Actual Play: Descent into Avernus, Chapter 1

Date : September 17, 2019

Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus has arrived, and we’ve played the first chapter! Our friends from RPGMY, D&DMY and DM Academia ventured forth into the boisterous taverns and grimy streets of Baldur’s Gate to save the city from evil.

A view of the table with Amanda, Gray, Han Lim and Marvin.
The intrepid first players of Descent into Avernus: Amanda, Gray, Han Lim, Marvin.

Descent into Avernus is this year’s “big book” campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, featuring hordes of devils, infernal war machines, and demonic chickens. Lead designer Adam Lee headed an impressive team of 15 other writers as well as over 40 illustrators. Dyson Logos worked on numerous black-and-white dungeon maps, Mike Schley contributed colour overland maps and 3D cutaway buildings of Baldur’s Gate, and Jared Blando created the poster maps of Avernus and Elturel that are bound into the final book.

Role Over Play Dead received an advance copy of the pdf, courtesy of Hasbro. This is the report of our first impressions of the book, and the first excursion into Baldur’s Gate by Malaysian players!

Devilish Deals

Descent into Avernus cover art
Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus cover art by Tyler Jacobson

The open conflict between chaotic demons and manipulative devils, known as the Blood War, has long been a staple of D&D’s multiverse. In Descent into Avernus, a sinister bargain pulls the holy city of Elturel from the Forgotten Realms into Avernus, one of the Nine Hells on the front line of the Blood War. After thwarting a plot to corrupt Elturel’s shadier neighbour, the storied city of Baldur’s Gate, your party of adventurers will have to voyage into Hell itself to save Elturel.

It is an epic journey. You’ll have running fights through a city under siege in the fiery sky of Avernus. There are visits to imprisoned demon lords and famed wizards like the archmage Mordenkainen. To triumph, the players must thwart (or redeem) a fallen angel named Zariel, the Archduke of Avernus. Clever players may try to take advantage of a three-way struggle in the blasted Hellscape, between Zariel’s legions, invading demon hordes, and followers of the dragon queen Tiamat.

It Starts in a Tavern

4 miniatures, not to scale
Caution: Adventurers may not be to scale.

The quest, which ends with adventurers at level 13, starts with a simple hunt for evil cultists in Baldur’s Gate. Novice level 1 adventurers will have to investigate taverns and disused sewers to defeat the followers of the Dead Three. These villains worship a trio of fallen gods that includes Bhaal, the God of Murder behind the plot of the Baldur’s Gate computer game series.

Four friends from Roleplaying Gamers of Malaysia (RPGMY) joined me on 14 September for a special preview session of Descent into Avernus, Chapter 1. Amanda Chow played Hemera the hedonistic half-elf ranger, who grew fond of strong drink while exploring the world of humans. Gray Ham (#KakiTabletop founder and D&DMY coordinator) played Bun’ga, easy-going halfling druid of the Circle of Dreams, always seen smoking herbal weed.

Amanda and Gray
Amanda and Gray.

Han Lim (D&DMY coordinator) played the calculating half-elf warlock Connor, constantly looking for a good deal for himself and his infernal patron Zariel (!!!). Marvin Michael Kho (DM Academia organiser) played the grim Corum, human Doomguide of Kelemvor, God of the Dead.

Han Lim and Marvin.
Han Lim and Marvin.

Elfsongs and Omens

Our four characters entered the service of the Flaming Fist mercenary group, the closest thing Baldur’s Gate has to a police force. Their mission: hunt down cultists of the Dead Three, who had been abducting and murdering people throughout the city.

Their first stop was the Elfsong Tavern, famous for its singing ghost. Hemera and her colleagues found their contact, the ex-pirate Tarina, playing dice in the upstairs lounge. Tarina agreed to give Hemera information about the Dead Three cults if the characters helped her with a problem. Tarina’s former shipmates were out for blood. She needed the characters to kill these pirates.

The gambling lounge
In the gambling lounge – not at all a close-quarters deathtrap!

While waiting for Tarina’s “friends” to show up, the characters heard the tavern’s elf ghost singing an ominous song hinting at the Hellish fate of Elturel — a teaser of things to come.

Cleric Down

Then they all got stomped. How did it happen?

The pirates hunting Tarina comprised a bandit captain and 7 bandits — a challenge for a full level 2 party, but extra difficult for level 1. Just in case, I reduced the number of bandits to 4, but the fight was still too tough. Not everyone was a combat- and spell-optimised character (looks sidelong at Gray’s goofy 8 Wisdom Druid).

Marvin’s heavily armoured Doomguide closed in with the one-eyed captain on the first turn and immediately got the brunt of the captain’s triple attacks, enough to knock him out. With their cleric down, the rest of the fight became much harder.

Kai thinking hard
This is me, thinking fast.

