Genesys Character Creation: C0-LE

I recently signed up for a Play-By-Post game online using Genesys by Fantasy Flight Games. We are going to be playing in the Android campaign setting. FFG and WotC put out several games over the years (boardgames or card games) called either Android or Netrunner for this IP. It is meant to be a Cyberpunk world focusing on an Ecuadorian megacity called New Angeles. This is the same way more popular Cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun, focuses on Seattle. Unlike Shadowrun, Android lacks fantasy elements. The big elements of the setting are a Space Elevator that exists in New Angeles, Robots & Clones, and colonies on the Moon and Mars.

I don’t really know that much about the setting other than “it’s cyberpunk” and all the tropes that entails. I’ve written previously about running Shadowrun in Genesys and eagerly picked up the Genesys Android book, called “Shadow of the Beanstalk.” There’s also a setting book called “Worlds of Android” that I didn’t know existed until recently. The Setting book costs too much money and has not enough value for what I see as a troperiffic cyberpunk setting. FFG released a hardcover fantasy set of rules for Genesys called “Realms of Terrinoth” that I bought immediately on release and I regret that purchase. Terrinoth was a rote kitchen sink fantasy setting and I almost never open the book. On the weakness of the Terrinoth book I opted for the DriveThru PDF of Beanstalk. Although if I did a live game of the setting I would pick up the dead tree edition because PDFs and websites are a pain in the ass at a table.

There were demo games of Gensys Android at PAX Unplugged last year but like all RPG games at PAX Unplugged they filled up instantly unless you planned like a motherfucker. I remember showing up Friday afternoon of PAXU 2018 to see if there were games and the dude behind the table was disdainful that some dumbass pleb would dare ask if there were games open at their gaming convention five hours after the doors opened and 4 Hours 55 Minutes after the slots were filled. My PAX 2018 and 2017 gripes could be a whole separate other post.

Let’s get back to the subject at hand. Genesys Android play by post. As this game is just about to start, I am left without much to work with to build a character. One player told me they were going to be some kind of genetically modified upper class person who believed in freedom and Robot/Clone Rights. Someone giving a shit about something gave me a place to stand on. I thought I might play a “Bioroid” which are the Robots of the Android setting. That is the equivalent of race in D&D. I almost never play “human” characters or whatever the human equivalent is in a game system. Genesys doesn’t have classes but it does have careers which are just collections of skills. I looked through the options listed in Beanstalk and pregens in the Shadowrun books for inspiration. I’m leaning towards some kind of cop/investigator as opposed to an academic, pilot, or solider-cyborg.

At this point I need to be careful. Fiction has no shortage of Robot Detectives or Cyberpunk Cops and I don’t want to rip off something too closely. A degree of ripoff is inevitable and fun but I don’t just want to remake a fictional character. The two most prominent examples in my mind are Kay from Blade Runner 2049 and R. Daneel Olivaw from Asimov’s Caves of Steel. Other examples include Altered Carbon which I haven’t seen, Penny Arcade’s Automata, the I, Robot movie, the original Blade Runner, and of course Robocop. I don’t have a grip on the Android setting lore, so I haven’t given too much thought to who this character is outside mechanics.

Let’s get into those mechanics. Again, this is my first time making a character for the Genesys system. I have no concept of what makes a “good” character. Your first choice is “archetype” which Genesys uses instead of Race or Species. This gives you a pool of XP that you can spend on Characteristics (These are your 5E Abilities) and on Skills. You put points into things and they go on a scale from 1-5. At character creation you are supposed to spend most of your points on Ability Scores because 1) That’s just how the game works and 2) You can’t raise them again until later and it’s very expensive to do so.

Shadow of the Beanstalk offers six archetypes. Your Natural Default Human, Clone, Cyborg, G-Mod (Genetically Modified), Loonie (People born on the Moon), and Bioroid, my choice. As I said before, Bioroids are robots. They’re not the Clones or the flesh and blood Replicants of Blade Runner but full on metal people with a few cosmetic touches. They’re strong, don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, and Asimov Style Three Laws Safe. They’re also not treated like people; they’re job stealing property.

Mechanically, your Brawn (Strength+Constitution in same stat) is higher than others except for Cyborgs, starting at 3. However all other stats are at 1, which is the lowest array possible. You are compensated for this by having the highest amount of XP to spend on your character compared to any other race, 170 XP. The Default Human Starts with 120 XP. I use the Human comparison because Genesys starts with Human default and then adds or subtracts points depending on the changes made. Compared to the Human you are getting 30 free XP for increased Brawn and then increasing your other stats to Human Equivalent would cost 100 XP. You get 1 extra wound than human at 11 Wounds + Brawn, but your Strain, or kind of mental fortitude is 8, two lower than human (Robots get stressed out easily). You have two special abilities that follow from being a Robot: First, you are artificial which means you don’t need food, oxygen, or sleep like the organic meatbags. You also don’t lose anything for getting cybernetics. As a Cyberpunk game, getting cybernetics is a thing. Normally the limiting factor on how many cybernetic parts you can get is your Strain, the same way Shadowrun uses Essence. The Drawback is that you can’t be “healed” with Medicine checks. You either have to wait to heal naturally or use the Mechanics skill.

What does this mean for building a Bioroid character? It means that it’s easier for a Bioroid to specialize at doing a couple things really well as opposed to the versatility you get from the Human characters. This is kind of a problem because it’s at odds with the norms of the system and there’s no guidance for building a Bioroid PC. Looking at Pregen Characters for Genesys literally none of them have a 1 in more than one attribute and none of them are Bioroids. And in Genesys you are supposed to spend on Attributes at character creation but your attributes are weaker than other characters which feels more like working at a disadvantage than the chance to specialize. I feel very compelled to spend the 80 XP to raise all but one stat to at least 2 and then another 60 XP to get two attributes to 3 which is like a kicking sand at my big pile of 170 XP. I’m opting to leave Presence at 1 since, you know, cold unfeeling robot despised by society. For now I’ve raised Cunning and Willpower to 3. Depending on the group makeup I may change that. It also might be a good idea to just leave those attributes at 2 and spend the points on skills WITHIN those stats instead. Again, don’t know how to make a good character and I’m trying to mimic the pregens which don’t include bioroids.

So let’s talk skills. Like Attributes, or Characteristics as they’re called in Genesys, you buy them with XP. While Attributes are 10 times the new level you’re buying, Skills are 5 times the level you’re buying. You pick 8 skills to be class skills and get 1 rank free in 4 of those 8 skills, equivalent to a free 20 XP. Non-Class skills cost an extra 5 XP. I have 30 XP left over from my characteristic increases, plus 50 XP the GM gave us because they’re swell, and another 10 XP from the GM in exchange owing a “small favor” to a faction in the game. 90 XP total.

The way Genesys works is that when you roll you build a dice pool. The number of dice a player adds to their dice pool equals their Attribute (I keep using that word when I should say Characteristic, Sorry!). So my character has a 2 in Intellect, when they hack a computer they add 2 green d8s to the pool. But I have 1 rank in hackzor so I replace one green d8 with one yellow d12. The D12 has a higher chance of success than the d8s. You roll the number of green d8s equal to your attribute or ranks in a skill, whichever is higher. Then you substitute the lower number in yellow d12s. The GM adds red d12s and purple d8s to your pool to represent the DC or difficulty of what you try to achieve. You roll the pool and you want to come away with a net positive amount of successes to succeed at the task.

Because I’m planning to be a cop/detective type character I decided to take a look at a pregen that’s an “investigator” for a model of the character I’d like to play. The investigator has ranks in Cool, Discipline, Perception, Stealth, Streetwise, Vigilance, Ranged Light Weapons, Coercion, Deception, and Society Knowledge. Far and away their best skill is Ranged Light Weapons with three ranks followed by Streetwise, Vigilance, and Coercion with two ranks each and 3 in those three attributes.

The pregen has a lot of class skills with no ranks in them which seems like kind of a waste so I changed the skills around for my Robot Detective. I decided to make Hacking, Cool, Perception, Streetwise, Vigilance, Ranged Weapons, Coercion, Negotiation, and Society Knowledge my class skills. The only change here is Cool instead of Skullduggery. I felt this would be more in keeping with an inexperienced Robot Person.

Like the pregen investigator I put points into Streetwise and Vigilance. I didn’t put quite as much into Ranged weapons. Those three are my highest skill with two each. I put one rank each into Coercion, Society Knowledge, Perception, Cool, and Hacking. I also put one rank each into the non-class skills Brawl for melee combat and Mechanics to fix myself. This leaves me with 20 xp left over, I’ll probably put the rest into talents.

I took the basic equipment that 1000 credits gets you: pistol, flak jacket, cellphone. I decided to “Owe a Favor” to Haas-Bioroid which is the Megacorp that makes Bioroids in the Android setting.

Genesys also has Talents which are the Feats of the system. They come in tiers with each one costing 5 XP times the level of the talent. You build a pyramid of them so you can’t just buy the expensive ones right away. I will likely take Corporate Drone as my character is a literal Corporate Drone. I was also thinking Quick Draw for Kay/Robocop style gun combat. I would like to take one of the Talents that makes you better at unarmed combat but they are both tied to skills I didn’t select. Knockout Punch deals Stun Damage depending on your Coordination skill, Street Fighter gives you extra damage based on your Skullduggery. As much as I like the idea of being a metal punching beast these are just too expensive to invest in. Coordination is like balance and acrobatics. Skullduggery is a general “Rogue” skill for lockpicking, pickpocketing, checking security systems, or distracting opponents. It doesn’t sound like something the Robot would be good at. I have 10 XP left, I might get “Years on the Force” to get police favors or “Grit” to get more health and be that much more unkillable.

I try to always put some thought into my character name. For this one I like Cole as in the Dragon Age character but spelled as an acronym “CO-LE”, or Corrections Officer/Law Enforcement. Maybe put some numbers after that.

Again, because I haven’t played Genesys yet I don’t have a feel for if this is a good character or even what I ought to do as a Bioroid. The Clone archetype gets two additional skills free to invest more broadly while the Bioroid has incentive to Specialize. More likely I need to make a CO-LE 2.0 that dials back Attributes and doubles down on a few skills. Buying an Attribute gets me a Green d8 for every skill that uses that stat, buying a skill just gets you that one skill but it works the other way around.

Building a PC or NPC is always a fun mental exercise and I look forward to actually running Genesys in the near future after having the Core Rulebook collect dust for a while now.

Baldur’s Gate – Descent into Avernus

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

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.

Elturel

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.
End Rant.

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.

Endgame

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?

Final Thoughts

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.

Baldur’s Gate, Part 2 – Heroes of Baldur’s Gate

Heroes of Baldur’s Gate was a huge surprise to me when it came out. Maybe I was just out of the loop. This adventure came out in 2019 from one of the writers of Dragon Age: Origins. It draws heavily from the Baldur’s Gate video games. Heroes takes place at the same time roughly a century before Murder in Baldur’s Gate. It isn’t a retelling of the video game story but it does involve a number of the same characters. The “Evil” aligned characters from your party in the game appear as villains here.

This is a tough adventure to get started off explaining. The PDF starts with an in-depth backstory about 7 pages long. It is very proper noun heavy and tough to get through. It also has nothing to do with the Adventure. There are long lists of NPCs and suggestions that the players play as these NPCs from the Baldur’s Gate video game or take special backgrounds specifically linked to this background. But this is just way too many proper nouns too fast and it isn’t based on the players yet. So I’m going to try and ignore this as much as possible and get to the adventure.

Our start is, one of the Harpers has reached out to the PCs for aid in rescuing his wife. There’s a massive chunk of boxed text about a war between Amn and Baldur’s Gate the Harpers helped to prevent but that has nothing to do with the PCs or the quest at hand so who cares? Cut it. The PCs are at a cozy little tavern meeting this Harper and getting the hook. Guy’s wife is missing, he knows she’s alive because their magic rings say so. There are also some good local rumors about weird shit going on in a place called the Cloakwood, the Zhentarim is afoot, and Baldur’s Gate is getting more dangerous.

After a few hours riding to the campsite, your NPC questgiver notes that the forest seems closer than before. Which is impossible, obviously (nervous laughter). A few miles later you find these molehill type things where your foes wait. These are a new monster I haven’t heard of before called Gibberlings. Their holes are described as “the size of a goat” which is a weird unit of measurement.

Gibberlings are basically aberrant goblins. They cover themselves with dirt by day. They’re kind of like Gremlins, or ghouls from Shadow of Mordor, or ghasts from Dragon Age. They’re not intelligent like Goblins can be. They’re CR 1/4 monsters with 7 HP that swing for 1d4+2 damage. But they have features like Reckless Attack or a Swarm move that lets one guy grapples while the other adjacent gibberlings all attack as a reaction. They also have sunlight disadvantage. This is a lot of special moves for a 7 HP creature. I think the idea is that this encounter is supposed to take place in the sun and you’re supposed to use reckless attack to only roll 1d20 per gibberling attack. There’s a certain kind of tactically minded DM who will go nuts with this encounter. Just remember, this is first level 5th Edition. It’s hardly even D&D yet.

So, the encounter objective is to rescue the guy’s wife. Assuming you do so, the wife gives you another hook. She and her husband are both Harpers and they’re going to meet with a friend in Baldur’s Gate because their friend said there was a problem to deal with. Since they’re the Harpers you can be reasonably certain they’re fighting something evil. There is one more Gibberling fight during the next long rest and at this point you should level up the party if you haven’t already.

The next chapter sees the party in Baldur’s Gate. Your quest-giving NPCs will head off to the Elfsong Tavern which was a location featured in Murder in Baldur’s Gate as well. The NPC you meet there, Imoen, and the two NPCs with you already, Khalid and Jaheira, are all companion NPCs from the Baldur’s Gate video game. Imoen bears a strong similarity to a Dragon Age 2 character named Merrill. Once the party joins up with the three Harpers, Imoen gives them another hook. The Harpers are investigating the Zhentarim in the area. The Zhentarim has gone through many incarnations over the years of Forgotten Realms canon. In the current 5E version they are usually depicted as “Criminal But Not Evil.” This incarnation of the Zhentarim 120 years prior to where the game is set in 5E swings towards a Eviler depiction. As champions of good, the Harpers have history with the evil Zhentarim. The Harpers believe the Zhentarim are up to some shit in Baldur’s Gate.

There are two complications to this hook. First, a group of pirates in the bar believe Imoen was using magic to fuck with them earlier, this is true but the pirates were also hired by the Zhentarim to take out the Harpers. Second, this isn’t actually Imoen, it’s a Doppelganger, in the hire of a Red Wizard of Thay.

Assuming you drive off the pirates, the Harpers suggest The PCs start by talking to some shopkeepers in the area. The Zhentarim are running a protection racket which means threatened merchants and thugs running money. This entire section is very similar to Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 2 where the PCs are just kind of turned loose. There isn’t a ticking clock element, the PCs are now just residents of this neighborhood. There are a couple good random encounter tables. One of them features partner violence so be careful including that with your table.

Two of the encounters allow the PCs to meet more NPCs from the video game including a witch named Dynaheir and Coran, the Elf Rogue who you meet a century later in Murder in Baldur’s Gate. In Heroes of Baldur’s Gate, Coran is bisexual and in a relationship with Xan, another elven NPC also from the video game that you can find later in this adventure.

I think that Heroes of Baldur’s Gate might work better that Dragon Heist because the PCs are given the explicit goal of investigating the Zhentarim activity in this one neighborhood of Baldur’s Gate. They have a reason to go from shop to shop asking questions and doing favors. The residents have quest hooks and rumors with direct bearing on their objective. In Dragon Heist, the PCs involvement with Trollskull Alley was always a side quest to finding the missing gold. That said I think you do have to give the PCs some roots or personal buy in of some kind. Giving them a tavern in Heroes of Baldur’s Gate seems like overkill. The Backgrounds custom made for this adventure speak to things to do here. There are also zero references to the City Watch or Flaming Fist stepping in to fight the Zhentarim. The PCs are meant to hang out and investigate things here and level up to 3 then you move to the next act.

When you level up to 3 or get bored the party is confronted by a Zhentarim Enforcer NPC backed by crossbow wielding thugs. It bears mentioning that this is at least the second time this adventure the Zhentarim have threatened the PCs and maybe didn’t send enough guys. When I see this trope of the bad guys drawing attention to themselves by trying to kill the heroes I always think of the Jack Reacher movie. In that flick, the mob guys are furious at the lower level punk who tries this saying that if they want someone dead they do the job right goddamn it.

That said, your PCs have probably been making a nuisance of themselves for the Zhentarim for a few sessions now. The NPC they send is very qualified to kill a party of third level adventurers, he’s a CR 7 Dwarf with an AC of 18 and a suggested 152 HP. Dude is built like a brick shithouse. The adventure says that at half hit points he surrenders because he doesn’t get paid enough for this shit. He tells the PCs that one of the shops in the area is run by Doppelgangers and they have a passage to the undercity where the Zhentarim boss is.

