Friday, April 26, 2019

RPGs as Art

I've been trying to devour more RPG-adjacent content lately, which brought me to RPG YouTube and RPG Twitter.  I've encountered this idea in a couple of places — I know The Strix mentioned it, and Matt Colville has definitely talked about it — but here we confront the idea that RPGs don't have a narrative.

There are a couple of interviews between Adam Koebel and Matt Colville where they mention it at length.  If you have some hours to kill, watch them.  I'll be here after the jump.

They talk about a lot of stuff in those interviews, but the part that interests me in this blog post is the idea that RPG sessions don't have narratives — the RPG session is about following the rules of the RPG while ignoring the tropes that make literature happen, and it's only in retrospect that the narrative happens.  (I know Matt Colville mentioned this in another video, but I'll be damned if I can remember it.  For that matter, I don't even remember in which of the two videos Adam and Matt reiterate this idea.)

Like life, basically.  Stuff happens without adherence to narrative tropes, but we narrativize life by organizing our thoughts and stories in ways that make sense to us.  Life has no meaning except that which we give it.

There's some truth to that, but that relies on a very Western view of what a narrative is.  It is well beyond the scope of this blog post to deconstruct the Western concept of the narrative, but a good counter-example is kishōtenketsuKishōtenketsu often eschews conflict — the essence of Western drama! — in exchange for portrayals of dynamic relationships.  A comic giving an example of this four act structure follows; click for a more detailed examination of kishōtenketsu:

The core of the story isn't that the main character is buying a can of soda, but why, and what that says about the relationship between the two characters.

More to the point, trying to emulate genre narrative structures with RPGs ignores the fact that RPGs have their own narrative structure, and have a few unique quirks about how they tell stories.  Most forms of literature do, so let's unpack that a bit.

Novels and short stories are incredibly intimate, projecting a story directly into your brain.  You can do all sorts of things with them, but they excel at showing the reader someone's mental environment: you can spend an entire story in someone's head (or perhaps several someones' heads) without too much difficulty.  (You would be hard-pressed to get a feature length movie out of, say, "To Build a Fire," but the short story contains an entire bleak world in the narrator's head.)  The drawback is that any new or complex concepts have to be conveyed with words, so the more you have to explain, the more complicated the narrative becomes.

Films aren't terribly intimate, but the format means you can include a lot of visual storytelling, thereby packing a lot of story into the comparatively short runtime.  Television has similarities, but you can use it for long-form storytelling, as soap operas have known for decades.  (Police procedurals and anthology series ignore long-form storytelling for familiarity: if you're watching The Twilight Zone, no given episode has anything to do with any other episode, but you know the kinds of stories to expect from episode-to-episode.)

Comic books have a lot of the strengths of television, with the difference that they can visually convey things that television would find prohibitively expensive.  I'll freely admit I don't read a ton of comics, so I'm not fully aware of what comic books can do that other formats cannot.  I expect it's more than that, though.  (For example, I'm sure there's some resonance to the fact that comics are paced like television episodes but rely on static images so that understanding relies partially on the reader's engagement with the text.  You can always slow down and investigate an image or ruminate on a concept for a while before continuing, like you can with a book.  Whereas a television show keeps moving whether you've fully processed it or not.)

Video games are a bit odd, because they get a lot of the visual shorthand of film and television mixed with some of the intimacy of a book.  A video game may not tell a terribly original story, but you still love it because you lived the plot.  The sense of ownership is what makes it enjoyable.  Plus, the interactivity means that video games can turn some things that would be narratively boring into interesting mechanical challenges.  (No More Heroes turns mowing the lawn into a challenging mini-game, for example.)

So what about table-top role-playing games?  Puffin Forest recently had this to say about it, comparing RPGs and film.  (If you don't have the half-hour to watch it, his main thesis is that movies have a lot of time for spit-and-polish, while RPGs are improvised and in-the-moment.  I'm going to invoke Meisner here just to annoy Nicole.)

