Avernus as a Sandbox – Part 3

In this post we’ll talk a bit about how to implement the structure for making Avernus into a sandbox that we’ve covered in part 1 and part 2 of this series (if you haven’t already, you really should read those before jumping into this one!). This includes both general and specific advice about running an open adventure, as well as troubleshooting for certain problems that may arise along the way.

Because not everything here is relevant for every DM, here’s a list of section headlines so you can scroll down to what interests you:

  • Manage Player Expectations (preparing your players for a sandbox-style-game).
  • Keeping Players on Track (making sure your players can keep up and stay on task)
  • Keeping Yourself on Track (how to run and prepare a more open chapter 3)
  • Telling the Story (making sure you tell the story of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus)
  • Pacing Chapter 3 (how to control the overall pace of the chapter)
  • Pacing the Adventuring Day (how to control the length of each adventuring day, so the chapter stays exciting and challenging)

That’s it – let’s get into it!

Manage Player Expectations

When running an open(ish) adventure, it’s usually never a bad idea to tell the players up front what is expected of them. This is especially true for the Descent into Avernus-campaign, where the characters will likely have been travelling more or less on rails through chapters 1 and 2, before we suddenly begin demanding that they figure stuff out on their own as they come into Chapter 3. 

A good time to do this – manage your players’ expectations, as well as tell them what is expected of them – is after the Dream Quest at Fort Knucklebone. You can simply let your players know that they will now be entering into a more ‘open’ part of the campaign, where there will be multiple ways to proceed forward, and that they should no longer worry about what the ‘story expects them to do’ or ‘what they’re meant to do’. They have to stand on their own legs now, and trust that answers will be available to them, if they just remember to ask questions.

Keeping Players on Track

When running adventures that are less linear, it becomes increasingly important for everyone to keep track of what is happening. Some players – and entire groups – are very good at this, while others have a harder time staying on task when everything is open and free.

You can help your players stay on track by taking time at the beginning of each session to remind the party what they’re doing and why (unless they’re having tons of fun being off-track, in which case you should probably just roll with that!), by simply reminding them that they’re “looking for Olanthius, Haruman or Bel, who can help you find the Sword of Zariel, which is supposed to be the key to freeing Elturel”.

If at any point your players seem lost or frustrated, travel encounters are ofte your best tools to get them back on track. The Wandering Emporium, which serves as a hub for NPCs who can carry all manner of information, is particularly well-suited for this, and can show up at any time you want it to. 

Remember though, that the whole point of a sandbox is to foster player agency and creativity, so if your players suddenly become enamored with a particular path you haven’t planned for, try to see if it’s something you can work with. If the players – as an example – decide to seek out Asmodeus, because they think he’ll be able to help them find the sword, your immediate reaction may be to have Mad Maggie go “uh, no, bad idea”, but maybe you can work with it? Perhaps the Intermediary becomes a means of introduction in this case – someone who can get a message through to the Supreme Lord of the Nine Hells – and an intense encounter with a bemused Asmodeus substitutes an encounter with another of the Fallen Three. Building on player ideas is always better than shutting them down!

Finally, if your players seem to be responding badly to having too many choices – they become frustrated, meandering, demotivated – don’t be afraid to reign things in and put them back on the rails (i.e. having NPCs strongly suggest one option, or simply cut some of the options out) – that just might be the way your group prefers to play.

Keeping Yourself on Track

It’s not just the players who have to stay on track – it’s also you! As the story opens up, you are required to keep track of more encounters and locations, because you have to be ready for whatever the players decide to do next. And, to make things even harder, you’ll now also have to both consult the campaign book and the information here!?

Relax, breathe! Remember that chapter 3 will probably span something like 5 to 15 sessions of play. You will have months to figure everything out. To begin with, all you need to do is have a basic understanding of the chapter’s structure, and be prepared for the next 3-4 hours of play.

