To Hell and Back Again is a D&D adventure from Donathin Frye and Kienna Shaw.
There’s a twist to this scenario which makes it considerably different to most of the thousands of other Dungeons & Dragons supplements at the DM’s Guild. You don’t need a Dungeon Master to play through this Descent Into Avernus prequel.
If you’re looking for something to do on Halloween and want to combine a spot of D&D with a bit of devils and demons, then this might be the distraction for you.
You won’t be the only one as the game has become a Silver best seller on DM’s Guild, an achievement that barely 3% of all the other downloads in the marketplace have achieved.
Co-author Donathin Frye was kind enough to set aside some time for me and answer some questions.
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m suggesting to Geek Native readers that “To Hell and Back Again” could be a solo RPG to try if they are alone and bored on Halloween. Anecdotally, I’ve seen an increase in people searching for solo RPGs. So I was wondering if you could quickly tell readers what solo RPGs are and why you think they might be gaining in popularity?
I think that solo RPGs, which are also called gamebooks or interactive fiction by genre enthusiasts, have a history that stretches back as long as the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role-playing games themselves. The earliest gamebooks were branching-plot stories similar to the very popular Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series of my youth. That folks are looking for solo RPG experiences now stems from a parallel resurgence of both tabletop RPGs and interactive fiction. Video game series such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn have brought the idea of interactive fiction back to the mainstream, even as tabletop RPGs are putting more of a focus on the quality of their games’ stories and narratives. That makes the two genres very compatible!
And, of course, the most common obstacle for people wanting to play tabletop RPGs is simply finding other people with available schedules to play with consistently! So as the interest in D&D has increased because of live-streaming, greater public awareness, and television shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, players are looking for the easiest way to jump in and play.
I’ve also suggested the adventure is a good prequel to “Descent Into Avernus”. I feel safer doing that as I see the very same thing suggested on your DM’s Guild page. We might have some newbies reading, so could you tell us what “Descent Into Avernus” is and how your adventure fits in?
Absolutely! Descent Into Avernus is Wizard of the Coast’s newest major “storyline” for Dungeons & Dragons. It begins in one of their most popular locations, the seedy city of Baldur’s Gate, and involves the characters in grand conspiracies that ultimately brings the campaign’s adventurers to Avernus: the first layer of hell. Major themes in the storyline include the idea that power corrupts, that almost anyone can be corrupted, and the looming question of whether or not true evil can be redeemed! It’s a great storyline with a lot of original ideas.
Our book, To Hell and Back Again, is designed to be a perfect prequel companion piece to anyone who might be preparing to play a character in Descent Into Avernus. It’s designed for first level characters and begins with a simple, light-hearted adventure, and ends with the character(s) being banished to Avernus and having to escape. A really unique element of the book is that it puts a lot of emphasis on choices and consequences, and since you will meet a lot of important characters (NPCs) that will resurface in Descent Into Avernus, our adventure is designed so that your choices will create really fun wrinkles and interesting relationships for D&D’s newest storyline.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I’m very proud of all of the possible outcomes and consequences we’ve built into our adventure, and how they can completely transform a player character’s future stories — whether they be playing Descent Into Avernus, a homebrew campaign, or any other D&D adventure.
Let’s say you want to try out your skills building D&D characters. Is “To Hell and Back Again” a game that lets you do that and is it a good match for all the various characters people could create? Or should would-be adventurers avoid some class/race combos?
When I designed the encounters, and unique encounter system, it was important to me that To Hell and Back Again would be challenging enough to test out experienced players’ desires to build strong characters. Part of doing so was making sure that I was providing a variety of solutions to obstacles in the adventure. After a lot of playtesting, I’m very pleased by the results. Any class or race should be able to enjoy and complete the adventure! If there is one “loophole”, it’s a common one for low level D&D adventures: characters that can fly at level 1 have a unique advantage that allows them to avoid numerous threats. We don’t really tackle the issue of flying in the adventure, because we assume that players wouldn’t have fun employing this loophole just to bypass many of the adventurer’s scenes and obstacles!
Okay, once someone has created their character, what’s the best way to get started with the adventure? Is there any set-up required? Is there anything that should be fetched or prepared in advance?
Folks should be able to sit down with this adventure and be able to start playing within a couple of minutes! The adventure has a very short intro chapter, about four pages, that gives you rules and guidelines on creating a character and either playing alone or with groups of various sizes. We wanted to make sure the “solo” mechanics of the adventure are clear and simple to understand for brand new players, and I really believe that our adventure s one of the best ways to start playing D&D for the first time. New players’ only obstacle is that they will need to know the most basic rule, and for that, I highly recommend new players purchase Wizard of the Coast’s new D&D Essentials Kit.
One way that we try to make our adventure very accessible is by providing four awesome sample characters that players can choose from, complete with great art, rich backgrounds, and colorful personalities that players can use, change, or ignore entirely. Because our adventure is all about making choices, it’s very helpful for players to have a strong idea of what sort of adventurer your character is, and our sample characters attempt to provide strong examples with a built-in personality hooks that will make for difficult choices during the adventure.
The sample characters are in the back of the book (and also in their own PDF file), and each sample character has sheets from levels one through three so that as you level up during To Hell and Back Again, you can simply keep playing without needing to create new sheets. We custom designed the sheets to be one page each and very easy to read and understand. The sheets are form fillable, keep track of your resources (like spell slots, items, etc), have additional spaces for taking notes, and can be saved digitally so that you can step away from the adventure and come back if you need to. Finally, all four of the sample characters are designed to be pretty potent and are good matches for the challenges presented in the adventure itself!
Once someone’s started to play solo do you have any tricks or techniques for keeping the game fun and surprising?
The intro chapter of our adventure gives a number of tips for how to get the most enjoyment out of playing the adventure alone. Of the various tips, all of which are ultimately about engaging your own imagination, one of the best is for solo players to not just put themselves in the mindset of their own characters — but also the mindsets of their enemies. During combat encounters with monsters or villains, the solo player also plays the “bad guys” of the adventure. Rooting for the villain when its their turn, imagining what they would do or say in that moment, it will make the action of the story more fun and tense, and may even be a good first step for players interested in one day taking on the role of Dungeon Master for a group of players!
The other main advice I’d give people playing the adventure alone and wanting to remain surprised and excited is … be honest! Don’t cheat. If you go allow yourself to go back and begin to make different choices to try to create a more favorable impact, then I do think you’ll enjoy the adventure less overall. Part of the fun is seeing how all of the choices you’ve made and obstacles you’ve faced will impact your character at the end of the story!
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What do you do if your character dies?
There is a mechanic in the adventure called Destiny, and Destiny allows your character to survive close brushes with death (at a cost unknown to them until the end of the story). Because the adventure is a solo adventure, Destiny allows us to balance the game for one player or a group, and ensures that characters won’t die early on in the adventure.
But characters can still die! And if that happens (usually late in the adventure), it’s up to the player to decide whether or not they accept that fate and are happy with how the story ended, or play again with the same (or a different) character. Thankfully, because of the way that Destiny works, player shouldn’t have to worry too much about dying again and again and again without ever getting to reach the end of the adventure.
You also offer an interactive Fantasy Grounds version of “To Hell and Back Again”. Is that something people could solo play too?
Yes! Rob Twohy developed the Fantasy Grounds version of the adventure, and it’s a great way to experience the adventure. It even contains the interactive sample character sheets and keeps track of how much Destiny you’ve used up during your playthrough.
The PDF version of the game is also interactive, with each choice being linked to the page that you need to turn to in order to see the outcome from a given choice. We put a lot of thought into trying to make the adventure as easy to play as possible, with all of the information you need right there on the page you’re reading at any given time. Rob took this same approach to his Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop adaptation of the adventure, and I know that we were very pleased with the results.
If the game gives someone a taste for D&D and is now tempted to try finding a gaming group do you have any tips the best way to do that?
There are so many great ways to find folks to play D&D with! The internet has made finding folks to play with a lot easier (Facebook Groups, Twitter, Roll20 Forums, etc). But beyond the internet, you can find folks to play with at local gaming hobby shops (just ask around!) and gaming conventions are an awesome way to meet people and learn how to play. Just search for what’s closest to you and read up online as to what you can expect.
What should fans hope to see from you next?
I’m working on a lot of RPGs right now, including some very cool products for Modiphius Publishing, Petersen Games, and a virtual reality adventure game being released soon on Steam! I don’t know how much I am allowed to say about those projects, so I’ll just say that anything I publish or create I share on my personal Twitter profile and my Patreon campaign, and you can connect with me there if you are interested.
You should also check out the great work being done by the co-creator of To Hell and Back Again, Kienna Shaw! She’s a great advocate for player safety at the table, and self-publishes a lot of awesome indie RPGs. She rocks.
Your considerate thoughts are welcome. Do you have something to add to this article? Please let us know in the comments below.