Avernus as a Sandbox is a guide from Eventyr Games that turns the Avernus section of the D&D adventure Descent Into Avernus into – you guessed it – a sandbox! I’m about to finish this up with my group, so this will be a review of the guide, how it works best and my tips for getting the most out of it.
(Eventyr Games make a lot of guides for D&D adventures. With some added effort, you can enhance your adventures and get more options on how to run them. Unless you’re a beginner DM, I’d highly recommend checking them out on DMs Guild.)
Now with that out of the way, let’s start the review by looking at what comes first. As always, its the session 0 shenanigans.
Laying the Groundwork
The first thing you’re going to want to do if you run Avernus as a sandbox is get the player buy-in. This means talking about how much of a sandbox they’d like. I can almost guarantee that they will say they want a ‘full sandbox’, however be prepared to adjust this as needed, as Eventyr suggest. The first two chapters of Avernus are very straight forward and linear, so players may get trained into this way of playing by the time they reach the sandbox chapter. To avoid this, try to focus them on building characters with goals that are more suited to a sandbox game. Characters that have ‘by any means necessary’ or ‘going with the flow’ personalities are best, so that they’re happy to take meandering paths to get to their ultimate goal.
Another topic you should discuss is player alignment, and their attitude to alignment. As they may assume, the players are going to Hell. There will be plenty of ‘Evil’ creatures down there, and it’ll be a boring (and quick) game if player characters will only fight the Evil and nothing else. Players won’t know this, but even the house servants in Baldur’s Gate have ‘Evil’ on their stat blocks. It doesn’t mean they’re the embodiment of all things bad; it means they are selfish, and only think of themselves. We all have experience with these types of people and know its not pleasant, but there also aren’t Fireballs flying every time we interact.
The last point to make before going in is choosing which NPCs to focus on in the adventure. In Eventyr’s Guide to Running Avernus, they suggest ways to cut out NPCs that the adventure wants the party to hang out with. This isn’t that necessary but if you think your party won’t like one or two, or that you’d like to bring the numbers of GMPCs down, or that you just want your own party to have these plot-critical elements, then its up to you to change it. But make sure to do it ahead of time, preferably even before the game begins.
The Rule of Three
Although my party were able to progress through the sandbox adventure flowchart progressively, it was good to see that they contemplated going back to attempt their other options, or even take the other option to accomplish another goal, making it feel suitably sandbox-y. The flow of this chapter has players seeking a macguffin and must do a favour for a favour for a favour to find the location, but they can fail at any of these quests, backtrack and go to the other strands of the flowchart instead. What’s more, these NPCs and locations will be known as potential points of interest to the players, so even after they should be long past it, the option to seek out that other Mage or knowledgeable Hag might help them with whatever they’re doing. However, your players wearing their meta hats will see this as going backwards along the adventure and may think this would make no sense, as its rare for an adventure to expect players to backtrack so far. Its up to you to encourage the party to seek these options if they need.
The one issue I did find with this adventure design is that you may need to work to obfuscate which quest lines are easier than others. At one point the party was offered the choice of confronting a powerful servant of Tiamat, or draining a gooey bog. Out of character the first one may have seemed like the coolest one, but at level 7 or so, clever players will most likely seek the path of least resistance, and Arkhan the Cruel is not that. And I’m not personally a fan of throwing encounters at the party regardless of their choices to make them feel sufficiently ‘challenged’ each day by way of having no resources left. A clever social encounter should be rewarded with a lack of physical hurt and danger. This does mean that some pathings will not feel as dramatic and cool as others, and you’ll have to work to shore them up (the published adventure doesn’t have to worry about this).
Take a Break
This is my own personal tip to add to the guide: make sure to give your party downtime between these quest points. The party will level incredibly rapidly for the days they actually spend adventuring, so I like the rule that PCs can only get the benefit of long rests in certain safe spots thanks to Avernus’ oppressive atmosphere. This means that players can travel for days between points, and give them a chance to breath and reflect. The guide suggests the use of one-off encounters such as the bounty hunters or Smiler the Defiler encounters – which I think are great – it’s always good to have some floating encounters in your back pocket for times when the party feels lost – but if your players are interested in their character arcs or development, there isn’t really any time with the guide or adventure as written.
The last adventure I ran was Curse of Strahd, so I’m used to DMing a game where it feels like PCs are unable to relax; so make sure you have safe spots. The Wandering Emporium is good (although costly), Fort Knucklebone, and so are locations and fortifications that the players have cleared out previously. If characters have been forced to change how they roleplay, give them a chance to reflect on that in-character. Same goes with if they’ve multi-classed, or perhaps had a real challenging fight or encounter recently. If you have NPCs with the party (Lulu, Gargauth, Reya, Smiler), this is a great chance for them to pursue their own goals and, y’know, remind the party why they exist at all (again, think whether you want them in the party!).
Descent into Avernus and the internet as a whole provides a dizzying amount of extras to include in your adventure. These are never amazing on their own, but like the humble onion in literally any dish, can really add to a full experience for the players. However, to keep them all in mind and keep them consistent is hard, especially in a satisfying way. So don’t feel bad for leaving out all the special rules if you don’t feel like they’d pay much back. Eventyr suggest using some side-quests of their own design to break up the main quest and to provide players with information if needed, as well as chances to use the infernal machines – probably one of the best things about the setting – in a fun and elaborate way. Other optional rules I’ve seen that the guide doesn’t cover are:
Soul Coins – Avernus special currency. You can make these into a whole moral conundrum for your players, a side-quest of their own if they want to free the souls, or a scarce but vital resource. If your players don’t seem too fussed, I wouldn’t be either.
Turning Evil mechanics – The published book features optional rules for characters to turn ‘Evil’ for the day if they fail a check. I’ve also seen alternatives to this, such as Matt Mercer’s corruption mechanic. Talk to your players about this one to see if they’d like to roleplay it out. It could be fun for a Lawful Good character to let their hair down and do a murderin’ or kick a hellhound puppy every so often (see: Alignment Quandary #426, ‘Can a Good character kick an Evil puppy?’).
Contracts – If you haven’t read the Descent into Avernus book yet, be prepared to know just how sweet Devil Contracts are and how much your game should include them according to the authors. My players were offered a contract once, said ‘no’, and beat the snot out of the devils who dared to ask. Both in and out of character, the players will know that death would be preferable to signing a contract with a devil, so constantly trying it out will make all your NPCs seem untrustworthy, cartoonish, and one-dimensionally evil. I like the idea of the long game: a cunning devil slowly corrupting and nudging a PC towards a position where they must sign a contract, or turning them Evil, but it feels like a ‘gotcha’ moment for the DM that’s not fun for anyone else. The only interesting time may be if a character is close to or is dead, as resurrection is almost impossible in Avernus without the assistance of a Higher Devil. Plus there are other ways to pay besides players’ souls.
War! – Avernus is in a constant state of war between devils and demons (both Fiends), and a huge battle should be ongoing at all times. It is possible to learn the intricacies of the warring factions, major players and ultimately how it can be turned to the party’s advantage. But again, if the players don’t come upon this idea, I wouldn’t press it. What I would keep in mind when roleplaying the Pit Fiends and other Higher Devils is that they are forever playing the game (of Hell Thrones), and may see the party as a useful variable in the ointment. They all want to be rulers of Avernus – sprinkle a little political intrigue in there and see how the party reacts.
Leading out of the sandbox is easy enough, and Eventyr have some cool alternative ways to reach the start of Chapter Four. The guide doesn’t cover anything outside of Chapter Three, but I will suggest gathering your thoughts before heading onward to the finale of the adventure. Tot up the player’s accomplishments, potential allies (and rivals), what their leaning is towards their ultimate goal, and is there any juicy narrative nugget that is missing that you want to explore before the ‘you cannot return to this point’ dialogue box. All this information should help you create a climax that is worthy of all the time you’ve spent leading your players through the first layer of Hell.
That’s all for today, so feel free to ask any questions, and I’ll be doing a full review of the adventure as a whole when I’ve finished running it. Shout-out to /r/DescentIntoAvernus who have helped me out a lot, so hopefully I can return the favour.
I’d recommend most DMs to at least have a read through of the Avernus as a Sandbox guide because even if you don’t run it, applying some of the learnings will make your adventure better. D&D adventures have the problem of sometimes feeling like players are being pulled from one place to the next regardless of their feelings or choice, and this is a great opportunity to empower the players, and let the DM experience the twists and turns too.
Avernus as a Sandbox can be found and downloaded here.