The next chapter and the chapters after that are awkward because of the format. Chapter 3 a description of all the basements and the undercity of Baldur’s Gate. But Chapter 3 does not exactly follow chapter 2. There are buildings that just have basements. Many of these basements are connected but not all have encounters. My point is that there is going to be some flipping between chapter 2 and chapter 3 depending on your PCs. The path of the adventure is this: Arrive in Baldur’s Gate. Investigate The Zhentarim until you find their base in the undercity or you annoy them enough for a guy to show up with a note saying, ‘DON’T TELL ANYONE OUR SECRET BASE IS HERE.’ Then you enter the secret base and confront their boss, a Halfling Assassin who, like the Dwarf, is a CR 7 monster that can probably take lower level PCs. And the Halfling has a note saying ‘THE NEXT PART OF THE ADVENTURE IS IN THIS FOREST DETAILED IN CHAPTER 4.’ So the PCs have the next step on their breadcrumb trail.

By the time the characters set out for The Cloakwood in Chapter 5 they ought to be level 4. Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 are expected to be taken at this level and the PCs should be level 5 at their conclusion. I say this to give you an idea of the pacing of your D&D game. I usually advocate getting to level 2 should be about 1-2 hours. Getting to level 3 should be at the end of your second session. After that I prefer milestone level ups and those ought to be spaced every 3-5 sessions.

These chapters are structure a bit like Curse of Strahd. Chapter 4 is your overview of the Cloakwood. It’s this magical forest but there’s some shady evil about which you learn about at the end of chapter 3. Chapters 2 and 3 are intended to give your PCs hooks and reasons to go out and explore the Cloakwood. So be sure to include hooks and reasons. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 go into detail about 3 specific locations with dungeon maps. These include a mine plagued by a necromancer, a giant tree where a hag coven and an evil druid are opening a portal to the feywild, and a Drow base built out of a giant spiderweb.

Chapter 8 sees your PCs return triumphant to Baldur’s Gate. Or do they? The adventure kind of buries the lead on this. When the PCs return to Baldur’s Gate they are confronted with new problems depending on what they did in the adventure. As written, one of these events must happen. The Evil Red Wizard, Edwin, must make it to Chapter 8 alive and be the final boss. If the PCs fail to stop the Evil Druid or if the Necromancer is still alive then those two NPCs attack Baldur’s Gate in addition to fighting the Evil Red Wizard. The Red Wizard Edwin has a bunch of Doppelgangers poised to strike and seize control of Baldur’s Gate. His only remaining obstacle is the party. I’m not sure the PCs would necessarily go to the Cloakwood if they find out there are Doppelgangers about messing things up in the city behind them in Chapter 2-3 but whatever.

When Edwin, the Necromancer, and the Evil Druid are defeated the PCs have completed the adventure. The city throws a parade in their honor and they get a bunch of magical treasure. And that’s it! That’s everything. The remaining 100 pages of this book is all maps, lore, random encounters, and a shop by shop review of Baldur’s Gate as it appeared a century before Murder in Baldur’s Gate during the time of the video game. There is also a substantial bestiary which includes stat blocks for all the NPCs in this adventure which are also NPCs from the video game.

Now we must have a verdict. What are my final thoughts on Heroes of Baldur’s Gate? I think if you are a fan of the Baldur’s Gate video games this is a must buy. People loved these characters and this is a nice little adventure about them. I like the sense of size in proportion to the adventure. One thing I did not like about Murder in Baldur’s Gate was that it is supposed to be about level 1 PCs and yet they are rubbing elbows with the rulers of the city immediately. In Murder, your PCs are catapulted into this city-wide struggle for the soul of Baldur’s Gate. In Heroes, which covers more levels in the same range of low-level D&D, your PCs are fighting street crime. They’re in one neighborhood, making it a better place to live, they fight villains, and they save the day.

I would recommend Heroes of Baldur’s Gate. This is an archetypical vanilla D&D plot done well. Explore, fight, talk, be adventuring heroes. Contrasted with the more experimental product that is the playtest adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, I think Heroes is a more accessible product if you are deciding which one to purchase. I am happy owning both. I think I made the right decision opting for the PDF instead of the print book since I have no nostalgia for the video games. The production values on Heroes of Baldur’s Gate are amazing. This is a 162 page PDF and it looks like a professional WotC published product with beautiful art and maps. It suffers a bit because half the product is an in-depth look at Baldur’s Gate which I already have with Murder in Baldur’s Gate and we’re getting a third one with Descent into Avernus. Does that diminish my enjoyment of the adventure? Not a bit.

If I was going to run these products, I have an idea how to do so. This isn’t an original idea. I think you run these adventures together like the Stephen King novel, “It.” Start with Heroes of Baldur’s Gate. Maybe get a bit more influence from the video game. I really like the idea that what’s driving conflict in Baldur’s Gate is this malign influence of Bhaal, the God of Murder. You start with heroes and your goal is drive off the Bhaalspawn and end the wave of violence in Baldur’s Gate. The same heroes then come back a century later when Abdel Adrian, the last child of Bhaal is dead. Your players then finish Murder and you have a gift-wrapped level 10+ campaign conclusion to put a stop to the God once and for all.

Baldur’s Gate, Part 1 – Murder in Baldur’s Gate

Those of you who follow my Twitter account may have noticed I am very eager to get my paws on the upcoming D&D 5E hardcover adventure, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. I was sold on the concept of a Mad Max inspired sandbox in Hell. I’m getting some Dark Sun vibes from the shattered wasteland, Planescape vibes from the planeshopping, and Ravenloft vibes from the idea of being trapped in a hostile realm.

As of this writing, this book comes out in two weeks. Review copies have reached the hands of people on the internet and initial impressions are going up. As ever, the hardest workin’ man on the internet, Sean from PowerScore, is first to write a guide to the adventure and tweet about it. With the table of contents up came the surprising news that there is a lot of Baldur’s Gate in this book. I know it’s in the title but for a level 1-13 adventure I kind of assumed that Baldur’s Gate was a fig leaf. I figured it was a civilized excuse plot to get your players to level 3-5 and then the earnest adventure in Avernus begins. Storm King’s Thunder starts you off in Nightstone then has a 16 page excuse adventure to get the PCs to level 5 so they can actually play Storm King’s Thunder. Curse of Strahd has Death House, a level 1 adventure which ends with the players dead (probably). Then you create new characters at level 3 to play Curse of Strahd. Princes of the Apocalypse has a couple encounters “in case your players are not level 3” then the adventure proper starts.

I made this assumption and made an ass out of you and me. Well, a bit. I made a half-ass out of you and me. According to the Table of Contents the adventure starts with 61 pages of adventure in Baldur’s Gate. That’s about the same length as Lost Mine of Phandelver which also ends with level 5 but it’s a hell of a lot more pages than I expected. This also includes maybe 8 pages on Candlekeep and 20 pages on Elturel, both locations near to Baldur’s Gate. The next 80 pages are Avernus and then there are another 50 pages of specific Baldur’s Gate setting info. That’s a hell of a lot more BG than I expected. Recall that in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, the section of the book specifically about Waterdeep was 26 pages. 7 of those pages were on the Giant Statues of Waterdeep and Waterdeep Holidays.

My happiness at having more information about the city speaks to something I did not like about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I never warmed to the city of Waterdeep itself. It seemed like every other session our group was being spoken down to by the overbearing Waterdeep City Watch. The factions we were dealing with were never happy to see us. No one interesting wanted to drink at our tavern. It’s a low level adventure and boy do you feel like just another schmuck, not a hero. The hunt for the gold was interesting but the setting was boring. I kept thinking, ‘man why couldn’t this gold be lost in Neverwinter or Port Nyanzaru?’
Baldur’s Gate is different though. I liked it when I read a James Haeck article describing it as the Gotham of the Sword Coast. I liked this description less when every other WotC employee said the same thing and it is clearly part of the marketing for Descent into Avernus. I never played the Baldur’s Gate video games. Much like Planescape: Torment I have a real hard time getting past the shitty interface. I grew to like the city through the release of an adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate. This came out in 2013 and paper copies now go for serious money on Amazon. It was part of the 5E playtest and I remember it being very interesting to read. It’s an open adventure which puts the PCs in tough situations rather than going encounter to encounter. You basically work for one of three NPCs and they’re all the villains. At the end of the adventure whoever the PCs helped the most turns on the city and become the final boss. I’ve never run it, but I enjoyed reading it. I thought here at long last I would go through and review Murder in Baldur’s Gate. I’d also like to review the recent adventure on the DM’s Guild, Heroes of Baldur’s Gate, which I haven’t read yet. This will get us psyched up for Avernus and possibly kill time over the next agonizing two weeks.

Murder in Baldur’s Gate includes three things: A DM Screen including maps of the city, districts, place names, and random tables. The Adventure itself is a shorter book. And there is a setting book with all the adventure’s proper nouns and places in the city of Baldur’s Gate. I am very curious how much if any of this setting book will get reprinted for Descent into Avernus. There isn’t really a way to review the setting and adventure books separately, they go together. The adventure uses proper nouns and the setting book explains what they area. Coincidentally, you don’t know what’s important in the setting book until it comes up in the adventure.

One big problem with Murder in Baldur’s Gate is that it never really explains the central premise of the adventure and the DM needs to change that to make this work. There is no “Kill Strahd” or “Escape the Underdark” that fits into a couple sentences. Explaining the premise in this adventure is another story about Wizards of the Coast and D&D. Wizards of the Coast goes through phases in its product releases and marketing. Right now, with Descent into Avernus coming out, the marketing is all Hell, Devils, Pacts, The Blood War, Baldur’s Gate, Infernal Warmachine Vehicle Rules, and the announcement of the Baldur’s Gate 3 video game. A few years ago, when Out of the Abyss came out, the marketing was all about Drow, Underdark, Demons, and there were Drizz’t novels that referenced the events and themes in that adventure. You see the pattern.

At the time Murder in Baldur’s Gate came out it was the 5E playtest and the marketing was all about The Sundering. The Sundering was a theme/world event in the Forgotten Realms IP with Murder in Baldur’s Gate, other adventures, and several books based around it. The idea was that the Uber-God of the Forgotten Realms is shaking things up. The Forgotten Realms has a Greek style pantheon of many gods with narrow portfolios. But Uber-God wants to deregulate or something so the Gods have to meet with a consultant and interview for their own jobs. It doesn’t really make sense if you try and say it out loud. It is very similar to the plot in Storm King’s Thunder where the God of Giants decides to make all giants equal and let them compete for who is going to rule the Giant Caste System from now on. And like Storm King’s Thunder, when the adventure was over The Sundering was never spoken of again. There was no ending. When the marketing stopped the idea stopped.

Where this is relevant to Murder in Baldur’s Gate and the players is the idea that during The Sundering The Gods are each selecting one person to be invested with substantial power. You may recall in the PVP/Penny Arcade D&D podcast during the 5E D&D playtest that Omin Dran became the Chosen of Tymora, Goddess of Luck. Also Viari was the Chosen of the Goddess of Song and Binwin Bronzebottom (RIP) became the Chosen of Dumathoin, a Dwarven God. Another adventure from this series, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, is all about the Auril, the evil goddess of winter, and her Chosen who is basically Elsa from Frozen.
Murder in Baldur’s Gate is about the Chosen of Bhaal, the God of Murder. Like I said, Gods in the Forgotten Realms have very narrow portfolios. Bhaal and his kids, the Bhaalspawn, are a big deal in the Baldur’s Gate video games. To the point that I think this adventure makes more sense if you played those games. The plot is that this adventure begins with a Murder which resurrects Bhaal who I guess died in the Forgotten Realms lore. Bhaal then goes about influencing the adventure’s three main NPCs in the adventure to get more and more violent. This finally climaxes when Bhaal selects one NPC as his Chosen and then you fight them as the final boss in the adventure.

This is never made clear to the PCs in the adventure. No one in Baldur’s Gate explains what a Bhaalspawn is and at the end of this adventure no one makes a big evil speech about how you fools have brought about the doom of this world. As written, after The Titular Murder these three NPCs, which represent the three biggest factions in the city of Baldur’s Gate, just get more and more violent and destructive in their bid for power until one of them goes crazy and starts killing people. Obviously this flaw in the MiBG has to be corrected by giving the PCs more exposition. Or run Heroes first which has more background info on Bhaal and what his deal is.

So let’s get into Murder in Baldur’s Gate. First thing first, this adventure was meant to be run in 10 sessions of about 1-3 hours as part of D&D’s organized play program. So if you run 3-4+ hour sessions you may burn through this adventure more quickly than intended. The setting book begins with Baldur’s Gate’s history. It was a natural harbor with little arable land, obvious place to build a city. A great adventurer named Balduran spent his fortune building a wall around the place and over time the city gets built!

What the city history and initial maps do very well is set the stage. They quickly explain that Baldur’s Gate is divided into three pieces each dominated by one faction. The Upper City is controlled by the nobles, referred to as The Patriars. The Lower City is where the middle-class lives and is dominated by The Flaming Fist, a mercenary company that is based in Baldur’s Gate. They protect the city and act as the city watch in The Lower City. The Outer City is the sort of shadow city/shanty town grown up outside the city walls which is controlled by the city thieves’ guild, referred to in the book as The Guild. Right away you have a political tripod, which Dr. Yueh described as the most unstable of political structures. You have the money, military, and masses all set against each other in a tinder box. It’s a tidy setup bordering on oversimplification. I find that factions like this really make a D&D city understandable. Rather than deal with 687 shopkeepers just give me the big picture of who the power players are.

The Adventure book details Bhaal’s story. He was a god, foresaw his death, and worked out some ritual where his children would slay each other like in Highlander. But when only one remained this would bring him back through some magic ritual. And when Bhaal is back he has influence over the city. The adventure also gives the DM the structure of the adventure. Murder in Baldur’s Gate is a series of ten or so events that happen in the city brought on by at least one of the Three Main NPCs. The Other Main NPCs and PCs react to this event. Depending on what the PCs do the DM assigns points to one or more of the Three Main NPCs. Whoever has the most points at the end of the end of the adventure becomes the Chosen of Bhaal and the final boss. So, it is very important to track this score.

The Prologue

The first session of the adventure starts with the final two Bhaalspawn facing off. Remember the lore, these are the children of the God Bhaal and when one is left alive the God comes back because magic. One is a skilled assassin (but not so skilled he can’t be defeated by level 1 PCs) and the other is an NPC named Abdel Adrian. He is apparently the main character in the video game. Abdel is the glue holding Baldur’s Gate together. He’s a wealthy former adventurer but he’s also the highest ranking officer in the Flaming Fist and he has the love of the common people. He appeals to all three factions dominating the city. So naturally he dies so everything can fall to shit.

This is an archetypical Sly-Flourish style Strong Start. During a big city-wide festival, during a speech, assassins rush the stage and attack Abdel Adrian. What do you do? With level 1 players who might not know the proper nouns of Baldur’s Gate the PCs will probably either 1) stand their ground and see what happens or 2) charge in to stop the assassins because they’re hero people. But this is a cutscene more than anything else. No matter who wins between Abdel and the assassin the victor transforms into a terrible monster that starts killing folk in the crowd giving the PCs an obvious thing to fight.

Two things I would highlight here from the text. First, make it clear to the PCs that this monster is defeatable by them. Second, make it clear that the City Watch is focused on the crowd or just as scared as anyone else to highlight that the PCs must intervene.

One thing I notice reading through this adventure is that you could very easily level this adventure up. As a playtest adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate makes no references to specific spells, very few specific skill DCs, and even the suggested monsters were based on the 5E playtest and might not work in the released 5E ruleset. It was released for level 1-3 play. It doesn’t have to be. Speaking as someone who doesn’t want to play level 1 5th Edition anymore I would suggest running this starting at level 3-7 and plan to level the PCs twice. Once at the midpoint and again before the final boss.

All right so the PCs have this fight with A Monster and save the city folk. Good work! Now come the job offers. One after the other, the PCs receive three separate requests for assistance. This scene is a little gamey for my taste but it’s fine. Three NPCs with quest bubbles over their heads ask the PCs meet with them at the same time. The PCs can’t possibly accept all three meetings at once! These three NPCs represent the three factions of Baldur’s Gate. While you’re supposed to pick one and stick with them I would advise lettings your PCs play the field for the first few sessions. The adventure even has advice on if the PCs try to play the NPCs against one another.

The three factions of Baldur’s Gate are, very broadly, the Nobility, The Flaming First mercenaries, and the Thieves Guild. The NPCs who approach the PCs represent all three factions. For the nobility, a rich wizard named Imbralym Skoond. He offers to meet the PCs at a tavern in the fancy part of town and makes mention of “the rot” within Baldur’s Gate. Representing the Flaming Fist is their 2nd highest officer after Abdel Adrian, a man named Uldar Ravengard. Ravengard makes other appearances in Rise of Tiamat and Descent into Avernus. He asks the PCs to meet him at the Flaming Fist base of Wyrm’s Crossing which is way the fuck at the other end of the city. Lastly is a non-descript guy in a cloak using thieves’ cant to signal the PCs to meet him in “Little Calimshan,” a walled in enclave outside the city amidst the slums. This person is helping a merchant with their overturned stall and represent the Thieves’ Guild and the common people.

