When Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus came out, it looked like a great adventure. Combining the red blasted landscape and post-apocalyptic aesthetics of Mad Max: Fury Road with the existing lore of the Nine Hells sounded awesome - Wizards of the Coast had stumbled onto something good. Then the adventure came out and …it was disappointing. They actually nailed the aesthetics - the art work in the module was possibly their best work so far. But the storyline was headache-inducing. It was linear and railroad-y in the worst way. And as a player, I found it slightly insulting that it expected me to just forgive the lack of narrative design and just follow the big, blinking signposts that say “NEXT PART OF ADVENTURE THIS WAY!” alongside arrows that point you in the correct direction.

But I still wanted to run the adventure - I liked the central hook. I liked some of the NPCs and locations. I really like the aesthetics of Avernus. I loved the idea of striking deals with devils. So I did the work of converting the game into a large sandbox and ran a game (still running, actually!) almost West Marches style - large player base, multiple characters, multiple plotlines, character-driven adventure. Through this series of posts, I want to show you how I did that as well as generalize how to do this with other adventures.

Disclaimer: If this advice sounds awful, it might be because you want to play a different kind of adventure or a different style of game than what this particular module offers. This post only talks about this module (and other modules like it that Wizards of the Coast release) and assumes you’re interested in that style of play.

We’ll take a look at:

  1. What is wrong with Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus as written? How do you analyze other adventures for their problems?
  2. What elements of the adventure lend themselves to a sandbox? What are the essential elements of a good sandbox?
  3. How do you do “plot” in a sandbox game?
  4. …more?

Choo Choo! All aboard the Avernus Express!

Premise: The holy city of Elturel has disappeared. The agents of archdevil Zariel have conspired to suck the entire city into Avernus, the first layer of the Nine Hells. Her plan is to conscript their souls into the Blood War, the eternal war between devils and demons. The players try to save the city of Elturel and stop the same thing happening to Baldur’s Gate.

The first problem with this adventure is who the characters are supposed to be.

The adventure imagines the player characters (PCs) as regular adventurers (possibly with a Dark Secret ® ) who are “forced” into the adventure by a group that are essentially the police of Baldur’s Gate. This is a Bad Idea. Now the adventure has to waste precious time and energy forcing the players to undergo the adventure instead of just actually coming up with a reason for them to actually want to go on it right at the beginning. If you’re an experienced DM, customizing the opening of adventures is something that might come naturally as you would’ve been forced to do by a number of other adventures like this one.

The second problem: Encounters are strung together like beads in a rosary - you move from one to the next in a mechanical manner. There is a strict linearity to the whole adventure. In its defense, this isn’t true about the ending. Which is something I really like - unlike most adventures, this one has the potential for very different endings depending on your group.

Now, to fix the linearity of the adventures, we’ll look at it sequentially. The adventure is divided into chapters and this is the official summary of Chapter 1:

Pressed into service by the Flaming Fist, the characters seek out and destroy Dead Three cultists who are threatening Baidur’s Gate. As the machinations of the Vanthampur family come to light, the characters have a chance to confront Thavius Kreeg, the architect of Elturel’s downfall, before traveling to Candlekeep to unlock a mysterious puzzle box and gain safe passage to the Nine Hells.

Here is a breakdown of encounters in this chapter and reasons provided:

  1. The players meet with the Flaming Fists who tell them to investigate some cults.
  2. To learn about the cults, they are directed to another NPC. That NPC will only tell them this information if they protect her from some bandits. (Reason to face the encounter: They are forced.)
  3. Once they defeat the bandits, the NPC will tell them about the location of the cults. This is our first dungeon. In the dungeon, we meet a member of the Vanthampur family who the players might not kill because he’s currently being assassinated by his own family. This Vanthampur reveals that his family is funding the cultists. (Reason: As above. They are forced.)
  4. Another member of the Vanthampur family operates a gambling den in a permanently-docked ship (nice!). (Reason: None, really. Technically, their duty is done after dispatching the cultists. Why would they fight one of the city’s most powerful families?)
  5. After the gambling den, they meet an NPC from Elturel who wants to investigate the Vanthampur villa, where the family lives, because she suspects them of being part of the conspiracy to doom her home city. She joins the party as they attack the villa - which has a dungeon in the basement with important NPCs. (Reason: As above. The book mentions you can skip 4 and go straight to 5. But again, all the reasons to do this involve the party members care about discovering what happened to Elturel or actually ending the cults, once and for all.)
  6. At the villa, they meet an NPC who takes them to another NPC who can tell them something about what’s going on. This NPC is in another town. If they go there, they learn something more about the adventure and are given the option of being sent into Avernus to save Elturel. If they say yes, they are sent to another location where they meet two NPCs, one of whom is a helper NPC who will travel with them to Avernus and becomes critical to the plot. Then, they are sent into Avernus with no way back. (Reason: Curiosity and Heroism)

Starting a sandbox: all about premises

Narrative design, to me, is all about transitions. The transitions from one encounter or location to another. Here, the transitions are mostly terrible. The adventure begins with players being forced which isn’t great. Once they finish what they were forced to do, they are then assumed to do things for the usual reasons: Curiosity and Heroism. Most D&D adventures are heroic fantasy and it’s not shameful to say that they only work with characters who are Curious and Heroic. (Which is why if you don’t know what the adventure is going to be about, you can’t go wrong with making a character that is Curious and Heroic.)

