Review – Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus

Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus is the latest supplement for the world’s greatest roleplaying game (that’s Dungeons & Dragons, just in case you’re unfamiliar with the marketing copy). Blazing a path from level 1 to level 13, Descent Into Avernus will see the characters go from peons in the city of Baldur’s Gate to high-powered heroes treating with some of the more powerful beings in the multiverse. In addition to the adventure, Descent Into Avernus includes a gazetteer for the city of Baldur’s Gate (similar to the information on Waterdeep from the eponymous Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage). A full-color hardcover, Descent Into Avernus also includes a fold-out poster map, and releases on September 17, 2019.

Because this is an adventure, most of the rest of this rest of this review is chock-full of spoilers, so don’t skip past the image below if you might be playing the adventure – that section is just for the DMs. For the players, I would say that Descent Into Avernus combines a mixture of heavy, morality-driven story with a classic cRPG ‘fetch quest’ romp across the fist layer of Hell. As long as you can sit back and enjoy the ride, you’ll have a great time. But, like it says on the front of the book, it’s an adventure, not a full-fledged campaign.


LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS

Although I’m going to continue to use just “Descent Into Avernus” as a shorthand title, the full title of this adventure is still “Baldur’s Gate Descent Into Avernus,” and in some ways it is kind of two different books – one an adventure into the first layer of hell (out of nine), and the other (much shorter) one a gazetteer on Baldur’s Gate.

The Baldur’s Gate side starts with the cover of the limited edition version of Descent Into Avernus, which features a symbol of Bhaal, the Faerunian lor of murder – but more well known as the symbol from the cover of the Baldur’s Gate video games (which are, by the way, among the best cRPGs, and very worth playing through if you haven’t had the chance to). And the interior content trades on that as well. As mentioned above, the Baldur’s Gate section of Descent to Avernus is primarily a literal gazetteer of Baldur’s Gate, which occupies over a fifth of the book. And, while the city of Baldur’s Gate itself is only a small part of the video games, the gazetteer makes sure to capture the lion’s share of the locations that did appear in the games, from prominent religious locations such as the High House of Wonder and the Lady’s Hall to each of the inns/taverns that appeared in the various map sectors in the games. In addition to the nostalgia vibes for those of us who can faintly remember that far back, the gazetteer also presents a reference of reasonable depth – enough to give some real idea of how to use the city but without so much detail that readings drags and it’s hard for the GM to stay true to the book while still being flexible.

But the Baldur’s Gate section of Descent to Avernus isn’t limited to the gazetteer, because the adventure itself begins in Baldur’s Gate … well, sort of. There’s a line to be drawn between “Baldur’s Gate” and “Descent Into Avernus” because the part of the adventure before entering Avernus is very much a prelude – what the characters do in Baldur’s Gate is of tangential relevance to the later adventure (although one could also draw the line simply between the gazetteer and the adventure, because the adventure really presumes that the characters are new to Baldur’s Gate and will spend almost no time there beyond completing the tasks in the adventure; while the gazetteer provides solid information that would be best used for a campaign that hung out in Baldur’s Gate for a while). In Baldur’s Gate, the characters are press-ganged into performing a task (stop the murderous cultists) for the local mercenary-company-turned-gendarmes (the Flaming Fist). This triggers a series of encounters and small ‘dungeons’ – tavern to dungeon to tavern to villa/dungeon. The first several stops conclude with an NPC pointing the party to the next location, while the final stop gives the PC’s a paladin buddy, two mysterious magical items, and a suggestion that they go to Candlekeep (the starting location of the first Baldur’s Gate game) to learn more. At Candlekeep, a sage will (mostly) explain the significance of these items, link the characters up with a hollyphant companion, and then they will be whisked off to Avernus, where the adventure begins in earnest. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that these NPCs aren’t interesting or that the small dungeons aren’t fun (and, clocking in at over 30 pages, the adventure in Baldur’s Gate occupies more space in the book than any single location in Avernus itself does). They just don’t have much significance to what happens in Avernus (and there’s no opportunity to develop a role in the city, because the adventure requires the characters to be away for the next nine levels or so).

With regards to the adventure overall, it is described as an adventure and it really is an adventure (although a long one), not a campaign. There’s a firm launching point and then a particular endgame (although one without a fixed finale). But much of it is, in a lot of ways, a big road trip through one of the layers of hell, with a string of encounters that are mostly about presenting the players with some interesting situation and then whisking them off to the next step on the quest. These often fall into a classic cRPG trope – meet an NPC, complete a task for the NPC, NPC gives you the information to get one step closer to the shiny quest object, repeat (and, no matter how long all of this questing takes, the big battle that lasts the entire adventure will just be reaching its climax whenever the characters finally get back to it). Although the book spans levels 1-13, it is very much milestone leveling – the encounters involved wouldn’t net nearly enough experience to advance a level through traditional methods. I note that Descent to Avernus does give the ambitious GM to seeds to have a full-on campaign in Hell, but this would still be a largely ground-up effort on the part of the GM.

