. You might as well not bother. This sparse coverage also extends to the sample features – these per se are interesting: Carriage Ejector Platform? Cool, funny, like it – but why don’t we get more? There are exactly 3 such defensive features provided. 3. 2 Arcane features. This section has a lot of promise, and what’s here *is* cool, but it also fails to deliver anything but very rudimentary basics that don’t really help the GM diversify features or make new ones. It’s both mechanically wanting, and, at best, sparse regarding its dressing.
If I come off as very harsh here, it’s due to a reason: I mean, come on, how cool it would have been to actually design your corporate HQ! With costs for reinforced and trapped doors, better locks, magical defenses, a whole plethora of features? How rewarding that’d be, how DIFFERENT from most conventional campaigns! “Fellows, we just have to finish this job, then we can finally afford the new and improved auto-relocking device!” Building something together is REWARDING, and could have made this book a stand-out offering. But no. As an aside, if you like the idea, but not the implementation, you also don’t get notes on franchise-specific features. Picture it: Lists of features, including exclusive ones for different corps? That’d have been awesome. “Damn, so we have to infiltrate the corporate HQ of XYZ? But they have their damn defensive-magic-matrix…”
On the plus-side, while the macro-level implementation is wanting, the supplement does have more impact on a character level, namely regarding their positions. These are presented essentially as mini-archetypes, whose growth is contingent on the franchise rank. They come with starting equipment and proficiencies and provide a power-gain over characters not involved in the company. The occultant can, for example, study a creature killed and grant the killer a d10 to be added to a single attack roll, ability check or saving throw. Some are more utility focused than others, but they, as a whole, won’t unbalance the game. On a further plus-side, each of these also features a d8 table that provides reasons why you’d want to be in that position in the corporation – and yes, these are often rather funny. This section is useful, interesting, and usually comes with characters gaining feature-reliant quasi-magical items. It’s also genuinely funny in quite a few instances, and provides a sharp contrast to the all but useless global franchise rules. In short: This is a pretty successful section, a GM just needs to be aware that the material here provides a palpable power-gain sans drawbacks. Ideally, guidance for campaigns where not all PCs are employees/contractors of Acquisitions Incorporated would have been nice.
The pdf then proceeds to provide pretty extensive dressing-reskins for all core classes, e.g. tweaking the Path of the Ancestral Guardian for the barbarian to include a spirit guide like a disgraced tax collector. When the book tells the cleric to “carefully choose your deity so that the domains of your divine patron synergize seamlessly with the goals of your franchise”, I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of cold dystopian dread run down my spine. Because that’s EXACTLY how a corporate manual would frame positions like this. This chapter is essentially all fluff, but it is successful fluff that covers a wide variety of class choices and contextualizes them. It is a lot of real estate for dressing, but it’s a well-executed chapter.
After this, we get the verdant race, who receives an increase of 1 for Constitution, 2 for Charisma, and are Small. When they roll a 1 or 2 on a Hit Die spent for natural healing, it can be rerolled and use the new result. They also get telepathy up to a range of 30 feet, proficiency in Persuasion and advantage on Charisma and Wisdom saving throws. No sub-races, though, which is particularly odd considering their story as beings in process of ongoing mutations. Weird disjoint of flavor and mechanics here.
The book then proceeds to present a selection of new spells: These include distort value, which lets you play up the value of an item, Jim’s Glowing Coin (an insider spell – essentially light plus Wisdom saving throw, becoming distracted on a failed save, which translates to disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) and initiative. This is one of the spells using a R component – “R” stands for “royalty”, and means that the spell costs the listed amount to cast. This is, design-wise, a bit weird: Jim’s Magic Missile deals 2d4 force damage as a base damage, 5d4 on a critical hit instead of the usual benefit (as these require ranged spell attacks) and costs 1 gp; for every spell level beyond first, you get another missile, but also increase the cost by 1 gp. Per se, this is an interesting variant, but there is one issue that’s worth mentioning:
Gold is kinda useless in 5e in comparison to other D&D-adjacent games – as the system, in comparison, discourages magic item creation options and means to meaningfully spend gold for magic, the impact on losing the few coins of gold these spells consume is…a bit of a paper tiger. Which brings me once more to the corporate HQ – if we had means to spend gold to make the HQ better/design it, buy additional rooms, etc., this component would suddenly have a much more palpable impact and work better…but I digress.
