D&D 5E Descent Into Avernus & Mad Max: Why the adventure ultimately failed (to me!)

I was rereading Descent Into Avernus (henceforth: DiA) because I really, really, really like the idea of Mad Max + Bloodwar. However, while rereading it, I came to a startling realization for why that adventure ultimately was, in my eyes, a failure.

DiA is trying to be like Mad Max: Fury Road. However, it misunderstands the core narrative structure of the movie, or any Mad Max movie for that matter, and instead relies on classic, inadequate adventure tropes to try and advance the narrative.

Let's examine this.

Story Structure: Mad Max & "Their and Back Again"

In Fury Road, the story is simple. A group of people are in a terrible place on the run from terrible people. Along their journey, the situation routinely evolves, they begin to bond, and they make new enemies. At the climax of the movie, their bonds now strong and their hearts repaired, they turn around, go back the way they came, and overcome all those enemies they made at once. They then escape the savage land and return home to begin building with things they've learned.

You see this same story structure in the first two Mad Max films. In the first one, Max is running alongside his family to escape the apocalypse, as well as his then-unknown foe: the Toecutter. At the end of the movie, savaged by the world, he turns around and does the above. Road Warrior is much the same. Thunderdome departs from this in some ways, but ultimately returns to it at the end.

This structure is quintessential, and will be referenced henceforth as There and Back Again. You can actually map this story structure out pretty easy (repeating highs and lows as you travel and turn around, ending on a high), and its name tells you what another good example: the Hobbit. Another example is the Odyssey, though both this and the Hobbit are missing the visceral Mad Max twist of having to cleave through your enemies to return home.

Another key element of the Mad Max story structure is that the protagonists are often running from their selves and their pasts just as much as they are any great threat. Max is haunted by the things he has to do, and Fury Road shows us to this most clearly of all. This is important, since DiA is trying to specifically be Fury Road (its first mistake, though I'm glad they attempted). When Max turns around to go back to the Citadel, he tells co-protag Furiosa that they can find redemption this way. This is the key to what the climax of this story ought to be.

The characters, having faced many problems along their travels, have bonded with one another through violence which revealed their mutual violent pasts. Now, they must deal with all the mistakes of their past while trying to make the world a better place. A very beautiful story to have without need of any railroading or other silly "safe" design techniques.

Lastly, the beginning of Mad Max must be examined as well. The movie starts with a hard drop. Here's Max, he eats a two-headed lizard, he's dirty as hell, he's running for his life, explosions, kidnapping. Next thing you know, Max is trying to get out, running through this weird environment, water everywhere, weird men painted white, flashes of his sins. Then he's captured and the story starts for real. Furiosa has went AWOL, and all the Warboys are going to bring her back. One Warboy needs Max for his blood, and on he goes.

This is a very cold, in media res opening, coupled with only a little bit of intro text to get us where we need to get. This is difficult to do in an RPG format, but is possible with handouts and strong vision.

Let's compare all this to DiA.

Story Structure: Descent Into Avernus & "Fetch Quests"

Descent Into Avenrus famously starts in Baldur's Gate. Here, you are low lives forcibly conscripted into the Flaming Fists to go be thuggish cops and figure things out. Its a slow start, with nothing to do with Hell or Avernus, and takes you through a somewhat lengthy investigation before catapulting you to CANDLEKEEP to safely get teleported into an isolated city OVER Hell. Then you have to get through this city (which is interesting, I admit), get down, and no, we're not starting yet, now we have to talk to a hag and get our cars. Then, finally, after all this is done — and I should not fail to mention, much of this has been fetch quests all the way — you get your cars and you pick either the Demon Road or the Devil Road.

Pretty obviously a Fury Road rip off, but that's cool if its right. But so far, it hasn't been right. Before actually getting into the critical failure of the adventure, the writers of DiA failed to acknowledge that Fury Road has a cold start for a reason. Its a violent movie in a violent world, and it wants to get to the actual content of the movie where all the visual storytelling and emotional redemption comes into play. Instead, you have 5 levels of exploring a demon cult, ignoring the fact that you're supposed to all start with a "dark secret," and only very indirectly feeds you information about what is going on.

While this can work for other adventures, in one trying to ape Fury Road, this is a mistake. In order to sit through 2 hours of action scenes, you have to figure out what's going on and get caring real fast. After the first 20 mintues of Fury Road are done, you're introduced to all the characters, have already had explosive action scenes, have had tension absolutely skyrocketing, and you care about the wives running from Immortan Joe. You get why you're here, and with how fast things are moving, you know you have to get moving fast, because if you don't, the Tyrant is going to get you.

And that's the mistake. Zariel doesn't come after the players for a long time, when she should be present from Level 1 chasing them down. From the moment the players are dropped into Hell, they should have already had a target put on their back and can turn around and see the massive roes of floating juggernauts that she's leading towards them. On the horizon, you see a mountain that is a skull and in that skull you have to convince a hag to give you her war machines FAST (just like Max meeting Furiosa and taking the war rig!), or you have to take them for yourselves and get moving.

Regardless of adventure's narrative mistakes in the opening, it is the introduction of the Demon and Devil Road where everything goes awry.