Again, while these meetings all take place at the same time and the PCs are supposed to choose one, I’d be inclined to let them make all three unless the party is really pulling for one. Maybe the PCs even split up. The plot of this adventure is really that things get worse and worse in the city until one NPC goes way off the deep end but in all honesty the other two are not far behind. This is shitty advice but follow the Rule of Fun.


Each NPC wants to have a meeting where they will give the PCs their opening quest. Skoond buys the PCs dinner and drinks and then takes them to a meeting with the noble NPC representative, Torlin Silvershield. Silvershield is a Duke, the highest political office in the city, just like the recently murdered Abdel Adrian. He’s the High Priest of Gond, one of the more popular Gods in this city. He’s also possibly the wealthiest person in Baldur’s Gate. And his family is one of the oldest in the city. And he has the biggest house. So Torlin Silvershield has a lot going for him. But his opening monologue includes lines like, “I intend to sweep their filth from our city and restore Baldur’s Gate to its proper place of esteem.” Phrases like that and his obvious wealth and power scream VILLAIN to any player. What the players might not get is that ALL the quest giving NPCs in this stage are villains or at least becoming them. But Silvershield is a bit more obvious off the bat.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the goddamn city, Ravengard meets the PCs at the Fortress of the Flaming Fist which sounds like a great Kung Fu movie. There is no goddamn reason why he couldn’t have this goddamn meeting just after meeting the PCs or at least not make them walk all that way. While Silvershield’s portrayal screams “Corrupt Politician” Ravengard is obviously “Overzealous Cowboy Cop.” Hal Holbrook from Magnum Force, Meredith from Dragon Age being notable examples. The way Ravengard describes the thieves’ guild as a besieging army rising from slums and ghettoes is bound to raise red flags with your PCs. Neither one should be obviously evil right now but the arc that they’re on is clear. While Silvershield offers a place amongst the nobility, Ravengard offers the PCs the chance to join the Flaming Fist and be on the side of Law & Order in Baldur’s Gate.

The third meeting takes place at dusk in Little Calimshan. As written before, Baldur’s Gate is dominated by three factions each repping a segment of the city. The nobility and Silvershield live in the upper city which is patrolled by a City Watch. In the lower city the Flaming Fist is the city watch and this is where the middle class lives. Outside the walls is the “Outer City”. There’s no law outside the walls and it is home to animal related businesses like butchers and tanners, blacksmiths, and warehouses. The city thieves’ guild is the closest thing to law here. There are repeated references to refugees from around Faerun going to Baldur’s Gate because it is a tolerant city with a good economy. Little Calimshan is a walled enclave of descendants from refugees and it is also controlled by Rilsa Rael, a bigshot in The Guild. While she presents herself as the owner of a pawnshop she’s actually the #2 to the Guildmaster. At this early stage Rilsa comes off as the least Obviously Evil of the three questgivers. She makes the fairly reasonable argument that in Baldur’s Gate the people with the gold make the rules and leave everyone else behind. Although the Guild’s first priority is its own profits Rilsa offers the PCs a chance to steal from the rich and help out the poor. She reminds me a lot of Sera from Dragon Age.

There you have them, your three questgivers. One of these three, Rilsa Rael, Ulder Ravengard, or Torlin Silvershield will be the final boss in Murder in Baldur’s Gate. Over the course of the adventure they each grow more extreme under the influence of Bhaal, the god of murder. WOTC took a poll of people claiming to have done this adventure and most groups had Silvershield as the end boss which became canon for the Forgotten Realms.

What follows in this adventure next are ten sessions that are more like events to react to rather than adventures. The DM has to do a great deal of work in making these into D&D adventures while at the same time foreshadowing Bhaal’s influence. As written the adventure has no cackling evil cultists. Rather, things just keep getting worse in the city which must to be disheartening to someone playing D&D. The adventure is different depending on which of these three patrons you are working for. Most of the time it’s the forces of Law vs. The Guild. One thing this adventure makes clear is that the events happen regardless of the actions of the PCs. So a PC will have to stop something as often as instigate it. And each time one of the three questgiver NPCs succeeds they gain a point bringing them one step closer to becoming the Final Boss. This is kind of an odd pace for an adventure where the person you help the most is the most corrupted. But the PCs also have the best chance to blunt the effects of that NPC’s corruption.

Also I should point out, any time there is an NPC or a place name or proper noun of any kind you can find it in the Campaign Guide. This book explains the politics of Baldur’s Gate, the Flaming Fist, the Thieves’ Guild and really has just a ton of details to mine. There are neighborhoods, businesses, city officials. It really makes Baldur’s Gate come alive in a way that Dragon Heist never did for Waterdeep. I don’t know how much of this will be reproduced or changed for Descent into Avernus but I look forward to finding out.

Session 1

If working for Silvershield, the PCs are sent to hassle his political rivals under the guise of looking for proof that they are members of the Guild. None of the three have any concrete proof of Guild membership but this mission is a good guide to exploring the city and a template in running an investigation adventure. The three targets are all in different parts of Baldur’s Gate.
Rilsa Rael orders the PCs to rob Nant Thangol, a corrupt and little loved bureaucrat who collects tolls at one of the city gates. This encounter is a bit weird because it offers no advice on what amount the take is. It also advises the DM to be “ready to improvise” because who knows how the PCs will rob someone.

Ravengard orders the PCs to shut down two gambling dens (although neither is a noble-affiliated upper city joint). One is a place in Little Calimshan, the other is a bar that Silvershield also wanted the PCs to go to. If the PCs are working for Silvershield then Flaming Fist soldiers show up and start a barfight. If the PCs are working for the Fist, then the City Watch shows up and they too start a barfight.

In all these instances if the PCs participate or fail to stop the other two NPCs then each one gains a point on the “Final Boss Tally.” Offering the PCs a chance to do this seems like it will take two D&D games with the prologue and questgiving part. I like the way this adventure expects you to step outside the bonds of the adventure a bit. For example, Duke Silvershield gives the PCs a writ to search and arrest the three NPCs he wants investigated. The adventure says that clever PCs could come up with creative uses for having the signature of the most powerful man in the city on a document.

Session 2

These are more tied to events rather than specific NPCs.

First, Baldur’s Gate passes sumptuary laws forbidding lowborn people (including Baldur’s Gate’s many wealthy merchants and prosperous middle class) from wearing fur, silk or other fine fabrics, and jewelry. This is citywide and lasts until the end of the end of the adventure. The adventure takes pains to say that the City Watch will enforce this and attacking the City Watch is murder which is prosecuted. I like this depiction of Law & Order more than the exhaustive fun siphoning measures listed in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. “Murder is a Crime” doesn’t need a page to explain.

At the same time, Baldur’s Gate has an outbreak of Guild-Sponsored vandalism starting with graffiti and escalating to broken windows and flaming trash.
Also in this session, the Flaming Fist begins hassling dockworkers under suspicion of Guild sympathies. These people work in Baldur’s Gate’s famous harbor in the lower city but live in the outer city. If the PCs get involved, Ravengard summons them to a meeting.

All three of these are more background events than traditional D&D encounters. City Watch slashing velvet garments, vandals breaking streetlamps, Flaming Fist beating up a guy with a club. Silvershield gains a point regardless but Rael and Ravengard’s dogs can be called off. If I was DMing this, I think your best option would be to have these vignettes happen as the PCs are doing other things. Either pursuing their own personal goals or maybe investigating Bhaal and what the hell happened to Abdel Adrian.

Session 3

This is really where things start to kick off into a deliciously complicated adventure. One night, the hands off five statues are stolen. This annoys upper and middle class people. The next day, someone takes the hands from the statue of The Beloved Ranger which depicts Minsc and Boo, a warrior and his pet hamster from the Baldur’s Gate video game. This pisses off the entire city as Minsc and Boo are beloved in Baldur’s Gate.

The culprits for the first theft were experienced Guild operators. The Minsc and Boo statue was defaced by bored rich teenagers. They are hiding in a shop somewhere in the city. What do you do?

This is a great setup but it makes more interesting reading than it does a D&D adventure. It’s a little breadcrumby for my taste. The interesting choice for the PCs is what do they do when they find these overprivileged jackasses. There are four options listed here, three including the three questgivers and one involving Baldur’s Gate’s Master of Cobbles, a bureaucrat responsible for the city statues. He declares a reward for anyone who spares the city the expense of a trial which the adventure points out he has no right to do. This is really the moment for the PCs to declare their allegiance to a faction.

If the PCs kill the vandals or turn them over to Rael she gives them over to a mob and they lynch these rowdy young adults. Ravengard uses the law to bring down a 10 year sentence on them with no possibility of money or political clout saving them. Silvershield has evidence of the crime planted on a rival and the kids go free. These are all extreme solutions to a statue being defaced in a society that has magic. You kind of have to sell the problem as the DM that people really fuckin’ love Minsc and Boo. I would go a different route though. This overreaction feels to me like a chance to telegraph to the players that something is not right in Baldur’s Gate. It reminds me of Derry, the town from Stephen King’s “It”. The book does a good job of getting across that something is wrong with Derry even if you don’t know about the clown faced fear demon. For a small Maine town, Derry is too violent and its people never seem to question or notice its insane rate of disappearances and brutal murders. Two weeks ago people would’ve hauled these vandals to a watch post, now they’re cutting off people’s hands? Once again, influence of Bhaal on the city. Regardless of outcome, you might try to have one kid escape and face the mob if you feel the PCs would enjoy the extremely graphic and brutal murder the text describes.

Whichever NPC the PCs side with gains a point on the “Final Boss” meter.

Session 4

This time around there are two events and one is mostly background while the other is a more proper encounter.

In the background, Rilsa Rael and the Guild are organizing a slowdown of the sanitation workings that haul garbage, piss, and shit from the Upper and Lower city. Like the vandalism in Session 2, this isn’t for any reason that would normally motivate the profit-oriented Guild, it’s entirely a fuck you to the upper class. The PCs can either do nothing and Rilsa gains a point or end the strike. The adventure suggests bribing the workers although 150 gold seems like a lot in an adventure with few mentions of treasure.

The main attraction this session is that Baldur’s Gate is due for an election. Abdel Adrian’s death leaves an opening for Duke on the city council. Traditionally one of the four Dukes on the council is a member of the Flaming Fist. With their highest officer Abdel Adrian dead, Ravengard is the obvious choice to take his place. There is background maneuvering here. The other three Dukes on the council are described in the Campaign Guide. They include adventurer patron Torlin Silvershield, The Tony Stark of Baldur’s Gate, and two others. One is a woman who is secretly the pawn of a Mind Flayer and the other is a malleable old man who reminds me of Grand Maester Pycelle. Both are wealthy nobles.

Ravengard meets with the PCs regardless of whether they’ve opposed him up to this point. Silvershield is supporting a noble from the Lower City to join the council. Ravengard wants the PCs to blackmail him and keep him from taking the nomination. The blackmail is a fabrication, clearly an evil act, and frankly not much of an encounter. Like the missing kids last time this one is a bit of a hand-holdy breadcrumb trail. At the end of the day no new Duke is elected anyways so this one falls flat for me.

There’s a sidebar here that that describes the PCs finding a bowl to foreshadow events later in the adventure. In a trash heap, the PCs find an alchemist’s mixing bowl that a wizard can tell was used to make smokepowder. Through another trail of breadcrumbs the PCs can find that someone came to the local fireworks maker asking where these bowls were made. This is a bit too obvious for me, I would say maybe put this bowl on a list of other trinkets the PCs might find.

Session 5

Like Session 2, this part kicks off with a new law going into effect. The Dukes order that the gates to Baldur’s Gate’s upper city be closed at 3 bells, I’m guessing this means 3pm? Previously they closed at Dusk. The adventure says this edict affects two groups, first, merchants in the upper city’s open air market who now have to close much earlier to leave and dockworkers who live north of the city who have to leave work earlier or take a longer commute around the city.

If the PCs are working for Duke Silvershield he tasks them with patrolling the streets and gives them passports so they don’t get arrested. If the PCs do not have passports then their options are to use Baldur’s Gate’s vast undercity to travel in secret, present as nobles, ask for passports, or get the law overturned. The adventure doesn’t really give a great way for the PCs to make any of these happen.

Another thing that happens in this stage is that the Harbormaster levies new taxes on luxury goods. The PCs don’t really have a motivation to get involved with this as written but can get the laws overturned if they 1) find a new harbormaster or 2) ask Ravengard to halt the taxes as the Flaming Fist has jurisdiction over the docks.

Failure to overturn the law gives Silvershield and or Ravengard a point on the villain track.

Intermission

At this point your players are halfway through Murder in Baldur’s Gate. The PCs are invited to a fancy party thrown by Coran, a character from the Baldur’s Gate video game. Coran is a former adventurer, multiclass fighter/rogue, and an elf who loves the ladies. Coran is very very very similar to Zevran from the Dragon Age series but both series share some writers so I guess it isn’t plagiarism? With his earnings from a life of adventuring and thievery Coran bought his way into the nobility and is living high on the hog. But his fame and luxurious lifestyle preclude him from continuing to steal and adventure. In short, he’s a rich idiot with no day job. And he is bored. And he wants to live vicariously through the PCs. It’s obvious that whoever wrote this adventure really likes Coran because he’s continuously mentioned and appears on the cover despite having not much to do with the adventure. Coran is here to give the PCs a push when they don’t know what to do. This was the role Raenar Neverember had in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. He’s meant to be the voice of the DM there to offer advice or bail the PCs out of jail.

As written, this party isn’t much. There’s no adventure to it. There’s no guest list, there’s no intrigue, there’s no map, and no wine list. It is just, ‘Coran invites the PCs to a party’. The entire point here is to first, introduce Coran if you haven’t already. Second, Coran is here to tell the PCs that they might want to investigate the Harbormaster’s Manifest. This is because Coran knows but does not say that someone is importing a large amount of ingredients for Smokepowder.

Once again, there isn’t really an adventure here. If the PCs investigate the Harbormaster’s office, get past a couple traps and steal his ledger they find that someone just bought a shitload of smokepowder ingredients and had them delivered to the same guy who had the bowl earlier in the adventure. This is again where the trail goes cold. The Fireworks guy still doesn’t know anything and everything imported was already picked up from local warehouses.
This could use a fight with Bhaal cultists or maybe agents from the faction you’ve irritated the most.

Session 6

Starting at this point Baldur’s Gate starts to go a little crazy. The three questgiver NPCs become more violent than before.

Rilsa Rael begins a campaign of arson against businesses that draw money away from the outer city or exclude residents from their guilds. This is a sharp contrast to the Campaign Guide which specifically says that The Guild doesn’t like arson because it’s too high profile. This is meant to signal that something is wrong here. The book specifically says that with its stone buildings and damp climate Baldur’s Gate isn’t too vulnerable to fire. Also, Rilsa is using professionals who can set a controlled blaze and they’re not killing anyone. The point is that The PCs should not be worried about the city burning down. They can either help set and scout for the fires or try and prevent them. One odd thing about this event is that this seems like a good point for the Guildmaster to ask some questions about what Rilsa’s intentions are here. If the Guild doesn’t like Arson why is no one making an argument to that effect?

Duke Torlin Silvershield is back at using the law to cause trouble. This time he has reinstated laws allowing for duels. Back in the day, someone wrongs you, challenge them to a duel and the gods decide the victor. But the gods tend to favor people with military training and access to weapons and armor. Rich People. The adventure suggests a scene where a sword wielding noble squares off against a lamplighter boy who the noble believes dishonored his sister. Without intervention, the noble cuts the boy down in the street. People start carrying weapons and settling grudges leading to blood in the streets. Again, there’s no cause for this other than “God of Murder Influence”. Torlin isn’t justifying this to the PCs. As they say in the news, the cruelty is the point.

Ulder Ravengard on the other hand is also using the law to further his goals. The Campaign Guide speaks Baldur’s Gate’s justice system without going into too much detail (like Waterdeep did). The rule of law simply applies less to nobles and people connected to the Thieves Guild. In frustration Ravengard is setting up his own courts which he has no right to do. In order to stop him, the PCs need the Dukes and Parliament to intervene. Yes, Ravengard is curbing petty street crime but people are also being hanged and having their tongues cut out. Which hopefully the PCs see is wrong.

You can see how this has escalated quickly. Failure to stop any of this means the NPC in question gets a point on the villain tracker. I’m not crazy about Ravengard and Silvershield in this episode and others in the story that require the PCs to ask the government nicely to please stop doing something evil. It makes sense but it’s not very D&D. It’s not an adventure. You need to spice it up a bit from the text.

