As we fall into October, we start thinking about spooky things. Ghoulish things, even. Maybe hell stuff. And if you’re into that general vibe here during the evil month, and you also like Dungeons & Dragons, then the newest adventure Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus might be right up your alley. An adventure that takes players from first level all the way to level 15 or so, Descent into Avernus is a classic smashing together of the sword-and-spells logic of a fantasy world and the straight-up bizarro weirdness of devils and demons and all kinds of other hell stuff. It is, in a word, good.
When I review these books from Wizards of the Coast, I am often thinking about both what they do as a narrative or contained story as well as what they do for someone who wants to strip a book for parts. One of the last major releases, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, was a book that was just fine in the former category and overwhelmingly excellent in the latter. I regularly use ideas from that sourcebook in my Dungeons & Dragons podcast, and it was my worry that Descent into Avernus would fall into a similar zone of having a lot of rad pieces but not a strong reason to keep those pieces together in the shape the designers delivered them in. To my surprise, Descent into Avernus does both things really well. It gives a compelling set of story pieces that take players from the city of Baldur’s Gate, which is a fairly traditional gritty fantasy place, into the mythical hell realm of Avernus, the first level of hell.
Dungeon & Dragons’s concept of hell was established nearly 40 years ago, and the general depiction of it can be kind of labyrinthine and hard to communicate. There are nine levels to hell, and they’re ruled by the devil Asmodeus. There’s a strict hierarchy to hell, and so the denizens there are always trying to jockey for position. The first level of hell, the entryway if you will, is Avernus, and it runs up against The Abyss, the chaotic zone where demons live. That’s right, D&D is a game that distinguishes between devils, which love hierarchies and deals and collecting souls, from demons, who just want to annihilate the entirety of the planes. And speaking of those, if you’re confused about where non-hell stuff is in this hierarchy, don’t worry about it. The settings of mortals in D&D are on another plane entirely. They’re not connected except by, I guess, metaphysics? Please do not think about this too hard.
This is all to say that communicating the complexity of all of this through a story, rather than through a wiki-style info dump sourcebook, is a hard task that the Wizards of the Coast designers have accomplished. While you can follow the plot of the book from beginning to end, you could just as easily take the hell-focused parts of the story and begin players there.
Without getting into specifics, there are fallen angels, a blasted landscape, infernal war machines that help you cross it, cursed objects, cursed citadels, and a dozen other weird things in Avernus for players to check out. While the opening of the book is fairly linear in what it asks players to do, by the time they get to Avernus the entire vibe becomes much more open to their interests and interpretations. This section of the book is most easily lifted from here and placed into home campaigns, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t eager to take some of these locations and put them into my own play sessions. My players have already walked through the Crypt of the Hellriders by another name.
I want to note two interesting things about this book that might not be apparent while flipping through it that a Dungeon Master who isn’t interested in the adventure might care about specifically. First, there are some rules for piloting infernal war machines, which are adaptable tanks, in the book. You can probably think of a dozen ways of implementing that in your campaign. Second, there is an appendix of about 50 pages that is just focused on Baldur’s Gate as a location. If you’re looking to run a campaign here, or you just want to know what’s up with the famous videogame city in 2019, then this is a great resource and a fun thing to read (there are also some good maps). You can learn about the Harbreeze Bakery and its sugarbread loaves! Or whatever.
If players are looking for a campaign that will take them from grim and gritty streets and into a conflict with literal devils from hell, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is probably sufficient. It introduces them slowly into the weirdness of this world, gives them a lot of options and factions to play with in hell, and then puts them as important agents in a plot to save or damn a city, a ruler, and even themselves. These are the kind of meaty questions that I think players like to dig into, and there’s an ample number of them here.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman. He is the Editor at Large for Paste Games.