Review: Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus

Diving straight into hell is the 8th storyline adventure for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, which moves from the corrupt city of Baldur’s Gate to Avernus, the first layer of the Nine Hells in a story of temptation and redemption. 

The adventure begins in the world of the Forgotten Realms, running from 1st to 5th level before jumping to the planes, with the party adventuring in Hell until level 12-13, climaxing in a potential battle with a Challenge 26 fallen angel. 

Last seen in 2018’s Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes (albeit with a curiously different look) the archdevil Zariel is a key figure of this book. She’s featured on the cover—as is her sword, which serves as the principal MacGuffin of the second half of the product. Although knowledge of Zariel isn’t necessary, as her story is told throughout the book, complete with flashbacks to her past.

What It Is

A hefty 256-page book, this is the standard full-colour high production product Wizards of the Coast is known for. Like most current 5e books, the pages are largely white save for some extra detail in the corner and minimalist footers. The illustrations in the book have a slight accent detail; however the normally an inkwash stain, is replaced by a marbled patterning resembling cracked earth. In addition to the 1/2-page chapter illustrations and standard art pieces, there are also several two-page spreads. 

The book features three very different types of map. The individual combat maps are done by Dyson Logos in their simple line drawing style. The city map of Baldur’s Gate and map of the Sword Coast are by Mike Schley. And the map of Avernus and the tortured city of Elturel is in the artistic and stylised style of Jared Blando. It really plays to the strengths of each artist. The book starts with a lengthy section set in Baldur’s Gate that runs 40-pages before the adventure really behind and the PCs end up in Hell for 108-pages. After this, there’s a 54-page gazetteer of Baldur’s Gate, similar to Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion from Dragon Heist. This includes details on the town along with maps of key locations.

Zariel’s Old Look

Ending the book are 7-pages of rules for Infernal War Machines, employing some of the vehicle rules from the spring 2019 product Ghosts of Saltmarsh, along with details on infernal contracts. The book also includes 16 statblocks at the end (and many more elsewhere in the book) with a half-dozen reprinted from past products. Wrapping up the book is a miscellany of filler: a menu, a page of infernal script, and 10-pages of concept art. 

It should be noted that this product is meant as a loose tie-in to the forthcoming Baldur’s Gate III by Larian Studios, developers of Divinity: Original Sin II. Although this game doesn’t currently have a release date (2020 would be ambitious) and has nothing to do with Hell. 

The Good

I’ll jump right into the heaviest aspect of the book. In a recent blog (read: rant) I went over the problems I’ve developed with the formatting of the recent WotC adventures. To briefly reiterate, the middle of most adventures was filler by way of a sandbox, where the plot just vanished, leaving the player characters had to wander until they both rediscovered the plot and hit the right level to resume the story. Descent into Avernus looked like it would have much of the same issues. However, it instead skirts around the problem.

I’m rather surprised. Taken aback even.

There’s enough different locations that a Dungeon Master can sandbox through Avernus, and the players can freely jump the rails, or they can follow one of the two established plotlines (called out as “Path of the Demon” or “Path of the Devil”), continually being led to the next direction in a relatively linear story. Or pause to explore an unrelated location in their path as they cross-cross Avernus, jumping from the southeast to the northwest before heading southwest. Meanwhile, the adventure has a firm end. Several actually. There’s an actual focus on what happens after the final dungeon and the various consequences. You’re given a lot of potential options for how the players can resolve the story, from redemption to murder, from an alliance with Tiamat to voiding a contract. I quite like the flexibility of giving the DM tools to work with for when the story does go off the rails. 

The adventure makes a surprise change to formatting, with monster stat blocks being included in the text rather than just at the appendix. If an NPC only appears in a single scene or location, then the stat block is there, and easy to reference. If a monster appears more than once or is flexible in their location, they’re located at the end. It’s a decent compromise.The adventure is nicely tied into a little explored aspect of Realmslore: the Hellriders of Elturel. This particular adventuring company/ knighthood has been around since the original boxed set in the mid-1980s but has never really been expanded upon. This adventure ties the company to Zariel, her fall, and the Companion: the second sun over Elturel that destroys undead. 