The plot of Descent to Avernus is focused around the city of Elturel (which, alas, does not have the cachet to make it into the title of the book) and Zariel, the ruler of Avernus (the first layer of the Nine Hells). Avernus is the primary battleground of the Blood War, the eternal conflagration that pits the lawful evil devils against the chaotic evil demons. The archangel Zariel, feeling that the forces of good were not doing enough to stop these evil hordes, led an expedition from the material plane (in the vicinity of Elturel) into Avernus with the intent of permanently destroying the archdevil Bel, ruler of that plane. It didn’t take an augury spell to know that this plan wasn’t going to work out, and it did not. Much of Zariel’s army broke and fled back through the portal, then closed it – sealing Zariel and her remaining forces in hell. A defeated and enraged Zariel ultimately made a deal with Asmodeus, the rule of the Nine Hells – a deal that made Zariel an archdevil and ruler of Avernus. The events in Descent Into Avernus are kicked off by the culmination of a long-term plan by Zariel that has brought the city of Elturel physically into Hell and earned her ownership of the souls off everyone in the city. Notably, one of Zareil’s companions in all of this was Lulu – the very same hollyphant who now accompanies the characters (although a dousing with Styx-water means that she starts the adventure not remembering these events).

Thus, at the tender young age of level 5, the characters find themselves in Elturel and, as such, in Hell. To emphasize the ‘road trip’ nature of Descent Into Avernus, I’ll note that the time the players will spend in Elturel is probably longer than any later part of the adventure (the characters will probably spend more time elsewhere, because everything in Elturel happens right away), but this section still only takes up 20 pages. In Elturel, the characters will have the chance to interact with (and often rescue) many mortals who have managed to survive the month or so that their city has spent as a floating sky-island (one that is slowing being dragged down to the River Styx). These opportunities are isolated to start, but are still creative and give the players a chance to be more traditionally heroic (a chance they will often be denied in this adventure). They characters then move on to exploring a couple of holy sites in the city, finding a variety of nifty historical references, and getting a nice mix of combat, exploration, puzzles, and interaction. The end result of all this is a vision with a variety of muddled imagery, but one simple takeaway – the characters need to find the Sword of Zariel. There is, at this point, no concrete reason for this to be the aim – it’s really just ‘because the vision said so.’ It’s so thin that, when I got to the end of the adventure and the party got to use the sword, I realized that I had forgotten why they had gone off to look for it in the first place (the characters don’t know what the sword is for until they get it).

And so begins the road trip across Avernus part of the adventure, which lasts for about levels 7-10. The poster map of Avernus is an aid in this trip … sort of. It has the names of locations, so the players can say where they want to try to go. And it has those locations depicted in particular, well, locations on the map. But travel doesn’t work that way in Avernus, so where things are and how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B is pretty much entirely up to the DM. Indeed, it’s really up to the DM whether the characters arrive in Point B at all – they might well end up somewhere else even though they were absolutely positive that this is where Point B was. These effects can be deployed randomly by the DM … or, as the book suggests, they can be deployed to ensure that the right amount of time passes and that the party doesn’t end up at a location where they’ll just be massacred.

The road trip begins with a visit to Mad Maggie and her band of merry-but-not-in-a-nice-way band of misfits. If the characters are tolerable, they can get what they need – Lulu remembers that the Sword is in the Bleeding Citadel, and she knows where it is. If the characters are helpful (there’s a list of NPCs the characters can help out), they can get extra goodies thrown in – to include an infernal war machine to ride across the wastes in. After all, every good road trip needs a vehicle to go road tripping in … and also there are rules for several types of infernal war machines, how they fight, and how to modify them, so the DM will probably want to put those to use.

Except, of course, it turns out that the Bleeding Citadel isn’t where Luly remembered it, so off the characters go again. Here, the road trip splits into two paths. The book dubs these the ‘path of demons’ and the ‘path of devils,’ but there’s really nothing to indicate to the characters in advance which way these paths will lead. Each is mostly a series of helping out NPCs to advance one more step (note that, because this entire adventure takes place in Hell, the characters must quickly learn that trying to fight every devil or demon they come across is suicide). These two paths are not exclusive – the characters can start down both. But each path pretty much has to be accomplished in a specific order.

On the path of demons, the characters must (1) bribe some devils to point them towards the Tower of Urm, where they can (2) speak with Mordenkainen (yes, that Mordenkainen), who directs them to a demon rival of his, (3) who says he will help them if they free him from imprisonment, so the characters (4) visit a magic mirror, which asks them to (5) dam part of the river Styx. Having done this the characters backtrack to the imprisoned demon, who directs them to the tomb of one of Zariel’s fallen generals. If the characters are smart, they’ll free a lot of trapped souls, make an ally, and find out a lot more about what’s going on with Zariel. If they’re foolish they’ll end up in real trouble (seriously, you’ve got to be willing to make a deal when you’re in Avernus). So long as they aren’t too foolish, they’ll be asked to go free a demon lord (who will then go cause trouble for Zariel) – do that, and they finally have the real location to the Bleeding Citadel.