He dances around the subject that I want to address here about the interactivity and intimacy of RPGs.  (I would argue that movies aren't the best analogy: the visual language of film isn't most directly comparable to the verbal language of RPGs.  Role-playing games are somewhere in-between, having both the nonverbal subtext of film with the textual language of books.  It's an odd blend, to be sure.)

RPGs combine part of the intimacy of novels with part of the interactivity of video games.  A role-playing game session is not quite as intimate as being alone with a book, but a role-playing game still injects a narrative directly into your brain.  On the other hand, it tends to be more interactive than a video game, because you (presumably) perform any action you want.  (Some RPGs and individual GMs are more prescriptive than that, but we'll casually assume here that the traditional model wherein you can attempt anything you could reasonably consider in a given situation is still in effect.)

Another noteworthy, but oft-overlooked point: RPGs are art three times.  For, say, a novel, you extract the art twice: once from the text itself, and again from re-living it.  (That's rather simplistic, since there are artistic choices that go into the cover and layout, but we're going to keep it simple here.)  While we often talk of the text-as-art, the act of vicariously living with the text — letting it infect your headspace, integrating it into your life, telling your friends about it — is a form of performance art.  And that's before we get into literary criticism as a form of literature unto itself.  (David Lynch famously refuses to discuss the meaning of his movies because he considers the audience a key participant in the process, and whatever meaning the audience draws from the work is as relevant as anything he could convey.  I can't find a good example at the moment, but they dig a little into it in this article.)

Likewise, movies have the same sorts of layers: you can watch the movie, then wrestle with the movie.  It's up to you whether you want to argue that the-script-as-literature is still part of the movie, but I'd argue reading the script vs. performing the script are two different things, and in the case of film, you can also take the script as another layer of art.  (Part of this is personal preference, but part of this distinction is to maintain my point that RPGs are special due to their three-fold art process.  You come to my blog, you get my bullshit meta, kids.)

(A brief digression: I again recognize that this is a little simplistic.  A single piece of art in wide release tends to generate ancillary art in its wake: people write fanfiction, make advertising posters, and suchlike.  You can argue this all falls under grappling-with-the-text, but on a grand scale.  You can then further fall deep into the rabbit-hole of what ancillary procedures count as art.  Is editing art?)

But RPGs are art three times: once in the role-playing text itself, once in the performance art at the table, and finally when you narrativize it with your friends in the aftermath.

The text is probably the most obvious piece of art: a work of literature, usually with illustrations, and created with an eye towards both being aesthetically pleasing and used as a reference manual.  (That's a hard balance, one with which a lot of people still grapple.  What's the best way to organize information in RPGs?  A definitive answer to that question is The Holy Grail.)  Soberer minds than my own have analyzed both RPG texts as art and the utility of good visual art in RPGs, so let's move on.

The game at the table itself is the one with which Adam and Matt take issue: they argue that the action at the table is largely about rules adjudication.  (We'll ignore the fact that Colville's own postmortem videos for The Chain, hidden somewhere near the bottom of this playlist as of this writing, often talk about hitting certain narrative beats while running the game.  For the benefit of future readers, I'm talking about videos #24 through #33 in that playlist.)  And while there's a certain logic to that — is just doing stuff and living your life art? — even the most hardened grognard does a certain amount of role-playing at the table.  (Did you react to something that happened in-game?  Congratulations, you're an actor now.)  It's the equivalent of arguing that improv isn't art: Yes, and and audience prompts are simpler rules than, say, the entirety of the Player's Handbook, but there are still rules to be followed to construct the action that happens on stage.

(I would also make an argument that the standard progression of RPGs — overcome challenges to improve your character, who can then tackle bigger challenges with raised stakes — mirrors the rising action of Western literary canon.)

Even if you're totally eschewing traditional Western narrative rules (and as noted above, there are other cultural options), you're still collaboratively building something at the table.  It might not be in the standard literary sense, but performance art is still an artistic exercise, even if it's mediated with rules.  (A philosophical question: if RPG sessions aren't art because of the logistical rules governing play, do the social rules governing traditional art forms limit their artistic content?)

