I want to preface this review by saying that of all the 5E releases to date, this is the one I was anticipating the most. I have been pumped for Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, from DAY ONE! DAY ONE SON!
Yet my expectations for Descent changed multiple times from announcement to release. When the initial marketing started, there was just the Zariel art and “THE DESCENT” event title. And I knew, I didn’t believe, I didn’t think, no I Knew that this was going to be a Planescape adventure. This was going to be Baator, Nine Hells themed, Planescape, Blood War goodness.
Then the title drops. BALDUR’S GATE: DESCENT INTO AVERNUS. All right! I loved Murder in Baldur’s Gate. I picked up Heroes of Baldur’s Gate off the DM’s Guild. I just kind of assumed that marketing or Wizards Honchos, whoever they are, said there had to be a Forgotten Realms tie in. Planescape is too weird! No, we gotta start this adventure on the Sword Coast. My expectations shift. I said okay, there’s going to be a token Sword Coast plot. I expected something like Storm King’s Thunder which has a breakneck paced mini campaign at its start to get the PCs from 1st to 5th Level. Then the adventure will start in Avernus. And what an adventure! I assumed the meat and potatoes was going to be Avernus. Hellfire! Warmachines! Blood War! I expected a few pages on Baldur’s Gate with most of the book dedicated to a Mad Max: Fury Road style sandbox in Avernus. I expected something very comparable and convertible to Dark Sun.
Then the review copies started getting reviewed. The Cities of Baldur’s Gate and Elturel are huge parts of this book. I expected the Baldur’s Gate section to go up to level 5 and it does. I did not expect there to be a two-level section in Elturel or a 50 page Guide to Baldur’s Gate. Avernus makes up 80 pages of the book. I want to write that sentence, “Avernus makes up only 80 pages of the book.” Also the previews said the adventure was fairly linear which surprised me.
And thus, I open this book optimistic but ready to be surprised.
This essay will be spoiler heavy and intended for the eyes of fellow DMs who are interested in running these adventures. For players, I would say I enjoyed this book but it does get disorganized when you hit Avernus. An adventurer in Descent into Avernus needs to care about saving the city of Elturel just as a Dragon Heist character needs to care about running a tavern. That is your central motivation driving the action and the plot. This adventure has a lot of combat with Devils who are often immune to fire and poison and resistant to spells or non-magical/non-silver damage so plan accordingly. If you intend to play in this adventure, please stop reading now. Or continue reading because that would be the Lawful Evil thing to do.
I begin by nibbling around the edges. The poster map is cool but lacks names and thus, context. The art in the back is amazing. Lot of the monsters in the back are reprints from Tome of Foes. I am guessing you don’t need that book then which is considerate of WotC. Deals with Devils and Vehicle rules are alternate rules. As I’m reading the book I can’t be certain how they’ll play at the table.
There’s a ton of great Baldur’s Gate info. There are random encounter tables which make this a lot more useable than the Murder in Baldur’s Gate book. There are reprints here though. No mention is made at all regarding the Silvershield family featured prominently in Murder in Baldur’s Gate or anything in that city spanning adventure. Rilsa Rael is on page 199. It seems Ulder Ravengard has become not just a Duke but Grand Duke, supplanting Dillard Portyr. At the end of the day you don’t need three books about this city with Heroes, Murder, and now Descent but Descent has great tables and up to date rules. It still doesn’t make me regret any other purchases.
The Gazetteer really leans into the idea that Baldur’s Gate is a shithole. There’s crime everywhere, the rich protect only themselves, and there is no justice for the poor. This is a big change from the benign corruption featured in Murder and Heroes. Reading this book I have a lot of trouble reckoning with how rough life in Baldur’s Gate is as written. If this is Baldur’s Gate, Luskan must be…feral. But I’ll tell you what Baldur’s Gate is probably great for, adventurers. Baldur’s Gate is a city that needs heroes. Contrast that with say, Waterdeep where I often asked myself, Why Are We Here? Waterdeep has a 20th Level Monk and 20th Level Wizard just hanging around. Baldur’s Gate does not have this problem. The city needs you and it is nice for a PC to feel needed.
Let’s get into the adventure proper. The opening pages explain the peculiarities of running adventures in the Nine Hells and depicting Devils, as Curse of Strahd did for Strahd, Barovians, and Ravenloft. One thing I’m worried about is that I won’t be smart enough to run devils. I have clever players and the prospect that I’ll get one over them on a diabolical deal seems dubious.
The text doubles down from the Gazetteer on Baldur’s Gate being a terrible horrible place to live. The Flaming Fist came off well in previous Baldur’s Gate materials. The mercenary company was founded in this city so surely they have an interest in protecting it. Now they’re portrayed as assholes who take what they want with impunity. In the canon, Murder in Baldur’s Gate was 13 years ago. It’s understandable that without the Silvershield family or Abdel Adrian things have gone downhill.
The start is that the characters are conscripted by the Flaming Fist. The PCs arrive while masses of refugees try to enter Baldur’s Gate. Word on the filthy muddy streets is that the nearby city of Elturel is gone. As in there is a huge crater where it used to be and the magical sun that floated over Elturel is also gone. The Flaming Fist are holding the entrance to Baldur’s Gate and allowing no one inside unless they get a hefty bribe. Anyone not giving up their bribe is beaten, robbed, and turned away. From minute one your PCs are being shown atrocity is the way of life in Baldur’s Gate.
I don’t care for this opening encounter at all. It frontloads too much information and it feels ancillary to the situation. The PCs are starting their new campaign in this chaotic situation. Shit is going down in Elturel and then the PCs are immediately told to ignore it. Also this fucking Flaming Fist NPC is dropping proper nouns left and right. “Ugh we gotta deal with the Hellriders!” “Boy this city has a problem with the Dead Three!” This is bad foreshadowing. Here’s what I would do to change it. Obviously, you want to have a session 0 to discuss the campaign and the PCs. There has not been a published adventure yet that discusses session 0. The core of this encounter is your PCs need to get a motivation to proceed to the next scene at the Elfsong Tavern. Have the Flaming Fist officer hiring/conscripting the PCs say that his hands are full at the gate and demand the PCs help him find a pack of killers stalking the streets of Baldur’s Gate. Leave out the Dead Three for now. If the PCs need and want that information, they’ll get there. The PCs are sent to the nearby Elfsong Tavern to meet with an informant on the killers.
