D&D Stranger Things Starter Set Review
When Wizards of the Coast launched pre-ordering for their 5e Dungeons & Dragons Stranger Things Starter Set box, Michelle and I were very excited. As fans of the show, and as long-time D&D players, we immediately placed our order and eagerly awaited the box’s arrival. Once it arrived, Michelle zealously guarded the box’s contents as we had determined that, since she had never DM’ed before, she was going to run the adventure for myself and several of our friends. She was nervous but, as it is a starter set and she has plenty of 5e experience from playing in a Storm King’s Thunder campaign (which should have been a sequel to G1-3 Against the Giants and set on Oerth but I digress), I was positive that she would do great as I assumed that the Stranger Things Starter Set would be fairly easy for newb DMs to run.
The box itself sports a red cover with a layout that harkens back to earlier editions’ basic sets. The cover art features a painting of Mike Wheeler, one of the main characters from the show, fending off one of the show’s demogorgon monsters. The back cover contains the blurb which details that the adventure inside, Hunt for the Thesselhydra – a D&D campaign, was created by the character Mike; so a bit meta there. For ages 14+, 3+ players we are also told on the front of the box. So do they mean a minimum of a DM and two players or a DM and three players? With no cap listed for the number of players, I wondered if a DM and six players could play. If so, would the adventure take increasing the encounter difficulties into account as per the 5e DMG page 83?
The blurb then encourages the reader to pick your character, “Will you be Will the Wise or Dustin the Dwarf?”, implying that you will be playing the same PCs that the kids play in the show…except that is not true. The kids are playing higher level characters from an earlier edition of the game (BECMI) yet the back blurb tells the buyer to get their fireballs ready. None of the pre-generated PCs supplied with the box are high enough level to cast fireball let alone the fact that none of the TV show’s characters’ PCs include a dwarf bard or half-orc ranger, both of which are included in the box’s pre-gens (in the show’s 1983 season, Lucas plays a knight, presumably a human fighter, while Dustin plays a dwarf [in BECMI, the demi-human races are classes]; in the show’s 1984 season, the kids equate themselves to their current characters: paladin, cleric, ranger, bard, mage, and zoomer—all presumably human).
Originally, before the box had arrived, I suspected the kids themselves from the TV show would be the pre-gen PCs. After all, the blurb asks, “Did you pack your wrist rocket?”—a reference to Lucas’s preferred weapon in the show. No, you did not pack your wrist rocket as none of the pre-generated PCs are equipped with one. More on the pre-gens later.
The blurb also asks if you will encounter a beast with seven heads during the adventure; the answer is “No, you will not” as the characters will instead encounter a beast with eight heads (the thesselhydra in the TV show had seven heads; the 5e stats included in the set’s rulebook give it eight; this is probably the source of the discrepancy). This failure to pay attention to detail is indicative of the quality of the writing and editing with this product on whole; it’s just too sloppy for what should be a marquee cross-promotional product for both WotC and Netflix.
The box also includes two demogorgon miniature figures. Now these are really, really cool and they are a huge incentive for purchasing the adventure for any D&D nerd who also happens to be a Stranger Things fan. However, only one of these minis comes pre-painted (and it’s a very basic paint job at that)—ostensibly so one can paint the unpainted one themselves. That would be great if not for the fact that the miniatures are not made out of any standard miniature plastic material that is easily primed and painted; instead, they are made out of rubber. After a quick internet search, posts on various boards indicated that due to its rubber construction, it would require completely different paints, more like inks, than one would use for normal metal or plastic miniatures (like those from Hero Forge). I myself own paints from Citadel so we were unable to paint the unpainted demogorgon mini. Not a massive problem though as even the unpainted one looks pretty neat and is easily recognizable.
However, that brings me to two other gripes; while I realize that the boxed set is designed for new players and battle mat play is not mandatory or necessarily even expected, I think the boxed set should have included a thesselhydra miniature and paper poster battle maps of the two main cavern complexes. I say this because after much internet searching, I could not find a single thesselhydra miniature had ever been created for D&D (or even for Pathfinder); I didn’t even see a 3D printer file for one noting I didn’t look too hard as I don’t have easy access to a 3D printer.