Session 7

This is a long one so stay with me.

First and most straightforward, Ravengard. Ravengard suspects that the city newspaper, Baldur’s Mouth, is being used by The Guild to coordinate illegal activity. He’s not wrong but his overbearing response is to order his soldiers to shut the paper down. The adventure here is that if the PCs can get a copy of a secret coded broadsheet they can learn about a Guild meeting where the criminals discuss plans to kidnap people.

Rilsa Rael spends this episode kidnapping people. Unlike the Guild’s normal practice of holding people for attainable ransom and then letting them go, Rilsa is basically doing this to murder people. The players could get involved in this through Silvershield or Ravengard. A local blind begger tells the PCs to follow a pigeon to its home where they can pay the ransom. The PCs can bust in to pay the ransom or they might fail and the thugs will kill the hostage.
Turn the Baldur’s Mouth info over to Ravengard or shut down the paper and he gets a point. Fail to save the hostage and Rilsa Rael gets a point.

Silvershield has a big damn encounter. A group of protesters is heading for the High Hall (Where Parliament and the Dukes govern from) to demand rights for the Outer City. Neither the City Watch or Flaming Fist protect them, the law doesn’t help them, and Silvershield’s laws are making their lives worse. So the scene is set. At the literal historical Baldur’s Gate (The City is named after the Gate) which separates the lower city from the upper city around 2000 protesters meet up with 300 Flaming Fists. The Fist is arrayed around the gate and another 100 noble retainers are on the wall above everyone (subtle). Ravengard shows up and demands they disperse, the crowd refuses. With a hard perception check the PCs can see Imbralym Skoond, Silvershield’s toadie, on the wall.

What follows is a massacre. The nobles act first, shooting from the wall with their crossbows. The final tally is given at over 200 dead, hundreds more wounded. The noble retainers did most of the killing after the armored Flaming Fist dispersed the crowd with clubs and the flats of their blades.

The adventure says that the only to prevent this is to make a specific argument to Ravengard that the nobles intend bloodshed. I think you need a bit more flexibility in an encounter but this meant to be horrific and difficult to prevent. Being horrific, you also need to ask yourself if your group can or wants to handle this situation.

Fail to prevent the massacre earns Silvershield a well-deserved villain point.

Session 8

In this session, a riot engulfs the city. It starts in the harbor. People are destroying property, turning on each other, with Rilsa’s agents stirring the pot. The Flaming Fist responds with lethal force and the City Watch backs them up. The adventure expects the PCs to work together to come up with a plan to counter the riot. The adventure doesn’t ask for their plan to be more in-depth than something thought out with a few successful checks. Maybe come up with some vignettes to make this into a full session.

One weird thing is that from the adventure text the massacre and riot seem completely unconnected but maybe they shouldn’t be?

If the PCs fail to calm the rioters everybody gains a villain point.

Session 9

Rilsa plans to heist weapons from the Flaming First armory and smuggle more in from the harbor with legitimately hauled dead bodies. The PCs are given the choice to help or prevent the Guild from heisting weapons from the armory. It seems like it would be very difficult to prevent the harbor smuggling since that is business as usual for The Guild.

The same family that helps the Guild smuggle goods with dead bodies is also helping Silvershield smuggle smokepowder around the city. That is until one of their agents empties a pipe onto a cart and it explodes. This is another very breadcrumby investigation without an ending. If the PCs discover Silvershield and Skoond’s plot then he doesn’t get the villain point but success here really depends on how much evidence the DM gives the players. A player might get clever here and realize Silvershield is involved in this incident since Rilsa Rael and Ravengard are doing other things this session.

Speaking of, Ravengard declares Martial Law. Fuck them kangaroo courts. Under this rule, anyone not complying with the order of a Flaming Fist mercenary can be arrested or killed. Only the Fist can carry weapons. Gatherings are forbidden. A curfew is put into effect. All ships require leave from the Seatower, a castle guarding the harbor. Fortunately, the players probably have tokens from Ravengard as symbols of authority which were freely given earlier in the adventure regardless of whether or not they helped him. There isn’t really an encounter here, this is very much just a thing that happens.

Ravengard automatically gets a villain point. Rilsa gets a point if at least some of the weapon smuggling is stopped. Silvershield gets a point unless the PCs uncover his plot which seems a shame to prevent.

Session 10

Welp, this is it. The final violent acts of the three questgiver NPCs. The adventurer advises that you play out the encounters for the two highest ranked villains on the villain track and if the PCs significantly impede one event that NPC loses 5 points. I’m curious if PCs by this point have turned away from the NPCs in disgust.

The Guild organizes a prison break from the Seatower which is full to bursting after the riot. If the PCs are with the Guild they are tasked with planning the job. But the general scheme of it is that the Guild has a smokepowder bomb capable of blowing the gates open. Guild agents can breakout prisoners while the PCs fight the guards. Unless the PCs stopped the weapon smuggling in session 9, the armory of the Flaming Fist is sparse and the slaughter amongst the mercenaries is grievous when pursued into the streets.

Ravengard is pursuing the least adventurer-friendly course of session 10 and this makes a good background event if you’re running the prison break and Silvershield’s Smokepowder Plot. Very simply, the Flaming Fist has 90-150 criminals (the adventure doesn’t know?) at their bases around the city, the Seatower, Wyrm’s Crossing, the Basilisk Gate, for crimes ranging from violating the sumptuary laws, trespassing, and murder. Quite a range. Then the executions begin. People are hanged or beheaded. The adventure recommends including some NPCs the PCs know. If the PCs rescue the majority of prisoners from Wyrm’s Crossing (fuck the Seatower I guess?) they’ve succeeded, although the adventure seems to indicate this should be very difficult.

Silvershield is going full V for Vendetta. He’s full Anders from Dragon Age 2. My point is that Silvershield, under Bhaal’s influence, has stashed a great deal of Smokepowder in the High Hall of Baldur’s Gate. The Guild and more specifically the Guildmaster have a great deal of influence in the city. Enough to guarantee the election of a Duke, passage or prevention of a law (although not the ones in this adventure), or the outcome of court decisions. Silvershield wants power and in his sane and rational mind the best way to get it is to blow up Parliament. If everyone’s dead, the Guild has no influence, right? RIGHT!?

There’s a bunch of specific where how and who detailing Silvershield’s plan and the movement of the smokepowder across the city and through tunnels to get it where it needs to go. At the big moment Skoond summons a Fire Mephit to blow it all up. I would advise a backup plan since Counterspell is a thing. Bonus points if your PCs don’t figure out the plan until it’s too late and you play “Light of the Seven” for your D&D music that night. Again, this should be a difficult encounter and the adventure doesn’t really give enough advice on how to make sure it is.

I’m curious how Rael and Ravengard’s plots intersect. My advice would be that if the PCs liberate the Seatower then the executions just happen elsewhere. It makes more sense to have the Prison Break follow the executions. I think the idea is you should do either Rael or Ravengard since you can’t not blow up Parliament. If you put smokepowder on stage in Act 5 it has to explode in Act 10. With these events, meant to be shocking and horrific, you should now have a victor. Someone needs to be at the top of the villain track. If the PCs do absolutely nothing in this adventure Ravengard wins since both Rael and Silvershield are not in at least one previous round. The majority of people that reported their results to Wizards of the Coast reported that Torlin Silvershield came out on top. Whoever has the most points after Act 10 is your final boss.

But the town mothers and fathers are determined to heal the madness that seems to have engulfed Baldur’s Gate. The city is due for a holiday, the Feast of the Moon, a three-day spectacle meant to bring the city together. Unfortunately, all it manages to do is get the citizens in one place.

If Ulder Ravengard is your final boss, the feast is interrupted when flaming projectiles begin raining down. The PCs must make their way across the city and into the Seatower where Ravengard is firing a trebuchet and shells full of alchemist’s fire at the city. Frankly, this one is kind of weak especially if the PCs did the prison break which supports my idea that you’re supposed to do Prison Break or Public Executions. Also, there is no trebuchet that can fire from the Seatower to the wide. Maybe it is just a magic trebuchet. Next!
Rilsa Rael arrives at the feast with dozens of assassins who begin killing everyone quietly until panic breaks out. This continues until they’re all dead. A fight against dozens of low-level threats will never not be awesome.
Torlin Silvershield has the best written of these three final encounters. He makes an eloquent speech and proposes a toast. But the wine is poisoned. It’s supposed to be rage poison but I also like the idea of it being regular poison. Silvershield then wades into the crowd and begins murdering people.

Your final boss becomes The Chosen of Bhaal. What the hell does that mean? Well, there are stats for these three NPCs although they were written before 5E officially came out so they are a bit wonky. Remember this is supposed to be a level 2-3 adventure although it is very easy to scale it up. The Chosen of Bhaal is a template that you apply to your final boss. The template gives your boss immunity to disease and poison because 5E keeps that damage type viable. The NPC gets a climb speed and can jump without provoking opportunity attacks. The NPC’s attack also force a Constitution saving throw and the target’s speed goes to 0 on a fail and then with another failure the target is stunned. As written, it’s a low DC with a very unfun effect. It should be something more dramatic like vulnerability to damage.

And that’s your adventure. Baldur’s Gate might continue to fall apart without the PCs influence or it might thrive under their guidance. The adventure says obviously none of them are elected Duke but if you look up summaries of people who played this adventure more than one had a PC attempt to get elected Duke. This is not an easy adventure to run. I have never seen a city adventure of considerable length that was easy to run. It isn’t a sandbox by design but it is one in practice. PCs have access to the entire city and considerable latitude in what they do. I think you need to alter the adventure to speak more towards the goals of your PCs and to push the idea that Bhaal is influencing events in the city. I’m not sure how you get that across. The more I think about the adventure, “It” seems like a good model for Bhaal. Bhaal has no cultists, no secret lairs but you confront the god at every turn.

There is one thing that strikes me wrong about Murder in Baldur’s Gate. This adventure is a knock down drag out fight between the dominant factions of the city. Someone loses big here and the city is forever changed. I worry that it is using too much of the lore and NPCs of the city leaving nothing left for future adventures. I’m not even sure this is actually a problem but it bugs me.
That said, this is a fun adventure to read and a damn good guide to running Baldur’s Gate. It made me like Baldur’s Gate to the point that I envision the city as the hometown of several PCs I’ve made when I need a character in the Realms. The DM screen and Campaign Guide have plenty of detail on the proper nouns of the city. I’m excited to read Descent into Avernus and see how things are the same or different.

The Origin of PCs

Please forgive me stealing the title of this from Order of the Stick.

I was giving some more thought to PCs.  I’ve been a player in hardcover adventure playing group for over a year now.  I seem to have a bad habit of playing the PC I should have played in the last adventure.  Or I just pick the wrong PC.  This kind of made me think of old adventures and what PCs I shoulda coulda played.  For example, in Dragon Heist, which goes up to level 5, Knowledge Cleric kind of sucks at low level.  And if you need to be a Bard, Lore Bard is just straight better before level 6 when Valor Bards get extra attack.  There are these mechanical considerations but also story to consider.  Savitri, my Aasimar Cleric, didn’t really have a strong motivation to own a tavern or seek out large piles of gold which made them a bad choice for Dragon Heist.

A better choice for Dragon Heist would have been Tando Tossbottle, my halfling rogue.  I’ve spoken of Tando before.  Tando is My Character.  He is the character I would like to play in preference to all others.  His origin is back in the 5E playtest days.  I wanted to make a rogue in contrast with the 4E Striker Rogues that dealt shitloads of damage.  Every rogue played like Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed, I wanted to play a rogue like Varys (look this was a long time ago).  So I made Tando.  I pictured him as a courtier, a functionary, a tax collector, and he’s out adventuring to get noticed, get wealthy, and find a comfortable place in some lord’s court.

Unfortunately and maybe a bit ironically I keep bringing Tando along for adventures he’s not really suited to.  His first adventure in the playtest was the Caves of Chaos, a dungeon crawl.  And I really wanted to try him out in my first foray into playing rather than DMing 5E so I brought him along to Tomb of Annihilation.  It actually works out to be very funny in a kind of Fish Out Of Water Sam Gamgee way.  Tando was also not mechanically suited to ToA because the Mastermind’s core ability, granting an ally advantage on an attack, was completely wasted on a group of spellcasters who didn’t make attack rolls.

I have no idea what I “should” have played in Tomb of Annihilation because as smarter people like Mike Shea have pointed out, ToA is not one adventure.  You start in Port Nyanzaru which is a cool city made for bopping around, having fun.  Then you have the Hex Crawl exploring the jungle looking for treasure, exploring ruins, ending with puzzles and the fight with the Yuan-Ti.  Then you have The Tomb Itself which is extremely deadly and difficult.  That’s more like three different adventures and you stand a good chance of not surviving.  Tando made it out less a few teeth but a lot of the time he couldn’t contribute because he was not a spellcaster.

Tando would have been well suited to Dragon Heist, despite the “canon” Tando being Level 12 after Tomb of Annihilation.  But someone else wanted to play The Rogue after ToA and I wanted to play The Healer.  I also could’ve been Blackwood Heckman, Tiefling Lawyer, who is also a Mastermind Rogue but with a few levels of Bard for healing and inspiration.  I would’ve also liked to play Tando in the Tyranny of Dragons adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat.  In my headcanon, the Forgotten Realms version of Tando used to work for Dagult Neverember in Neverwinter to hire adventurers while the city was being rebuilt.  Neverember is a big NPC in both Tyranny and Dragon Heist.

I’ve already said that for Descent into Avernus, if I don’t DM it, my eye is really on a Tiefling Bard-barian based on Dragon Age’s Iron Bull.  He’s a blood soaked reaver in the war between Demons and Devils but he’s also a spy.  I think it’s a good idea.  In Dragon Age, Iron Bull’s real name is “Hissrad” which means “Liar” in his culture.  I kind of like the name Khadab which is Arabic for “Liar.”  Then maybe some kind of pastiche name of Iron Bull like…Steel Ox or something less of a ripoff.

Hidden names are a concept I’ve also brought to my Triton PCs.  I’ve played two, one was a Barbarian for Cloud Giant’s Bargain, a one-shot adventure from a few years back.  The other is my current Valor Bard character I’m playing for Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  I think naming your character is an important step in making them that people overlook.  It also advertises what kind of player you are.  If you choose something difficult to say, maybe don’t do that because it says that you might be difficult to work with.  If you choose some common American name like “Jim” maybe you’re not taking the story seriously.

My Triton Bard is probably the most difficult name I’ve done before because it has kind of a specific non-intuitive pronunciation.  I went with Saaragar, with “Saara” as a nickname (Pronounced Sare-Ah).  I based it on Saagar, the Hindi word for Ocean.  Mechanically, I brought them to this adventure for the sake of playing The Healer.  I kind of wish that I had played “None,” The Warforged War Cleric instead.  The Valor Bard feels a bit underpowered in this adventure, I think the War Cleric packs a bit more offense, defense, and healing into the package.

My other Triton, the Barbarian, I named Nymeros after Prince Namor and Oberyn Nymeros Martell.  I would’ve gone by Nym for short.  I played them in Cloud Giant’s Bargain but I would’ve liked playing that character for the rest of Storm King’s Thunder too.  I originally envisioned them as being captured and shrunken by the Xanathar as a fishbowl decoration or gladiator but SKT’s general “Shit is Going Down In The Ocean With King Hekaton” also fits well.  As an AL character they were also rocking a Giant Slayer Greatsword which is coloring my opinion a bit.

I think Saaragar the Bard would’ve worked nicely for Princes of the Apocalypse.  I think Princes is the most underrated of the 5E Hardcover adventures to date.  From one perspective, it is, like Mad Mage, a series of dungeon crawls.  There are 13 dungeons, each of them is geared towards a specific level, and each one is one level of experience.  My least favorite part of it is that the PCs are meant to be able to tackle these in any order when they’re supposed to go Air, Earth, Water, Fire in that order through the entire book.  But I respect the tightness of the design.  This is one level and the content on this level equals one experience level.  What I remember now years later are the NPC Cult Leaders.  I really liked the story behind those villains.  Vanifer and Gar Shatterkeel especially.  I want to use them in a different adventure.  Princes has very good bones to build on for a new campaign.

I’ve been playing with idea of a Rogue Scout for a little while now.  I’m playing one in a 5E PBP game and this is all based on Elhar, my Dragon Age Elf Rogue whose life was cut sadly short by the end of a campaign.  The folks at Total Party Thrill put out a build for a character that combines the Rogue, Fighter, and Cleric classes for a kind of ranger Without Ranger but for Drow Specifically there is the idea of using the Hexblade and Gloom Stalker Ranger from Xanathar’s Guide to make the kind of ultimate Underdark Ranger.  I would love to play this kind of character in Out of The Abyss.  I read a couple Drizzt books and didn’t really care for them but I wish I could play a kind of Lolth Loyalist character.  This character is a cousin to the Iron Bull type character.  Both of them are loyal servants to an evil or at best highly authoritarian state but they’re not in that state right now.  At his core, Drow Elhar knows his ass belongs to the priestesses of Lolth and boy he’d like to kill some surface elves but he’s not in Menzoberranzan (which I just spelled correctly without looking first, Nerd Alert) right now.  He’s evil but bordering on a heel-face turn.