The Elfsong Tavern is well fleshed out with its rooms and current occupants. The expectation seems to be that this will be a base for the PCs if they hang around Baldur’s Gate. The hook is exceedingly simple and good for level 1 pcs: There are pirates on the way here, please kill them and I’ll give you the next hook. The adventure mentions the PCs need not hang around the tavern but what else are they gonna do? This would be a more natural place to drop some lore about the Dead Three and the Hellriders, important proper nouns for later.
The tavern is named for the ghostly Elvish singing that periodically washes over the place. Heroes of Baldur’s Gate reveals that there is a banshee in the basement of the tavern. And sure enough when the PCs take the job, but before the fight, singing starts. However, this one and only time, the lyrics are different. The singing is in Elvish, I’ve never seen a group where someone didn’t speak Elvish. I have no idea how to use this at the table. The DM sings a song and then the PCs make intelligence checks to learn their significance? I hate this loredump and this song. Unless your PCs are already fans of Baldur’s Gate they have no context for this. I would rather just cut the song and the PCs can ask people in the tavern. Then the PCs can learn more about the Hellriders and “The Companion of Elturel” when they become important in the adventure.
So far that’s the third thing I’ve written that about. The Dead Three, The Hellriders, and The Companion are interesting bits of lore but not relevant to your players yet. It’s okay to include proper nouns but don’t loredump until it becomes relevant. Actually it’s better to follow your PCs interests as far as how much lore you give them. If there’s a natural place to foreshadow them, go for it. Otherwise, keep it simple for now.
When the bar scene starts to lull have the Pirates show up. They swagger about and demand to know where the NPC they’re trying to kill is. This is a perfect fight for level 1 PCs and the Pirate Captain has a good bit of gold on him. The PCs can follow up with claiming the pirates’ ship later but that is beyond the scope of this adventure. The NPC says that the killers are based in a Bathhouse in Baldur’s Gate and that it’s more of a cult than just a serial killer. As far as the story goes, I can understand the Flaming Fist hiring the PCs to hunt down a couple serial killers but would they really not help with clearing a cult out from a massive dungeon? Ah fuck it, do you want to play D&D or not?
I’m worried that the players won’t understand or care about the Dead Three. This is understandable since there they don’t have significance to this adventure. Bhaal is on the cover of this adventure but Descent goes out of its way to pretend Murder in Baldur’s Gate doesn’t exist. For the default cover I thought that was just a cool skull in the sky until someone said it was Bhaal’s symbol. What is a chaotic evil deity doing in the skies above Baator? The special variant cover has Bhaal’s symbol on it. It makes no sense except to tug on nostalgia for the Baldur’s Gate video game.
The Bathhouse is a dungeon meant to get your now Level 2 players to Level 3. It is weird to have this unnamed bathhouse run by evil cultists that sits atop a big damn dungeon just pop up out of nowhere. Whatever, do you want to play D&D or not?
The PCs get here and find a dungeon full of culty shits. There’s a pretty badass necromancer early on that will likely kill the entire party if you want her to. One thing I notice looking at the stat blocks is that is that the more common damage dealing spells have their descriptions in the stat block. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Thank you editors and writers for saving me from flipping to the PHB. The dungeon is good although it is too much for level 2 characters. I think the PCs will need a long rest to get through it to the end but that doesn’t really make sense to allow. This is the base for a bunch of murdering cultists. There’s no safe place to hang out for six hours and if you left and came back everyone would leave. If I was DMing this, I would cut rooms and encounters as needed to get it done in one full session. I think the DM needs to telegraph to the PCs that once they start killing people here they need to reach the end. As written, this is too much for level 2 PCs so help them out a bit.
Or start at a higher level because gods I’m tired of low level 5E.
This dungeon ends with a SHITLOAD of treasure stolen from Tiamat’s horde on Avernus. Why is it not from the Rise of Tiamat horde? Ah fuck it. Point is, the PCs are confronted on their way out of the bathhouse by Tiamat cultists demanding the money. If your PCs rested in the dungeon they could be doing this at full power but this encounter is clearly meant to take place while they are weakened. This is meant to be foreshadowing for Tiamat’s role later in the adventure and this is how you do it. Take note, Hellriders.
Before the Tiamat Cultists but after the Dead Three Cultists, at the end of the dungeon the PCs encounter a guy named Mortlock Vanthampur. Morty Vanthumper. Morty allies with the PCs for the sake of this dungeon and you might want to put him earlier in the dungeon just so the PCs get a better idea of the stakes and so they have an ally to help them clear the place out in one session. Morty also has a shitload of exposition to give and these points are important for the sake of the adventure. Here are the highlights:
- The cult is big and powerful because they’re trying to take over the city by proving the Flaming Fist is incompetent and forcing them out (They’re not wrong).
- Ironically, the Flaming Fist looks the other way from this Bathhouse because it’s owned by the powerful and wealthy Vanthampur family.
- With the Flaming Fist gone, Morty’s Mother, Lady Vanthampur, could become Grand Duke. She is already a Duke and one of the most powerful people in the city. This isn’t some 20 year scheme, everything that is going on right now is her making a move.
- This is excellent to give the plot some urgency. It’s one thing to have Halaster or Strahd begin their 200 year scheme to corrupt someone but if you tell the PCs “There is a coup going on right now and only you can stop it” this gets their attention.
- Morty also tells the PCs that things are being run by his two brothers, Amrik and Thurstwell. They tried to have him killed here in this dungeon.
- Most importantly, if Lady Vanthampur has her way, Baldur’s Gate is next up to get dragged into the Nine Hells. This is, I think, the first time that someone directly says, “Elturel is in the Nine Hells.”
So now the PCs are in it. The PCs have their Disc 1 Final Boss in Lady Vanthampur. They have disrupted the plans of one of the most powerful people in the city. She owns the cops and any lever of power they would think to draw on. And she has a plot to destroy the city. But the PCs have surprise for the moment. Morty advises them to go after Amrik, the Lady’s favorite son but the adventure acknowledges that they might go straight after the Lady herself.