As WotC had to realize that quite a few people who purchase this game would actually not be novices, but rather people like Michelle and I who already played D&D with miniatures and battle mats, the inclusion of (or option to buy separately) a thesselhydra miniature would have been a huge boon to those who do choose to play the adventure with miniatures. I ended up purchasing a Reaper Bones plastic 5-headed hydra and it served as our thesselhydra mini during the adventure. I spent some time painting it and it looks badass but it is not a thesselhydra.
As for battle maps, newb DMs are unlikely to own a large battle mat (the adventure’s first cave complex, mapped in the adventure with 10’ squares, is huge and took up most of my 4-foot by 3-foot battle mat) so poster battle maps would have been very helpful to include.
The box also includes a nice set of six dice, d4 to d20, but again a gripe; they did not include a ten-sided d00-90 so, to me, the dice set is incomplete. My OCD will undoubtedly cause me to search the various online dice vendors in search of a matching d10 so that I can properly roll d100 without having to roll the same d10 twice.
The box includes five pre-generated characters sheets, all of 3rd level and of varying good alignments. The character sheets are well-designed and similar to other WotC pre-generated characters that are available for download via their website (however, another gripe: these are not. In order to use the characters without ruining the character sheets provided with the adventure, they will need to be photocopied. I find it hard to believe that WotC didn’t just slap these guys on their website for people to download and print as needed. Perhaps WotC thought the pre-gens were an incentive to purchase the adventure; they would be incorrect as the pre-gens are neither representations of the show’s characters or of the show’s characters’ PCs). They are:
Hill Dwarf bard (entertainer background)
Wood Elf cleric (acolyte)
Human paladin (soldier)
Half-orc ranger (outlander)
Half-elf wizard (acolyte)
The exclusion of a rogue was done, I think, on purpose as the trap and secret door DCs in the adventure are very low. However, in 5e, any PC can spot a trap or secret door with their Passive Perception so any PC with a good Wisdom modifier (i.e. clerics and paladins) should be pointing out traps and secret doors wherever they are. This is a failing of 5e, imo, in that DCs are often too low.
Rules items for racial, class, and background abilities are printed on the double-sided character sheets, which is nice except the print is very small for some of the entries (one of our players had great difficulty in reading the paladin’s entries). Spells, weapons, skill proficiencies, etc., are pre-picked to speed things up. In short, the pre-gens are ready to play as soon as the players determine which spells are prepared (and every single pre-gen is a spellcaster, a decision I found to be an odd choice for a starter set). As a bonus, on the back of each sheet are small details on how to level the characters to both 4th and 5th level should the players choose to continue to use them in further adventures.
Once everyone has chosen a pre-gen (since we had six players, I chose to play a pre-generated 3rd-level halfling monk which I downloaded from WotC’s website), it’s time to start the adventure (which has a dopey cover as if stylized by Mike Wheeler; an old-school 1e-style detachable mod cover, with proper cover art and blue maps on the interior, would have been much cooler). The adventure book begins with a meta-narrative of Mike Wheeler giving himself notes on how to run a D&D adventure (for instance, he reminds himself that underlined monster names have stats for the monsters in the starter set’s rulebook; spoiler alert, one of them is missing from the rulebook, another editorial oversight). This obviously serves as a guide for new DMs and should be useful to them to read. This introduction hints that the adventure might be playable in a single evening or over the course of a weekend if there is lots of role-playing; I find it doubtful that the adventure could be completed in a 4-hour slot without cutting it in half. We spent about eight hours playing it and we still had to skip several of the encounters to get to the conclusion.
It should be noted that the adventure includes no boxed text, whether for NPC dialogue or locale descriptions. I found this to be odd as boxed text as an adventure tool dates back to the earliest basic/1e modules. Again, the context here is that since Mike Wheeler wrote the adventure and can wing things on the fly, he doesn’t need to write himself boxed text. However, as the author of various Living Greyhawk special missions which were only ever run by myself, I still wrote boxed text for myself. Maybe I am OCD but I think boxed text would have helped newb DMs.
The next section of the adventure is the introduction during which the PCs meet their noble sponsor, Sir Tristan (referenced as King Tristan in the TV show). This immediately, to me, creates a rushed pace as there was no tropey meet-in-a-bar-and-introduce-yourselves-to-each-other setup. Instead, the 3rd-level PCs are assumed to be known as trusted adventurers by Sir Tristan and, perhaps, to each other. While this works in the context that the adventure was really written by Mike Wheeler for his friends who have already been playing these PCs through levels 1 and 2, for an actual starter set, I think skipping a scene which allows the players to introduce their PCs to one another is a shortcoming. Experienced players will likely add such a scene, as we did.