The adventure also adds elements to D&D lore in the form of soul coins. In Hell, the souls of the dead can be forged into coins, especially those who signed infernal contracts and sold their soul to the/a devil.It explains the economics of Hell somewhat, which had previously been a little vague. As presented, soul coins are somewhat samey, with each having three charges and the ability to interact with the soul inside being limited, as you can only as the soul questions, which burns one of its three charges. It would have been nice (albeit harder to balance) to have the charges of soul coins based on the level or CR of the soul inside. But that would add a barter aspect to dealings with soul coins many DMs might dislike, so I can see why that wasn’t included. It would be easy enough to house rule in.Also, as written, using the charges of the soul coin frees the soul, which is explicitly a good act. I have mixed feelings about this, as using soul coins is a big part of the adventure: you want players to use the toys they’re given and be able to use the infernal war machines, which are such a big part of the adventure. (Walking most than a couple hours isn’t really an option.) But you also don’t want to penalise or hinder good characters, not give them any cool things because they don’t want to consume or destroy a soul. In the D&D Live 2019 stream that introduced this story, I was concerned with the contradiction that this was the “Mad Max in Hell” storyline where you might destroy souls to fuel your cars and also the storyline for paladins to go into Hell to kick devil butt. So I’m happy those aren’t mutually exclusive anymore. But the use of soul coins being an evil act would have made for a lovely sidebar or optional rule. 

The adventure also includes a lot of new details for the Nine Hells, including demon ichor (spilled in Avernus as a result of the constant Blood War) and its related corruption, as well as rules for being exposed to the waters of the River Styx. There’s lots of details on what it’s like travelling and surviving in Avernus . It’s horrible and exhausting (which further encourages the use of infernal war machines). 

There’s lots of advice on roleplaying devils. Which is necessary for this adventure but frankly useful for many adventures and even homebrew campaigns. It’s a good reminder of how devils are a totally different form of evil from demons. I quite like that charms/ boons from devils were included, as little bonus powers that can be granted to those who make an infernal pact, and work for both NPCs and PCs. 

The book also has another appearance by Mordenkainen, tying nicely with his Tome of Foes, which provides some decent support material for this book. It’s nice to remember there’s a big multiverse of D&D, and that characters continue to exist and have adventures. Plus it’s nice to have Mordy recovered after his unfortunate turn in Curse of Strahd. It also reinforces that Mordenkainen isn’t a *good* guy, but is firmly neutral. 

The lengthy gazetteer of Baldur’s Gate has a lot of details on the city but also provides flavour and resources for characters, with details on how many of the backgrounds in the PHB fit into the setting along with a new background: the Faceless. The lettered backgrounds are a nice detail and really helps tie characters into the city and its lore. Characters will really belong to Baldur’s Gate and feel connected to the city along with its residents & guilds.

The Bad

The adventure features a vague countdown, which was also an oft-stated problem with Tomb of Annihilation. The longer you take, the more innocents in Elturel will die and the closer the city comes to the River Styx. This is a nebulous deadline, without a firm end, but just knowing time could be wasted can cause a conflict between the desire to explore Avernus and the desire to save the day. It encourages metagaming. 

The hook for exploring Avernus looking for the Sword of Zariel is weak. An NPC surrounded by corses whose mind was whammied by both the forces of good and evil tells you the sword is the key and will save the day… for reasons. There’s not a lot of “why” or “how”. This adventure will live or die based on the players’ willingness to jump and following a really weak and intangible hook. 

Jumping to the end, redeeming Zariel is a matter of waving a sword in her face as the party’s diplomancer makes a high DC check. I would have liked to have seen some arguments that would lower the DC to encourage speeches and roleplaying. “Mentioning X reduces the DC by 5, saying X increases it by 5, etc.” It’s also somewhat anticlimactic to have the entire campaign end with a single character making a single check and then the rest of the adventure effectively becoming a cut scene. 

After entering the Nine Hells, you spend a lot of time in a lengthy dungeon crawl through a cathedral in Elturel to save the leader of Baldur’s Gate. Seems a curious distraction for adventurers when the entire city is literally full of people in need of immediate help. And as the entire building seems overflowing with devils, I can envision some players feeling it’s pointless or assuming everyone already dead. You do get to rescue a couple other key figures, but it still comes off as rescuing the town’s top 1% rather than, say, an orphanage or securing an armoury. Emphasising the local leaders can help rally the resistance might help this feel more impactful, as would having captured knights and guards held here. Ditto having the guards around Lord Ravengard merely unconscious rather than dead, so saving him also bolsters the defenders of the city. 

Given how much of a key part the Hellriders play in the lore of the adventures and the city, I’m a little disappointed PCs aren’t able to join the organization. It’d be nice to have some faction reputation for them and maybe some side quests for the organization. This would have been a great background to tie characters to the adventure and make them care about Elturel. 

