The tabletop roleplaying in <i>Stranger Things</i> is more than just filler; it's a cipher for the show's hopeful politics.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Spoiler alert: Plot points for the first season of Stranger Things ahead.
Netflix's Stranger Things is a pastiche of 1980s films, both in style and content. So it's unsurprising that in our nostalgia-obsessed age it has been enthusiastically embraced by a generation raised in the Spielbergian wonderland of E. T., Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What I'm struck by in Stranger Things, however, is not how it builds its image of the 1980s out of pre-created parts (although that's plenty interesting, too), but how the show usesDungeons & Dragons to frame its narrative.
Stranger Things is an episode of The X-Files if it took place in the small town from E. T. A shadowy government organization has created a weapon in the form of a young girl, and she escapes its facility after unleashing a monstrous being from an alternate dimension. The show traces her path alongside a boy named Will Byers (who has been snatched by the monster), a small-town sheriff, a few high schoolers, Byers's determined mother, and a young group of boys who are hellbent on getting Will back.
We're introduced to Stranger Things's can-do group of protagonist tween boys while they're sitting around a table in a basement playing D&D. Dreading the fantastical prince Demogorgon, the four kids get into a terrible squabble about spells of protection versus throwing a fireball, and it's this outburst that gets them busted by a mom who closes down the game. Ultimately, this game of D&D sets the stage for the entire season and series: Will Byers being sent home from the game leads to his abduction from our world and his entrapment in the "Upside Down" realm of monsters.
Dungeons & Dragons does narrative work in this show. It functions as the primary metaphor for how these young nerdy boys are able to communicate and cooperate with one another and how they contextualize the challenges they face. While trying to figure out how to rescue their friend from the "Upside Down," their science teacher explains parallel dimensions by way of a flea and an acrobat: An acrobat can travel back and forth on a wire, but a flea can travel along the side or beneath it. That's parallel universes. While their science teacher's metaphor is useful for explaining the concept to the audience, the only way that the kids themselves actually understand that place is by attaching it to their pre-existing understanding of the Vale of Shadows, an analogue for the actual Dungeons & Dragons Plane of Shadow.
It's important to consider the kind of game that Dungeons & Dragons is to see why Stranger Things leans into it so heavily. It is the type of game where there can be two optimal strategies (throwing fireballs vs. casting protection spells), where people can do heroic things beyond mere human capability, and where players are constantly coming into contact with circumstances beyond their control. The ability for the player to think about, react to, or work around a problem in a freeform way is what makes tabletop roleplaying a fundamentally different experience from video games. Despite the fantastical trappings of Skyrim or World of Warcraft, neither of those games offer the wide space of D&D. At its best, tabletop roleplaying blurs the line between character and player to the point that you can feel like an actual hero who has done something important in a world where your contributions were felt by friend and foe alike.
The only other piece of recent media that has been so reliant on a game to structure the way it tells its story is The Hunger Games series of books and films. That saga uses its internal game as a metaphor for the grand plot of the franchise. Katniss pings back and forth between being a tool of the evil Republic and a pawn of the resistance (which merely wants to replace the Republic). The "in game" segments of the films repeatedly show that Katniss and her compatriots are always playing the game correctly by solving the problems thrown their way, but it is the moments in which they refuse to play that they are able to do the most—when Katniss and Peeta attempt suicide to sabotage the game in the first novel, they are declared "winners" of the game.
The series has been read as having an explicit anticapitalist message and as a useful political tool. The novels and films come prepackaged with an individualist, reactionary politics: The world throws problems at you, you react, and you make it through the obstacles alive. It offers two layers of metaphor: The arena fighting game is a metaphor for political struggle in the fictional world; the struggle in the fictional world is a metaphor for our real-world political struggles.
But the political work that Dungeons & Dragons does in Stranger Things isn't the dog-eat-dog individualism of The Hunger Games, and it doesn't require that we commit to a nihilistic mode of disengagement. If games in these works are proposing ways we can live political life, then D&D becomes a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak set of games-as-metaphors. The Demogorgon got Will Byers, but in the end, a community working together got the Demogorgon. D&D represents a world that can be changed, where challenges can be overcome by meeting them head-on. It's the very definition of utopian thinking.
Maybe this is convention-season talking, but it is easy to empathize with the characters of Stranger Things, frustrated by the demand that they choose a "lesser evil" between governmental men in black or a literal hell beast. This is what makes theirD&D impulse, for lack of a better word, so uplifting: It helps them manage their way out of that conundrum and into something better.
Dungeons & Dragons might be more prevalent now than it has been since it incited moral panic a few decades ago. From The Adventure Zone to HarmonQuest to Stranger Things itself, it's never been easier to watch and listen to people cooperating toward a goal with the good of their community in mind and heart. While it comes with a certain amount of fantasy silliness, the core there is fundamentally different than the deep competitive violence at the core of The Hunger Games arena.
At the end of the season, the group of young boys are shown playing Dungeons & Dragons again. This time, they're not squabbling, and they listen to one another in order to get closer to their goal of defeating their enemies. The game-as-metaphor resonates here just as much. D&D gave them the tools to understand their struggles, and now the real world is plugging back into D&D. It isn't an on-the-nose political moment, but I can only hope that the fundamental politics being shown here of its central game will resonate with viewers of the series.