Descent into Avernus – Revelations

I started writing recaps of my Avernus sessions with the goal of eventually putting them here.  After 10 sessions things started blurring together a bit.  With the dawn of the COVID-19 Pandemic there’s also way less free time to spend at the keyboard musing about movies and table top RPGs.  Now, about 12-14 sessions in Avernus I’m ready to put digital ink to paper.  I’m not going to finish Descent into Avernus.  I realized this towards the end of Elturel.  First, I took a couple weeks off DMing. Then I asked the players, “would it be okay if we did something else?”  Then I said I needed some time off DMing.

Edit – I spend a long time in this essay talking about the adventure and the players and characters in this article.  The biggest truth requires far less text.  We ran this the first few months of 2020 when COVID hit.  It was a rough time and everything re-opening with significant restrictions in May 2020 hit at the same time my job had people quitting, being fired, or going on parental leave.  No matter what I have to say about how many times you encounter Zariel in this book or why your party needs multiple classes to function, real life killed this campaign more than anything else.  There’s just way less to say about that because it’s a pretty simple truth.

As indicated by my begging to quit about halfway through the book, I didn’t have a good time with Descent into Avernus.  Worse than that, Avernus made me question if I was a good fit for DMing this group.  And if I don’t feel like I can contribute to DMing a group then I’m not really comfortable being in that group at all.  I want to feel like I’m pulling my weight.  It brought out a lot of bad habits that made me want to quit despite really enjoying everyone’s company. And as of now, I have.  I felt like I’m on indefinite hiatus as a cover for “I’m not going back” but I wound up going back about 6 months later when another player DMed Curse of Strahd which was good comfort food.

This needs to be unpacked.  At this point I’ve read Descent into Avernus more than Curse of Strahd.  Descent is almost like the Phantom Menace.  I keep telling myself it can’t be this bad. That’s unthinkable. It’s the Wizard of the Coast hardcover adventure.  I keep trying to contort my mind and squint and argue with myself that “no it’s not that it’s bad you just to change this hook, buy this DM’s Guild supplement.”  But that is false.

Descent into Avernus is a bad adventure.  Compared to the other “Campaign” hardcovers (meaning exclude Yawning Portal, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, and Mad Mage) this is the worst hardcover 5e adventure WotC has released to date.  There are ways to mitigate this and I made mistakes running it. That doesn’t make this a good book that I failed to DM properly.

Descent into Avernus is a perfect elevator pitch.  “Mad Max in Hell!”  But the pitch was better than the execution.  Descent Into Avernus is the Alien 3 of D&D hardcover adventures.  I really spent some time on that analogy and I think it fits.  You have great creative behind the product.  Alien 3 had one of its scripts from William Gibson, a titan of science fiction.  A Script, singular.  Alien 3 went through development hell with a series of scripts and directors.  It was eventually directed by David Fincher who made Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network, and Zodiac.  Fincher is A Good Director.  His presence alone did not salvage Alien 3.  The budget was too high, there were too many creatives pulling in different directions and meddling executives that all resulted the rushed final product we have today.  Still, Alien 3 made money against its budget.  It was nominated for an Oscar for Visual Effects.  Despite that, with the well salted benefit from almost 30 years of hindsight we can all agree that Alien 3 is a mess.  Horror stories of the troubled production revealed what was obvious on screen. 

I think ‘mess’ is the best word for this Avernus book too.  Descent into Avernus sold well, has some great reviews.  I felt it was redeemable.  Anytime Mike Shea from Sly Flourish talks about Descent he points at the legion of 5-star reviews on Amazon.  But it is a goddamn mess of a book.  Unlike David Fincher in 1992, we consumers have access to the creators which makes it guilt-inducing to be so negative. We follow all these creative folk on Twitter, buy their products on DM’s Guild, and by every account on livestream D&D games, podcasts, and interviews they are wonderful people.  I probably have a DM’s guild product from every author who worked on this.  No one wants to hear a book they contributed to isn’t good and gods know I wouldn’t be able to say these things to someone’s face. 

I don’t know where Descent into Avernus fell apart.  No single thing seems to be to blame.  I’m not blaming the NPC Lulu or my players.  I’m not blaming Red Ruth.  Or the 7 endings which boil down to either Anti-climax or The Players Lose.  And I don’t know anything that’s not public about the production of the book.  It has this Batman vs. Superman quality of something that failed to be resuscitated in the editing process.  The death of the campaign was this huge stew of the book’s problems, my apathy as a DM, the decision to have an All-Paladin Party, people on parental leave at work, and let’s not let fucking Covid off the hook.