I allowed some of Connor’s tricks to successfully knock two bandits down the staircase. Hemera managed to take down enemies with her arrows before being knocked down to 0 hit points as well. But the captain was still in good health, which was no surprise since he started at 65 hit points, compared with the player characters, who had 9-10 hit points each.

The Better Part of Valour

I decided that One-eye would focus on chopping Tarina’s head off, which he did despite interference from the remaining characters. Connor managed to hold the captain in place with a Command spell, buying him and Bun’ga just enough time to drag their unconscious teammates out of the room.

As the badly injured adventurers leaned against the bar downstairs, gasping for breath, Connor turned to the bartender, asking “shouldn’t someone come to investigate when a fight breaks out?” The bartender pointed at Connor’s Flaming Fist deputy badge: “I think there’s a group for that, they’re called the Flaming Fists. Heard of them?”

One-eye stomped downstairs and gathered up his bruised and battered men (the ones who had been flung down the stairs). Sneering at the adventurers, the outlaws walked out.

How to Lose But Get Ahead

Losing a fight in D&D isn’t usually much fun, although we milked this scene for laughs.

Han Lim and Kai bantering
Unexpectedly funny moments.

I tried to lean towards running the game as written, although since there were 4 players (instead of the 6 I had originally planned for) I did reduce the number of opponents. Considering that some of the characters were not optimal combatants, I should have turned the Captain into a weaker Thug. Being hammered flat in your first combat is not a fun way to start playing at level 1, and I could see that this rough start may discourage new players.

On the other hand, the book doesn’t make Tarina’s death a dead end. Given the high-magic milieu of D&D, why would it? The players asked “could we just get a priest to speak with Tarina’s spirit?” Of course they could — this eventuality is covered in the text. This led to a fun scene where the characters presented Tarina’s head to their commander just as he was having dinner.

With herbs. Spices. Oregano.

Stakeout = Steak Out

Outside the Low Lantern tavern
The Low Lantern, by Malaysian-born illustrator Julian Kok.

Tarina’s spirit pointed the characters to a bathhouse where followers of the Dead Three had been seem coming and going. After upgrading to level 2, the characters made a non-confrontational daytime visit to the bathhouse. Instead of turning the place upside down to search for secret entrances, they decided to wait until closing time and stake out the street to see who showed up.

The book doesn’t deal with this possibility, but I just ran with it. The players all liked the idea of finding a tavern to kill time until midnight, so I ran a free-form roleplaying scene at the Low Lantern. This ship-turned tavern is actually a location from later in the chapter. Amrik, one of the villainous sponsors of the Dead Three cultists, uses it as a front for his business.

There was no fighting or intrigue here, just fooling around and having fun. Hemera and her friends enjoyed delicious raptor steaks (from Chult), sea bass, swordfish and ale, while listening to local gossip and meeting various NPCs (including Amrik).

Hit the Streets

Soon after midnight, a quintet of suspicious men and women left the now-shuttered bathhouse. Hemera and Bun’ga tailed them carefully.

Map of the street fight
Stalking cultists on the street.

There wasn’t going to be enough time to do the next dungeon crawl, so I made up a street encounter. It was inspired by a Zoltan Boros illustration in the book depicting cultists ambushing a merchant by a statue of the heroes Minsc and Boo.

As a dungeon master with a special fondness for D&D 4th Edition, I particularly liked the various themed cultists of Bhaal, Myrkul and Bane in Descent Into Avernus (nine in total). With their complementing abilities, the Dead Three followers can be mixed and matched to create different groups of enemies for patrols, scouting, assassination or all-out assault. The book has suggestions for using them to challenge adventurers up to level 5.

I selected three Fists of Bane and two Necromites of Myrkul – a suitable minor challenge at level 2.

To Act or Not to Act

As the cultists began attacking an unfortunate shopkeeper caught out alone on a dark street, Corum and Connor began debating whether or not to intervene. The Doomguide played Devil’s Advocate, wondering if the situation called for action. Connor the Warlock pointed out, with some annoyance, that the attackers had flails with skulls of Myrkul on them, and they were beating up an innocent man!

“Well, we have found them. We have succeeded. Do we then need to kill them? It seems so hasty.”

“Yes, we were told to find them and kill them.”

“Oh. Very well then.”

Waking the Neighbours

The halfling druid took advantage of stealth to outflank the villains and get into position, while Connor and Hemera began firing on the enemy at a distance. The villains closed in, but their rearmost ranks were distracted by Bun’ga’s various druid tricks, and a timely Command spell forced one of the Bane cultists to flee. 

Kai pumping a fist in the air
Battle is joined!

