No, I’m not talking about the delicious Eighties nostalgia, the nods to Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, or the nerdy delight of seeing Winona Ryder fall in love with Sean Austin, without whom – let’s face it – the ring of power would never have been destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.
Central to the magic of Stranger Things is fantasy tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons (DnD). The 1970s role playing game has framed many of Stranger Things’ major plot points, and season one kicked off with Will Byer’s (Noah Schnapp) disappearance after a 10-hour marathon session of DnD. Its inclusion in the much-loved Netflix show has allowed the game to reach a wider audience, inspiring a new generation of players – and I count myself among their number.
Not to be confused with Warhammer (painting models), Larping (live action role play – in a costume) or World of Warcraft (an online multiplayer game), DnD is where you sit around a table with your friends and embark on an adventure that’s guided by the group’s DM (Dungeon Master – the storyteller, essentially) and determined by dice rolls.
You create your own character, and there’s plenty of scope for weirdness and artistry. You can be a ranger gnome called Pipi Sugarsocks, riding on the back of your trusty giant badger, Otis. Or a lovable goliath barbarian known simply as Big Dave. You can wield brutal weapons, cast spells, heal your wounded friends, and speak to animals – the fantasy world of the game is your oyster.
Dungeons & Dragons is about imagination and creativity on a grand scale, mixed with plenty of puzzle solving, cooperation, collaboration, strategy and humour. Campaigns can run for many months – or even years – while shorter “one shots” can be completed in a couple of hours. The best DnD sessions are the ones where you’re crying with laughter, everyone nearly dies and there’s a demanding baby Owlbear (looks like it sounds) that your group has somehow become responsible for.
Happily, DnD seems to have earned a more prominent place in mainstream pop culture. Its fanbase is growing, thanks in part to the popularity of US web series Critical Role, where voice actors play on a Twitch stream, refereed by the seemingly omniscient Matthew Mercer. The first Critical Role campaign has now been turned into a gorgeous animated series on Amazon Prime – The Legend of Vox Machina.
Hollywood A-listers like Jack Black, Terry Crews and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are DnD players. As is, reportedly, Drew Barrymore. UK comedy favourites, including James Acaster, Nish Kumar, Sue Perkins and Ed Gamble, have teamed up to play DnD for Comic Relief. See also the delicious Twitter clapback from Magic Mike star and DnD aficionado Joe Manganiello when a professional wrestler insinuated that muscly men don’t – or shouldn’t – get involved.
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Dungeons & Dragons saw renewed interest during the Covid pandemic, too. Sales jumped by 33 per cent in 2020, with groups playing together over Zoom in the long days of lockdown. Magical escapism was the perfect antidote to those sad, scary and uncertain years, where many of us were grappling with isolation, bereavement and anxiety about the future.
A DnD session can act as a much-needed reset, allowing you to become someone else and immerse yourself in a world of intrigue and enchantment. There’s no Partygate in DnD. Boris Johnson doesn’t exist. While you’re sparring with an arogant, one-eyed Beholder, dodging the greatsword of a Fire Giant with an armour class of 18 (!) , or searching for Feywild trinkets in a magical carnival, the worries and stresses of this earthly plain aren’t part of the equation.
Some schools have tapped into the power of the tabletop game too, running extracurricular DnD clubs that benefit neurodiverse or isolated students by helping them to develop their social, language and problem-solving skills.
It’s a joyful, creative and inclusive experience, and I recommend it to anyone, however familiar with or disconnected from wider “nerd culture” they might feel. In the hopeful words of Stranger Things’ Will Byers: “Maybe tomorrow we can play DnD.”