I’ve received a review copy of Descent into Avernus, with the ridiculously gorgeous limited cover. Let’s see if I can complete a review in a single article! Descent is 256 pages – shorter than Dungeon of the Mad Mage, longer than Dragon Heist, on par with Ghosts of Saltmarsh. It runs from 1st level to 13th. This review includes spoilers. This is your only warning.
The book is organized with the five chapters of the adventure first, followed by a very substantial gazetteer of Baldur’s Gate and several useful appendices. Because it’s the first thing the players encounter, I’m covering the gazetteer first, then I’ll move into the adventure itself. It’s also the critical context for the emotional flow of the adventure.
As an aside – every 5e book has included a disclaimer. This one is a little more of a real disclaimer than others have been. When writing about D&D’s version of Hell and damnation, especially if you’re pushing the characters to have some stains on their souls, speaking directly to the last bits of Satanic panic in the US is probably a very good idea.
Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer
Even for players with no more than marginal interest in the Forgotten Realms, Baldur’s Gate is one of the two most recognizable city names in the whole setting, thanks to the wildly popular video games. This adventure represents a significant shift in the portrayal of the city from previous texts, including the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide entry. (I haven’t read Murder in Baldur’s Gate.) SCAG presents the city as having some crime, maybe a bit of a lingering Bhaal cult problem, but not so bad; also there’s a ton of wealth inequality – but that’s about it.
Descent ditches that. Now they’re going out of their way to present Baldur’s Gate as the GOTHAM CITY to Waterdeep’s METROPOLIS. (Pointless digression: back when I worked in video games, we released a mobile game where I had to make sure our content was in compliance with DC’s canon and style guide. “GOTHAM CITY” in all caps, and never just “GOTHAM,” was one of the only hard rules that they insisted upon. Anyway.) The point is, it’s a place of deeper shadows and higher danger, where it has been fairly milquetoast in most previous versions. It has arguably tipped over into a failed state, with the rule of law disintegrating and an increasing level of corrupt, authoritarian rule by the Council of Four, vigilantism, and gang violence. Those elements are the whole thrust of the first chapter of the adventure.
The neighboring city of Elturel is, of course, not a primary topic in the gazetteer, but how Baldur’s Gate feels about them matters. We get two paragraphs on the contrast of Elturel’s crusading piety and Baldur’s Gate’s viciousness and corruption.
I love that the text gets into the nitty-gritty of shaping an encounter around delivering that characterization. There are three d8 tables, so that your encounters with each kind of guards (gate guards, the Watch, and the Flaming Fist) are vastly different. If you remember to use this page, they won’t run together for your players at all. None of these are going to endear any species of guard to your players, in fairness.
Let me just come out and say it. The writing quality of this chapter is some of the best I’ve ever seen in the Realms. The conflicts make sense. The people are believable. The worst I can say of this as setting content is that the PCs are only in Baldur’s Gate for the first four levels of play. There’s so much rich detail that I almost want to slow that down and just let the PCs learn the city. It’s not like their surroundings are going to get more pleasant as the adventure goes on. In any case, the DM’s Guild has a whole lot to work with.
The gazetteer also offers customized versions of each Player’s Handbook background and new setting-appropriate ones, just like we saw in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. I am delighted with this approach to connecting characters to a place and its society. The new features are laser-focused on Baldurran society – the only problem is that the adventure doesn’t come back to Baldur’s Gate after 4th level, unless you keep it going with your own content after the end. It’s the ordinary problem of backgrounds mattering less at later levels, made explicit.
The new Faceless background is an intersection of Arya Stark and every masked vigilante ever. I like what it has going on. Its Dual Personalities feature might still have some applications once you get to Avernus, if you’re clever about it.
The chapter ends with Dark Secrets. The PCs share a Dark Secret, which might be anything from having gotten away with murder to belonging to a cell of revolutionaries. But since two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, there’s also one highly-placed NPC who knows that secret and could use it against you. This piece of your background can follow you to Avernus just fine, because guilt or shame and secret crimes are what that place is all about.
