Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus First Impressions

In Dungeons & Dragons lore and games, jokes are frequently made about Baldur's Gate going to hell or being hell. With the newest adventure book, Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus that's a real (so to speak) and distinct possibility.

DnD Descent into Avernus Limited front cover.jpg

The adventure begins with Baldur's Gate more chaotic than usual. Refugees from Elturel, which has vanished, are trying to get in, and the city gates have been sealed in an attempt to maintain order, but it's obviously not going to last. Players are pulled into the situation by the Flaming Fist, the mercenary company trying to keep control of the situation, especially since Grand Duke Ulder Ravengard of Baldur's Gate vanished with Elturel because he was on a diplomatic mission there.

Elturel has actually been drawn into hell, or Avernus more precisely, through the machinations of archdevil Zariel, who used to be an angel before her corruption. She now rules Avernus and plans to do to Baldur's Gate what happened to Elturel. The adventure, which starts at first level and goes through 13, eventually takes characters to into Avernus and the heart of the Blood War between demons and devils in order to prevent the fall of Baldur's Gate and, maybe, save Elturel.

Appearing for the first time in official D&D canon with this book is Arkhan the Cruel. Actor Joe Manganiello played the character on Critical Role as well as WotC's “Stream of Annihilation” event and in season two of Force Grey: Lost City of Omu. The dragonborn oathbreaker paladin, now wielding the Hand of Vecna, wants to free his goddess, Tiamat, from her imprisonment in Avernus so developer Adam Lee and Manganiello worked together to add Arkhan to the story. With a challenge rating of 16, he'll be a formidable opponent for the players.

DnD Descent into Avernus wide art.jpeg

The artwork is gorgeous. That's not surprising, and I've been a fan of the art style and direction used in 5th Edition all along. As usual, art director Kate Irwin and her team (graphic designers Emi Tanji and Trish Yochum, concept art director Richard Whitters, creative art director Shauna Narcisco and all of the illustrators) have done an outstanding job. I especially love the stained glass-style artwork by Claudio Pozas, both two-page Blood War battle scenes by Daarken and Chris Rallis' two-page image of the puzzle box's contents being revealed.

Even more impressive are the covers for both the regular and special edition. The mainstream release has a wrap-around cover (though part of it is concealed by book details and the synopsis so you only get the full effect inside the book where it shows the full painting) by Tyler Jacobson showing Zariel flying above Avernus, followed by a henchman, as she reaches for her sword. It perfectly sets the tone for the adventure within its covers. My only complaint is that the art credits on each page are too close to the seam for comfortable reading. With a tiny font and sometimes lighter ink color, Wizards of the Coast does not make it easy to tell who drew what.

The limited edition cover by Hydro74 is downright stunning. I've been a fan of Hydro74's soft-touch (the proper name of the effect that creates the matte black covers with an almost rubbery velvet feel) covers from the beginning. The silver and metallic red for Bhaal's skull on the front is eye catching. The back image of Zariel, her wings spread, is even more gorgeous. His cover for Xanathar's Guide to Everything is still my favorite because I love art deco, but this one is right up there. It's equal parts creepy and evilly elegant, which is appropriate.

The bulk of the maps are by Dyson Logos and Mike Schley so you know they're fantastic. The poster maps are by Jared Blando, who also did the map of Avernus included in the Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus Dice and Miscellany (see my review of that) in smaller form so players can reference to it as needed. It is a gorgeous map. A two-sided player's map is attached in the back of the book. One side is for Elturel and the other for Avernus.

The illustrations especially come in handy for Appendix B, which is all about infernal war machines. Just as Ghosts of Saltmarsh added expanded nautical rules and a wider array of ships, this chapter adds vehicles, albeit twisted versions. More monsters and, of course, magic items are also included.

If you're like me one of the first things you turn to in a new 5th Edition D&D book is the disclaimer. This one starts off seemingly dull before winking at the Satanic Panic that distorted what role-playing games, especially D&D, were. It's cute but not my fave. That's also a very minor criticism.

