REVIEW: Stranger Things breathes new life into Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

Not due to be released until May 1, some GameStop brick-and-mortar stores and smaller online outlets seem to have jumped the gun and released the new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set “Stranger Things” box early.

Demogorgon figure Stranger Things Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set

The boxed set, an obvious homage to the old “Red Box” Basic D&D set from 1983 — complete with simulated wear and tear! — is actually a fresh take on a product geared towards newcomers to tabletop roleplaying games.

With pop culture so permeated by D&D these days, this partnership shows one way forward in evolving these products to reach new audiences.

If you already have the D&D Core Rulebooks — the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide — appropriate to your role in the fantasy RPG, then you can probably skip this set. Same if you have the regular D&D Starter Set.

The basic D&D rules included here are pretty much what you can get for free online from Wizards of the Coast or in the standard, non-co-branded Starter Set. And the dice that came with my copy are the somewhat standard, duo-tone blue you see in the above image from Wizards’ press release earlier this year.

But who couldn’t use more dice?

Still, if you’re not new to the game and you already have hoards of rulebooks, there’s a reason you may want to pick this up (pure collector’s instincts aside, of course).

Stranger Things D&D

The real draw here is Mike’s adventure, the campaign the Stranger Things boys were playing at the opening of the Netflix series. It’s a nice booklet with clear directions and parameters, and a good introduction for new Dungeon Masters looking for guidance. It’s also just neat that we have the full adventure that was so soon overshadowed by the events of the series.

There are even record sheets for the player characters in Mike’s campaign. I was simultaneously relieved that the character names were left blank, to encourage individual creativity, and a little disappointed that they weren’t populated with Dustin the Dwarf, Will the Wise, etc. I’d also hoped there would be a few totally blank character sheets, but those are freely available for printing in myriad forms from the official D&D website as well as unofficial sources, and also can be purchased.

A DM’s screen isn’t included, but the box itself course serve in that capacity if you don’t want to order one. A Stranger Things-themed screen could have been a cool upgrade, though!

The campaign booklet is even presented as a homebrew notebook creation, although the cover probably goes a bit too far with the off-kilter letters in “Mike Wheeler.” It would have been nice to see this booklet printed somehow in a less glossy, more lo-fi manner, like on an actual notebook or maybe even in a three-ring binder format — something D&D has seen before with the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium.

Miniature figurines aren’t considered mandatory for D&D like they were in 4th Edition, and it’s more of a group choice thing these days like it was in the old days depicted in Stranger Things — where they did use miniatures at the table. So, of course, that’s reflected in the Stranger Things-branded D&D Starter Set.

The Demogorgon plastic miniature is included twice — one painted, the other unpainted, although the difference is so subtle that it’s almost ridiculous. I suppose that just gives more creative painters a fresh canvas? Still, the encouragement to join the time-honored tradition of painting miniatures is a nice touch, even though it feels like it would be more welcome if the miniature was heroic rather than monstrous. The iconic Demogorgon creature of the Stranger Things Netflix series probably would inspire purchases more, though — so the painted monster is even visible through a clear plastic window on the front of the box.

The one real complaint for me was the smell — not of the noxious and nightmarish Upside Down creature, or dreaded stereotypical gamer funk, but the contents of the box were (and still are) permeated with the odor of ink, or maybe even the paint used on the mini. It really reeks of formadehyde. Obviously this is a production issue not related to the great new content, and it may not be an issue for other copies, but it made an indelible impression when opening the box for the first time — and the effect hasn’t faded yet.

Co-branding an introductory product like this was a stroke of genius. I wonder what we’ll see next along these lines as D&D continues to seep into the fabric of everyday pop culture?

The Stranger Things Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set is available from Amazon at $24.99. May 1, 2019, is the official release date, but some stores are already selling or shipping it. If you’re looking for more of a bargain, check out the regular D&D Starter Set. (Affiliate links support this site.)

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