RPG Evolution - True Tales from Stranger Things: The Breakup

Stranger Things depicts what it was like to play Dungeons & Dragons in the eighties ... right down to the end of a campaign and in some cases, friendships.

Picture by CherubAgent1440 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:D20 icon showing 1.png - Wikimedia Commons

The Case of the Missing Lifeguard​

The happy group of lifelong D&D players begins to experience a strain in Season 3, Episode 3, of Stranger Things, "The Case of the Missing Lifeguard." Will wants to play D&D, and is increasingly disconcerted by his friends Mike and Lucas, who are more interested in girls than in the game. Things come to a head when Mike and Lucas have their characters commit suicide to get out of playing.

It might sound ridiculous, but this situation happened several times in my campaigns.

The First Breakup​

My first group were my three next door neighbors. They played somewhat unwillingly, made jokes, and frequently had no interest in their characters, the rules, or what was going on. After a certain point I got fed up with them -- developmentally, they were more into sports and I wasn't -- so I ended the game, determined to find new players in junior high.

The Second Breakup​

After elementary school, I made an effort to make friends outside of my comfort zone, and I found a motley collection of geeks and outcasts. There were four of us, and one would go on to be my best friend. For three years, things were good.

But by tenth grade, things started to change. My best friend and one of the other players became very anxious about being cool enough to date, and particularly what would happen to them in college. They were hanging out at malls for no discernible purpose other than to "be cool." I had no interest, as I was too invested as dungeon master of my D&D campaign.

Our group had shrunk to just the two of them, so I found more players, and with a larger player base, my two original players decided to end things in the most dramatic way possible.

I knew something was up. My (soon-to-be-former) best friend seemed glum, and when I silently mouthed "what's wrong?" across the table, he just shook his head...

And then both characters turned on the four new players and attacked them.

They were higher level, and since the attacks were a surprise, nobody was prepared to defend themselves, and in fact weren't sure what was going on. As a DM, I was flabbergasted -- I figured they would leave the campaign at some point, perhaps heroically, but not this way -- and failed to adjudicate the game in any cohesive way. We just stopped playing in confusion, both players proclaimed they quit, and left the room. We eventually retconned that experience out of the game (when Lew Pulsipher asked if we ever declared a do-over, this was mine).

Years later, my best friend approached me and said that in college, his first girlfriend noticed he had the Dragonlance series of books in his dorm and thought it was cool because she had also read them. He apologized for his behavior, but we had all moved on by then.

The Third Breakup​

The remaining player group lasted on and off for over a few decades, culminating in a breakup I initiated a few years ago after concluding our fourth campaign. Because we were in different states (me in Connecticut, my friends on Long Island), the commute wasn't feasible. I was also the only parent with two kids, and the lack of enthusiasm from my players convinced me to shift play online, where it was easier for me and I had players who were more enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, that meant being cut off from my former friend group. Without D&D in common, there were no further attempts to get together. We had grown apart socially. And that's when one of my players passed away from a heart attack.

I now have a faithful group of online players, some are recent and some have known me for decades. We're all parents, all busy, and all grateful for each other's time. It's incredibly rewarding to play with them and I appreciate whenever we can get together (we try weekly but as busy adults that rarely happens).

In a lot of ways, Stranger Things preserves the wish fulfillment that your friends stay your friends no matter what. In real life, it unfortunately doesn't always work out that way.

Your Turn: When did life changes affect your group's cohesion?
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Children. Children are the root cause. Always.
Except when it's girl-/boyfriends.
I experienced a bit of this too, though the group didn't, at the time, completely break up. For one of the players (and main DMs), it was wanting to spend time with his girlfriend, who did try to play in one adventure. And for another player it was picking up a part-time job that ate into our gaming time.
In both of those cases, they didn't break up the group, but they did significantly reduce the time we had available to game compared to the years prior. And as one of the players who wasn't particularly interested dating and who didn't have a job, I was in the position of Will Byers though without quite his urgency (due to his trauma and unrequited love for Mike).

All that said, having kids is a very BIG deal. It's one of the reasons that my wife no longer participates in the Thursday night game (though we added a Sunday afternoon game so she could play). And it's why games have shifted venue so that the game is at the homes of players with the youngest kids who need the most care from parents who still want to play. And it's one of the reasons one of our games might shift back to online or go hybrid now that school has started up again (I've got 2 high schoolers and 1 middle schooler in a game I run).


I guess life gets in the way multiple times and in multiple ways.
The school group I played in ended when we all went off to various universities in 1981. We did game a few times in holidays but relationships, sport, travel and holiday jobs got in the way.
I did play in a group at university but it was never as good, and I was way too much into rugby, relationships and politics by then.
After that, marriage, daughter and career took up almost all my time, but I did manage to get back into gaming around 1999 and have played since.
Our group has fluctuated a bit, with a couple of moves away, one quite unpleasant example of bullying behaviour, but we now have a settled group of five, all of us firm friends and we play roughly monthly, juggling our lives around to fit.

I still miss the thrill of being 14 and playing in room 31 of the school on a Wednesday afternoon but that’s life.


Yup, kids and people moving.

