35 Times Stranger Things Showed Off Its Dungeons & Dragons RootsBy Aakash M
Everyone who has seen Stranger Things or even seen its trailer knows that it has an iconic ’80s theme. The background music, the costume design, the set and props, and just the overall vibe of the show create a somewhat nostalgic feeling. Even if you weren’t an ’80s kid, the culture was still prevalent in the ’90s, too. All seasons of this show have been a huge hit. Also, people have been waiting eagerly for the fourth season’s release, which is scheduled to be released on May 27, 2022. Although this science fiction show might seem to be far away from swords and sorcery, that’s just not the case. In fact, the show proudly shows its Dungeons & Dragons roots in its narrative, characters, and set. We’re not just talking about the boys playing a campaign in season 1, either. Read on for 35 more subtle D&D references in Stranger Things.
Eleven’s power and spell slots
If you’ve watched the show, you know how Eleven’s abilities always take a huge toll on her. This situation resembles the way spells in Dungeons & Dragons are handled. Spell slots are more like a resource management system, keeping track of the spellcaster’s energy, in a way.
Even from the first edition of the game, magic users had strict rules when it came to spells. At lower levels, there are limited spells available and you have just a few uses per day (cantrips not included). Eleven’s powers took a toll on her, and she had a daily limit, just like a D&D spellcaster.
The most obvious reference to Dungeons & Dragons is in episode 1! We’re introduced to the characters as they play their campaign. Let’s start with Will Byers. In their game, he plays the wizard Will the Wise. (Try saying that ten times fast!)
And it’s not just his D&D persona. Will has wizard characteristics, too. Thanks to his time in the Upside Down and his subsequent connections to the supernatural events in Hawkins, Will’s precognition and knowledge are reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons wizards.
Never split the party!
If you’ve played even one game, you’ll know this rule. Even if it seems like a good idea, splitting the party will only end in death and disaster. What’s great about Stranger Things is that they explicitly reference this rule of RPGs.
Dustin keeps the crew together by referencing an event in their D&D campaign when they split up. The stakes weren’t as high when playing with figurines, but the concept remains the same. And, as a bonus reference, Bloodstone Pass was a 1985 module for the original D&D!
During the season one finale, the boys finally finish their D&D campaign. Upon completion, they complain about how long it took them. Of course, they weren’t done with the adventure just yet. The boys had so many unanswered questions. All of this is a mirror of the show itself!
The boys complain that the campaign was ten hours long — season one was 10 hours long. They also ask about the lost knight, the proud princess, and the flowers in the cave. That sounds like Will in the Upside Down, Eleven, and the plants in season two.
You meet in a tavern…
When your group is on a quest, the best place to start is the tavern. That’s where you’ll find the most helpful and well-informed NPCs, and your party can sit and discuss your next moves. Although there weren’t taverns in the 1980s, Stranger Things kept the idea.
Scoops Ahoy was the go-to place for regrouping in season three. Though, it did deviate from the traditional tavern because there were some main characters working behind the “bar.” Nancy and Steve led the charge of the crew whenever they were on their home turf.
The plot and the campaign
As we mentioned before, we first meet the main characters while they are playing Dungeons & Dragons. Mike narrates the peril that his friends face in the game. However, if you rewatch this scene post-finale, you’ll find some similarities between the plots…
Mike is narrating the whole show! Spoilers, much? He speaks of a bloodthirsty creature in the shadows, after which Will’s character unsuccessfully hits it with a fireball. After that, he is grabbed by the Demogorgon. That’s pretty much what happened in the show.
Unfortunately for Will, he only had fireballs when playing D&D. In their “real life,” the boys’ have no special abilities. That’s where Eleven comes in! She has powers that follow the spells in Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s take a look at a few of them:
When we first meet Eleven, her main power is Telekinesis. She stops the annoying fan in the burger joint and crushes a Coke can with her mind. As she develops her powers, El uses Scrying, Telepathy, and even Astral Projection!
Is it a gang or a party?
