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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FitzTheRuke

Legend
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.
 

Charlaquin

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.
 




FitzTheRuke

Legend
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.
 

Yora

Legend
RPGs are not movies.
Or TV shows. Or novels. Or videogames.

RPGs need their own types of structures to work. Which is something still nobody seems to have figured out yet even after 40 years of trying. A good RPG product should be strucured to create stories from the players' inputs. Not to tell the players a story.
RPGs are not a storytelling medium.

And from what I've heard and read, structure seems to be the main flaw with all of these adventures. Whether they are widely considered good or bad, it's the structure where they fail the most.
 

Do you think it can be salvaged? How would you fix it?
The secret lies in the NPCs the adventure and doesn't use.

First off, cut out everything before getting into Hell. We don't need it. And put the players in Elturel when it gets pulled into Hell. Now we're cooking. This is your level 1-5 content, and you have to be attacked immedieatly, and in the distance you need to see Zariel and her armies growing closer to this place (which is swarmed in demons). You don't know what's happening, and all insanity is now on the table, so you got to get out.

So, you get out. Get to the Hag and get your gear somehow. Also at the hag: the last living Hellrider (an NPC in the book) and that holyphant that Zariel used to pal around with. THE HOLYPHANT DOES NOT TALK. IT DOES NOT TALK. IT DOES NOT TALK. uNLESS your group is down for that, whatever.

Anyway, that Holyphant and Hellrider are being chased by Zariel, cuz they know where her sword is, and she can't let anyone get that sword before her. Zariel doesn't remember why she even wants it, but she found the Holyphant, was going to get its info, and it got saved by the Hellrider somehow. Who knows! Point is, you're traveling with the Hellrider, and Zariel is coming after the Hellrider, so now their problems are your problems.

First, you gotta get somewhere else. Literally anywhere else. ANd the sword can maybe help you. So you hit the road. Combine the Path of Demons and the Path of Devils. Take out all the fetch quest or stuff about having to go do something for someone somewhere else. Its all violent, people trying to trick you so they can take advantage of you with violence, and hidden violence you don't even expect. This is where you bust in the Warlords of Avernus, which are NPCs NEVER USED IN THE WHOLE BOOK REALLY WITH STATS AND WARMACHINE. Combine the Warlords with the violent options of the combined Paths, and have the players run through it. All the way to the end.

And at the end, the Scab. It isn't what they expected. They have someone they can ally with here. I suggest you keep the Dragonborn played by Joe and combine the scab with Tiamat's cave. Maybe the sword is buried in Tiamat's "first corpse" (as she's now smaller and inside her old skull) and by ripping it out of her, she'll be forced to answer one prayer for the players. She wisely tells them they could use her to kill something, or they could use her to help free "their city." Regardless, the players get this, this is their first real moment to rest, and then they dive into the scab.

Do the Scab. Get the sword. Now what? Let'ss change the sword a bit. Any creature attuned with the sword can fly out of Hell. Easy! So now the players could choose to leave, but...if they did...Zariel's plan continues, she consumes an entire city, and the Blood War tips in the favor of devils and things get a lot worse in every world for awhile. Plus, Zariel will chase them to any plane. There's no escape. And they have this potential Dragon Goddess miracle to cash in...

So they turn around AND GO BACK. This is an optional decision though. The players could just leave hell like in Out of the Abyss and never return and that's fine. You now have material for a different homebrew adventure! Yay! But, this is also a natural decision, to go back. I mean, they have the NPC (who could be dead by now, doesn't matter), the sword, the reasons to save the day....the Dragon Goddess miracle...

Run them back. Lots of crazy ass fights. Have their dragon and abishai allies be there. Big bloodshed. End by driving up into Zariel's flying fortress, do a bunch of crazy naughty word, I don't know, explosions, Hell, blood, Doom, etc etc etc. Find Zariel. Beat her, and choose to redeem her or not. If not, she'll be destroyed for good, and Eltruel INSTANTLY returns. Otherwise, if you redeem her, you will have to go to Eltruel and finish what you started.

Let's assume they redeem. Fly with Zariel back to Eltruel. Demons everywhere. The destroyed Zariel army has tipped the war in a just-as-bad direction. Big battle, call in Dragon Goddess to melt the chains or whatever, free the city. Zariel maybe dies in Hell to save the city, or ascends with you all and goes to the Heavens to atone for what she's done, or who knows. Fun adventure! Very Mad Max! Easy to run with the book too, you don't need too much fiddling around to set up the chain.

This adventure works better IMO for levels 5-10. 5 high octane levels where the war machines and other OP stuff you find in Hell lets they should-be-dead characters survive all this insanity. Bring in dark secrets and roleplaying and stuff with the devils as you want. Plan on a lot of set piece combats, a lot of evolving combats, or a lot of shenanigans that replace combats because shenanigans are a pillar of play.

Hope this makes sense and helps!

P.S: The book has AMAZING concept art in it at the end. Use that!!
 

pukunui

Legend
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.
This sums up my problems with the 3pp Odyssey of the Dragonlords campaign as well.
 

TheSword

Legend
I’d echo the problems already described and add a couple more.

The idea of vehicle chases just doesn’t work. From a mechanics standpoint the PCs have no good reason not to stop the wagons and just fight whatever is chasing them. It’s almost always better just to target the pilots not the vehicles and the vehicle rules don’t work with D&D turn based initiative. The soul tokens are a red herring.