Amrik is slumming it. While he’s a rich and powerful noble he’s holding court as a two bit loan shark in a seedy tavern. He’s not even surrounded with lethal guards, he’s exposed and daring anyone to mess with him. The encounter with Amrik is well fleshed out and I like it. You can really imagine this noble, wealthy beyond the imagination of most people, deciding to prey on the poor and desperate because he knows he can. I wish there was more info on who does what in this situation. Does the entire bar rise to defend Amrik? I doubt it. This is not written as a fight; this is more of a situation. Amrik Vanthampur will happily surrender if the PCs defeat his guards. I can picture it now, he throws down his dagger, holds out his wrists to the PCs, and smiles, “Cuff me” (This is when a martial PC should punch him and you give them inspiration).
As the PCs leave the next tavern with Amrik either dead or in tow as a bargaining chip they’re met by a young woman named Reya Mantlemorn. She is a Hellrider from Elturel and witnessed what happened to that city. She believes the Lord of Elturel, Thavius Kreeg, was last seen in the company of the Vamthampur family and investigating. She’s an NPC willing to join the party. Reya is a starry-eyed kid who wants to martyr herself for the forces of good.
One thing to note here is that the NPC stat blocks are in the text when those characters are relevant. That seems like a cool idea, but I think it will be a long term pain in the ass to not have the stats for monsters all in one place. It’s an experiment, we’ll see how it goes.
I get that the plot is about Elturel being dragged into hell but I kind of wish it was Baldur’s Gate under attack. That way you get to know the city and then it blows up.
In the next session, the PCs make their way to Vanthampur Villa to confront the evil Duke. I will never have enough maps and blueprints for castles and noble mansions. You have the house and then a dungeon beneath it. Second big dungeon of this campaign and the PCs are only third level. I dig it. The PCs can fight through a bunch of guards but there are also at least 7 imps ready to throw down inside the mansion. This is a lot of invisible foes for 3rd level characters.
The main attraction on the mansion level is Thurstwell Vanthampur, the eldest son of the Duke. He is not a combat encounter. With his 5 hitpoints and paltry cleric spells he’s meant to be pathetic and whiny. I foresee the Rogue or Warlock player walking into the room and shooting him in the face killing him. He also has a puzzle box which is a critical part of the campaign to come. Thurstwell will dump more lore on the PCs, saying that his mother is beneath the mansion in their big underground complex with Thavius Kreeg, lord of Elturel. They are plotting. He also lets it slip that there is a powerful magic shield in the dungeon with a mighty devil inside it. More on that later. Also I feel the need to repeat that this adventure has a SHITLOAD of gold in it. Way more than those stingy bastards in the two Waterdeep adventures aside from the big ass hoard of gold in Dragon Heist. Not that it will do the players a lot of good later in the book.
Below the mansion the PCs start encountering Barbed and Spined devils. At this point I’m not sure what the PCs are fighting, are these Zariel cultists or are they cultists to the Dead Three? Do the Zariel cultists get along with the Dead Three Cultists? I don’t know. It’s weird that you have three different cultists at this early point in the campaign. I’m also not sure how this adventure changes with Amrik or Thurstwell as prisoners. It specifically says the imps attack the PCs even if they have prisoners. The Zariel temple has a +1 mace in it so obviously you’ll want to change that for a weapon one of your PCs uses since nobody uses maces, ever. Duke Vanthampur does not, in fact negotiate for her sons. Between Duke Vanthampur’s art depiction and the stated “bad taste” of her interior design I think this character may be at least partly inspired by the current president of the United States.
At the end of the Dungeon the PCs can find Thavius Kreeg, Lord of Elturel. He is evil and corrupt but Reya the NPC will defend him at first. Yet, his cover story is paper thin and he will squeal if interrogated. I think your PCs should be tempted to straight up execute this guy. Your PCs also can find “The Shield of The Hidden Lord” with Kreeg. This is an artifact that actually contains a pit fiend. There is a lot of lore and info about this thing in the adventure. If I were DMing I would try to hide the fact that it holds a Devil and definitely don’t tell them it’s a Pit Fiend. Maybe no one knows what is in it. The Shield claims to be an angel. The shield gives Resistance to Fire damage. If a Tiefling player takes it, I would be tempted to give them Necrotic Damage just so part of the item’s value is not wasted. Point is, you want your group to take this thing with them and you don’t want to give its mysteries away so soon.
With this dungeon cleared out the Baldur’s Gate portion of the adventure is over. The PCs need to come out of Vanthampur dungeon with the Puzzle Cube and The Shield. An NPC in the dungeon recommends the PCs take the cube to Candlekeep, which is an epic library nearby. As this is the next step of the adventure I would recommend that the DM makes sure Thurstwell also says the solution to the Puzzle Cube can be found in Candlekeep. This puzzle cube has the potential to be a bottleneck in the adventure which you want to avoid at all costs.
There are a few more encounters listed here. The PCs are supposed to get pickpocketed on the bridge out of Baldur’s Gate. Skip this. Why bother? Why give your PCs another reason to dislike Baldur’s Gate? Why waste your players’ time with this penny ante bullshit? Why is this event here? More importantly, on the road to Candlekeep your PCs have a fight with a Cambion and some toughs who try to steal the Shield of the Hidden Lord. This helps establish the Shield’s importance.
Something else I should point out at this point: With the Vanthampurs dead or captured Baldur’s Gate is now safe. But should it be? Obviously it is possible for the PCs to swear fealty to the forces of evil when they get to Hell so maybe they could still threaten the city. But it seems like a big oversight in the campaign that there is no active or ongoing threat to Baldur’s Gate. Zariel could just as easily choose to draw in Waterdeep or Saltmarsh into the Nine Hells.
Also on the way to Candlekeep, Reya can drop more lore of the Hellraiders if you haven’t shared it already. It is important to note that her lore should come from her perspective as a rookie Hellrider (meaning this lore is propaganda). A long time ago, Elturel was ravaged by fiends. The people prayed for help and the archangel Zariel, Companion of Light, came to their aid. She led the army of Elturel into Avernus to destroy all the fiends but they were defeated. The survivors who made it back to Elturel were known as Hellriders and their traditions continue to this day. It’s an interesting story but it’s not yet relevant to the PCs. I’m not sure how to make it relevant yet.
