by Mike Shea on 11 May 2020
Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.
In the popular D&D hardcover adventure Descent into Avernus the characters travel into the first layer of hell to save the city of Elturel which has fallen through Faerun into the realm of fire and blood. As written, the adventure takes the most monumentally visual moment in the adventure, the fall of an entire city into hell, and handles it off-screen. Given the unlimited special effects budget we have in our D&D games, I can't imagine why we wouldn't let our characters, and our players, witness such a moment.
Luckily, we have the DM's Guild and many authors on the Guild recognized this flaw. Many adventures set around the events of Descent into Avernus let the characters witness the fall of Eltruel. I chose one in particular for my own running of Descent into Avernus, The Fall of Elturel by Anthony Joyce and Justice Arman, and it worked beautifully. In this outstanding small introductory adventure the characters begin in Elturel and hunt cultists of the Dead Three outside of the city before witnessing the city's fall into Avernus.
This adventure sets up a much stronger start for Descent into Avernus than the hardcover campaign adventure includes alone; unfortunate given its size and price. Beyond showing the most iconic moment of the whole campaign, Fall of Elturel also gives the characters a stronger connection to the city and a greater desire to save it. With some tweaks and modifications to both Fall of Elturel and Descent into Avernus we can build a strong first act for this campaign in which the characters witness the fall of their city and seek revenge against the cult of the Dead Three before uncovering the plot of Thavius Kreeg and the Vanthampurs.
One way to tie the characters into both Fall of Elturel and Descent into Avernus is to start the characters off with a strong connection to the Hellriders, the knight paladins of Elturel. I wrote this Descent into Avernus Session Zero worksheet to reinforce this connection for my own game. The backstory of the Hellriders plays prominantly in both Descent into Avernus and the Fall of Elturel and builds a strong and powerful character arc that exists through the whole campaign. The characters need not be Hellriders themselves but their drives and motivations may be much stronger the more closly they're connected.
This includes being well connected with Reya Mantlemorn, a captain of the Hellriders. The woman is a powerful member of the Hellriders despite her young age and makes for a perfect group patron for the characters. Working with your players to build connections between Reya and their characters is a great way to bind them to her and her devotion to the Hellriders.
After Elturel's fall, Reya's drive for vengeance can motivate the characters to hunt down the cult of the Dead Three, even though this is a false lead. While hunting the cult they can find out that Elturel hasn't been destroyed at all but instead lies trapped within Avernus. They can also learn of the conspirators who caused it and where to go to save the trapped city. This motivation can drive all of the actions of the characters to find the shield of the hidden lord, travel to Candlekeep, and make their journey into Avernus itself.
If we begin our campaign with Fall of Elturel as the lead-in to Descent into Avernus and begin the characters with strong ties to both the Hellriders and to Reya Mantlemorn we can come to a different quest arc for the first chapter of this adventure. Here's an example quest checklist:
This approach can take us through chapter 1 of Descent into Avernus with a stronger motivation and character connection than the book, as written, has on its own.
As written, Descent into Avernus doesn't include the strong drive necessary to bind characters to the story of the adventure. With the Fall of Elturel and some modifications of our own, we can build in a much stronger motivation and better connections to the rest of the adventure. Often we are called upon to make such modifications to any published adventure to tailor it to our group. This adventure seems to require it more than most, but all adventures run better when we make them our own. Big hardcover adventures include a wealth of material we can twist and reshape into an excellent story for our group. It isn't the published books that make great campaigns. It's how we use them.