Stranger Things

Posted by Andrew E. on

DnD Stranger Things Starter Set Kit Review

 The Dungeons and Dragons Stranger Things Starter Set 

Get ready to brave the upside down with pen and paper in hand. This latest incarnation of the D&D 5e starter set has joined forces with one of the most popular pop culture icons of our time. D&D was prominently featured in Stranger Things, and it’s no surprise that a lot of Stranger Things fans are now trying out D&D. Is this crossover product a perfect match? Or is it doomed to be Demogorgon fodder? Stick close and watch the lights as we go through everything you need to know. 

What is Stranger Things?

Back in 2016, a couple of relatively unknown filmmakers got a pitch through to Netflix, and their sci-fi horror goonies-esque 80’s series became an absolutely monumental hit. We’re currently 3 seasons in with a 4th on the way, and there’s no signs of slowing down now.

Other than simple popularity, Stranger Things has a sizable D&D influence. The main protagonists of the series are a bunch of nerdy kids in the 80’s, who not only play D&D in the show, but they use terminology from the game to describe and understand the otherworldly horrors they experience throughout the show.  

What’s in the Box?

The Stranger Things Dungeons and Dragons: Starter Kit is running an MSRP of $19.99 and has the following contents:

  • Starter Set Rulebook
  • 5 Pre-Built 3rd-Level Character Sheets
  • 2 Demogorgon Miniatures
  • 6 Piece Dice Set
  • Hunt for the Thessalhydra Adventure Book

Starter Set Rulebook

At 43 pages this booklet is 9 pages longer than the standard quick start rules found in the original 5e starter kit. It contains essentially the same information with some extra space made for Stranger Things screenshots and the monsters needed for the Hunt for the Thessalhydra adventure.

Pre-Built Character Sheets

These were nicely done, they’re on a slightly thick cardstock that’ll make them more durable and while some “stranger things” trimmings would have been nice I also appreciate familiarizing new players to the standard official character sheets. There’s nothing intrinsically “stranger things” about the characters either, they’re pretty simple stock combinations of race and class, but will do fine for new players.

2 Demogorgon Miniatures

These are probably going to be a large selling point for a lot of people, but I have to say I found them disappointing. Firstly, the adventure doesn’t call for a 2nd demogorgon, so you’ll never use the other miniature in the game (which is sorely lacking for troglodyte minis or its namesake Thessalhydra). Secondly, the miniature showcased and visible through a window in the box has a nice inking that shows off the details, while the second miniature (the one not visible without opening the box) is completely unpainted. To be fair, it shows one unpainted on the back of the box, but it still seems off. Finally, the plastic they used is VERY flexible and soft. It will be prone to sagging and bending, which is a shame since the sculpt is actually quite nice. 

6 Piece Dice Set

Yes, that’s a 6-piece set, not a 7-piece polyhedral set. The dice themselves are quite nice. I was anticipating some Milton Bradley stock dice, but they turned out to be a blue iridescent set with white numbering that I’d have been perfectly happy with if bought on their own. It baffles me why they would include such quality dice but leave it a single die short of a complete polyhedral set. That missing d10 left me feeling short-changed. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to this version of the starter set though. The base 5e starter kit is also missing the percentile die, and it continues to vex me.

Hunt for the Thessalhydra Adventure

Finally, we get to the real core of the product, and unfortunately I find that it really falls short. If from the demogorgon miniatures you thought like me that it’d be an adventure in a Stranger Things setting, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I feel like the writers of this adventure got stuck between a rock and a hard place. They needed the adventure to introduce players to D&D, which is a fantasy setting, while making use of the Stranger Things brand, which is intrinsically a modern setting. This is a challenge for sure, but their solution leaves a lot to be desired.