Candlekeep is the next part of your Descent into Avernus campaign but it is only 5 pages of the adventure. The party needs a book or scroll to enter Candlekeep. This is something you want to foreshadow. It is a potential bottleneck in the adventure. There are three examples of texts the PCs could’ve found earlier in the adventure. Two of them were in the Vanthampur mansion, one is a potential companion NPC’s recipe book. Again, you want to avoid plot bottlenecks at all costs. The entire adventure depends on the PCs bringing the puzzle cube to Candlekeep which requires a book to enter. Don’t be a hardass.
This place is lousy with Archmages who are for some reason completely uninterested or uninvolved in any of the crap that has plagued the Sword Coast for the last five years up to and including a nearby city falling into Hell. The person the PCs are sent to is a Tiefling Archmage named Sylvira. She opens the puzzle box. It is unlikely a PC will be able to make the DC 30 check to do so at level 4 when you get the box. It does massive psychic damage if a PC gets less than a 25 on their check.
Inside the cube is a contract, written in infernal. It says 50 years ago, Thavius Kreeg, the ruler of Elturel, made a deal with Zariel. The backstory is important but not explained in full here. Zariel’s charge into hell is given as 1354, 140 years before the campaign starts. There is a retcon of some old lore from 3.5 and 4th Edition where Bel and Zariel have fought over control of Avernus for centuries. I like the idea of it being more recent because it strengthens the backstory for the Zariel Tiefling Bardbarian I’d like to play. Anyways, while Zariel became ruler of Avernus 140 years ago, 50 years ago she struck a deal with Kreeg to rid the city of Vampires. She would protect the city, but after 50 years the city and all its residents would be dragged into Avernus.
Sylvira also has some things to say about the Shield of the Hidden Lord. At this point the jig is up, Sylvira tells the PCs that the shield contains a Pit Fiend and this thing is not safe to have around people. She actually lays blame on the shield for making Baldur’s Gate into a shithole. I like the idea that the shield’s nature is ambiguous up to this point. Sylvira and the Pit Fiend inside both recommend taking the shield to the Nine Hells. Sylvira to get the shield as far from corruptible souls as possible, the Pit Fiend to escape its prison.
Next step, the PCs need to get to the Nine Hells where Elturel is. Rather than cast Plane Shift herself, Sylvira sends the PCs to a friend nearby, a wizard polymorphed into an Otter. This feels a bit padded out. I get that Candlekeep apparently has wards against teleporting in or out but I’m rolling my eyes.
The Otter Wizard is also where the PCs meet Lulu the Hollyphant. You can tell the writers of the adventure love this NPC and they want you to love her too. And if you don’t, too bad because she’s critical to the adventure. A Hollyphant is a magical flying elephant legally distinct from Dumbo because it flies with wings instead of its ears. It can cast spells and transform into a mastodon. A few of the writers online described her as Jiminy Cricket. She is meant to be the voice of conscience and goodness. She has very long and detailed backstory to the point that the story of Descent into Avernus is almost more about Lulu with the PCs just there to help her. I’m not sure how this is going to go over at the table. The little intro boxed text they have for her gives too much information to the PCs and it’s also too wordy. I can’t imagine reading this in whatever voice Lulu has.
Here’s the Backstory: Lulu was with Zariel during their attack on Avernus, when Zariel rolled through with the Hellriders. But some of the Hellriders retreated and closed the portal back to Elturel behind them. Zariel and a few others were stuck in Hell, lost the battle, and Zariel became a devil. Lulu knows that Zariel’s sword was hidden but not where or by who. Actually, it was Lulu and Zariel’s general who hid the sword in a fortress Lulu created. There are other NPCs mentioned here that become relevant later. Lulu lost her memories because of the River Styx. Zariel, a devil now ruling Avernus, could not kill Lulu and instead sent her back to the Forgotten Realms. Over the course of the adventure Lulu regains her powers and memories. Her powers are spells. She remembers names, NPCs, but most importantly that maybe, just maybe, Zariel can be redeemed. With 6 memories given to choose from, it probably makes the most sense to do one after each level up.
The PCs should be 5th Level when they Plane Shift to Eturel, which now resides in Avernus. I am wondering if Elturel will be my least favorite part of the campaign. I don’t think it is bad but it’s kind of unremarkable for the PCs’ first foray into another plane much less The Nine Hells. The Players arrive and you have a fight. It’s with Bearded Devils which I dislike because they have two attacks and the attacks are complicated to resolve. My kingdom for a simplified Bearded Devil that just swings real hard. It’s just too complicated for a CR 3 monster. I think I might do one bearded devil and then two reskinned orcs.
I don’t like the Elturel chapter and I can’t put my finger on why. I think it’s because the combat just seems like busy work. You land in Elturel and fight 3 Bearded Devils. You have a 50% chance to have an encounter every time you enter a named area of the city…but the map has no names on it? They give you ten encounters, I would pick no more than two. Then there’s a scripted fight when you get halfway across the city. Then you arrive at the High Hall of Elturel, not to be confused with the High Hall of Baldur’s Gate. There are 4 combat encounters you are supposed to have in the High Hall and they can be in any of the 15 rooms before you reach the end of this dungeon. This room gives the impression that of the presumably thousands of people in the city, only like 40 are left alive. At the end the PCs advance to 6th Level. For the most part this is just all combat. It’s good combat. There’s a good dungeon to explore. But I think it needs more story and social encounters to be good. For me, this is just getting in the way of Avernus.
The Level 6 part of Elturel delivers some social encounters but is a slog to read. I’m not sure what is going on here. The encounters are very dense. Simply, it is a shorter dungeon where the PCs rescue Ulder Ravengard, Grand Duke of Baldur’s Gate. Most of it revolves around an NPC named Gideon. Gideon is Baby Zariel. Like Zariel he became a fanatic in the fight against DEMONS. In doing so, he swore himself body and soul to helping Devils. I think this would be a good chance for the DM to get a sense of what the PCs think about Zariel. What is their opinion on someone who falls from good to evil for the sake of fighting more evil? If this was the intent of Gideon I wish the writers told us that.
