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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

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
One other note on this whole topic. I've played characters with a variety of alignments over the years, although I wouldn't play an evil PC again (and only did for a short period of time). I even had a PC utter the words "I don't share" when an NPC offered to share the artifact that would allow them to rule the world*.

So I could come up with a PC that could play this mod. I'd probably even have fun playing them. I just don't want to be forced to play a specific type of PC in order to get the most out of a mod. Which is too bad because it sounds like it was well produced.

I'm just waiting for the mod to come out where good aligned PCs get some extra special bonus or evil PCs have negative effects for being evil. Not in a DM empowerment way, not in a "if you do something illegal and get caught it might have a minor negative consequence". Something along the lines of being forced to be LG (which would actually be kind of funny for a CN/CE PC) or not receiving boons from an angelic being that make the mod significantly easier.

Because the other way around? Getting penalized for being good? Happens far too often.

*The PC was true neutral and didn't really want to rule the world in the first place. Too much paperwork. He just wanted the artifact because it would make him immortal and he was an atheist.

The problem is that it is one thing to try to say with a straight face that the murder hobos are "good" on some campaign world, and another on Mt. Celestia. "If we ignore 5 fireballs cast in crowded marketplaces, 12,272 gps worth of unjustified stolen goods, an orphanage burnt down, because, and I quote 'everyone knows orphans have secret gold hordes', 13 orphans killed because said gold hordes did not materialize after the fire, 53 souls consigned to the Abyss by using the magic sword Orcus' Gullet, 5 wolves forced to become 'animal companions' that suffered injury, and 78 public servants attacks since, , and I quote, 'lawful neutral is really just lawful evil', then these mortals are 'good'."

Of course "good enough" would fit a Ysgard adventure pretty well, especially if "recklessly daring" counts as "good enough."
 

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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
The problem is that it is one thing to try to say with a straight face that the murder hobos are "good" on some campaign world, and another on Mt. Celestia. "If we ignore 5 fireballs cast in crowded marketplaces, 12,272 gps worth of unjustified stolen goods, an orphanage burnt down, because, and I quote 'everyone knows orphans have secret gold hordes', 13 orphans killed because said gold hordes did not materialize after the fire, 53 souls consigned to the Abyss by using the magic sword Orcus' Gullet, 5 wolves forced to become 'animal companions' that suffered injury, and 78 public servants attacks since, , and I quote, 'lawful neutral is really just lawful evil', then these mortals are 'good'."

Of course "good enough" would fit a Ysgard adventure pretty well, especially if "recklessly daring" counts as "good enough."
Is that really seen as the norm?
 

5ekyu

Hero
Anybody using non-magical weapons in Avernus is boned anyways. But "fail ability check on a 1" was not added in this product.
Yes, that us why I explained the example given in the product with " One of the examples...", the reasoning they gave and suggested the fail on 1 could be within the scope of the Avernus bad stuff - not listing it as an example from the product.

Of course, I suppose one could assume they meant for the three bullets to be an all- inclusive list of ways to get across (through tone and mechanics) that "avernus is bad" but I did not get that impression.

But thanks.
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
Is that really seen as the norm?
The bit about the orphans and the rationale for assaulting public servants was sarcasm to emphasize the point, but everything else is SOP. I do feel annoyed that I forgot to mention "created undead in the order of 542 zombies and 765 skeletons; in addition to feeding Orcus power by the creation of new undead, nearly a thousand sentient beings experienced horror upon learning of this desecration of the dead, thus feeding power to Yeenoghu in his little advertised Aspect as demon lord of desecrating the dead." [Yeenoghu is smarter than he is generally given credit for, and has ruthlessly suppressed knowledge of this Aspect so as to get power without having to expend any resources or effort.]

