'Stranger Things' Dungeons & Dragons Explores Trauma Through a Tabletop RPG
In the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, a group of kids from Indiana fight a monster from a parallel dimension. Once the Demogorgon, named after a demon from Dungeons & Dragons, is defeated, life pretty much returns to normal (at least until Season 2). There’s barely any mention of the emotional trauma these kids faced, but a new Dungeons & Dragons experience aims to fill in the gaps. The result is a commercial tie-in product that takes on a level of immersion few games ever do.
Wizards of the Coast’s newest starter kit for Dungeons & Dragons is themed after Stranger Things. The adventure contained within its contents, “Hunt for the Thessalhydra,” is an original campaign “written” by Mike Wheeler (played by Finn Wolfhard on the show) and adapted directly from the first season, says D&D lead designer Mike Mearls.
“We wanted to give you a chance to play through the adventure that they had played together,” Mearls tells Inverse. “We had to make it feel like there was something that originated in the world of Stranger Things. Something the characters interacted with, an artifact from the world.”
In real life, the adventure was crafted by veteran writer Stan Brown, who rewatched all of Season 1 to build out the included pre-made character sheets, also based on the kids’ D&D game.
On the surface the set, available now, is a tie-in product to one of the most popular shows of the streaming era. But beneath the familiar red Stranger Things packaging, the D&D starter set gives fans a glimpse into the characters’ damaged psyches after facing the demogorgon in Season 1.
“The thinking was, Mike has just been exposed to this creature,” Mearls says. “A lot of Dungeon Masters draw inspiration from comics and movies they watch. So the way Stan approached it, 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.”
Mearls says the campaign is written as if Mike is “working through” his post-traumatic experience from fighting the Demogorgon with best friends Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Eleven. The Demogorgon in the game, which appears at the midway point before players take on the Thessalhydra, is Mike confronting the very same monster that he survived, on his terms.
“He’s trying to capture it as a monster that players can fight,” says Mearls. “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.”
In the 1980s, when Dungeons & Dragons first rose to prominence, the game’s benefits as a tool for mental health therapy were eclipsed by the cultural “Satanic Panic” that villainized its use of magic, violence, and fantasy lore. Now in 2019, there’s been a reawakening to D&D, not just as a fun hobby for escapism, but as a tool to help individuals treat depression and social anxiety.
Dr. Victoria Kress, a board certified counselor, professor, author, and director of the clinical mental health and addictions counseling programs at Youngstown State University, says games like Dungeons & Dragons can help young people make sense of traumatic experiences.
“Children make sense of their worlds through imagination and play,” Dr. Kress tells Inverse. “When they experience traumatic events, they try to find ways to make sense of the experience. Through play, they are able to organize their traumatic experiences, find new ways of feeling successful in fighting the scary experiences, and thus move on from the traumatic experience.”
Dr. Kress isn’t just an expert. She’s also a fan of Stranger Things (“One of my favorite shows!” she tells me) and Dungeons & Dragons, having played the tabletop game herself some 30 years ago — roughly the same time the Hawkins kids were playing in Mike’s basement.
“D&D can be used in therapeutic ways,” Dr. Kress says. “The roleplay aspects of the game gives children, and even adults, an opportunity to build on aspects of themselves that they want to strengthen.”
She adds: “For kids who have experienced trauma and abuse, developing this sense of control, or efficacy, is extremely important. These kids have been sent a message that they aren’t of value, that they don’t matter. That they are helpless. We want our children to feel powerful, masterful, effective.”
The campaign “Hunt for the Thessalhydra” is designed with new players in mind (including young people) while still giving them moments of “epic win.”
The game’s final boss, Mearls says, “is the lowest-challenge rating legendary creature that we’ve created for D&D so far.” The goal was to make the Demogorgon and the Thessalhydra (an obscure monster from ‘80s-era Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that Wizards of the Coast resurrected for the Stranger Things set) a unique but not impossible challenge.
“Given that this was the set people new to Dungeons & Dragons are picking up, there was a tension in how we designed the Demogorgon,” Mearls says. “We wanted it to feel dangerous. When it’s attacking you it has the potential to do a lot of damage.”
But because of the players’ inexperience, Wizards eased up on the difficulty. “We knew for a lot of Dungeon Masters, this is the first adventure they’re running. So we keep things fairly simple.”
Monsters aside, Dr. Kress believes the decision-making mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons to be the most potent aspect of the game.
“Kids who have been traumatized often become immobilized around decision making,” she says. “They often come to feel that what they want doesn’t matter. In D&D, players make choices at every turn. The game teaches kids how to be thoughtful, strategic, and deliberate. They learn to trust themselves.”
Dungeons & Dragons as a tool for therapy is nothing new. Thanks to the popularity of Stranger Things and the accessibility of the latest iteration, “Fifth Edition” (or “5e”) that encourages more creative freedom than iterations past, have led to published studies, including a 2013 study by Dr. Aubrie S. Adams for the University of California, Santa Barbara who found that the game “functions to enlarge one’s awareness and enables a better understanding of the human condition.”
Dr. Kress warns that D&D therapy should still be approached with caution. “Therapists must ensure their clients have developed the basic anxiety management skills he or she needs to manage strong feelings that might come up during game play,” she says.
Still, Dr. Kress credits her childhood spent rolling 20-sided dice with helping her connect with people in a way just talking things out may not have.
“Playing D&D as a kid helped me feel connected with others,” she says. “It gave me a sense of being part of something, and that can be a hard space for awkward teenagers to find. It is our nature to want to create stories. This will likely ensure D&D will continue to resonate with people.”
Dungeons & Dragons might not be a legitimate substitute for watching the next season of Stranger Things, premiering July 4. But for fans of the show, “Hunt for the Thessalhydra” is the closest thing to entering the Upside Down for themselves.