The Mundane Truths Behind Stranger Things

Just about every major geek outlet is reporting on Stranger Things, the Netflix original series that uses Dungeons & Dragons as a jumping off point to tell a coming of age tale in the style of great ‘80s movies like E.T. and The Goonies. But how accurately does Stranger Things really portray the tabletop role-playing game? This examination of the series by necessity contains spoilers!

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What Were They Playing?

Stranger Things is an American science fiction horror web television series created for Netflix. There are three different plotlines, all revolving around the disappearance of a young boy: Mike's "adventuring party" of kids who play D&D and stick together to find their friend in real life; Mike's older sister's search for her friend who also mysteriously disappeared at a party; and the town police chief who gets involved with the investigation and uncovers a larger conspiracy.

Stranger Things begins with kids playing D&D in a finished basement. The kids were playing an old school game before it was old school, complete with miniatures on a board. Geek and Sundry clarifies exactly what edition of D&D the kids were playing in the opening scene: BECMI (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal) rules:

In Stranger Things episode 5, “The Flea and the Acrobat”, we get to see what edition of D&D the main characters are playing. As they look up information on The Vale of Shadows, the scene shows a well-worn copy of the D&D Expert Rulebook. TSR published the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR 1001) in 1977. That set went through a major revision in 1981, lead by game designer Tom Moldvay, and covered character levels 1-3. The Expert Set, also published in 1981, and with cover art by the famed Erol Otus, was an expansion to the Basic Set, covering character levels 4-14. The Expert Set was revised in 1983 under the direction of Frank Mentzer, with cover art by the equally famed Larry Elmore.

Speaking of Frank, he’s lobbying to be a part of season 2.

The adventure involves the Vale of Shadows, which may well be a parallel for the Plane of Shadows. You can see the similarities in the description of the Vale of Shadows in the show:

The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection, or echo, of our world. It is a place of decay and death, a plane out of phase, a [place] with monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.

And the description of the Plane of Shadows on the Forgotten Realms Wiki:

Gravity and time were the same on the Shadow Plane as on the Prime, but because the Shadow Plane was magically morphic (and divinely morphic in the realms of Shar and Mask) the landscape was a dark, twisted echo of what existed on the Prime. Upon entering the Plane of Shadow, the local features were usually quite similar: casting shadow walk in a forest put you in a shadow forest; casting it under water dropped you in a similar body of water, etc. But from that starting point, the landscape diverged rapidly away from the familiar, and on subsequent visits from the same starting point it diverged in different ways, making mapping the Shadow Plane a useless endeavor. Landmarks were usually recognizable but altered in some bizarre way: buildings might be constructed in a different style, built with different materials, at a different location, and/or in any condition from dilapidated ruins to its normal appearance, for example, or otherwise strange and distorted. Similar sites were sometimes called "shadow-analogues".

This is how Stranger Things portrays the "Upside-Down" world -- a dark shadow of the real one. And it is the abode of a predator who travels freely between the two worlds.

What About the Spells?

As mentioned in the opening scene, the fireball spell is a critical plot point:

This introductory scene is the show’s entire first season in an extremely condensed package. “It is almost here,” Mike, the game’s Dungeon Master warns, causing the perpetual baseball cap-wearing Dustin to freak out: “It’s the Demogorgon! Jesus, we’re so screwed if it’s the Demogorgon!” he yells. Before Mike unleashes the Demogorgon onto the other three unsuspecting players, an argument ensues. Lucas demands that Will should fireball the oncoming creature, which would work only if Will rolled 13 or higher with the game dice. Dustin says it’s too risky, and their best bet is to cast a protection spell.

You can tell how familiar a journalist is with D&D by their reaction to the second to last sentence – one does not normally “roll a 13 or higher” to “hit” with a fireball. One possibility is the “Players Roll All the Dice” variant introduced much later into D&D:

In large combats, players often have little control over the outcome of events when it isn’t their turn. This can lead to boredom if a player’s attention drifts between his turns, threatening to distance him from the outcome of events. One method of dealing with this problem is to put more dice rolling into your players’ hands: allow your players to make all of the dice rolls during the combat…it requires the players to become much more active and aware of what’s going on. No longer can players snooze through all the turns but their own: They’ll be rolling more dice than ever before—which (among other benefits) gives them the feeling of having greater control over their successes and failures.