Again, all this is (mostly) explainable running around a campaign world, where everyone has to make compromises to survive and thrive. Going to a good-aligned realm in a fantasy setting where you get into that kind of realm (postdeath) either by being Good Enough or by choosing a good god who decides to take you in means there is an inherently sharper, less compromise-accepting definition of good in that realm. It also doesn't mean that the PC's will be immediately attacked upon entering the realm (however justified), since most good types hope to encourage the spark of good in the PC's, but it does mean if the natives should be will be willing to discipline the PC's for any bad behavior no matter how much the PC's players threaten to rage quit over it. Or as I like to remind the players, Dante described the Mountain as Purgatory, not Heaven.:angel:
 


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
The bit about the orphans and the rationale for assaulting public servants was sarcasm to emphasize the point, but everything else is SOP. I do feel annoyed that I forgot to mention "created undead in the order of 542 zombies and 765 skeletons; in addition to feeding Orcus power by the creation of new undead, nearly a thousand sentient beings experienced horror upon learning of this desecration of the dead, thus feeding power to Yeenoghu in his little advertised Aspect as demon lord of desecrating the dead." [Yeenoghu is smarter than he is generally given credit for, and has ruthlessly suppressed knowledge of this Aspect so as to get power without having to expend any resources or effort.]

Again, all this is (mostly) explainable running around a campaign world, where everyone has to make compromises to survive and thrive. Going to a good-aligned realm in a fantasy setting where you get into that kind of realm (postdeath) either by being Good Enough or by choosing a good god who decides to take you in means there is an inherently sharper, less compromise-accepting definition of good in that realm. It also doesn't mean that the PC's will be immediately attacked upon entering the realm (however justified), since most good types hope to encourage the spark of good in the PC's, but it does mean if the natives should be will be willing to discipline the PC's for any bad behavior no matter how much the PC's players threaten to rage quit over it. Or as I like to remind the players, Dante described the Mountain as Purgatory, not Heaven.:angel:
But, surely, we can’t consider that sort of thing the norm for dnd groups?
 


FitzTheRuke

Legend
But, surely, we can’t consider that sort of thing the norm for dnd groups?

I think you can. It takes a pretty solid group of mature, thoughtful gamers to play differently. Not only that, the group has to be led and supported by people who actively want to play a more heroic game. I think that most people don't want to put a lot of thought into it, and just go with what feels right. And that's Power Fantasy. Power Fantasy makes people self-righteous and impulsive.

I play with a LOT of people, owning an LGS (and demo-ing D&D) and I find you have to work really hard to teach people any other way to play. Some groups just like it that way, too. I'm not actually judging that style of play (though you can read into it that it's not my preference).

But... Even my "home" group - where nearly everyone wants to play fully realised people (and good ones, generally, at that), sometimes players just want to beat things up and take their stuff, and stop worrying about what it 'means' for them to do it.
 


MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
But, surely, we can’t consider that sort of thing the norm for dnd groups?
What in that description isn't common practice by PCs? Loot? Animal companions getting hurt? Creating undead? And have you ever heard any spell caster say "I can't cast fireball, there are innocents that might get caught in the blast"?

The only thing that isn't a norm is the harsh way I am describing it. Adventuring in the Outer Planes should be challenging, and since the Upper Planes aren't full of pits of fire or poisonous gas or monsters that want to eat your soul, the challenge will likely be to the PC's self image. Some people really hate that (I am pretty sure that virtually all Planescape hate comes down to "How dare they treat my PC as a rube?"), so "How dare they treat my PC as a murder hobo?" will probably get a similar reaction, which to go back several posts is why there isn't an AP set in the Upper Planes where you are rewarded for being good.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
What in that description isn't common practice by PCs?

Loot?
Depends on your definition. I like to think of it as "resource recovery". But we try to not steal from innocents.

Animal companions getting hurt?
Avoided if possible. Well except for my dwarf character that trained a dog to play "fetch" to find traps* and referred to his horse as "Spare Rations". But why is this evil? PCs get hurt too.

Creating undead?
Not in my campaign world where it's an evil act. The last game I played any game with a necromancer it was in the 90s.

And have you ever heard any spell caster say "I can't cast fireball, there are innocents that might get caught in the blast"?
Not that exact phrase, but yes.

*The PC was neutral, not good.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
What in that description isn't common practice by PCs? Loot? Animal companions getting hurt? Creating undead? And have you ever heard any spell caster say "I can't cast fireball, there are innocents that might get caught in the blast"?
generally doesn’t have to be said, but yes, I have. When we play good characters we try to play them as actual good people. Have done since high school.

