Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is Wizards of the Coast feature adventure product of 2019 designed to run as a long campaign from level 1 to level 13.
The adventure was much hyped and promoted as Dungeons and Dragons version of Mad Max where characters rode abreast soul powered war machines from which they would fight to survive in the midst of the eternal war between devils and demons.
The adventure title also indicates that adventure is set in the Forgotten Realms city Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate holds a special place in the Dungeons and Dragons community as the backdrop for two very popular computer games of the same name. Baldur’s Gate is a dangerous city perfect for adventurers to seek fortune and glory but a terrible place to be an ordinary person – you would not want to live here if you were just trying to lead an ordinary life.
First up – the adventure art is fantastic. It portrays hell as a place that offers hope – only to be taken away and also a a place where the eternal Blood War rages.
The maps are clear and easy to understand in uncoloured line art format. If your group plays only using hand drawn battle maps, or theatre of the mind – then this map style is perfect.
If you play using a virtual tabletop (and in 2020 just about everybody on the planet is thanks to COVID-19) – then the maps are a disappointment.
Without colour the maps lack the sparkle that is very important when your visual reference is staring at the map on your computer screen.
It is surprising that Wizards of the Coast hadn’t taken this on board after receiving substantial negative feedback from Virtual Table Top players that the maps in both Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage were not suitable for their preferred (and growing) way of play.
Wizards of the Coast should not develop maps only suited to one type of gaming customer or gaming style and certainly not when they licence their products to Virtual Tabletop companies, and miniature makers who make products for people who want to visually see the worlds in which they play. Perhaps this reflects that most of the D&D team have stated themselves as having moved away from miniatures towards theatre of the mind. The D&D Live and Acquisitions Incorporated series reflects this style of play.
To address this Fantasy Grounds added basic colours to some of the maps to improve the situation for their customers. Meanwhile a quick dig around the internet and you will find community made replacement maps (some free – some for sale). This should not be considered absolution.
Enough about the maps – talk more about the adventure!
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to the marketing promise. It feels very much like Wizards of the Coast crashed into the production deadline and had to run with what they had.
The title suffers from an extraordinarily weak start and there is little in the way of a compelling driving force for the players to want to participate in the events of the world throughout the adventure. It really feels like the people behind the characters participating in the adventure should accept they have turned up to play Dungeons and Dragons and just go along with it.
The Dungeon Master who decides to run this adventure must sit down with players beforehand to ensure they have backgrounds stories and connections to enable the Dungeon Master to weave them into the story.
The book contains special Baldur’s Gate character backgrounds but the story requires the characters to have a deep connection to the city of Elturel not Baldur’s Gate. The dark secret for the party is interesting but most don’t contribute to the main storyline.
I suspect that Wizards of the Coast recognised this fault but rather than improving the story and creating the hooks and connections needed for player engagement and motivation – fell back upon the creation of a small flying angelic elephant.
The sole function of the flying elephant is to fulfill the Hollywood stereotype of a person with amnesia. The flying elephant’s adventure role is to spurt out information and encouragement to ensure players go in a direction that should have been obvious, exciting and inspiring in the first place.
The time spent in Baldur’s Gate is very limited (blink and you will miss it). This means the back third of the book – which is a well written and comprehensive guide on the city – isn’t very useful for the adventure. It is useful to a Dungeon Master who wants to build a home brew session or campaign in that city.
On reflection the back third of the book may have been included to be the vanguard hype element for the Baldur’s Gate 3 video game being developed by Larian Studios. This thought disappoints me as what Dungeons Masters usually want is to purchase a great adventure to run and not a marketing brochure to stimulate interest in a future Dungeons and Dragons product that should be good enough to stand on its own.
To make a better adventure the team of writers needed to focus on a story that creates a desire in the players to commit to the world and tale being told. There are numerous third-party products available to do this for the Dungeon Master but a top billed adventure shouldn’t need that.
The book does contain many interesting potential allies, adversaries, locations, and events. A Dungeon Master willing to put in the time, or just likes reading published adventures without running them will enjoy the material within.
If you’re looking for a book that you can just pick up and run with confidence from one end of the other and have certainty that your players will be engaged – this isn’t it. If you want a book which gives you a lot to work with and you are comfortable addressing the problems it has to redeem it – then it’s worth a look as you can easily create one hell of an adventure.