To address the first point, it may help you to remember the following, very abbreviated general structure of the sandbox:

  • Fort Knucklebone. At Fort Knucklebone, the party learns that they must find one of the Fallen Three, Bel, Olanthius and Haruman.
  • Intermediaries. Soon after, they learn that three Intermediaries can guide them along: Mordenkainen, Red Ruth and Mephistopheles.
  • Blood Pay. To get aid from an Intermediary, they must find blood from a powerful creature (Arkhan, Ubbalux, Uldrak or Shummrath).
  • Fallen Three. When they find the Fallen Three, they’ll perform a simple task to gain the information, and are then told how to find the Bleeding Citadel.

That’s more or less all there is to it! Now, all you need to do is keep track of the basic structure, and stay one step ahead of the party at all times. If they’re dealing with the Intermediaries, look ahead to the Blood Pay-section and understand the encounters there, and so on.

Having a rough idea of your party’s intentions will also help you. At the end of each session, try to gauge where the players are likely to go next. Prepare that/those location(s), make a note of what information they’ll find there, and you’re more than likely fine for the next session. Remember, depending on your group’s style, you’re always allowed to ask the party in-between sessions if they have decided where to go next, so you know what you should be preparing for.

Lastly, remember that, unlike most of the creatures they control, a DM is only human. If you suddenly find yourself treading water, become unsure about what to do next, or get entirely in over your head, call for a break or end the session early, get yourself back on track and pick it back up later. That’s always an option – and never something to be ashamed of. We’ve all been there!

Telling the Story

A great question we received since publishing part 1 and 2 has to do with the story of Chapter 3, and in particular if only having the party come by one of the Fallen Three would rob them of getting to know the full story of the Hellriders and Zariel’s fall.

I think that’s definitely a good point, and something it really pays to be aware of. In my opinion, BG:DiA’s background story is one of the best parts of the campaign. The story of Zariel’s fall is exciting, compelling, and ultimately important, as the characters must decide whether to redeem, destroy or bargain with Zariel in their final confrontation with her.

To quickly reiterate, the story of Zariel’s Fall goes something like this:

  • In 1354, Zariel led an army of Hellriders into Avernus.
  • Many of the Hellriders fled, sealing the portal out of hell behind them.
  • Zariel lost her sword in battle, which Yael picked up, fled with, and ultimately sealed in the Bleeding Citadel.
  • Zariel, Haruman and Olanthius were brought before Asmodeus, where Zariel and Haruman swore fealty to Asmodeus, while Olanthius took his own life only to be raised again as a death knight.

Now, if we go by the book, the characters can learn about the fleeing Hellriders and how Yael took the sword from the visions in Elturel and Fort Knucklebone. If we extend the visions as suggested in part 1 of this series, we can also show them how Zariel lost the sword, and even Zariel’s surrender to Asmodeus.

But, it is one thing to hear a story, and another one to live it. Allowing the characters to interact with the figures from the story – Haruman, Olanthius, Bel, Yael, Zariel – is what really makes it come to life. In the structure we established in Part 1, the characters will end up meeting only one of either Bel, Haruman and Olanthius – instead of at least two (Haruman + either Bel or Olanthius) as the original structure does. 

One way to handle this is to make the first Fallen Three point lead to one of the other, either by making them a dead-end, or by otherwise involving them in the encounter. It could look something like this:

  • After releasing Kostchtchie for Olanthius, the party returns to find that the death knight has been destroyed. Ghosts at the Crypt of the Hellriders can inform them that it was a legion of devils led by Haruman who did the dark deed, and the party must now find Haruman (or Bel) instead.
  • After destroying Haruman, Jander Sunstar doesn’t relay information about a sibriex, but instead tells the party about the animosity between Zariel’s two former generals and suggests they seek out Olanthius instead.
  • After the party has recovered the control rods from the Wrecked Flying Fortress, Bel still hesitates, demanding that they also destroy Haruman, Zariel’s most loyal follower, before he dares divulge the location of the Bleeding Citadel.

