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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

I've always assumed that the main reason the lower levels are more played than higher levels is campaign attrition: While the vast majority of campaigns start at low levels, the higher you go the more campaigns fizzle away or end abruptly.

So it isn't as much that high level play is less fun, just that few campaigns actually reach that point. And of course most people enjoy playing characters that they started at low levels; if I create a 10th level character I'm less likely to be "bonded" to it than one I played from 1st level (or at least 3rd, which seems a common starting point).

That said, I'd love to see a high level campaign that offers suggestions for a "speed-through" of the lower levels, with the campaign proper really getting going around 10th level. So if the campaign starts at 3rd level, you advance 1 level per session until 10th, the campaign can be at 10th level on session 8. So the first seven sessions can be seen almost as a prelude and build-up to the big events of level 10 and beyond.

To me this would be a good way to combine the best of both worlds: still include some lower level play, but make the focus on 10-20.
 

Urriak Uruk

Explorer
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."
Considering that the Starter Kit and Essentials Kit are really not the same (at all), I'm ok with there being more boxes.

If they released a "Dark Sun Starter Kit" next year I'd be so happy!
 

Reaper Steve

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 thought I read something during the development of 5E (by Mike Mearls, I think) in which they stated that 1st & 2nd level were player-training levels using a smaller set of class features. Classes get their full 'base' features at 3rd level. The Starter set adventure was meant to be a common experience for new/low-level play and you could pick a campaign product to keep going with the same characters (and they were going to intentionally minimize the number of 1st-2nd level products/scenarios). I'm pretty sure it was then explicitly stated that they expected to design and publish the campaign products starting in the 3rd-5th level range.

I like what they've released so far and there's something to be said for being able to start whatever campaign interests you at 1st level, but I think I would have preferred the campaign books to have stuck with that plan and started in the 3rd-5th level ranges. I'd feel like I was missing something if I cut out the early level parts of a published campaign.
 

Nebulous

Adventurer
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 love low level play. I don't like the low low hit points, so I add a few to bump up PC lifespan, but the gameplay I adore. They can't rely on weird magic to get them out of jams, they have to actually think of creative solutions. But levels 1st- to 3rd go by quickly. I also have noticed that roleplaying is more intense at low levels. When you start getting to higher levels it becomes all about your class abilities and spells and combat maneuvers.
 

Giltonio_Santos

Adventurer
Levels 1-3 are almost their own mini-game (which is quite deadly, actually). Many people enjoy this mini-game, and I don't see why one would deny it. In fact, almost all of WotC's published adventures have made it very easy to start at a higher level while picking the main plot on the way. There's no good reason to advocate that those who enjoy the low-level minigame should be denied it on the official modules.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Levels 1-3 are almost their own mini-game (which is quite deadly, actually). Many people enjoy this mini-game, and I don't see why one would deny it. In fact, almost all of WotC's published adventures have made it very easy to start at a higher level while picking the main plot on the way. There's no good reason to advocate that those who enjoy the low-level minigame should be denied it on the official modules.
In this case, the low level adventure plus the Gazeeter looks to be enough for a full campaign ignoring Hell entirely: that's some value.
 

Connorsrpg

Adventurer
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."
Low level play has always been my favourite. I often never get into these massive adventure paths. In fact, I much prefer a bunch of adventures to link myself. We enjoy it the most and maybe even find 5E a little too heroic at those levels. Anyway, each to their own. I am not a fan of adventure paths with stories already laid out for you at all, but I will still but several to steal parts from and simply because I like to read D&D books. One that describes the first layer of Hell will definitely mean I purchase this.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
But does anyone like it? Or do they play it out of a feeling that they have to?
Last year some firends of mine started a Storm's Kings Thunder campaign. It also has some intro stuff to get you to level quickly.

Besides me and the DM, the players were new and had no idea that that was the purpose. They loved it.

So yes, people do like it. New players, and some people love the zero part of zero to hero. If your table doesn't have new players and wants to skip that content, go for it.
 