This leaves us with Curse of Strahd.  This is the only one of the hardcovers I’ve had the good fortune to DM and numerous sites consider it the best of all the 5E hardcovers to date.  My group for this one all had characters “from” Ravenloft, we were not a group of Forgotten Realms characters trapped there.  I haven’t the faintest clue what PC I would like to play in this one.  The group I DMed could have used a martial character like a Valor Bard, Barbarian, or War Cleric as they were mostly spellcasters.

But that gets to the core of a playstyle I think and its that I tend to want to fill missing slots in a pre-existing group.  My first choice is the Rogue but not if someone else wants it.  I brought one to Tomb of Annihilation because no one else had one.  I went with a healer for the Waterdeep adventures because no one else wanted to be The Healer and with new players in the group it’s not fair to force that role on them.  I am really looking forward to Descent into Avernus, as a player or DM.  I feel this hunger for a narrative and right now treading over PC backstories in the only place I can find it.  I had someone tell me that they miss doing AL stuff in the game because it gave them something mechanical to tinker with outside the game.  I wish for something similar but for a story to plan and plot and sink my teeth into.

The D&D Version of The Iron Bull

I’m dipping my toes here into Character Creation Speculation.  Every week the Total Party Thrill Podcast creates a new character trying to hit a new archetype.  Sometimes they make character from fiction like Spiderman, sometimes they make a character who fights different, an archer who fights in Melee, or exploit a specific rule like how The Faustian Fiddler gets the highest possible performance check.  The many many posts on my PCs to the contrary, I don’t usually play with 5E D&D character creation much because 1) I don’t play many different characters 2) I tend to build single classed characters and 3) I tend to make specific characters for specific games.

But I got a bug in me to make a character (probably because D&D and Dragon Age have been off for a couple weeks) based on The Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The Iron Bull is kind of the only character in the Dragon Age Universe that really merits thought about their build in 5E since it is a low-magic setting.  Blackwall is an interesting character but he’s just a human guy.  A Fighter maybe with some Rogue.  Varric is a Dwarf Rogue with a Crossbow.  Cole would be the only other character I’d take a hard look at creating but his abilities and nature are so unique to the rules of the Dragon Age setting.

Iron Bull though, or rather, The Iron Bull.  I think this is a character that could inspire a unique 5th Edition D&D PC.  Who is The Iron Bull?  To answer that you have to know a bit about Dragon Age Backstory and I’m going to try to skip the pages and pages of lore to give you the nickel tour.  Iron Bull is a Qunari.  This Q-Word refers to two things in the setting, a race of tall powerful grey-skinned horned humanoids, and a philosophy/religion that almost all members of that species follow.  This philosophy is referred to as the Qun.  TVtropes says it is most similar in real life to a mixture of Islam and Confucianism.  It governs all aspects of life for those who follow it.

Iron Bull was born into this philosophy.  Like all raised under the Qun he was raised communally and his caretakers watched to see what job would suit him when he grew up.  Iron Bull was a born fighter but he could also lie.  So he was trained for the Ben-Hassrath, the secret police of the Qunari, as a spy.  Like all Qunari he got a name at this time.  Iron Bull would be a nickname he chose himself, his given name is Hissrad, which in Qunari means “Weaver of Illusions” or more bluntly, “Liar.”  He served on the frontlines of the Qunari’s brutal and never-ending wars until he developed severe PTSD and asked for a new job.  So he was sent out into the world away from the frontline to pretend to be a mercenary while making occasional reports to his superiors.  Out in the world he took the name “Iron Bull” for his hard nature and giant rack of horns.

Thus we have The Iron Bull.  He’s a hard fighting, hard drinking, pansexual commander of his own mercenary company.  He offers to sell his swords to The Inquisition in the video game and makes no secret that he’s a spy to get that into the open.  I must point out that Bull is not a bumbling brute.  Iron Bull is one of, if not the most, intelligent, insightful, and perceptive people in your Dragon Age Inquisition party despite having one eye.  He’s equally capable of playing chess in his head with no board against the Elf Wizard, the smartest member of the party, or cutting an enemy in three pieces with a single stroke.  He notices everything, lies effortlessly, and subtly manipulates everyone around him to stay in control.  His battlecry translates to, “I will bring myself sexual pleasure while thinking of this later, with respect.”  He gave his eye for a man, a stranger to him, being attacked by soldiers.  The core of his conflict in the story is, will he turn his back on the mercenary life he enjoys to remain loyal to the philosophy that gives his life purpose and order?

What does this mean to 5th Edition D&D?  At his core, Bull needs to be a Strength based melee character skilled in the arts of a spy.  In canon he is in no way magical and in fact spent most of his life fighting against Mages.  The typical D&D setting typically has less of a stigma against mages though.  So you have a few choices here: What race, what martial class, and how to get those spying abilities?

On Race I think you have several good options.  Again, remember that what makes Iron Bull immediately unique is that you expect him to be a big dumb fighter when he’s actually extremely intelligent.  He plays against a stereotype.  Unfortunately this will fall heavier on RPing these traits since abilities are so expensive in 5E.  Goliath is probably the closest in size and nature to Dragon Age’s Qunari.  Minotaur from Ravnica gives you the horns that make the name Iron Bull fit.  But I would also consider Eberron’s Warforged, Dragonborn, or the Zariel Tiefling Variant from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.  All five of these get a Strength bonus, some get Con bonuses, and the last three get a Charisma bump (at least Envoy Warforged can).  The Triton gets all three although by canon the Triton actually shorter folk but you could always change that.

While you could easily make the Fighter your martial class I prefer Barbarian.  It fits Iron Bull’s inherent nature as The Big Guy as opposed to Another Fighter Guy.  In Dragon Age he is a Reaver which deals out more damage the more damage you take.  His size and constitution provide as much protection as the heavy plate a fighter depends on.  Also his art mostly depicts him without a shirt, so, Barbarian.  But what path?  This isn’t exactly low fantasy but I like Zealot.  Iron Bull is a zealot for the Qun.  He is a believer.  This especially fits a Tiefling of Zariel which really leans into a Fallen Angel vibe I dig very much.  A Zealot barbarian also costs nothing to raise from the dead other than a spell slot which matches Dragon Age where if one person is still alive at the end of the fight, everyone in the party just gets up.  Zealot gets a leaderly battlecry at level 10 and at level 14 you don’t die while raging.

Making this character a good spy is a bit trickier.  You should give him the spy background feature but good spying takes Expertise with a capital E doesn’t it?  And maybe a few tricks up your sleeve.  The idea here is to multiclass and you have two options.  First, Rogue.  Straightforward.  Take one level for Expertise and Thieves’ Cant, two levels for Cunning Action, and three levels for an archetype.  Probably Inquisitive although Assassin gives you some spike damage.  I think I would prefer Bard, for 3 levels.  This gets you Bardic Inspiration, Jack of All Trades, The All Important Expertise in Two Skills, and a Bardic College.  Since Valor Bard gives you mostly the same crap as your Barbarian levels I’d recommend Lore.  This gives you 3 more skills and Cutting Words.

In addition, three levels of Bard gives you spells, 2 cantrips, four 1st level slots and two 2nd level slots.  Granted, Iron Bull isn’t supposed to be a mage of any sort.  If I was playing this character in Thedas I wouldn’t do Bard.  But this probably ain’t Low Magic Dragon Age, it’s High Magic D&D.  Lots of tricks you can pull at these low levels although the fun ones like Detect Thoughts, Suggestion, Charm Person or Zone of Truth require saving throws and I’m not sure how much you want to put into Charisma.  You may even want less Barbarian.  Total Party Thrill has a build called the Savage Sage that uses 14 levels of Barbarian, 5 levels of Warlock, and 1 level of Knowledge cleric for goodies like Guidance and Bless.

You could start Bard or Rogue to get more skills and proficiency in Dexterity saves while your Barbarian-ness will cover your Strength/Con saves.  But with Zealot Barbarian and maybe even lower Con if you go Bardbarian you really need to start with Medium Armor which you don’t get multiclassing into Barbarian.  Recall the Barbarian gets Advantage on Dex Saves against “Effects You Can See” (Traps/Spells).  A breastplate and +2 Dex will give you more AC.  A Zealot barbarian doesn’t tank as well as a Bear Totem Barbarian so the High AC is probably better, objectively speaking, but maybe not.  I’m not good at this.  It usually takes me a couple sessions before realizing something like, “Oh, Dragon Heist doesn’t go to level 6 so Valor Bard is kind of shit from level 3-5 compared to Lore Bard.”  It really depends on the campaign you’re in and the party makeup.

If I was doing this character in Thedas I would likely go Goliath Barbarian with 2 levels of Rogue.  Goliath’s big feature, damage reduction once per short rest, is better for a Bonus Action hungry character like this rather than Minotaur.  You would need those bonus actions for Raging and Cunning Actions.  The Minotaur lets you do your Horns (1d6+Str) as a bonus action IF you use the Dash Action, which you’re not going to be doing since you already used your Bonus Action to Dash so you could use your big goddamn weapon.

I think if I wanted to do this character for something like Avernus, I might go Tiefling, Zealot Barbarian, and Lore Bard.  Get your Barbarian to level 5 for extra attack, then do your Bard, then the rest Barbarian and you can also bail out and get more Bard if you want.  Probably no less than 14 levels of one class, no more than 6 of the other.  Put the two Expertise Skills into Deception and Insight for the most Iron Bull-y spy instead of Perception since he does have the one eye.  Downside for Avernus is that your Tiefling Bonus Spell, Searing Smite, deals fire damage which will probably be completely useless in Avernus.  I’m curious if they’ll come up with a way around that so PCs dealing Fire Damage or PCs resisting Fire Damage won’t have too hard or easy a time.

So who is my Iron Bull?  Well, if I’m going Tiefling Bardbarian for Descent into Avernus, she was or maybe is a loyal agent of Zariel.  A planetouched soldier in the Blood War sent to infiltrate this band of upstarts mucking about in Baldur’s Gate.  Demon originating Minotaur would work the same from the other side of the Blood War.  Maybe she serves another Devil Lord of Hell and is a double agent.  Maybe a reskinned Fallen Aasimar (which could also be a good race) on a redemption arc.

Iron Bull’s background in Inquisition mimics Zariel’s rule with few changes.  Zariel is the newest Duke of The Nine Hells.  She was an Angel who grew corrupted by her zeal to fight The Blood War.  It makes sense that she would want to build her own bloodline of Tieflings and have more control of them than say, the default Asmodeus Tieflings which have spread thoughout the multiverse.  It makes sense that she would want to breed more soldiers.

In Dragon Age, Iron Bull’s great choice is between his comrades in arms, the mercenaries he leads, and whether or not to sacrifice them for the government he serves.  It is a classic choice between being Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil.  In the game, this choice falls on the player.  An alliance with Iron Bull’s Qunari or the lives of the quirky soldiers you’ve come to know over the game.  From the way the Dragon Age Inquisition DLC goes the writers seem to indicate strongly that there is a right choice and I won’t spoil that here.

I said I don’t like to randomly build characters because I tend to build specific PCs for specific campaigns but I think I just did.

Acquisitions Incorporated

I have been an Acquisitions Incorporated fan since the beginning.  I was into Penny Arcade and PVP for about 5 years, 4th Edition D&D got announced, and then they bring on these guys to play D&D and then they release the recording.  And it was funny!  And interesting!  They did three podcasts before moving to PAX live shows with the occasional podcast or youtube series.  It used to be just PAX West.  Now they do one every PAX.  Surreal to think how far we’ve come.  Now the internet is lousy with streamed D&D.  Not in terms of quality but that it is everywhere.  And thank God it’s no longer 4-5 cishet white guys sitting around the table as it was back in the starting days.

And now the C-Team series has been on youtube for a while and we have in our hands a D&D book that says Acquisitions Incorporated on the cover.

My intention for this post is to read through the book and give my thoughts.  Starting with the intro and the Company Roles.  Hopefully getting through the rest later.  I wanted you to know where I’m coming from first.  I’m a superfan, I get the inside jokes, and I know who all these goddamn characters are.

If you know nothing else about Acquisitions Incorporated I will try to summarize it for you.  Start with Omin Dran, Cleric, who follows a deity of trade and fortune.  His deity commands him to seek fortune and adventure as a sacred rite.  Naturally, it follows that he would hire adventurers to go out and adventure and recover treasure for him.  It’s inherently a 4th Wall Breaking Concept: A powerful adventurer hires a bunch of lower level characters to go adventure for him and he takes a cut of the money.  It’s actually pretty close to my concept of Tando Tossbottle.

The book starts with a kind in-character history from Jerry Holkins’s cleric PC, Omin Dran, about Acquisitions Incorporated from inception to the present.  The Present seems to go up to the 2019 PAX Shows with WWE Superstar Xavier Woods’s character being thanked in the credits.  This history and the entire book so far is missing Binwin Bronzebottom, Scott Kurtz from PVP’s character, and Aeofel, Wil Wheaton’s character.  They are in the credits at the start of the book but otherwise these characters are scrubbed from the narrative.  It’s almost in character for Omin to have this partner, Binwin, that he pretends never existed.  Both of these guys no longer do Acquisitions Incorporated.  Wil Wheaton stated publicly on his blog that he refuses to work with Scott Kurtz ever again.  Scott Kurtz talked a bit about why he left on a podcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tn3S_fAlCxE&list=WL&index=18&t=2s) but it coincided with WOTC’s press release from a few years ago that they were going to put money into more streamed D&D games.  I’m bastardizing Kurtz’s reasons but Acq Inc was becoming more a Penny-Arcade thing and he wasn’t really interested in doing an elaborate performative show he had no creative control over.  My point is, to me, an Acq Inc fan, the removal of Binwin and Aeofel from the narrative is weird.

After the history we get into items with mechanics behind them.  This starts with an overview of your Franchise Headquarters.  This has some crunch to it, your HQ costs this much to maintain, your HQ has this many people as staff.  This is mostly flavor though.  It’s not really that important or a big deal that your Level 4 Franchise HQ has an escape pod.  It’s good flavor and it can inspire you to write a thematic setting.

One thing I noted as I read this section is that there are repeated suggestions to use rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  In the section on hirelings this book refers you to the relevant section in chapter 4 of the DMG three times in two pages.  The next section suggests you read chapter 5 and the section after that suggests you read chapter 6.  This reminded me of a moment from Season 5 of The Wire where a journalist tells a story, “Mr. Mayor my desk wants to know” and the guy keeps going back to the mayor with questions “from his desk” and the mayor puts his ear to his own literal desk and says, “My desk is telling your desk to go fuck itself.”  I feel like this book could’ve saved some words with one sidebar or one referral to the DMG.  Every paragraph having a referral feels excessive.

This section on your HQ and your hirelings brings to mind Running The Tavern from Dragon Heist.  This was one of my least favorite parts of Dragon Heist.  I share some of the blame for this.  My character, which seemed like a great idea at the time, was a sage explorer who wanted to gather knowledge about Waterdeep for their God, Savras.  So when tasked with running a For-Profit Tavern I…didn’t really want to?  This was my mistake.  I should have played a character with a reason to buy-in to what the adventure was about.  My error was in assuming that the First 5E Adventure about Waterdeep would be more about Waterdeep or that Waterdeep would be more interesting.  We also played Dragon Heist under the AL Rules For Running A Business and no one wanted to engage with those rules.  Rolling on a table to find out how our business did felt uninspired.  And the adventure isn’t actually about running a tavern so there’s no penalty to ignore it.  So not enough benefit to commit, nothing happens if you skip that content.  However, if building that business had been part of the story there would be a reason to get interested.  With Acq Inc, you have a cost to maintain your business and staff and untold riches if you succeed.

After the Franchise HQ info we get into the Company Positions.  This is the real mechanical draw.  If you want to be a documancer like Walnut Dankgrass this is your section.  A sidebar suggests if you want to use these rules you should also use the “low magic campaign” rules again from the DMG.  I look askance at this.  I know they’re suggesting it because these Acq Inc rules, these roles, are purely extra features and power to add to your PC.  A Rogue Assassin has fewer options on their character sheet than a Rogue Assassin Occultant.  This is in the same way that in 4th Edition D&D, Dark Sun introduced the concept of Themes.  And Themes were again, purely extra power to add on to your character.  I loved Themes though and they were so popular they eventually became the Background mechanic in 5E.  But to put a campaign in Low Magic Mode because of these mechanics seems excessive.  For one thing, they are not that powerful.  For another thing, all of them are very magical in nature.  It doesn’t really make sense to say, “we’re making this a low magic campaign because we’re using the Acq Inc Rules,” and then include something like the Hordesperson who gets a Bag of Holding literally connected to the Acq Inc Head Office or the Documancy Satchel which does the same thing.  In addition, the adventure that makes up more than half this book is certainly not a low magic adventure.