It just isn’t dangerous enough. There isn’t really anything to be properly scared of in hell. Which seems like a flaw in the way the adventure set difficulty.

The encounters in hell are static, bland and devoid of plot and inter connectivity. Every NPC is useful and relevant for the 10 minutes it takes to move to the next section and then is never heard from again. The rivalry between different factions and the bargaining is non-existent.

The idea was great, the execution was poor. What the adventure needed was Plot that the players could engage with and influence, rather than some meta plot happening in the background that the players only learn about by accident.

RPGs absolutely can tell the PCs a story through a slowly discovered and unraveled mystery. There is no reason why the PCs can’t tell their own along the way. The two are not mutually exclusive.
 
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pukunui

Legend
The idea of vehicle chases just doesn’t work. From a mechanics standby the PCs have no good reason not to stop the wagons and just fight whatever is chasing them. It’s almost always better just to target the pilots not the vehicles and the vehicle rules don’t work with D&D turn based initiative. The soul tokens are a red herring.
I've always struggled with chases in turn-based games (not just D&D). 5e's default chase rules are super awkward to use. The closest I've come to chase rules that actually work are the variant chase rules in the AL Season 2 adventure, Cloaks and Shadows.
 

TheSword

Legend
If I was running it again. I would have have the entire adventure be about Baldurs Gate, not Elturel.

The companion is a construct being crafted by several factions to ward the city against Baalspawn. It’s construction is happening when the PCs arrive.

The first locations are about uncovering the treachery of the Vanthampurs. At the conclusion of which the Party and Baldurs gate gets dragged into hell.

Bring the city to life. Give ways to return to the city when they need.

Have several factions in the city with competing aims and solutions for freeing BG.

Mix in some factions of hell into the mix. Dispater, Mephistopheles, Asmodeus. Give them their own agendas and tasks.

Give the party some actual things to be scared about.

Come up with some working vehicle chase rules.
 

Derulbaskul

Explorer
It would have made more sense as an expedition to a layer of the Abyss - such as the Barrens of Oublivae (4E reference).

Hell is not the place for the chaos needed to make this adventure work.
 

ECMO3

Hero
Wow, that was a lot. Far too much for me to read all of it.

To start with, I played DIA and I loved it. I played an Arcane Trickster4/BladesingerX

I think if you go strictly along the plot line it can be railroadish, and there is a problem deviating because you are trying to save a city before they all starve to death, so you don't have a lot of time to explore hell or otherwise get involved with the many cool story elements there.

I loved the cars we got and the running battles we had in them and it did feel very mad-maxish driving around in them (perhaps because I was generally the driver because I had land vehicle proficiency). Our DM was so awesome on this and we were constantly thinking up maneuvers to do with the car - I slammed on the brakes and put it in a power slide while our barbarian leaps into the enemies vehicle. Our Monk falling off and using that Monk speed to try and catch us. I failed a check and our scavanger got demolished at one point as I tried to swerve and avoid an enemy that was trying to ram us. As we spilled out of it we were able to run down our adversaries car and ended up taking it.

I think there would be something to be said for a DM to alter the plot a bit. Make it not about saving the people of El Turel but rather something with less of a sense of urgency-maybe the city got sucked into hell but the people didn't and make the people living there warlord types or slavers. Then expand the adventure so the players can explore hell, maybe play a bigger role in the blood war (willing or not), take a side mission on the Stix to another plane (abyss or another layer of hell). It would be some work, but I think the adventure and the "dora the explorer" style map you get has enough in there to expand and do this.
 
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ECMO3

Hero
The idea of vehicle chases just doesn’t work. From a mechanics standpoint the PCs have no good reason not to stop the wagons and just fight whatever is chasing them. It’s almost always better just to target the pilots not the vehicles and the vehicle rules don’t work with D&D turn based initiative. The soul tokens are a red herring.

I think we were better off driving than stopping. As I recall the movement rate on the vehicles was very high. I think we would have been sitting ducks if we stopped.

We attacked vastly superior numbers from the car as we drove away at one point and we would not have survived if we stayed.

The vehicles we had all had weapons on them and afforded cover, so I don't really see what the advantage would have been in stopping. We did ram the enemy and board their vehicles and that kind of stuff, but I think we would have been sitting ducks if we stopped.
 

TheSword

Legend
I think we were better off driving than stopping. As I recall the movement rate on the vehicles was very high. I think we would have been sitting ducks if we stopped.

We attacked vastly superior numbers from the car as we drove away at one point and we would not have survived if we stayed.

The vehicles we had all had weapons on them and afforded cover, so I don't really see what the advantage would have been in stopping. We did ram the enemy and board their vehicles and that kind of stuff, but I think we would have been sitting ducks if we stopped.
Your DM must have seriously beefed up the encounters then. By a couple of orders of magnitude. Which was probably quite sensible.

I actually like the idea of having to run away from a more powerful foe. It just has to be powerful enough and telegraphed that they can’t defeat the enemy. While at the same time they still need to interact with it otherwise it’s a nameless threat that serves little more than a device. That’s a difficult needle to thread.

Bear in mind that in 5e running away is rare for all the reasons discussed in other threads… and PCs are as like to fight to the death rather than surrender or flee. At least until it is too late. It causes problems.
 

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