Friday, April 19, 2019

Stranger Things D&D Starter Set Review

I have a pet peeve: I hate seeing squandered opportunities.

The idea of a Stranger Things-themed D&D starter set has a lot of potential. Although the product is arriving a little late in the Stranger Things hype cycle as the show heads into its third season, it at least makes sense as a tie-in; the kids on the show play D&D, so linking the two brands doesn't immediately feel like a cash-grab.

The Starter Set contains the following bits and pieces:

  • The box itself is solid and not flimsy like the 4e-era box sets. However, the box is conspicuously empty when you consider the how slim the booklets inside are--most of the space seems to allow for the two included minis to be safely tucked into the packaging.
  • The Starter Set Rulebook is a nice presentation of 5e D&D's basic rules lightly decorated with still images from Stranger Things. (The pairing of images with the rules is slightly comical; I guess a kid with a walkie-talkie fits the Adventuring section well enough,but it's impossible to escape the feeling that the premise is being stretched here.) The Rulebook itself is fine, but I wonder if this is where the set works against the potential buyer's expectations: if you thought you were going to get a Stranger Things rpg powered by 5e's engine, you're going to be disappointed.
  • The Hunt for the Thessalhydra is an introductory adventure written as if it were penned by one of the child characters from the show. It's not an interesting adventure. Lost Mines of Phandelver, the introductory adventure in the earlier Starter Set, was criticized in some quarters for being a vanilla fantasy adventure about goblins in caves, but I think that's a silly criticism; that starter adventure at least gives a good feel for the basic D&D experience for new players. The Hunt for the Thessalhydra feels far less inspired (it's vanilla, all right, but not good vanilla), features a dopey riddle, has a questionable random dungeon generator, is presented in a "handwritten script" font that loses its charm quickly, possesses too much empty space that could have been filled with usable content, and ultimately feels unfinished (saying "there is 200 gp worth of treasure in this room" is way less helpful than breaking down each item and its value--players will ask, trust me).
  • The game includes sheets for pre-generated characters, each presented as the character played by one of the Stranger Things kids in their ongoing D&D game. I didn't check them for errors, but I will at least say that I like that the characters aren't all optimal--they're good examples of how an unusual race and class combination is fun even if it doesn't squeeze every last synergy out of the system.
  • You also get a set of dice. They're fairly standard, but don't feel cheap. It's a shame they didn't include two ten-siders for d100 rolls or two d20s for rolls with advantage or disadvantage.
  • The box comes with two "demogorgon" miniatures, one painted and one unpainted. They're nice sculpts, but since there is so little color on the painted version it seems a little pointless to have an unpainted one in the box as well. Placed side-by-side, they just don't look that different.
Overall, this is a squandered opportunity and I'm not sure what audience it's really aimed at. Stranger Things fans aren't going to find a lot of content directly related to the show. Anyone hoping to play in the Stranger Things universe is going to walk away empty-handed. Hardcore D&D fans aren't getting much new in this box. New or prospective D&D players are far better served by the original 5e Starter Set.

I generally think that critiques of WotC being "too corporate" are unfounded. (Just look at how small their actual team is, realize that they're always recruiting freelancers from across the hobby, etc.) But the Stranger Things Starter Set feels like the result of a crass marketing decision: brands are leveraged, but the actually offering is pretty hollow and slapdash.