Both roads are railroads (doable) that rely on fetch quests to advance the narrative. At each location, after the combat, with no danger of being chased and no need to hurry at all, you get given a fetch quest to go get something or do something for this demon lord or pissed off archdevil or Tiamat or what have you. The feeling of a fetch quest not only takes away all tension, because now you feel you're doing something you shouldn't have too and so you can't be THAT PRESSED for time, but fetch quests are the opposite of how Fury Road works!

In Fury ROad, at each location, things go wrong, things get violent immediately, and the characters deeply bond as they fight to survive. They then gain NEW ENEMIES who are now hunting them down the Fury Road. This is what DiA was meant to be! The Demon and Devil roads should have been ever escalating, each location giving the PCs something they need to survive longer but also giving them a future enemy they will have to deal with. And, at the climax, they'll have to turn around and deal with all the naughty word they've kicked up.

The Loss of Theme

DiA very quickly turns into your standard 5E adventure with little to seperate it from its siblings. You go into battle with sacks of hit points, you do the fetch quests, and you try and do the right thing. No one knows who you are, you are just ye olde heroes this adventure needs.

But...that's not Mad Max. Mad Max is a wandering hero, yes, but he is specifically a hero who is chased by his past and the decisions he has made. At every step of the way, Max is reminded of who he's left die, who he's failed to save, and who he's killed. He seeks redemption, and he wanders to find it in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

While this is lofty for a D&D game, you can easily account for this theme in Avernus by making use of the dark crime the party is supposed to create in a session 0. Have this crime appear in ways unique to the Demon and Devil Roads, and have the demons and devils use it to hound the players. The feeling of being chased here is paramount to Mad Max as a story. You are being chased in reality, you are being chased in your heart. Immortan Joe (Zariel) is right behind you with the Bullet Farmer and People-Eater (fallen hellriders and devil legions), and everyone in the wasteland knows you are dangerous and won't easily accept you, and you know you've done messed up things in order to live, and you're going to have to keep doing messed up things in order to live, and this terror will chase you across the salts back and again, back and again.

A Broken Climax

The climax for DiA (of which there are several possibilities) usually includes the redemption of Zariel. Only it happens at the very tail end of everything, and can potentially not happen at all. A mistake, in my book!

At the end of the Demon/Devil Road, her angelic sword is fallen. This sword ought to be the key turning point, where the adventurers, riding war machines burning the souls of demons and devils into aether to be reincarnated as something pure, ride into the heart of Zariel's approaching forces. Maybe they have allied with someone (as Max did with the Many Mothers), and here you could use Tiamat or another archdevil or even a Demon Lord. Together, you mess up Zariel's army, ascend her flying fortress, and force upon her the redeeming sword.

Then, with Zariel in hand, maybe getting betrayed by Tiamat or whoever, you have to go back to Eltruiel and Baldur's Gate and save both cities. This gives you redemption, and it gives Zariel redemption, and it is what the adventure is meant to be about if it wants to be as Fury Road is.

By failing to do this, you ultimately create an adventure that very badly missed its intended design goals: to be Mad Max mixed with the Blood War. And though the adventure is still playable, and I'm sure many people have enjoyed it, ultimately DiA presents an experience that is fundamentally opposed to what it wanted to present. This is not Mad Max and the Blood War. This is a shallow railroad played too safe for its stellar content.

For what its worth, the art in this boook...man its great. The core story? I love it! If I didn't care so much about DiA, I wouldn't have written this essay, so have at me.

Also, I'm aware of the Alexandrian Remix, but he ultimately fixes this problem by completely abandoning the Mad Max vibes.

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I took a big long break from running it due to covid, right before the party went to hell. You've inspired me to make sure that I up the Mad Maxiness of anything that occurs after they get those vehicle thingies. My players will appreciate it.

One thing that might help is to think of the adventure in distinct sections. The occult-mystery at the beginning is not Mad Max. Only the race across Avernus is.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I haven’t read the book, but it sounds about like what I would expect from my experience of 5e published adventures. They try to emulate the aesthetics of their inspirations, but utterly miss the marks on the themes, ultimately ending up as your bog standard fetch quest laden D&D adventure with a thin veneer of whatever genre or work it’s trying to ape.


I haven’t read the book, but it sounds about like what I would expect from my experience of 5e published adventures. They try to emulate the aesthetics of their inspirations, but utterly miss the marks on the themes, ultimately ending up as your bog standard fetch quest laden D&D adventure with a thin veneer of whatever genre or work it’s trying to ape.
That's pretty much how it goes. I suppose it makes it easy to add your own House Flavour to the adventure, but it doesn't give you much that broadens your scope. All the challenge tends to be in bashing the adventure into shape, not in stretching your DMing skills to new heights.

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
One solution:

Out of the Abyss + Descent!

The underdark is wracked by dimension twisting magic of Hell, the Blood War as engulfed our reality and is spreading to the usual hunting grounds of the Drows in an epic 3-ways-war. The PC are caught by the drows just before all Hells break loose. The PC have to find a rig from Elturel which was crashed unto a drow city and escape to the surface. There, they realize that their trip changed them, making them pariahs on the surface, but the best suited to go back with their new gain conviction to kick the butts of the demons and drows and devils who were chasing them.

Voidrunner's Codex

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