Session Zero – Baldur’s Gate & Elturel: Descent into Avernus

I am hungry to do another in person 5E Game and our group decided to do Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus with me behind the screen. Those of you with time on your hands may have already read my long-ass review of this adventure. Very long story short, this one will be tough to run. There are parts of this book that just straight up do not work as written and a DM needs to plan through them.

One thing unique about this game is that the players want to play an “All-Paladin” party. This really ought to make my job easier. I could tell the players that they’re from Elturel, the holy city upriver from Baldur’s Gate, and then run Descent more or less as it is written. I’m not sure I want to do this because it minimizes Baldur’s Gate but maybe that’s in the best interest of the adventure. This is kind of the first big issue with the adventure. You have Baldur’s Gate and then you have Elturel and its Descent into Avernus. They’re two stories without a lot of overlap.

I think Baldur’s Gate is a cool city in the Forgotten Realms but in this adventure you frankly don’t see much of it. The opening “level one scene” takes place at the Elfsong Tavern, another scene takes place at the Low Lantern. There are two dungeons which are both useable fleshed out low level 5E dungeons but don’t have much to do with The City. The level 2 dungeon is way way too difficult as written but different monster choices fix that. After these four scenes, Baldur’s Gate is safe and out of mind for the rest of the adventure. I don’t like that, I want to keep the city relevant but if they players don’t give a shit about it well then I’ll cut it. I think all I can do is keep the options open and let the players decide if they want to stay in or return to Baldur’s Gate for adventure or get into Avernus. It’d be cool to have some back and forth between Baldur’s Gate and Avernus but it should really cost something to get out of Hell. Of course that really leaves Elturel as a city scale macguffin.

People on the internet have said the opening hook is weak for this adventure. I think it works if you frame it in your mind that that Baldur’s Gate is experiencing a coup when the PCs come on the scene. I think what doesn’t work (at least for me) is the idea that these random cultitsts of Bhaal, Bane, and Myrkul are in the employ of a Zariel Cult. Do cults typically franchise? It feels like a distraction to have the Dead Three involved at all. That dungeon is also long and extremely difficult for 2nd level characters. I think those factors are harder to deal with than the opening hook of being conscripted by the Flaming Fist. With an All-Paladin party I think the best way to go is to have the players be Aveline from Dragon Age 2, and Baldur’s Gate is Kirkwall. Elturel/Ferelden is gone, PCs flee to BG.

I had some high concept ideas about the PCs being on the Original Hellride or defending Idyllglen in the distant past but I think I should table those ideas until after session zero. What matters are the characters and what they want so I should hold my powder until I actually know what that is. One thing I want to consider is that…alone among the 5E classes I think the Paladin Subclass feels special. There’s more flavor here than with the Rogue Archetype or Barbarian Path. The Paladin swears an oath and I want that to feel special. I need to think about that one and get some ideas from session zero. This way they’ll be in a special place to take their level 3 oaths.

I have picked up a shitload of DM’s Guild material for Descent into Avernus. I might’ve picked this stuff up on my own but I’m picking up nearly everything since I’m running the book. At this point I think I’ve got just about everything except Pipyap’s Guide to Hell but it’s only a matter of time. A look at those materials will likely be a future post. I have resisted picking up Helturel as I’m still of the opinion that Elturel is the least interesting part of the adventure and making it longer is a mistake. But I might pick it up depending on what the PCs want to do. I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that I can “fix” this adventure by dumping DM’s Guild Material into it. But I do think it will strengthen my prep to have more ideas to loot. This gets back to the “On Writing” concept that you must be a good reader to be a good writer. A DM should read adventures to write their own.

I keep saying “What Do The PCs Want” because we’re still a couple weeks away from Session Zero on Descent Into Avernus and frankly I have no clue what they’ll want to do. I have a suspicion it’ll wind up being “whatever The DM wants” because that’s kind of our table culture. But I really want this to be a collaborative effort even if I have to kill them to get there god damn it. Adventures blossom when the players buy in. It gives the players and DM excitement and ideas. I recall in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist I was way more bought in to the Bullshit Errands than the Real Plot or Running a Tavern. This was because an NPC hired my character to check the harbor or run security. Someone hired me to do the thing and so I was motivated to do the thing. A Fireball Blows Up Outside The Tavern was something that didn’t have anything to do with my character. Running A Tavern meant engaging with the abstract Running A Business Rules and those rules are ass. But if you just ask the players what they want with no context or no clues they’ll just stare at their phones.

