SPOILER ALERT! This listicle contains mild spoilers for season 1 of Stranger Things.
Story by Martin
The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first roleplaying game, came out back in 1974 (and yes, that’s the better known 1983 Basic set “Red Box” pictured left). It’s no surprise then that RPGs like D&D have popped up in popular culture a fair bit since then. The only problem is, the way that RPGs and RPG players are portrayed hasn’t always been exactly, well, flattering. Or even very accurate, for that matter. From equating D&D with Satanism back in the ‘80s to poking fun at players in TV shows like Futurama and The Big Bang, pop culture routinely portrays roleplayers as geeky outsiders who have trouble navigating the real world.
Well, to paraphrase Bender, you can bite my shiny red roleplaying butt, pop culture!
Ah, it’s good to get that off my chest. To be fair, though, pop culture is slowly starting to realise that RPGs might actually be cool after all. Literally hundreds of cool and famous people have come out and talked about their love of D&D, like Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert and Felicia Day. (Elon Musk also claims to like D&D, but I’m not sure whether to put him in the “cool and famous” category or just file him under Probable James Bond Villain. He’s definitely Lawful Evil at any rate.)
And then there’s Stranger Things. When Stranger Things burst onto Netflix in 2016 it was like every sci-fi and horror geek’s dreams answered. Maybe it’s true that Stranger Things is a pastiche of all things ‘80s – E.T., Gremlins, Stephen King stories, BMX bikes, you name it – but what a glorious pastiche it is. Hands down one of the best shows of the year, and if you can’t tell I’m excited by season 2 starting in a couple of weeks, I’M OBVIOUSLY NOT TYPING LOUD ENOUGH!
But one of the awesome-est things about Stranger Things is that the core characters of the series – four twelve-year old kids living in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana – are D&D players. The first and last scenes of season 1 show the kids playing D&D in DM Mike Wheeler’s basement, and it sets the scene (quite literally) for the terrifying adventure to come.
So, for this listicle Games vs Play decided to come up with 4 big reasons why Stranger Things does such a great job of challenging the stereotypes about roleplayers. Here they are:
1) Ain’t nothing weird about playing Dungeons & Dragons
When we first meet the four kids from Hawkins, Indiana, they’re in a boss fight against the dreaded Demogorgon. But not for real – that comes later in season 1. What we’re watching is the finale of a D&D adventure called “The Vale of Shadows” (not a real D&D module – it was made up for the show). Straight up we get the sense this is a completely normal thing for them to be doing. We’re not invited to poke fun at the kids, and there’s no tired old rehashing of roleplayer stereotypes. It’s pretty obvious to anyone watching episode 1 that the kids are having heaps of fun. But I do love it when Will Byers accidentally drops the d20 on the floor (at about 2:53 in this video excerpt) and everyone scurries around to find what number came up. Pure champagne comedy that only RPGers would truly appreciate, my friends.
2) Roleplayers make good friends
When you’re routinely setting out on perilous quests together and fighting off deadly foes (even if they’re imaginary ones), the friendships you make are gonna be strong ones. This goes right against the stereotype that roleplayers are loners who have trouble making friends. Roleplayers make great friends, which is especially true if you start roleplaying as a kid like the characters in Stranger Things. The bunch of friends I first played D&D with back in high school are still my friends today, even as our lives have moved in different directions. So it’s not surprising that when Will Byers goes missing in Stranger Things his friends risk everything to find him again. And besides, they really do need him – I mean, how are they expected to play D&D with only two players?
3) Roleplayers know what to do when the sh%t hits the fan
In the series, the kids are used to dealing with supernatural forces and extradimensional monsters – they’re roleplayers, d’uh. So, in S1E5 when the kids’ science teacher Mr Clarke explains the concept of The Upside Down – the parallel dimension inhabited by the Demogorgon (pictured right) – they understand straightaway what’s going on, while the other, non-roleplaying characters are still struggling coming to terms with what’s happening. Of course in real life knowing how to detect magic or animate the dead aren’t exactly carry-over skills from the tabletop. But just in case you need to convince a non-RPGer of the real world benefits of roleplaying games (and haven’t we all had that conversation like a million times?) I think it’s pretty obvious that RPGs sharpen your skills for working together in a team. What’s more, as a former child-DM myself (it’s a thing) I know that the way I convene a meeting today in my working life almost exactly mirrors the way I used to DM adventures back in the day i.e. I listen to everyone in turn, bring everything’s ideas together and then find a way for us to go forward. And then I roll a d20 and announce which character has been jumped by a random encounter bugbear.
4) RPGs are a safe haven
In the final episode of season 1 of Stranger Things the four friends are back in Mike Wheeler’s basement, playing D&D again. A lot has happened since the first episode – the psychokinetic girl Eleven or “El” has been lost in the final confrontation with the Demogorgon, while Will Byers is happily returned unharmed if not unchanged (what the hell is that slug-thing he coughs up in the bathroom?). Life goes back to normal in Hawkins and for these four friends that means playing D&D again. This is their safe haven, a space where they can resume their friendship and suspend for a while the terror and unanswered questions of their recent experiences. In real life, roleplaying games are also safe havens for many players. RPGs are a place where we can put our normal worries on hold and enjoy being someone else for a while. Sure, RPGs are escapist entertainment, but they’re far from being a passive experience. At their best, RPGs can help affirm our belief in ourselves and strengthen our connections with others. As awesome as movies, books or computer games can be, this is something that’s unique to RPGs, and I think it is absolutely perfectly captured in Stranger Things.
So there you have it, four big reasons why Stranger Things breaks the stereotypes about roleplayers and roleplaying games. If you can think of anywhere else in pop culture that portrays a positive picture of RPGs, let us know! Just post your idea to Games vs Play’s Facebook page, or contact us directly via our website. We’d love to hear what you think!
In the meantime I cannot wait for season 2 of Stranger Things to start. Happy watching everyone, and remember – if you’re game, we’ll play.
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Image sources: Stranger Things title card (featured image): Wikipedia; D&D Basic set: Wikipedia; “Vale of Shadows” D&D adventure: Stranger Things wikia; Stranger Things cast: The Verge; Demogorgon: Stranger Things wikia; roleplaying dice: Wikimedia Commons.