I love how this section works to spark collaborative story-building. Molding the PCs into a team through a shared vulnerability is a cool setup – though it’s also explicit emotional manipulation. Even more than other 5e adventures, if you’re running Descent into Avernus, use safety tools and be up-front with the party about likely emotional arcs.
Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The book doesn’t include that quote, so I had to. The adventure kicks off with the PCs getting drafted, at swordpoint if necessary, by the Flaming Fist mercenary company, setting up the whole moral struggle of the adventure. Can you survive and still sleep at night within a klepto-fascist system?
The Flaming Fist captain sets the PCs on an investigation that leads them toward a cult, then to a patriar (noble) family, revealing that everything that has happened and is going to happen comes from a power struggle on the Council of Four. The steps of the investigation look pretty interesting. Actual experience at the table should vary greatly on how the DM uses the details of the gazetteer and how often the PCs find themselves in conflict with various policing bodies.
I like the threads of connection back to Tyranny of Dragons, though the step backward in timeline is going to be a little weird for at least one or two groups when the re-release comes out. Oh, and here’s a connection back to Tomb of Annihilation. Nothing important, per se, just little Easter eggs for parties that have played every big adventure release along the way.
The adventure does feel a bit like it could get lost in the weeds if the players don’t recognize the importance of each connective step. The connections are there in the book, but they don’t seem particularly backstopped by alternate ways to get back on track. That’s a classic problem in investigation adventures. For example, the Vanthampur Villa has only the infernal puzzle box to send the players to Candlekeep. If they find it, throw it in a backpack to wait for an identify, and look for something that is more obviously connective tissue, they’re off-track.
From the time the PCs head to Candlekeep, there’s a lot of travel-conversation-travel-conversation with unusual people, but if your party is deep into hack-and-slash play, this may be a bit of a cutscene sequence for them. That would be a shame – dark revelations aside, this is some of the least depressing content in the whole book. Also you meet a hollyphant companion, who is as plot-relevant as she is adorable!
I think the Candlekeep section is the one point in the adventure that risks a “but why us?” objection from the players. Pushing past that moment falls to Liara Portyr and Sylvira Savikas, or to an out-of-game agreement by the players that they won’t suddenly go for premise rejection. I’m pointing this out not because it’s a problem, though – I think it’s impressive how much the text does make it feel like the PCs are the ones on the spot who could do something, rather than ditching the adventure to make someone else handle it.
Chapter 2: Elturel Has Fallen
Gerard Butler, eat your heart out.
This chapter drops the PCs into the midst of an abducted, besieged city. It’s your first vision of Hell itself. The PCs attempt to extract the Grand Duke, primus inter pares of the Baldur’s Gate government, from a dangerous situation and betrayal. Maybe they rescue a lot of otherwise-blameless citizens of Elturel along the way, or maybe they leave them to their fate: caught between the two sides of the Blood War.
This chapter has a lot of the high-octane energy of the Greenest chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, just cranked up to be too much for 5th-6th level characters rather than too much for 1st-level characters. There’s not a lot more than two good place for a long rest in the whole chapter, though there is one location that grants full healing. I feel bad for the party that finds it right after they’ve spent their spell slots on healing – consider converting its benefits into restored spell slots, in that case.
The themes and action here look strong. The worst I can say of it is that it would be only too easy to include one too many optional combat encounters, rendering the whole thing hopeless. They do have at least one and possibly more allied NPCs supporting them throughout this chapter. It’s also going to be a tough place to get dead party members brought back, and only marginally easier to introduce new characters. After all, a new PC who is a citizen of Elturel won’t be tied into that Dark Secret without a whole lot of work. Maybe they have their own dark and dangerous past.
On a personal note, I’ve been looking for a scenario that would let me use the truly excessive number of Reaper Bones minis that I have, particularly the heavy-armor bois and all the fiends. Well, self, there’s good news and bad news. Good news: this adventure has you covered! Bad news, you need more time in your gaming schedule.
