I had the chance to read through Wizards of the Coast’s latest Dungeons & Dragons latest adventure book, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. In this story, the players embark on a quest into the first layer of hell…and hopefully make it back alive! I’m going to avoid mentioning spoilers in this article, so I won’t delve too deep into any of the content. However, if you’re really worried about it, the quick and dirty version is that I enjoyed the book, and think it’s worth the purchase.
You should also know that I’m writing this opinion piece from the vantage point of a DM, not so much a player. This shouldn’t really matter for most folks, but I wanted to present that context since the rest of the article does focus heavily on the mechanical pieces of the book, as well as how it helps the DM run the story.
Adventuring into Avernus
The adventure is split across five chapters. The first chapter, designed for first level characters, starts off with the players arriving in the notoriously corrupt city of Baldur’s Gate, questing and learning about the various plot points that may or may not come up later. It’s a great introductory chapter in content alone, as it’s packed with stuff to do. If offers plenty of locales to visit, people to talk to, and even some dungeons.
The second reason chapter one is great: you can abandon it entirely. The Avernus bit starts at chapter two, but was designed for fifth level players. So you can either start a new campaign at level five, or roll your own intro adventure by stealing some of the earlier plot hooks. I personally would advise against skipping chapter one, as the book does provide several events early on that can come up in later chapters; but, regardless, the flexibility is there.
One part of the book that stood out to me was the flowcharts at the start of each chapter, which provides a quick reference of the major plot points in each chapter. It’s a small thing, but welcomed. After reading the whole adventure, facts and important events can get lost in the shuffle. A visual summary of the main plot points in a chapter, as well as what level the party should be at by that point, is really helpful in keeping those events in order.
WoTC is usually pretty good about offering lore and background for the various settings. Knowing that, I found it somewhat comical that the book also has a large section (seriously, there’s about fifty pages) detailing the city of Baldur’s Gate; it’s a source book inside of an adventure book. You can learn all about how the city was founded, who runs it, the various districts, and more. There’s even some character backgrounds designed specifically for folks from the city. I’ve never ran a campaign in Baldur’s Gate before, or really knew much about it for that matter. Descent provides me with a wealth of information in case I want to send my players to this wonderful location, which is pretty neat.
Speaking of world building, the book provides plenty of information about Avernus, as well as how to run an adventure in it. I always appreciate when adventures and source books take time to describe what life is like in a fantastical setting. Running an entire adventure in a setting like Avernus is difficult if you can’t answer some basic questions. Is there food in hell? How about water? Are there cities? Aside from infernal beings, who lives there? Fortunately, you’ll find the answers to all of these questions, long before your players ask (and they will ask. Because of course).
The beginning of Descent into Avernus has a primer on how to better roleplay life in Avernus. Similar to how the Curse of Strahd book encourages the DM to run that adventure with heavy gothic horror themes, Descent encourages the DM to make the first layer of hell suck. Avernus as a setting is miserable, in a thematically appropriate way. It’s a barren wasteland filled with terrible things that are either trying to take your soul or just make you suffer. The “About the Adventure” section has two headings that sum things up nicely: “Everyone’s Unhappy” and “Everything’s Awful”.
Early promotional work about Descent into Avernus describes the adventure as “Mad Max in Hell,” alluding to the wasteland that makes up Avernus. Furthermore, a section of the book features rules for vehicles, called Infernal War Machines. The book does provide rules for the machines, including optional weapons and upgrades. Some of the art (which is fantastic as always) provides some examples of what these vehicles look like: pointy bits, saw blades, stuff you would imagine if someone told you “hell truck”.
I’m somewhat on the fence about the vehicles. They are a fun idea, but I can foresee them being problematic at certain tables. The rules introduce weaponized semi trucks and motorcycles into your setting. This could clash with the rest of your setting, especially if you are trying to take a more traditional fantasy approach. Then again, you’re probably not playing the Hell adventure in that case. Regardless, I am intrigued by the vehicles. The combat potential looks fun, especially so when there are rules for mishaps, describing things that can go wrong while driving.
The Blood War, the eternal battle between demons and devils for control of Avernus, is in full swing during this adventure. The players will have plenty of monsters to fight. There are tips on how to run opponents on both sides of this conflict. Some select sections describe how the opposing forces react to each other, based on how the characters choose to approach the encounter. This ends up making the setting feel authentic: the baddies aren’t just speed bumps for the players; they have their own agendas and behaviors.
The appendix has plenty of magic items to keep the players excited. It also has loads of critters to put them right back in their place. Descent even includes a surprising protagonist, given the setting. I won’t describe the character, but I absolutely fell in love with her motivation and story arc.
Wrapping Up the Descent
Overall, I’m pleased with Descent into Avernus. I’m actively trying to think of ways to squeeze the adventure into one of my current campaigns. Maybe even start up a new group (Ha! Like I have time for that…*sobs*). The book nails the setting, and gives the players plenty to do the whole adventure. If you’re looking for an infernal adventure, you can’t go wrong with Descent into Avernus.