It’s weird that Elturel and Fort Knucklebones aren’t on the map. Even if not drawn in, their location could be marked. I’m uncertain where you start or enter the map or the direction you head to conclude the adventure (and what you may pass along the way). You almost just teleport to Haruman’s Hill and begin your wandering and bamf back to the city at the end. 

Of the two plotlines, the Path of the Devil is by far the inferiour choice, being a series of “Thank you Mario! But our MacGuffin is in another castle.” There’s less sense of progress, as each task leaves you in roughly as far along towards saving Elturel as the quest before. 

I like the concept of NPCs being in the text of the adventure, but it does making using those stat blocks harder for other purposes. If you need a dragonborn antipaladin, finding Arkhan’s stat block requires some flipping. It’s especially irksome for the more generic monsters like the hellwasp or abyssal chicken. If someone gets an abyssal chicken familiar, it’d be nice to know where in the book to look for its stats rather than a vague “middle somewhere”. Even just having a chart in the appendix listing stat blocks with the associated page would have solved this issue.

The Ugly

While this adventure skirts around the problems of sandboxes, it does have a problem with its focus. It’s an urban investigation/ dungeon crawl AND a tour of a layer of Hell AND the adventure for noble paladins to smack down devils AND the story for evil adventurers to become a warlord of Hell AND the tale of a fallen angel turned Archdevil AND saving a city trapped in Hell. It’s trying to do so many things that no one thing really gets all the attention it deserves. 

Honestly, while I praise this product for not having a giant Hell sandbox where you wander for a year of play, it feels like they didn’t go that route because of a lack of space and not because they wanted to eschew the sandbox. Because so much of this book focuses on stuff that has nothing to do with the main story of saving Elturel and redeeming/ smacking Zariel.

This product feels like they had two ideas for storylines and mashed them together. There was a Baldur’s Gate adventure and the tour of the Nine Hells adventure and they smooshed them together. Possibly to have a tie-in to a forthcoming video game (which likely won’t be out for a good year or two). A big Hell-focused adventure has been a long time coming and a grand tour of all Nine Hells would be fantastic, but we only get the first level of the nine and a good third of the book is instead about Baldur’s Gate. 

While a central character to the plotline is running around the prologue, he’s rather irrelevant to the prologue’s plot, and things don’t really begin until you finish the adventure and loot the dungeon. By changing the treasure (aka removing the puzzle box) you could make this an unrelated adventure. Similarly, by adding the puzzle box to a different dungeon (such as including it in the treasure hoard of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist) you could make another adventure the prequel. Equally problematic, you then have to engage in a micro-quest in order to find a wizard who’s willing to send you to Hell to save an entire city, which feels like a super ballsy thing for level 5 adventurers to consider. You have to metagame the heck out of that to justify why the PCs wouldn’t pass the quest up the adventuring food chain. 

Especially as the adventure assumes you’re making characters tied to Baldur’s Gate, with backgrounds associated and connected with that city, and at the first opportunity they leave for a different city they give zero effs about. None of the provided backgrounds in this book mention Hell, provide a reason the character would be interested in Hell, and none of the variant features are particularly useful out of Baldur’s Gate. It’s always challenging making the backstories of characters work with a prepublished adventure, but the bait-and-switch aspect of this adventure makes it even more challenging. 

To be devastatingly blunt, the 90-odd pages on Baldur’s Gate are wasted. This adventure could have started at level 5 (say upon reaching Candlekeep) and those pages could have been spent expanding Avernus or giving more details on the Hells in general. OR it could have started in Elturel with a brief prologue (for example focused on the Companion going dark and panic gripping the city) and then had the player characters pulled into Hell with Elturel, negating the need to justify neophyte adventurers deciding to go to Hell, making the adventure as much about escaping and getting home. This also ties the characters to said city, giving them a reason to care about saving everyone there. Alternatively, Baldur’s Gate could have been the city sucked into Hell, with the city being the base of operations, allowing the player character’s background and connections to matter.  That complaint aside, returning to Baldur’s Gate again feels… awkward. D&D’s fixation with the glory days of the original Baldur’s Gate game—released 21 years ago in 1998, probably before at least a third of the current audience of D&D was born—always reminds me of someone in their 30s or 40s reminiscing of their time as a high school football star. (“Four touchdowns in a single game!”) I wonder how many of the younger players, those 30-years-old or less, feel about Baldur’s Gate and if they’ve played it, let alone enjoyed it. But putting that concern aside, it also feels dismissive of fans of the Baldur’s Gate franchise to only have a third of the adventure in the city rather than a whole tale. It feels like this was the Dead Three’s big chance to shine and drive a story, and instead they’re only in the prologue and don’t even get an appearance. Including both the gazetter and its adventure, Baldur’s Gate gets 94-pages, compared to the 96 it got in Murder in Baldur’s Gate and it has to share pages with Candlekeep and Elturel!

