I learned how to be a good Dungeon Master by watching Chris Perkins. His game with Robot Chicken was my first glimpse of a master DM at work, and its snarky DM commentary track put me right into that master’s mind. Over the next few years, Chris Perkins became one of the best-known DMs in the world through his regular appearances as the Dungeon Master of Acquisitions Incorporated, the D&D podcast-turned-live-phenomenon produced by Penny Arcade. To me, he was as much the face of D&D to me as Gary Gygax.
While Chris Perkins briefly passed the mantle of DM to Magic: the Gathering Senior Narrative Designer James Wyatt for the back half of the Acquisitions Inc.’s first season, Perkins returned to the show in its second season and has been its DM ever since. His appearances at PAX live shows—originating in Seattle’s Paramount Theater, and extending to other spaces around the United States as PAX has spread to Boston, San Antonio, and most recently, Philadelphia. There have been a handful of games where other members of Penny Arcade took on the role of Dungeon Master, such as in PAX Australia 2017’s Star Wars-themed game.
But that era has come to an end. In a special episode of Acquisitions Inc. that followed up on the Waterdeep-themed story told at PAX West 2018, Chris Perkins announced his departure from Acquisitions Incorporated and formally passed the reins to the Lead Rules Designer and Managing Editor for Dungeons & Dragons, his close friend, and the Dungeon Master for his private home game, Jeremy Crawford.
“It’s been a hell of a run guys,” Perkins said over the applause and overlapping thanks of his former players. “Thank you for letting me torture you for eleven years.”
He looked slyly over at Holly Conrad and quipped, “I’ll still torture you [in Dice, Camera, Action]!”
While Perkins is retiring from Acquisitions Inc., he will remain in his current position at Wizards of the Coast, and will continue to create D&D stories like Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. He will also continue to DM publicly for Dice, Camera, Action, a livestreamed game featuring Holly Conrad, Anna Prosser Robinson, Jared Knabenbauer, and Nathan Sharp.
“And,” Perkins said to his players, “Jeremy is going to lead you on your escapades, starting with PAX Unplugged.”
Press F to Pay Respects
2018 saw the second annual PAX Unplugged, a new Penny Arcade Expo dedicated to board games, card games, roleplaying games, and other analog games. Like every other PAX event for the past few years, it featured a packed-house Acquisitions Incorporated live game starring the creators of Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, as well as the acclaimed fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss, and a special guest. Before the game began, Jeremy Crawford walked out onto the stage alone and greeted the elated crowd.
“Eleven years ago,” Crawford said to the assembled crowd, “I was hired on to Wizards of the Coast by Chris Perkins. He’s my buddy. And months ago Penny Arcade asked me if I would be interested in following in Chris’s footsteps, ‘cause Chris was ready to take a vacation. I said ‘It would be a ball. But only if Chris blesses it.’
“And he said yes, and that to me meant more than anything else. […] And so, he wasn’t at a live show to hear us applaud for him, so before we play some D&D tonight, I want you, for Chris, who will be watching this video, to give him a rousing round of applause.”
The crowd happily obliged, even chanting “Perkins! Perkins!” in adoration. Even though they had never played with Chris Perkins in person, his skill and charisma had made a permanent impression upon their lives.
And they went on to play an absolutely stellar game of Dungeons & Dragons. All five characters—the main Acq Inc. trio plus “C” Team member Walnut Dankgrass (Amy Falcone) and Waffle Crew member Evelyn Marthain (Anna Prosser Robinson)—were all in peak form. Jeremy Crawford was (and is) a more-than-worthy successor to Chris Perkins, and his dry wit and evocative characters served as the perfect foil for the jokesters playing at his table. And I can assure you, all the "GREEN FLAME!" and other iconic Acquisitions Inc. trappings are still there. The show you love has only grown in greatness thanks to Jeremy's DMing.
