Turning D&D Upside-Down with Stranger Things
An interview with Jeremy Crawford
I am not a Dungeons & Dragons player. Not because I don’t want to — I’ve played exactly one short campaign and had a lovely time with it, and I’d be keen to do it again, but I have no one to play it with. My friends who are into role-playing are too deep to invite in a newcomer, and starting something new by myself seems like an intimidating prospect.
But the Stranger Things Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is an intriguing prospect, marrying the increasingly popular role-playing series with Netflix’s big nostalgic hit show. It looks like a great entry point, and something I could maybe draw new players into.
To find out more about this recently released set, I talked to Jeremy Crawford, a senior game designer at Wizards of the Coast and the lead rules designer for Dungeons & Dragons. He oversaw the construction of the rulebook for the Stranger Things Starter Set, and got me up to speed on how this set is designed to appeal to Stranger Things fans and roleplaying veterans alike.
So you’re across the entire D&D franchise?
Yes. Anything that has to do with D&D rules, that’s my baby.
And how long have you been in that role?
I’ve been in that role for…goodness, I think it’s going on seven years now, and I’ve been at the company for eleven years now, working on D&D.
And did you start playing as a kid? Were you like one of the kids from Stranger Things?
(laughs) Yes, exactly. I actually started playing when I was about six years old. My sister introduced me to D&D. I then found a D&D group, and we were actually just like the kids in Stranger Things. Riding around on our bikes, getting into trouble. I actually, to this day, have one of those guys I played D&D with as a kid in my current home D&D group.
So how did this all come to be? What was the initial pitch or process of getting this started?
I think it really just started in one of those natural ways, where a group of people at Netflix and a group of people at Hasbro thought “hey, this show has a whole bunch of D&D stuff in it, so why don’t we have a D&D product that has Stranger Things in it?” Particularly because the show is about kids playing D&D, we thought it was a natural fit to create a Starter Set, an introductory product, that featured Stranger Things.
Has the show done a lot for the perception of Dungeons & Dragons, do you think?
I think it has joined with things like Critical Role and other streamed shows where people get to watch other people play D&D online to contribute to this environment of people talking about D&D in all sorts of different media, whether it’s late night talk shows or a show like Stranger Things where Dungeons & Dragons is not just played, but it’s actually a part of the plot of the show. So I think that has been one of the many contributing factors to the cultural moment right now where D&D is enjoying this boom in popularity.
So is this version based on the campaign they play on the show?
No, it’s a new adventure, and the idea is that Mike, the DM on the show, actually wrote this adventure. So it’s written as though he wrote it. It even has drawings in it that look like he drew them. The whole thing is laid out so that it looks like you’re paging through his notebook. So it’s almost like you found this artifact from the Stranger Things world, and it’s like “oh, it’s one of his lost adventures that he has scribbled in a notebook.” That’s what you’re getting.
So is there a double layer to this where you’re playing the characters in the campaign, but you’re also sort-of playing as the characters from Stranger Things on top of that?
You could certainly imagine it that way! If you wanted to, you could certainly just dive in and play it like any other D&D adventure. But because it is this adventure within the world of Stranger Things, you could very easily take the pre-generated characters that are in the box set and imagine that you are the kids playing these characters. So you’re almost role-playing two characters at once.
What are the differences, do you think, in how a Stranger Things fan who maybe hasn’t played D&D before and a D&D expert, whether they’re a player or a dungeon master, might go into this set?
So I think the new player, especially someone who is familiar with Stranger Things, will find a welcoming experience for encountering D&D for the first time. The adventure is designed to be simple, but it has elements in it, like the Demogorgon from the Stranger Things TV show — that monster appears in the adventure. So they’re going to come across familiar things presented in a very beginner-friendly way. I think the veteran D&D player will enjoy the set because that adventure, the way it’s presented, is likely to spark for them the same sort of nostalgia it sparks for me. Because I look at it and I think “oh my, this is like adventure notes that my friends made when I was a kid, or I made.” So for veterans this will be a fun callback to their childhood.
So if you could boil this adventure down to a synopsis, what is it about?
It’s a rescue mission that involves you going into the Upside Down, and, if you’re lucky, getting back out. Because we really couldn’t do a Stranger Things adventure without you going into the Upside Down.
How do you play test a set like this? What is the process involved in making sure that it’s fun and that it will appeal to fans of the show?
For all of our adventure products, we send them out to a group of play testers who have all signed non-disclosure agreements. At any given point in time we usually have a couple hundred of these groups around the world. We send out these top-secret early versions and we ask them for totally frank feedback. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. And rather than us trying to guess what fans think, we just turn directly to them and ask.
And what sort of feedback did you get on this set that might have shaped its development?
One of the funny bits of feedback we got, actually, was that one of the puzzles in the adventure was too hard. That’s the kind of feedback we look for when we design anything. We want to make sure that things are challenging, but not so challenging that they’re frustrating, particularly in a set that’s designed for new players.
If there are puzzles in there, how does that work for multiple playthroughs? Is the idea that you can play through this a few times with different outcomes and events? Can the same group play through multiple times?
Yes. I say that because I have, over the years, DM’d adventures more than once, and sometimes with the same players. The brilliant thing about D&D is that even the same group of people going through the same adventure, just because they’re playing different characters, or even if they’re playing the same characters…because of the mood they’re in, they might make different choices than the previous time. And because they’re making different choices, they’ll see things they didn’t see the previous time. Or the dungeon master might decide to make up something new or might customise the adventure in some way to inject some surprise. I’d say that even when an adventure has a puzzle in it, if you’ve encountered that puzzle before you’ll get through it quickly, and that means you get to spend more time on something else in the adventure that maybe you didn’t spend so much time on before.
How much direct involvement and discussion did you have with the people making Stranger Things?
The Duffer Brothers visited. I didn’t personally meet with them; any conversations going on were at a higher level than mine.
Since the characters in here are based on the show, does that mean that the characters are more pre-defined than they usually would be in a D&D set?
So it’s common in a Starter Set for the characters to be premade. If you dove into D&D with the player’s handbook, the big advanced manual, there you’re given all the guidelines you need to make your own character. But here we give you characters that are ready to play so that you can open the box up, read through the character, and if you have at least one person in the group who has read through the rule book you can get into enjoying the game. These characters are meant to be like the characters played by the kids in Stranger Things.
Do you have a favourite?
I always like playing wizards or clerics, and luckily there’s both a wizard and a cleric in this set. I would get to enjoy either one.
Is there a warrior as well?
The two warrior-style characters in this set, there’s a ranger and a paladin. And then the fifth character is a bard.
Are you intending for this to be a gateway into the larger world of Dungeons & Dragons for people, and if so, what do you think would be the next logical step for someone who played and liked this?
It’s definitely meant to be a gateway, and I think a fabulous next step would be our other Starter Set, which gives you adventure materials for levels one to five. Alternatively, if you’re ready to go in super deep, you could get the Player’s Handbook, make your own characters, and then pick up one of our larger adventure products. Something like Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. And then you have adventure material that you can dig into for many many months.