Of course, having the DM roll a saving throw doesn't give the player (and thereby Will) nearly as much personal agency. By having Will roll the dice, it reinforces the importance of his decision to cast the spell -- and also the risk in its failure. The series uses the success or failure of rolling to cast a fireball spell to bookend the series' narrative about risk and reward.

The Good Guys

Central to Stranger Things the empowerment of the kids and the fact that the adults can't be trusted. One of the symbols of their empowerment are the ability to ride bikes, which places Stranger Things firmly in the "kids on bikes" genre that was endemic to the 80s:

They're hugely important — arguably moreso than the kids who ride them — because they're a perfect distillation of what this subgenre's all about: the first taste of freedom, and the dangers that come with it. Bikes allow kids a limited form of autonomy — they can roam freely, but not terribly far. They are powered by a kid's own muscle and determination, not anything external. They are nearly silent, perfect for stealthy midnight excursions beyond one's own quiet cul-de-sac.

Our merry band of misfit kids fight but have very specific rules to settle their differences. More important, they sacrifice for each other, both in and out of game. Gygax emphasized this relationship in Master of the Game:

There is a message contained in the true role-playing game. It is the message of the difficulty in surviving alone, and the folly of trying to profit from the loss of others. The inability of any lone individual to successfully cope with every challenge is evident in RPGs and reflects life.

This parallel between the imaginary world of D&D, the real world, and the Upside-Down dimension creates parallels for the adventuring party in D&D, in the real world, and in the Upside-Down dimension. Here’s how each kid lines up with their D&D classes, according to MoviePilot:

  • Mike = Paladin. A paladin is a fighter who acts in the name of good and order (Mike is the Dungeon Master in the show, but in character he's a paladin).
  • Will = Rogue. A rogue is very stealthy and good at hiding, skills that enabled Will to survive in the monster's lair while Barb died.
  • Dustin = Bard. A bard has a great way with words, and is also very smart, and diplomatic. Dustin used these skills to keep the group united and focused many times.
  • Lucas = Ranger. A ranger is an independent and skilled hunter who uses their wilderness skills to hunt down enemies, this was shown when Lucas split from the group and undertook his own efforts to find the gate.
  • Eleven = Sorcerer. A sorcerer is innately able to use spells and magic without having studied it, they also have skills in concentration, which is something El frequently displays when using her powers
Of course, these comparisons are out of sync with the BECMI edition, but then Stranger Things uses the basic D&D framework to tell a good story first and foremost.

The Bad Guys

The first foe our heroes encounter in the D&D session ends up being their worst nightmare, Demogorgon. Demogorgon is a powerful two-headed demon lord that one does not usually just surprise players with. MoviePilot summarizes the monster’s roots in history and legend:

Redditor ProlapsedPineal explains that Demogorgons actually pre-date D&D, having been around in Christian literature since 400AD. The Demogorgon styles himself as the Prince of Demons, and rules over a realm called the Abyss, which is home to demons and is intent on destroying and spreading chaos. The Demogorgon itself is a bizarre looking creature, tall, with two heads like mandrills', they also have long tentacles instead of hands and are covered in fur.

It's interesting that the creature that actually appears is not two-headed, but it may have a symbolic connection to Eleven:

Redditor Theons_sausage (great username!) points out that in climax scene of Episode 8 that Eleven is able to control the body of the monster (using her powers, sure, but controlling all the same), before the pair then disappear together, as though they are linked. Theons_sausage then goes on to theorize that being tied to El would would explain why the monster stayed close to the town of Hawkins and didn't wander to more populated areas — it couldn't leave, because El remained in the town. Not to mention this theory is also backed up in Episode 6 when an emotional Eleven actually tells Mike that she is the monster.

This post tracks down all of the miniatures that appear in the series, some of which were recent releases but were modified to blend in with the older minis. The Demogorgon miniature is long since out of print, sculpted by John Dennett -- but fortunately he plans to release a new version! Incidentally, Demogorgon didn’t actually appear in the BECMI set until the Immortals set (well after when the show takes place in 1983).

The monster’s appearance and behavior in the "real world" is strikingly similar to a monster from a different game entirely:Call of Cthulhu's dimensional shambler:

When we finally get a good look at the monster, it looks like a grey biped with human-esque hands and a head like a flower. Seriously, its head opens up to reveal four petal-like pieces. Super weird. It keeps its victims, Will and Barb included, in a plant-like web that feeds on the trapped humans — but may or may not keep them in a dream state. How else was Will able to communicate with the regular world?