Finally, the narrativization post-game is another form of artistic expression.  It's the one that you talk about with your friends, put up on Obsidian Portal, use to draw pictures, use as the basis of your fantasy novel, or turn into another RPG product.  It's not quite as obvious as the RPG text itself, but if you sufficiently broaden your view such that a story told orally is as much art as one recorded textually, you can recognize the art content.  (It's still art, even if it's unpolished.  An entertaining tale told drunkenly outside an IHOP at 2 AM still potentially counts, even if it's not recorded for posterity; your brain still engages with it the same way, and it still leaves you changed afterward.)

But all of the above content argues that RPGs should be considered a form of artistic expression along all points of development while ignoring the main thrust of my point: RPGs are their own thing.  They resist clean comparison to other literary forms because they're not exactly the same, and possibly require their own language to describe them.  You get some Western literary tricks in there: rising action (most of the time, assuming the standard challenge/improvement/bigger challenge model), foreshadowing (although no fact in an RPG is guaranteed to later be important), and irony (to varying degrees), but the interactive nature of the medium suggests that we ought not to be looking to Western canon for our models of RPGs.

Traditional Western narrative structures rely on control: the creators of a work have total control over the structural events that take place therein.  (The audience's engagement relies on the fact that the work's interpretation is beyond the creator's control, but the basic facts of the work are ultimately known.  Fun fact: in literary criticism, the common convention is to refer to literary events in the present tense, because they're all happening concurrently.  The book has been written; the contents are ongoing.)  To contrast, role-playing games are not predetermined; the outcome is left to the participants (and to a varying extent, the use of randomizers).  I know a lot of wordcount has been devoted to RPGs-as-stories, but to get full enjoyment out of the genre, you have to abandon the idea that they're going to be the traditional, linear stories you're used to telling and reading.  Table-top RPGs can handle linear chains of events — particularly if your group is primed for that sort of thing — but they excel when groups are confronted with choices to make and open-ended problems to solve.  That yields a lot of information about the characters' interior worlds.  (Even a bunch of old grognards, moving their characters as playing pieces through a megadungeon, still engage in this behavior, making choices in an ever-branching decision tree.  Those choices tell us important things about their motivations, even if that's just gold-for-XP.)

Keep in mind: this is in no way an indictment of genre emulation in RPGs.  If that's your thing, go for it!  A lot of storygames try to cleave to literary tropes, making for tighter narrative structures in game.  But also keep in mind that RPGs have their own genre conventions, and maybe it's time we start confronting those rather than trying to use the language of novels or film to talk about them.  Different media are capable of supporting different sorts of stories, and the collaborative nature of the role-playing exercise precludes neat classification into existing literary forms.  Learn to embrace the loose, free-flowing nature of RPGs and you'll have fewer frustrations about keeping the players firmly on track of the plot, or how to deal with player absences, or whatever troubles you have.

Final Note: This is unlikely to become a series, but I'm sure I'll revisit the subject as I have more organized thoughts on it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Rise of the Baller Wizards, Fifth Edition Remix

As described in Rise of the Baller Wizards, there is an ancient sect of magical wizards who mastered their wizardry on the basketball court. That describes them in OSR-type games; if you want to use Baller Wizards in D&D 5e, you could just as easily make a wizard, assign Dexterity as their second-highest ability score, give them an orb focus, and choose Evocation as their Arcane Tradition. Pick the Entertainer background, but swap Acrobatics for Athletics, swap a musical instrument proficiency for basketball proficiency, and swap your starting musical instrument for appropriate basketball gear.

"The nail in the coffin!"
Of course, if you want actual rules for Baller Wizards, why not try...

Arcane Tradition: Baller Wizard

You are trained in the ways of the Baller Wizard, educated in how best to protect the helpless and dunk on your enemies. Baller Wizards eschew heavy magical specialization, instead choosing to focus on additional athletic training to be more maneuverable on the battlefield. Although they learn a few sorcerous secrets of their own.

For obvious reasons, most Baller Wizards tend toward orbs as an arcane focus — can you really be a Baller Wizard without a sufficiently impressive B-Ball?