Since this section has so much combat I wish there was more advice on pacing. In my opinion, this is meant to thrust the players into the Blood War in an exciting way. Elturel is under attack! Enemies are everywhere! Normally you would spend 6-10 sessions someplace that takes up two levels of content. But this looks more like 2-4 sessions which is a breakneck pace compared to other adventures at similar levels like Mad Mage or Princes of the Apocalypse. I am going to use those adventures as examples going forward because they have a precise idea of the content the players are expected to encounter at a given level. The fast pace speaks to the difficulty and absence of places to safely rest. With 2-3 long rests all this combat might not merit leveling up, but smashed together does this more difficult achievement make the PCs more deserving of faster leveling? I think it must. It would just be great if the text told us what the intent was.
The section ends with the PCs finding Ravengard. He’s locked into a battle of wills with a demon, you have a fight while he’s being exorcised. Ravengard and maybe Lulu tell you that finding Zariel’s Sword is the key to freeing Elturel. And then also Lulu remembers that some Kenku might know where it is. This is kind of thin, as far as hooks go. There is a huge dump of exposition about Zariel and how important Zariel’s Sword is and where it might be. Do the PCs think it will cut through the chains which are very slowly dragging the city into the River Styx? A big speech and a thin hook are not ingredients for happy players.
This doesn’t feel earned. It feels like the PCs are getting this info because The Elturel Section of Descent into Avernus is over. The DM is looking around the table asking if there is anything anyone else would like to do in Avernus except find Zariel’s Sword. I’m not sure how to fix this. You want to foreshadow “Find the Sword” but how? In Curse of Strahd, at the beginning of the adventure, Madame Eva draws cards to tell the PCs where to find important things including The Sun Sword that will fuck Strahd’s day up. This was on the players’ minds the entire campaign. I would advise you to look at other find the macguffin adventures, nearly every campaign book so far has had one, and steal from them. I think you want the PCs to come out of Elturel knowing two things: 1) The Chains are dragging the city into the River Styx which will kill everyone and 2) The Companion, the pseudo sun high above the city, is what’s keeping the city in Avernus. The PCs might now be certain how it will help, but Zariel’s Longsword is the only force for good on Avernus.
Warning: Rant Incoming
Also, it is always goddamn longswords isn’t it? Players, if you want to cover your bases and make the DM happy, be sure at least one person in the party uses longswords or greatswords. Hexblade, Paladin, Fighter, Barbarian, Valor Bard, Martial Cleric, someone. Otherwise at some point in the campaign the DM is going to say, “You’ve found Anduril, Flame of the West! This is the sword of a king!” Except your party has two Wizards, a Druid, and a Rogue so no one uses big swords. And the DM feels silly and a DM that feels silly is a DM that gets vengeance. This happened to our group in Tomb of Annihilation, I think because we were using AL rules. The Yuan-Ti Ras Nsi had a bitchin’ Flame Tongue Longsword but no one could use that item with any degree of skill. The wise call would’ve been to make it a weapon someone in the party used but no one thinks of that ahead of time. This happened to me too, I was DMing a 4E Dark Sun game and during the obligatory “enslaved as gladiators” storyline I had the local champion badass toting around a steel greats word with dragon decorations. I put a lot of thought into making a cool magic item. But, my PCs were munchkins so everyone in 4E used a Gouge, which was a Dark Sun weapon that benefited from Spear and Axe Feats meaning it was broken as fuck in the wrong hands. So no one used or wanted my badass item, they just rendered it down for Residuum. I felt bad but I was also spiteful. I wanted to scream at them, “THERE’S ALWAYS A MAGIC SWORD IN A FANTASY GAME.” And no one wanted the cool story item when there were more mechanically optimal choices. This is The Main Reason why I decided to go Valor Bard for my Dungeon of the Mad Mage game. This was my way to ensure someone gets the cool strength-based weapons we’ll surely find. And sure enough our current hook is that there’s a magic Longsword on level 5. There’s always a goddamn sword in the adventure, make sure someone in the party can use it and DMs, don’t put the Greatsword Anduril in the game if the party is all hobbits.
Elturel feels like an opening band. You might not like it, you might like it, but this isn’t what you paid to see. If I was running this, I would rather start this book at 3rd level and then have this be where party catches up to the adventure. Maybe the PCs take the entirety of Elturel at 6th Level and we knock it out in 2-3 sessions with heavy cuts. I see that the DM’s Guild already has two products, “Helturel” and “Encounters in Avernus” that have extra encounters and ideas for Elturel. And I’m sure they have some good ideas but trying to fix Elturel by adding more stuff is misguided. I think it will work out just fine because it is fun to play D&D with your friends but this is going to need some work to go over well at the table.
The ending of Elturel is not well-defined. The party needs to get down the chains. How they do that is their problem. I appreciate putting the PCs into a situation rather than an encounter but it needs more info. Here’s a simple one: How fucking far do the PCs need to climb? And at the bottom of the chains the adventure suggests you might have an encounter with the massed Devils and Demons at the base. But what’s the encounter? Nothing is suggested.
Welcome to Hell, Bitches
Your next step in the adventure is to find the two Kenku that Lulu believes maybe might know the location to Zariel’s Sword, which can possibly hopefully help out the city of Elturel in an unspecified way. This is a brisk ten mile hike through Avernus but no encounters are suggested nor any interesting terrain. This is disappointing for the PCs first foray into another plane.
The PCs are headed for the fort of a Night Hag named Mad Maggie who employs these two Kenku. One thing this is lacking is some guidance for how to talk like a Kenku, since they can only repeat what they hear. I like this little base, it’s well described and seems to be a potential refuge for the PCs. You can clearly tell the legions of Redcaps here are clearly inspired by the Warboys from Fury Road. Their horrible jokes and overall disposability injects some needed black comedy into this otherwise grim adventure.
I’m less enthusiastic for how Mad Maggie sends the PCs on some kind of vision quest through Lulu’s memories. This is the second vision quest of the campaign after Ravengard and not the last. This is meant to emphasize the importance of Zariel’s Sword in the adventure but I found it just kind of makes it seem like Lulu is the real protagonist in this adventure. Lulu is Frodo Baggins on this impossible quest through Mordor/Avernus to recover a treasure that will save the world.