One thing we need to mention is the concept of ranks.  This is part of the C-Team show.  When the C-Team starts their adventure, they are all Rank 1 at their positions.  The Franchise HQ is a Rank 1 HQ.  All of these powers are tied to your Rank.  Acq Inc Powers start at Rank 1 and go up to Rank 4.  Rank increases with CHARACTER LEVEL and is separated by Tier Of Play.  Rank 1 is Level 1, Rank 2 is Level 5, Rank 3 is Level 11, Rank 4 is Level 17.  I am not crazy about breaking things up this way.  Most of my skepticism stems from my opinion that a level 11+ character would not be worried about Acquisitions Incorporated matters.  After watching these games for 10 years I have the perception that Acq Inc is a low level thing.  Level 11+ characters got shit to do.  They have worlds to save.

In the C-Team, the characters are rank 1-2 and they’re level 10 now.  So they are practicing what they’ve preached to us in terms of how fast your Acq Inc Rank increases.  At the same time, I don’t really like having this linked to your character level.  In the C-Team, where these jobs are used, the DM seems to have an elaborate subsystem in terms of tracking rank.  During one game he mentions that the Decisionist got one point every time they called for a vote on something.

I should also point out that these abilities are not very powerful.  The Rank 4 powers especially seem weak when you consider they are meant to be for Level 17+ characters.  But they are fun so let’s go through them.  Hopefully a Documancer will tell me to delete this if it is a violation of Acquisitions Incorporated copyright.

Each job gives a few benefits at each new rank.  The first role, the Cartographer, gains their proficiency bonus to checks involving maps and trailblazing.  These might normally be a Wisdom (Survival) check or even straight intelligence.  Also at rank 1 they gain proficiency with cartographer’s tools and land or water vehicles.  Lastly, at rank 1 the cartographer gains the ability to requisition transport, either a wagon, horses, or passage on a ship.

At Rank 2 the Cartographer gains a magic spyglass.  This is a weird one.  If there is something blocking your view, you look through the spyglass, you make a DC 15 Wisdom check (with Proficiency because it’s with your tools), you can now map the natural terrain within 3 miles of that thing.  So is the idea that if nothing was blocking your path, if it was completely open terrain, a person can normally map three miles of a point?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to make the check and then you magically gain a map of the terrain within three miles?

Also at Rank 2 the Cartographer gains the ability we see Rosie Beestinger use most often on the C-Team.  This is a 45 minute ritual that lets you teleport to a location within one day’s travel that you’ve been to before.

At Rank 3 you gain a magic map case, or rather, your Cartographer map case becomes magical.  You can look in your case, make a check, and then find a map in your case to reveal a shortcut that cuts your travel time by half.  If you succeed by 5 or more you gain advantage on an ability check within an hour.  So hopefully your travel time is going to include some tactical elements.  Also, once a week, you can make a check to find a map in your case relevant to your mission or inspiring a new one.  This map case and the spyglass are both kind of asking big questions of the DM.  To use this ability is to ask your DM to be prepared to adjudicate miles and miles of terrain.  Theoretically, if you are DMing a game with the Acq Inc rules, and you know you have a cartographer this is something you can prepare for.

At Rank 4 you gain two more benefits.  First, a magic book that grants you advantage on intelligence and wisdom checks related to geographical locations.  Second, your 45 minute ritual can teleport you to a location within 3 days travel and you can also teleport your franchise HQ is mobile and 2000 pounds of goods.  Two things jump out at me here.  Number one, 2000 lbs of gear, is that just whatever’s in your HQ other than your stuff?  I guess the idea is that your tavern full of stools and ale is never a mobile HQ.  Number 2, this is a teleport ritual at Level 17.  A Wizard gains 7th level spells at Level 13.  My point here is that at most D&D tables, three day’s travel is a problem that’s solved by this point.  If you happen to be at a table with zero full spellcasters maybe this feels strong but probably not.

The Decisionist is very different from the Cartographer.  While the Cartographer gets a lot of toys to use which really depend on the DM’s responsiveness to make useful the Decisionist’s mechanics manipulate the party.  At Rank 1 you add your proficiency to certain charisma checks which would likely overlap with Persuasion.  You also, by mechanic, get two votes whenever your party needs to take a vote.  I can’t remember a time when our Tomb of Annihilation party, Curse of Strahd party, Dragon Heist, or Mad Mage party ever decided something based on a vote.  Most times, we agree by acclimation.  Everyone kind of goes along with one decision.  If the party had a mechanic for formal votes maybe you take more votes.

At Rank 2, the Decisionist can proxy for absent players/characters and call for recounts if they themselves are absent.  You also get a magic coin and can decide what side it lands on.  This is a bonus action which is kind of weird.  Why?  Just make it a free action.  A key point here is that only Decisionists are supposed to know that Decisionists can decide which side the coin lands on.  The other players at the table might catch onto this pretty quick when they read their Acquisitions Incorporated book.

At Rank 3, the Decisionist coin functions as a kind of Augury spell.  The DM has to adjudicate on the fly which of four results on a random table apply to the coin flip.  Most importantly you also gain a kind of Inspiration mechanic.  Once per day, when you vote and make a Persuasion check your party gains advantage to the next check within an hour.  That’s fairly powerful and the first mechanic that can be directly combat related.

Rank 4.  Boy howdy I’m hating these rank 4 abilities.  Once a week, the Decisionist can grant themselves three votes instead of the normal two votes.  Which…okay so the rest of the characters might still choose to go their own way.  Also this might piss off the players at the table.  The Decisionist really assumes that voting is a part of the social contract at your table.  Your Level 17 character also gains the ability to cast Charm Person once per day at Save DC 15 with their “voting kit.”  Which, I don’t know how big it is or what.  You just present this big huge box and charm someone, well probably not since 15 is kind of low at Level 17. You can also put tools in there….umm…okay?

Ahh Documancer.  When I think of the Acquisitions Incorporated Jobs, Documancer is the first that comes to mind thanks to the AMAZING portrayal given on the C-Team by their Documancer Druid, Walnut Dankgrass.  At Rank 1, you get your Proficiency to document-related checks.  You gain advantage on Intelligence checks to decipher codes which is going to be big in a certain type of campaign.  I’m imagining right now a game that uses both the Guild Rules from Ravnica, the Dragonmark rules from Eberron, and these Acq Inc rules to make the ultimate puzzle solver.

At Rank 2, Documancers get their magic satchel.  You can send and receive messages with Head Office through the satchel.  There is some overlap here with the Hordesperson and Loremonger which I will get to.  You can also cast the Augury spell to decipher the will of Head Office once a week.

At Rank 3, your Documancy Satchel now becomes a Bag of Holding and once per day you can produce a scroll of Comprehend Languages.  It would be more useful to just cast the spell but it’s a documancy satchel.  The Documancer Arcane Casters will be fine with this.  The Martial and Divine Documancers will begin looking around for someone to cast for them.  I would say as a DM, just let your Documancer use the scroll.  This is a level 11 class feature, Comprehend Languages is a 1st level spell.  You also gain proficiency with the Forgery Kit, which you probably already had if you wanted to be a Documancer in the first place and there is always a kit inside your Satchel.

At Rank 4, you can make an Arcana check to gain a spell scroll of up to 3rd Level from your Satchel.  If you Succeed, this works once a week.  If you fail, you can try once per day.  Your Satchel can also hold up to 30 scrolls in a special compartment.  Drawing the Scroll from your Special Pouch is a Bonus Action…was it not a free action before?  Casting it is still an action right?  Depending on the scroll I assume.

The Hordesperson might be the most useful low level job.  At Rank 1 you can use Proficiency in price negotiation, appraisal, and resource analysis.  “Is this Gold or Fool’s Gold?”  You gain Jeweler’s Tools.  You can also have anything in the PHB’s “Mounts and Vehicles” section or “Trade Goods” section delivered to your Franchise HQ with the chance for a discount.  This one is weird, if you fail this is a daily, but if you use this feature twice you cannot use it again until your Franchise levels up.  I choose to interpret this as The Discount works up to two times, not the Acq Inc Prime feature.

At Rank 2, a Hordesperson gains the Living Loot Satchel aka the Hordesperson’s Bag from the C-Team.  A guaranteed Bag of Holding at Level 5 is not to be scorned.  The bag can also be used to move valuables between itself and the vaults of Head Office.  In addition, you can now live a Wealthy lifestyle.  This is flavored as “All Hordespeople Skim From The Profits.”

At Rank 3, your Satchel is now also a Leomund’s Secret Chest as the spell.  I don’t really understand how this is different from it being a Bag of Holding.  You can also make a Sleight of Hand check to pull out virtually any piece of adventuring gear up to five times per day.

At Rank 4, your Satchel is now a Portable Hole.  I think the difference between this, the Chest, and Bag of Holding is a matter of how large a thing you can get into the bag.  You can also pull anything out of the bag now up to 250 GP of value.

I don’t know how many adventuring parties really struggle with not having access to low cost gear.  When I did Tomb of Annihilation I brought a lot of gear and in a high level adventure access to skills and spells matters way more than a Climber’s Kit.  The Hordesperson also uses Dexterity to pull the right thing out of their bag.  Most of these roles have one stat that is most important to any skill checks relevant to the role.

The Loremonger is the first of the four jobs not held by the members of the C-Team.  You add your proficiency to checks to assess records and decipher codes.  You gain one proficiency in artisan tools, navigator tools, or vehicles of some kind.

At rank 1 The Loremonger gains a magic device called a Whisper Jar.  This is a recording device.  It records an unlimited amount of spoken words and you can playback anything you want.  This is going to be tough to adjudicate at the table and I think is going to be vulnerable to asshole players.  Your character’s recording device has perfect recall and infinite space…so you the player better write down or remember everything perfectly.  Player and DM both need to cut each other some slack here.  The DM respects that the player has a device that says they can record things, the player respects that it’s not the DM’s job to do all of this perfect recall for them.

Rank 2 grants the Loremonger the ability to, as an Investigation Check, use something very similar to the Battlemaster Fighter’s Know Your Enemy feature or the Mastermind Rogue’s Insightful Manipulator feature.  You can also use the Whisper Jar to gain information on any one subject.

The Rank 3 Loremonger reduces the Franchise upkeep cost by 20% per month and the Franchise HQ gains a “secret feature”.  They also can use their Whisper Jar as a Wand of Enemy Detection once per day.

At Rank 4, the Loremonger grants the Franchise HQ a weapons feature above and beyond normal.  They also can cast one spell from a short list of divination spells once per day.  These are all low level spells, 1st or MAYBE second.

The Obviator is the role that caught my eye as maybe being the best fit for my Rogue Mastermind, Tando Tossbottle.  Of the 8 roles, only the Documancer so far does not have a strong D&D like position in an adventuring party.  What I mean by that is the Cartographer, Decisionist, Hordesperson, and Loremonger are all tasked with doing things someone at your D&D table is likely already doing.  The Documancer is…not really doing something that happens in D&D.  It’s funny to have someone sweating the paperwork of adventuring but this isn’t a thing in more vanilla D&D.  It’s kind of like, if the Loremonger is recording the STORY of your adventuring party the Documancer is handling the BUSINESS side of your party.  What’s in the Quest Journal and what is the letter of those quests?  What debts and credits are owed?  Obviator is kind of that same not really a Classic D&D Role.  An Obviator’s job in the company/party is to solve problems.  From the description, they are basically a professional Munchkin.  This kind of sounds like Tando’s personality but it’s not really my playstyle so maybe not this role.

At Rank 1, the Obviator adds their proficiency bonus to checks to make sense of enemy tactics, discern hidden threats, or intimidate foes whose weaknesses you’ve already assessed.  I’m trying to think if there is anytime “discern hidden threat” would not overlap with Perception, Insight, or Investigation skills.

Also at Rank 1 the Obviator gains proficiency with Alchemist’s Tools…I don’t really see the connection there.  More relevant to the description, at Rank 1 the Obviator can make a Wisdom (Insight) check to learn three details about a creature.  Like the Loremonger, this is a baby version of similar Battlemaster and Mastermind class featues.

At Rank 2 the Obviator doubles down on those weird alchemy tools.  You can use your kit to identify an unknown substance once per day.  I’m wondering if this was supposed to be the poisoner’s kit, but the designers felt the alchemy tools were broader.  Poison is pretty specific.  I think the idea here is that an Obviator has an analytical mind and is thus interested in analytical pursuits like alchemy.

In addition, the Rank 2 Obviator gains a pair of magical lens/spectacles which function as Eyes of Minute Seeing or Eyes of the Eagle.  One gives advantage to Investigation, the other Perception where those skills relate to sight.  This is very good and it is permanent.  These don’t last one minute, they last until you change them.  This is one of the most powerful features so far.

The Rank 3 Obviator gets an extremely vague yet potentially very powerful ability to “ask yourself one question, then make a DC 15 Intelligence (History) check.  On success, you recall info you could have uncovered through earlier research about your mission.”  They also gain proficiency with that poisoner’s kit I thought made sense at level 1.  Now at level 11 and everyone’s immune to poison so this is a good time to give it to you.  This is also a travel kit andyou never need to draw it I guess saving you an action?  And it’s hard to find it on you if searched.

Ahh the infamous Rank 4.  Your Spectacles are now both Eyes of the Eagle and Minute Seeing.  And you can gain advantage on a weapon attack roll once per day.  The specificity is a bit odd but it is mechanically the strongest thing so far.   Last thing, if you fail on your baby Battlemaster/Mastermind check you still gain one detail and you can use it more than once against a single creature.

The Obviator is a practical and powerful job.  Would play definitely.

If the Obviator is a professional munchkin, the Occultant is the job I recommended to my friendly neighborhood power gamer.  This role’s responsibility is to track the party’s kills.  At Rank 1, you gain your proficiency to intimidation but only against those close to death, although isn’t that anyone in contact with an adventuring party?  You can also add it to checks to determine fatal diseases or poisons which would traditionally be Medicine checks.  Also like the Obviator, the Occultant gains proficiency in a grab bag of potential tools.  Choose between Cook’s Utensils, Leatherworker Tools, or Weaver Tools.  Like I said, grab bag.  Is that they use materials from dead things?

Also at Rank 1 you gain a kind of Bardic Inspiration.  You can grant someone who dealt a fatal blow 1d10 to spend on an Attack Roll, Ability Check, or Saving Throw.  This is once per day and it takes one minute to do so you can’t do it in combat.

At Rank 2, like the Bard, your Inspiration now recharges on a Short Rest.  Once per day, you can also cast Augury when near a creature recently killed.

Rank 3 Occultants can, as a reaction, impose advantage or disadvantage to a creature’s attack roll, ability check, or saving throw.  It doesn’t say this is once per day, just that it uses a bead from your “Occultant Abacus” and the art of this tool has 22 beads.  For this to be balanced it would have to be once per day.

You can also make an Insight check to determine if a wounded creature’s death would impact you and the franchise positively, negatively, or have a neutral outcome.  One thing I don’t understand here, it says “If the ramifications are different for you and the franchise, you learn this as well.”

Rank 4 Occultants can use their Abacus bead to know beforehand if someone has to make a roll with disadvantage.  Then you can use your reaction to give your d10 to a DIFFERENT creature, not the one with disadvantage and this time the d10 lasts one minute.  It says that the bead reappears at dawn but it still doesn’t say you can only use this once per day.  Daily use would be the obvious limit though.

Last thing Occultants get is another succeed weekly/fail daily mechanic.  You can make an Intelligence (Religion) check to learn relevant information about how a creature’s death affects the world.

The Final Job that a PC can get in Acquisitions Incorporated, the Secretarian.  These are your social butterflies.  They know what the office gossip is and are always branding.  It’s kind of like if the Decisionist manages the party at HQ, the Secretarian manages everyone else.  At rank 1 they gain proficiency in a gaming set, musical instrument, or the most mechanical option, disguise kit.  They can add their proficiency to checks to persuade crowds, hirelings, or perform jingles.

They also gain a Sending Stone.  Unlike the one in the DMG which has a paired stone and the two can just talk to each other, these can talk to head office, other secretarians you know, and the secretarian nearest to you.  You can use the stone once per day.  This kind of steps on the Documancer’s toes.

At Rank 2 the Secretarian gains a leather pouch.  When the PC meets someone their details and a sketch are stored on a small card in the pouch.  You can instantly find any card.  This kind of steps on the Loremonger’s toes of having a perfect record although this is only for NPCs.  Also at Rank two when you start a quest or mission you can make a History check and learn three rumors handy.  This is the kind of thing where player and DM need to cut each other slack.  Any mechanic that requires the DM to improv something fast.  Ideally, you know this mechanic exists so you keep rumors handy.

