Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus has been out for two weeks, and we’ve had the time to get acquainted with it while working hard to create DM’s resources for Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Cities and Chapter 2: Elturel Has Fallen. Having gone in-depth with both those chapters and read through the rest of the book, it seems like a good time to review the book’s strength and weaknesses to those of you who are still debating whether an excursion to hell would be something for you!
In this review I’ll try to rate different aspects of the book, while also identifying potential issues with the campaign – which we’ll try to go more into depth with in our DM’s resources as we get them published. The review is meant for DMs, so be aware that there are spoilers ahead!
The campaign’s setting – world, environment, whichever word you prefer – is one of the most important aspects of a campaign. Because if you don’t like the setting, nothing else is likely going to matter to you.
Personally, I’d have to say WotC knocks it out the park on this one. I love the idea of going to another plane – it feels grand, unfamiliar, ambitious and adventurous. As a DM, there’s something freeing about being allowed to convey a setting that is unfamiliar and alien to most players. The content in the book – from Avernus’ warlords to scheming archdevils and infernal warmachines – is fantastically otherworldly but still cohesive, giving you a good sense of how Avernus feels.
The potential downside, of course, is that Avernus might be harder for a new DM to handle than a more traditional setting, where you can draw on classic fantasy such as Lord of the Rings when trying to describe and populate a world. It can be a challenge, but I think that most DMs will find it a fun challenge – even if BG:DiA is your first campaign.
All told, I’m giving BG:DiA’s setting a 5/5.
Descent into Avernus is centered around a story of corruption and redemption – of Baldur’s Gate, of Elturel, of Zariel, the archduke of Avernus, and, potentially, the player characters themselves. The story is compelling and – from Chapter 2 – clearly formulated to the players: save the fallen city of Elturel and escape from Avernus. Along the way, they get to make meaningful choices that can greatly impact the campaign’s ending.
The first chapter, which takes place in Baldur’s Gate, is probably the least compelling, starting with a story that doesn’t really impact the greater plot. It’s clear that Chapter 1 is a prelude more than anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that, but where this campaign really shines is from Chapter 2 and onward.
Another issue with the story is player agency. There’s some issues with the hook – the party’s reason for going along with the adventure – which many DMs will probably find themselves having to adjust. Chapter 1 is also very linear, and while the later chapters open up a bit, there’s still a pretty clearly defined route – or even railroad – leading to the end goal. This is one of the downsides of trying to tell a strong and cohesive story, which BG:DiA does: it can come at the cost of player agency.
This is not to say that there’s only one way to play BG:DiA. In fact, I’ll argue that there’s several. And with some clever rewriting and reskinning, the chapters can quite easily be opened up more – especially Chapter 3, which is the campaign’s book most ‘sandbox’-like chapter. This is something we’ll also explore in later DM’s resources.
To conclude, BG:DiA’s story gets a 3.5/5 rating.
Structure & Pacing
Descent into Avernus is divided into five chapters, which can be neatly separated into three acts:
- Beginning – Chapter 1 & 2 – Discovering the fall of Avernus in Baldur’s Gate and getting situated in Elturel.
- Middle – Chapter 3 & 4 – Finding the Sword of Zariel.
- End – Chapter 5 – The final showdown with Zariel, rescue of Elturel and escape from Avernus.
It’s a neat and classical structure, that should be easy-to-follow for the players, and easy-to-run for the DM.
As for the pacing, there are some issues here. First off, there’s not nearly enough content – or XP – in the main story to bring the characters from 1st to 13th-level. Now, that may or may not be an issue, since most players like to level up fast and learn to do new, cool stuff. Second, even if you disregard the XP, your party might go from 1st to 13th level in as little as a week of in-game time, if we look at the minimum requirements for finishing the campaign. I’ve heard about quick rises to power, but that seems a bit absurd!
