Go to Hell (and back again?)

Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, the latest official Dungeons & Dragons adventure, is out today. If you’re looking for a field trip to Hell to shake things up in your campaign world, look elsewhere — because this is more like an infernal semester abroad.

Standard cover (left) and hobby store-exclusive cover (right)

Priced at $49.95 retail, this 256-page hardcover is available in a standard cover version and a deluxe, soft-finish, game-store only edition emblazoned on front with the grinning skull symbol of Bhaal that will be familiar to those who know the Forgotten Realms city of Baldur’s Gate from the computer games set therein.

Before descending into the lower planes, the players will have tasks to complete in that city (sort of the fantasy equivalent to Batman’s crime-riddled Gotham City) as well as another storied Realms site, Candlekeep — where they will encounter interesting characters and seek the answer to a diabolical puzzle that is only the beginning of their journey, setting them on the path to Hell to avert total catastrophe on earth.

The depths of Hell

Avernus is the first layer of the Nine Hells, so in this adventure you’re barely scratching the surface of the devilish world. Once a deceptive paradise to lure in the tempted, it’s now a war-blasted holocaust thanks to the depredations of the Blood War — the never-ending struggle between Hell’s scheming devils and the demon hordes of the Abyss.

Yet even though it’s the tip of Hell’s iceberg, Avernus as fleshed out in this volume is almost a campaign world unto itself, especially when you factor in where the journey begins — the titular city of Baldur’s Gate. Long an icon of the popular Forgotten Realms setting, it gets its most expansive exploration here in print at last for the tabletop D&D roleplaying game, outside of the classic PC games that are now getting re-issued for modern consoles. An entire section of the book serves as a gazetteer for Baldur’s Gate adventures.

In terms of depth, Fifth Edition D&D’s Descent Into Avernus is on par with the “Expedition” series of hardcover adventures from late in the game’s 3.5 Edition, and reminds me much of Expedition to the Demonweb Pits especially in its potential for scheming and planar advancement — and temptation.

Welcome to the metal-ocalypse

Metal has come home to D&D where it belongs. Basically neutered in Second Edition AD&D after the “Satanic Panic” of the ’80s, slowly the game’s infernal traditions have crept back into the game’s lore even as society has largely recognized they were never what the game was about.

The new “infernal war machines” give Avernus a Mad Max flavor, something I didn’t know D&D was missing, and make traversing the wastelands of Hell’s first layer potentially even more exciting. The accompanying rules gibe with other D&D “monsters” and modes of transportation, with options for customization by the players. And there are interesting encounters galore across the war-torn slopes of Avernus — some, quite unexpected and therefore all the more intriguing and engaging.

And the continuing trend of concept art archives can just keep on continuing. The illustrations in this book are a treasure hoard unto themselves, waiting to be explored. Even if you don’t use every damned thing in the sourcebook, there’s no end to the inspiration it can provide.

Descent Into Avernus merges old D&D and Forgotten Realms lore with new — the legendary Hand of Vecna is wielded wielded by actor and superfan Joe Manganiello’s Critical Role Dragonborn paladin/barbarian character Arkhan the Cruel, who presents the players with an alternative path to solving one of the adventure’s darkest dilemmas and ropes in another iconic villain — if they have the guts to try and pull it off.

The game is, of course, as always, what you make it — but the tools are here at hand for a long adventure or even a campaign that can let the players’ characters write their names into the firmament of the multiverse, for good or for ill.

Darkness or light?

There are suggested flourishes the Dungeon Master can add to highlight the hopeless cruelty of Hell, including unexpected moments of delight and levity; the adventure’s writers didn’t forget the goal is to have a good time when you get your friends together for a game.

DMs may be tempted to try and cram Descent Into Avernus into their existing D&D campaigns. While it’s not impossible, doing so could be a mistake — it’s not designed for that, and it provides opportunities to start afresh with new, first-level characters who are, in a twist of the book’s new options, linked by a dark secret. Keep your world — and your players — if you must, but it’s best to descend into Avernus with a fresh batch of characters … and an open mind. But fear not: While anyone may be tempted by the power they find, this adventure is still firmly rooted in the idea that even the smallest glimmer of light can overcome even the greatest darkness. Just remember: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions …

Accessorizing is Hell …

As part of a review package that included both of the book’s cover variations, Wizards of the Coast also sent us the Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus Dice & Miscellany accessory. The book’s lavish art is celebrated again here in spades — but it’s more than eye candy. While the book is packed with so much content that you couldn’t need more if you tried, why not give into temptation and gluttony?

I’ve been skeptical of these accessories in the past, but for under $25 the dice and their box are almost worth the price alone here — the extra map and content, especially the encounter cards, definitely make this a fitting addition to the gaming table if your adventuring group is set on going to Avernus.

The accessory includes:

  • 11 dice (two d20s, one d12, two d10s, one d8, four d6s, one d4).
  • A durable, lined dice tray, which also works as part of a two-piece dice box.
  • 20 double-sided cards with encounter tables and story content for the devils and demons of the Blood War, featuring exclusive art from Max Dunbar
  • 2 exclusive cards with bonus Baldur’s Gate: Decent Into Avernus content (Strange Encounters and Trinkets One Finds in Avernus)
  • Fold-out color map of Avernus, the hellish setting of Baldur’s Gate: Decent into Avernus (10.5” x 15.75.” For player use.)
  • Sizing chart for Blood War demons and devils

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Jayson Peters
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