The book then proceeds to talk about factions and rivals from the world of Acquisitions Incorporated, and then we already have blitzed past the first 80 pages. The book also contains iconic characters like Phoenix Anvil or Oak Truestrike with full stats. As an aside if you’re not familiar with the franchise: A character’s name is Walnut Dankgrass, another is called Donaar Blit’zen. We also have Flabbergast, so if this nomenclature bothers you, be aware of that. Rules-wise, these are solid. A couple of monsters are also provided, ranging from the rather creepy deep crows to the keg robot, and yes, Splugoth the Returned of The Six is also statted. Beyond these specific NPCs, we have a handy toolkit to quickly recontextualize e.g. Dran Enterprises employees by adding new features to the statblock of default NPCs – consider these to work somewhat akin to basic templates. This got a big, wide smile from me – simple, easy to grasp and useful gamable content – kudos! The sample vehicle section contains stats for battle balloons and the mechanical beholder featured on the alternate cover version of the book – I really liked these, and wished we got more of them!
The magic item section deals with Orrery of the Wanderer, an artifact that contains 6 clockwork components, all magic items in their own right. These also feature heavily in the adventure provided in the book. These can be rather potent, as they are, well, artifact components, but this assuredly is intentional – and the design is clever, as e.g. the rotor of return lets you draw forth a generic item worth 50 gp or less, but not a specific one. I could list a huge amount of books that miss this important caveat. The book also comes with a pretty massive 100-entry trinket page, which includes for example ice cubes that never melt, half a map, a pointed hat that glows in the dark, etc.
116 pages of this book are devoted to an adventure (-series), titled The Orrery of the Wanderer after the aforementioned artifact. The series is set in Faerûn, starting off in Waterdeep and then guiding the characters all along the Sword Coast. Whether or not Forgotten Realms purists will enjoy this, I can’t say – considering how densely-packed the setting already is, I think that a custom world would have made more sense, but that’s just the guy talking who literally ha a whole shelf devoted to Forgotten Realms stuff… The adventure-series is structured in 6 episodes, and assumes 1st level player characters at the start; after each episode, the PCs gain a level, ending the mini-campaign at 7th level. Between the episodes, the characters engage in downtime activities, to be more precise, in franchise tasks.
What’s that, you ask? Well, they are essentially one component I haven’t mentioned so far: They are a means to simulate the corporate side of the adventure-corporate side of things, and are codified pretty well, with lists of resources needed, resolutions and complications. These include marketeering, headquarter restructuring and the like, and generally are interesting and/or funny: Having too many buzzwords as a complication? Heck yes! They also are general enough to allow easy expansion, but do suffer from standing on feet of clay: The per se solid engine ultimately points in effects and implementation to the core franchise/HQ-engine, and that one, as shown above, is pretty sketchy at best, and woefully lacking in diversity regarding options available.
Anyhow, I digress, so let’s talk about the adventure-series per se. The modules provide read-aloud text, in case you were wondering. In order to do delve into more details, I’ll have to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! The PCs meet Omin Dran in the very introductory paragraph, who presents a task to investigate a fissure, with Jim Darkmagic chiming in afterwards – from there, it’s a trip to the dock ward, on to a very basic investigation that includes Gray Hands, city watch, etc., with the areas down in the fissure being a very linear experience that features magical pools with pretty random effects and no clues to their effects – the party is forced to submerge in them, which is a save, or a detrimental effect. That’s VERY boring and VERY bad design. Tiptoe the railroad, expose yourself to dangerous pools. What, you don’t want to after the first was detrimental? Who cares, you gotta trigger them all. Sure, you can get a blessing if you go through all 4, but frankly? Really don’t like it. It plays badly, and is illogical from an in-character perspective. Alas, the next room isn’t better and provides not one, not two, but four traps. The start, in short, is very weak, and gets slightly better when the PCs learn from the goblin Gorkoh about what may have transpired here – and they can potentially hire him! The humor sometimes hits well – with e.g. stomping feet as variant crawling claws? Yeah, that’s the tone.