In addition, I’ll also recommend including one of the three NPCs in the final showdown with Zariel. We’ve written a bit more about this in our DM’s Resources for Chapter 5: Escape from Avernus, but to briefly summarize, you can have Olanthius show up to aid the party against Zariel, have Haruman show up to aid Zariel (not that she particularly needs it) against the party, or have Bel show up to attack a redeemed (but weakened) Zariel, requiring the party to defend her. 

Pacing Chapter 3

Another question we received has to do with the pacing of the chapter – in particular, the fact that the players are supposed to go from 7th to 11th level during Chapter 3. Will the characters just blow through these levels in no time, making the chapter feel incredibly fast – and does the sandbox-structure do anything to mitigate this?

If I’m being perfectly honest – which I try to be – the sandbox-like structure we’ve put out here probably improves the pacing slightly, but does not completely slow down the relatively fast pace of Chapter 3: Avernus, as it is written in the campaign book.

Before you start to work on the chapter’s pace, however, you should first decide whether it’s really an issue or not. If you have a talkative, RPG-heavy-group, that loves to visit new locations, revisit old locations, speak at length with every NPC, and constantly gets sidetracked, then it probably won’t feel that fast at all, since Avernus has plenty of locations and NPCs to engage with. Hell, even if you have hyper-focused, combat-excited players, who gloss over the talky bits so they can get to the action, a fast pace may not be an issue, simply because they’ll enjoy getting their levels fast, so they can become even more powerful and awesome.

However, if you fall somewhere in between, and want the party to cover more ground before they get their levels and can move on with the story, there are several tools at your disposal – most of which require only minimal alterations to the structure. Here’s a few ideas on how you can slow down the pace of Chapter 3:

  • Use more travel encounters. This one is obvious, and fairly easy to implement. There should be at least a handful of encounters that will end up left unused, depending on where your players go and what they do – if you want the chapter to feel longer, simply let them stumble upon these along the way.
  • More Blood Pay. Having the party perform an additional Blood Pay-quest should extend the chapter by at least a few sessions. Perhaps the first attempt is a dead end – Arkhan disappears with Tiamat’s blood, Ubbalux/Shummrath escape before the party gets their blood, or Uldrak is killed before his curse can be broken – and the party will have to find an alternate ‘donor’.
  • A Dead End. The Fallen Three can also become dead-ends (as suggested under ‘Telling the Story’ above), requiring the characters to find another of the Fallen Three to progress  – and perhaps even sending them all the way back to find more blood first! 

Pacing the Adventuring Day

An equally important pacing issue – perhaps even more important – has to do with the pacing of individual adventuring days during Chapter 3.

At the end of a good adventuring day, the characters should be drained of nearly all resources, on the brink of collapse, and a few near-death experiences richer. To accomplish this, we must fill each ‘active’ adventuring day (i.e. days not spent in fast-travel, or doing simple tasks like shopping/resting/etc.) with enough exploration and combat encounters to actually challenge the characters – before they get the chance to take another long rest and ‘reset’.

Here’s an example of the adventuring days your players might have during Chapter 3 using the sandbox-structure (this will vary greatly depending on player choice, so use this only as an example, and not a guideline!):

  • Adventuring Day 1
    • Fort Knucklebone encounters
    • Infernal Bounty-encounter
    • Nycaloth-encounter after speaking with Mordenkainen
    • Wandering Emporium
  • Adventuring Day 2
    • Arkhan’s Tower Encounter (brief fight with young dragons/wyrmling dragons)
    • Monument to Tiamat (fight with Arkhan + entourage)
  • Adventuring Day 3
    • Smiler the Defiler (Bitter Rivals-adventure)
  • Adventuring Day 4
    • Haruman’s Hill
    • Sibriex
    • Hellwasp Nest
    • Arches of Ulloch

As you’ll notice, this also coincides with when the characters are intended to level, i.e. the characters gain a level after completing each adventuring day. If you think that’s awfully fast, you’re not wrong (see Pacing Chaper 3 above!), but remember that between these adventuring days, there will likely be whole days spent behind the wheel of an infernal war machine, shopping at the Wandering Emporium, or having meaningful philosophical discussions with unicorns and bearded devils.

