Stranger Things remains fresh in the collective pop culture consciousness after three seasons full of unwitting people unraveling the secrets hiding beneath the veneer of their small town lives. While the characters have faced down supernatural threats, they’re also (for the most part) normal people. They laugh, cry, and play games, just like the rest of us. They’re grounded in a world very much like our own, and that can make them seem divorced from the fantastical settings typically associated with tabletop role-playing games. That being said, there are plenty of fantastic options out there if you want to have a night or even a campaign full of adventures inspired by Stranger Things!
For the uninitiated, Stranger Things tells the story of people, primarily kids, living in Hawkins, Indiana during the 1980s. Things initially get strange following the disappearance of Will Byers and the sudden appearance of young girl with apparent supernatural abilities. Without going into spoiler territory, monsters and strange portals play prominent roles throughout the series, not unlike the tabletop role-playing experiences many remember fondly. The first season takes place in 1983, with subsequent seasons taking place about a year after one another. After several years of things being strange, things never really go back to normal.
Dungeons & Dragons has been an integral part of the series from the beginning. The kids on the show find it to be a fun way to blow off steam and work through their various issues. However, that’s not the only connection D&D has to the show; one of the legendary tabletop’s most iconic monsters even comes directly from the game itself. However, many associate D&D with magic, elves, and dark lords marching armies of evil against the realms of good, things that seem far removed from the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana.
Thankfully, there are several great options at your disposal if you are itching to inject your role-playing sessions with Stranger Things. These range from official Wizards of the Coast adventure sets to free modules designed to capture the spirit of Stranger Things. So, let’s get down to it; where should you turn if you want some Stranger Things in your tabletop sessions?
Stranger Things D&D Starter Set
Let’s start by looking in on the official Stranger Things D&D Starter Set. This short adventure comes in a box designed to recall the original red box release of Dungeons & Dragons back in 1983, the same version the kids played in the show. Such is the ubiquity of D&D that many people who have never rolled a 20-sided die will recognize the reference in the design of the box itself.
Much like the red box release, the Stranger Things D&D Starter Set comes with all of the tools necessary to start rolling out of the box. Inside, players will find a rule book for 5th edition D&D, an adventure book, and dice. There are also five pre-made Stranger Things character sheets and two miniatures of the show’s Demogorgon. The adventure itself will probably be the main draw for fans of the show. Wizards of the Coast describes it as an adventure created by the in-fiction character Mike Wheeler for his friends.
The game technically takes place in the Stranger Things universe with players taking up the character sheets of the kids from the show, but the game itself is set in the universe of D&D. The adventure is titled Hunt for the Thessalhydra and seems to be based on the adventure the kids were playing on-screen during Season 1. All characters begin at level 3 and the adventure has been designed to be a short, entertaining romp to get them to level 4. The length seems short when compared to many of the other published Dungeons & Dragons adventurers, but that might be perfect for beginners or for shaking up the routine of regularly scheduled gameplay sessions.
Perhaps one of the most interesting elements about this particular boxed set is how it was designed to bring players into the minds of the characters from the show. Each season puts the kids through an awful lot of trauma, trauma that never seems to be fully addressed in the show itself. However, Hunt for the Thessalhydra offers a unique window into the way the kids view what has happened to them.
According to Mike Mearls, the lead designer of D&D at Wizards of the Coast, that was the intent. In an interview with Inverse, the legendary designer described the need the team felt to design something that felt “like there was something that originated in the world of Stranger Things. Something the characters interacted with, an artifact from the world.” Since this adventurer supposedly exists within the world of Stranger Things and was written by one of those kids, what sorts of things would they put into that game to help them through dark and troubling times?
Mearls answers that the writer of the adventure, Stan Brown, really tried to dig into what kids looking to heal would put into a D&D adventure:
“Mike is drawing inspiration from what just happened to him in real life. We send the players into Mike’s take on the Upside Down and that’s where you confront the Demogorgon. […] He’s trying to capture it as a monster that players can fight. You can imagine thinking of this as the adventure that the kids played, maybe this is them working through some of those fears. They’re afraid of this thing, so in the adventure, they meet it and defeat it.”
Kids on Bikes
If you are looking for a fleshed out tabletop RPG geared exactly toward people interested in role-playing after the adventures of the characters from Stranger Things, Kids on Bikes was basically made for you. The game puts players in a small town that the party works together to create. Each group comes up with rumors about their town and work together to develop the bonds between their characters. Much like the full cast of Stranger Things, players can take on the roles of kids, teens, or adults. The collaborative world-building makes each campaign unique and draws out the creativity from everyone playing.
Once play starts, the group will work together to solve the strange mysteries going on in their town. This largely revolves around role-playing with a sprinkling of simple rules. While plunging into the unknown and creepy depths of the story, players might discover a character with some sort of special power. When those characters come into play, everyone in the group collectively controls the character and their power making that individual a unique and unpredictable element in each game.
Unlike a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Kids on Bikes isn’t meant to be empowering. Instead, players are pitted against overwhelming odds, monsters and forces far beyond mortal ken. It’s a game that relies on players to know when to run and how to play to their strengths.
Much like Stranger Things, the ideal timeframe for Kids on Bikes takes place during the 80s, though it can take place during earlier decades, too. The main rule of thumb for Kids on Bikes is to create a setting and characters where cell phones can’t be used to easily snag disturbing evidence of monsters. Using GPS to track threats won’t be an option. Historical records aren’t just a Google search away. These things or comparable information might all be possible with tools available in the town, but they shouldn’t be easy to obtain.
If you’re interested in seeing the game in action from start to finish, check out this playtest from Hyper RPG.
If neither Kids on Bikes nor Wizards of the Coast’s official Stranger Things box scratch that itch for paranormal horror, Ian Fraizer might have just what you’re looking for. Fraizer, the lead developer on Mass Effect: Andromeda, put together an adventure in 2016 called Stranger Dread. The journey into darkness takes about 2-4 hours to complete and was designed to be a chilling horror experience.
Stranger Dread makes use of the Dread rule system. Dread makes a shorthand version of its rules available for free and sells the full books for $12 USD or $24 USD depending on whether one wants the PDF or the physical book. The system of rules itself will be pretty different from what most tabletop role-players are used to: Instead of using dice, players must take one or more blocks out of a Jenga tower as they take actions. When the tower falls, something unfortunate happens to the character unlucky enough to cause it to tumble. This mechanic ties the tension and horror of the scenario to a tangible object that steadily grows more unstable as the game progresses.
The scenario of Stranger Dread takes place in the town of Mt. Pleasant, Illinois circa 1984. A 12-year-old boy named Cory Settler disappears from the local fair on July 12. Players take on one of six playable roles and begin searching for their missing friend. The story quickly becomes a descent into shadowy government conspiracies and an even darker evil lurking at the heart of Mt. Pleasant.
Much like the collaborative Kids on Bikes, players work together to create the fiction of the town and the relationships their characters have with one another. There are some directions and abilities between the different roles, but beyond that Stranger Dread seems to be a very flexible adventure. Fraizer designed the adventure to be very friendly for newcomers to run as well as experienced tabletop gamers, so if you’re looking to satiate that hunger for more Stranger Things, Stranger Dread might be just the game experience for you and your friends.
Plus, it’s free, so give it a look and see if it is your cup of tea.
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