On the other hand, it should be noted that this book assumes that Deepwater’s dragonward doesn’t extend to the subterranean, which is something to bear in mind if you regularly play in the Forgotten Realms. Anyhow, the series of encounters also features a tentacle confined to a room, a chance to save a wyrmling, and the episode culminates with the PCs finding a possessed watch officer standing over the corpse of a dwarf in front of a weird altar. Besting the watch officer will have the PCs stumble over the eponymous orrery, and with the episode’s conclusion, we have downtime activities that include dragonsitting the wyrmling they saved, investigating the strange altar. Still, as a whole, episode 1 is an example of what not to do with a starter adventure. It’s linear, bland, suffers from several bad design choices, and includes material that can contradict established lore in your game.
Episode 2 has the PCs trek to Phandalin, to look after a franchise that has gone incommunicado. The book generally tends to work well when it can capitalize on the unique themes – say, the lizardfolk bandits here…they are essentially business opportunity for smart PCs, not just fodder to squashed. A really string pet-peeve of mine, though: behind the scenes NPCs operate under different rules that the PCs can never attain. The book even acknowledges this: No zombie-horses for the PCs, when untiring zombie horses would make huge sense from a business perspective, even if they just trod at a lower speed. No food required, no exhaustion…etc. Instead, we get essentially “A wizard did it” – which is just lazy, particularly since 5e has plentiful ways of making stuff like this WORK; it just needs some thought and design to go into it. Which didn’t happen. And yes, if internal consistency is not important to you, this may be no problem for your table. It bothered me to no end.
And that brings me to my crucial issue regarding themes throughout the entire adventure series: It actually doesn’t fully embrace the relentless, corporate mindset.
On one hand, the PCs are supposed to be businesspeople/employees, treating adventuring as a roleplay corporate job adventurers is kinda conflicting with heroic behavior. The means to explore corporate themes in a fantasy context are pretty significant, particularly if you start thinking through the benefits without thorough moral implications – a strategy that the flavor of the book consistently tries to instill in you in its text, its snide asides, etc..
After pages upon pages of reskinning dressing for a corporate adventurers, the adventurers can’t really be hardcore corporate. The book even notes that Asmodeus basically wrote the CEO-playbook, and, time and again, emphasizes corporate interests, which, per definition, are not necessarily concerned with the wellbeing of everyone. Heck, one quote lists Omin Dran talking about fantasies of undead employees.
On the plus-side, the second episode also includes a less linear dungeon and plenty of nice interaction/roleplaying, and the way in which the PCs thus gain a franchise HQ? I really like that. I’d like it even more if the HQ actually had meaningful ways to enhance it, that the players get to choose – or a map beyond the dungeon for the refurbished version. Ideally perhaps one with several sample rooms that the PCs can pay and assemble? That’d have been awesome. After the atrocious start, this module made me stick with the series – this should have been the start of the series.
The third episode is probably the strongest so far – it starts with a sidetrek in Neverwinter to save Oppal, and then proceeds to provide an exploration of the Silent Sound lighthouse, including interference in a mutiny and some genuinely nice challenges in the magical light house: The traps here make more sense, and the magical lens is a nice touch. The PCs also get to meet a powerful operative of the competing Dran Enterprises. This module is, as a whole, solid and has a couple of creative highlights.
Episode number 4 is the first adventure that really feels like it embraces the fantasy corporate angle – it is all about finding the HQ of Dran Enterprises and planning the infiltration – which includes navigating some seriously far-out portals that provide a neat, chaotic array of different challenges and tones, finally embracing the promise that the book laid out: Having an investigation turn to bonkers portal hopping? Heck yeah, this works well. It’s combat-heavy, but the difference between the campaign’s start and this couldn’t be greater.
