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Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus (D&D 5E Adventure) Review

September 25, 2019 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
D&D Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus
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Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus (D&D 5E Adventure) Review  


Supplement Type: Adventure Sourcebook
Setting: Forgotten Realms
Lead Story Creator: Adam Lee
Available at D&D Beyond, Amazon>, Roll20 and your Friendly Local Gaming Store.

Once upon a time, Dungeons & Dragons was a setting that was afraid to venture into the topics of devils and demons. Demonized (forgive the pun) during the “Satanic Panic” era for its use of creatures from Hell and the Abyss, the game was forced to, much like the comic book industry did in the 1950s, step back from more mature content and subsist as a game that shied away from anything with a whiff of brimstone, lest people use such content as a way to scapegoat it as a supposed “corrupting influence” on children.

Those days are long gone, for the most part. While that era’s demise began a long time ago as 3rd Edition players who own the Book of Exalted Deeds and Book of Vile Darkness supplements can tell you, those were very specifically labeled as “for mature readers” as part of the overly-edgy RPG renaissance of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and weren’t an example of the core, “mainstream” aspects of the system or setting.

Now, Fifth Edition has brought D&D back into the mainstream in a way previously unseen, and no clearer is there a statement of the game’s willingness to declare Satanic Panic dead than the release of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus. Initially set in the popular Forgotten Realms city of Baldur’s Gate, the 256-page adventure provides ample opportunity for players to dig deep into some great storytelling opportunities – and, of course, kick some serious devilish ass.

Campaign

As noted, the campaign for Descent Into Avernus starts in Baldur’s Gate, a city popularized by the isometric video game series of the same name. Often described as the Gotham City to Waterdeep’s Metropolis, Baldur’s Gate is a city where anything can happen and both heroism and villainy have ample chance to shine. The campaign begins as the nearby (and rival) city of Elturel is dealing with a crisis that has brought a flood of refugees to Baldur’s Gate’s walls. To make matters worse, the Grand Duke Ulder Ravengard was off in Elturel when things went down, which leaves Baldur’s Gate in a bit of chaos.

With the city guard and the Flaming Fist mercenary company busy dealing with the refugee issue, the party is pressed into service to deal with another situation that has popped up involving cultists taking advantage of the chaos to spread their gods’ evil. As the party investigates, it becomes clear that something darker is going on and that eventually sends them down into Avernus, the first level of the Nine Hells, to potentially save a city or two and perhaps even bring redemption to things long thought past that point.

One thing to cover right off the bat: Descent Into Avernus is not the campaign to get your kids into D&D with. While it’s not overly nasty and of course the DM can smooth off whatever rough edges they want, this is a story that takes players literally into Hell. Clearly, Wizards of the Coast knows what they’re doing as they’ve included a somewhat more serious disclaimer than their usual tongue-in-cheek ones. That said, the story here isn’t necessarily about tearing people apart Hellraiser-style. It’s a campaign about corruption and redemption and does an excellent job of exploring both.

That goes for both the NPCs and the PCs, for the record. A campaign plot point is that the party is all bound together by a “Dark Secret” that someone in the city knows about. Maybe they were party or witness to a murder, or maybe they plotted a failed coup against a Patriar family, the nobility of the city. Maybe they got wrapped up in a conspiracy of some kind. Whatever the case, the party is bound together with dirty hands from the get-go, and their salvation or damnation is in those very hands. It’s not only a nice thematic component that puts the characters in the mindset of the campaign’s themes, it’s also a great way to tie the party together in a natural way from the start of the campaign.

The campaign maintains an impressive balance between the three pillars of D&D in exploration, interaction and combat. There are some dungeon crawl moments, but there is also a lot of roleplaying interaction – and, of course, the ability to explore the realm of Avernus. All of these are given equal importance in a way that D&D adventures aren’t always great at balancing. Player choices make a real difference on how things play out; outside of some very early “You kind of have to do this or there’s no adventure” moments, there is never a real sense of railroading here. The PCs can choose how they’re going to proceed, and that can include whether they’ll make deals with lesser evils to defeat greater ones or whether they’ll try to go it alone. The latter is harder, but the rewards may well feel more earned. And decisions made very early on in the game could influence what is going to happen in the later stages.

Another strength of the adventure comes in its ability to really, truly get across the uniqueness of its setting. The PCs are literally making their way through a level of Hell here, and this shouldn’t feel like just another dungeon crawl. The book does this by laying out, very specifically, several different things that aesthetically change. Food and drink tastes like ash and bile. You see mirages that hint at the paradise it once was. This can even have game effects, like DMs granting inspiration for selfish acts. These are the same kinds of little touches that worked well in Curse of Strahd, and they do wonders for really putting players in the setting.

