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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

TheSword

Explorer
Ah, so we have level 6 PCs sent to save the day. I suppose all the level 20 Harpers are busy. I hope the writers made a slight effort here.
I never liked this most unreasonable criticism of the Forgotten Realms. The idea that because there are more qualified heroes in the world your current crop of heroes will be over shadowed.

FR is huge with 20+ evil organizations at large at any one time. There is plenty of demand for heroics. I’ve been DMing in the Realms for 20 years and have never felt the need to justify what Elminster is doing at any given hour of the day.

Level is an abstract game term not a campaign term. The removal of level from NPC stat blocks in 5e means there are as many 20th level harpers running round as the DM wants there to be and not a soul more.
 

S'mon

Legend
Tempting as something to consider when my Princes of the Apocalypse game ends in a couple years! Looking for something a bit different; Elturel featured in my 4e FR Loudwater game 2011-16 to which my PoTA is a sequel, it sounds as if this could be a nice sequel-sequel.
 

Paul Farquhar

Adventurer
I never liked this most unreasonable criticism of the Forgotten Realms. The idea that because there are more qualified heroes in the world your current crop of heroes will be over shadowed.

FR is huge with 20+ evil organizations at large at any one time. There is plenty of demand for heroics. I’ve been DMing in the Realms for 20 years and have never felt the need to justify what Elminster is doing at any given hour of the day.

Level is an abstract game term not a campaign term. The removal of level from NPC stat blocks in 5e means there are as many 20th level harpers running round as the DM wants there to be and not a soul more.
It depends on the level of threat vs the level of characters. When the threat is that all Raise Dead spells suddenly stop working, I don't think it would be unreasonable to tap Elminster rather than a bunch of Level Ones.
 

S'mon

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.
It's a good point - running Red Hand of Doom in 5e currently, I just started everyone at 5th so it's obvious they're The Heroes, not Some Schlubs.
However I quite like how PoTA etc have the optional level 1-3 newbie quests included, then kick off the actual adventure, so you can do it either way.
 

S'mon

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.
Yeah, I think most of the time it works best to keep adventures within a Tier, at most. So 1-4 newbie stuff, 5-10 Lord of the Rings stuff, 11-16 Avengers stuff.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
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.
I don't understand why you think you can't do that yourself. You can adjust the encounters so the challenges will scale suitably to whatever level you wish to start your group. Or just skip those parts and get to the "good stuff", whatever you decide that is.

But don't assume everyone shares your complaints. You might be tired of starting at level 1 after playing so many of these adventures. But a younger group may still find it meaningful and enjoyable.

The modules are (should be) written so that a less experienced group can run things as written, trusting that more experienced players/DMs can adjust things to taste. This is a big part of why 5e is so successful.
 

BMaC

Explorer
I never liked this most unreasonable criticism of the Forgotten Realms. The idea that because there are more qualified heroes in the world your current crop of heroes will be over shadowed.

FR is huge with 20+ evil organizations at large at any one time. There is plenty of demand for heroics. I’ve been DMing in the Realms for 20 years and have never felt the need to justify what Elminster is doing at any given hour of the day.

Level is an abstract game term not a campaign term. The removal of level from NPC stat blocks in 5e means there are as many 20th level harpers running round as the DM wants there to be and not a soul more.
Doesn't have to be Elminister. To take an obvious example, what are the high level PCs who just finished Mad Mage doing? Retired to run their tavern in Waterdeep while all hell breaks loose (literally)?
 

Reynard

Adventurer
Doesn't have to be Elminister. To take an obvious example, what are the high level PCs who just finished Mad Mage doing? Retired to run their tavern in Waterdeep while all hell breaks loose (literally)?
This is why world shaking threats should not be the go-to, even for high level characters. It isn't necessary, usually isn't interesting, and it raises all sorts of questions about agency and such.

Instead, maybe an angel has fallen and become a demon, but that angel's lover wants them back and reaches out to these extremely powerful mortals for help because mortals have free will and aren't bound by the rules of Heaven and Hell. Or, to keep it closer to home, what if a powerful NPC adventurer group gets off on hunting dragons and is really good at it. Dragons are trapped by their own natures, but they could seek the help of powerful adventurers to stop the threat or just get revenge. No nations need crumble or worlds need end for high level adventures to be viable and fun.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
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."
I actually think a modular approach would be best. Offer a wide variety of 1-5 starter sets and then set the big adventures to cover 6-15 or 6-20. That way people can mix things up how they like and there’s a clean transition to more epic arcs.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Doesn't have to be Elminister. To take an obvious example, what are the high level PCs who just finished Mad Mage doing? Retired to run their tavern in Waterdeep while all hell breaks loose (literally)?
You could say the same about superhero movies and TV shows. Why isn't Arrow just calling Supergirl? Where was Iron Man during Winter Soldier?
 

BMaC

Explorer
You could say the same about superhero movies and TV shows. Why isn't Arrow just calling Supergirl? Where was Iron Man during Winter Soldier?
Is this what is known as 'whatabouttery'? Of course we could say the same thing and many of us do--I refer you to Patton Oswalt's classic rant about Hawkeye and Black Widow as B-list heroes. In the case you cite this is a problem just as the Chult and, evidently, Descent books suffer in the same way. Unfortunately, the ham-fisted meta plot of Descent seems harder to fix. For Chult it was simply the case of having localized necrotic storms and these areas (where the players happened to be) were affected by the death curse while others were not. So there was a clear drive for the players on behalf of their small fishing village to fix the death curse but not so much of a priority for the Harpers to mobilize resources.

edit: my hope was that the low level PCs were in the wrong place at the wrong time and sucked into Avernus. They certainly want to get out but it's not a priority for others. I'll probably revise Descent accordingly. To make it fun perhaps only the poor district of the city or the inn that they are in gets sucked into hell.
 