With their group divided and under continuous fire from the warlock and ranger, the cultists fell one by one. Bun’ga showed up from behind with Thunderwave spells that tossed the enemies and shattered nearby windows. The townspeople on the street didn’t get any sleep that night, but the adventurers achieved victory and geared up to raid the cult lair under the bathhouse…

We had enough time to wrap up the session and discuss the elements of the adventure we had experienced. Since Gray and Han Lim will both be organising this upcoming season of D&D Adventurers League in D&DMY, we also discussed some spoilers about the remaining chapters of the adventure, and what challenges it poses for dungeon masters.

Hard to Follow a Good Evil Act

Descent into Avernus’ first chapter suffers from comparison with last year’s urban adventure for D&D, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Both feature a city threatened by a noble family that secretly conspires with devils, whose secrets lie in a dungeon beneath a mansion. The Cassalanters of Waterdeep were well fleshed out with some truly tragic secrets. Meanwhile, the scheming Vanthampur family of Baldur’s Deep looks like a poor copy of last year’s model.

Cover of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist had the best devil-worshiping nobles of all (in the gold outfits).

Fortunately, there are much better villains in the remaining 200+ pages of the book. Avernus overflows with deceitful and ambitious devils, not to mention a couple of demon lords and Arkhan the Cruel, the champion of the dragon goddess.

As deliberate contrast to the horrors and cruelty of Hell, the characters also have the opportunity to befriend and travel with Lulu, an adorable tiny winged mammoth that is the essence of goodness and virtue. Lulu’s past connection with Zariel is one of the keys to unravelling the archdevil’s secrets.

Roadwar: Avernus

One of the most entertaining parts of the book is the fortress of Mad Maggie, a night hag who can provide the characters with infernal war machines, which are wheeled iron vehicles in the style of the Mad Max films. The book provides rules for vehicular warfare and chase scenes in the wastelands of Avernus, where many fiendish warlords ride their own war machines.

Fort Knucklebone
Fort Knucklebone, by Malaysian-born illustrator Julian Kok.

But it isn’t all fun and games. Avernus is an extremely unforgiving environment, and there are many ways for characters to die or become twisted into fates worse than death. The waters of the River Styx can wipe the minds of anyone who touches it, while ever-present pools of demon ichor can warp victims, exchanging their limbs or even growing an additional head. 

Devils can suddenly make telepathic contact with individuals to tempt them with offers of aid, and there are also detailed rules for how to make deals and sell a character’s soul away. One optional rule may force characters to change their alignment to lawful evil just from resting in Avernus. 

Choke Points and Contingencies

As with any official D&D adventure book, dungeon masters must make adjustments on the fly to avoid getting players stuck. There are multiple paths through Avernus, involving tomb raiding, bargains with imprisoned fiends, and even a spa retreat. Some failed quests can be replaced by others, so it’s hard to run into a dead end. But dead ends can occur.

It is important for players to feel that they can keep exploring Avernus to find various rivals and former allies of Zariel. Supporting characters such as the pit fiend Bel have several ways to lead them to the Sword of Zariel, a powerful artifact that could free Elturel and even redeem the fallen angel. However, at least one character must be of good alignment to reach the sword, so a party without any good members could reach a dead end here!

A side note: The Sword of Zariel comes with a dire warning: Whoever attunes to it will be changed forever. The wielder of the weapon undergoes an angelic transformation (with wings) as well as a major personality change. It’s not quite as impressive as the rules for Stormbringer in the eponymous RPG, nor as progressively costly as the Angelbone Blade in The Last Days of Anglekite. Still, it offers a chance for some serious drama and roleplaying challenges.

The End of Hell

The Descent poster
Promotional image for the D&D Live 2019 event that introduced Descent into Avernus.

The final chapter, written by James Haeck, is a clever and comprehensive look at all the ways the various artifacts, demon lords, scheming fiends and one powerful fallen angel can come together in Hell-shaking conflict, and what fates the characters can try to steer towards.

Want a big kaiju battle around the Hell-stranded city of Elturel where Tiamat runs rampant? Or a tearful final appeal to Zariel’s good nature with the aid of her friend Lulu? Could a heroic adventurer sign away their soul to save Elturel, or for ultimate devilish power? I like the fact that many options are open, and it’s possible for several of these to occur in parallel. 

Onwards to the Descent

Happy as Hell!

As of writing, D&DMY is already planning the next season of Adventurers League in Malaysia. I look forward to the revitalization of the League, and the new players that it will bring to the roleplaying hobby here. Gray expressed interest in getting the Descent into Avernus book, but even for dungeon masters who aren’t using this book, there will be plenty of Hell-themed DM’s Guild adventures available.

Wizards of the Coast have organised a series of Actual Play podcasts telling a prequel story to Descent into Avernus. It features a slew of creators in the podcast community, including acclaimed series The Broadswords and the Singaporean team of Royal Nerd Theatre. You can find out more at: https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/events/podcasts-avernus

Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is available in game stores; learn more here: https://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/baldursgate_descent

And now, a final word from Marvin, aka Corum Doomguide:

A long monologue by Corum Doomguide.
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