Episode 5 is all about finding the last part of the artifact, which is in the Horn Enclave – and in order to get in, they’ll swap bodies with dwarves attending a wedding. (As an aside: If you played “Ace of the Dwarvish Lords” back then, the Enclave’s map will seem familiar – it’s clearly based on that classic. The module provides a proper timeline for the wedding, and then proceeds to deliver a captivating set-up for the vault-heist, including escape with a battle balloon! This, right here, is where I started seriously grinning – it’s a compelling, epic yarn, and a module I’d seriously recommend. The finale here is the exploration of the clockwork magic specialist lich Lottie, and, while more conventional, still makes for a suitable finale.
The 6th and final episode is about dealing with the notorious Six: The PCs will, among other things, be shrunk and face a ginormous (in relation) cat, play shrink for a depressed deep crow, and deal with the constantly resurrecting Splugoth, prevent an invasion from the Far Realm – and, well, also deal with twisted versions of the well-known Acquisitions Incorporated characters. This is a suitably interesting conclusion to the series, but it does leave the PCs potentially in control of very powerful effects.
Structurally, the mini-campaign provides a solid changing of themes and motifs, and while it begins with an exceedingly underwhelming and atrociously bland introductory module, it does manage to recover from this start, provided you can keep the players engaged. The final three episodes in particular deserve applause. The metaplot of the series is pretty weak, and hinges a bit on in-jokes and evoking this “OMG, we met XYZ!”-excitement that is lost on those not as familiar with the franchise…lots of fanservice (not in the upskirt-shot kinda way), essentially. If you have been playing in the Forgotten Realms for a long time, you may object to the changed tone this book introduces.
On the plus-side, the series does offer a nice mix of weird concepts and new angles that are creative, interesting and fun. I am particularly fond of the extended focus actual ROLEplaying gets over combat slogs. Mechanically, the module doesn’t really make the best of use of the artifact that is its cornerstone – you never really need its unique angles to solve the challenges herein,w hen its themes could have carried whole, unique puzzle-dungeons. That’s perhaps one of the biggest missed chances here, since the artifact is actually interesting. I’d also have included more diversified mechanics for the more clandestine operations engaged herein, but that may just be me. Most importantly, though – I consider this to be a good to very good high fantasy campaign…but not one that made me feel like a corporate adventurer.
Editing and formatting are, no surprise there, top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to 5e’s two-column full-color standard. Regarding artworks, I wished that the book was more consistent: We get a blend of fun, comic-style artworks and the default style of artwork D&D 5e usually offers. Both styles individually are gorgeous, but they do contrast rather starkly here. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I can’t comment on the print version, since I do not own it. Huge downer: The cartography is small, doesn’t come in big versions for VTT-use, and the book is missing player-friendly versions with redacted secret maps and no labels. This should be industry standard. BOOO!
Designers Shawn Merwin, Teos Abadía, JerryHolkins, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Luke Lancaster and Zak Naoum have delivered a book I really wanted to like, but ultimately remain ambivalent towards.
Let me make that abundantly clear: If you are a fan of Acquisitions Incorporated, this’ll be full of insiders, and you’ll probably enjoy it…if you wanted to play exactly a franchise of Acquisitions Incorporated, not one of the competitors, and do so as essentially employees.
If you wanted to create your OWN adventuring corporation or guild, this will disappoint you thoroughly. The positions, while adding to the character power-level sans drawback, are a nice angle and the only aspect of the book’s rules that really convinced me. It’s here that the mechanical heart of the book lies, and it shows.
Unfortunately, the book’s engines do not account for base-building, for really RUNNING your own business; no proper engine for HQ-expansion, no real reason to care about your HQ – the book’s corporate angle is, essentially, just window-dressing. Extensive and well-written window-dressing, but dressing nonetheless. The whole position-engine? It actually would have worked on its own just as well; add a different dressing, and there you go. Not only can’t you really make different guild HQs, you also can’t really make your own HQ matter or customize it properly.
In short: Regarding the macro-frame of the campaign, the book fails to deliver the crunch that would have been hard to design, and with this book’s potential, getting pages of rooms, doors etc. as map-geomorphs to DIY-make your own HQ would have been easy. Instead, we get well-wrought dressing, which, while nice, is just that – a coating of paint.