What I don’t like is that if the PCs fail the vision quest encounter, which is a series of fights and “Roll to Not Take Big Damage” checks, is that the encounter just repeats. That’s it. Mad Maggie says well you failed, do you want to go again? THAT SUCKS. That’s not a penalty for the characters, that’s a penalty for the players who took time out of their busy schedules to get together to play D&D. DO. NOT. FUCKING. DO. THIS. You might frustrate or challenge your players in a D&D game but you never want to waste their time. While you don’t want every time the players fail to be some variation on just handing them the solution making players repeat an encounter until they succeed it just bad writing. If they fail they fail, send them packing or force them to get the answer at a horrible cost. Never waste your players’ time.
Aside from the vision quest pitfall which can easily be sidestepped I like this base but I wish there was more details and advice. Why does Maggie want to help? The adventure hints that she’s obsessed with Zariel’s sad story like someone hungry for the next episode of their favorite show. And worse, what if the PCs piss her off and she doesn’t help? The adventure expects you to get a vehicle here. What if you don’t? The adventure doesn’t seem to have an answer to that.
Mad Maggie might give you a silvered weapon “for devils and lycanthropes” on your way out if she feels like it. To which your players might ask, “are there werewolves in hell?” Well I’m damn glad you asked because shortly after the PCs leave Mad Maggie they are set upon by a wereboar driving a War Truck howling for blood.
The Wereboar is one of the Warlords of Avernus. This adventure was advertised as “Mad Max in Hell” and this is the part of the adventure that speaks to that promise. You are given 4 enemy warlords with vehicles and minions and one semi-friendly chaotic evil warlord on his own. I like the descriptions given because they are concise. There are two short paragraphs about the Warlord themselves and another two short paragraphs on their followers and vehicles. The warlords are all monsters of some kind or a previously given stat block.
But I have some problems with this. There’s also no advice on how to run them aside from the general rules for vehicle combat given in this adventure. This reminds me of Storm King’s Thunder’s three battle scenes in Goldenfield, Triboar, or Bryn Shandar. You are given this complicated situation with little to no guidance on how to run it or what might happen. Still, the short description makes it easier to imagine new ones and I have to believe there will be $6.00 worth of these from the DM’s Guild.
I am going to come back to these Warlords, how they impact the pacing of the adventure, and the DM’s Guild later in this essay.
Hill of Red Herrings
After this fight, your next stop is a hill where people have been crucified. This is a Red Herring, Lulu thought the sword was here but it’s not. There’s not really anything to do here, Lulu just remembered the situation wrong. I think you should give your PCs the rest of the lore on the Hellriders here if they’re interested. One of the NPCs here is I guess a famous person from Ravenloft but there’s no mention of that setting so it doesn’t matter. Players could be very frustrated with Lulu here for leading them astray. They could get problematic if it feels like the DM is jerking them around with an unreliable guide. Depending on what the PCs do they might have to fight a level 13 Devil here and they’re level 8. I don’t think this is meant to be a fight to the death. I think the intention is that the PCs run but the adventure doesn’t tell you that specifically.
Also at this point Lulu might get kidnapped by giant wasps from Hell. I’m groaning as I type this. This encounter is a small dungeon and doesn’t have to be here, really you could put it anywhere. I’m not crazy about this encounter. It has no story and is very skippable.
Two Roads Diverged in a Hellscape
From this point the adventure divides into two paths leading to the Sword of Zariel. This is the core of the adventure in Avernus. I must warn you they are both very confusing.
The situation is that there are two NPCs who might know where Zariel’s sword is. This sets the PCs on a track to have some linear encounters. This is like the path set in Storm King’s Thunder or Dragon Heist where you’re only supposed to do one of the paths. In Dragon Heist, we did the “Summer” path. In Storm King’s Thunder you’re supposed to go to one Giant Stronghold. In Descent into Avernus there are two paths. One is called “The Path of Demons” and the other is “The Path of Devils.” Each one is eight encounters, they do not overlap with each other.
How do the PCs know that this time Lulu is accurate? I don’t know, do you want to play D&D or not?
The 8 encounters on each path are for the most part very short. They are exactly like the encounters on the chase part of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. You go to a location, there is a fight, puzzle, or conversation, and there is one clue leading only to the next encounter. Each path has one longer dungeon part that could be a full session but for the most part these are short. The way they are connected is by a series of bizarre contrivances. They feel randomly smashed together. There is zero guidance or structure of the space between these encounters except for the 4 warlords mentioned earlier (1 of whom is scripted to be encountered and killed by now).
For an idea of the wackiness with no context, allow me to summarize these Two Paths.
First, the Demons path: You find some Devils, they tell you to go to a tower and Mordenkainen is there. He tells you, “Go to this obelisk.” You get to the obelisk, there’s a demon who tells you, I’m cursed, go talk to this guy and I’ll help you. You go to that guy. It’s Mephi-fucking-stopheles. The adventure wants you to “win him over,” how the fuck do you pull that off? Whatever, he gives you an errand, you do it, and then you find the tomb of the Hellriders. The Hellrider tomb is a dungeon without a lot of combat and a death knight you’re not supposed to fight. The Hellrider Death Knight will help if you free a giant Demon God. He sends you to a portal which leads to the Giant Demon God. You climb down the 500 foot hole (Thirty Three DC 15 checks if you don’t have climbing gear or flight) and fight a few devils at the base. The Demon God flies off to kick Zariel’s ass because she stole his magic hammer. The Demon God seems to deal 1d6+1d10 damage, is that a misprint? Then you get the location of Zariel’s sword from the Hellrider Death Knight.
The Devils path is somehow more ridiculous. You need to find Bel, a pit fiend who ruled Avernus before Zariel. But a genie has to write you an introduction. The genie will help but its cursed and needs you to save it first. So you go to a witch who tells you to get titan blood. The titan/frogurt is also cursed and they need blood from Tiamat. Is this fucking serious? You can get Tiamat from Arkhan The Cruel, a Dragonborn who totally vapes. The text takes pains to explain how powerful and cool Arkhan is and it’s the most 14-year-old-boy shit of all time. He’ll give you Tiamat’s blood if you do some shit yadda yadda. You give the Tiamat Blood to the Cursed Titan, the Titan Blood to the Cursed Genie, and you eventually get to Bel who asks a favor as well and then you get the location of Zariel’s Sword.