The action includes great skill uses, including a more extended challenge to end the chapter. The pipe organ is a nice touch! I haven’t done close reads of that many hardback adventures, but this feels unusual – the combat in this chapter is mostly barriers to travel rather than the quest goal. In theory, it’s the demons who are the enemy here, not the devils, so many more of the encounters could be social interactions.
Chapter 3: Avernus
Starting at 7th level, we’re finally in the Dungeons & Dragons: Fury Road game that so electrified my imagination following this year’s D&D Live event. The chapter starts with a gazetteer of Avernus (sorta), a close look at all the little ways that being here is strange and different.
It’s a big chapter with a lot of things going on, but what’s striking is how great the social encounters are, and how memorable the NPCs should be. I am exactly the kind of Realms fan to be over-the-moon happy that Jander Sunstar makes an appearance here, no matter how briefly. I would have a hard time not making something more out of that encounter.
There’s a ton of encounters and locations to see, including two completely separate paths for roughly the second half of the chapter. As a matter of fan service, it would be a crime to skip the Obelisk (because of the obelisk throughline of the hardback adventures) or Arkhan’s Tower (because yes, I have listened to Critical Role, Episode 114). But they’re on different paths! What to do… oh right, whatever you want, it’s fine. The PCs aren’t on a hard timeline here except for the optional Exhaustion and Pervasive Evil environmental conditions. Oh, and the limited supply of soul coins to fuel their infernal war machine.
It’s hard to even point to a favorite encounter, because there are so many that I like. They walk that fine line between trust no one and you need what they have. There are some encounters where the best idea (in hindsight) was not to have engaged with them in the first place, but those are few enough that in general it’s better to hear them out and think things through. You know, play the game.
The goal of the chapter, ultimately, is to discover the location of the Bleeding Citadel, which houses the Sword of Zariel. I expect that one of the big challenges of running this chapter is balancing the sense of urgency against the freedom to explore, without encouraging the players to blow off extra encounters.
Chapter 4: The Sword of Zariel
This chapter is a dungeon crawl in the Bleeding Citadel, followed by a vision-quest sequence that tells Zariel’s story, or recapitulates it, depending on what the PCs have learned so far. This is the last step before the emotional climax of the whole adventure. Even more than normal for D&D, the combats need to move along at a rapid clip. There are big, terrifying fights here, but PCs don’t have to win the scariest ones – just survive them. (That should be incredibly hard in itself – thanks, Yeenoghu!)
My favorite portion of this chapter is the stained-glass-like images of Zariel’s story, since it’s something you can show the players directly. Even better would be scanning images of them to give the players, so that you’re not briefly showing them two pages of the book.
The “best” ending of the adventure, as well as the “good” endings, require some degree of success here, but even total failure in this section doesn’t mean you can’t go forward to some of the less-desirable endings in Chapter 5. I think it’s great that there are so many potential solutions, even if the greater number of them are very bad outcomes.
Chapter 5: Escape from Avernus
This is a chapter all about the possible endings to Descent into Avernus. There are a ton of factors in motion at this point, and a lot depends on whether the PCs made hard choices or took shortcuts. Unsurprisingly, in Hell, it doesn’t pay to take shortcuts, but you might not survive doing things the hard way. A total party kill that doesn’t complete the adventure is, of course, the worst ending. There’s no sense that any of the problems of the adventure will just resolve themselves if the PCs aren’t there.
The variety of endings elevate this part of the adventure. By comparison, Tyranny of Dragons pretty much has Win and Lose for possible endings. Curse of Strahd has a wide variety of fairly minor internal variations, but the ending narrows back down to Win and Escape or Lose and Suffer Eternally. Once you finish Descent into Avernus and you’re trading war stories with someone from another group, you have a lot of shared context, but possibly a very different ending – I think that’s wonderful. One note: the adventure gives a bit more preference to paladins and clerics as moral paragons than we’ve seen in most 5e products. It’s a bit strange, not necessarily a deal-breaker.
All but the very best of the endings inherently include some degree of compromise with the powers of cosmic evil. This is where you find out your group’s answer to whether you can survive and hold onto your soul in a klepto-fascist hellscape. If the answer was no – or if the Pervasive Evil trait of Avernus was in use, you blew a save, and you couldn’t get it fixed in time – you’re not getting the best ending.