Having Ravenloft’s Jander Sunstar included just feels rather forced. There’s no reason for him to have been part of the Hellriders, as it doesn’t fit his character or mesh with his backstory as a recluse and because he was in Ravenloft for 250 years before Zariel’s ride into hell. Doubly so as the character was ostensibly resurrected and remains trapped in the Demiplane of Dread (according to a 2e FR product and a 3e Ravenloft book). 

Lulu the Hollyphant feels like a feature/ bug. She can be a very silly character that can feel incompatible with the serious nature of the adventure, its stakes, and the tone of oppression and temptation. It’s good to have some comedy in adventures, but that can happen above the table. Absurdity and ridiculousness doesn’t need to be baked into the adventure. Especially when she could have easily been a lantern archon, which I don’t believe has been updated to 5e yet. Or a simple cherubic angel. 

The Awesome

The book begins with a pronunciation guide, which is super useful with all the crazy names, which can be both real and entirely fictitious. It even has both pronunciations of Asmodeus and Mordenkainen. 

Devils can tempt you while you’re dying, offering you the chance to live and succeed at death saving throws… for a price. That’s brilliant. And might be useful in other adventures, if only to prevent a TPK. 

The book has a cameo by Arkhan the Cruel, the player character of actor Joe Manganiello, with the section also referencing the time he spent in Critical Role’s campaign setting of Exandria and presents him with the Hand of Vecna, which he’s wearing for very good reasons. This is a neat nod to the most popular of streaming shows, and as a Critter I adore their setting I’d officially part of the D&D Multiverse. 

(I will admit to being a little jaded & jealous over Arkhan’s inclusion: Manganiello’s already a wealthy actor of television and movies who’s married to one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Does he need his D&D character canonized as well? Pretty much every D&D player would give organs for that privilege and he’s just gifted it. How can us non-millionaire D&D fans compete? But that’s just me being a petty cynic.) 

While I criticise the silliness of Lulu the Hollyphant, I imagine she will make a lot of people happy. Especially as she’s a sidekick of the party throughout the entire adventure, being equal parts adorable and ridiculous. I can see Lulu becoming a beloved NPC in many campaigns. She actually serve an important purpose as a potential moral compass. A Jiminy Cricket. An optimistic voice in the hellscape. If asked to roleplay them I’m thinking something halfway between Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony. (But, again, if actually running this campaign, I’d make them a lantern archon and use the sidekick rules from the D&D Essentials Kit to buff them over time.)

Madcaps. I love the name and the concept. Madcaps are the fey commonly known as redcaps, who have instead moistened their headwear in demonic ichor rather than blood. It’s a fun tweak.

Final Thoughts

After succumbing to sandbox fatigue, my expectations for Descent into Avernus were low. I was expecting more of the same… but in the Nine Hells. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised how the adventure presented a linear adventure with a solid story that has an assumed climax and dramatic ending but is still flexible and allows exploration while accommodating PCs who attempt an alternate conclusion.

But… and it’s a “big but” the adventure is also deeply and inherently flawed. 

You start the game with characters rooted in the background of one city, characters built for one kind of campaign with potentially book-supplied backgrounds anchoring them to that city, and then you’re just expected to put all that aside as the campaign does an abrupt 180 and completely changes in tone. It’s almost like a campaign where the first two or three sessions are all about piracy and all the characters are provided naval backgrounds then the adventure dumps them in the middle of a landlocked desert for the remaining 10 levels.  

It might be tempting for DMs to surprise their players with the trip to Hell, and not tell their players the name of the adventure. I’d advise against this; Descent into Avernus is a perfect example of why most campaigns need a “Session Zero” where the DM tells you what the campaign is about.

It wouldn’t take much work to make Descent into Avernus an amazing campaign. A different opening with the adventurers sucked into Hell and spending their first few levels helping to save people and stabilize the city before being tasked with investigating and finding a way home. 

Or building off the introduction where you face off against the cults of the Dead Three into a homebrew campaign of intrigue and corruption in the heart of Baldur’s Gate. 

But it’s super weird that those two very different campaigns are supported by the same product. And the amount of homebrewing required to make a focused campaign is incompatible with the reasons Dungeon Masters purchase pre-published adventures.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic!