Descent into Avernus has one of the single worst openings of any module I have ever read.
I am not even exaggerating. It literally forces you to care about some city you aren’t even in, or possibly in any way connected to. If you refuse, then the quest giver sends murder squads after you until you die or do as he says.
Wow let’s not do that.
First of all, check out Remixing Avernus – Part 1: The Beginning over on The Alexandrian. Justin writes in detail about the premise of the campaign and ways to fix the glaring errors.
One of his suggestions is to start the adventure way before the module suggests – so that is what we are going to do.
PRELUDE TO DISASTER: The PCs are actually in Elturel when something goes horribly wrong with the Companion in the sky above. Black lightning seems to be attacking the guardian of the city! Then black lightning begins lancing down, as well, striking buildings, streets, and people. Panic sets in and some people begin trying to flee the city. The PCs barely escape when the city suddenly vanishes!Justin Alexander on Remixing Avernus – Part 1: The Beginning
Prelude to Disaster
Initially my plan was to run a whole session before the Companion goes all crazy and the city of Elturel falls. This is in fact what the DM’s Guild adventure The Fall of Elturel* does. It also entirely undermines the Alexandrian Remix by revealing key information for the first chapter’s mystery – the villains of Baldur’s Gate.
I’m sure you could rewrite it to make it work, but I had already informed my players in our Session 0 that Elturel would ‘be destroyed’ and to create characters who would care to find out why and by whom. As such, that’s where I started the campaign.
I told the players to create characters who would be in Elturel and to think about what they were doing and why they were there.
The Fall of Elturel
This introductory scene starts in Elturel around midnight. Each player (except Lulu’s) gives a brief introduction of their character and what they are doing. What do they look like? What is their role or position in life? Why are they in Elturel?
Lulu as a Player Character: I am also using Lulu as a PC, so she is with us from Session 1. If that isn’t the case for your group, simply replace her with some sort of divine intervention or other deus ex machina. This could be a warlock’s patron, one of the characters gods, Torm, or even Dara (see below).
Once everyone has done their introductions, send Lulu’s player the following message;
You hear the voice of Torm in your head “You must protect them; the guided blade, the divinely inspired, and the betrayer’s son. Flee Lulu, flee and find out who did this. I charge you with this sacred duty. Find them and bring my fury upon them!”
Then immediately begin narrating how the Companion is struck by black lightening, which forks off and hits buildings and people – mass panic in the streets and a moment of chaos. Do this while Lulu’s player reads your message.
Obviously you will want to change the names of the characters, or as in my case come up with prophetic names. My group has a hexblade Hellrider (reskinned an unknown to the player celestial patron it’s the Sword of Zariel), an artificer of Gond from Lantan, and an elven outcast whose parents were Hellriders who betrayed their companions during the Night of the Red Coup and were vampires.
Because I didn’t want to drag out this opening, I just narrated how Lulu found the characters and teleported them a dozen miles outside of the city to the west. You may want to instead frame this as a series of small montage scenes, but that potentially loses some of the immediate impact and chaos.
Once the teleport happens, Lulu doesn’t really even know how or if she did it. Maybe it was her, maybe it was Torm. The rest of the characters will no doubt question her, serving as her character introduction.
Of course if you aren’t using Lulu as a PC, the deus ex machina will be just as surprising and just as unclear as to what even happened (thanks Lulu amnesia!).
It is important to realise here that due to the fact these events happened at night time, once the city of Elturel falls and the Companion disappears the entire region is now in darkness. The Companion had been bathing the region in its unnatural light for 50 years, so any character from Elturel itself might have never seen real night and darkness before – which could be an interesting character moment.
Once the conversation between the PCs begins to slow down, they spot a small collection of buildings nearby, the largest of which catches ablaze. Soon the barn next to it is ablaze too… and there’s a gathering of people, all in chaos.
Climbing on top of a cart stands an approximately 10 year old girl. This is Dara, from the Adventure League module DDAL09-01 Escape from Elturgard*
We will be using that module for the first couple of sessions, and using the refugee NPCs it provides to further complicate matters – as well as reinforce the plight of the common people of Elturgard and their now refugee status. It’s the hook into Elturel and its people that the original Descent into Avernus entirely lacks!
