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D&D 5E Deep Dive into Descent Into Avernus

The seeds for Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus were planted in last year's release, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (MToF). At the time, D&D Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford described the theme of that book as “conflict” and the chapter on the Blood Wars between devils and demons in the D&D multiverse is the foundation for Descent Into Avernus.

DnD Descent into Avernus Cover.jpg

Readers of my first impressions review were concerned that first-level characters would be hopelessly outclassed in the first plane of hell. However, since BG: DIA recommends milestone experience, PCs should be 5th level when they help survivors of Elturel, which has been pulled into the first layer of the lower planes, suspended by chains above the River Styx, then 7th level when they enter Avernus proper, and 13th level or higher when they try to return to Baldur's Gate – assuming they live that long. Even at 7th level, the adventure is a challenge, but they at least have a chance.

While BG: DIA is designed to be self-contained, it would be very wise for DMs to read the Blood Wars section of MToF's. Players can, too, but personally, I'd rather have the DM give the players relevant background material based on what their characters would know. Of special note is the information on Zariel, who was once an angel of Mount Celestia but now rules Avernus, having been corrupted while watching the Blood Wars rage. Impetuous, she eventually dove into battle there with her followers, convinced they could wipe its evil and claim the plane for good. She was wrong. Asmodeus found her unconscious under a pile of her conquests. When she recovered, he gave her dominion over Avernus and named its prior ruler, Bel, her lieutenant. The stats for Zariel in BG: DIA and MToF match, but the later provides a lot of personality information that are useful for DMs. BG: DIA has essential background but it's better to use both.

Before the start of BG: DIA, the city of Elturel has disappeared, pulled into the lower planes. The chaos this causes for Baldur's Gate as refugees flee toward it leads to the Flaming Fist pressing the first-level characters into service. From there, players are drawn deeper into the mystery while gaining XP. Besides freeing Eltural, if nothing is done, Baldur's Gate could share the same fate as that city.

While not exactly a sandbox adventure, BG: DIA it's not a railroad plot either. The players could achieve their goals any number of ways, though all are likely to be difficult and force them to make hard decisions.

For example, Avernus is a huge wasteland (though once it appeared to be a paradise that Asmodeus used to tempt and corrupt people) fraught with danger so faster transportation is a benefit. Enter infernal war machines. Taken just at their artwork and stat blocks, infernal war machines are very cool and provide a framework that DMs could use for a variety of homebrew situations, especially if they change the fuel source.

In BG: DIA though, the fuel source are soul coins, which are the currency in hell, created by Adam Lee and his team. Soul coins can be used in a variety of ways and after their three charges are expended, the soul trapped within is released to whatever afterlife, god they served or appropriate alignment plane (DM's call) applies. When used to fuel an infernal war machine, though, the soul screams as it is trapped in the engine, fueling the vehicle and when it's fully consumed, the soul is utterly destroyed beyond even divine intervention. When using an infernal machine is essential to whatever plan players come up with, how do good party members react to using soul coins to fuel it?

Individual and group party alignment will likely make a difference in how challenges are faced. If this is played outside of D&D Adventurer's League alignment rules, an evil party could use the opportunities to make deals to attain power but that's such an obvious approach it's almost boring. The moral conflicts built into BG: DIA are much more challenging. One option to tie the group together is the Dark Secret device. At character creation the group, with the DM's input, makes secret they're all hiding but at least one other person knows. Tables are provided to guide the process, and they could be easily adapted for other campaigns.

DnD Descent_into_Avernus_AltCvr_back.jpg

As appropriate for an adventure involving devils and demons, BG: DIA contains lots of opportunities for scheming, including possibly cutting a deal with Joe Manganiello's character from Critical Role: Force Grey, Arkhan the Cruel. The Dragonborn oathbreaker paladin now serves Tiamet, who is trapped in Avernus. The queen of evil dragons is capable of freeing Elturel but for what cost? Arkhan is obsessed with freeing his goddess, even taking on the Hand of Vecna in the hopes that its power can help him do it. Readers of my initial review wondered if this was just a stunt appearance because Manganiello is a celebrity, but I wouldn't label it that way. Lee and Manganiello worked out a reasonable plot thread that adds a layer of options and complications to the adventure.

BG: DIA contains a lot of good, useful information on role-playing devils, infernal contracts, archdevil charms (including one that will remind you a little of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), life in the Nine Hells and more. Again, that material could be used for homebrew campaigns even if you don't run BG: DIA as written.

Stylistically, BG: DIA is as opposite Waterdeep: Dragon Heist as you can get. The latter required subtlety and killing everything in sight inevitably led to a confrontation with the city watch. BG: DIA doesn't have the same restraints but a reckless murder fest could still have serious in-game consequences. It's definitely more epic than W: DH and with Zariel having a 26 CR, among other high-level opponents, it's definitely challenging.

If you like infernal adventures or opportunities to smite evil, BG: DIA is for you. Even without that the material on Baldur's Gate, soul coins, infernal war machines, etc. could make it worthwhile.
 

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
So, I've had a theory for a while about Dragon Heist, and this book makes me more suspicious. I think that Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage were conceived as one book, with Dragon Heist being smaller and more focused on Manshoon (who was originally the sole villain, for sure, per Perkins), leading into the Dungeon itself. In this theory, one of the possibilities mentioned in DotMM for the Mad Mage's motivation would probably have originally just been the story.

But at some point, Undermountain went rogue, and the original intro chapter went rogue too and became a separate book. I blame Matt Mercer.

They actually admitted this on a Dragon Talk. Said that originally Dragon Heist was just going to be an opening beginner level to quickly prep players before they get into Undermountain.

The idea eventually got too big and they decided to make it it's own book. I'm glad they did as it's a great modular introductory adventure (although is very clunky in parts, and an inefficient use of space). It's not on the same level of ToA or CoS though.
 

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Reynard

Legend
Minus the very heavy handed way the book gets the PCs involved, I think the Avernus intro section is much stronger than many of the previous attempts. i think it benefits from being focused and linear, too: a sandbox is only as good as its individual components, and while they nailed it in Lost Mines I don't think they have matched it yet. Linear isn't necessarily bad in a module, so long as the ride is worth the constraints (like a good rollercoaster).
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
They actually admitted this on a Dragon Talk. Said that originally Dragon Heist was just going to be an opening beginner level to quickly prep players before they get into Undermountain.

The idea eventually got too big and they decided to make it it's own book. I'm glad they did as it's a great modular introductory adventure (although is very clunky in parts, and an inefficient use of space). It's not on the same level of ToA or CoS though.

Oh, wow, I listened to that episode: so, less theory, more subconscious memory.
 

MockingBird

Explorer
Yeah the first part is very railroady. It's good and I have no doubt my group will gladly follow. Doesnt seem hard to kick it off the rails by some rebellious players though. The book does it's best to cover those bases though.
 

Reynard

Legend
Yeah the first part is very railroady. It's good and I have no doubt my group will gladly follow. Doesnt seem hard to kick it off the rails by some rebellious players though. The book does it's best to cover those bases though.

The railroad isn't the problem, it's the motivation: being pressed into service and/or blackmailed by the guard captain is begging players to slit his throat in the middle of the night and say "screw this" to the whole endeavor. It makes much more sense to tie their backgrounds and/or dark secrets to the disappearance of Elturel.
 

gyor

Legend
So, I've had a theory for a while about Dragon Heist, and this book makes me more suspicious. I think that Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage were conceived as one book, with Dragon Heist being smaller and more focused on Manshoon (who was originally the sole villain, for sure, per Perkins), leading into the Dungeon itself. In this theory, one of the possibilities mentioned in DotMM for the Mad Mage's motivation would probably have originally just been the story.

But at some point, Undermountain went rogue, and the original intro chapter went rogue too and became a separate book. I blame Matt Mercer.

The Waterdeep books really do feel like one book in two parts.
 


Xardion

Explorer
Honestly I only bought this because of BG3, it was originally a pass for me because I like Waterdeep better, and I had those books and the SCAG and plan to eventually get ToTYP to go with them, aka I never need an AP again, so I can be very selective.

The Soul Coin thing really bugs me a lot, I love the idea of the infernal machines, but the Soul Coins as fuel think means it's only good for evil parties, and alternative fuel source should have offered. They tried to be clever in making a moral dilemma, but instead ruin their cool idea.

You basically have to choose between redemption plotline and the Infernal Warkachines.

It's like how no raising the dead ruined the Chult AP.

If I knew for certain they'd offer a PDF of the Gazettre I'd cancel my order on the spot. Buy I don't so I won't.