The path of demons is called that because it ends with helping out a demon, and the path of devils is so called because it involves working with Bel, the devilish former rule of Avernus. Unlike the path of demons, where this final ‘step’ isn’t known until near the end, the idea of getting Bel to help is known almost immediately on the path of devils. Here, the sequence of quests is to (1) be told by a dao that she’ll introduce them to Bel if they help her, which requires them to (2) get information from an oracle, which requires them to (3) house sit for her while she has a spa day (I’m not making that up), at which point she sends them to (4) meet with a former titan, who can help them if he only had some blood of Tiamat, which (5) the party can get from dragonborn Arkhan the Cruel, who will give him the blood for the low, low cost of the party murdering one of their friends (we’ll come back to that in a minute). Then it’s back along the chain until the dao’s problem is fixed, and off to Bel, who’s really just doing is best to pretend like he’s making a ‘deal’ with the characters when he really, really just wants to tell them how to get exactly what they need to ruin Zariel’s century. Ultimately, the characters will go find some rods that could help them free Zariel’s hold on Elturel.

While the party could go either way, I would strongly suggest pushing the party down the path of the demon, for two reasons. First, there is a very real possibility that the party just runs into a dead end on the path of the devil. The adventure is set in Avernus. There’s a lot of misery. The characters almost have to use soul coins as currency while in Avernus, which is not the most noble of acts. But nowhere else are the characters forced to engage in such an overtly, flagrantly evil act (that whole “murder one of your friends” thing) in order to progress. And, hey, maybe that isn’t a problem for some players or some characters. But I think a lot of groups are going to balk at killing one of the NPCs who has been with them for the last 5 levels (and, if they NPC they kill is Lulu, then the DM has to resurrect her later on anyway, because she has to be alive for another part of the adventure). There’s no way (short of DM fiat) that the characters can defeat Akrhan and his forces in a fight – indeed, there seems to be little reason that Arkhan wouldn’t just kill the characters if they won’t make a deal on his terms. Second, the interaction with Zariel’s general (who killed himself to avoid falling to evil, only to be brought back as a death knight) has a lot more storytelling impact than anything on the path of the devil. Sure, there may be some name recognition with Bel, but Olanthius really matters to the story.

Either way, the characters now know where the Bleeding Citadel is. They spend level 11 getting into the citadel through tunnels in the living Scab that surrounds most of it, a system that has a unique vertical map. Then level 12 is in the citadel or, really, in a vision in the citadel, where the characters relive a past conflict between Zariel (when she was an angel) and Yeenoghu (the demon lord of the gnolls). Once this is done, one of the characters must seize the Sword (which is potent, but has … side effects), and the characters learn that it might be possible to use the Sword to redeem Zariel.

It’s a fairly straight line from there to the end of the adventure, although the DM will have to decide where that line is. Although there are a variety of options presented, the finale will (probably) come when the characters meet Zariel, so it’s just a question of how quickly the DM wants to get the character back to Elturel (where, conveniently, Zariel has personally taken the field against whatever demonic forces have been unleashed) and how many enemies they want the characters to fight before that meeting. The straightforward way to ‘win’ the adventure is to bring the Sword of Zariel into her presence, which gives the characters a chance to talk her into embracing redemption, which is the best possible outcome. It’s also possible to obtain her redemption, even without the sword, if a particularly noble character offers to trade their soul in for the souls of the people of Elturel (although it would be a fairly thick-skulled party who had managed to break the Sword of Zariel before meeting her). However, it is also possible to succeed by achieving the distinct objectives of breaking the chains binding Elturel to Avernus and finding a way to plane shift the city back where it belongs (a win, although without the exclamation point of cosmic redemption). The latter can realistically be accomplished by any part, while the former can readily be accomplished by a party that trod the path of the devil – however, it turns out that the party can trade to Zariel one of those two magical objects from back in Baldur’s Gate for whichever half they’re having a hard time with. I use terms like “realistic” in there because there are a variety of other options and paths presented – but they generally involve the party either enlisting the aid of, or defeating in combat, one of several demon lords, archdevils, or gods. Defeating such a being at this level is really only possible with lots of DM help, and the quests to enlist one of them are either rather extensive or a bit underwhelming given the powers involved. Or the characters could just flat-out join Zariel, although that one doesn’t really feel like a “win” to me.

Ultimately, I think that Descent to Avernus runs the best, and runs well, if the DM and the players know what sort of adventure it is, and don’t try to make it something it’s not. It’s at it’s best when it’s an adventure, a road trip – a road trip/fetch quest surrounded by a framework of heroism, redemption, and sacrifice, but ultimately something of a romp from encounter to encounter. It’s a fun adventure, with neat encounters. The visit to a ravaged Elturel is poignant and very well-assembled. There’s a lot of emotion and strong story to be shown about the NPCs. But the endgame is ultimately about the NPCs more than the PCs, and that story framework doesn’t penetrate down to a long section of the adventure. Trying to stretch and flesh it out will be a significant amount of work, and I would resist the temptation to make the players ‘earn’ all those levels – just play it fast and loose and let them run with it.

 

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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