By now I’ve beaten the book’s content well beyond the point of death.  Go check out my other review for info about the content.  In our game everything fell apart when the PCs got to Avernus.  We didn’t do any of the encounters there past Haruman’s Hill.  At that point the players didn’t know why they needed to do what they were doing, their characters didn’t have any goals, I kept having to drive them and remind them at every turn, and the NPC Lulu provided the sneaking and correct suspicion that the player characters maybe weren’t the main characters of the story.  By the way, maybe one player found Lulu cute but she did not go over well for most of the group.  And everyone really turned on her when they got to Avernus and realized they were on a glorified escort mission to help Lulu figure out where she left the Sword of Zariel.  It just did not land, no one wanted to be on an escort mission to something they didn’t really care about.  And if the characters don’t want to do the adventure it’s like pulling teeth.

At that point in the adventure I was struck by two visions of my future.  In one vision I have to stop and explain the entire Adventure lore to them at the start of the session at which point half the players would forget what they’ve been told (because it’s complicated, not because anyone’s not paying attention) and I’d need to retell this lore every week.  I remember as a PC I went through a similar experience with the legend of the Nine Trickster Gods in Tomb of Annihilation until I finally looked up the story online and memorized it.  My other vision was just month after month of fight after fight with no context, no story.  We certainly could’ve fought a different batch of Devils every week until the book ran out of material but that sounds like a boring boring way to spend an evening.

There’s a comparison to be made between Strahd von Zarovich and Zariel.  They’re both book cover antagonists who’ve fallen from grace (Although Strahd was never a good person).  Your adventure should be building to a confrontation with them.  In Strahd’s case, a climatic fight, in Zariel’s case, an anti-climatic redemption.  Why does CoS work better than DiA?  One of DiA’s problems is this issue of “when do we get to the fireworks factory?”  This is taken from a Simpsons Episode.  Here’s that story, the studio adds a new character to Itchy & Scratchy voiced by Homer named Poochie.  And the episode starts by promising they’re going to a Fireworks Factory.  The episode winds up being about this new character Poochie instead, prompting one character watching to ask, “when do they get to the Fireworks Factory?”  Descent into Avernus starts with a promise of Hell Cars but drags too much ass paying off that promise.  And you never fight the fallen angel.  Curse of Strahd starts in Barovia.  Strahd is up on the mountain in the final dungeon but this is clear in the first session.  Madame Eva comes up right away and says, “YOU MUST KILL STRAHD. HERE’S HOW.”  And the PCs have an adventure collecting items and meeting interesting people.  Then you enter the dungeon and kill the bad guy.

Descent into Avernus has Zariel on the cover but she isn’t a part of the adventure.  The elevator pitch is MAD MAX…IN HELLLLLLL.  But you start in Baldur’s Gate.  You have a thematically appropriate but completely unrelated story in this city.  Then you’re asked to go to Avernus to save Elturel.  This is like if Death House, the initial adventure in Curse of Strahd to get characters to level 3, went on for 5 levels and was in Waterdeep.  Death House is a great one shot and a microcosm of what you can expect in Curse of Strahd.  In Avernus, Zariel is very much on her throne the entire adventure not even really waiting for the PCs to show up.  She isn’t a force that the PCs contend with constantly.  I do like the idea that the PCs are very much ants beneath her feet.  It works as a theme in theory.  Characters struggling against impossible odds to bring down a God.  There’s a great Christian message there about blessed are the meek, something like that.  But I’m not sure it works as a year plus long D&D campaign.

As I said, I don’t want to belabor the content of the adventure.  I’ve done it already and you can check out @hexcrawl on Twitter.  At its core, the scenes don’t lead into each other.  It’s clear they were written by different people and glued together in editing.  The adventure is a house of cards with no guidance on what to do if it falls over except have more combat until it’s back on the railroad track.

I think any game you ask yourself what would you do differently.  For DIA, the DM’s guild adventure “Fall of Elturel” is a way better starting point than what the book provides.  This is mandatory.  Out of the Abyss has you chased by Drow, Curse of Strahd has you swept into Barovia, and for Descent into Avernus to work your PCs must Must MUST be from Elturel.  This adventure does not work any other way.  Elturel is the central hook of the adventure, a meaningless combat slog, and later a macguffin with a not-really-ticking-clock.  Your characters have to be from there for the adventure to have any momentum.  I think there’s two ways this book works.  Either your players are comfortable going to hell and doing morally questionable things for the greater good of Elturel or you go there to kick ass and take names and have a goddamn tactical wargame.  If you feel combat is a reward, prepare for glory motherfuckers.  This second idea would’ve worked better for the All-Paladin party but not for me as the DM.