Roll 20 is having Adam Koebel run the adventure live and that’s been a big boost to my confidence in running the adventure overall and also running the adventure a bit closer to how it is in the book rather than doing something bonkers. He’s been pretty frank on his stream about things that do or don’t work with the adventure. I still want to add some material so the players have the option to bop around Baldur’s Gate for longer. I would strongly recommend his show, it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Dice Camera Action in terms of great live play.

Speaking of Bonkers, what I mean by that is doing something other than starting the adventure with Baldur’s Gate and then going into Avernus. With this book being a better toybox than an adventure you could really go nuts with this thing. It doesn’t take much imagination to make this an episodic Mad Max adventure with the characters as a warband. Or making this a Planescape game with Sigil taking the place of Baldur’s Gate. Or maybe the players were killed during the battle in Idyllglen or vampire attack on Elturel and then raised from the dead later. Those are bonkers ideas.

Since I need Session Zero to build a bridge to Session One most of my attention to has been on some big themes and ideas that I can seed throughout the campaign. Maybe doing this now before the game is a mistake. But I want to get some thoughts down that might inspire me later. My biggest idea is that one player has clearly expressed they want to kill or battle Arkhan the Cruel, the Dragonborn Paladin of Tiamat you encounter in Avernus. Arkhan is wielding the Hand of Vecna Artifact. So, shouldn’t Vecna be involved in the campaign? Where and how? Vecna seems like a bigger threat than Zariel. Asmodeus or Mephistopheles seem like opponents on the same level as Vecna. It strikes me as a coincidence that Zariel is also missing her left hand. Also Manshoon but one step at a time. This is one thing that the adventure does well is give you these extremely high level threats, what are they up to, how will they fuck with the PCs. You have pit fiends like Bel and Gargauth, three different CR 20+ Demon Lords, Zariel, Mephistopheles and Tiamat in the adventure, and then Asmodeus and Vecna further offstage.

Those are big villains to keep in mind. What matters most is the session in front of us. To prep for Session Zero I sent the players some background info.

Main Campaign Hook – Save Baldur’s Gate and Elturel from the Devils of the Nine Hells

6 Campaign Facts

  • The holy city of Elturel and its second sun have been drawn into Avernus, the first level of the Nine Hells.
  • The Ruler of Avernus is Zariel, the former archangel who replaced the pit fiend Bel.
  • As an Angel, Zariel once led the army of Elturel into Avernus to fight evil. The survivors founded an order of knights called the Hellriders.
  • Avernus is a blasted wasteland and the frontline of the Blood War, an eternal war between Devils and Demons.
  • Devils and Warlords Roam Avernus in Infernal Warmachines.
  • Grand Duke Ulder Ravengard of Baldur’s Gate was in Elturel when it vanished, leaving his city to criminals, cults, and charlatans.
  • This gives the PCs what I think are the most important facts about the campaign without being too spoilery. The overall hook is to save Elturel. Also Baldur’s Gate is probably under threat. Elturel is in the Nine Hells! This is a point of contention among NPCs at the start but human beings playing the D&D adventure “Descent into Avernus” can reasonably be told that big plot point. It also mentions but does not explain that Elturel has a second sun which is something of a mystery in the adventure. Next, our antagonist, Zariel. She runs the show in Avernus, she used to be an angel, but she also replaced this joker named Bel who might come up in the adventure. Next, Zariel’s very abbreviated backstory: Once she rode into the Nine Hells with the army of Elturel. It doesn’t explain how badly this went and it doesn’t explain how what happened here is the backstory for the adventure. This is just a thing that happened. It also defines the Hellriders which the opening of the adventure kind of mangles in trying to sort of half-explain. Fourth Fact, What is Avernus? It’s a wasteland and a warzone in Hell for this thing called The Blood War. The Blood War is a big enough deal to warrant its own fact but it really is more of a detail in the background of the adventure rather than an important thing the PCs grapple with. Next, Infernal Warmachines. They exist. You will encounter them. Vehicle rules are important for the Avernus setting as presented. This advertises that maybe taking proficiency in land vehicles would be a good idea for at least one PC. The last fact is about Baldur’s Gate, what’s going on there. Their leader is missing so it’s a mess. That’s enough for a quick picture. If Baldur’s Gate feels a little forced on this list well it’s a little forced in the adventure.

    I think that’s all the prep I can do for session zero. I’ve got plenty of notes on what might happen in the adventure, now I need the players to decide what will happen.