Review: Stranger Things Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
Dungeons & Dragons is the popular role-playing game where players take on the roles of powerful adventurers in a high-fantasy setting, with the aim of telling a shared story with the help of some rulebooks and dice (just in case you’ve never heard of D&D). In the opening scene of season one of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a group of boys play D&D and face down the threat of powerful monster called a demogorgon. With the rise in popularity of both D&D and Tabletop gaming in general, crossover was bound to happen. This starter set is both a throwback nod to the original 1980’s Red Box D&D starter set, and the show itself (which is set in the 80s).
In this starter set, players will have the chance to fight monsters, cast spells, talk to powerful fictional creatures and helpful allies, and generally do most of the things you’d expect from a fantasy/action film such as Lord of the Rings or Willow.
Before I get into the details of the starter rulebook or the included adventure, I want to detail the other things included in the set. First is the starter rulebook, which isn’t as comprehensive as the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide, but has everything you’ll need to play the included adventure: “Hunt for the Thessalhydra”. They also give you five character sheets, each with a predetermined level (3), class, race, background, alignment, and stats. The included classes are Wizard, Ranger, Cleric, Paladin, and Bard. At first I thought it was odd that a starter set didn’t include a Fighter class, but a refresher trip to the Stranger Things Wiki reminded me that the five classes closely relate to the ones used by the kids on the show.
Also included are two demogorgon minis, one “painted” and one not, ostensibly so you could paint it yourself. While I love the idea behind that, the difference between the two is a slightly different shade of tan, and the “painted” monster has a bit of red on him in the mouth area. That’s it. On the plus side, the dice included are far nicer than any other set I’ve encountered in a starter kit before; usually I save these types of dice to let some shameful soul use when they’ve forgotten to bring any of their own dice. But these are great-looking marbled blue, and quite nice.
The only thing left to mention is what’s NOT included: There are no play-area maps, no figures outside of the two demogorgons, and no blank character sheets. I feel like it was somewhat odd to only include one set of sheets and all at level three, but it really isn’t too hard to go online and download blank ones. They truly did include everything you need to get started, no more and no less.
The Starter Set Rulebook is like a miniature version of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual in one. It does a good job of explaining the basics of how to get started, what the different abilities do, and how to play. It also has chapters on combat, adventuring, and spellcasting (including spell descriptions), and in the back are three appendixes. They cover magic items, monsters (stat blocks and descriptions), and conditions. While the adventure book should only be read by the player who is going to DM, the rulebook would be a good read for anyone who is going to sit at the table for the first time. Not necessary, but definitely helpful.
There was only a few things I didn’t like about the rulebook. First of all, in keeping with the “1980s” theme both the box and rulebook have some printed-on fake wear marks, to give them an aged look. This is fine until it becomes distracting on the pages of the rulebook as you’re trying to read. Also since I noticed it, I realized that it’s the exact same pattern on every page. My other two gripes are fairly minor as well: I wish the monsters appendix had pictures for some of them, and I didn’t like how they tried to explain spellcasting. To be fair, I’ve always thought casting was a bit convoluted, but I didn’t think how they tried to explain spells and spell slots was the best attempt I’ve seen.
“Hunt for the Thessalhydra” is the name of the included adventure, and it’s styled like a notebook that Mike Wheeler (one of the boys from Stranger Things) made entirely himself. The handwriting-notebook font inside took a second to get used to, but then was fine. The book starts with some notes Mike wrote to himself, meaning for whoever is the DM. With combat, social interactions, puzzles, and a trip to the upside-down (a scary dark dimension from the show) it’s a solid adventure book that should easily last most groups 2-3 sessions, maybe more if your group is large. If you’re a Stranger Things superfan, you’ll love some of the small nods and mentions to the show, but it’s nothing that someone who hasn’t seen the show will miss, short of the references.
All in all it’s a solid box to start an adventure into the world of D&D, especially if you’re trying to find a gift for a Stranger Things fan, or you’re not sure you want to invest the $30+ per book on 3-5 books to start playing. This has enough to get you going, and a good DM could even use some of the side NPCs in the adventure book to be the focus of even more game sessions (I would love to play a follow-up session where the adventurers ran around closing rifts to the upside-down). For the price it’s a lot of entertainment for little money.
A review copy was generously provided by Wizards of the Coast.
The Bottom Line
Nitpicking aside, you could do a lot worse than this starter kit. Whether you're looking for your first trip into Dungeons & Dragons, or you loved the show Stranger Things and wanted to jump into Mike's campaign with his friends, there's a lot of bang for your buck in this set.