Dimensional Shamblers are creatures described originally in Clark Ashton Smith's The Hunters from Beyond:

What I saw was a forward-slouching, vermin-gray figure, wholly devoid of hair or down or bristles, but marked with faint, etiolated rings like those of a serpent that has lived in darkness. It possessed the head and brow of an anthropoid ape, a semi-canine mouth and jaw, and arms ending in twisted hands whose black hyena talons nearly scraped the floor. The thing was infinitely bestial, and, at the same time, macabre; for its parchment skin was shriveled, corpselike, mummified, in a manner impossible to convey; and from eye sockets well-nigh deep as those of a skull, there glimmered evil slits of yellowish phosphorescence, like burning sulphur. Fangs that were stained as if with poison or gangrene, issued from the slavering, half-open mouth; and the whole attitude of the creature was that of some maleficent monster in readiness to spring.

One later visits the protagonist, and we get a glimpse into another dimension:

The thing was standing at the foot of my bed; and behind it as I stared, the wall of the room, which was covered with a floral paper, dissolved in an infinite vista of grayness, teeming with ghoulish forms that emerged like monstrous, misshapen bubbles from plains of undulant ooze and skies of serpentining vapor. It was another world, and my very sense of equilibrium was disturbed by an evil vertigo as I gazed. It seemed to me that my bed was heaving dizzily, was turning slowly, deliriously toward the gulf; that the feculent vista and the vile apparition were swimming beneath me; that I would fall toward them in another moment and be precipitated forever into that world of abysmal monstrosity and obscenity.

Their dimension-hopping powers are described in detail in Smith's story:

They aren't material beings, in the sense that we are, and they really have no physical power outside their own plane. All that they do have is a sort of snaky mesmerism, and they'll always try to drag you down to their own dimension by means of it. God help anyone who yields to them; but you don't have to go, unless you are weak, or willing...'I can't describe how it happened, but all at once their foul talons had reached the girl; they were pawing her, were pulling at her hands, her arms, her body. She screamed and I hope I'll never hear another scream so full of black agony and soul-unhinging fright. Then I knew that she had yielded to them - either from choice, or from excess of terror — and knew that they were taking her away. 'For a moment, the studio wasn't there at all — only a long, gray, oozing plain, beneath skies where the fumes of hell were writhing like a million ghostly and distorted dragons. Marta was sinking into that ooze, and the Things were all about her, gathering in fresh hundreds from every side, fighting each other for place, sinking with her like bloated, misshaped fen-creatures into their native slime. Then everything vanished — and I was standing here in the studio, all alone with these damned sculptures.'

The hide of one of them is used by a madman in H.P. Lovecraft's The Horror at the Museum. It's Lovecraft that implies the creature doesn't really have much of a head, which Stranger Things takes to an extreme:

Shuffling toward him in the darkness was the gigantic, blasphemous form of a black thing not wholly ape and not wholly insect. Its hide hung loosely upon its frame, and its rugose, dead-eyed rudiment of a head swayed drunkenly from side to side. Its fore paws were extended, with talons spread wide, and its whole body was taut with murderous malignity despite its utter lack of facial expression.

The most dangerous monsters of all are adults in the guise of the evil Energy Department. The real life Energy Departmentwould like you to know that they're not bad guys.

The last monster mentioned is a thessalhydra which didn’t debut until the Monster Manual II – the timing is right (1983) but the game system doesn’t line up (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, not BECMI).

The Campaign

The ending of the first season parallels the ending of a D&D campaign:

“That’s not it, is it?” says Dustin, “The campaign was way too short,” says Lucas, possibly referencing the show itself. “It was ten hours!” Mike replies, “But it doesn’t make any sense,” says Dustin. “What about the lost knight?” says one of them, maybe referencing the show’s anti-hero, Chief Hopper. “And the proud princess?” another says, possibly commenting on El. “And those weird flowers in the cave?” Will says, unconsciously talking about the Upside Down. “I don’t know, it’s…” Mike says before being interrupted. It’s a wonderful way to end a multi-faceted story, that’s what.

The good news is that no, that’s not it – there will be a season 2 which may answer some of these questions.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca


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