Adam Lee, lead designer of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, describes the renowned city of Baldur’s Gate as “the Gotham [City]” to Waterdeep’s Metropolis. Where Waterdeep is glorious and shining with a sinister and secret underbelly, Baldur’s Gate all but proudly displays its corruption to the world. For its wealthiest citizens, Baldur’s Gate is a gilded paradise, and it leverages this image of resplendency and respectability. For all but its richest, however, life in Baldur’s Gate is nasty, brutish, and short. Common folk forced into lives of crime prowl the streets, and cultists of the gods known as the “Dead Three” practically worship their evil deities openly in the city’s lower districts.
It’s the perfect place to introduce all the mortal evils that will be dialed up to eleven once the characters descend into the Nine Hells.
Todd Kenreck interviews Chris Perkins and Adam Lee about the city of Baldur’s Gate (clip begins at 5:23).
Bhaal and the Dead Three
To understand Baldur’s Gate, one must understand the gods known as the Dead Three. In a time long forgotten, three mortal adventurers traveled Faerûn in search of absolute power. First among them was Bane, a feared tyrant who longed for domination over all living things. Then there was Myrkul, a shadowy necromancer who desired control over all undead. Finally, there was Bhaal, an assassin who reveled in murder and the end of all life. In time, these mortals grew powerful enough to confront Jergal, divine bookkeeper of the dead—and the scribe at the end of all life surprisingly stepped aside. He was grateful to be relieved of his duty, and divided his divine domains among them.
With Jergal’s power, Bane became the god of strife and tyranny, Myrkul became the god of death (with a particular focus on undeath), and Bhaal claimed the title of god of murder. This foul trio reigned for untold centuries, and countless evil beings flocked to worship them. Of the Dead Three, Bhaal is the most important to the story of Baldur’s Gate. Corrupt nobles who wished for a rival to die mysteriously invoked the name of the god of murder, and secretly paid their patronage to clandestine cults of murder in the city slums in exchange for their blessings.
But the reason they are called the Dead Three is because of an event that occurred during the Time of Troubles. Simply, the three gods who were once mortals were made mortal when they walked the earth, and then killed in various ways. However, all three managed to live on through their individual schemes. Bhaal, for instance, foresaw his own death, and sought to prevent it. This tale is told in the most famous expression of Baldur’s Gate in the history of D&D.
Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Other Adaptations
No discussion of Baldur’s Gate is complete without mentioning the landmark computer roleplaying game Baldur’s Gate, developed by the then-relatively unknown BioWare. Though the city of Baldur’s Gate had been examined in some detail by D&D sourcebooks books like Forgotten Realms Adventures (1990) and Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast (1994), it had never to that point been the focus of a published D&D adventure. Thus, Baldur’s Gate and its sequels and expansions were the first D&D products to explore this now-famous city.
To this day, the Baldur’s Gate video games remain the foremost way to experience the darkest and grittiest city on the Sword Coast. Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Baldur’s Gate II allow these landmark RPGs to be played on modern hardware. For those who would rather watch games than play them personally, D&D designer Kate Welch has been playing through these games on Twitch on her show, Welch’s Game Juice.
Even though both games were based on earlier versions of the D&D rules, Dungeon Masters of all editions looking to improve their dungeon design skills could learn a thing or two from the Dungeons in the Baldur’s Gate games. A few years ago, Extra Credits took a look at Durlag’s Tower and breaks the dungeon’s design down in a way useful for both video game creators and D&D dungeon designers.
The story of Baldur’s Gate focuses on the aftermath of a specific event in the Time of Troubles, when the gods were cast down from their immortal roost and were forced to walk the land as mortals. The story in short (and with as few spoilers as possible), was incited when Bhaal, god of murder, foresaw his own demise and spread his divine power by siring mortal children. These children, the Bhaalspawn, carried a sliver of his divine essence, thus allowing Bhaal’s will to live on beyond the gods’ own death. Certain ambitious Bhaalspawn tried to amass all of Bhaal’s disparate essence into a single vessel and gain godlike power. The heroes of Baldur’s Gate stopped this plot, and some of them—such as the ranger Minsc and his “miniature giant space hamster” animal companion, Boo—are now known far and wide by D&D players of all types.
Murder in Baldur’s Gate (2013)
The Baldur’s Gate video games had a wide cast of colorful characters, and allowed the player to command the entire party, but also included a customizable player character. Ultimately, this customizable character became solidified as Abdel Adrian, a human mercenary and a Bhaalspawn that conquered the evil lurking within his blood. Over the course of his adventures, he worked his way up through the ranks of the Flaming Fist, a mercenary company that grew to become one of the largest and most feared armies on the Sword Coast. Eventually, Adrian became the Grand Duke of Baldur’s Gate.