This is also further underlined in the series of modules that takes up the majority of the book: Don’t get me wrong. This is, as a whole, a good series. BUT.
Apart from pretty brief downtime sections between the modules (which don’t amount to too much…), the campaign doesn’t really need anything regarding Acquisitions Incorporated as a unique backdrop. You can ignore the whole angle, and run this entire campaign as a high-fantasy campaign with slightly more gonzo elements.
The grand failure of this book, at least for me, apart from the aforementioned mechanical ones, is that the book doesn’t capitalize on its angle. There are no intricately-linked office-politics plots; there is no real corporate espionage, and from branding to recruitment, all components that embrace the corporate fantasy angle are ultimately as much window-dressing as significant parts of the rest of the book.
The adventure-series is essentially well-executed high-fantasy with a novel coat of paint. And that’s it. It is well-executed and fun, sometimes funny; it is mostly creative, particularly towards the end. But it could easily have been so much more. Oh, and the first module is one of the worst campaign-starters I have read in the last 5 years. It’s linear, boring, and feels like a paint-by-the-numbers filler, a waste of everyone’s time. Handing the PCs the artifact + briefing and starting with episode 2 is seriously a better angle than forcing your players through this slog.
It is ironic, really – this book about adventuring via the lens of corporations, to me, felt extremely corporate. On one hand, we have all these fun and interesting set-ups, the cool reskins, all the flavor that is (at least as far as I could judge) a faithful and clever representation of Acquisitions Incorporated, but on a mechanical level, this is consistently conservative and sparse. Instead of embracing the unique angle of the premise, the book plays it incredibly safe regarding each and every piece of mechanic content herein pertaining to Acquisitions Incorporated. There are no bold designs here, and in many instances, particularly in the per se well-wrought adventures, I couldn’t help but feel like there was a significant disjoint between what we get, and what the premise promises.
If you think about the gonzo notion of corporate adventuring, this is the most corporate approach you can take regarding the premise, taking pains to adhere to a pretty conservative aesthetic, probably also partially due to it being jammed into the Forgotten Realms.
It is well-executed for the most part, but if you strip it of the window-dressing, the material herein would be just another solid campaign, when its unique angle would have allowed it to be so much more.
The entire book feels like it’s taking pains to deliver the minimum you need to play an Acquisitions Incorporated franchise in exactly the campaign presented herein, and doing so without truly embracing the unique possibilities or weirdness inherent in the premise. Where is the means to get rid of a bad boss, the jobs that set you up to fail? Where is the equivalent of the Christmas party? All the wealth of corporate office fantasy themes to explore, all the things that genuinely haven’t been done before in a D&D-supplement – are left by the wayside in favor of an admittedly well-executed standard fantasy campaign with a few dashes of gonzo.
Is this bad? Heck no! There is a lot of fun dressing, reskins, etc., and the position-engine is nice. The modules are mostly neat as well, with particularly #4 and #5 being worth mentioning.
Does this deliver the means to play characters having their own Acquisitions Incorporated franchise as a cosmetic backdrop for their regular adventuring? Yes!
Does it succeed in making you feel like you do things in the corporation, that you really are a corporate adventurer? No.
Does this let you make your own non Acquisitions Incorporated-like guilds/corps? No.
Does this offer adventures that could only ever work within the corporate adventurer premise? No.
And that is the crucial failure of the book. This could have been the book that kicks off a new type of fantasy. Instead, it plays it safe on every possible level. Just like expected from a good, corporate book. Omin Dran would be proud.
My final verdict can’t exceed 3.5 stars, and as a person, I can’t bring myself to rounding up. Fans should round up, but if you’re not into the franchise, well, then I’d only recommend this if a solid high fantasy adventure-series with funny corporate dressing is what you’re looking for.
That being said, I do pride myself on reviewing books in their intended context, and that would be Acquisitions Incorporated fans – as such, my official final review will round up instead.
You can get this book here on the Penny Arcade store!
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