The show doesn’t just make in-world references to Dungeons & Dragons, but the series itself takes inspiration from the narrative structure of D&D. You could say that the plot of the show revolves around the struggles of a group stacked against great odds.
That sounds a lot like a D&D campaign, don’t you think? The game’s plot revolves around a party of adventurers who embark on several journeys and quests together. Each of these adventurers has a unique set of skills and roles to play to make a complete, competent party.
Take a close look at Mike from the show. His qualities, chemistry with other characters, and his mere presence all point towards a certain class. Although he plays the DM in the boys’ Dungeons & Dragons game, Mike himself resembles a Paladin.
For starters, when Will draws their characters, he gives Mike armor and a hammer. This is wouldn’t be out of place for a Paladin. What’s most notable, though, is his compassion, careful judgment, and strong morality. Again, all of these characteristics are perfect for a Paladin.
The brave fighter
If you’ve paid attention to Lucas in the show, he comes off as a bit of a hothead. He is the one most likely to jump into action, leaping first without thinking. His class is undoubtedly the Fighter. Sure, they all fight, but his character is most suited for the class.
Right from when he advises Will to use his Fireball, to his desire to find Will no matter what happens, his inclination as a Fighter keeps on appearing throughout the whole show. To top it off, he equips himself with a wrist rocket, a very Fighter move to make.
Although Jim Hopper isn’t an official member of the gang, when it comes down to taking down the baddies, he is still part of the team. His investigative skills and keen perception and insight are close to that of a Ranger.
In Dungeons & Dragons, rangers are highly skilled fighters and trackers. While they are more proficient in long-range combat, they are more than capable in hand-to-hand battles. Because they are good at tracking, rangers tend to work alone. Does this sound like anyone to you?
The humorous one
Dustin is a funny and lovable character. He’s also pretty charming, supportive, and an eager companion. If this doesn’t describe the Bard of the group, we don’t know what does. Sure, he doesn’t carry around a Lute, but his character traits are too perfect.
He supports the group and maintains the unity between the friends by helping them work together, something one might see in a Bard. Actually, come to think of it, he does lend his voice to the show. He sings to his girlfriend in season three. That sounds like Bardic inspiration to us!
Eleven is the one who brings the greatest amount of magic (literally!) to this party of adventurers, and that’s obvious because of her backstory. The torturous experiments she went through gave her psionic powers. Because they were gained by experiments, her abilities aren’t something anyone could learn.
Wizards, like Will, spend their whole lives studying in order to learn Fireball. Sorcerers, however, inherently have these abilities. Sure, they don’t start off with every spell in the book, but that’s what leveling up is for. Even if it was against her will, you can’t deny Eleven’s the Sorcerer of the party.
Preying on your intellect
In season two episode three, we see Dustin adopt a creature from the Upside Down. Honestly, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Sure, he never thought that it would bring the Demodogs to him, nothing good could have come of it.
Any D&D savvy viewer would know that adopting a Demodog would only end in disaster. Mind Flayers have minions! The boys even refer to the antagonist as a Mind Flayer, so they really should have put two and two together.
Taken control of Billy
During the third season of the show, the fight against the Mind Flayer takes a huge turn when it rises to its peak, thus corrupting the people of the city. One of the main examples was when Billy was dominated by the creature.
Although Will never succumbed to the Mind Flayer’s deceptive tricks, Billy had given in, and he was also doing the bidding for the creature. It is all in line with the Mind Flayers from the game since even they can manipulate the actions of other beings with an ability called Dominate Person.
No matter how intense or long the campaign is, all RPGs have some puzzle-solving aspect. As characters go through the world, the puzzles get more complex and have higher stakes. In season one, Joyce is a one-man-army when it comes to solving the lights puzzle.
Don’t count her out in season two or three, either. Joyce’s intelligence stats are through the roof! Fortunately, she gets help as the show goes on. Even if she is the one leading the charge, not everyone can find every answer all the time.
For almost the entire third season, Billy is controlled by the Mind Flayer. Although he eventually shakes off the effects in his final moments, it took a lot of time. There’s some difference between how Billy was manipulated versus how others fell victim.