This Path of the Devils is fucking insane and I don’t mean this in a positive way. It’s metal but it’s also like some Legend of Zelda fetch quest where you need to travel the world to trade a seed for seven other things until you get a Heart Container and you need a strategy guide to figure it out. Compared to the Path of the Demons, the Path of Devils seems harder, more complicated, and easier to fuck up. The Demon Path also gives you a big bonus to the final confrontation with Zariel. The Demon Path isn’t better than the Devil Path but I would say the Demon Path is easy mode. It is the Jill Valentine to the Devil Path’s Chris Redfield.
Hopefully I’m getting across that these paths feel completely disconnected. It is Dragon Heist’s chase stretched out over 3 levels. Specifically, the level 10 Demon section of the adventure is just climbing down the pit to fight the devils and release the demon god. This is one fight. If done one after the other these amount to maybe 2-3 sessions worth of content for THREE LEVELS. What is going on here!?
Descent into Wild Speculation
The Chapter 8-10 segment of the book makes no sense and I need to unpack it. At this point I need to discuss these two paths along with the warlords. This ties back to the Descent into Avernus’s pacing but also its associated products on the DM’s Guild. This unpacking will include some baseless speculation on my part. But I think an exploration of this chapter and the level 8-10 section of this adventure gets to the heart of the greatest weaknesses of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. This is not a weakness I can put into one sentence it is a kind of multi-faceted problem with this book and the Avernus chapter specifically.
Go back and read those paragraphs about the Path of Demons and Path of Devils. Go on, I’ll wait. They’re messy paragraphs summarizing the adventure and they could benefit from a second pass.
After rereading the summaries of the two Paths, would it surprise you to learn that Descent into Avernus had 16 writers?
When I first opened the book and saw all the names together I didn’t think anything of it. Then I came back after I finished the book trying to figure out why these 16 encounters in the Path sections feel so crazy and random. It’s obvious that parts of this adventure, this story, and this section specifically were written by different partly. It makes sense in retrospect.
I have zero inside information about the production of this book. The writers and “story creators” whatever the difference is there are great people and they’ve all written quality D&D material in hardcovers and for the DM’s Guild. I’m glad people have their names in a book and they got paid. The content in Avernus they have produced INDIVIDUALLY is good. These encounters are good if kind of viewed in a vacuum. What they have produced COLLECTIVELY for Avernus is a Frankenstein. I really wish there was a nice way to phrase this but I can’t think of one. You can’t write a good story with 16 people. The pieces are good, the sum feels like it written by a committee in different rooms who didn’t talk to each other.
After I read this I opened up some other books on my shelf.
Curse of Strahd has 4 people credited as designers
Tales from the Yawning Portal has 2 “Compilers” and 3 “Converters”.
Tomb of Annihilation has 3 “Story Creators”, 4 Designers (2 people here are also credited as Story Creators), and 2 consultants including Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has 5 designers.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage has 11 Designers. That sounds like a lot and it is but Mad Mage is 23 different levels of Undermountain. It’s 23 different dungeons. It is a mega dungeon crawl, it doesn’t need to have a singular story arc, one level can be radically different from the next.
Avernus has ELEVEN story creators, SIXTEEN writers (3 of these people also appear on the Creators List) and 4 Developers (3 of these people are credited on the writers and/or creators list). This breaks precedent with every other “single story” hardcover adventure. Obviously Mad Mage, Yawning Portal, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh are different.
Again, I want to repeat this, I’m glad people got paid. I’m glad people got credited (except for Will Doyle who got left out of the credits). But you can tell something went wrong here.
Where it goes wrong is the adventure’s content and pacing. There just isn’t enough to do in Avernus as described in this 256 page book. The number one thing this book does wrong is that it doesn’t have random encounter tables for Avernus. As written, there isn’t enough content. Baldur’s Gate is very fleshed out. Elturel is fleshed out. Avernus? There’s nothing there. Four Warlords, 16 very short encounters of which you’re supposed to pick 8, and then the conclusion for levels 11 and 12 is again too goddamn short. The marketing for this adventure completely omitted Baldur’s Gate in favor of pushing the narrative of “Mad Max in Hell.”
It seems like an easy fix, you cut the Baldur’s Gate Guide. I would rather have another 50 pages of Avernus. If I want an expansion for the relatively short section of this adventure set in Baldur’s Gate sell it to me on the DM’s Guild. But why spend the 50 pages on the less interesting subject matter?
I think Descent into Avernus is going to have a ton of content on the DM’s Guild. The people credited as writers all have great freelance offerings on the DM’s Guild. This book is primed for some DLC. You need more vehicles, more warlords, and above all more encounters and locations for Avernus. And lo and behold the day book goes on sale there is a PDF called Encounters in Avernus from some of the writers of Descent that has a bunch of random tables to choose from.
Every Hardcover from Tomb of Annihilation onward has had a DM’s Guild Adept pdf of extra encounters. Maybe not Yawning Portal or Mad Mage. And these are good products with solid encounters. Encounters in Avernus is certainly worth $5.95. But you really need it to complete Descent into Avernus. I’m not pissy that there will be PDFs for this book because that means freelancers will get paid. But it reduces the overall quality of the book in my hand. I feel like we’re getting a kind of incomplete book that really needs another $20 of content to finish the story. This doesn’t bug me but I kind of wish I was in on the joke.
I can’t help but think the story here would be better served by a Baldur’s Gate Book and then a separate Avernus book. I remember my original thinking, oh boy this is going to be an Avernus book in the Planescape setting and being surprised at Baldur’s Gate showing up as a liked but uninvited friend. The cynic in me says and believes that we have one book instead of two because two books would be more expensive and sell fewer copies. I would’ve bought both but I’m not everybody. Instead they’ve stapled a Baldur’s Gate Book onto half an Avernus book. It’s a toy box, not an adventure ready to go now.