What’s more when you get to Hell, things get wild – and I’m talking demonic Mad Max wild. That’s been a common point of reference for people talking about this adventure, and it’s accurate. Travelling through Avernus can be done on Infernal Machines, and they are basically heavy metal demon motorcycles and cars. It’s a wild time, keeping just barely on the right side of the line between fun and overly silly, and players will have a lot of chances to do crazy, memorable things here.

That said, this is a trip through Hell and players also shouldn’t be expecting a cakewalk. Descent Into Avernus is clearly set to be a strenuous adventure that tests the characters, even at early levels. It’s not cruel, but it is unforgiving. That will play into players’ tastes differently, and it will be up to DMs to determine how to play that off, but not everyone is into “hard mode”-style D&D. It’s easily tweaked, but something to keep in mind.

Supplemental Material

The supplemental material in Descent Into Avernus is expansive for a campaign adventure and is largely focused on Baldur’s Gate. The city setting gets a Gazetteer that runs almost 60 pages and nicely updates the locale for the current era of Faerun in Fifth Edition. This is not expansive on the level of what its own sourcebook would be, but there is more than enough here that, should people want to continue to run games in Baldur’s Gate after completing the adventure, they have plenty to go from. There are details about the Government, prominent faiths, the different parts of the city, the many dangers (including The Guild, which runs all the crime and has a lot of political power) and more.

The Gazetteer also includes alternate Features for Backgrounds that are tailored to Baldur’s Gate. These are quite useful for really grounding a character within the city but are also easily adaptable for our homebrew settings or other major cities. There’s also a new Background: The Faceless, which is a Batman or Zorro-like vigilante character who gets to hide behind a secret identity while doing heroism.

The appendix on Infernal War Machines serves to flesh out the much-neglected land vehicle category, much like naval vessels were in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. The rules are not extensive, but they do provide a nice grounding for people to develop their own vehicles (as is already being done on the DM’s Guild, of course). There are stat blocks for four Infernal vehicles, rules for adapting them from devilish to demonic, and rules for running chase scenes in Avernus.

Finally, the monster stat blocks add new Fiendish monsters and NPCs to kill, along with humanoids like servants of Bane and Bhaal. If you’ve ever wanted to throw a demon that spits out other demons at your party, you’re in luck. The magic items in the book are very powerful, as befitting the adventure, and will certainly be welcome sights for your party when they arrive.

Layout

Impressively, it’s hard to even find much to criticize about how Descent Into Avernus is laid out, which is a common point of frustration with RPG supplements. Finding your way through a roleplaying game book is often like wading blindly through a swamp, hoping you stumble upon what you need until you know every nook and cranny by heart. Adventures, while a bit easier and straight-forward, lack in a certain sense of uniformity from book to book.

Fortunately, Avernus sticks with the clearest format from any of the previous adventures, that of Storm King’s Thunder, while doing away with that book’s meandering middle plot area. Everything is quick and easy to find, from whichever specific scene you’re looking to get back to the Gazetteer and the well laid-out appendixes. If there was one complaint, it would be that the Gazetteer’s position in the middle of the book is a bit frustrating if you want to make it available for players without risking that they accidentally see storyline information. The Baldur’s Gate setting information is all player-friendly, so sticking it at the front would have made more sense. But that’s an exceedingly minor complaint and the rest is smooth sailing for this one.

Virtual Table Top

While this doesn’t factor into Descent Into Avernus’ quality itself, it should be noted that Roll20 had the adventure available for purchase on Day One, as per usual. Like most of Roll20’s products, this is a bit of a godsend in terms of doing much of a DM’s job for them. The maps are laid out with what looks to be very well-done dynamic lighting effects — something that was slightly wonky in places on one or two previous modules — and the chapters are laid out quite well.

Most will use the Roll20 module specifically for playing via online games, and that is obviously the primary intent. However, even for people playing in person around the table, it would be very useful for the DM to have everything at the click of a mouse on a laptop instead of having to flip through a book. This is probably the best put-together module Roll20 has done yet for a D&D adventure, so kudos to them for that.

9.0
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus is one of the best adventures that Wizards of the Coast has released for Fifth Edition to date. The story is engaging, with powerful themes of darkness and redemption and the opportunity for players to make a real impact on how the the storyline plays out, while the sheer fun factor of heavy metal trips on fantasy tanks and motorbikes through Hell can't be overemphasized. With some great supplemental material including a lengthy setting piece on Baldur's Gate and Infernal Machine rules, as well as some pretty stunning art pieces, this is an adventure that can't come much more highly recommended.
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Dungeons & Dragons, Jeremy Thomas