Welcome to part three of our one-on-one adaptation of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus!
In this post, I’ll cover some of the worldbuilding and setup aspects for the campaign along with a few things to look out for as you lay the narrative foundations. Whether you decide to stick with the Forgotten Realms or to move the campaign into your homebrew world, you’ll find several story aspects to consider below!
Conflict in a Vacuum
One of my concerns with the hardback adventures set in the Forgotten Realms is the lack of connections between them. By this I mean that the world doesn’t keep moving outside of the players’ interventions.
When we talk about giving players interesting and weighty choices, part of that should be making decisions that will necessarily leave gaps in other places. To look at LotR again, yes, Frodo takes the ring to Mount Doom, but they’ve left the Shire vulnerable in their absence. Other evils don’t stop just because one is destroyed.
We can call these types of decisions the best bad choice. They’re especially powerful when used sparingly but at pivotal moments of the adventure.
As written, the characters are living in a world full of adventurers—why are they the ones who need to take on this mission? Why can’t it be someone else? And what will happen if they say no?
As we talked about in the introductory post to this series, it’s going to take a special PC to want to go to hell.
Fantasy often makes use of “the chosen one” archetype, which works wonderfully, but in almost every case, the chosen one also chooses themselves. They say yes to their quest. And that’s what makes them the chosen one.
I wrote briefly in the DMPCs post for Avernus that getting the player to care about Elturel is really important. At the beginning of the campaign, no one is sure what’s happened to the other city, and out of that fear and uncertainty, rumors circulate that something similar might happen to Baldur’s Gate, which is not the most powerful of possible motivations to convince the PC to abandon everyone and everything they know.
The fate of Elturel does hang on the adventurers’ (or someone else’s) shoulders. As DMs, we need to situate the PC in such a way that they’ll want to take that mantle upon themselves.
But why the PC? Why not someone else?
At the beginning of the campaign, this is the central question we need to answer as DMs. If possible, incorporate as much of the PC’s personality and backstory into this answer as you can. You don’t have to show your hand with all the details yet—the PC just needs to care enough to say yes—but it would be ideal for you as the DM to know why them and not another adventuring party.
To some extent, you’ll need to address these world and character issues for your player to be able to make their character, but you can also make adjustments as you go along that coincide with the individual PC and their internal motivations. Playing in a duet-style game gives you a lot of flexibility, especially as you get to know your player’s new character.
A Whole new world
Besides needing to revise the adventure to answer the “why should the PC care?” question, my other major issue with the initial parts of the campaign is with Baldur’s Gate itself.
Baldur’s Gate is a large, relatively lawless city that is, in some zones, so violent and dangerous that a pile of bodies can be found constantly on the streets with people picking through it for articles looters missed and, occasionally, for food. This provides a sharp contrast to Elturel, which is much holier and more lawful, but I have a hard time finding Baldur’s Gate to be believable if it’s maintaining this level of chaos over an extended period of time around other cities that are equally powerful and much differently organized.
Some suggested tweaks here would be to make rebellion in Baldur’s Gate a more recent shift, where unrest has grown and reached a breaking point due to increasing and eventually untenable levels of inequality. Or, perhaps you want to shift around the city’s power structures and internal organization altogether.
Most people, and therefore most characters, believe that they’re the hero of the story. Take Thanos, for example. He’s such an incredible villain because he believes in what he’s doing, even though his plan is horrific. He thinks he’s the only one brave enough to try it. But the organizations running Baldur’s Gate, like the Flaming Fist, don’t seem as though they believe in something or are supporting a system, however flawed.
In a city where every scrap is a fight, the PC needs to be able to exist or belong somewhere with a strong belief system, and that belief system needs to be opposed by other belief systems. Even if you have a loner PC, they’ll still see and be able to react to these clashing organizations who all believe they’re doing the “right” thing.
Yes, there’s been a resurgence of evil cultists, but especially given the group sin (which will be an individual or paired sin in duet games), I think this is a missed opportunity.
This brings us back to the session zero or a few of the campaign’s early sessions. As a brief recap, the list of four possible dark secrets (conspiracy, murder, theft, failed coup—or combination thereof) is an amazing way to start your campaign with a visceral, emotional event that you can pull on as the campaign progresses.
Instead of writing it into the character’s backstory, put them in a situation for the secret to unfold without a predetermined conclusion, and build toward the first part of the campaign’s storyline from there.
Beyond a revised session zero and start to the campaign, I wanted to find a way to make the adventure more open and to give the PC (and myself) more flexibility. So, my solution is to change the world where the adventure takes place to our homebrew world of Eldura.
I really debated making this change—I want the blog posts and our livestream to be as helpful as possible, both for seeing a one-on-one D&D campaign and for examples of adapting encounters and narrative arcs.
Changing to a world with more active, moving pieces that’s still on the brink of disaster solved the larger problems I had with the campaign setup and will allow me to customize the campaign to Jonathan’s character.
If you want to do something similar, whatever campaign you’re running, you can start off small and only change the world details you want to tweak, or you can start big and intricately design an entire world for your player.
I know that a larger percentage of DMs use a homebrew world than the officially published campaigns, though I don’t know how those numbers work out specifically for duets.
So, for those of you looking to run Avernus in the Forgotten Realms, I’ll be sure to let you know which part of the book I’m pulling narratives and encounters from and how I’m adapting them to our homebrew world.
For those of you who prefer homebrewing, hopefully Eldura will have some tidbits that you like and want to pull from too!
Unresolved World Questions
Going with a homebrew world had its drawbacks, though these problems may or may not cross over into your homebrew world.
Though Eldura already has a planes-wide conflict for the player to get wrapped up in, it doesn’t have a one-to-one equivalent for the Blood War. I like the idea of lots of different types of fiends existing together in an amorphous Negative Plane-type space instead of rganized conflict, but I do want to make sure the devils we run into have clear motivations and goals.
This also left the problem of Zariel’s backstory, which is interesting, but I wanted to open up the question of whether or not she could be redeemed and what the consequences for that would be further. I’m still working out a few aspects of her character, but I’ll share that with you all when she’s most of the way fleshed out. (Though she will, I’m sure, change as the campaign goes along, especially in reaction to the PC.)
What about your game?
Are you thinking about running Avernus, or have you already started? What tweaks, if any, did you make to Baldur’s Gate and/or the initial campaign hooks? Please share in the comments below!
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