To the Jam
When you adopt this tradition at 2nd level, your speed increases by 5 feet while you are not wearing armor or wielding a shield. You also gain proficiency in the Athletics and Performance skills if you don't already have them.

All in your Face
Starting at 2nd level, you no longer have disadvantage on ranged attacks if you are within 5 feet of a hostile creature. Additionally, you have advantage on Constitution saving throws that you make to maintain your concentration on a spell when you take damage.

Wassup, Just Feel the Bass
Starting at 6th level, if you cast a spell and you are within its area of effect, you can choose to no longer be considered a target of the spell. This ability only functions if you are conscious. Additionally, if you deal damage to a creature, you don't provoke opportunity attacks from that creature for the rest of the turn.

Drop It, Rock It, Down the Room
Starting at 10th level, you gain proficiency in Dexterity saving throws if you do not already have it. Additionally, when you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you instead take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, and only half damage if you fail.

Shake It, Quake It, Space Kaboom
Starting at 14th level, when you cast a spell that deals damage, you can expend spell slots to make a spell more deadly. You may only expend spell slots up to 5th level in this manner. Each spell slot spent increases the damage of the spell by an amount equal to its level. This additional damage takes effect when the spell is cast, and so may be halved by resistances or saving throws as normal. If a given spell deals damage of multiple types, choose one of the types to be increased by this spell.

Rise of the Baller Wizards

Baller Wizards, also known as Slam Thaumaturges (among a host of other names of mysterious provenance), are a sect of wizards practiced in the ancient ways of the basketball court. They are similar in some respects to Muscle Wizards. (With variants found herehere, and here.)

What follows is for old school, OSR-ish, dragon-y dungeon-y games. But there's also a fifth edition version, if you're into that sort of thing.

Appendix N: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, NBA JamSpace Jam, every Harlem Globetrotters cartoon from the '70s and beyond (but maybe especially their Futurama appearances)

Prime Requisite (if your game uses it): Dexterity
HD: d6
Thac0/to-hit: As thief/rogue
Saves: As magic-user/wizard
Armor and Weapons: Standard: no armor, but can use daggers, darts, quarterstaffs, and slings. They are also trained in the ancient Shaq Fu of B-Ball combat, and so many use their B-Balls in skirmishes as described below.
Movment: Ballers move at 125% speed for a member of their race while unencumbered. So if standard unencumbered speed is 120', they move 150'. You can probably figure out the conversions from there. Round up if it matters.
XP: As magic-user

If you use prime requisites and XP bonuses for exceptional ability scores, Baller Wizards get the appropriate bonuses or penalties based off their Dexterity.

Baller Wizards can still do spell research and magic item creation like normal wizards, although their process tends to be more... idiosyncratic than usual. As you might expect, spell research and magic duels are usually settled on the basketball court.

Starting Baller Wizards get their first B-Ball for free.

"He just got his degree from dunkin' on U!"
B-Ball Magic: Baller Wizards don't use listed spell components, instead relying on their B-Balls as their primary component. (If a spell component requires a monetary cost, the Baller Wizard still has to pay it to perform alchemical maintenance on their B-Balls.) If a Baller Wizard loses their B-Ball, they're not casting. (As noted under the section for B-Balls, they can cast with an appropriately-sized sphere once.)

They don't use spellbooks, instead learning spells as maneuvers on the basketball court. If they acquire an appropriate magic-user scroll, they can "learn" it by practicing with it for an hour, then casting it once into their B-Ball. Rather than the spell's normal effect, they learn it by casting it. (As with Muscle Wizards, you can think of the stored magical energy as being in their muscles rather than their minds.)

Baller Wizards can work glyphs into their dribble patterns to cast spells, but if a Baller Wizard casts an offensive spell through their B-Ball — hitting the target with a ranged attack and centering the effect on the B-Ball — the Baller Wizard is unaffected by their own spell (so you can dunk on someone and cast fireball without ill effect) and the B-Ball does only 1d4 damage without the usual modifers. If the ranged attack misses, the Baller loses the spell but it has no effect (and probably has to retrieve the B-Ball, as explained below).

