The Alphastream Game Design Blog
The Acquisitions Incorporated book provides rules that can completely change your campaign:
At first glance, those rules might not seem transformative, but they are!
(If you missed the previous articles on downtime, you can find them all here!)
Almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons has promised players the idea of a castle. Editions like AD&D had levels where some characters automatically drew followers and gained a keep, temple, wizard’s tower, thieves’ guild, or the like. Some editions provided only abstract guidance, while others gave us massive shopping lists (I’m looking at you, 3E Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook) so the castle could be built like a really expensive LEGO set.
And yet, there was always a big problem. For all the time and expense heroes might spend building a castle, heroes are seldom at home. While a DM can periodically bring a battle to their castle (the goblin horde attacks, the villain strikes at their base), adventures take us to places like the Tomb of Annihilation, Undermountain, and even the Nine Hells.
The Acquisitions Incorporated book strikes a balance between the reality of characters running around saving the world, and the greater stories we want to tell with campaigns through a base of operations. Let’s break down how the Acquisitions Incorporated book does it.
First, we get a Franchise, which is the Acq Inc term for a base of operations. The concept is that a larger organization helps you with costs, and you are part of their organization. Whether you use that underlying concept is up to you (the math and story work regardless). Maybe your players are in league with a faction such as the Harpers in the Forgotten Realms, a city state in Dark Sun, a guild in Ravnica, or a house in Eberron. The rules also work just fine if the players start their own organization – I first developed the franchise rules in my home campaign this way.
The franchise has a level equal to the tier of play (so, the franchise gains a level when the average party level is 5, 11, and 17). The DM can also award a level early (see the AI book). At each franchise level you gain new benefits and your base of operations grows. There are some neat aspects, such as how the sphere of influence grows for the franchise. You go from being important in a town to eventually working across the planes! But, let’s focus on the key parts related to downtime and bases of operation.
Your headquarters starts humble. It might be an old tavern, a beat up stagecoach, an old fishing vessel, or a weathered lighthouse. Coming up with the concept is a collaboration between the players and is a ton of fun. The same is true of later improvements as you gain features. For example, in a Dragon Heist campaign your tavern could gain cosmetic changes to give it a magical theme, such as the staff appearing to be ghosts, with the halls lit by torches that seem to hang in midair.
As you gain levels you can expand your headquarters in various ways. At rank 2, you gain a transportation feature. This key feature allows your base to come with you, or at least to be readily accessible. The players again come together to decide how this mobility should manifest. In a tavern, some doors could allow for teleportation across a network of allied taverns so you can move quickly across the realm. Or, you might turn that fishing ship into a mighty galleon suspended from a blimp and soar across the sky. A walking statue, an Eberron train that lays its own track as it goes, or just a really cool big castle. It’s up to you.
Some features lean heavily on narrative and roleplaying, while others, such as weapon or defensive features, can be exactly what you need when the flying headquarters comes across a dragon or a horde of sahuagin attacks a base that is an eldritch lighthouse. Defensive features can include an escape route with gliders… how fun is that?
As your franchise levels, you gain staff. These include trained hirelings and a majordomo that oversees operations. Players get to choose the kind of staff they attract, and they are encouraged to hire NPCs they meet (more on that below).
A transformative change is that the franchise itself can engage in downtime, at the direction of the players. This happens even while the heroes are off adventuring! Franchise-led downtime lets the players continue to pursue their interests even while they are away.
Here’s how a Tomb of Annihilation campaign without these rules might go: The characters show up in the city of Port Nyanzaru and there is this awesome intrigue between Merchant Princes, foreign threats like Amn and Baldur’s Gate, and factions like the Zhentarim. Unfortunately, the characters have to head out into the jungle and delve into a tomb to save the world. They spend the last half of the campaign in the tomb and practically forget about Port Nyanzaru and its intrigue.
Here’s how a campaign can play with the Acquisitions Incorporated rules: The characters arrive in the city of Port Nyanzaru and set up a base of operations. They hire a majordomo and a few staff and set them to work allying with the Merchant Princes. The heroes head out into the jungle, but when they find the dwarves who mine adamantine… that’s an opportunity! Letters are dispatched to the majordomo and bargains are struck, and now the headquarters is reselling adamantine and gaining power. This continues to happen as they explore, gaining staff and resources. As the heroes enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods they are also striking deals with Merchant Princes, throwing out the foreign powers, protecting the city, and mounting an effort to finally rid Chult of the undead infesting the jungles!
Or, here’s how it can play in Dragon Heist. The heroes gain a tavern in Trollskull Alley. Using the franchise rules they equip it with really cool features. When the party decides to head into Undermountain and the Dungeon of the Mad Mage, they can still keep the tavern going. They can be deep underground and still negotiate a deal with Jarlaxle, fight off the Xanathar’s Guild, recruit a friendly ghost sage to help them find lore, and much more.