This difference comes down to the mechanics of dominated individuals versus thralls. Just like Will resisted the Mind Flayer’s influence, dominated characters get multiple chances to shake off the effects. Thralls, however, are more like mindless puppets controlled by the Mind Flayers.
The boss battle
As each season progresses, the characters get closer to facing their ultimate foe: the Mind Flayer. Even when they think they’ve beat it, new challenges come their way. This narrative is something every party faces as they march forward to the big boss.
First, they must face its thralls and…offspring? As the characters (players) level up, they get stronger, reaching a level where they can face off against the boss and not be killed in one hit. Are we talking about D&D or Stranger Things? Both!
Grigori the Rogue
Hopper, the Ranger, has his own foes to deal with. Sure, everyone is intertwined, but some characters have more of a direct connection with certain enemies. One of Hopper’s antagonists is Grigori, the Russian operative. Can you guess what class he is?
What better enemy for the Ranger than a Rogue? Grigori is sneaky and strikes stealthily and mercilessly. Even if he held a position of power, that doesn’t detract from his Rogue-like tactics. Although he’s not as main of a character, we can’t ignore his D&D likeness.
Crawling in the dungeons
From the get-go, we follow the characters as they go about their lives and subsequent adventures in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. As they explore, the narrative breaches the Upside Down, hidden labs, and even epic battles in the mall.
It might seem new to viewers, but players of Dungeons & Dragons will notice how similar their adventure is to a dungeon crawl. Although there aren’t any dungeons in Hawkins, their path through the world, complete with obstacles preventing them from turning and running is exactly what you’d get in a dungeon crawl!
Another easter egg
Throughout all the seasons, the show shows a deep connection with the game of Dungeons & Dragons, and we’re sure that those who’ve never even heard of the game became aware of it to a great extent because of the show.
There are many small references in the show that could escape from our visions, but we caught a few. For instance, news reports in Stranger Things speak of the suspicion regarding the game acting as a corrupting element that has ties to satanism. We bet most of you might have missed it.
D&D in real life
Did you know that David Harbour, the actor playing Jim Hopper, has extensive knowledge of D&D? Well, he isn’t the only person, because many people in the production and many cast members of the show have also played the game!
Wizards of The Coast is the company behind the legendary game, and they brought the cast members together for a live game! Harbour was, of course, in great control of the game, while other younger co-stars like Finn and Gaten (Mike and Dustin) also displayed a considerable level of knowledge!
Season three of the show kind of left us all on a cliffhanger. But, you know that the upcoming season of the show has already been announced as the last season. It’s going to be the most fearsome season since D&D’s most feared villain is coming!
The strange humanoid creature seen in the trailers is another D&D-inspired villain. Vecna, arguably one of the biggest baddies in Dungeons & Dragons is coming to Netflix. Three seasons of fighting against the Demogorgon and Mind Flayer, we can only hope that our band of heroes is ready for the fight ahead of them.
Because of all the features and references to Dungeons & Dragons in Stranger Things, it’s evident that the relationship between the show and the game is a pretty affectionate one. Although it could seem otherwise, D&D doesn’t sponsor the series in any way.
While it’s always been a well-loved game, D&D has seen a recent spike in popularity, both with new and veteran players. To cement this connection, the company behind the game also created an introductory adventure to the game that follows the events of Stranger Things!
Traveling between different dimensions
One of the most creative aspects of the show is the exploration of parallel spaces beyond our existence. Although that notion isn’t new, the take of the show on this concept also has a lot to do with the D&D world.
Hawkins only has the Upside Down to deal with, but D&D and other systems have countless planes of existence. Hawkins is the in-universe Material Plane, whereas the Upside Down is definitely one of the Outer Planes. And, of course, Eleven is able to Plane Shift between the two!
In the first episode of Stranger Things, Mike leads his gang through an adventurous game of Dungeons & Dragons, and the enemy in that game is a creature called the Demogorgon. Later on, the party meets their real-life enemy…a Demogorgon.