From Downtown: Baller Wizards can Climb Walls as a thief of the same level. (When in doubt, use Labyrinth Lord, page 13.)

"He's heating up!"
He's on Fire: If you use magic schools in your games, Baller Wizards typically only have access to abjuration and evocation. (Expand that selection if you want; I'm a blog, not a cop.) If there's a spell that makes a lot of sense for a Baller Wizard but doesn't fit their school selection, feel free to let them have it. Don't forget: Baller Wizards still have access to spell research like standard magic-users, so it's perfectly fine to research B-Ball-friendly versions of standard spells, as long as you can justify them.

If you don't use magic schools, let them use spells that make sense to be delivered via B-Ball, or cast via protective sigils worked into their dribbling patterns. (As per Ten Foot Polemic's rules for Punch-casting, it's fine if it's a little silly. That's the point!) They're usually into the flashy protection and offensive spells. But can the character cast charm person by dunking on someone and rewriting their memories, like Gilligan getting hit on the head with a coconut? Up to the GM.

"Boom Shakalaka!"
Jump Shot: Use your favorite system for exceptional jumps if you have one. If you don't, try these: with a running start of at least 20 feet, a Baller Wizard can make a horizontal leap of 3d6 + their level in feet, or a vertical leap of 1d6 + half their level (round up) in feet. Without a running start, a Baller Wizard can make a horizontal leap of 2d4 + half their level (round up) in feet, or a vertical leap of 1d4 + half their level (round down) in feet.

Shaq Fu: All Baller Wizards are trained in ranged combat and specialized in the use of their B-Balls. They get a +1 bonus to ranged attacks and a +2 bonus to damage when using their B-Balls in combat.

"Is it the shoes?"
The B-Ball
The B-Ball is a sacred object, a magically-enhanced sphere used as both the focus of a Baller Wizard's casting and a weapon if needed. (In a pinch, a Baller Wizard can attack with any sphere of appropriate size, although they don't get the +1 attack/+2 damage they do with a B-Ball. They can cast spells with any sphere of appropriate size, but unless it's an artifact or something, the act of casting with it destroys it.) A Baller Wizard's first B-Ball is always acquired with great celebration, either being inherited from a mentor or manufactured by the young apprentice.

Some few self-taught Baller Wizards manufacture their own B-Balls and learn the ancient spells without contact with the wider community; in the bards' tales, most legendary Baller Wizards are claimed to be self-taught.

A B-Ball is a spherical object, roughly thirty inches in circumference, and comprising complex alchemical reagents to give it its characteristic texture and elasticity. Assuming access to a laboratory or other place to work, it takes a Baller Wizard 1d4 weeks to make a B-Ball, and it costs 50gp per week in manufacturing costs.

B-Balls can be used as ranged weapons. They deal 1d4 damage, have a short range of 20', medium range of 40', and long range of 60'. Those who are not specifically trained with them find them difficult to use in combat, and can maybe do 1d3-2 damage with one. (No, you don't heal your opponent on a -1.)

A trained wielder can make a B-Ball bounce back to its owner after a successful hit — so if you hit with a ranged attack or a spell attack, and both hands are free, the ball returns to your hand as part of your attack. (This is not magic, but more like training with a boomerang; if you throw it into a spider web or it gets hit with a force field or something, it's not going to return the way you expect.)

If you miss your target, the B-Ball bounces past it. The easy rule is that your B-Ball still bounces back to you if your target is against a wall or something, rolls to a stop if there's open ground, or bounces off into oblivion if your target is next to a cliff. (This is the most likely reason why you're going to replace your B-Ball.) If you need granularity for some reason (maybe you're playing on the grid), assume the B-Ball bounces 1d6 × 5 feet before rolling to a stop. If the GM is really slick and feels like tracking it, the ball follows contours on the ground like you would expect. Use your common sense.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Psychonauts of the Cosmic Overmind

There was a conversation on Tumblr, and this popped out:

Myconid psychonauts are trying to find the outer limits of consciousness in the meld, but they require the help of outside minds as variables in their prolonged experiment. Expect astral jaunts and planar travel as you plumb the depths of the cosmic Overmind.