Last regular group called it after half the group moved, they were a married couple. They decided that they did not want to continue online gaming, as we had done a lot during the pandemic, and had recently started gathering in person.
I felt that we were doing just fine with online, but they felt it lacked that in person magic. Agreed, it's not the same, but travel times are reduced and we have more time to socialize and game.

Agreed, I miss the days of those long campaigns of my teens and twenties, and the pre-kid gaming of my 30's.


Things change over time.

My first group (4th-8th grade) fell apart at the end of 8th grade - one close friend moved away to another state, the other took up with a different group of friends (and migrated to the Marvel FASERIP system).

My second group (9th-10th grade) collapsed when I myself moved to Mississippi.

My 3rd group (College+, about 5 years) played until several of the members got their girlfriends pregnant and had other concerns.

After that, it was a rotation of groups as the vagaries of adulthood, moving around the country, having kids and whatnot set in. My current group consists of my wife, sister-in-law, two friends from work and my own kids (and my sister-in-law's "adopted" child). And now my eldest son's group (college-age) has had a taste of my DMing (a Star Wars game), and I might be doing one-off games with them in the future - until they move off with their own families.

I remember when I soft-booted a guy that had been the second player ever when I first started DMing. We'd been gaming together for about three years at that point, though we were still pretty young. Our gaming circle had just added two new players (one of which I am friends with to this day), and he became increasingly jealous of his place in the group. He would feud with other PCs, make elaborate plans on how he would kill other characters (and then, bizarrely, share them with the players of those characters). This all culminated in a real-life fistfight at school with one of the new players. We didn't stop gaming with him immediately at that point, but we gamed less and less with him until we just stopped inviting him entirely.

He had been temperamental from the beginning - I can still remember when his character got to single HP in a battle and he tore his character sheet up and stormed off. These days, that would've probably been enough for me to give him his walking papers, but we were young and it was the 80s and you never knew if you would be able to find a replacement player.

That group continued on, with a few people moving in and out as people's interests shifted (as they do with young teenagers), until my family moved to another state. I had enough advance warning to run sessions to give closure to most of the games that I was running. But that move signaled a pause of gaming for about four years in my life.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Having kids actually helped me get back into gaming. I exited my Jr. High/High School gaming groups when I moved out of state for college. Few of my new friends in colleague were gamers and I drifted out of the hobby. A couple decades later, I was living abroad. When my son was reaching kindergarten age, we decided to move back to near where I grew up to be near family and have my sons go to school in the US. I got back in touch with some old high school friends and we started getting together for board games and conversations would inevitably meander into stories from our days of D&D and other RPGs. When 5e came out I set up a gaming group with a working-parent-friendly schedule and have been running games ever since.

My group started as a bunch of early-20somethings when 3rd ed came out and D&D was suddenly a big living game again we were all excited to try it out. Kept going for nearly a decade through three campaigns, but eventually petered out when one member had a kid, two others (including me, who was DMing at the time) had serious and long-lasting family health crises that morphed into mental health issues, and another one got into some sort of mysterious personal problem which resulted in him changing phone numbers/emails repeatedly without telling us, borrowing significant amounts of money from multiple group members and never repaying it, and eventually disappearing off the radar entirely. There's only so many times you can cancel in a row, or fumble about trying to run a 15th-level 3.5e session with zero prep time and your head full of fog, or completely lose track of the mage's player cos he's changed his number again, before the whole thing just fades away.

We kept in contact (except for disappeared guy), but over time, two of us moved to very far-flung suburbs (far-flung in different directions) and a third developed health problems which prevented him from driving. But then along came covid, and one of the group sent out a facebook message suggesting we start up again over Fantasy Grounds to keep us sane during lockdown. And that's been continuing for two years now, weekly during lockdown, fortnightly afterwards (except for a couple of months when one player was in hospital after a forklift accident...). Scheduling can occasionally be a bit tiresome, weeknights are hard for the guy who has 6am starts at work, weekends are inconvenient for the dad and for those of us with acreage to maintain. But it works.


Rotten DM
Corporal Crazy. I was station at Ft Ord. At the enlisted community center i was hosting a game with my soon to be friends and Corporal Crazy. Back then you could get a quasit as familiar if you rolled well. His wizard wanted one and did not get it. After begging, and hinting that he would order me to do, I final gave in just to move the game on. A session later he died and I told his soul was taken to hell. He proclaimed two of his 8+ level pc show up. Murder the group, stole everyone items. And he got up and left. I said that did not happen and we moved the game to my barracks.

Randy. Randy was a good um okay guy when doing SCA, bad movie night, and D&D. Well until it was my turn as the DM, then Randy was 80% of my problems. Standard lone wolf etc. I finally told him he was welcomed at the house when we gamed but If I was Dming he was not welcomed at the table. 2 weeks later at he started a loud verbal fight with his wife. I told them to take to the porch. They did. And only spoke to me five times afterwards before his death.

I left my 3.5 group and took a 12 year vacation. Schedules shifted and we were playing on Sunday. 40 miles away from my house. 2 PM starting time. 2 PM soon became 3 PM then become 4 PM because people would not show up time. But they still wanted to play 4 hours. So that would at least a 9 PM arrive at home. Nope. Not happening. This was also the group where we started doing about 1 GM per system. So I had traveller d20, David had Gurps, Etc..

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