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TheSword

Explorer
It is a nonsense argument. A campaign is only loosely connected. There is nothing that says it has to be held in the same year or even decade. In fact it’s the desire to make all things happen everywhere at once that makes any campaign setting incredulous. It is your campaign setting and the only things that happen are the things that you want to have happen.

In this world of ours without cabals of evil mages, daemonic invasions, resurrected gods, undead plagues, missing cities etc we don’t have single individuals expected to solve the worlds problems. What makes you think in the Realms a single individual would be able to do even a fraction of what was needed.

What really annoys me is that there is no way players, seeking treasure, experience and fun complain about Elminster not taking over. It’s just DMs who have already taken a dislike to the FR that make it a problem. It hasn’t been an issue since the early days of AD&D and modules like Shadowdale, Tantras and Waterdeep, where PCs were hangers on. This has been long forgotten by 3e onwards adventures.

You don’t need to account for the whereabouts of your last campaign’s heroes. The fact that they aren’t involved logically means they weren’t available. It’s a ‘temporary suspension of disbelief’ and is required in most stories.
 

BMaC

Explorer
It is a nonsense argument. A campaign is only loosely connected. There is nothing that says it has to be held in the same year or even decade. In fact it’s the desire to make all things happen everywhere at once that makes any campaign setting incredulous. It is your campaign setting and the only things that happen are the things that you want to have happen.

In this world of ours without cabals of evil mages, daemonic invasions, resurrected gods, undead plagues, missing cities etc we don’t have single individuals expected to solve the worlds problems. What makes you think in the Realms a single individual would be able to do even a fraction of what was needed.

What really annoys me is that there is no way players, seeking treasure, experience and fun complain about Elminster not taking over. It’s just DMs who have already taken a dislike to the FR that make it a problem. It hasn’t been an issue since the early days of AD&D and modules like Shadowdale, Tantras and Waterdeep, where PCs were hangers on. This has been long forgotten by 3e onwards adventures.

You don’t need to account for the whereabouts of your last campaign’s heroes. The fact that they aren’t involved logically means they weren’t available. It’s a ‘temporary suspension of disbelief’ and is required in most stories.
Many players, including Joe Manganiello, have different expectations regarding continuity of both the campaign world and PCs than you do it seems. Some groups have a more disposable approach that suits the meta-plot aspect of treating each new book as a DLC release and reset. As with everything, it comes down to the group. The constant use of meta-plots makes it more difficult for groups with 'higher' expectations in terms of character and campaign world continuity. It's not that difficult to overcome as I explained above.
 

TheSword

Explorer
Many players, including Joe Manganiello, have different expectations regarding continuity of both the campaign world and PCs than you do it seems. Some groups have a more disposable approach that suits the meta-plot aspect of treating each new book as a DLC release and reset. As with everything, it comes down to the group. The constant use of meta-plots makes it more difficult for groups with 'higher' expectations in terms of character and campaign world continuity. It's not that difficult to overcome as I explained above.
Perhaps they do. Though there is a big difference between one character cross over and feeling the need to justify what every high level character from every other campaign set on that world is doing or not doing.

A good DM/writer writes what they need to write in order to move the story/plot forward or at least answer likely questions. The party is unlikely to care why Elminster/The Dragon Heist PCs etc etc aren’t solving there adventure for them. Therefore don’t worry about it.

I don’t ask why Bill Gates isn’t repairing the roof of our local community center, propping up the Venezuelan economy or solving Brexit.

Cross overs and continuity are fun, for instance Minsc or Jaheira featuring in this campaign. However paralysis by the suggestion that the first task of every bad guy in FR is to distract Laerl, Drizzt, The Seven Sisters etc etc is totally unnecessary. It’s an unreasonable expectation to have on a design team. This kind of attitude is what drove them to the Spellplague and the gap between 3rd and 4th to the detriment of the FR setting that is only now being undone. I can do without it thanks!

Add the continuity you care about. Don’t feel constrained to justify the continuity you don’t care about.
 

Dire Bare

Adventurer
You could say the same about superhero movies and TV shows. Why isn't Arrow just calling Supergirl? Where was Iron Man during Winter Soldier?
Some of the CW-verse fans often do make that same complaint, and of course it's still nonsense. Nobody would watch Arrow if all Ollie did was call up Barry every episode or so, but him not doing so somehow breaks the suspension of belief for some folks. Folks even complain that Kara doesn't call up Clark more often when shit gets real. But they nonetheless still manage to watch every episode anyway.

In D&D the "solution" is to offer only low-stakes adventures to low-level heroes (so-called "gritty" campaigns), the kind of adventures the mighty-mighty heroes wouldn't waste their time with. While that's a style some prefer, most of us would be bored silly. WotC does amazing customer research and if the majority wanted gritty quests like "You're level 1, so how about we save the local wizards cat stuck in the tree", that's what we'd get. But most of us playing D&D want to be Big Damn Heroes! Even if we get started on our heroic journeys at "level 1". So that's what we get.

Within most genre stories (novels, movies) the stakes are usually high and the characters, while not "leveling-up", start out as wimpy nobodies, farmer's sons, caught up in huge events. Taran the Pig-Keeper, Bilbo the Reluctant Burglar, Seoman the Kitchen Boy, etc, etc.
 

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