Myconids (and the closely-related science fungoids of the unfathomable underworld) often communicate with sapients with some manner of bizarre telepathy mediated by psychoactive spores their fruiting bodies naturally produce.

(Maybe you find them in this rad Dyson Logos dungeon?)

Myconid psychonauts lair in the Dungeon of the Third Eye.
In D&D, myconids spend large portions of time in what they term "the meld," an n-dimensional psychographic conversation. As noted in the AD&D Monstrous Manual, "For the myconids, melding is entertainment, worship, and social interaction combined. The fungus men gather in a tight circle and the elder myconid release rapport and hallucinatory spores. The entire group then merges into a collective telepathic hallucination for eight hours. Myconids consider this melding to be the reason for their existence." Likewise, the fifth edition Monster Manual adds, "They use it in the pursuit of higher consciousness, collective union, and spiritual apotheosis."

By all accounts, they're intelligent and friendly, trying to hide from predators and spend their time in the meld, exploring infinity. But is a single, unified perspective truly enough to understand the cosmos?

Is this a pigeon?
Enter the player characters. They are recruited by a group of myconids attempting to understand the universal over-soul, and determining they need additional data. (Myconids aren't nearly ruthless enough to, say, dump rapport and hallucination spores in a nearby human town's water supply, which is why they have to rely on the consent of occasional passerby. Like adventurers traveling through their dungeon.) As such, they offer to allow the player characters into the meld, giving them a heavy spore dose so they will astrally project among the realms.

They probably know enough about sapients to offer payment, if nothing else.

Assuming they're all friendly myconids, of course...
It's a great excuse for some very weird plane-hopping action. You want to basically have a different genre or setting every session? Here's how you do it. You want a fantasy version of Anne's psychedelic sci-fi campaign setup? This is also how you do that.

You can justify anything in this context: a rollicking jaunt through Narcosa or a psychedelic dive into hallucinatory William Blake-esque cosmology or even a jump into other games or genres. Take your bog-standard Forgotten Realms game into the Dreamlands (perhaps even through Ultan's Door) or into Dark Sun or into Boot Hill or into Traveller or whatever.

It never got weird enough for me.
It's up to you how much you want to cleave to the setup or the logic of the setting. Do they arrive in astral form, impervious to all harm but spiritual? Does their equipment come with them? What are the parameters?

And what is the goal? Are they just reporting back to the Science Fungoids all they find, recording their experiences for posterity? Are they looking for something specific? Do you plan on them actually meeting the Cosmic Overmind and communing with it?

That's up to you.

This is your brain on myconid spores.
Edit (07-16-2019): Interested parties might wish to read the addendum to this post for some hastily-considered game mechanics.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dispatches from Gothcon: No Rest for the Wicked

I'm not at Gothcon, but my book is!  No Rest for the Wicked via Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

There isn't much out about it yet, but here's what we have.  Extant information and images are largely culled from these Facebook posts: this one, this one, this one, and this one.

The Yannick Bouchard cover, culled from LotFP's Instagram story
The back cover blurb.
The only review so far.
I'm going to take "too grim to buy" as a compliment.
If you want interior art, Jez Gordon posted a few on Twitter a while back: the Steiners, the Herzogs, and a picture of young Griswold Herzog.

I'll post more updates as they become available: when it's in distribution, whatever reviews I find, all the usual stuff.

If you like it or hate it or whatever, let me know.  Feedback is helpful!  (As you can tell from my RPGGeek page, this is my first project for a major publisher, so seriously: I want to know what you think.  Be brutal if you must.)  If you want other examples of my stuff, there's the Benighted Pleomorphic Prion from Beyond in 2018 Gong Farmer's, Vol. 2, and there's Mechanomancy Redux for UA3.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Review: Stranger Things D&D Roleplaying Game Starter Set

Image stolen shamelessly from because I didn't have time to take a decent picture.
As always, click the image to go to the original link.
I have actual posts in my Drafts, but they need polishing before publication.  In the meantime, I felt inspired to do a review, so that's what you're getting.  This will be comparatively quick.