In the year 1482 DR, over a century after the events of the Baldur’s Gate video games, Grand Duke Abdel Adrian was murdered, and Bhaal’s plot was finally completed. The adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate was released in 2013, during the D&D Next playtest (the game that eventually became fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons), and it was the first official D&D adventure to be set in the city of Baldur’s Gate itself! Without spoiling the adventure, it details the death of the last of the Bhaalspawn, a bitter war to become the Chosen of Bhaal, and the rebirth of the dead god Bhaal himself.
This adventure sets the stage for the conflict that will engulf Baldur’s Gate in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. If you want to get a head start on planning for Descent into Avernus, consider the major factions in Baldur’s Gate: the Flaming Fist, the Grand Dukes, and the cultists of the Dead Three.
A man named Ulder Ravengard now leads the Flaming Fist mercenaries and is also a Grand Duke of Baldur’s Gate; he earned great renown in the war against Tiamat (during the events of Rise of Tiamat). Ravengard is also the representative from Baldur’s Gate to the Lords’ Alliance, making him a key player in Faerûn’s major factions. There is little doubt that Ravengard will be a key player in the events to come.
Likewise, the other Grand Dukes of Baldur’s Gate include members of the Portyr and Vanthampur family. Though these families possess noble titles, don’t assume that there’s anything noble about their conduct. Corruption, treachery, and occult behavior hounds the pasts of everyone with power in Baldur’s Gate, in some combination. If your players didn’t interact much with the Cassalanter family from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, you could even merge their dark and fiendish story with the unwholesome dealings to come in Descent into Avernus.
Finally, there are the occultists. We return to the Dead Three. Bane, Myrkul, and Bhaal began life as mortals. Then they became gods, and after centuries of immortality, were forced to walk the face of Toril as mortals during the Time of Troubles. During that time, they were killed. And yet, by siring mortal heirs, all three were able to be reborn after a time. The Dead Three live, and so do their cults.
The goals of these three gods and their faithful are described in chapter 1 of the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide. The story of their rise to godhood is also described in the sidebar “The Legend of Knucklebones, Skull Bowling, and the Empty Throne,” in the same chapter. In short, three gods once thought lost now live, and their cults have only swelled thanks to their deities’ resurrection. This pleases the corrupt nobility of Baldur’s Gate just as much as it galls the just, for cults who worship evil gods and devils can be easily manipulated by a savvy and steady-handed politican.
Jen Vaughn of the d20 Dames podcast poses in front of the symbol of Bhaal as Riot Bonezerker, winged tiefling ranger at D&D Live 2019 (@TheJenya)
Life in Baldur’s Gate
Baldur’s Gate is a city of trade, a city of wealth, and a city of poverty. All Baldurians look to the wealthy who dwell in the city’s uppermost districts with a strange mixture of hatred and aspiration, simultaneously despising the wealthy for the power they wield, and longing to get their turn at wielding that selfsame power. Baldur’s Gate is not devoid of honest, hardworking folk, but the city has found it difficult to shake its legacy of evil—and the greed that suffuses its upper echelons hasn’t helped matters.
Life in Baldur’s Gate is influenced by several factions. The Watch protects the wealthy, while the Flaming Fist mercenary company supposedly protects everyone else. The patriars and well-to-do members of the commoners decide the fate of the city in the Parliament of Peers, but the clandestine actions of the Guild control the underworld of Baldur’s Gate. The city is stratified along lines of wealth, and the city is literally divided by walls that carve it neatly into poor districts, wealthy districts, and communities so poor that they exist only outside the city’s protective walls.
Baldur’s Gate exists downriver of a holy city known as Elturel. Baldur’s Gate has enjoyed a steady trade with Elturel along the River Chionthar since time immemorial, and any trouble that befalls Elturel is soon known in Baldur’s Gate. In ancient times, the angel Zariel trained the Hellriders of Elturel and rode into Avernus to fight evil on her own terms. However, the flesh of mortals is weak compared to the undying spirit of a celestial, and in time, her comrades-in-arms abandoned her to fight alone. It’s said that, to this day, she harbors a burning ember of hatred for the Hellriders that left her side.
What brings you to Baldur’s Gate? Do you have fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate video game? What role do you think Bhaal and Zariel will play in the early chapters of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus? It's available for pre-order now on the D&D Beyond Marketplace!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their hellcats Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.