19 November 2019
One hell of a campaign
One of the joys of D&D is its ability to transcend the traditional boundaries of Tolkien-esque fantasy – to take your game to places much weirder than even the deepest dungeon, and to battle foes fouler than even the mightiest dragon. This is exactly the feeling that washes over you as Descent into Avernus propels your party to hop planes of existence, negotiate with dark gods and ride infernal war machines into reality-warping battles.
Quite possibly the most ambitious campaign to come out for Fifth Edition, Avernus is a wild rollercoaster of a ride that taps into everything from Mad Max to Dante’s Inferno by way of heavy metal album art. The main plot thread revolves around freeing a city bound within the Nine Hells and redeeming a fallen angel, but things are written with enough flexibility to allow parties to take whatever oddball routes through the darkness they desire.
Along the way they’re likely to run into a vast cast of characters and, for all its grand ideas and epic scale, this may be where the campaign shines the brightest. There are plenty of charming allies for the party to deal with – such as Lulu the Hollyphant, a miniature winged elephant who can shoot magical sparkles from her trunk – but the rogues’ gallery of enemies is equally impressive.
Indeed, one of the themes running through Avernus is that of battling against a greater evil and having to make deals with unsavoury sorts in order to survive. In most adventures Mad Maggie, a night hag warlord with a knack for creating infernal war-buggies, would be an outright villain to hack down and defeat, but this time around she’s likely to end up as a valuable source of information and supplies.
And yes, in case you were wondering, there are plenty of rules for climbing into Maggie’s weird war machines and blasting them around the wastelands of Avernus. Thankfully these are kept pretty slim and to the- point, and are certainly more of an addon to the base D&D system than their own side game, but there are just enough options included for the party to splash out on their own custom-built vehicle if they want. So long as they don’t mind burning through the souls needed to power it, of course.
If that last sentence didn’t make it clear enough, Avernus is a campaign with a pretty significant slice of moral ambiguity to it. While the core goal of saving the city of Elturel is a nice, noble aim, the book makes it clear that you can make things as tough for your party as possible. DMs are encouraged to push party members into deals with devils and demons, to take away the easy route and keep a little shard of darkness gnawing away at the heroes.
Indeed, it suggests setting up the party with a dark secret right from the very start. Perhaps they stole something or were involved in a failed coup, or perhaps they were all part of a murder. No matter what, this is a wonderful way to both tie the heroes together right from the opening and plant a seed of corruption for the DM to exploit further down the line.
This move into the grey and gritty side of things won’t be to everybody’s tastes – sometimes you just want to play heroes without things getting complicated – but it really does help to make Avernus feel like something special.
Even as you flick through the book, it’s tough not to feel gripped by sudden ideas and opportunities for your players. Whether you’re looking at a piece about an injured devil surprised by their sudden sympathy for hell-chickens or checking out the many paths to a final epic encounter with the fallen angel Zariel, you’re always presented with options and room to explore.
There really is a lot to love about Descent into Avernus. It’s inventive without being silly, dark without being depressing and challenging without being laborious to play. The more horrific aspects may require a careful touch from the DM if everybody’s going to stay happy, but that is a task that is well worth the reward.
RICHARD JANSEN PARKES
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Wizards of the Coast team
This review originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.