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Stranger Things: A Dungeons & Dragons History Check

Stranger Things: A Dungeons & Dragons History Check

The 1980s were grand years for the Dungeons & Dragons game, and its players. Millions of young people were influenced by the game in a variety of ways, and have since integrated into society to let those D&D-sparked influences loose upon an unsuspecting world. {cackling and hand-wringing}

The most recent example of D&D’s influence comes by way of the Netflix original series Stranger Things, a sci-fi supernatural horror show created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer that’s currently all the rage on the internets. This influence shows up right from the start, and runs unashamedly throughout the entire eight episodes of the first season. Many articles have already been written that speak positively of this fact, but don’t go much farther into it. This article will change that.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The focus here will be on D&D, but there will be scenes from Stranger Things described, so if you have not watched it yet and don’t want to know spoilers, turn away now. There will also be D&D campaign spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

Demogorgon

Within the first two minutes of Stranger Things, the scene shifts to a group of kids playing D&D in the lower level of a nice suburban house. The DM is craftily setting up a combat encounter, which at first includes a band of troglodytes. Then, the DM spookily continues his narration, and suddenly throws in the dreaded Demogorgon, much to the dismay of the players.

What’s a Demogorgon? Why were they so afraid to face it in battle? Demogorgon is none other than the Prince of Demons, and has been an iconic D&D creature since 1975, along with Orcus, his chief rival and enemy. You can find a short description of Demogorgon in the 5th edition Monster Manual under the Demon Lords section (pgs. 51-52), and a brief mention in the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide in The Abyss section (pg. 62).

In the 80s, Demogorgon was one of the most feared D&D creatures, and that’s why that Stranger Things scene played out as it did. Demogorgon is known as the Prince of Demons, and Lord of All That Swims in Darkness. Demogorgon is 18’ tall, has two baboon heads, a lizard-like body and legs covered in scales, two tentacles for arms, and a long, thick, forked tail. Demogorgon has always been drawn to look terrible and cruel throughout D&D editions, but I think the 4th edition Monster Manual 2 cover artwork is the best rendition.

MM2Demogorgon

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast / Artist: Jesper Ejsing

Demogorgon’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition powers included 95% magic resistance, all psionics, and being able to make 3 attacks per turn. On top of that, Demogorgon had a -8 AC, 200 HP, and required a +2 or better weapon to hit. Back in the day, these stats meant your certain and gruesome death should you ever be so unfortunate as to meet it. Demogorgon plays prominently in the 5th edition Rage of Demons story arc, specifically in the Out of the Abyss campaign. I don’t have the stat block from that adventure, but I’ve no doubt Demogorgon is as terrible as it always has been.

Expert Edition

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. It became the second D&D product in the line that included the Companion Set (levels 15-25), the Master Set (levels 26-36), and the Immortals Set (levels 36+). The 1983 edition of Expert Rules seems to be the one being used in Stranger Things.

ExpertD&D

Image credit: TSR / Artist: Larry Elmore

The Expert Rules were notable for a few reasons. One, they established ‘reversible spells.’ For example, a cleric could cast a healing spell, but reverse it, so that it would cause damage instead of healing damage. Second, dwarves, elves, and halflings were given max levels (12-10-8 respectively) due to them having special racial abilities, in order to help keep the game balanced. And third, it made allowances for characters to gain and hire NPCs as retainers and henchmen, and also allowed characters to construct their own castles and strongholds upon reaching higher levels.

The Expert Rules also came with the adventure X1 The Isle of Dread, the first D&D adventure to feature wilderness exploration. The early D&D world campaign setting was called Mystara, where the Isle of Dread was located. However, 4th edition placed the Isle of Dread somewhere in the Feywild, and the current 5th edition has it located on the Plane of Water, though it is “connected to the Material Plane by means of a regular storm that sweeps over the island.” (DMG pg56)

The Vale of Shadows

In the same scene as above, the Vale of Shadows is linked to the ‘upside-down’ place described by Eleven as being where friend Will is hiding / being held. Here’s the description of the Vale as read in the scene:

“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.”