Like Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, Descent Into Avernus comes with a gazetteer of Baldur's Gate. That's a big help for GMs and an entertaining read for players. Mechanically that section also provides a new background option – Faceless – and variant options for the other backgrounds to customize them to Baldur's Gate. That's a nice touch.

Daniel Reeve created an Infernal Script for the book. Fun touches like an Infernal Rapture Menu also give players a chance to practice translating what's been written in the script. I suspect that will come in handy at some point in the adventure (I'm still reading it – this is the first impressions review).

Story concept art is showcased in Appendix F. That's an interesting tidbit, especially since this adventure's fantasy is more panoramic than most, which is saying something for D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons is all about epic adventure. Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus appears to turn that up a few notches. Stay tuned for my in-depth review, which will focus more on the infernal vehicles, plot, and more.
 
Beth Rimmels

Comments

eyeheartawk

Explorer
Is there a reason Joe Manganiello's character is in this -with the Hand of Vecna, no less!- other than he's the most famous known D&D player?

Follow up question: How famous do I have to be to get inserted into a Wizard's release? Is C tier sufficient? Asking for a friend.
 

BMaC

Explorer
Does this book suffer from meta-plot laziness? City sucked into hell and a group of level 1 scrubs are the go-to party? Or is it the case that the party of level 1 scrubs are in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in Avernus?
 

Parmandur

Legend
Does this book suffer from meta-plot laziness? City sucked into hell and a group of level 1 scrubs are the go-to party? Or is it the case that the party of level 1 scrubs are in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in Avernus?
There's a Tier 1 adventure set in Baldur's Gate that leaves the PCs at sufficient level before Hell.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
There's a Tier 1 adventure set in Baldur's Gate that leaves the PCs at sufficient level before Hell.
I don't understand why adventures don't just skip levels 1-4 and let characters start as actual heroes instead of cutting their teeth in what's usually unrelated time wasting encounters. I recently lost my gaming group because I kept delaying "the good stuff."
Just drop the characters in hell and have some fun with it.
 

Giltonio_Santos

Adventurer
I don't understand why adventures don't just skip levels 1-4 and let characters start as actual heroes instead of cutting their teeth in what's usually unrelated time wasting encounters. I recently lost my gaming group because I kept delaying "the good stuff."
Just drop the characters in hell and have some fun with it.
You can do that yourself. It's more reasonable to ask a DM to skip the first chapter of a module and start at a higher level than to ask another DM, who wants to start with apprentice characters, to design something that will keep the party busy until they're ready to start the actual module.
 

Parmandur

Legend
I don't understand why adventures don't just skip levels 1-4 and let characters start as actual heroes instead of cutting their teeth in what's usually unrelated time wasting encounters. I recently lost my gaming group because I kept delaying "the good stuff."
Just drop the characters in hell and have some fun with it.
Most people do low level play.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
You can do that yourself. It's more reasonable to ask a DM to skip the first chapter of a module and start at a higher level than to ask another DM, who wants to start with apprentice characters, to design something that will keep the party busy until they're ready to start the actual module.
Then they should make the first chapter compelling, ready to put the plot into motion in earnest, instead of just "busy work." Too many of the official WotC adventures I've read don't do this.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
Most people do low level play.
But does anyone like it? Or do they play it out of a feeling that they have to?
I agreed with the design paradigm of 4E to focus the feel of the game on the "fun levels."
Your low-level wizard should be able to play like a wizard with AoE control spells. Your low-level rogue should be able to dart in and out of the shadows and deal big damage. Your low-level fighter should be able to implement masterful combat manuevers.
Low-level play is just "move up, swing a sword, do damage, repeat."
 