At Rank 3 you get a sense which parts of those rumors are false.  You can now give out business cards that can be used as sending stones to contact the Secretarian but to contact you.  These last a week and you can give out five at a time.  Once a week, the Secretarian can cast sending back to a card.  It doesn’t specify if this is once per card or once total, I think it would be total.

Finally, the Rank 4 Secretarian can make a Persuasion check to immediately locate an NPC that you need a service from.  I think the intent is that these are the services listed in the PHB.  Really finally, you can cast Charm Person on someone you give a business card.  It’s also another 1st level spell on a 17th level character.  This kind of steps on the Decisionist’s toes.

Coming off the Obviator and Occultant, the Secretarian is much weaker.

Overall I like these jobs.  More than the mechanics I like the idea of them.  Take the Cartographer for example.  At the table I’ve been with the last year, one player always takes it on themselves to map out the dungeons.  It would be nice to give another player a mechanical reason to do that or give this player a benefit to doing so.  I also like the specialization.  The Cartographer, with its ability to psychically determine the natural terrain within miles, is not going to get to use these abilities in an urban adventure.  I keep picking on the Cartographer because it’s the first job.  I like idea of giving people jobs inside the party that correspond to jobs Players take on themselves.  It’s the Decisionist’s job to be the party leader/facilitator.  The Loremonger’s job is to write everything down.  The Hordesperson tracks the tiny loose change and random gear you manage to find.  These are classic D&D jobs within the context of a party.  The Documancer, Oblivator, Occultant, and Secretarian are less rooted in party job archetypes, I think.

The mechanics are wonky as hell.  While the trend is towards ribbon abilities the Obviator and especially the Occultant have strong combat abilities.  The others are more geared towards the Social and Exploration pillars.  The Decisionist seems to be the most ribbony of all with one strong combat mechanic.  The Cartographer is entirely geared towards exploration and specifically overland exploration, not in a dungeon.  The Documancer seems the least D&D thing and doesn’t really have a strong fit.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Walnut Dankgrass and all she does but I can’t really see someone else, someone at my table playing that role without a heavy investment in running an Acq Inc game.

All of the roles gain proficiency in some use of a skill that probably overlaps with something you already took.  If the Role gives you proficiency in specific type of Persuasion but you already took the Persuasion skill, are you making the Role weaker?

Having said all this, so far I’m a fan of the book and would like to run a game for these rules.  I do think this book is going to sell better than perhaps it would otherwise because of 5E’s anemic release schedule of only a few books a year.  Although maybe not with 2019 getting way more adventures than usual.

Part 2 – Downtime and The Adventure

There’s still more than half the book left after these roles.  There’s a section on playing Acquisition Incorporated versions of every class.  This is mostly played for comedy.  There are some tables for every class, again, comedic.  I look with pride on how the Mastermind Rogue is called out as the perfect Acq Inc class, probably because it’s comically underpowered.

More important is the section on Downtime.  These are meant to supplement the Downtime activities in the DMG and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.  Confession time, I don’t think I’ve ever used the Formal Downtime rules in 5E.  And if you watch the 3-4 Acquisitions Incorporated games throughout the year at PAX they don’t have time to engage in downtime.  I’m not sure I would run these in the fashion of the DMG, having never seen that style modeled in a streamed game.  It doesn’t really jive with how we conceive of running an adventure.  Players don’t usually say, “We’re going Carousing for a week.”  You play out these scenes, maybe the DM rolls the result in advance and throws that complication at the players.  For less dramatic stuff like making an item you just do it when you go home.

This is one of the things that messed us up in Dragon Heist.  No one wanted to roll on the “Running the Business” table in part because it was a heavy cost for an uncertain reward but also because we were fuckin’ busy.  We were playing the adventure.  In practice, Running the Business is completely abstract.  You roll on the table for an amount of time, you have a certain result that says the business made or lost money.  We as players however, conceive that we need to be at the Tavern, working, making improvements, reaching out to vendors, and we just didn’t have the time.  We didn’t, but we still could’ve rolled on the abstract chart but that’s not how we picture D&D working.  We picture our characters, in real time, doing stuff.  And if we spend a day at the tavern then we want to roll on the table but then we run into the AL rules.

Nowadays when I write up my notes for an adventure I stick to the format Mike Shea of Sly Flourish uses, the Lazy DM format.  I was doing my own version of this for years but his is a bit more organized and useful.  But it conceives of the adventure through potential scenes and secrets and fantastic locations to explore.  The goal of the format is to make sure you have enough to get through the session and keep the players engaged.  I think the Lazy DM philosophy towards downtime would say, “Great!”  Because Downtime really needs to be player directed.  You can’t put players on Downtime.  What if they want to keep adventuring?

With Downtime, my opinion here is that the 5E rules seem to indicate that there’s daylight between Adventuring and Downtime.  This is false.  It’s all D&D, it’s all character, it’s all adventure.  Some sessions you go investigate the shady noble and some sessions you improve your tavern.  The question is, “What do the players want to do?”  If the players don’t want to improve their tavern or their franchise HQ they’re voting with their dice.  This is one thing I like about Acquisitions Incorporated as an idea.  The players do need to buy in to the idea of joining Acquisitions Incorporated.  Volo is not just giving them a franchise they might not care about.  If no one wants to join Acquisitions Incorporated then great, set this book aside and don’t use it.

Over half the book is given over to an adventure, Orrery of the Wanderer.  I would like to run this adventure and as potential players read this blog I don’t want to get too in depth with it.  But overall I like it.  I especially like that it includes places from previous adventures that your players likely played.  You go back to Phandalin, five years now after Lost Mine of Phandelver.  That’s cool!  The adventure takes you to Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Luskan, and even the Horn Enclave which was featured in one of the Acq Inc Youtube games.  One item that caught my eye, in this adventure, the middle class district of Neverwinter is named Black Lake.  This is what it was named in 4E.  In the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide the district is named Bluelake.  I wondered at the time if this was a typo, obviously it was.  Also Binwin featured heavily in the Horn Enclave adventure and the adventure mentions his actions without actually mentioning him.

The adventure models the rules in this book.  It doesn’t just give you a franchise, it gives you multiple suggestions for where to base that franchise.  It doesn’t give you hirelings but it does suggest which NPCs would make good hires.  It’s got plenty of magic items especially compared to the more stingy Dragon Heist and Mad Mage adventures.  Each chapter ends with giving your PCs some downtime rather than ending on a cliffhanger where the PCs feel the need to get right to the next chapter.  One chapter in particular is depending on the PCs to take that downtime to figure out where to go next.

There are a few hiccups.  In the true Jerry Holkins style, it gets a bit hard to follow as you turn into the conclusion.  Artifacts are being combined, portals are being opened, monsters are getting changed on the fly.  The ending acts sound complicated, doubtless they make more sense when you actually prep them to play.  As in many 1st level adventures, that section goes too long and there’s too much combat.  There is an encounter with giant rats which I feel obligated to roll my eyes at but it serves a real purpose in foreshadowing a trap later.

All in I really like this adventure and this book.  If your PCs like Acquisitions Incorporated they’ll be into this.  If your group has zero interest in Acquisitions Incorporated you could safely give this one a pass.  If they don’t know Acq Inc but they’ve been playing 5E, they will be into this for the numerous callbacks.  I would be happy to run this adventure for a couple months until Avernus starts.  Ain’t gonna be no downtime or franchises in Avernus.

The Dark Tower Novels

It would not be anywhere approaching accurate or just to think I can pass judgement on the Dark Tower series as a whole.  What follows is the briefest of summaries on the seven novels by Stephen King that make up The Dark Tower.  I would recommend you read the series but if you don’t care about spoilers these are my brief takes.

This was the first fantasy series I was ever introduced to.  Probably around the time I saw a trailer for this thing called “The Lord of the Rings” I was handed another book, a slim paperback with some dude in a longcoat with a revolver and a raven on the cover that read, “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.”

Now about ten years later I’m trying to re-read the books, a process which like writing the Dark Tower series started off regular, lapsed, and am now in a more or less consistent frenzy, thankee-sai Audible.

What strikes me more about this series more than anything else as I re-read/listen to these first three books is the overwhelming weirdness.  The juxtaposition (there’s a $5 word) of western, fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, modern-for-the-time-it-was-written fiction.  It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to think of a fantasy universe where the knights traded in their swords for six guns but Dark Tower goes so much farther than that.

The idea of the series doesn’t come towards anything approaching clarity until the third book. In The Waste Lands Roland gives voice to the idea that if he can reach the Dark Tower he can fix the general fucked-upness of the universe.  The World Has Moved On but only then does Roland actually state that this might be something fixable and that could be a desirable goal.

I called the first book a series of vignettes.  Episodic would be the more precise word (supplied to me by TVtropes).

The second book suffers more from its weirdness than the first book.  The first book you’re kind of down for this.  The individual episodes the text portrays are good even if they’re individually better than the sum of their parts.  They sort of distract you from the overall jumbled together nature of the story.  The second book, Drawing of the Three, we’re at the beach, our main character is walking to find random doors free standing along the sand.  There is no explanation how they work or why they exist.

The third book is where we start to glimpse the narrative.  The plot sheds off the more experimental episodic weirdness of the first two books and gets linear both in terms of presentation and literal time.  The book starts with them finding The Beam.  The Beam is a kind of air current/psychic force criss-crossing Roland’s world.  Roland says The Beam will take them to the Dark Tower.  He believes that the apocalypse that seems to be evident around them can be reversed at the Dark Tower.  Roland is ironically very right that the reset button for everything can be found there.

More than half and less than two-thirds of the third book, The Waste Lands, is spent getting Jake back into the story.  It works but my christ does it take a long time to get there.  I want to say that maybe any less time spent and their solution, in the end they literally draw a door in the dirt and pull Jake through it, would feel too blatant or silly.  But the characters are all getting psychic visions to tell them exactly how to do this.  The last act of the book sees them entering Lud, a ruined city repeatedly equated with Manhattan in terms of size and appearance.  Here they meet Blaine the Mono, a self-aware train who offers them a deal for their lives.

The fourth book benefits greatly by telling a linear straightforward story.  First comes the Riddle Contest for their lives with Blaine the Train He’s a Pain.  They win.  They arrive in this alternate universe version of Topeka, Kansas where The Stand novel by Stephen King has happened.  They need to find the path of the Beam.  But the sight of this giant green, possibly Emerald palace in the distance fills them with disquiet.  Remember, this is exactly one day after they reached Lud.  Jake’s been with them for maybe a month, maybe a couple weeks after they bring him into the world?  My point is that no one really understands Roland or his quest so in the 4th Book Roland sits them down for his motherfucking backstory.

There’s an elephant in the room with regard to the 5th, 6th, and 7th books.  The first four books were released in 1982, 1987, 1991, and 1997.  The last three books were released in 2003, 2004, and then again in the 2004.  George RR Martin, eat your heart out.  They were released in quick succession after Stephen King got hit by a van while walking on June 19th, 1999.  This is why the number 19 keep popping up in these last three books.  These last three feel different they feel unified they feel like they were written in quick succession.

It’s not fair to compare these Dark Tower Apples to the Song of Ice & Fire Oranges.  Because the last three books benefit greatly from a cascading series of Deus Ex Machinas so rapid you almost lose sight of them.  And they’re completely intentional, in the universe, The Writer, Stephen Goddamned King, is literally writing them in a way to help the characters.

There’s a saying I heard in the last few months about writing adventures for D&D.  When you don’t know what to write for the players’ next adventure, rip off the Seven Samurai.  Sure enough, Book Five, Wolves of the Calla, is in very large part a kind of easing back into these characters and the universe through a Kurosawa ripoff.

Book Six is the one I thought I hated the most, although going back through the series I’m now not sure that’s the case.  What I can say is that you can sum up Song of Susannah in about a page or two and then safely ignore it in the scheme of the larger plot.  It is very much prep work for the last book which is almost double the length of the sixth book.

I think the seventh book is the best one.  The gloves are off.  With its opening scenes of Father Callahan and Jake charging into the Dixie Pig and Mia/Susannah giving birth to Mordred, these scenes communicate that This Is The Last Book.  I like the kind of bleakness to it as the Ka-Tet is slowly whittled down to Roland and a deus ex machina character who are the only ones left to confront the Crimson King outside the Dark Tower.  There’s a weight to the last book, not literal (although it is the longest book of the series) but emotional that fills every section.

You also get a sense of how the story changes over the time it was written.  There are no references to The Beam until the 3rd book.  There are no references to the Crimson King until the 4th book (someone fact check this).  The 1st book underwent rewrites to bring it in line with the last three books, one of these edits includes putting in a reference to the Crimson King.  Even Roland’s final moments of the first book are put in a different context.  In the rest of the books, it’s said that Roland sleeps for ten years on that beach to find Walter dead.  Really Walter just puts his black robe on a skeleton.  The Calla folk in the 5th book have a very distinct way of speaking that is mimicked by all of the other characters in the book from that book on, even the non-calla people.

It’s only in trying to summarize the entire story do you get a sense of the Deus Ex Machinas that run things and would eventually come to be very intentional and 4th Wall Breaking.  The first book introduces Roland and sets up his Western/Fantasy/Post-Apocalyptic world.   The second book introduces our other main characters.  Why are they there?  Because destiny says they have to be.  The third book gives us our main story and more worldbuilding.  We have to get to the Dark Tower to fix the world.  Also here’s a Giant Bear Robot, it’s thousands of years old, and it’s falling apart.  So is everything else in this world.  Book 4 could be considered an aside but it’s such a damn good story with Young Roland.  Book 5 is about Stephen King getting back into the swing of things.  They walk right into this plot also about Ancient Robots and magical artifacts are laid square across their path.  Book 6 is setup for the endgame.  The characters all split up and have adventures across space and time.  They meet Stephen King and convince him he has to finish the story.  And book 7 is that endgame.  Once again the plot lies square in the path of our heroes.  They reunite and take the fight to their enemy.  One by one they are whittled down until only Roland remains.  Finally the story ends.  By now the ending might’ve entered into pop culture osmosis.  People have Opinions about it.

If you have however long it takes you to read/listen to seven Song of Ice and Fire size books I would recommend you give Dark Tower a chance.  The 4th book is the most accessible yet I have a hard time telling you, “please consume almost half this series, it gets really good like 60 hours in.”  I think if you enjoy the first book you can soldier through the next two.

I would recommend you try to read the books before watching The Movie with Idris Elba.  I enjoyed the movie but I can’t defend it at all.  There’s a new series coming out on Amazon, based on one of the actors maybe being a character from the 4th book and the IMDB summary it sounds like it focuses on “young” Roland which was the basis of the comic books they made on the Dark Tower.  We’ll see how it goes but I’ll mark out for it.

Long days and pleasant nights.

Dark Sun: The Vault of Darom Madar

I wrote in a previous post that I’d like to prep a series of “backpocket” adventures for days when my home group is unavailable.  Get some published adventures, prep them, then put them on a flash drive for a rainy day.  Since we’re always doing Forgotten Realms, I figured go for Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape.  Dark Sun is toughest of these three to find a low level one-ish shot adventure for.  There are two adventures for 2nd Edition D&D, “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge.”  But both of them begin and heavily lean into the PCs starting as slaves.  While that’s normal for the Sandals and Sorcery atmosphere of Dark Sun it’s not really something I want to bring to my a table without consent from the PCs.  It could be cut from “A Little Knowledge” but I don’t really like that adventure.  It’s a confusing mishmash of vignettes that don’t really work together.

More suited to my objective is “Vault of Darom Madar,” an adventure from Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition D&D.  It is technically a sequel to “Sand Raiders,” a short set of encounters not really an adventure from the 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  It’s a series of three combat encounters as the PCs trek out into the desert to find a lost wagon and captured drivers.  Not really any plot to speak to beyond those bare bones.

Vault of Darom Madar has a backstory but it’s thin.  Two ancient trading houses, Madar and Tsalaxa, fought for wealth and power.  Tsalaxa, being the evil house, hired assassins to wipe out the Madar family.  Prior to this, the Madar hid all their wealth in a secret Vault.  Go, there’s your adventure.

Your hook here is, again, thin.  Your patron could be literally any NPC.  In the adventure it’s a dwarf trader from one of the city states.  He heard a rumor that this ancient vault lies within a canyon near another city-state.  In exchange for the PCs doing all the work they get to keep a portion of the treasure.

This adventure features what I think are the notorious Travel Skill Challenges that Dark Sun featured in all its 4th edition adventures.  This one is better than I remember.  I remember 4E Skill Challenges being, “This requires Persuasion, the person with extremely high persuasion rolls 6 times while everyone else does nothing.”  This one isn’t like that.  You need to use 3 specific skills, Endurance, Perception, and Stealth, you need to use them all at least once, player’s choice on which you don’t use.  I think this would work to convert to 5E because the benefits and costs are very clear cut.

