Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Road to Hell is an Adventure Path

A Review of Descent into Avernus
Baldur's Gate:  Descent into Avernus is the latest hardcover campaign for Dungeons & Dragons.  It has problems.  The premise is spectacular; an entire city has been pulled into Hell (to Avernus, the first level of Hell, to be specific) and the characters get the chance to traverse the Hellscape, wrestling with themes such as dark pacts, corruption, choosing a lesser evil, and redemption.  There's a scene where the fallen city, suspended in the sky above Hell, is inexorably being pulled down into the River Styx by massive hell-forged chains.  You can almost hear the screams of the innocent and the forsaken from above.  Unfortunately, in order to reach the payoff of the premise, the game master will need to overcome flaws inherent in the adventure path format, flaws that are expressed egregiously at times here.  Mild spoilers to follow in the review.

The adventure begins in the city of Baldur's Gate, in the Forgotten Realms.  A flood of refugees from a nearby kingdom, Elturel, have reached the walls of Baldur's Gate telling woeful tales -  the holy city of Elturel is wiped off the face of the earth, a gaping crater where the city once stood.  There is chaos at the city gates as the watch is overwhelmed with the refugee crisis at the walls.  The characters begin the game impressed into service as deputies by the watch to perform side missions while the watch is occupied with the border crisis.

The problems with Descent begin up front.  The players are ordered to go talk to someone to learn a clue by the watch captain.  If the characters don't do it, the captain sends a patrol to rough them up; then it's a second patrol to rough up the characters further, and so on, until they comply (or perhaps bag the adventure entirely?)  From that point, there is a tortuous series of events and encounters the players need to follow to learn the dark secret behind Elturel's disappearance.  Secret doors that if the player's fail to find them, the dungeon and campaign are over.  An evil NPC set up as a villain to slaughter, but if the player's don't accept his surrender, they'll miss his monologue with the clues to the next scene.

These types of issues aren't fatal to the adventure, but they're distasteful for a referee to negotiate.  "Oh, you killed the important NPC and missed his info-dump?  I guess the guard captain asks for the body to be retrieved and arranges a Speak with Dead so he can deliver the info-dump".  I can put a neon sign on the important secret door.  I can have a frank talk up front with the players, out of game, that the campaign starts as a railroad and ask them to agree to limit their choices for the good of the story.  Be warned, however, that most of the campaign is driven by flow charts that map out a path the players must follow to advance.  I expected more from a professionally produced campaign, as the hardcover campaigns produced by Wizards of the Coast have consistently gotten better since the first few.  This is regression.

Once the story moves to the wastes of Avernus, player choice expands and the themes of the campaign take prominence.  Avernus is presented as a large sandbox with a map; the characters are still required to follow a flow-chart along the adventure path, but the execution is more naturalistic and forgiving for players that want to go 'off road'.  The overarching story involves the ruler of Avernus, a fallen angel named Zariel; the players piece together the angel's fall from heaven by encountering locales that hold echoes of Zariel's past.  Along the way, the characters will likely be rumbling across the wastes of Avernus in souped-up, wheeled death tanks (infernal war machines) straight out of a Mad Max movie, either chasing, or being chased by, warlords of Avernus in their own death machines.  Yes, the wastes of Avernus are as cool as they sound.  Queue your "Fury Road" sound track or your Ronny James Dio albums.

In addition to visiting locales that delve into the angel's past, the Avernus sequences put the players into contact with demon lords, arch devils, movers and shakers in the cosmos and the war between the Abyss and the Nine Hells.  The player choices are consequential and the end-game is wide open.  They could attempt to redeem the fallen angel, join her, defeat her, save the fallen city of Elturel, or condemn it.  One way or another your version of the Forgotten Realms will be different after this campaign.  Failure is an option.  The wide open nature of the end-game here is the best attribute of this campaign.

I looked at the writing credits, and it's an ensemble cast on both the story and the writing.  Eleven story creators, fifteen writers, a handful of editors.  Is it any wonder they needed to present a scene-based adventure path?  An adventure path is a sensible way to atomize the work, but leads to tenuous plotted connections between scenes.  Stylistically this puts Descent into Avernus closest to the maligned 5E adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, also adventure paths, and in contrast to the excellent open world sandboxes of Tomb of Annihilation and Curse of Strahd.

I had already committed to one of my Adventurer's League tables to run Descent into Avernus as a bi-weekly game, so I'll need to make peace with the problems and position the story as best I can. It seems that if a referee can elide the early issues, the heart of the campaign in Avernus promises a spectacular mid-game and end-game, and the high level arc is especially consequential and wide open. However, due to the early problems, I'm finding it difficult to give an unqualified recommendation without actual play.  I'll circle back in several months to confirm whether my concerns about plot and player choice were founded, and how difficult was it to improve the experience.

Images: Wizards of the Coast (cover art by Tyler Jacobson)


  1. Thanks for the review! Others I've read have praised the Avernus sections, but glossed over the opening set in the Forgotten Realms. All the live streams Wizards produced earlier this year jumped right into the second half too. Seems like this adventure really wants to just be Descent into Avernus, and that the Baldur's Gate parts were tacked on because... commercial obligations I guess? Or to fill a page count? Disappointing regardless.

    1. There's a full Baldur's Gate gazetteer as an appendix, it will support a referee to run Baldur's Gate well. The campaign would always need a place to start and a way to progress characters from level 1 to be powerful enough to survive in Hell, while also letting them discover the backstory. My complaint is with the forced choices and choke points in the early scenes. It abridges player agency and is susceptible to failures.

  2. I haven't looked at the other big adventure paths so I'm curious, does Tiamat appear in this one? I know she featured in one of the previous adventure paths but I haven't looked at that one yet, so I was curious if she's still in Avernus.

    1. Tiamat is still imprisoned in Avernus. Her agents are also there trying to free her, and they represent a faction the players can ally with as they grow in power.

    2. Nice. Thanks for the info. I may never run these, but Tiamat has always been one of my favorite beings so I was curious how they were using her now.