The only thing that isn't a norm is the harsh way I am describing it. Adventuring in the Outer Planes should be challenging, and since the Upper Planes aren't full of pits of fire or poisonous gas or monsters that want to eat your soul, the challenge will likely be to the PC's self image. Some people really hate that (I am pretty sure that virtually all Planescape hate comes down to "How dare they treat my PC as a rube?"), so "How dare they treat my PC as a murder hobo?" will probably get a similar reaction, which to go back several posts is why there isn't an AP set in the Upper Planes where you are rewarded for being good.

That’s...a take.

I’ve never played the same dnd that you play, it seems.

The one time we had serious PvP was when the Good Halfling knight of the white well (hexblade flavored as a Fey knight) stopped the fiendish warlock from executing a cooperative prisoner when we were done questioning him.

I can reliably use commoners to make a fight harder (I use it sparingly bc who wants the same challenge all the time) simply because the introduction of innocent bystanders automatically adds the “save as many bystanders as possible” objective to the scene, without any input from me beyond describing them as being there.

Creating undead? Why would they do that? Especially in a world where doing so empowers demon princes on top of creating abominations that draw upon the plane of entropy and are a danger to all.

Our characters are flawed, but good. I have been around a lot of other groups, and introduced dnd to a lot of people, and most of them prefer to play that way.
 


Xardion

Explorer
I'm running a game with a character using Grimlore's Pale Master class, which is a pretty excellent take on a necromancer. It's an evil party with 3 players, but they're all bound by a common purpose (more or less), so there isn't really anything in the way of inter-party conflict. One of the players is the obvious leader (conquest paladin), the pale master and the assassin (3rd character) do the real dirty work while their literally fearless leader stands there being terrifying. It's pretty hilarious actually.
 


MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
I am pretty sure arguing about anecdotes will lead me to feel like a bad person. So, as much fun as I had bad mouthing typical (or at least supported in the PHB) PC actions, I will return to my main point.

1. Adventures are supposed to challenge PC's.
2. Adventures in the Outer Planes are supposed to more challenging to PC's than standard dungeon delving.
3. Unless you are a necromancer trying to bring your army of zombies into Mt. Celestia (where the whole "sea of holy water" is pretty dangerous to your army) or you are playing 4e and hanging around a god's realm will result in the god's mind replacing your mind, the environment of most Upper Planes is usually not as challenging as environments in the Lower Planes or Mechanus/Limbo.
4. Generally good outsiders don't attack nonevil types on sight.
5. Upper Planes seem like they would reward good PC's for being good.
6. Very little about 3-5 suggests a challenge for good PC's. I will concede that most PC's probably have some kind of "good" on their sheets, and thus any Upper Planes AP should be written with that in mind (although not exclusively for good PC's).

So the question remains, if there was an AP set in the Upper Planes where PC's will be rewarded for being good (and maybe get to drive sweet celestial vehicles), how shall the PC's be challenged, preferably in such a way that they wouldn't be challenged hanging around Waterdeep or some other mortal location?

Now for a LG plane, it seems easy for a bunch of murder h---I mean, fine upstanding adventurers who just happen to have a neutral or chaotic alignment, to get into trouble. The CG planes seem like good places to be sucker--I mean, volunteered into taking an ill-conceived---I mean, fantastic cosmic quest.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I am pretty sure arguing about anecdotes will lead me to feel like a bad person. So, as much fun as I had bad mouthing typical (or at least supported in the PHB) PC actions, I will return to my main point.

1. Adventures are supposed to challenge PC's.
2. Adventures in the Outer Planes are supposed to more challenging to PC's than standard dungeon delving.
3. Unless you are a necromancer trying to bring your army of zombies into Mt. Celestia (where the whole "sea of holy water" is pretty dangerous to your army) or you are playing 4e and hanging around a god's realm will result in the god's mind replacing your mind, the environment of most Upper Planes is usually not as challenging as environments in the Lower Planes or Mechanus/Limbo.
4. Generally good outsiders don't attack nonevil types on sight.
5. Upper Planes seem like they would reward good PC's for being good.
6. Very little about 3-5 suggests a challenge for good PC's. I will concede that most PC's probably have some kind of "good" on their sheets, and thus any Upper Planes AP should be written with that in mind (although not exclusively for good PC's).