So if the adventure is going to fall back on the old logic of Curious and Heroic, then why bother with all that funny business in the beginning? Why not just have somebody approach the party and say “please help us finish these cults because we’re busy handling a refugee crisis”? Are there players who want to “reject the call to adventure”? The answer is yes. And this isn’t a mistake. There are only a limited number of character concepts that allow for a player to say “yes” to a cry for help in the face of danger. Most characters would not. They need a stronger reason than pure selflessness. They want to be heroes but not the boring, selfless kind.

The reason that WOTC wrote an adventure that begins with the characters being forced to join the first mission is because (and this is very counter-intuitive) some players need that. They don’t know how else to go from that pre-adventure steady state world to the curious and heroic adventure mode. Once they’re on the path, they know what to do but they don’t know how to get on the path. “Just playing their character” is no help here.

So let me illustrate how I solved the problem. This is the premise I used:

Hell isn’t an abstraction for the Highwater brigade. Their leader, Captain Azara, was one of the Hellriders, the army that followed Zariel into Hell to fight for the Gods almost two centuries ago. But the Hellriders broke against the terrors of Hell and many of them fled in fear and closed the portals behind them, trapping their comrades. Azara was a young woman then and the shame has followed her to this today. Now Azara is the the veteran of many campaigns and the Captain of her own mercenary brigade in Baldur’s Gate, with a reputation as a straight arrow with an unerring commitment to justice. Her whole life has been an attempt to scrub the bloodstains of that day off her palms. The Highwater brigade is a ragtag group including angry youths with a chip on their shoulder, strangers with mysterious pasts, fellow ashamed veterans of Zariel’s Ride and many more.

With Elturel’s disappearance into Hell, Azara’s past has come back to haunt her. She disbands the brigade, releasing everyone from their contracts. Now the brigade’s members need to figure out what they want to do. There’s enough work in Baldur’s Gate with the refugee crisis, myriad bloodthirsty cults springing up and what not. But rumor has it that Azara is heading into Avernus herself and some Highwater members are looking to follow her…

This premise does a few things:

  1. It binds all the players together as comrades.

  2. It gives them reasons to want to save Elturel - for their captain, for the brigade’s honor, etc.

You obviously needn’t use my premise. Here are some alternate opening scenes / motivations that could be discussed with your party during a Session Zero:

  1. Some of your characters are from Elturel. They want to save their city. Simple. Do you have a cleric or a paladin in their party? Elturel was full of their co-religionists who need to be saved.
  2. Your characters need money. Someone offers them gold to get hooked into the storyline, expect the promise of being heroes and more gold to carry them through. This might look unsophisticated but it gives the players enough of an excuse to begin. It gets them on the path and allows Curiosity and Heroism to take over.
  3. Do you have a Hexblade in the party? They’ve been receiving visions from their patron who is trapped in Avernus and wants to be rescued. This patron is the Sword of Zariel, one of the central plot hooks for Chapter 3 of this adventure. Maybe the cleric / paladin have been receiving the classic “visions from their God telling them something is up!”.
  4. A ranger who is a Horizon Walker? Their order wants this Elturel business solved. A warlock who’s Pact of the Fiend? Maybe there’s some infernal real politick-ing and their patron wants to see Zariel to fail. Honestly, this could be any of the major figures from DND lore.

Let’s take a step back and look at why these alternate openings work. They are broadly two types: the Quest and the Mystery. The Quest can be self-directed (like in 1) or they can be given by someone else (2, 4). The second type of premise is the Mystery. The examples mentioned in point 3 in the list above are Mystery openings. The characters are given rumors, visions, hints about some great adventure to be had and they follow the breadcrumbs because they’re Curious and Heroic. The official DND opening is technically a Quest but it’s just a bad one because they’re trying to be generic enough so that no matter what characters you have, this will do the job - albeit a bad job.

So if you’re starting a game of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus or really any pre-written module, use this handy table to give your players a customized opening.

  1. Your character is Connected (vested in a deity or institution that cares). The connection gives you a Quest.
  2. Your character is Curious. You are given rumors, visions, hints that set you on the path of destiny.
  3. Your character is Unconnected and Uncurious. You have an existing relationship with a character who is either Connected or Curious and will follow them on this adventure.
  4. Your character cares only about One Thing. You have to do the work of sitting with your DM and figure out how going on the adventure helps you get the One Thing.

If you solve the opening scene, it’s easy enough to link the ending of this new scene to the second encounter or the third or wherever you’d like to start your players off. I recommend the third encounter (see encounter breakdown above) which is the lair of the cultists and forms a nice starting dungeon.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at Chapter 2 and 3 of Descent into Avernus where we can actually start with our devilish sandbox when our players finally reach Avernus…