Aaron L

Adventurer
Looks very cool to me! That art really is gorgeous. I wonder how much work it would take to translate the adventure to a city in the Flanaess? I am starting a new Greyhawk campaign in a few weeks and I would happily use this for some of it. I was thinking of possibly replacing Baldur's Gate with Fax or Elredd on the Wild Coast (the campaign will begin in 576 CY, before the Wars) or possibly Dyvers, and seeing if I could include some peripheral interference from Iuz. Anyone else have any good ideas as to where to locate the adventure on Oerth? Hopefully the book itself will include some suggestions for that (I do honestly love the 'Realms, but I love Greyhawk even more and get tired of absolutely everything being set on Toril.)

As for low-level PCs not being "heroes" yet... I don't think of 1st-4th level characters as being "apprentices." I go with the 1st Edition assumption that achieving even just 1st level in a character class means that character is a highly trained badass who could bury any normal "0 level" person with 8-11 in every stat and 4 Hit Points without breaking a sweat, and even normal men-at-arms without much effort (yes, even the party's 1st level Wizard would be skilled enough with dagger or staff to contemptuously put down Bruno the Town Bully.) Low level PCs only seem weak in comparison to the things they fight, which are literal inhuman monsters, and even then they are still pretty badass.
 

Arnwolf666

Explorer
The problem is the low level adventures are typically stupid. Have a badass plot and story being told. It doesn’t matter is it’s a cr20 or cr1 encounter. It’s all relative to the pc anyway. Have a badass story giving the players a badass sense of accomplishment no matter what their level.

Never right an adventure with the idea
That something cool will happen10+ levels down the road. Have every session have a climactic badass event that is meaningful. If you have a cool idea for a story don’t plan on doing it 10 sessions away. Do it on the first session. Then do another one next session.
 

Urriak Uruk

Explorer
The problem is the low level adventures are typically stupid. Have a badass plot and story being told. It doesn’t matter is it’s a cr20 or cr1 encounter. It’s all relative to the pc anyway. Have a badass story giving the players a badass sense of accomplishment no matter what their level.

Never right an adventure with the idea
That something cool will happen10+ levels down the road. Have every session have a climactic badass event that is meaningful. If you have a cool idea for a story don’t plan on doing it 10 sessions away. Do it on the first session. Then do another one next session.
Maybe for older editions they are, but I've found 5e fairly consistent with their low-level adventures. Lost Mines of Phandelver and Dragon Heist are both so good.
 

Grimstaff

Explorer
It’s not that big of a problem to start a campaign book at 3rd or even 5th level instead of 1st. Tier 1 adventures are easy to scale up by simply increasing the number of foes or their hit points, and they get to have some fun carving through easy opponents before the adventure levelcatches up with them. They’ll get through the early chapters fairly quickly and the experience points gained probably won’t level them up until they get into the Tier 2 sections
 

Elfcrusher

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.
No thanks. I never really grow attached to characters I start above level 1. It feels like in”cheated” even if I play for 10 more levels.
 

MockingBird

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."
My players very much prefer starting at 1st level so they can explore their characters. I dont think they would go for starting at a higher level. Why would they want to start a game a quarter of the way into it? I dont really get starting at higher levels either, but different strokes for different folks I guess.
 

Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
Descent here, at any rate, has a Tier appropriate BBEG. Seems to be four Modules, really.
The first "adventure books" where created by bundling together a series of linked adventures into one package - e.g. Desert of Desolation. That doesn't mean you have to play every module, or that the only "good stuff" is in the final module (for the aforementioned Desert of Desolation the first module is the best bit).
 
No thanks. I never really grow attached to characters I start above level 1. It feels like in”cheated” even if I play for 10 more levels.
I agree. Also even if that wasnt a factor i enjoy growing the character from when it was nothing more than just a whelp. At level 4 you may not have aclaim but you're character is hardly much of a whelp anymore either. In any edition.
 

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