All right let’s get to the part of this blog post where I bash my players.

Ha ha of course not.  I’m not going to shitpost about my friends.  If anything this book clarified that I wish I saw them more outside a D&D context.  There were earlier posts about Dragon Heist and Mad Mage where I felt the DM made a mistake but in those instances I’d rather focus on how I reacted poorly rather than slandering a close friend on a goddamn blog.  And I’m going to try and do the same thing here. 

Something that didn’t work out for me was the decision that everyone in the party would be a Paladin.  This sounded great in theory.  In practice it sowed the seeds of our ruin.  The 5th Edition D&D Paladin is a heavily armored, martial class, half-caster.  They have big spike damage, their auras grant significant defensive benefits, and they heal both with spells and as a class feature.  They do not however get ranged spells or skill bonuses.  And we also rolled stats which I like to do, but the group didn’t roll great so no one had bonuses leftover for abilities other than what the paladin needs for combat. And combat’s part of D&D.

What this meant for the game is that the party punched significantly above their weight in combat.  This was exacerbated by a few more optimized characters going above and beyond even that with feats or multiclassing.  I also ran kind of a Monty Haul campaign to get the players more magic weapons than the adventure prescribes.  Because 5e devils take half damage from non-magical, non-silver weapons I reasoned that it would be no fun for my all martial party to just be less effective.  Descent into Avernus gives a generous amount of magic items, enough to kit out the normal amount of 2-4 martial characters.  I bumped this because I figured it would be no fun to deal half damage.

The All-Paladin Party created two problems for me that I didn’t know how to solve and made the game less fun which were factors in me tapping out.  Problem number one, in order to Challenge The Party in combat I needed to throw a high deadly fight at them which would necessitate two hours or more of our 2-2.5 hour D&D session to conclude.  It’s one thing to say, “The way to challenge the players in combat is with powerful ranged spellcasting enemies.”  It’s quite another to throw a fight at the players for the sole reason of Having A Fight.  And then have that fight go the entire session and crowd out the roleplaying because the difficulty is so high and the fight is so tactical.

But let’s say I didn’t do that, instead I wanted to focus on roleplaying and skills?  Well then the characters would fail fucking everything.  A CR 13 monster was a speed bump.  A DC 13 locked door was a dead end.  I had a party of hammers and any problem that wasn’t a nail wasn’t one they could deal with, but any nail was too easy to deal with.  I wish I’d been able to come up with more alternative combat objectives but I just wasn’t that clever.

A different party might’ve leaned in more to the adventure which would’ve made it more fun.  If I was playing my rogue Tando in this adventure, that character would be excited to rub shoulders with the all mighty shot callers of Avernus.  The character I would’ve wanted to play in this adventure, a Tiefling Bardbarian Iron Bull Ripoff, would’ve had that nice arc of starting out an infernal spy and then embracing a noble cause instead.  But that’s me tooting my own horn.  None of the player characters had strong motivations to be in this adventure.  Even the one that had a goal didn’t really have a way for me to insert that until 2/3rds of the way through the adventure.  Fortunately in D&D, you don’t really need too much motivation.  A little will do ya.  In Curse of Strahd we had a druid and a warlock and they were kind of just there going along with the adventure.  The rest of the party was active and engaged and moving forward to the next location.  In Avernus the script really wasn’t meeting the players halfway.  Or maybe rather, I lacked motivation to make it meet them halfway.  I can be a problem player/DM when my storyteller/method actor parts aren’t being sufficiently tickled.  Engagement is the coin of the realm.  Would you watch a TV show with these characters?  If the answer is no, my brain is going to want to change the channel.

I was this kind of problem player in Dragon Heist where I wanted to get turned loose on exploring the city and didn’t really have any interest in running a tavern.  Maybe if I had leaned in towards running a tavern the city would’ve come to me.  Instead I got jaded fast what I saw as pointless combat and the omnipresent jackbooted thugs of the Waterdeep City Watch making the city very adventurer unfriendly.

