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

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
You’re forgetting ‘Murder in Baldur’s Gate’, one of the Sundering adventures from the playtest period. It has a wonderful gazetteer on the city. I am curious to see how much of the gazetteer in BG: DIA is a reprint of what’s in MiBG.

Also, FWIW, the ‘Heroes of Baldur’s Gate’ book is also set a hundred years before BG: DIA (in the original 1e/2e era timeline).
Is Murder in Baldur's Gate any good? And what rules set does it use? That name alone would make a frigging great prelude.
 

pukunui

Adventurer
Is Murder in Baldur's Gate any good? And what rules set does it use? That name alone would make a frigging great prelude.
Yes, it's fantastic. It was one of the "edition neutral" D&D Next adventures for which you could download stats for 3.5e, 4e, and proto-5e. It's not particularly hard to revise/replace the latter with the finished 5e equivalents. My DM adapted it -- and moved it to Luskan -- as a prelude for his extended Storm King's Thunder/Scales of War campaign.

I also adapted a few bits of it for when the PCs in my Tyranny of Dragons campaign stopped into Baldur's Gate.

If you can get a hard copy, it also comes with an awesome GM screen.

FWIW It's for levels 1-3 (though probably should have been 3-5, given the scope of the adventure) and involves the return of Bhaal.

It also includes a few of what, in retrospect, will most likely turn out to be seeds for the mind flayer invasion in the upcoming Baldur's Gate 3 CRPG.
 

a.everett1287

Explorer
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.
This sounds horrible.
Why are your ideas so bad?
 
You’re forgetting ‘Murder in Baldur’s Gate’, one of the Sundering adventures from the playtest period. It has a wonderful gazetteer on the city. I am curious to see how much of the gazetteer in BG: DIA is a reprint of what’s in MiBG.

Also, FWIW, the ‘Heroes of Baldur’s Gate’ book is also set a hundred years before BG: DIA (in the original 1e/2e era timeline).
Heroes of Baldur's Gate has some advice for running it in the current timeline so I'm not bothered about that. There is plenty in that book to mine for use in Descent; the maps are incredible. It's a very high quality product; the fact it's DMs Guild is actually irrelevant in this instance.
 

Xardion

Explorer
So, I bought this adventure yesterday, and have read through most of it. It is fantastic. Those of you worried about the low-levels being "busy work" to get you ready for the "real" game, don't. You CAN skip that part if you want, starting with a 5th level party and going straight to hell, and it won't really detract from the adventure as a whole. But if you DO start at 1st level, there is a very logical progression of events that fairly quickly escalates into the party getting to Avernus. At no point does it seem like "they just threw this in as an excuse to level the party." Each section/scenario leads the party closer to the root cause of all the troubles. It's like peeling back layers of a sketchy onion and finding that it gets more rotten the more you peel it.
 

Nebulous

Adventurer
Mine arrived too. Looks fun, fantastic art. I'm still reading it, but I have to bitch about the simplistic battle maps, they look so out of place in an otherwise 5-star produced book.
 

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