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Dungeons & Dragons’ next pen-and-paper adventure feels like Mad Max in hell

Players ride into battle on war machines fueled by the souls of the damned

A city chained to the first level of the Nine Hells. In the foreground a demon burns inside black lacquered armor. From Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus from Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dungeons & Dragons next adventure module is tabletop role-playing at its most metal. With Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, the original RPG goes straight to hell, and players are very likely to enjoy the ride. Here’s what you can expect from the new 256-page adventure supplement, due out Sept. 17.

Descent Into Avernus is a module for four to six players, with content that spans levels one through 13. Unlike some other recent books from publisher Wizards of the Coast, it feels very much like a complete experience tailored to groups that are starting out fresh. I’m not saying that you can’t try to pillage the module for spare parts in the hopes of shoehorning sections, or even entire chapters, into your ongoing campaign. It just might be more trouble than its worth.

The plot of Descent Into Avernus goes all-in on the promise to get players out of the material plane, and challenges Dungeon Masters to explain the unimaginable sights beyond. Character creation even includes the assembly of a dark secret shared by the entire party, which could be anything from a union action gone wrong to a failed coup attempt or a cold blooded murder.

The majority of the action itself takes place on the first level of the Nine Hells. It’s a blasted landscape that smells of fire and brimstone. Cast in an eternal twilight, the sky is lit by pieces of other realms that rain down like meteorites. Making matters worse, reliable maps simply don’t exist. Expect distances to change as locations move across the land of their own accord.

By far the most exciting part of the module is the opportunity for players to acquire their very own Infernal War Machines, bringing to mind the rides from the Mad Max series. These magical vehicles are heavily armed and armored, and literally consume the souls of the damned for fuel. Ranging from two-wheeled motorcycles to assault barges the size of garbage trucks, they’re the most thrilling machines to enter the D&D canon in a very long time.

Four Infernal War Machines rendered in muted gray colors and simple line drawings from Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus. Each one is bristling with spikes and harpoons. One has a wrecking ball, and another a wicked-looking claw.
The four types of Infernal War Machines players will have access to in Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus. Top to bottom there’s the Scavenger, the Demon Grinder, the Tormenter, and the Devil’s Ride. The largest is the size of a garbage truck, while the smallest is no bigger than a motorcycle.
Wizards of the Coast

Thankfully, the systems designed for fighting with and on Infernal War Machines are relatively light. Each one has the same style of stat block that you get with any other creature in the game, including strength, dexterity, and constitution scores. But the vehicles themselves depend on players to perform their actions, and keeping the battle stations on your Infernal War Machine properly manned at all times is a kind of minigame all its own.

None of this feels like a burden, or a departure from 5th edition D&D, in any way. In fact, the authors of Descent Into Avernus go out of their way to stop players from turning the experience into a tactical miniatures game. “It’s more important to capture the emotion of a chase,” they write, “than know the exact location and orientation of every vehicle on the battlefield. [...] Keep it fun and fast-paced, and push the rules aside when they get in the way.”

Each of the vehicles has its own personality. The book is filled with great descriptive language for how they move across the land, and the obstacles that might get in their way. Just as important are the warlords who employ them on the battlefield.

Among them is Bitter Breath, described as a “resentful, vindictive warlord” recently demoted to live out its days in the Hells within the shell of a horned devil. Then there’s Feonor, a “willowy, neutral evil archmage with milky-white eyes and a parasol made of bones and human flesh.” And, finally, Princeps Kovik, a former commander of the Nine Hell’s 8th Infantry Legion, known as the “Terror Incarnate,” whose history includes battles along the banks of the River Styx itself. And those are just a few of the module’s more minor characters.

Even though the module takes place literally in hell, that’s not to say that the action threatens to pull D&D weirdly off the rails. On the page, the entire experience feels confidently PG-13. There’s also a hefty dose of humor, and plenty of levity to go along with the darkness. One of the player’s closest confidants, for instance, is a pint-sized flying elephant named Lulu who literally shoots “radiant sparkles of positive energy” out of its nose.

The art throughout the Descent Into Avernus, which costs $49.95, is exceptional. The stand-out feature is the fold-out map by the great Jared Blando. There’s also a dice set that goes up for sale alongside the module. For $24.99, the set includes a smaller version of that fold-out map, as well as a series of handouts to help players get to know the more common denizens of the Nine Hells. Add in a felt-lined rolling tray, and you’ve got an uncommonly good value for players. Here’s to more lore-heavy add-ons like this in the future, rather than just a few polyhedrals inside a nice box.

Overall I’m extremely impressed with Descent Into Avernus. It’s easily the best adventure module that Wizards has put out all year, and a tremendous value given the amount of material inside. It’s also an interesting prequel to the upcoming computer game, Baldur’s Gate 3, from Larian Studios, set 100 years before that game’s events.

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