Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus is a Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition adventure module by Wizards of the Coast. It is a supplement and requires the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual to play.
Important: The review contains minor spoilers. I do not spoil anything that was not already mentioned in interviews with Wizards of the Coast before release. I am intentionally vague about aspects outside of those.
Descent into Avernus is an adventure module for a party of 4 to 6 players plus a dungeon master. It takes the characters from level 1 through 13. It begins in the iconic city of Baldur’s Gate and spans an intense epic adventure into Avernus, the first layer of the nine hells.
Descent into Avernus has been noted as D&D meets Mad Max. This adventure is a more mature one, but most of its content by default is around a PG:13 rating which can obviously be raised or lowered by the DM. It is meant to be an intense and challenging adventure where player characters are often in over their heads.
The book contains an adventure, and a comprehensive chapter on everything you could possibly want to know about Baldur’s Gate. In addition it offers alternate character features for existing backgrounds and a new background. Rounding out the content are infernal war machine rules, stat blocks, magic items, a two-sided poster map and more.
Some of the encounters have maps in the book. I really dig the chosen art-style because I’m a grid DM. The maps in Descent Into Avernus easily translate to the table when drawing them out. Others may lament the lack of coloration.
The City of Blood
Chapter One drops players in the middle of a refugee crisis in Baldur’s gate. The book features a section on dark secrets. During character creation the players determine a dark secret that ties them together. This can range from murder, theft or even a failed coup. The players roll on a table to determine what they did, what the role of each character was, the consequences and who in Baldur’s gate knows their secret.
This is a neat way of tying the characters together early on and avoiding that awkward phase of introductions. That said, the secret carries only as much weight as the Dungeon Master gives it. It isn’t integral to the story but acts as a tool for the DM to use. The early game consists of investigating Baldur’s Gate and cracking some skulls. The first encounter of the adventure is very dangerous and sets the tone for the rest of the book. It also captures the feel of the seedy underbelly that is Baldur’s Gate quite nicely.
I do take issue with the initial plot hook, there is only one and it is very ham-fisted, forcing the player’s hands. It would be entirely reasonable for certain characters to refuse this hook, if they do, the book’s solution to this is to essentially kill the characters in a fight they couldn’t win. I cant see a player wanting to stay at your table after that. This can easily be solved by an out of character conversation with your players where you tell them that the adventure expects them to follow that hook. But it is still an awkward hook.
The rest of the first chapter is pretty straight forward but is somewhat on rails. It really wants players to push through and get to the selling point of the adventure, Avernus. That’s valid but leaves me wondering why not start them there in the first place? Obviously, this is D&D, you can throw in whatever side quests you want and the players can go off the rails at any time. But doing so only delays them from getting to the heart of the adventure.
The initial quests in Chapter one are very detailed to a granular nature, each room of a location is meticulously noted and there is a lot of fun to be had. Each location digs deeper into the nasty nature of the city and pushes the theme more. The encounters are well done but ordinary. Nothing you wouldn’t see in a standard game. It does lead to some interesting interactions, however.
Descent Into Avernus
Chapter 2 has another awkward segue. At this point, the characters should have a lot of information about what is happening. But unless they are pure-hearted heroes of light, there might be a moment where the character’s go, “Why us?”. The question is a valid one. I would highly suggest that Dungeon Masters tie in additional motivation outside of selfless heroism, darker leaning character’s are likely to be common in this campaign.
Once you get past that awkward bit, the adventure dials up the intensity to eleven and pushes the characters hard. Time is an urgent concern. Its dangerous and there is very little sanctuary to be found. This chapter is still a bit on rails but less so and really captures the theme, feeling and danger of the adventure going forward. Once again, the encounters and locations are very detailed. The characters must be careful as there are multiple ways to die instantly.
Chapter 3 opens up wide, though it’s not obvious at first glance. From here the players have more than one path they may take, but it’s important to read between the lines. The meticulous detail of the previous chapters is gone. Most locations don’t have maps and are only a few paragraphs long. It is at this point you should slow down, add in your own quests and encounters and let the players dive into Avernus, it’s dangers and it’s opportunities. If you simply fade to black and move them to each location in succession, it will feel jarring and you will rob them of the advertised experience. This is where the meat of the game should take place.
Avernus is not the material plane and if you follow the guidelines in the book, and use your own creativity, you can really sell that fact to your players. I don’t consider this a flaw, I just wish it was explicitly written for new DM’s. The late-game encapsulates an epic and dangerous quest where the fine detail returns once again, and the finale can end in several ways depending on previous actions the players took. The stakes are high for the players as well as the cities. The players could possibly impact the balance of the multiverse on a cosmic scale.
I do have one gripe. One potential decision point is a big one and is dictated by a single dice roll. Not only is it anticlimactic from a game-play perspective, but the context of the situation also makes it absurd from a story standpoint. I suggest Dungeon Masters rewrite this moment. That issue aside, the finale is epic, and depending on what the players do, you have a lot of potential material to continue the campaign past the end of the book.
Descent into Avernus features a massive chapter on the city itself. It details everything from its political hierarchy, economy and just about every possible interesting location you could imagine. Numerous quest hooks are scattered throughout this chapter as well as encounter tables you can roll on that vary depending on the district.