There’s two ways to mitigate this: put in more content, or reduce the number of levels spanned by the campaign. The campaign book gives you some help with the first option by including quite a bit of additional, optional content for Avernus, which you can pick-and-choose-from to fill out Chapter 3. As for the second option that’s something we’ll probably touch on in a blog post or DM’s resource at some point.
Combined, BG:DiA’s structure & pacing gets a 3.5/5 rating.
On the surface, BG:DiA doesn’t seem like a campaign for a complete beginner. It’s a weird setting, high levels and high stakes. Delving deeper, however, BG:DiA might actually be one of the easier campaigns to run for a first-time DM.
Yes, Avernus is a weird setting, but it’s also a pretty confined setting. It’s a plane you can feasibly read up on and understand completely in a few hours. There’s not a lot of different lore you need to know, because the players won’t come in contact with much else. In that way, the Hells are actually an easy setting, simply because it limits how much you need to know about the world.
WotC have also become really good at informing the DM about the campaign’s structure with handy and easily-digestible flowcharts at the start of each chapter. As you skim through the book, you can easily get a feel for the broad strokes of the campaign from just reading the flowcharts and summaries of each chapter. The linear and somewhat railroady story also makes the campaign easier to handle – unless you expand the campaign yourself, you’ll likely know what to prep and when to prep it.
The campaign book also features creature stat blocks within the text, which is a new – but very welcome – approach. It makes running encounters even easier and also provides you with at-a-glance information about some of the creatures the party meets. The book is also pretty good at troubleshooting various issues that might arise or choices your players might make, which is always helpful.
So, while probably not the easiest campaign to run – the starter sets are awesome for that – BG:DiA is doing a lot to help DMs run it. We give BG:DiA a 4/5 rating for its ease-of-use.
Maps & Art
Dysonlogos is the main cartographer for the campaign book, so most of the maps are in his style: black and white, easy to decipher, light on details. Dysonlogos maps can be pretty divisive – some hate them, some love ’em. If you’re the type of DM that draws your maps on wet-erase-mats, it doesn’t get much better than this. For digital play and virtual tabletops (such as Roll20 or FantasyGrounds), they can sometimes feel a bit too simple. This is something we try to remedy in our DM’s resources.
As for the quantity of maps, there aren’t a lot of them when you consider that the campaign is supposed to stretch for 13 levels. All in all, there’s 18 encounter maps for 13 levels of gameplay, and some of these show locations the party might never arrive at. It doesn’t feel quite the same as Tomb of Annihilation, for example, where there were a lot of maps – but how much you care about that properly depends upon how you like to play. A note here: the area maps – of Baldur’s Gate, Elturel and Avernus – are awesome, beautiful and really handy as props at the table.
As for the art and style of the rest of the book, I can’t really see anyone disappointed with the artwork, layout and appearance of BG:DiA. It’s a beautiful book – both ordinary and alternate cover – with a tonne of amazing illustrations that really helps you get a feel for the setting, story and creatures of the book.
If you mainly use maps for reference or like to print simple B/W maps, BG:DiA gets a solid 5/5 rating for its maps and art. If you want color, VTT and all that jazz, we’re down to a 3/5 rating, unfortunately. We’ll split the difference and give BG:DiA a 4/5 rating for its maps and art.
Summary and final review
If we sum everything up, we’re left with the following:
- Setting: 5/5
- Story: 3.5/5
- Structure & pacing: 3.5/5
- Ease-of-use: 4/5
- Maps & Art: 4/5
Numbers are one thing, but what’s the impression we’re left with? Should you buy Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and run it for your group?
For me, it’s a resounding yes. As someone who didn’t care much for the megadungeons in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus presents itself as the first full-length cohesive campaign I’ve wanted to play since Tomb of Annihilation. Whatever issues I have with it – a too hectic pace, too little player agency and the encounter maps – are something that can be fixed with a little planning and care. The overall product – a well-written and beautiful book, an awesome setting and a compelling story – has great value and will surely entertain many adventuring groups around the world (even if they have go to Hell for it!).
All-in-all, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus gets a 4/5 rating – a definite buy!