You can watch this episode as a VOD on PAX’s Twitch channel. At the time of writing, it is only available in the unprocessed 14-hour feed from the Main Theater on Saturday, but it will become available as an individual video on both Twitch and YouTube. In the 14-hour file, Acquisitions Inc. begins at the timestamp [11:13:10].
UPDATE: The full game has been uploaded as a VOD on PAX's Twitch channel in its own separate video.
An elated crowd applauds DMs past and present.
Jeremy Crawford Reveals a Few Secrets…
I spoke with Jeremy Crawford at PAX Unplugged after his first time DMing for Acquisitions Incorporated. This interview features adults using adult language. You have been warned.
JAMES HAECK: Congratulations on your first-ever game of Acquisitions Incorporated! Give me the basic rundown. Surface-level, what was [DMing for Acquisitions Inc.] like?
JEREMY CRAWFORD: Once I was on-stage and we got rolling, it was just like running my home D&D game. It was key to get into that mental space of “I’m just going to be running D&D, and if we have a great time, the audience will have a great time.”
Now, just before I got to that point, I was terrified. Earlier in the day, I texted Chris Perkins and said “Oh my God, Chris, this is so nerve-wracking.” Because Chris always reported that it was panic-inducing for him, which was actually one of the reasons why he decided to step down, because it caused him intense anxiety. His message to me was basically “You’ve got this.” In the way that Chris can kind of reassure me at work in the way that few other people can because we’ve worked so closely for so long.
And I meant to mention this last night when I came out on stage—it completely slipped my mind—but what a lot of people might not know is that I’m Chris’s DM.
JH: I didn’t know that!
JC: Yeah, Chris plays in my home game.
JH: It’s so bizarre to think of Chris Perkins as a player!
JC: Chris has been playing in my home game for almost two years now. And I think of Chris—his character—as sort of being my Viari [Patrick Rothfuss’s character, notorious for getting away with anything in Chris’s game]. He plays a rogue in my home game and he gets away with all sorts of crazy nonsense. And my players often give me those sorts of disbelieving looks that other players give Patrick Rothfuss.
So I’m very used to having a character like that at the table, so even in that it felt right at home. And what’s also hilarious is Pat, sitting to my right, playing the rogue trying to get away with it all is sitting in the exact same seat that Chris sits in. To the right of me, where Chris plays his halfling rogue Norrel.
JH: I was wondering about this; will Viari still be able to get away with murder under your watch?
JC: He will not. However, I love creative play. As you saw last night, I was there for [Viari’s outrageous feats of acrobatics], and I was there to make it happen. But I like the player to work for it a little bit. It’s almost like “woo me!” Describe well this amazing thing you’re going to be able to do, and if you do a good job, I’ll give you inspiration for it. It really results in the same kind of thing, like Viari getting away with it before, but I was really trying to demonstrate for everyone watching the game the tool a DM has with inspiration. It’s a powerful way to head a lot of rules bullshittery off at the pass.
JC: ‘Cause sometimes players feel like “I need to be able to convince the DM of some crazy thing.” And what I like to establish at any table I DM for is “This is a nonsense-free zone.” We’re here to have a good time, you don’t have to convince me the rules say something they don’t. Just do something awesome and I will use a tool we put in the game just for this purpose, and that is inspiration.
JH: It’s really cool to see you demonstrate its use, because I watch Critical Role every week, and it’s a tool Matt[hew Mercer] doesn’t use in his toolbox. And because Critical Role is the gateway for so many people to D&D, inspiration often goes unremarked upon. And to see you use it twice in… ten minutes?
JC: One of the things in our early discussions with Penny Arcade that we talked about, that would be fun about me taking the DM’s seat, is that it would be a chance for me as lead rules designer to actually show how many of these rules can be used, and honestly how they’re intended to be used. Now ultimately my intent doesn’t matter; what really matters is what each DM wants, but it is a chance for me to show off some of the tools we’ve provided so that DMs can see there are all sorts of ways [in the rules] for people to have a fun time and not worry about minutiae. Because we put some of these things in the game precisely to make people’s life more easy and more fun.
