“A hot, stinging air assaults your senses. The city street in which you stand is lines with buildings that are crumbling, if not already collapsed. The ground shudders beneath your feet. In the red, smoky sky, a 400-foot-diameter sphere of darkness discharges stroke soft bluish-white lightning that strike the city at irregular intervals. Perched atop a distant bluff, overlooking the rest of the city, is a crumbling fortress.”
- Chapter 2: Elturel Has Fallen
The latest in 5e's run of hardback, high-quality campaign books, Descent Into Avernus is our first real foray into the planes outside of the Forgotten Realms this edition.
Planar adventures are always exciting to delve into, especially with games like Dungeons & Dragons. Being able to explore the world of Hell, -an otherwise twisted Christian depiction of Hell, at least-, is a great opportunity for a new band of adventures, and players, to flex their creative muscles and build something truly unique.
When looking at a book like Descent Into Avernus, the new campaign for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e), it's hard to really delve into what is excellent about it, without spoiling the story for the players, or indeed the DM's who get to read and run it.
Like the Waterdeep campaign before it, Descent Into Avernus will make for a great jump-in point for players new to the game who, through video games or board games, may already be familiar with the city of Baldur's Gate. The city and its politics (a lot of which is clearly drawing parallels with current-day events), play a key role in the campaign, the specifics of which you'll have to play to discover.
There's enough information on Baldur's Gate that you could even run one or two preliminary adventures in the city to build a strong sense of place for the players, before things inevitably go to hell.
Descent Into Avernus has a lot to like about it, and it's going to keep you and your players busy for some time, not just because it takes you from levels 1 through 13, but because it's rife with plot elements and story hooks to allow you to pad out the campaign with multiple encounters of your own choosing- a prospect that is especially exciting given the, ahem, unique campaign setting that the book outlines.
Descent Into Avernus offers a more in-depth look at the titular layer of Hell than we got in the Dungeon Master's Guide, (although I'd still recommend the section on the Nine Layers of Hell as further reading for any DM looking to run this campaign!)
In particular, the book illustrates many ways a DM might evoke the feeling of Avernus, as opposed to more traditional ways of creating a sense of place, like using maps or game aids like art. Avernus, after all, cannot be properly mapped, and its chaotic nature lends itself to telling a story that may drive the characters mad with corruption.
One such method that stood out to me was making sure to note the character's flaws at the beginning of the adventure, so they can be specifically exploited by Devils in the Hellscape. Another I really liked was messing with the character's sense of space, but having distances constantly shift. Mechanically, this is an added bonus, as players may adequately provision themselves for what they believed would be a 10 mile journey, only to discover that their destination awaits 100 miles in the distance.
Messing with the characters by having their provisions retain their nutritional value, but taste like ash or spoiled milk, is a great way to tempt even the most Lawful Good paladin into making a deal with an Imp for a fresh cup of clean water- though what the Imp asks in exchange will prove for many good roleplaying opportunities.
Indeed, outside of running Descent Into Avernus as a campaign, the book is a wellspring of information and tips on Avernus as a setting, making it a valuable tool for DM's like myself who enjoy spinning their own original tales of hellish adventure, that push characters to the limit of their own morals and sanity.
A great way to drive the roleplaying home mechanically is, as the book suggests, to reward selfish behaviour with Inspiration- though it's noted that this particular selfish inspiration cannot be exchanged between players as normal.
I'm a big fan of any mechanic that directly informs roleplaying- and this one in particular is reminiscent of how the Dark Side of the Force can tempt players in Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying line.
Alongside the release of Descent Into Avernus is the matching dice set. Previous D&D releases have had accessories like this, but I must say this product blows the previous equivalents out of the water.
Looking beyond the beautiful dice set itself (which features a full set of seven, as well as three additional D6 and one additional D20), the storage box, -emblazoned with art from the alternate cover of Descent Into Avernus featuring the flame-ringed skull of Bhaal-, opens to create not one, but two felt-lined rolling trays.
This feature alone is already enough to sell me (especially given the sheer number of dice most of us own, having an 'in' and 'out' tray for when we're rolling is especially helpful), but once you factor in that this set also contains: A “map” of Avernus, a height chart of all the devils and demons in the game, hand-out cards featuring brilliant art of the enemies in Avernus (and the lore behind them on the reverse), a quick-refference table to decipher the language of Hell, and two random encounter tables, and you're getting a hell of a lot of value!
Descent Into Avernus has tools, tips, tricks and content that will be integral to filling up the repertoire of any 5th Edition Dungeon Master, and I really can't recomment it enough- it seems that D&D releases continue to get better and better -some folks may recall I was equally excited for Ghosts of Saltmarsh when it released earlier this year.