With not enough to do you throw the pacing of the adventure for a loop. The Warlords section of the adventure says “don’t worry about throwing too many” at the players. I do worry though. How much content does Descent into Avernus believe applies to each level of gameplay. Take Princes of the Apocalypse for example, each level of that dungeon is one level of play. I can see on the map how many encounter, how many rooms to throw at the PCs. When I ran Curse of Strahd it took about 3-5 sessions to work through about 1/10th of the content to work through the book. Here I have no guidance on what to have happen on this adventure between bits. With the travel between sections completely abstracted and no “filler” encounters I just don’t know what to do with the Avernus section. And I don’t think anyone else does either because you don’t have 16 writers telling one story.
At the end of the Avernus section you have some locations. I’m not sure how I’d use the Styx Watchtowers. There is one encounter at the River Styx which is one of the only encounters in the book that uses the River. You never have to cross it in the adventure, and there is no guidance to do so, mostly because you really can’t with the River being 50 feet deep. Mahadi’s Emporium seems to be another thing ripe for PDF supplements.
After those locations is something labeled “Roaming Encounter: Smiler the Defiler.” This is a weird layout choice. Why is there only one encounter here (DM’s Guild)? Why not just put this with the other locations? Because it’s a guy and not a location? Mahadi is also a Roaming Encounter. The material itself is enjoyable. Smiler the Defiler (nothing to do with Dark Sun) is a Mad Max type guy you meet while he’s pissing (into the wind) like Fury Road.
After the open world section you find the Bleeding Citadel. I like this dungeon, it has a great Aliens vibe as you have to cut through the walls and there are goat demons everywhere. The map is a bit tough to read. It is intended to be a side view map where you cut through the walls to get places but we are conditioned to look at maps from a top-down perspective. Once again there isn’t enough content here to make up all of Level 11.
When the PCs enter the room with the Sword of Zariel they have to go on another vision quest, the third of this campaign. The PCs flash back to Zariel fighting demons and Yeenoghu, the Demon Lord of Gnolls. This is a lot of combat here. Like 5 encounters with one short rest. Eventually Zariel and Lulu show up in the flashback to kick his ass. I’m kind of surprised the mammoth stat block isn’t included in the adventure since Lulu can transform into one. There might be enough content to get through level 12 but this is really one giant battle.
Once you have the Sword of Zariel the campaign might be over. Might be. If you make your way to Zariel you can make a DC 20 Persuasion check to redeem her. It’s actually DC 25 but Lulu grants you a +5 to the roll. The Hellrider from the Path of Demons gives you another +5. Remember a Rogue with Expertise at level 13 have a minimum of 20 on their persuasion checks before modifiers and guidance. Once that happens. Zariel frees Elturel and soars into heaven. Campaign over.
Or is it?
There are another 7 pages of text on what might happen if Zariel’s Redemption doesn’t happen. And honestly, redeeming Zariel is kind of an anti-climax. There’s no end boss, there’s no great confrontation, present sword, persuade, you win. The enemy’s gate is down, the thermal exhaust port is at the end of this trench. There aren’t many suggestions in the adventure that you could try to redeem Zariel. The only point it comes up is one of the memories Lulu might recover and of course any of the marketing your players might’ve seen. That’s this book in a nutshell, “This Thing Might Happen.”
The temptation is obviously to not let your players off this easily. Technically there are a series of more fights for the players to get to Zariel. It is amazing how complicated this ending can be if the PCs don’t make the persuasion check. The problem with these endings is that they all seem to be about what the campaign NPCs can add to the scene rather than empowering the PCs. Bel, the Pit Fiend in the Shield, Tiamat, or either of the two big demons in the adventure might intervene at the PCs insistence and then they do the work while the PCs mostly look on. The adventure also reminds you here that success has two factors. 1) The PCs need to free Elturel from the chains drawing it into the River Styx and 2) the PCs need to return Elturel to the material plane.
The endings other than the boring redemption also fall a bit flat. Do the PCs give up their Soul to save a city they might not care about? Does Avernus fall into chaos and if so, will anyone notice/care?
I was overhyped for this book. Would I be overhyped if there were two books in this release? Probably.
This book’s a goddamn mess. It could be a fun mess but it’s still a mess. The parts are better than the sum of how they’ve been welded together.
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus was marketed as Mad Max In Hell but it’s not. That was a bit of a lie. The Fury Road bits can be as small a part of the adventure as you want. Or they can dominate your table time. It’s up to you because it doesn’t really matter that much. Contrast this with Out of the Abyss. Out of the Abyss also has a big open map full of random encounters but you’re supposed to roll dozens and dozens of times for them. Descent sticks with more realistic ideas and tells the DM to put the encounters where they want them.
Like I said, parts are better than the whole. The Baldur’s Gate section of the book is solid. Sure it’s two different cult dungeons but they’re good cult dungeons. The Elturel section is a slog but easily cuttable as the least important part of the story. The Avernus section is incomplete but I think it’ll get better through DM’s Guild Supplements. This book suffers from a lack of focus at its conclusion which really harms the ending the 16 writers clearly spent a lot of effort on. The Baldur’s Gate Guide is great, with its descriptions and random encounter tables. But the book overall would’ve been better served with 50 extra pages on Avernus in its place.
Overall the story is disappointing. It depends heavily on your PCs giving a shit about things you might not care about. Baldur’s Gate is a shithole, will you save it? If your PCs are ambivalent about saving Elturel will they make sacrifices to save it? The adventure presents a situation where the PCs should probably be a ticking clock to save Elturel but there isn’t. There are a few too many uber-powerful NPCs in this adventure with three Pit Fiends, the Archangel turned Archduke, Arkhan and friends, a Death Knight, and Two Demon Lords. Zariel isn’t in the story much and isn’t a looming presence the way Strahd is always with the PCs in that adventure. The story of redeeming a fallen angel isn’t that original but hey, SKT was King Lear’s Road Trip, TOA was a death trap, and COS was a tale of punching a domestic abuser in the face with a sword.
But like Zariel I think you can redeem this book. It has good ideas. I think you can have a damn good time with this. When I ran Curse of Strahd I really tried to run it warts and all. When I played in Dragon Heist the DM really stuck to the script until the ending. I think Avernus you don’t want to try and run this as written. The book demands you throw the book out where it doesn’t work. Make it Planescape, throw Baldur’s Gate into Hell, try to use all 16 semi-random encounters. At the very least kill Arkhan the Edgelord.
Just whatever you do, someone use longswords, someone take expertise in Persuasion, and don’t rely on poison or fire damage.