Or, we are playing Descent into Avernus. The party sets up a small base of operations in Baldur’s Gate. Maybe it’s a Flaming Fist garrison. Maybe it’s a sage or temple that offers a place of refuge as heroes explore. The base of operations can keep going while characters are in Avernus, so the intrigue and cool aspects of Baldur’s Gate don’t have to come to a sudden stop. The headquarters keeps working for the players, furthering their goals and improving Baldur’s Gate, preparing for their eventual return.
If you read the first blog in the series, you might remember our example of how Downtime can open up play. Let’s revisit those examples and how they can play out with the Acquisitions Incorporated rules.
The characters finish exploring a hidden temple, finding that the cultists worship some kind of mysterious imprisoned god. A map leads to another temple a few weeks away. The characters can now head to that next temple, but they direct their staff to take actions for them.
Angela’s character, Xandra, wants to learn more about the chained god so they are better prepared. She directs a hireling to head to the city’s grand library and carry out the Research downtime task.
Dwayne and Tara send their majordomo as an ambassador to the city government. The majordomo works on their behalf (perhaps Schmoozing or Carousing) to raise awareness and make it harder for the cult to establish a foothold.
Diego’s tiefling character, Adros Quickfingers, wants to climb the ranks of the thieves’ guild. He sends a hireling to gain favor and uncover secrets Adros can later exploit… the Schmoozing downtime task is perfect for this. Later, Adros might use that information to make a serious move within the guild.
The rules for franchises don’t just give us a castle. They are a great way for our campaigns to change tone and pace, and to keep things interesting, all while creating the sense of a larger and more immersive campaign. If you are familiar with Hamlet’s Hit Points and the concept of story beats, downtime is a great way to change the beat of a gaming session.
Switching to a franchise downtime scene is best done when you reach a natural stopping point. This can be the start of a gaming session or after a scene concludes. The characters defeated the devils in a cave on Avernus and looted the treasure… and now we can cut to the scene of the Baldur’s Gate mansion, where a hireling is about to search for leads on nobles allied with devil worship.
The second article in this blog series discussed how to run scenes narratively. The same approach can be used here. This time, let the players control the hirelings. Print up simple stat sheets and let the players make the skill rolls and choose how the NPC handles the scene. Let the player or players closest to that NPC control them. This is a great way for the PCs to feel a personal attachment to the NPCs and the success and failure of the scene.
For more advice, check out Mike Shea’s article on downtime. He discusses how downtime can trigger small adventures, how to use secrets and clues in scenes, and other useful tips.
The adventure included with the Acquisitions Incorporated book is crafted to walk you through the franchise rules, running downtime, and making NPCs vital. One way it does the latter is by having a lot of NPCs that have just enough detail to be interesting and possibly appealing to the party. Whether it’s an undead rogue who doesn’t know she’s undead, a lizardfolk selling magical seaweed, or a goblin seeking a mentor, the NPCs are presented in ways that offer options. Having a franchise and hirelings changes the dynamic for players, because every NPC they meet could be a valuable ally.
Not every NPC will be a hit with players, and that’s why lots of them are present. Some will be welcomed into the fold, and they become more memorable because they were met during play. As the NPCs engage in downtime, they develop additional stories and can become a big part of the narrative of your campaign.
When the players don’t recruit an NPC, the NPC can fade away… or be recruited by a rival. When downtime creates complications, the discarded NPC can make an appearance and hint at having been hired by another organization!
When I ran my Tomb of Annihilation home campaign I was playtesting the development of the franchise rules. Downtime provided a break from constant tomb exploration. The players had recovered a pirate ship, and one PC was a pirate, so they hired staff to run the ship. The fate of the ship as it used downtime to “liberate” gold from other ships was so fun that I decide to use hirelings to create a B-Team.
I began with an assault on the headquarters, and the players received NPC statistics to use in repelling the attack. This also uncovered a mission, sending those hirelings into the jungle. When it went well enough, I let the players turn those NPC stat blocks into actual characters. It became their B-Team. While the main characters explored the Tomb, the B-Team explored parts of the jungle that the main team had not found. A B-Team can also work well in Descent Into Avernus, allowing the B-Team to continue work in Baldur’s Gate while the party is in Avernus. If you run Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, the B-Team can keep player interest going in Waterdeep while the main party delves below.
There you have it. Acquisitions Incorporated let’s players finally build the castle of the dreams, but it grows and moves with the players so it stays relevant. Downtime can be run through the organization, adding options for pacing and different types of narrative beats during adventures. Because of these factors, NPCs rise in importance and become potential long-term allies… or even rivals.
Next: we will wrap up our session on downtime with tips on creating your own downtime activities.