The usage of the soul coins is really up to the DM and if they feel like that might be a step too far for their party to stomach. Also, it's important to remember that the vast majority of souls that have been forged into a coin are damned beyond redemption. Handling the coin will give you insight into the kind of person they were in life... and that paladin might be willing to feed that coin into the war machine just to get the filthy thing off of their person. The moral quandry will really come up when you find a coin that contains a soul that really didn't deserve their fate, and maybe your war machine is out of fuel with the party in a dire situation. Maybe the do-gooder in the party has been hiding that coin, hoping for the opportunity to free the soul inside (which the mechanics for doing are detailed in the book), and some juicy character conflict might arise when the other characters realize they've been hoarding that coin.
 

gyor

Legend
The usage of the soul coins is really up to the DM and if they feel like that might be a step too far for their party to stomach. Also, it's important to remember that the vast majority of souls that have been forged into a coin are damned beyond redemption. Handling the coin will give you insight into the kind of person they were in life... and that paladin might be willing to feed that coin into the war machine just to get the filthy thing off of their person. The moral quandry will really come up when you find a coin that contains a soul that really didn't deserve their fate, and maybe your war machine is out of fuel with the party in a dire situation. Maybe the do-gooder in the party has been hiding that coin, hoping for the opportunity to free the soul inside (which the mechanics for doing are detailed in the book), and some juicy character conflict might arise when the other characters realize they've been hoarding that coin.

Except there is no reason to believe that, Devil exploit desperate and ignorant people all the time.
 

Xardion

Explorer
Except there is no reason to believe that, Devil exploit desperate and ignorant people all the time.

Of course, but it's fairly rare to trick someone into trading their soul for something minor like gold. It DOES happen, but most of the time, the devils make minor deals for the purposes of corrupting them to the point where they're willing to sell their souls for personal gain. The nature of soul coins gives good parties a way to deal with this. They can spend one of the charges to ask a question of the soul, which it MUST answer truthfully, though it might be cryptic. A clever party can figure out a way to frame this question to determine if they're serving the greater good by feeding the coin to their war machine, maybe trading it for another, less worthy soul down the road, or setting it free (always a good act, even if they were a complete piece of garbage in life). It's a bad choice no matter how you look at it... but what did you expect infernal war machines to run on, hopes and dreams!!??? It's HELL. It's supposed to be Evil . The very nature of the Nine Hells can actually turn good characters evil the longer they stay there, feeding souls to war machines notwithstanding (page 79 of BG: DiA, "Pervasive Evil"). Every long rest they have to make a DC 10 Wisdom save (not hard, but 5% chance minimum every day) or become lawful evil, and its permanent if they don't leave the plane in 1d4 days. Dispel evil and good will fix it, so hopefully somebody in the party can cast it... and can notice when someone turns evil. Not like they're gonna say anything about it.
 
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Mort

Legend
Supporter
None of my players have a +9 to wisdom saves... but, then again, they aren't very high level.

Let's see, only a class proficient in WIS saves AND with a 20 WIS could do it at any level worth mentioning (by 9th or so).

Except paladins - with a 16 WIS and 16 CHA (or 14, 18) that could do it by 6th. But most can't afford to have a wisdom that high (unless they roll and get very very lucky).

This does bring up a question. The save is at the end of any long rest. If the party stays within 10' of the paladin for the rest do they all get the bonus at the end?

Seems a bit cheesy, but the check is pretty dire.
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
Wasn't it calling for a save? Don't saves still auto fail on a natural 1?

They do not: ability checks do not automatically succeed on a 20, or fail on a 1 in 5E. Anybody with a +9 in the relevant check cannot fail a DC 10, anybody with a -1 cannot succeed a DC 20. Obviously, a given party might not have anyone who is in that catagory, but folks riding into Hell are more likely to be the type to be able to succeed, methinks.
 

MiraMels

Explorer
I guess my biggest hesitation with the Infernal War Machines are... is using one optional?

I'm completely okay with the consequences of fueling an Infernal War Machine with souls being what they are. I'm completely okay with benefits of using an Infernal War Machine being significant. I'm completely okay with avoiding the use of one making the adventure harder for the party. What I am worried about is the possibility that the adventure might be nearly impossible to complete without a War Machine. So, I ask of you, folk who've read the adventure, is it?
 

MonsterEnvy

Adventurer
I guess my biggest hesitation with the Infernal War Machines are... is using one optional?

I'm completely okay with the consequences of fueling an Infernal War Machine with souls being what they are. I'm completely okay with benefits of using an Infernal War Machine being significant. I'm completely okay with avoiding the use of one making the adventure harder for the party. What I am worried about is the possibility that the adventure might be nearly impossible to complete without a War Machine. So, I ask of you, folk who've read the adventure, is it?
Not impossible at all, just harder.
 

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