Sir Tristan asks for the PCs’ help in tracking down and killing a beast which has been terrorizing the local countryside—a thesselhydra (the boss fight from the TV show’s second season’s Christmas Eve D&D game). No one has been able to find the beast’s lair as, after it attacks, it flees into a nearby forest and disappears. As his men must defend the castle, it is up to the PCs to complete the task; to entice them, he offers them gold and, under the right circumstances, magical items to aid them in their quest. These include two bags of holding (to hold the thesselhydra’s severed heads which Sir Tristan would like as trophies), a wand of magic missile, a magic greatsword (more on that below); in addition, EACH PC receives a ring of protection and a potion of healing.
The greatsword, named Winter’s Dark Bite, is a ridiculously powerful (by 5e standards for 3rd-level characters) +1 greatsword that acts as a +3 weapon against the thesselhydra and a +4 weapon when wielded in the Upside Down (more on that later). This is a bit mind boggling as the most powerful weapons in the 5e DMG are +3 so the real authors must have thought that perhaps the thesselhydra and Upside Down combat encounters were too tough without juicing the weapon. It should be noted that there is no in-story reason for why Sir Tristan owns a weapon especially potent against thesselhydras and in the Upside Down, which I found odd.
Once equipped, the PCs head off to attempt to track down the thesselhydra. During their short journey, they can encounter some briefly described NPCs who can give them clues or false leads. Eventually, with some successful tracking, they will reach the entrance to a cave that is home to a large number of troglodytes (a nod to the show here as the first D&D scene in the TV show features the kids battling trogs). The adventure includes a basic map of the cavern complex which Michelle had pre-drawn on our battle mat to speed things up.
The trog cave portion of the adventure is as sparse on details as the rest of the adventure; no word on ceiling heights, illumination (note that one pre-gen PC can’t see in the dark), some trap triggers are not detailed, etc. Each room has a brief entry that details its purpose and the number and type of any occupants, if any, and their typical responses to intruders. It’s not a bad little dungeon crawl but it could use some fleshing out.
Because the adventure assumes five PCs, there are no notes on how to increase the challenge for a party of six PCs (even though the included rulebook itself suggest six PCs might be present). Given 5e’s arcane encounter design system, this is a failing as new DMs will have no way of knowing how to increase the difficulty of fights which have become too easy once there is a sixth PC in the party.
While exploring the trogs’ caves, the adventure does take into account non-violent solutions to tracking the thesselhydra through the caves (it’s hinted at that while the trogs worship it as a god, it sometimes eats them, and the trogs can point out that the thesselhydra heads through their caverns to the Cursed Labyrinth [see below]). In addition, the caverns are home to an owlbear, a monster one of the previously-met NPCs mentioned. The owlbear is just hanging out in its own chamber; I would have it be a pet of the trogs and give it a handler to help explain why they haven’t driven it away or killed it.
The caves are also home to a fresh spring which is home to a giant frog; this is the monster which is in the adventure but which does not have stats in the starter set’s rulebook. Another example of the poor editing effort put into this product; Michelle had to look up the creature on 5eSRD.com, I believe it was, to use it for the adventure.
There is also a proper shrine to the trogs’ god in the caverns, covered in a small amount of treasure and unguarded; this would have been the perfect place to give the adventure a trog shaman for the PCs to encounter—stats for one should have been easy enough for the writers to whip up in 5e so it’s a real missed opportunity (nothing in the adventure can throw spells at the PCs).
Finally in the back of the caverns, the PCs reach the Cursed Labyrinth. The labyrinth magically creates new corridors, intersections, and doors as the PCs explore it and is impossible to find your way out of again. It also includes six possible random encounters (which are kind of neat). They are:
Damaged walls to let them know they are on the thesselhydra’s trail
Random treasure (3d20 gp) on a dead adventurer’s body
Troglodytes, mad with hunger, who fled the thesselhydra by running into the Cursed Labyrinth. Oops.
Skeletons, the remains of adventurers, that attack the PCs
The Lost Knight (see below)
The unstatted Lost Knight (referenced in the TV show’s Christmas eve D&D game) is the important encounter as, after solving his two riddles, he will tell the PCs that the Cursed Labyrinth is actually part of the demi-plane known as the Upside Down (finally, a link to the show!). In addition, he informs the PCs that the thesselhydra has found a way to travel through the Cursed Labyrinth and into the Upside Down. He will then tell the PCs how to do same noting it is a one-way journey; he does not know how one returns from the Upside Down to the Material Plane.