Our beloved band of Middle Schoolers needed to give a name to their foe, hence the Demogorgon. However, the show’s version doesn’t resemble the original character design. The Duffer brothers probably knew that baboon heads on a reptilian body would be too out there…
While we’re on the topic of the Demogorgon, let’s talk about the game versus the show. If you’re reading this, you probably know all about the Demogorgon from Stranger Things. But how well do you know its Dungeons & Dragons counterpart?
The Demogorgon was said to reside in the Abyss, one of the deadly Outer Planes. In 5e, however, the Demogorgon wreaks havoc in the Underdark. The 5e storyline clearly inspired Season two, because the Underdark is home to Mind Flayers!
After the group triumphs over the Demogorgon, we meet them in the next season, when some time has passed. The season starts off with a more grown-up version of the youngsters. They now have leveled up a bit after their previous encounters.
In real life, leveling up is pretty boring, but they did a fun yet realistic take on it. The human characters got to stat up their intelligence, charisma, and weapons proficiency. Meanwhile, Eleven, and even Will, gained some new spells and abilities and increased stamina.
Skilled D&D player
In the show’s second season, many of the youngsters are seen pursuing romantic relations. These signs alienate Will, who’s always trying to reignite the boys’ connection with the help of the strategic usage of the game. So, Will the Wise makes a strong comeback.
Will’s will (pun intended) to play the game with his friends without the complications of real life is pretty much in line with the old-school version of D&D. The newer versions embrace the role-playing aspect of the game. Will’s definitely a veteran player.
NPCs move the plot along
With any world-building, you can’t just have the main characters. The writers of the show did so by filling in the town with schoolkids, shopkeepers, police, and more. These background characters, in Dungeons & Dragons terms, are NPCs — Non-Player Characters.
Of course, what makes someone an NPC rather than just background noise, is when you can interact with them. The shopkeeper that tries to stop Eleven from shoplifting is a good example. He exists to fill in the world, but also to move the plot along by showing off El’s powers.
The monster from D&D
The moment when the identity of the shadowy thing in the background of the second season is revealed, the group wastes no time naming the thing: the Mind Flayer. Just like the Demogorgon being named after a Dungeons & Dragons creature, the same is true of the Mind Flayer.
Also known as illithids, Mind Flayers are fearsome creatures from the Underdark. Their psionic abilities are not to be trifled with, and any ill-prepared party will quickly fall to one of these creatures. The Stranger Things Mind Flayer and 5e illithids sound awfully familiar…
Throughout the show, there’s a conflict between the Mind Flayer and the group of kids…and the town, really. Will in particular has had to resist the Mind Flayer’s mental influence. Others, like Billy, have failed and become puppets for it to wield.
Naming the boy Will was a not-so-subtle jab at Dungeons & Dragons statistics. In the game, if you go up against any number of psychic effects, you will probably have to roll a will save. In the show, Will is the character who’s had to face the Mind Flayer the most.
Maps and visual representations
No Dungeons & Dragons game would be complete without a battle map. Even if your DM doesn’t have the time to prepare a colorful, scale version of the world you wander in, simple battle maps are vital for combat encounters.
By piecing together Will’s drawings from season two, the characters create a blueprint of the underground tunnel system that they use to navigate their next encounter. As an extra reference, since the pages are all the same size, it’s easy to count squares, as you would on a regular battle map.
Oozes and slimes
Similar to other creatures in Stranger Things, the weird rats that appear in the second episode of the third season are also inspired by D&D. By now, you must know that Dungeons & Dragons contains various unique and frightening creatures.
Although they don’t pose as big of a threat as the Demogorgon, slimes and oozes aren’t to be so easily dismissed. The diseased rats that shapeshift into moving oozes in the show are gross, but could also be linked back to minor threats any campaign might have to face.
The second season of the show was full of different creatures and villains that the people of Hawkins were up against, and they all found their origin in D&D. For instance, those roots and vines that corrupted the town can be seen as an iteration of Vine Blight.
In Stranger Things, these vines are heat-sensitive, and that is kind of understandable for an organic life form. But, the Vine Blights are also among some of the creatures in D&D that are prone to fire damage. Now we don’t think that’s a coincidence.