The more important question is, how do we ensure that the characters don’t break the pacing of these adventuring days? If we allow the party to rest in-between encounters, they can effectively split the adventuring days into pieces, making one exciting, challenging adventuring day, into two easy, boring adventuring days. And that’s not fun for anyone.

In Chapter 3, we run the risk of having many of these very low-intensity adventuring days, because the characters will often be travelling between encounters, giving them ample opportunity to  set up camp, roll out bedrolls and hunker down for some good shut-eye. We’ve already written a bit about this in our DM’s resources for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, but I think it’s important enough to repeat here: if we want a chapter with this much travel to be exciting, we have to shape the adventuring day to fit our needs.

Luckily, because Avernus is such a fantastical and otherworldly location, we can control both travel distances and rests even more than we’d usually be able to.

Shorten Travel Times

We can keep each adventuring day exciting by lumping encounters together. We do this making travel distances between combat encounters be very short, right until the party needs a long rest. That means handling Fort Knucklebone in the morning, running into infernal bounty hunters in the afternoon, and battling nycaloths in the evening. No rest for the wicked! 

While this strategy can certainly be effective, it can also make the chapter’s pace feel a bit funky – several days of ‘nothing really happens’ interspersed with a few days of high intensity, where travel times are suddenly super-short. Additionally, the party can always overrule this by simply setting camp early or taking a long rest in the middle of the day.

Controlling Rests

My preferred method for keeping the pace of adventuring days in Chapter 3: Avernus is to make it harder for the party to rest. Because Avernus is such an awful place, with threats constantly looming, insufferable heat, and loud fireballs exploding everywhere, the characters simply can’t get the restorative benefits of a long rest (regaining hit points, hit dice, spell slots, abilities) unless they’re sleeping in a safe location, of which there are very few in Avernus (Note: You’ll have to ban the spell Leomund’s Tiny Hut, if a character has access to that!). By doing this, we can have several days of travel between locations – thus extending the adventuring day – without ruining the pace of each adventuring day.

In our example from above, the characters would be able to rest at the Wandering Emporium after visiting Mordenkainen, can rest in Arkhan’s camp after defeating him and his forces, can rest in the Marauders’ War Camp after clearing it with Smiler the Defiler, and set up camp in a more gentle, secluded area of Avernus after travelling through the Arches of Ulloch to the Bleeding Citadel. 

This approach gives you more-or-less complete control of when long rests happen. Want to push the party a bit further before they rest? Don’t give them any safe spot to set up camp. Running low on resources right before you know a big fight is coming? Oh, lo and behold if it isn’t Mahadi and his Wandering Emporium ahead!

Closing Thoughts

I hope the above – as well as part 1 and 2 of the series – has been helpful in any way to your BG:DiA-campaign. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll be going back through these posts to clean them up a little and make slight alterations based on feedback. When I’m more-or-less happy with it, the plan is to put into a neatly organized PDF-file, which we will send out to everyone on our mailing list and upload with our DM’s resources for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on the DMs Guild.

In the meanwhile, if you have any feedback, criticisms, suggestions, or questions, let me know here, at jvaleur@eventyrgames.com, or anywhere else you find me. I’d also love to know if there’s other topics you’d want us to get more into – whether it’s related to Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, or something else entirely.

Lastly, if you want to support what we do here, buying (and reviewing!) our stuff at DM’s Guild is greatly appreciated, as is signing up for our mailing list, where we’ll try to keep you informed about the stuff we do – as well as some bigger projects we have coming up in 2020.

Anyway, I once again hope you got something out of these immense walls of text, and that you and your players have an awesome stay in Hell 😉

J. A. Valeur

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