Hunt for the Thessalhydra is meant to be the adventure the kids were playing at the very beginning of Stranger Things, and they did a lot of work to make it look the part. The pages are made to look like lined paper, the maps and artworks are crudely hand-drawn and everything authentically feels like it was made by a middle schooler. But it also plays like an adventure written by a middle schooler. Major location changes are glossed over, an invulnerable “Mary Sue” character drops by to give exposition and then disappears again, and it contains a magic labyrinth section that serves only to frustrate the players and add to the session length.

To compound these issues, it also uses a lot of the mechanical sensibilities of early D&D, which really don’t work in the modern system. At multiple encounters, the players are expected to fight off very large groups of enemies. This is a common occurrence in early editions sure, but in 5e mobs are lethal, and especially for new players surviving these mobs of troglodytes is going to be extremely difficult. The “demogorgon” by comparison feels like a victory lap.

Speaking of the demogorgon, it and “the upside down” are the primary nods to the actual show that make it into this adventure. They’re dropped in almost as an afterthought, and the “fearsome demogorgon” is just sort of, a monster they might run into, with little to no importance to the plot. The “upside down” is a transitory thing, and all the main plot events happen back “in the real world”. It’s as if they had a complete adventure, but somebody in marketing demanded they include the demogorgon.

Sadly, it feels like the writers intended to create an adventure that’d be believable as the work of a middle schooler, which they succeeded in, and they completely forgot to make the adventure any fun. While it might get the concepts of playing D&D across, be prepared to spend nearly half the game hacking away at seemingly endless mobs of troglodytes. 

What’s Good About the Set?

I was surprised to get some quality dice out of this box set, even if they were missing a 2nd percentile die. The character sheets are very well done, and they’re generic enough to grab and use for any new player jumping into a game. The rule book (just like the original starter set version does a great job of stating and simplifying the rules of 5th edition D&D and should be very easy to learn as new players. As a whole, it tries hard to replicate the feeling of the original red box AD&D sets from the 80’s, and in a lot of ways it succeeds. 

What’s Bad About the Set?  

I have several minor gripes, but the huge glaring complaint is the adventure book. It may be cute to imagine playing Mike Wheeler’s homebrewed adventure from the 80’s, but a middle schooler’s adventure from the 80’s isn’t good! It’s grindy, largely nonsensical, and is bereft of ingenuity or creativity. The writers focused way too much on the nostalgic feel, and forgot to actually create entertaining content.

The adventure feels like a double letdown, as I’m a fan of Stranger Things, and I feel cheated out of a fun adventure introducing new players to D&D following the gang as they outwit the demogorgon. Instead we get children’s drawings and troglodyte mobs.

It’s missing a d10, the unpainted miniature feels like false advertising (but technically isn’t) and while they didn’t need to go overboard on the flavor, the rule book is literally the original quick start rules with some screenshots pasted in.

Conclusions

Currently, we have 3 options for a “starter kit” in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. This set, the “Rick and Morty” set, and the base 5e set containing The Lost Mine of Phandelver. I am sad to say that out of these 3 options, the Stranger Things kit is by far the worst. While all their contents are quite similar, the adventure book found in each provides a very different introduction into the game and roleplaying as a whole. The Hunt for the Thessalhydra is simply not a fun adventure. Even taken as a simple learning experience to show off the basics, this adventure is disjointed, presents the encounters poorly, and just doesn’t hold up by comparison.

What worries me, is that a lot of new players have been joining the roleplaying community due to Stranger Things, and if this is their first venture into the game, they’ll likely be soured to it. It feels like a massive missed opportunity, and I predict it will turn away a lot of people who would have otherwise become longtime players if they were given a better introduction.

As far as I’m concerned, the only reason to buy this set would be to pick up the demogorgon miniatures. For all my issues with them, the sculpts are quite well done, and it’s nice to have them on my miniatures shelf or perhaps even toss them into a one-off adventure. But beyond a simple mini pick-up, I cannot recommend this set for new players, and for any new players I highly encourage you to pick up the standard starter kit, or even the Rick and Morty set if you’re so inclined. 


Final Score: 2 out of 10

 

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Last updated: January 27, 2019

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