Appendix A: Diabolical Deals
I am so happy that this appendix even exists. If it weren’t in the book, I would buy a separate PDF of this alone. A scene of diabolic temptation and deal-making is a classic, high-tension encounter that you want to get exactly right, because no matter the outcome, it should remain memorable. I’m particularly pleased with the guidelines on what lesser, greater, and archdevils can offer, and the collection of Archdevil Charms. This is the story support that Fiend Patron warlocks and Conjurer wizards have needed all along. Even better, it’s easy to imagine comparable chapters for Archfey, Great Old Ones, and other cosmic beings.
This was a triumph. I’m making a note here: huge success.
Appendix B: Infernal War Machines
Lucky thing they got solidly playable vehicle rules in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, because this adventure just wouldn’t be the same without this fantasy Mad Max. The only downside is that there’s no clear parallel of a V8 Interceptor, and an Avernian Scavenger needs some serious work to match the utter rad quotient of the Doof Wagon.
Fueling an infernal war machine is a horrifyingly evil act, though I don’t recommend DMs changing PC alignments just for that. They run on soul coins, and once they use them up, that’s that. That soul is gone for good. How you survive in a place where evil and malice are utterly endemic, without becoming complicit in that evil? About the same as surviving without guzzoline on the Fury Road.
There are weapon, armor, and gadget upgrades for infernal war machines. I can’t wait to see the insane new expansions to this section that enterprising folks will surely release on the DM’s Guild.
Suffice it to say, this chapter is amazing.
Last thought: this is also a great starting point for Dark Sun’s silt skimmers and sand skiffs, which call for strong vehicular-combat rules.
Appendix C: Magic Items
It would be sincerely disappointing to go to Hell and not at least see new kinds of magic loot, right? There are twelve new items here. They don’t call for individual commentary, except to note that Matalotok is one of the very few cases where I’m fine with a magic item granting passive immunity.
Appendix D: Creatures
Likewise, it would be weird to go to Hell and not see fresh horrors in terms of the creatures you face. Fear not!
Well, okay, fear some. Fear lots and lots, if you prefer. Don’t let me tell you when or how to fear. It’s what this appendix is for!
Appendices E, F, and G
These are supporting materials: the table menu at Infernal Rapture (a restaurant in Chapter 3), the Story Concept Art that preceded the adventure’s creation, the Infernal Script alphabet, numerals, and punctuation, and the double-sided fold-out map showing Elturel and Avernus. These are all great.
This adventure isn’t for everyone. It is intense, morally challenging, and full of horrible characters who want to control, deceive, and ruin the PCs. Even people who like those things might not care for the high cosmic nature of the story. As I said above, have a serious talk about its themes, each player’s personal boundaries, and the kinds of bad things that are on the table in this adventure. Making deals with fiends is a good way to lose one’s character, and that’s going to really upset some players if they missed that it was a possibility on the table.
If you have players who experience a lot of character bleed (that is, their emotional reaction to a game is closely linked to their character’s feelings at the time), you absolutely need to plan around managing that throughout the adventure. I can easily see how such players could find… most of the adventure grindingly depressing.
The way the adventure lightens the mood won’t work for some folks. There’s a risk that some characters and situations will come off goofy rather than darkly weird. For example, there’s an encounter that asks PCs to help a flameskull recover a missing tooth from a group of redcaps. To me, that wouldn’t break the mood, because the redcaps are outsiders to Avernus who still fit in with its viciousness. It’s a single situation that a DM could easily gloss over, of course, but it’s also emblematic of a style that likes to place creatures outside of their default contexts to help signify that default ways of interacting with them (combat) may not be preferable.
Personally, I am so excited to run this. I love its blend of investigation, interaction, exploration, moral quandary, and action. I was completely sold on this the moment I heard about the infernal war machines. If I do get to run it, I plan to emphasize to the players that hope is a heroic virtue, and this adventure sets out to test it.