Just yesterday, I unexpectedly received my copy of the Stranger Things D&D Roleplaying Game Starter Set.  While I'm not obsessed with Stranger Things, I've been keeping up with all the D&D 5e releases, and I certainly dig Stranger Things.

Like a lot of product tie-ins, the end result is... fine.

Most jarring: it's weird to see Netflix branding on an official D&D product.  That's vaguely surreal, but par for the course in our current cyberpunk dystopia.

So, what you get: a dice set, two demogorgon minis (that's "the demogorgon," not "Demogorgon, Prince of Demons"), a series of quickstart rules, five level-three character sheets based on the player party from season 1 of Stranger Things, and a starting adventure.

The dice are pretty standard, and the quickstart rules are what you would expect — a very serviceable set of basic rules that contains core functionality, but is ultimately crippleware designed to sell you a copy of the full game.  As it stands, this Starter Set is designed to support play from Level 3 to Level 4 (and allow the Dungeon Master to expand the provided materials from Level 4 to Level 5), and so the included spells, magic items, and monsters reflect that sensibility.

You do get stats for the Stranger Things demogorgon, as well as (so far as I can tell) the 5e debut of the thessalhydra, not seen since third edition according to my research.  If you're nostalgic for Monster Manual II, well, now thessalmonsters are back.

The demogorgon miniatures — one "painted" (meaning it has highlights, like a pinkish maw), one not — are odd by miniature standards.  They're made out of some flexible vinyl, like something you might get from a gumball machine.  (That might have been intentional.)  This is probably the single most exciting thing from the set.

Finally, there's the included adventure.  Purported to be Mike Wheeler's adventure he was running for his friends, it's a neat piece of Stranger Things lore, and might work as an introductory adventure, but is a bit flat as an actual D&D adventure.  It's pretty linear, features potent quest-giving NPCs, and is fairly dependent on the vagaries of the dice to complete.  (I daresay the adventure from the 5e Starter Set was better, and it was also a fairly linear slugfest.)

It's a neat concept — trying to make an adventure like the ones you wrote when you were ten — but is admittedly not the most inspiring starting adventure.  I would be unlikely to run it as-is unless I was trying to get non-D&D players into the hobby using Stranger Things as bait.

(An aside: despite my criticisms about it — which might just be a knee-jerk reaction to what I perceive as a corporate tie-in cashgrab — I truly love the idea of RPG pastiches.  I've seen a lot about genre emulation in RPGs, but not as much about authorial voice emulation.  Although that leads into the potential rabbit hole of RPGs-as-literature, a topic for another day.)

Credit where credit is due, though, the adventure has a couple of neat setpieces: they give rules and description for the Upside Down, as well as a magic sword specifically designed to combat entities from the Upside Down, and there's a neat segment with an infinite puzzle maze and a riddling knight that might be worth modifying and stealing.

Finally, regarding the art: the box art and the interior art in the quickstart is all official Stranger Things art in the same style as the promotional materials, so if you like that stuff, you'll dig this.  (If you're looking for fantasy art to fire your imagination, you won't find it here.)  The attached adventure is designed to look like a kid's drawings, which is endearing in its own way.

Overall, it's the standard starter set stuff: everything you need to play a quick game of D&D taking you from Level 3 to 4, and then all the necessary tools to give a starting Dungeon Master the ability to plan a game from Level 4 to 5.  Given that the Basic Rules are available for free online, along with infinite free content in the corners of the internet, it's up to you whether it's worth the $25 price tag.  If you're way into Stranger Things or think you could convince your Stranger Things-loving friends to play D&D with this, it might be worth your while.  Otherwise, you're paying for a couple of miniatures, a new monster, an old monster updated to the new edition, a new magic item, and one or two neat ideas to steal for your regular game.  Maybe that's worth it to you, maybe it's not.

Final thought: while this product fell flat for me, it's entirely worthwhile if it brings new people into the hobby.

Print Friendly