So the question remains, if there was an AP set in the Upper Planes where PC's will be rewarded for being good (and maybe get to drive sweet celestial vehicles), how shall the PC's be challenged, preferably in such a way that they wouldn't be challenged hanging around Waterdeep or some other mortal location?

Now for a LG plane, it seems easy for a bunch of murder h---I mean, fine upstanding adventurers who just happen to have a neutral or chaotic alignment, to get into trouble. The CG planes seem like good places to be sucker--I mean, volunteered into taking an ill-conceived---I mean, fantastic cosmic quest.

Couple ideas:

First things first, celestial rides have all kinds of opportunities!
*PCs could straight up get wings!
*Celestial boats with the heads of unicorns and maybe enormous angelic wings on the sides? The bowsprit unicorn can definitely be used to ram things.
*Celestial mounts! They won’t like you if you do evil stuff. Maybe an opportunity to bond with a newly hatched celestial eagle/Pegasus/alicorn/flying ram/big ol angelic lion/whatever.
*Chariots. And chariot races. And chariot chases. Chariot jousting.
*A celestial dragon a la falcor

Second, the challenge. So, something is wrong in the upper planes. You are stuck with either fixing it or never going home. There is a minor deity that believes you can, and can help you in small ways, but the greater gods have gone silent, and are suspicious of all.

If you don’t figure out what is causing the retreat of the angels, and now the gods, and fix it, there will be war in the Heavens, as there has not been since The Beginning.

Now, this means you have to navigate suspicion, and do dishonest things, without losing your few allies and safe havens, or getting caught out by the forces of the greater gods. This means making checks to convince, which are harder if you are Evil, and may be harder if your Law/Chaos alignment doesn’t match where you are or whose agents you’re dealing with.

I’d even tie it to Descent optionally, and have Zariel be an ally if she was redeemed by the party in Descent, or if the DM wants to establish that a party went to hell and did that, and if not, some other being could fill the same role.
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
Couple ideas:

First things first, celestial rides have all kinds of opportunities!
*PCs could straight up get wings!
*Celestial boats with the heads of unicorns and maybe enormous angelic wings on the sides? The bowsprit unicorn can definitely be used to ram things.
*Celestial mounts! They won’t like you if you do evil stuff. Maybe an opportunity to bond with a newly hatched celestial eagle/Pegasus/alicorn/flying ram/big ol angelic lion/whatever.
*Chariots. And chariot races. And chariot chases. Chariot jousting.
*A celestial dragon a la falcor

Second, the challenge. So, something is wrong in the upper planes. You are stuck with either fixing it or never going home. There is a minor deity that believes you can, and can help you in small ways, but the greater gods have gone silent, and are suspicious of all.

If you don’t figure out what is causing the retreat of the angels, and now the gods, and fix it, there will be war in the Heavens, as there has not been since The Beginning.

Now, this means you have to navigate suspicion, and do dishonest things, without losing your few allies and safe havens, or getting caught out by the forces of the greater gods. This means making checks to convince, which are harder if you are Evil, and may be harder if your Law/Chaos alignment doesn’t match where you are or whose agents you’re dealing with.

I’d even tie it to Descent optionally, and have Zariel be an ally if she was redeemed by the party in Descent, or if the DM wants to establish that a party went to hell and did that, and if not, some other being could fill the same role.
I really like those vehicles and mounts. I haven't gotten to the actual adventure in BGDA yet (figured I would go through the Gazette and appendices first), but I am generally pro-sequel (I have been hoping for an OotA sequel, between the new undead mindflayers, the cult of drow I figure Graz'zt started when he was running around [he does resemble a male drow], and any problems when the demon lords found Lolth's kids hanging around their levels could justify at least one AP).
 

Reynard

Legend
My session 0 is scheduled for next week. I am curious to see which moral path the players decide they want to approach it with -- good guys, mercenary types, or bad guys. I told them it doesn't matter which one they want to take, but as a party they had to be in agreement.
 

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