We've all seen Dungeons & Dragons portrayed in movies and TV shows. It's great to see our beloved childhood hobby shown on screen, but unfortunately, it's usually done wrong. This is often for narrative reasons, the same way criminal trials are streamlined for drama. Community's episode about the game comes to mind.
Stranger Things mentions D&D throughout its eight episodes, and shows the kids playing the game at the very beginning and the very end. The Duffer Brothers got so much else about the 80s right—did they treat D&D with realism and respect? Let's look at the references.
(Save vs. Spoilers ahead)
In the first episode, the boys are at the end of an adventure. They've fought Troglodytes, which are real D&D creatures. But then Mike, the Dungeon Master, brings out the final monster: a Thessalhydra. It's legit, too, described as "a massive reptilian beast with four stump-like legs and a multitude of heads surrounding a central maw filled with oversized teeth. A long serpentine tail extends from its body and ends in a pincer-like claw." Will, the Magic-User (called Mage or Wizard nowadays), must decide whether to cast a spell of protection over himself or throw a magical fireball at the monster—a common conundrum for characters with powerful magic but weak constitutions and little armor. He chooses the party's safety over his own, shoots the fireball, and kills the Thessalhydra.
Vale of Shadows
Much of the horror and mystery of Stranger Things comes from a parallel dimension called the Upside-Down. The kids liken this to the Vale of Shadows, a world within Dungeons & Dragons.
Well, sort of. There's no dimension called that in any version of the table-top game. There's the Plane of Shadows, which is now called Shadowfell. It's described in the Manual of the Planes as "the dark echo of the modern world, a twilight realm that exists 'on the other side' of the world and its earthly denizens."
Icewind Dale, a 2000 computer game of D&D, does include a dimension called the Vale of Shadows. It's described as "an area of high bluffs and deep chasms with small pathways, with tombs lying through it. It remained shadowed even in the middle of a bright day. Some of these were undead shadows bearing hunger and hate. All were warned away from this place."
Between the Plane of Shadows and Icewind Dale, I think the Vale of Shadows is close enough. A very good use of D&D lore that informs the entire series.
Eleven calls the Upside-Down monster that is kidnapping and killing people the Demogorgon. According to the Wizards of the Coast, the company behind the game, it's "one of the most terrifying of monsters" and "one of the greatest of villains" in all of D&D. It's the Prince of Demons. It stands 18 feet tall, with two baboon heads and tentacles for arms. It ruled over the Abyss, an entire universe of evil that's home to demons, fiends, and chaotic minor deities.
The monster in Stranger Things doesn't quite live up to this reputation. The people working for the Department of Energy—and Eleven for that matter—probably kill more people in the series than the monster does. But "Demogorgon" is the only way Eleven can convey the monster's ferocity to the boys, so I'm inclined to let it go.
Still, there may be one way that the monster does match the description. The Demogorgon has two heads, and the monster and Eleven seemed to be linked in some way. Why doesn't the monster leave Hawkins and go on a killing spree? Perhaps because it can't travel too far from Eleven? At one point she even says "I'm the monster." At the end, when the monster is destroyed, Eleven vanishes too. Why? Wouldn't she just collapse on the floor? Is she still alive? If so, is the monster?
The last supernatural element in the series is Eleven's powers. They may seem like sci-fi ESP instead of old-school spells with scrolls and objects and magic words. But they actually have a D&D connection as well.
The game allows characters to possess Psionics, which are mental powers that don't require a ritual or magic item to work. All you have to do is concentrate, which we see Eleven doing whenever she uses her powers. Psionics cover just about everything she does, from crushing a Coke can to levitating a toy to... whatever she does to the MP's at the school in the show's climax. I couldn't find an official Power that matches Eleven's trips to the Upside-Down, though there are skills like Dimension Slide and Dimension Swap, which are basically teleportation. So Psionics do allow some kind of travel through different dimensions.
All in all, I think Stranger Things got Dungeons & Dragons absolutely right. What do you think?