Introduction & Disclaimer
- Someone who has heard of D&D but never played, and is intrigued by the Stranger Things connection.
- Someone who may have played many years ago and is thinking of trying D&D again after having watched Stranger Things.
- Someone not as familiar with Stranger Things, but heard of and recognized the D&D brand at a large chain (like a Target, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, etc).
- A D&D enthusiast who collects various books, sets, memorabilia, etc...
I've read and re-read the Stranger Things D&D Starter Set with the goal of the review in mind: Is this a good introduction for a new D&D player who was attracted by Stranger Things?
I will also compare and contrast the box contents against the original D&D Starter Set for 5th Edition. There will be some mild spoilers in this review and I will further warn the reader of any major spoilers this post may contain.
In the box is a D&D Rule Book, an adventure booklet, 6 dice, 2 plastic "Demogorgon" miniatures, and 5 pre-generated character sheets.
Rule Book - The rule book is largely a carbon copy of the one contained in the original Starter Set, with some minor edits from the free Basic Rules PDF. However, it also adds spells from the Bard, Paladin, and Ranger classes to fit the pre-generated characters.
Dice - d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20 in pearlescent blue like the original starter set. There is no percentile d10, but it is not needed for the adventure or Basic Rules included in the box. It might have been nice to have a different color dice set from earlier set. Pearlescent red or black would have gone well with the Stranger Things theme.
Miniatures - The two Demogorgon figures are made from a very malleable soft plastic, similar to Reaper Bones. These are the Demogorgons from the Stranger Thing series rather than the classic D&D monster. One is "painted" but only by the narrowest definition. It has a red mouth and an almost indiscernible brown wash on the skin. The paint job is disappointing to say the least.
|Nope, this guy's not included.
Adventure - The adventure booklet is a short monster hunt mission. The book itself has a stitched binding instead of staple to give the feeling of a school composition notebook re-purposed as a D&D adventure book. The pages are designed to look like handwriting on lined paper as if Mike Wheeler were writing out his own notes for the adventure. I will dive into the adventure more below.
This is probably the most confusing issue with the new set. The trade dress of the box and the rule book is more about Stranger Things than D&D. The box cover appears to portray Will Byers being taken by the Demogorgon, a scene from the series, and not representative of the D&D game in any way.
The box art also has fake shelf wear on the outside, as if it were a D&D Red Box from the 1980's. This appears to be a nostalgia ploy aimed at the "absent" D&D gamers who may be coming back after many years, but it feels out of place once you open the box and view the contents.
|Wait... is that the Cleric or the Bard?
The pre-generated characters consist of a 3rd level Cleric, Wizard, Paladin, Ranger, and Bard. There is no Rogue, which surprised me a little. I understand that the PCs are supposed to be the same characters that the Stranger Things kids play, and the Bard basically fills the Rogue's shoes...
However, there are no other ties back to Stranger Things on the character sheets. Can you name which kid plays the Cleric or Paladin? I only know Will plays the Wizard because of the opening scene. With one minor exception, there is little mention of the ties between the PCs contained in the box and the characters on the show.
|This is not what the character sheets look like.
Not only that, but the back side of the character sheet (which detail the leveling up features of the PCs) is printed in a lighter grey shade, making them much harder to read.
Some comments on the Internet have expressed concern that a 3rd level PC may have too many powers and abilities to track for a new player. You don't want to overwhelm new players with too much information since they already have a steep rules learning curve. I'm not entirely certain this is an issue. The powers are fairly well explained, with the exception of the Paladin which has some detail left off due to space constraints (which are present on the Cleric sheet).
Given that all the PCs have spell casting, in addition to their other class abilities, a 3rd level PC has a lot for a new player to take in. Also, unlike the pre-gens in the original set (which can be played with the Basic Rules PDF), these characters will require the purchase of a Player's Handbook eventually.
|Hunt for the Thessalhydra
I'm a bit on the fence about the included adventure, Hunt for the Thessalhydra. It's a bit of an odd duck. Imagine if you were a game designer and Wizards of the Coast gave you the following mandate:
"You are writing an adventure as if you are a 12 year old boy. Make sure you tie in the Upside Down, a reference to Eleven as an NPC princess, add Demogorgons as monsters to fight, and a Thessalhydra as the end boss... and keep it really simple."
To his credit, the author does exactly what was asked. The adventure has a very straight forward "Find and kill the monster" bounty hunt written "in voice" as if it were Mike scribbling down in his own notebook. However, the writer also has to address the new DM reader in order to instruct how to run the game without breaking "the fourth wall". The author does this by having Mike write DMing notes to himself. This works somewhat well enough to stay within the fiction of the theme.
|The Thessalhydra from
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
But does it work as an introduction to D&D?
To be honest, I'm a bit on the fence. It has all the building blocks -- traps, puzzles, some role-playing, and combat -- but it feels perhaps a bit too light. The Upside Down is bolted on to the adventure as a bit of a gimmick, and feels somewhat out of place (as does the Demogorgon). However, I may have some bias as I believe Lost Mine of Phandelver is probably the newest in a long list of classics and really conveys the baseline flavor of Dungeons & Dragons extraordinarily well.
The original D&D Starter Set also does a good job of walking the DM through the early stages of the LMoP adventure. Because Hunt for the Thessalhydra is written "in voice", it doesn't quite speak as well directly to the new Dungeon Master. However, this adventure's length (1 to 2 sessions at most) and complexity is significantly lower than Phandelver, so it doesn't quite have to work as hard to hand-hold the DM. Its relative simplicity may actually make it a better entry-level adventure for new players and DMs. [Update: At $15, the newer D&D Essentials Kit is probably the best "new DM" box set in a long time.]
In many ways, this adventure represents exactly the type of game we might have played in the early 80's as kids, so I'm having a hard time disliking it despite how short and light on plot it is. I do find the handwriting font a bit annoying to read, but understand why it is used to fit the motif.
The Stranger Things D&D Starter Set doesn't seem to know where it fits. It is marketed as "great for the new Dungeons & Dragons player", but appears to be trying to pique the nostalgia of former players. Unfortunately, I'm not certain it does either very well. For completely new players, it doesn't convey the tone of Dungeons & Dragons at all through the artwork in the rules. For former players, it misses a number of nostalgic touchstones that could have easily been added. It mostly feels like a gimmick, but it will likely sell a bunch of units once Season 3 of Stranger Things hits Netflix in July.
I don't dislike Hunt for the Thessalhydra, but it suffers a bit when compared against the Lost Mine of Phandelver (which is really a mini-campaign). It's length and simplicity could be seen as either a pro or a con depending upon what you believe the goals of a good introductory adventure are. Hunt for the Thessalhydra feels more like drinks and an appetizer rather than a full 7-course D&D meal... but that may be a reasonable way to not overwhelm new DMs with their first adventure.
For myself, I wanted to like this set, but it just doesn't feel complete enough. When I think about the Keep on the Borderlands, the Village of Hommlet, or the Lost Mine of Phandelver, those introductory adventures have a lot more meat on the bone to usher new players into the D&D world. But more importantly, I feel like the art style really misses the boat in creating a tone for D&D.
I should have the chance to run this fairly soon as a one-shot for a group of relatively new players who just started playing Phandelver. I will post a play report after I have a feel for their reactions to this set.