I don’t remember the Vale of Shadows actually being in the Expert Set, or any D&D edition for that matter, and I’ve not been able to confirm or deny it as fact. So, this may just be a little Hollywood mojo added in for effect. No matter, it works, so I’m cool with it.

However, the Vale of Shadows does have actual merit, maybe not as official D&D canon, but at least the name has appeared in other D&D material. Chapter 1 of the excellent video game Icewind Dale is titled The Vale of Shadows, and has your party investigating the area on a mission for the druid Arundel. This Vale of Shadows is just a tomb located east of Kuldahar in the Spine of the World, and not another plane of existence.

Shadowfell

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast / Artist: Rob Alexander

The Vale of Shadows in Stranger Things could easily be taken for the Shadowfell, known in pre-4th editions as the Plane of Shadow. Compare the above description of the Vale of Shadows with the description of the Shadowfell in the D&D 4th edition Manual of the Planes (Chapter 3: The Shadowfell, pg. 48):

“The Shadowfell is the dark echo of the modern world, a twilight realm that exists “on the other side” of the world and its earthly denizens.”

Even though the Vale of Shadows may not exactly hit the D&D mark, it’s close enough to certainly make it count.

Psionics

In Stranger Things, the mysterious girl Eleven has the ability to do things with only the power of her mind. As the series progresses, we find out she was a test subject in Project MKULTRA, specifically to instill and increase her cerebral capabilities.

In D&D terms, “Psionics is a source of power that originates from within a creature’s mind, allowing it to augment its physical abilities and affect the minds of other creatures.” (Unearthed Arcana, Psionics and the Mystic, pg. 1)

psionics

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

Psionics were first introduced into D&D in Eldritch Wizardry Supplement III, published in 1976, and were present in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons editions up to 4th edition. The edition of Unearthed Arcana titled Psionics and the Mystic detail a supplement to house rules for playing a psionic character, but psionics is not yet official 5th edition material.

Nonetheless, psionics are one of the coolest things to ever happen in D&D. Probably why it was a centerpoint of Stranger Things, even though it was never mentioned by name, because it fit so well with the D&D thematic. Eleven used psionics, the power of her mind, to do everything from float a toy Millennium Falcon to crush a Coke can, from levitating an entire person to instantly killing an entire person. If that sounds like a powers you’d love to have for a D&D character, get with your DM and discuss it!

Green Flame

Now this is probably nothing but a bit of a stretch on my part. But it’s a fun stretch, I think, so I’m including it here.

You may (should) know Chris Perkins, current Creative Director for Wizards of the Coast of all things D&D, DM of the long-running Acquisitions Inc., and also DM of Dice, Camera, Action!. Well, see, he has this trope about green flame that’s been running through his adventures for years now. It’s one of those memes that the audience at Acquisitions, Inc.’s public games have caused to stick, to the degree that Perkins has colored all flame green in the adventures he DMs.

greenflame

Image credit: Chris Perkins

In Stranger Things, there’s a scene where one of the main characters is drawing an art scene that has a wizard magically casting fireballs, but the fireballs are colored green. The reason he uses green as the color for the fireballs is because he doesn’t have a red crayon.

See? Probably a stretch on my part, but when I first watched that scene, I couldn’t help but think of Perkins and his green flame trope, and connect that D&D reference with all the other D&D references in the series. Maybe the Duffer brothers meant that to be, maybe they didn’t. But in my mind, it is. And I’m not going to say where that scene is. When you find it, let me know!

If you were one of us playing D&D back in the 80s, Stranger Things is a critical history check down memory lane, and I recommend you watch it. If you’re one of us who hasn’t been playing D&D that long, Stranger Things is worth watching just for a better understanding of the nostalgia you’ll soon be fondly recalling. Either way, when you’re done binging on the show, go binge on your next D&D adventure. And beware the Demogorgon!

Header image credit: Netflix

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