It’s no spoiler to point out that the new Dungeons & Dragons campaign book, Descent Into Avernus, leads a party of heroes from the mean streets of Baldur’s Gate directly into the first layer of Hell itself.
But how does it happen? And what happens when we get there? I want to avoid anything that spoils the story, but still give you a sense of whether the new expansion is a worthy experience for your table.
TL;DR: Yes. Yes it is.
Who it isn’t for: a group that wants pure, high fantasy D&D as the focus of its adventuring experience. Descent Into Avernus deviates from the classical fantasy tropes and instead embraces a Hell that invokes metal album covers and Mad Max vibes. War machines powered by souls roam this battlefield, and your group will have reason to get involved in these shenanigans.
There will not be green and pleasant lands to tromp through. There will not be relaxing taverns to rest in. Good will not necessarily triumph at the end of the day.
When you read this book, it feels like a D&D creative team that is really enjoying its work. And they are delivering adventure books that are utterly epic in proportion.
The current model of campaign design gives us stories that are for characters starting from the ground floor and heading off on journeys that have world shaping consequences. Descent Into Avernus is an exemplar of this model. It says it is for characters starting at first level and takes them on a journey through to level 13.
When you think of traditional ideas of visiting other planes, it is usually treated as the stuff of high level campaigning. Here, it doesn’t take long to find your character out of its depth in the middle of the blood war between devils and demons. And being out of one’s depth in combat terms means characters need to think smart and use their wits to not die. Always a worthy challenge.
Ahead of the launch, folks like Chris Perkins pointed out that there was a lot of work put into making you really feel like you’re in Hell. That everyone in Hell is, well, in their own Hell of sorts, so the scene setting does a lot of work to ensure you know your character is not having a nice time. But there’s a very important distinction here. One that means “my character is in Hell and having a rotten time” and “I, the player, am having a great time dealing with my character being in Hell” are all part of the experience.
The stakes in this storyline are vast. I am curious to see in the D&D canon after this campaign has been around for a while whether official lore will change to accommodate what is suggested by this story. Outcomes will vary based on what your party does, but with stakes like these it’ll be fun to see whether the lore keepers declare one outcome or another as having eventuated.
Early on I did hold some concern that this campaign might not suit younger players. But this feels like a fun conceptual space that has gross demonic and devilish things happening but can be delivered in a way that gives it all a laugh and a gross out without being nightmarish. Barovia is a far more troubling place for younger minds that this version of Hell.
The inclusion of deeper detailing of the city of Baldur’s Gate is great fodder for any Forgotten Realms campaign, as is the core mapping and detailing of the inhabitants of Avernus. If you never run this as a full fledged campaign, your table could still be a lot richer for having the source material available. There is a menagerie of characters and monsters here that would slot in nicely whatever kind of game you happen to run – as long as you’re ready for a side order of Hell to slot them into.
Descent Into Avernus is a bargain with the devils you should sign up for. No blood required.