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I was just thinking that with regards to the criticism of The Fall of Elturel (the DMsGuild product) the solution is right there in the adventure. Don’t have there be a twist, have them instead discover the Cult of the Dragon preparing their statues as the characters come upon them (as well as removing the handout). Much of the content works otherwise and doesn’t need too much adjusting. You could very easily run that and THEN run DDAL09-01, now with some added padding since the heroes are 2nd level.
I’m actually not a fan of The Fall of Elturel. The first couple of chapters are pretty uneventful and the first couple of encounters (wedding ceremony and girl chased up tree) make for a very slow start to a campaign.
The final scene in the woods is definitely great. It has got some interesting interactions to show that the Cult of the Dead Three is opposed to the Cult of the Dragon. However on it’s own it would be very short.
I love the Hellrider background in this book though! The background feature would need to be changed, as written it is entirely useless. Even giving the PC a warhouse isn’t exactly amazing what with animals being restricted in Baldur’s Gate. I’d let the player pick something else, most likely the Folk Hero, Acolyte or Soldier feature instead depending on what kind of Hellrider they are… or come up with something unique.
Part of me actually kind of likes that though. Set up something nice and slow, and then add a little bit of tension by having them fight some dragon cultists, and then when they return, flip everything on its head by having all of that be taken from them. Big tense openings can definitely be enjoyable, and set super high stakes immediately, but I want to make sure that my players are fully invested in Elturel not just from a background perspective, but they’ve also met with people in-character and gained some connection from that.
Then they fight some completely unconnected dragon cultists without any handout (which also sets up the idea that the campaign involves dragons [which won’t technically be wrong, you can even include things like “Praise Tiamat! She who shall be freed!” or “Our mistress waits and plans until the day she is free to rule this land!” to set up the fact that Tiamat is imprisoned]), and then you finish off the session with a crazy cliffhanger.
That’s just how I’m thinking of going about it, obviously.
Sure, there are pros and cons of starting with a big bang opening compared to a slow burn. Different players respond better or worse to either.
My intention was to get the players to care about Elturel via their backstories but also through the refugees, hence my work on incorporating them both in the Journey to Baldur’s Gate as well as once actually there. That way the interest is in them, rather than in the city which they won’t see for many sessions.
One of my players does love Tiamat and I feel she would have liked the opening if it was fighting Dragon Cultists… but my understanding was that you fight the Dead Three Cultists, who have already killed / are in the process of killing the Dragon Cultists?
If I were to make an opening that started with a session or two in Elturel itself I would make sure to include the following elements;
– Grand Duke Ravengard’s arrival
– Thavius Kreeg hasn’t been seen for nearly two-tendays (people believe he has been deep in prep for his negotiations with Baldur’s Gate, but secretly he is already IN Baldur’s Gate with Gargauth+ infernal puzzle box)
– Unity prayers and tributes
– The Cult of Zariel (this makes more sense to me than the Cult of the Dead Three active in Elturel)
Just some thoughts!
That’s actually what I was going for (with the exception of the Cult of Zariel, I don’t want to play my hand too early, and having the major players of Elturel want to defeat any dragon cultists [because Zariel vs. Tiamat] makes sense)! I was going to run it with the elements you were considering, but have there not be any Cultists of the Dead Three and have the group just encounter some Dragon Cultists in the middle of a ritual to commune with Tiamat about their best course of action.
Regardless, thanks for your thoughts and your overall work with this, I’ve definitely been enjoying it!
What would you propose as a better background feature for a Hellrider? I agree that the one in Fall of Elturel isn’t very useful. I’ve got a player who’s just chosen that background; I was going to run Fall to open my DiA game until I came upon the Alexandrian Remix last night…
Hi Ep, you’ll want to make sure you at minimum change the letter received at the end of Fall of Elturel as it bypasses all of the murder investigation of the Remix or my content.
As for the Hellrider background, I previously suggested Soldier but I’ve recently found Knight Of The Order in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide which has Knightly Regard;