The number of hardback campaign books I’ve actually finished has just increased to three! My Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus campaign has just wrapped up, so I thought it was time to give my thoughts on whole adventure. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but beware: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I’ve also added a few notes on what I did differently to the book, but I mostly wanted to focus on the good and bad with the published adventure itself.
Dead Three or Dead End?
I’m old enough to have played the original Baldur’s Gate PC games, and I bloody love them. So, like probably a lot of people, I was sold on this book due to old BG featuring in the title. But here’s the thing: Baldur’s Gate should’ve never been involved in this adventure!
The main part of the adventure involves travelling into hell to save the holy(?) city of Elturel, which has been transported there along with all its citizens. That’s a cool adventure right? That sounds fun? Did you notice how the words ‘Baldur’ and ‘Gate’ weren’t involved in that description?
The adventure asks you to care about this city – care enough to go into hell itself – but then starts the characters in another city, and after about 5 levels just goes “you should open this box…oh no, devils!”
Having a whole city teleport away is cool, surely you should start the campaign there. You could start in Elturel doing some level 1 crap. After a while you accept a mission which requires you travel outside the city, then boom, flash … where did the city go?
There’s actually a really cool low-level adventure involving evil cultists and a conspiracy in Baldur’s Gate. The bad guys are fun, the cultists are scary (one of them has no skin on his face!), and the city is iconic. I want to run that campaign…but I don’t want to run half of it, and then try to shift to another plot.
Thankfully I’d seen other reviews that mention this, and tried to tie my group more closely to Elturel. But the first part was still somewhat confusing.
So you’ve decided to make up your own tier 1 adventure in Elturel, and now the party has found a way down to Hell/Avernus to try and save the city. This part is really good right?
There’s some great ideas, each location has interesting characters and cool encounters that can take place, but none of them are really fleshed out enough. Take [SPOILERS!] Arkhan the Cruel, and his tower. He’s a Tiamat-worshipping antipaladin, who has an evil tower just outside mummy Tiamat’s prison/lair…oh, and he has the Hand of Vecna. That’s amazing, there’s so much you can do with that, except the book just kind of states what’s what, and leaves it. “The party needs [thingy] from Arkhan, but he is unwilling to give it up”. Great thanks guys, I guess I’ll figure it out shall I?
I ended up running it as a bit of dungeon crawl (D&D needs a few of those in every adventure), thanks to PogS Props and their lovely maps.
One of the big problems is that the main ‘quest giver’ of the adventure is an annoying elephant with amnesia, who doesn’t really know what’s going on. The book literally suggests that she leads the party on a “wild goose chase” until she remembers something important. Do you have any idea how annoying that is for the players?!
“What are we trying to do?”
“We need to get the blood of Tiamat, to un-polymorph a titan, to then get its blood, to free a genie from its servitude.”
“…Because hell is full of fetch quests apparently.”
Avernus could have been a fun (terrifying?) sandbox. The adventure actually involves finding some important things to free the city – why not let the party find that out, then go looking for people who know where they are, in a natural way? “Arkhan might know where the [redacted] is, but he wants help with his plan to (partially) free Tiamat in return.” “Archdevil Bel also knows, but he has a contract you’ll need to sign first…” Ooh, moral dilemma!
This is partially how I ran it – to break the pact and free the city, you’ll need [important weapon] and [keys for the thing]. But rather than invent a whole new campaign, I did run the wild-goose-chase part, but with more scope for the players to wander off and do what they like. It’s relatively easy to get them back on track if they miss Npc A, by just having Npc B direct them to the next place instead.
Endings Are Hard
Perhaps the worst part of the whole adventure is how the ending is written. I get it: endings are difficult. If the book sets out a big final battle, and your group decide to try negotiating, that can be a problem. And I get that part of a DM’s job is to improvise and fill in the gaps. But if I’ve bought a book, I want an adventure! Sure I might change some things, but I’m expecting the book to set out the major encounters and plot points, maybe even some box text I can read as an epilogue. This book just has the primary final encounter be “show the big baddie the artefact and make a persuasion check”, and then “here’s some other things that might happen”.
The adventure up to this chapter was relatively linear – a main Npc was leading the group around to the all-important artefact, even if that ‘leading’ was a bit random at times. But it was a build-up to show off hell, to learn about the big baddie (actually quite a conflicted, nuanced character), and build up allies/enemies. Where’s the payoff?
This was especially noticeable in this adventure, because I was running it in Roll20 (thanks Covid), and the complete lack of any endgame maps or encounters was striking. There was an entirely pointless bramble maze map for earlier in the campaign, but nothing for an Epic Final Showdown! Poor form.
This has been a fairly negative review so far, and that’s probably unfair. There’s some really good ideas in this book, and a good DM could be inspired to run a really great campaign. But that’s all it’s really good for: inspiration. Trying to run this adventure as-written would be frustrating, and I think most players would just find it didn’t make sense.
Several other blogs have some great ideas on how to run this successfully, and I’d highly recommend their work:
- The Alexandrian Remix: totally breaks down the adventure and rebuilds it into something far better.
- Sly Flourish: keeps the overall structure, but gives tips for improvement. I used most of this.
- Halfling Hobbies: a one-page guide to fixing some shortcoming in the adventure. A solid read.
Other thoughts I have, in no particular order:
- No adventure should have an annoying NPC as the main driver of the plot.
- I’ve now run 2 adventures where the big boss was something well beyond what the PCs, at the recommended level, could handle (this, and Storm King’s Thunder – where the ‘solution’ was to throw in a bunch of giants who do most of the fighting). WHY?! I get that you want the big bad to be powerful, but surely the whole point of D&D is that at the end of the adventure you have the big showdown. Maybe Wizards could just nut up and write an adventure that doesn’t run out of content at level 12 for once…
- Zariel was a really interesting, conflicted big bad…who the party never really meets. I think part of what makes Curse of Strahd so effective is that the Dark Lord keeps appearing and wrecking things, so the players really get to know him (and HATE him). Zariel is just off in the distance fighting the blood war. I think it would’ve been good to encounter her -and see her side of things- throughout the adventure (yes I know there’s a couple of ‘vision quest’ things, but they don’t count). Maybe the party would have come around to her “lesser of two evils” morality?
- Infernal war machines (mad max cars/trucks) are awesome, but the book just sort of introduces and discards them. The rules and system that are in the book just highlight how D&D isn’t a great system for running vehicle combat or chases, and the adventure doesn’t give any “here’s a cool encounter to show off the war machines” moments, it just suggests some characters who might be driving around.
- I love the map that comes with this book – it’s on my office wall. But then the book says something about “things move in hell so distance is meaningless and finding your way is impossible”. Y tho?
- The art in this book is *chef’s kiss*, but the maps are really poor. Especially because I was running it online, the black and white battlemaps (where they exist at all) were just lacking any atmosphere.