With very little guidance, the adventure does a good job of explaining how to describe the Upside Down as a scary and dangerous place. Fans of the TV show will have an easier time of explaining/understanding. A supernatural cold pervades the demi-plane which prevents natural healing during rests. If there were multiple combat encounters in the Upside Down, this would be a very scary and dangerous environmental factor.
While attempting to track the thesselhydra in the Upside Down, which is impossible per the adventure text, the PCs encounter the unstatted Proud Princess (referenced in the TV show’s Christmas eve D&D game). A powerful adventurer there for her own reasons, she exists only to tell the PCs how to return to the Material Plane and find the thesselhydra. Basically, the blood of any monstrosity can activate a special flower (referenced in the TV show’s Christmas eve D&D game) which opens a planar portal from the Upside Down to the Material Plane; since the thesselhydra is itself a monstrosity, it can easily return home. So, in short, the thesselhydra attacks Sir Tristan’s castle, ‘cause monster, flees into the nearby forest and into the trogs’ cave, enters the Cursed Labyrinth, enters the Upside Down, travels through the Upside Down (untrackable), activates a flower portal, and returns to its lair on the Material Plane. It does the above to avoid be tracked to its lair after attacks. This is a pretty smart plan for a creature with an Int 5.
The Proud Princess also warns that another monstrosity lives in the Upside Down, the demogorgon! She advises that the smell of blood will attract the creature and, if the PCs can collect some of its blood, they will be able to open a flower portal which will allow them to return to the Material Plane.
Once the PCs have found/lured a demogorgon, it naturally attacks. Described and drawn exactly like the creature from the TV show, placing the pre-painted mini on the board will lead to a flurry of cell phones being whipped out to take pics of the monstrosity and may very well be the highlight of the adventure. The demogorgon is a pretty nasty CR 4 creature with advantage on attacks made against wounded opponents, regeneration 10 (stopped only by fire or acid damage), and three attacks per round. The PCs don’t actually have to kill it, they just need to wound it enough to get some of its blood on their weapons which they can then use to open the portal home.
Once the flower portal has been opened, the PCs can return to the Material Plane. Stepping through, they find themselves standing outside the thesselhydra’s lair; a small cave complex that is located in the forest near Sir Tristan’s castle (yet has apparently remained undiscovered by the locals). Unlike the trogs’ cave, which had multiple ways it could be navigated, the thesselhydra’s is a pretty straight-forward dungeon-crawl with the exception that a secret door in the second room can bypass the next three rooms.
The first chamber is home to giant spiders and the cavern is filled with their webs (which seems odd as every time the thesselhydra moves through the chamber, the webs should be demolished and why wouldn’t it eat the spiders as a snack?). The next room consists of a large corridor which contains a 20-ft.-wide, 30-foot-deep pit. The secret door is easily spotted before reaching the pit. Crossing the pit leads to the thesselhydra’s lair (where it is currently sleeping). Beyond that room lies a treasure room (where trogs leave it offerings), a cavern that is home to an ochre jelly, and finally a large cavern which is home to a small tribe of trogs (this chamber is accessible via the previously-mentioned secret door).
The thesselhydra is a CR 4 monster which can make two attacks per round: the first is a bite attack with just one of its eight heads while the other is a bite attack with its torso-maw. In addition, the creature could use its attack action to instead spit acid from its torso-maw AND it can take two legendary actions per round: it can make a Perception check, with advantage, to attempt to detect sneaky foes or it can make a tail swipe pincer attack. While the CR 4 thesselhydra is a scary beasty for a party of 3rd-level PCs, I think I would have made it CR 5 (more hit points and bite attacks) as it is the boss fight.
Once the PCs have defeated the monster, they can chop off its heads, loot the treasure cave, and return to tell Sir Tristan of their victory. In addition, the inside of the back cover of the adventure advises that the PCs will have earned enough experience points to gain a level. All in all, it’s a pretty decent low-level adventure with mostly easy fights that could use some fleshing out and better editing. Fans of the show, especially those who already play D&D 5e, will enjoy it. Using Endzeitgeist’s rating system, I would probably give it 3.5 stars out of 5, rounded up to 4 for the demogorgon minis.