The tactical combat parts of Avernus were landing at the table.  The story was “where are we going again?”  The players might be enjoying an all-combat game but I wasn’t having fun DMing it.  I’m not interested in DMing a tactical wargame.  And beyond that, the players didn’t give me much to work with.  Their PCs had backgrounds but not goals.  It’s cool that the Bugbear Paladin wanted to be a resurrected hero from Chult’s past.  That has the potential to be a story like Solas from Dragon Age.  Instead it was just an excuse to get 15’ foot reach with a polearm and a bonus action attack.  There was only one real goal from one player, one person was very devoted to hunting down Arkhan the Cruel.  But I didn’t see a way to bend the entire campaign around that.  Mike Shea and others online have identified the solution to this problem, the Characters Have To Be From Elturel.  Problem with this solution is, as mentioned in the last post, Elturel is a fuckin’ dud of a story beat as written.  You’re caught between the shithouse and the cesspool with a story that just doesn’t give players a reason to give a fuck unless they meet extremely specific background requirements.  In Out of the Abyss, players are forced to ask, how did you wind up in Drow Prison?  It’s a pretty open ended question that lends itself to good storytelling.  “You Must Be From Elturel, The City No One Knows Anything About” is way less compelling.

It’s one thing to say, “I need you to accept the premise of the adventure.”  The premise of the adventure though, rescue Elturel, is opaque and not compelling.  The adventure doesn’t work if your party can literally take on the the forces of hell.  The Forces of Hell are supposed to be bigger fish than the PCs forcing them into compromises.  But if The PCs can and will fight everything because fight everything is all they can do and they do it extremely well, I’m just kind of left with a useless book.

The adventure in Avernus also has a habit of forcing costs for failure.  The campaign expects your players to make deals with evil creatures to advance the plot.  In the story of the adventure, the PCs get a warmachine from Mad Maggie the Night Hag.  They might need to watch Red Ruth the Hag’s Hut, do a favor for Mahadi the Rakshasa, make deals with Mephistopheles, Bel, or Tiamat.  This is what makes the plot go forward, especially if they fail or need help.  The All-Paladin Party wasn’t interested in negotiating and as combat monsters didn’t feel the need to.  Again, I felt like I had nothing to work with.  Doling out the next encounter on the chain of encounters didn’t feel satisfying.

I just never became a fan of the characters.  Between their characterization (again, not everyone has to be Citizen Kane), overly combat oriented classes, no goals, and an overwhelming number of distracting puns at the table there was nothing in Avernus I was really looking forward to, including Hell Cars.  We never had a vehicle combat and I was nervous about having one.  I would’ve wanted it to be narrative and cinematic and cool.  I knew what would happen instead was that I’d need to explain the rules every turn and we’d just spend 15 minutes talking about distance.

I want to close out this essay by saying that Something’s Rotten in the Wizards of the Coast Marketing Department.  When Descent into Avernus was announced there were a series of promo videos from D&D Beyond and D&D proper.  None of them mention Baldur’s Gate.  Sly Flourish thinks that Baldur’s Gate was crowbarred into the adventure to tie into the Baldur’s Gate 3 video game.  And at the time of publication, BG3 was still years away.  I’m not convinced of that because the Avernus content in this book is so skimpy.  The book is just over 250 pages, Baldur’s Gate is about 100 pages of that.  Can you really crowbar in almost half the book?

Combine this with what happened with Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron.  Much of that content got reprinted in Rising from the Last War. People paid for the same content twice.  It was deceptive.

This is not a new development.  Recall Chris Perkins going to run a 4E adventure for the Robot Chicken crew.  He had an adventure ready for them.  Then Marketing stepped in and said, “Throw out what you have and write something that ties into the new Undermountain book instead.”  And Chris Perkins did.

Does this mean I’m going to be voting with my wallet and not buying D&D books?  Probably not.  Theros might be getting a mixed response but I loved the Ravnica book.  

As of this writing, Rime of the Frostmaiden has been announced.  There’s a pun in the title which annoys me.  The best feeling I can muster up right now is, “We’ll see.”

It’s set in Icewind Dale and I dug Legacy of the Crystal Shard.  We’ll see.

Chris Perkins was all-the-way involved in this one unlike Descent where he very specifically pointed out that he wasn’t involved until the very end.  We’ll see.

It’s horror themed!  But modern horror instead of gothic like Curse of Strahd! We’ll see.

It has eleven writers (woof) who’ve all done great work…just like Descent into Avernus.  We’ll see.

They’re invoking John Carpenter’s The Thing as inspiration…just like Mad Max was used for Avernus.  We’ll see.

I’ll know I’ll get this book.  Everyone of these adventures, even Descent into Avernus, is an incredible value with months of gameplay included.  But I think I’ll check it out at the bookstore first before putting down money.