Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is the latest module for D&D 5th edition, published by Wizards of the Coast. In this module the player characters need to visit Avernus, the top-most layer of Hell, and find their way back home. Here’s our review.
There are few games that I played as extensively as I played the Baldur’s Gate game series. I spent hours upon hours playing those games, loving every minute of it. I found the narrative entertaining and the game play fun. I tried the enhanced version a while ago but with age I find myself too busy and too preoccupied with other things to let the nostalgia get a hold of me. After all, family, work and other responsibilities tend to have great impact on what time you have for your hobbies. (“Damn kids” – shakes fist at a cloud!)
Once I heard that WoTC were planning on using the city of Baldur’s Gate as a setting for their next module I have to admit that my curiosity was roused. I haven’t been all too impressed with the modules they’ve published for 5th edition, finding them more or less reskinned old classics and, to be completely honest, be more or less hackfiestas. Not that I object to a good hack ‘n slash every now and then, but, also with age, I’ve come to appreciate the social interactions and group interaction more than good ‘ol shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics.
Of course, D&D doesn’t have to be hack ‘n slash, far from it, but I’ve often had the feeling when reading the new modules for 5E that, that is the way the publishers see the game, it is more swords and spells than wits and cunning. However, this approach to writing modules seems to be changing. Reading through The Dragon of Icespire Peak left me wondering, because that module has everything you need for a good rolelpaying game and I could easily see me running it, because it has a little bit of everything and everyone gets a moment to shine. Waterdeep – Dragon Heist is also a marvellous module, where the player characters have the chance to build their own tavern and be a part of the big city, more than just heroes of the day, which I absolutely love.
Then comes Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. And this thing is incredible. This is how you write modules. I think that with Descent into Avernus Wizards and their designers have outdone themselves. This is one hell of a ride, to say the least. If you plan on playing this module, read no further, for spoilers abound ahead.
— SPOILER ALERT! —
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus
Welcome to Baldur’s Gate, a city of ambition, curruption and murder. You’ve started your adventuring career, but already find yourself embroiled in a plot that sprawls from the shadows of Baldur’s Gate to the front lines of the Blood War!
Do you have what it takes to turn infernal war machines and nefarious contracts against the archdevil Zariel and her diabolical legions? Can you find your way home safely when pitted against the infinite evils of the Nine Hells?
If this doesn’t rustle your dice, I don’t know what will! This module contains a great narrative and one that I can’t wait to run for my group.
Now, before you start reading the module itself, I recommend that you read through the Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer. This chapter has so much great information about Baldur’s Gate which will help you make the city come alive. There are so many things that make Baldur’s Gate a great setting and if you skimp on reading this chapter, your players will never know why there are so many peacocks in the city or have the chance to brush against some of the city’s many crews. Also, this chapter holds more information about the backgrounds available to player characters, not to mention information about the Dark Secrets (see below) and how you can alter the background features to suit Baldur’s Gate.
The narrative starts in Baldur’s Gate, as the player characters have already been hired as mercenaries by the Flaming Fist mercenary company, only few days after Grand Duke and leader of the Fists, Ulder Ravenguard, vanishes while on a diplomatic mission in Elturel. Unbeknown to the player characters, and most Baldurians alike, the neighbouring city has complete disappeared, being dragged into Avernus by the archdevil Zariel.
Unlike so many D&D modules, the player characters don’t necessary need to lean towards being do-gooders, since their job requires them to deal and even side with evildoers. The Fists have player characters investigate followers of the Dead Three, which in turn sets the characters on the trail of a corrupt duke, which has brokered a deal with Zariel, and one of Elturel’s leaders, Thavius Kreeg.
Once the player characters have dealt with the duke and Kreeg, they have enough evidence about the fate of Elturel and the Grand Duke to act on it. Leaving Faerun and entering Avernus the player characters find that Elturel is anchored there, awaiting a terrible fate. The player characters help the citizens and make a few friends and allies on the way, Lulu the holliphant among them.
While in Avernus the player characters need to find a way to destroy the Companion, the blazing orb that once hung in the sky above Elturel, banishing all undead, but is now a gaping black hole in the bleak Avernus sky.
The player characters must race across the plains of Avernus and broker deals, fight devils and piece together Lulu’s fragmented memory. Once they have what they need, they visit the Bleeding Citadel and recover the Sword of Zariel, which is not as easy as it sounds, to say the least.
At the climax of the module the player characters can save Elturel and themselves. How they do it is up to them, because the module offers many possible solutions to saving the city and return it and the player characters back to Faerun.
Running Descent into Avernus
This story is something else. Not because of the story itself, which in my opinion is dark, brutal, mature and awesome, but also because of the overarching atmosphere of the narrative. I think that in order to make the most out of Descent into Avernus you need to familiarise yourself with the Life in Nine Hells sub-chapter and, of course, the chapter on Baldur’s Gate. Making the setting come alive, I think, is even more important in this module than ever before, since I believe that is what makes this module so interesting.
The sinful and decadent city of Baldur’s Gate, where everything from fruits to murder can be bought, is but a foreshadow of the bleak and dismal place that Avernus is. Making the players feel this, to have them see in their mind’s eye the suffering of those trapped in Avernus feel every day, should be the true goal of the Dungeon Master when running this module. For me, this is not your average happy-go-lucky, lots-of-comic-reliefs D&D module, this is a story for mature audience.
I’ve seen some reviews where Descent into Avernus is said to be like Mad Max in Hell. Although you have your infernal war machines that the player characters can acquire and use to traverse across Avernus, I would not put much emphasis on this. Of course, this is a part of the module and I wouldn’t exclude it, but in order to make the most of this module I would rather look to Dante’s Inferno and similar literature, where as the player characters see and experience all the misery that awaits those who fall into a sinful life, or worse, make a deal with a devil.
This is the perfect opportunity to put all murder-hoboism into perspective, to have the player characters see for themselves that their actions have consequences in the afterlife, especially if you make the most of the Dark Secret, the player characters‘ flaws and have the players write down their player characters‘ fears.
The Dark Secret
Once you’ve run session 0 have your player characters decide upon a dark secret. The module proposes that the group as a whole shares a dark secret, but I’m going to let each and every character chose one. This mechanism is similar to the one in Forbidden Lands and this is a great addition to every character, not to mention when you have all the dealings and brokering with devils going on. This is something that I gleefully await, for it really brings out the neutral evil dungeon master in me.
The module is beautifully laid out and Wizards are getting really good at setting up their modules. Each chapter has a flow chart, which makes it easy to run the modules and see where you can add your own events and encounters, and a short note on how to run each chapter. The artwork is great and really gives you a sense for both settings. The appendices hold great information, especially on infernal deals.
The text is well written and the encounters well laid out, with amble opportunities for many different solutions. This makes reading the module feel like it is rather open-ended and it seems that solving each encounter is mostly left to the player characters.
The module contains a beautiful two sided poster-sized map, one side shows Avernus and the other one Elturel. The encounter maps are hand-drawn, by Dyson Logos and Mike Schley, which use the same style as was introduced in Dungeon of the Mad Mage. I like this style more than the computer generated maps, but perhaps that’s just me.
This is hands down by far the best module Wizards have ever published. It is cool, dark, gritty and evil, a more mature module than I’ve seen before from WoTC. I can’t wait to run it.