Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Review: Stranger Things D&D Starter Set

UPDATE 06/28/19: The Amazon price has dropped to $16 on this box. This makes the value of the set a bit better. It is possible it might drop down toward the $12 - 14 range if it doesn't sell well after Stranger Things season 3 starts up.

Introduction & Disclaimer

Stranger Things D&D box cover
In writing this review, I've tried to set aside my biases (which is not always easy). In reviewing the product, I've considered 4 potential consumers types.
  1. Someone who has heard of D&D but never played, and is intrigued by the Stranger Things connection.
  2. Someone who may have played many years ago and is thinking of trying D&D again after having watched Stranger Things.
  3. 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).
  4. A D&D enthusiast who collects various books, sets,  memorabilia, etc...
Given that I'm more in the 4th camp, I've tried to realign my thoughts toward consumers #1,  #2, and #3 who are really the "new players" that Hasbro/Wizards is attempting to target.

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.

Demogorgon miniatures and dice includedRule 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.

Actual classic Demogorgon NOT included
Nope, this guy's not included.
I also believe there was a missed opportunity. It might have been cool to provide one classic Demogorgon figure (similar to what comes in the Classic Creatures miniatures box set) alongside a new Demogorgon miniature. Wiz Kids produced a medium-sized promo Demogorgon miniature last year which would have been perfect for this and would have triggered that nostalgia for returning players (consumer #2 above). I realize this desire is also somewhat driven by the collector in me.

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.

The Branding

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.

Stranger Things kids in the tunnels
Wait... is that the Cleric or the Bard?
The rule book images are all from the Stranger Things series and do not portray the D&D game with the one exception of a picture of some miniatures on a battle map at the beginning of the rule book (which includes some ironically anachronistic plastic minis seen in the TV show). Most consumers will realize the imagery is meant as a branding tie-in, but the pictures fail to convey any Dungeons & Dragons tone. It's more like imagery one might find in an RPG about modern-day kids taking on fantastic monsters (such as Kids on Bikes, or Tales from the Loop). It's completely disconnected Dungeons & Dragons themes.

The PCs

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.

Old school D&D Basic character sheet
This is not what the character sheets look like.
The character sheets are also the standard 5e sheets. They didn't do any special layout or theme for the new characters other than the words "Stranger Things" at the top of the page. It's like Wizards of the Coast was not even trying very hard. Why not include something that looks a bit like the old school orange or green paper character sheets from 1980's sets? This was another missed opportunity to make the set a little more fun or visually interesting.

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.

The Adventure

Hunt for the Thessalhydra cover
Hunt for the Thessalhydra
Mild spoilers ahead.

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.

Thessalhydra stats from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
The Thessalhydra from
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
The adventure includes a couple short cavern crawls, a couple puzzles, a couple traps, and a few other D&D tropes. The PCs have to pass through the Upside Down, meet the Eleven NPC, beat up Troglodytes and Demogorgons, and then face a Thessalhydra. I did not dislike the adventure, but it's a bit simple in order to fit the theme of the fictional 12 year old author.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

At an MSRP of $25, the new Starter Set feels pretty thin in comparison to the older Starter Set at nearly half the price on Amazon. Even if you paid the full $20 MSRP for Lost Mine of Phandelver, you are getting more than your money's worth in entertainment value. At $15, the newer D&D Essentials Kit is probably the best "new DM" box set in a long time. If you feel you have to have the Stranger Things set for your collection, you should probably wait until it gets discounted after being on the market a while.


  1. Great review. Especially helpful to those of us who may have purchased the box out of nostalgia.

  2. I thought it was okay, but overpriced. For $15 I would have been okay with it.

    1. Agreed. The price has dropped already. I expect it to be below $15 later this year.

    2. Its just been released in Australia and the cheapest price here due to import taxes and exchange rate it $42 AU. I'm opening mine up later tonight.

  3. LMoP is grossly over-strengthed for a beginning set of players. Even an experienced group struggles to finish the opening encounter. If I were a new player, I'd be a little PO'd at a TPK in the opening encounter. In my opinion, LMoP is not a great "getting to learn D&D" experience.

    1. Agreed Puff, it's a good introduction to 5e rules for experienced DMs/players but as intro to playing D&D for newbies it leaves a lot to be desired - that opening encounter being one of many!

    2. The Essentials Kit (also reviewed on this site) is now the top contender for the "My First D&D" box set. It's an excellent teaching adventures.

  4. I pre odered this when my friends told me about it, but wasn't sure if I was actually going to get it. I just wanted to make sure I got the pre order price if I was. I thought it came out next month so I was surprised to find it on my doorstep when I got home. I was a little disappointed by the surprise though. I flipped through it and I felt let down by pretty much everything. I was the most impressed by the adventure book and the fact that it was stitched together like a composition notebook. It's fine, but like you, not sure what group it fits in. It's honestly the first D&D product that I have purchased in the twenty years that I been collecting that I thought about selling or gifting.

  5. Just a small correction: it's Lost Mine of Phandelver (one mine). You use both in your review.

    This is pretty much what I expected when photos leaked a couple of months ago. An old style dungeon crawl that is designed to look like it was made by kids. But perhaps more childish than expected, and done in 5e, which these kids wouldn't have had access to. So it's a really weird mish-mash.

    I think they should've ditched the made by kids idea and focused on a really good level 1-3 D&D adventure in 5e with the Stanger Things setting.


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