NewbieDM Review: Descent into Avernus

Posted on September 10, 2019 by

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Dungeons and Dragons wants to send you to hell—and it wants to do so aboard a massive, soul powered, Infernal War Machine that’ll have you rumbling across the surface of the first layer of hell while doing your best Mad Max. Sound cool? Read on.

Descent into Avernus‘ format should be familiar to veteran 5e players by now, with WOTC comfortably sticking with an if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it attitude in book design… Much like Tomb of Annihilation and Dragon Heist were both setting books and adventures, this 256 page book brings the venerable city of 1492 DR Baldur’s Gate to life for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, and presents an adventure that begins play at 1st level, and carries the party all the way to 13th.

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Play begins in Baldur’s Gate, with the assumption being that the party already knows each other (via the new Dark Secrets mechanic, which allows the PCs to have a common mystery tying them together as a group—murder, conspiracy, thievery, etc.) After getting their feet wet in Baldur’s Gate, and a trip to Candlekeep, another iconic Forgotten Realms location, play quickly takes them down to hell, and the meat of the adventure begins…

In a nutshell, the city of Elturel has descended into hell, held above the river styx by giant chains. The PCs must keep the same fate from befalling Baldur’s Gate, and make all right with the world. Along the way they’ll make deals with devils (the book has sections on roleplaying devils properly, and what infernal pacts should be like). They’ll ride infernal machines (the Mad Max-esque machines used to travel across the hellish wastelands), which have been the big marketing sell of this adventure since it was announced at Live: The Descent. The book presents four of these machines with new rules for battles, chases, mishaps, repairs, upgrades, etc., while at the same time maintaining the philosophy that the game shouldn’t become a tactical miniatures game.

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The adventure reads like it’s fun, there are a lot of NPCs to interact with and strike deals with. There are a few new magic items, tons of new enemies, and updates to player backgrounds tailored for Baldur’s Gate, including an all new one, The Faceless, which gave me a bit of an Arya Stark vibe as I read it…

The art, as 5e art tends to be, is great. The double sided poster map is a standout, one side showing Avernus, the other the damned city of Elturel.  All the various demons, devils, and denizens of Avernus are rendered with just the right amount of WTF, this is D&D after all, so it never goes to the extremes with the gore or hellish content, while still maintaining a creepy and disturbing vibe throughout. Abyssal Chickens anyone?

And the maps? The maps are once again brought to you by Dyson Logos, whose style it seems you either love or hate at this point. I happen to be a fan.

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Is there anything I don’t like? Well, at one point in their trek through hell, the characters are faced with a choice that determines a particular path to take on their journey toward the McGuffin of the story. Here, we see a bit of the same thing we saw in ToA and Dragon Heist, things left “on the cutting room floor” that the players will never experience. What I don’t like about it in this particular case is that there exists the potential of players completely avoiding meeting a popular NPC. Is it a deal breaker? No, and the players will never know, but still, it seems like a huge wasted opportunity for ALL players to experience regardless of the choices made along the way.

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Finally, I can see this adventure being a little challenging to run, because unlike adventures set in dungeons, or coastal towns, jungles, or cities, hell is a fantastic place none of use have ever really been to. How to bring this to life for players through vivid descriptions might be a challenge for newish DMs without too much (if any) experience taking players into the planes and away from the comforts of the Prime Material Plane. That said, the experience looks fun and it is certainly a new and different environment, something I think WOTC has been consciously doing with each adventure release.

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The new magic items are fun, we get a whole section with fantastic concept art, the infernal script, and a 50 page gazetteer on Baldur’s Gate.  There are no new player options in this book, beyond a new background and some updates to existing ones. 

But can we talk about the companion to this book?

The Descent into Avernus Dice Set & Miscellany?

Holy. Shit.

THAT is how you put together a dice set.

Let me tell you. This dice set, when paired with the hardcover, gives you the same content we would have gotten back in the day from an old TSR boxed set. Why do I say that? Take a look a the content in  the box…

  • Dice
  • Two felted dice trays
  • smaller version of the Avernus map
  • size comparison chart of demons and devils
  • Avernus encounter tables, demons and devils handouts with art and story information

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Really, really good stuff. Can’t say much more other than WOTC cannot take a step back. All future dice sets tied to hardcover adventures need to be this complete. Really good stuff.

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To wrap it up, this trip to hell seems fun. Against the backdrop of the Blood War, you’ll get to ride around in giant war machines, make deals with devils or demons, meet a cute pink flying elephant, adventure in a memory, and help save the world. Again.

This review was made possible by my Patreon supporters and my sponsors Improved Initiative and Critical Dice.


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If you’d like, also check out the following products:

Ghosts of Saltmarsh

D&D: Tomb of Annihilation

D&D Tomb of Annihilation Dice

Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated

Tales from the Yawning Portal

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