JH: So you mentioned, right at the start of this, that your goal was to do it just like you do it at home. It’s a home game… but a couple thousand people are watching.
JH & JC: (laughs)
JH: So is there anything from your home game that translated perfectly to the main stage?
JC: Yes, and anyone who has played much D&D with me knows this. I love using colorful NPCs as a way to deliver world information and to drive the plot forward. I like exposition to vanish into real experience, and I find the best way to do that is through well fleshed out NPCs. So my prep is often consumed just fleshing out NPCs, who can often be there as a DM proxy, basically be my voice in the game. They can be a great avenue for humor.
I often find that when trying to course correct a game that has gone off the rails, it’s much more powerful for an NPC to say something than for me, as the DM, to say it.
I also have a fondness in my home game, and this came through in last night’s Acq Inc. game, for big setpieces. I often DM in setpieces. You’ll notice that each major scene is a distinct place; often this place is telling you something about the world or about a character. If you were to map out how my brain works as a DM, you would see it as a connected flowchart of scenes. Not in an inflexible order; they can be mixed and matched depending on the choices the characters make.
JH: And [last night] you gave them pretty clear choices, too.
JC: Yes! And that’s another thing I do in my home game; I like to make sure the choices are very clear. They might not know what’s behind those choices, but I like the next course of action not to be the mystery. […] When it comes to what’s next, I like the choices to be as clear as a dungeon map: “Turn left, or turn right?” And it’s actually pretty rare for me to DM traditional dungeon crawls, but I like to think of my games as essentially dungeon crawls… it’s just instead of rooms I have scenes.
And another thing I try to do is, if I’m dealing with a particular setting, like last night I was dealing with Ravnica, I as often as possible go for what’s most interesting about the setting. I find in most stories, and this is true in many video games as well, you’ll be given this amazing world—like “there’s this tower made of lightning! And you can walk in it!”—but the entire adventure is in the sewer two blocks down the street.
JC: And so I like to, as a part of having big setpieces and exciting scenes, when I was looking at the map of Ravnica, I saw a giant tree, as big as a skyscraper! Well of course they’re going to go there! And there are these actual skyscrapers with mad scientists in them. Of course they’re going to go there! They’re not going to be in a nondescript street fighting rats. […] I think a lot of DMs, and game designers, actually, are afraid of breaking their setting. Or we don’t want to give away all the good stuff too fast, and my philosophy is that there will always be more good stuff. So I’m not worried about chewing through the awesome stuff too fast, because there’s always more awesome stuff. And if we go through all the awesome stuff that already exists? Well, we’ll make more awesome stuff.
JH: So let’s wrap up. What are you most excited for Acquisitions Inc. going forward? Do you have any future plans you want to tease?
JC: One of the wonderful signs for me as a DM last night was, as we were wrapping up, I was sitting there as a DM and couldn’t wait to DM the next session. I got into the mindset of treating it like “this is just like my game at home but there are thousands of people watching,” and just like at home when a session is wrapping up I’m thinking “okay I want this thing to happen in the next session and this other thing to happen in the session after that…!”
I now have setpieces, scenes, locations, et cetera, in mind for many PAXes ahead of us. I love the characters, they’re so quirky and they create such hot messes…
JH: (laughs). Yeah!
JC: And I’m there for it. I love coming up with stories for characters like that. And I think it’s going to be a ball to see where this goes in the months ahead. And as you saw last night with the cliffhanger with the woodchippers moving in, we have at least one more session in Ravnica. We’ll see if they can find their way home… and the big question mark will be, will they actually make it home?
One of the fun things we’re really highlighting this year is that not only is the D&D Multiverse a big place, we’ve actually jumped into a nearby Multiverse! And the big question mark for them and the audience is, when they do make it home, what’s been going on while they were away? What’s happened to their business, their facilities, their allies… and what have their foes been up to? And also, and I’m not sure the players have thought this yet, time may not necessarily be in sync across Multiverses.
JC: So I’ll just leave it there. (laughs)
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their kitty familiars Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.