Then they should make the first chapter compelling, ready to put the plot into motion in earnest, instead of just "busy work." Too many of the official WotC adventures I've read don't do this.
Unless you don't want that and prefer a campaign to consist of a number of different, albeit linked, adventures. With the way the sandboxes funnel into the main plots with these adventures, what you usually get is a bunch of small adventures while the characters figure out who they are, a big damn adventure for the majority of the sweet spot, and then a wide open world once the characters hit the higher tiers of play. It's a pretty good compromise, although it would be nice if WotC put out more smaller modules, especially high level ones to give your veteran characters some stuff to do.
 

Parmandur

Legend
But does anyone like it? Or do they play it out of a feeling that they have to?
I agreed with the design paradigm of 4E to focus the feel of the game on the "fun levels."
Your low-level wizard should be able to play like a wizard with AoE control spells. Your low-level rogue should be able to dart in and out of the shadows and deal big damage. Your low-level fighter should be able to implement masterful combat manuevers.
Low-level play is just "move up, swing a sword, do damage, repeat."
Apparently, given the current sales rate for all the low level module boxes on Amazon.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
Apparently, given the current sales rate for all the low level module boxes on Amazon.
I hope they don't just keep flooding the market with Starter Sets based on sales data. I mean that's like saying "because the PHB is our best-selling book, let's focus all our efforts on re-printing slightly different PHBs."
 

Giltonio_Santos

Adventurer
Then they should make the first chapter compelling, ready to put the plot into motion in earnest, instead of just "busy work." Too many of the official WotC adventures I've read don't do this.
I don't disagree with that, but I'm also fine with the first section of a big 1-10+ campaign having characters going around doing the kind of thing that low-level characters do with the main adventure just as foresight. Actually, even after level 4+, I prefer it when characters are allowed to spend some time doing things other than chasing the main plot. In my experience, 10+ levels on a single story thread mean we give up on the adventure before getting to finish it.
 

Retreater

Adventurer
I don't disagree with that, but I'm also fine with the first section of a big 1-10+ campaign having characters going around doing the kind of thing that low-level characters do with the main adventure just as foresight. Actually, even after level 4+, I prefer it when characters are allowed to spend some time doing things other than chasing the main plot. In my experience, 10+ levels on a single story thread mean we give up on the adventure before getting to finish it.
So there's a good argument against having these mega adventures that span 1-13 levels. I'm fine with smaller, digestible bits of plot. I just don't like telling my players they have to wait to do the really cool stuff.
For example, when I'm prepping to run Tomb of Annihilation, I'm not going to make them wait 5 levels before they go into the jungle and start fighting dinosaurs. We all have jobs, families, school, etc. Why put off the cool stuff?
If you are going to have a 1-4 level adventure, have it wrap up in a satisfying way with a BBEG (appropriate for that level party). Don't just hint that they are only 1/3rd of the way to the conclusion.
 

Urriak Uruk

Explorer
But does anyone like it? Or do they play it out of a feeling that they have to?
I agreed with the design paradigm of 4E to focus the feel of the game on the "fun levels."
Your low-level wizard should be able to play like a wizard with AoE control spells. Your low-level rogue should be able to dart in and out of the shadows and deal big damage. Your low-level fighter should be able to implement masterful combat manuevers.
Low-level play is just "move up, swing a sword, do damage, repeat."
I like low-level play. You really feel like anything can kill you.
 

Parmandur

Legend
So there's a good argument against having these mega adventures that span 1-13 levels. I'm fine with smaller, digestible bits of plot. I just don't like telling my players they have to wait to do the really cool stuff.
For example, when I'm prepping to run Tomb of Annihilation, I'm not going to make them wait 5 levels before they go into the jungle and start fighting dinosaurs. We all have jobs, families, school, etc. Why put off the cool stuff?
If you are going to have a 1-4 level adventure, have it wrap up in a satisfying way with a BBEG (appropriate for that level party). Don't just hint that they are only 1/3rd of the way to the conclusion.
Descent here, at any rate, has a Tier appropriate BBEG. Seems to be four Modules, really.
 

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