Baldur’s Gate itself is extremely interesting, you could probably run an entire adventure in the city itself. I enjoyed how each district was laid out with relevant locations and information. I don’t think its all that useful for the actual Descent Into Avernus adventure. The time players spend there is more a less a fast track to Avernus. Adding additional Baldur’s gate content just delays their arrival to the meat of the game.
The chapter reads more like a setting guide than a part of the adventure, its a fantastic and useful read. You could run Baldur’s Gate in another campaign easily. It is just a bit out of place in this particular book.
Devil in the details
Descent Into Avernus features alternate background features for existing D&D backgrounds that can tie characters into Baldur’s Gate. Such as a soldier who works for the city watch or the Flaming Fist mercenaries. It includes a brand new background called the Faceless. Characters with this background have two personas that they can switch between, Baldur’s Gate has been called the Gotham of D&D. As a faceless, you can become the Batman of Baldur’s Gate.
Descent into Avernus features a guide about diabolic deals. This section informs the Dungeon master about infernal contracts, how they work, what devils want out of them and more. It lists the infernal hierarchy and how much power each rank has when making deals. With this guide the DM can provide tempting offers to the players. Given the setting, the players really need all the help they can get and diabolic deals are a great tool to use.
The front of the book has guidelines on Avernus itself and how you should run it. It is a harsh place and the characters should always be aware of that fact. I enjoy the guidelines on making it feel different than the material plane and the optional mechanics a DM can use while the players are in Avernus.
Descent into Avernus comes with a double-sided poster map. One of Avernus and one of a city. It is a beautiful map and the players are meant to see and use it during parts of the adventure. Stat blocks for creatures that do not appear in the Monster Manuel appear in the back of the book. I would much rather all relevant stat blocks appear in their relevant sections, but this method is pretty standard now.
New magic items are also detailed here as well as a neat restaurant menu and an infernal script. One part of the book has information on a roving shop that can appear anywhere on Avernus as well as warlords. Warlords don’t impact the main adventure but can and should be used during the sandbox portion I noted in chapter 3.
Infernal War Machines and Soul Coins
One of the selling points of Descent into Avernus is the D&D meets Mad Max theme. This comes in the form of Infernal war machines. Mechanical hulks that warlords of the waste use to traverse the hell-scape. The players can get their hands on these monstrosity’s, pilot and customize them. The book includes stat blocks for common ones and you can easily make more.
Some war machines have multiple seats and mounted weapons. Some light rules are included for controlling them and running battles or chases. However they are pretty light, the book recommends you run it in theatre of mind and push the rules aside if needed. I disagree with this but admit its entirely a playstyle choice. There are enough rules and guidelines in place that if you are like me, you can easily finish fleshing them out.
These machines are powered by soul coins. Coins that contain the soul of a presumably evil creature. Soul coins are rare and have several uses outside of fueling these machines. Including but not limited to being a currency in Avernus. The players will have to balance this usage out. There is a moral quandary about using the soul’s coins for fuel, yet the machines are integral to the experience. I suggest an alternative method for powering the machines in addition to coins for the squeamish characters, just make sure it has a cost. Nothing in Avernus is free after all.
Descent Into Avernus is packed full of content. The adventure is solid, if a bit ham-fisted early on. However you can really push a sandbox nature once the players enter Avernus. The information on devil deals and the plane are a fantastic tool. The alternate backgrounds, new background, and dark secret are great tools to tie the party to Baldur’s Gate, not just in this adventure, but in any other.
The infernal war machines are a great selling point and the players will have a ton of fun playing with them. The adventure is fairly easy to run. Parts of it may require additional writing and motivations. Obviously the side quests and the sandbox is on the DMs shoulder. But the setting and book does provide plenty of guidelines to help you with this.
The storyline is solid, it has some hiccups, especially that single dice roll decision I mentioned. The adventure itself is challenging and a major theme is about powers beyond the characters. This adventure is probably best for players who have played before, but I wouldn’t turn a newbie away.
The book contains a massive chapter on Baldur’s gate, while I don’t think it is useful for the actual adventure contained within Descent into Avernus. It is detailed and incredibly useful for any game where the players might visit the city in question. I would have liked to have seen more unique stat blocks and magic items, but there is still a nice amount.
While Descent into Avernus does have a couple of flaws, they aren’t severe enough that an experienced Dungeon Master couldn’t alter them. The book is a great resource for any campaign set in or near Avernus or Baldur’s Gate and the actual adventure will provide many sessions of nail-biting fun. I give it my seal of approval and recommend it if you are looking to start a new campaign, or feel like sending your players on a trip to hell.
You might also want to check out my Dungeon Master tips!
- Neat storyline that leads to an interesting playground
- Infernal war machines and diabolic deals are rad
- All the information you could ever need about Baldur’s Gate
- Dark Secret and alternate background’s can tie players to the city. Or choose faceless and pretend to be Batman
- The adventures oppressive feel and danger is a unique experience.
- Lots of information on how to run Avernus and it’s occupants
- Solid adventure start to finish.
- Great sandbox in chapter 3.
- Initial plot hook is ham fisted.
- Players may require additional motivation to take the leap in Chapter 2.
- The massive info dump on Baldur’s Gate is not that useful to the adventure.
- Infernal machines are a little rules light and might require tweaking.
- Huge plot point in the finale can be decided by a single dice role, may need to be rewritten by the DM.