One thing I might change is that if you fail with Stealth you get a combat encounter.  In a system that uses combat to determine XP, this is a reward for failure.  In a system that doesn’t, you’re taking away the player’s D&D time for failure which seems overly punitive.  I think this was a bigger problem in 4E when a combat encounter never seemed to take less than 30 minutes.

After this skill challenge there are supposed to be two fights in a row.  One is a throwaway fight against some bandits which you can collect a bounty for.  The other is a fight against Tsalaxa assassins, the first of their several attempts to slay the PCs.  You’d probably want to cut these since they really don’t have much to do with the adventure.  This is kind of how 4E rolled.  Many fights.

The PCs first stop of the adventure is Silver Spring Oasis.  In addition to being a necessary stop for supplies your patron also believes the Elf Chieftain here can give directions to this canyon.  Fortunately, at the start of the adventure the PCs are given a message to deliver to him which they can try to decipher.  If the PCs don’t decipher the message, correctly or not, the expectation is that they have to bribe their way to see him.  Why is their patron, the Professional Trader, not bribing his way in to see this elf chieftain.  It makes sense that the PCs are expected to do all the fighting but the trade captain ought to be negotiating right?  I would write this that the Trade Captain has a feud with the elves that they “forgot” to mention previously.  There is little risk of failure here.  If the PCs fail the Elf Chieftain still tells them where this canyon is.  If they succeed he still tells them but they get some additional benefits.

After the Oasis the PCs come to The Canyon.  This is another skill challenge, the third of this adventure so far.  This one is series of “Group Checks.”  Each failure is meant to symbolize another day of fruitless searching.  The PCs stand a real chance of failure here but the penalty is “you don’t find anything, there is no adventure.”  But what’s the better way to right this? An extremely deadly combat encounter and if you beat THAT you find the tomb?  How do you make “find the ancient ruin” a better adventure when the obvious possibility of failure is “you don’t find the ancient ruin.”  What I might do is take one of those combat encounters from the start of the adventure and put them in here.  You find the ancient ruin but you ain’t the first to find it.

So let’s assume the PCs find the tomb for the sake of argument.  This place is undead central because the final battle between houses Tsalaxa and Madar claimed all involved.  They came back, as one might expect.  Two fights follow with these undead followed by yet another Skill Challenge to open the door to the final chamber.  This is the kind of skill challenge where your most skilled player can just slap down the d20 requiring 12 successes before 3 failures.  Other skills can undo failed checks.  If the PCs fail, the door locks for one day. Final encounter is a fight against the most powerful tomb guardian of all.  One thing I like about this adventure and the last one is that they both take into account that the PCs might just kill their patron and keep all the treasure for themselves.  On exit the PCs are once again attacked by assassins.

Next step is to get the loot back to civilization.  The adventure has a mechanic to determine how the random background NPCs on the caravan get killed in the background.  The adventure expects you to have at least two fights here.  The PCs either do or don’t and that’s the end of the adventure.  The adventure has some good hooks for followup as the PCs have made an enemy of this trading house or maybe someone from this family whose ancestral tomb they robbed comes forward.

This adventure bears the hallmark of 4E, way way way too much combat with too little point.  The plot is pretty straightforward, the PCs find a tomb, they loot it.  I remember thinking this adventure had a ton of RP back when it first came out and it does for 4E.  It relies heavily on skill challenges which are pretty well done here.  There are too many plot bottlenecks here but I like how the adventure acknowledges they exist.  The adventure has at least something approaching a plan if the PCs fail.  That plan is rough on them but it’s something.

Of the adventures I’ve read so far this one would be the hardest to convert.  5E doesn’t really have this much combat at low levels.  This is a level 1 adventure and in 5E no fight at level 1 is ever too easy.  This adventure also gives out a shitload of magic items which are much rarer and less powerful at low levels in 5E.  The pacing of everything is just different.  It would probably be a better use of time to reskin a different low level 5E adventure like “The Black Road” to Dark Sun rather than make this work.  I remember this being a great adventure in 4E but it’s just too different from 5E beyond the broadest of strokes.

Planescape: Well of the Worlds, To Baator and Back

One thing I want to do is adapt some adventures from other campaign settings.  This way if my home game has a night where the DM can’t make it the group can see some of the other campaign settings outside the Forgotten Realms.  I decided I would find some low level adventures from Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape, and work from there.  Eberron’s the easiest.  Closest to traditional fantasy and I know the adventures well already.  I figured if we ever try it I’d start with the Forgotten Forge although Curtain Call is pretty damn good.  Dark Sun is tougher to adapt because the adventures are higher level. Two lower level adventures,  “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge” aren’t great, they’re messy.  There is a Dark Sun adventure I liked for 4E called the Vault of Darom Madar but because it’s 4E there are a lot of fights.  I think it would take the most work to adapt into 5E.

For Planescape I wanted to do something different and find an adventure that doesn’t start in the setting proper.  And as luck would have it, there is a set of adventures called “Well of the Worlds.”  It has ten adventures in it and the first of them assumes your characters are not setting natives.  This makes it the perfect starting point.  Planescape is a little harder to get a handle on than Eberron or Dark Sun.  Eberron has a fusion of post war, noir, punk, magitech, and pulp influences but it is still D&D Fantasy at its core.  Dark Sun is the easiest to explain to someone else if not adapt: post-apocalyptic sandals and sorcery.  Planescape is different though.  It reminds me of an episodic TV show like Star Trek.  Nothing is too weird, any kind of situation can be written into the story.  You can go to hell, have traditional D&D fantasy adventures, chat with angels, debate philosophy, and anything can be a portal to anywhere.

The first adventure in Well of the Worlds is “To Baator and Back.”  The PCs go from their traditional fantasy setting through a portal into Baator.  Which is the Nine Hells of the D&D setting.  Specifically they’re in Avernus, the first level of Hell.  You may be familiar with this from the currently recent announcement for D&D’s next hardcover adventure, “Descent Into Avernus,” which is being promoted as a Mad Max style romp through Hell that includes Baldur’s Gate for some reason.

The synopsis is straightforward, the PCs accidentally stumble into Hell.  They encounter strange and evil things as they make their way to a portal out of Hell.  They leave Hell and enter Sigil, the City of Doors.  Welcome to Planescape!

When you get to the specifics this is a cool adventure.  It makes Planar travel accessible to the average Level 2 scrub adventurer.  It has a few points where the PCs need to make a certain choice or they will die, obviously a DM wants to change those.  It also is a bit weird combat wise.  Yes there is combat but I get the sense reading it that the story is pulling its punches.  This a low-level adventure.  Unless the PCs make a dumb choice, the fights are all against low-level threats.  But there are clearly much much MUCH more powerful foes all around them that they have no chance of touching.  You can feel the authors thumb on the scales that the PCs just happened to come to Hell on a day when everyone was busy.  The entire point of Planescape was to make the Planes accessible to adventurers  It’s not accessible if you show up, take 1d6 damage per round from fire, and then a Pit Fiend shows up and kills you.  A 5E caster doesn’t get Plane Shift until 13th level.  The Point of Planescape is to make all this real estate in the universe someplace lowly adventurers can visit.  By necessity that means the adventures must be less combat focused.

The adventure points this out a few times.  The PCs are basically creeping around praying not to be noticed.  If the PCs try to start shit, then the Devils will finish it.  If PCs forget their place in the grand scheme of things and act stupidly or draw attention to themselves they should die.  That can be a hard message to get across to PCs “in game” and it isn’t a tone you want to keep in an adventure all the time.  It’s a hard line to walk between a tense situation where mistakes cause character death and a fun game where the PCs get to feel like heroes.  It’s the essence of a railroad.  The premise of this adventure is you have railroaded the PCs into Hell.  They want to get out and there’s one path to achieve that objective but there are choices to make as they play through the encounters.

All right let’s get into the specifics of this adventure.  Like many Planescape Adventures there is a lengthy bit of backstory with a good conversational tone.  There is also a good summary of the adventure.  I wish it was just the more concise and specific summary with a focus what the characters will experience.  It’s charming but tough to remember on first read.  The text wants to steep you in the unique idioms and phrases of Planescape, the famous “planar cant.”

Because this adventure is about getting characters into Planescape it starts in some random small town.  There’s a rumor about an abandoned Wizard’s house, maybe someone went missing, maybe there are strange noises coming from the place.  The Text is nonchalant on this point.  The adventure is in that house. If your players don’t want to go there there’s no adventure.  There’s a random fight with an owlbear that goes nowhere so probably cut that.  Maybe it belonged to the wizard and got loose after his death?

The Abandoned House has a great map.  If you ever need a house map, this is a good one.  But there’s nothing in the house.  This is a scene to build tension.  You don’t want to keep telling the PCs “You find nothing” for 6 rooms.  There is a green slime in the kitchen.  There are some potions to find which hints that maybe the scavengers who’ve been over this house haven’t found everything.  Then in the Bedroom the drama strikes.  The PCs get attacked by Lemures, the absolute weakest of weak devils.

The portal to Hell is in a secret room somewhere in the house that obviously needs to be not too secret.  The trick here is that the dangerous magic circle in the center of the room is not the portal, the entire room is the portal.  I would like to have something here to draw the PCs to this room, maybe like an Apprentice Wizard or one of the Lemures to draw them here.  The point here is that the PCs should treat the magic circle like the danger not knowing that just entering the room is the danger.

There’s some backstory here that the PCs don’t have access to.  The Lemures were drawn to this house for its powerful planar energy but don’t want to go back to Hell.  And the magic circle in the basement is what is keeping the portal open.  So theoretically anyone who enters the room gets transported.  Meaning it is entirely possible in the story that one player enters the room, disappears, and the party abandons them to their fate.  I almost want to play this like Wizard of Oz where the entire house is suddenly moved.  I think the aesthetic you want to get across to your players is definitely Wizard of Oz.

Now your PCs are in Hell.

The next encounter happens immediately upon being transported.  The PCs are still in the room but now there is a Spined Devil there.  These are low CR monsters that fly and shoot with their spikes.  This Devil freaks out, smacks their head on the wall, and throws itself at the PCs feet.  This is a comic encounter but the danger is real.  The text here is sharp and gives the Devil a motivation.  This is not just potential interrogation time, this Devil really wants to get out of here to warn their superiors.  It’s only job is to watch this portal and it was bored.  Now it sees a chance for advancement.  Your goal here is to provide the PCs flavor of where they are, what’s going on, and what to do next.  The next step for the PCs is to visit the local witch who might know how to escape Hell.  The text says the Devil doesn’t offer this information unless directly asked but this is your goal for the scene.  Otherwise the adventure stops here.

I think the highlight of this adventure might be this moment where the PCs step out of the basement.  They entered through a house.  Now they step out onto a literal hellscape.  You want that “not in Kansas” feel.  The next scene is supposed to be flavor as the PCs make their way from the portal to this witch’s shack.  One important thing is that the PCs are supposed to cross a literal river of blood here.  This is supposed to foreshadow a second crossing later in the adventure.

Like the Spined Devil, the Witch encounter starts as Combat and then moves to being a Social Encounter.  She comes out of her shack swinging a mace, throwing holy water, and casting Web.  She calms down a bit when she realizes the PCs aren’t devils although she does hit them with a Gem of Seeing.  This is another good encounter.  The PCs should be asking themselves why would this random half-elf be living in Hell.  The entire thing screams Hag but she’s really not, she’s just an evil woman who spies for the forces of evil.  There are two things a DM needs to get across in this encounter.  Number 1, the next stop in this tour of Hell.  Number 2, something called a spell key.  The idea is that magic doesn’t work right unless you have a spell key.  This is tricky because this concept doesn’t exist in 5E.  It is in the original 2E campaign setting.  On different planes, magic works differently.  On a plane of water, you can’t use fire spells as effectively.  Healing doesn’t work on the plane of negative energy.  For Hell, this is the plane of Lawful Evil.  So “wild magic” doesn’t work.  I don’t know exactly what this meant in 2E.  In 5E terms it would seem to refer specifically to the Wild Magic Subclass of the Sorcerer.  I think you would want to adapt this so it is relevant to SOMEONE in your group, even if you don’t have a wild sorcerer.

The reason you might want to give them the spell key even if they don’t ask is because it is relevant to point #1, the next scene.  After a hike through more hellscape you arrive to “The Pillar of Skulls.”  This is similar to something you might’ve seen in the film, “What Dreams May Come.”  It is literally a giant column of various heads.  This is very weird and thematic.  I dig it.  This is a great encounter.  A bunch of heads shouting over each other.  The various heads will give different qualities of advice for different advice.  There is one head that is giving advice that is completely wrong.  The adventure is silent on what happens if the PCs follow this advice.  I guess they just die or have to walk away and come back?  You probably don’t want to emphasize this one but I wish they’d included some idea as far as what to do.  One thing the adventure does note is that if the PCs attack the pillar it attracts attention of nearby fiends.  This would be bad for level 2 pcs.

From here the adventure goes a bit confusing.  The PCs have the potential to learn from the pillar what they need to escape Hell.  There is a portal a ways away.  In order to activate it they need to have A Brick from the Great Avernus Road.  Again more Wizard of Oz vibes.  However the path there is fraught with peril.  First, they have to cross the River of Blood again.  The first time they crossed the blood was ankle deep.  This time it is waist deep and the River is twice as long.  And it’s full of vampiric worms.  I think reskinning Stirges would be the best course here.

This next part is where it gets weird.  The PCs encounter the Fortress of Bel, who controls Avernus (this is before Zariel, who enters the canon in 2006).  They must sneak around the Hell Fortress and wait several hours for the Armies of Hell to march out.  That sentence is doing a lot of work.  This could be an entire campaign and I half expect that is the entirety of Descent into Avernus.  Here it is a lot of description and nothing else.  No specific skills or tactics are called out.  The PCs are expected to realize they should sneak around the fortress and wait for the literal Army of Hell to roll out.  This would be a good chance for the PCs to have a long rest.  You should not even request a skill check here because the result of any failure is death.  This entire bit is a cutscene.

When the Army of Hell leaves the PCs can get to the road to claim a brick to open the portal out of Hell.  But when they do that, 50 flying devils come out of the fortress to chase them.  Why does the adventure bother including stats?  The PCs cannot win this.  What follows is a chase to the portal.  I’m on record as hating the chase rules.  Dash and roll to not die. *jerk off motion*  There’s no opportunity for smart play here, either you roll and succeed or you roll and fail.  But you gotta sell it to the PCs.

After this scene you come to the end boss.  The Portal Out of Hell.  Here waits the devil (not The Devil) who discovered the wizard’s portal and has been waiting with the patience of an immortal for someone to come through.  Like the rest of the adventure this is not a combat encounter, at least not right away.  The devil offers to allow the PCs through the portal if they do him a favor.  The devil (lower case d) wants the PCs to carry a mysterious ass orb through the portal.  The devil threatens and cajoles the PCs if they refuse.  While the devil hints that the horde chasing the PCs will kill them if they refuse this is a lie.  If they refuse then they have to fight this one devil.  I don’t know how to read 2E stats so I can’t tell if this devil is supposed to be a badass capable of wiping the floor with the party.  What I can say is that it is worth about the same XP as the Spined Devil which in 5E is a CR 2 monster.  But it’s worth seven times more than the earlier witch who is a level 7 wizard.  Go figure.  I’d say this cat should be a CR 4-6 for a level 2 party.  Fighting him should be a bad idea but not completely impossible.

Problem with this devil’s plan is that its bullshit either way.  The backstory is that this orb will make it possible for the Forces of Hell to attack Sigil but it doesn’t work.  The orb crumbles when the PCs step through the portal and the devil horde descends on their leader.  The PCs don’t really have any way of knowing this in the text.  This kind of falls flat if the PCs say yes.  There should be a cost of some kind but I’m not sure what.

That’s it that’s the adventure.  When the PCs step through the portal they’re in the bustling city of Sigil free to pursue their own course.  They’re not home but they are in Planescape.  The epilogue points out that by this point the PCs are likely covered from head to toe in dirt and blood which is an unusual sight in a Sigil marketplace.  I would end this adventure end by having a passerby offer them some money for the genuine River of Blood blood on their clothes.  The epilogue also points out that any of the NPC devils in this adventure could come back as bigger threats later.

My limited experience with Planescape adventures has told me that they are weird.  I’m not just talking about encounters with squirrel people, trips to Hell, or ancient chalices that poison only the Good.  The adventures are written more like novels.  When I turn to the middle of a book like Dragon Heist I get tight declarative sentences about what’s in the room.

Here’s what the middle in Well of the Worlds looks like

Notice that Dragon Heist (levels 1-5) calls for the Level 9 spell Greater Restoration to cure an NPC which is a personal peeve of mine.  The content of a Planescape adventure is just bizarre.  I’m not complaining too hard, after years of Forgotten Realms I love some bizarre.  But it does take some time and effort read and get used to.  You have to break through the prose to understand, yes, this is a pillar of heads, make insight checks to determine which one is telling you the truth.  That’s the first adventure in this book and it’s a good one.  I would definitely support this campaign setting if it was brought back with modern content.