The opening of Netflix’s smash hit Stranger Things finds four adolescent boys gathered round a table, intently focussed on some bits of paper, and some lead figures. The boys are playing Dungeons & Dragons, the perennially popular roleplaying game which caused a moral panic in the 1980s, with concerned moral crusaders convinced that the game was a recruiting ground for Satanists and murderers.
The game serves as a framing device for the whole show, with our four young heroes sent on a quest more dangerous and compelling than any dungeon adventure they might concoct in the basement. And along the way, they learn about each other and garner experience, just like in the game.
Stranger Things has been rightly praised for its story and acting, but for many people, the 1980s setting is key to its success. An homage to the classic stories of Stephen King, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg, so much of its style is instantly recognisable and comforting, particularly to those of a certain age, who remember it firsthand.
You see, I was a teenage roleplayer, and I spent many nights gathered round the table, adventuring in a world of monsters and traps, whilst one poor soul (the Dungeonmaster) wrestled with rulebooks more complicated than the instruction manual for the International Space Station.
Growing up in a small town, I always felt that the real world was happening somewhere else, somewhere far from me. And the best remedy for that was to go somewhere in my head that no-one else could go to. So whilst the Troubles was still casting a shadow over Northern Ireland, checkpoints were still a thing, and our news broadcasts spoke of nightly atrocities, I was in a far off kingdom, battling with warriors and wizards, shielded from the frightening realities at my front door.
Regardless of the rose-tinted view of the current age, it was not cool. We roleplayers were a rare breed; isolated (by necessity), awkward, and generally only comfortable in the presence of likeminded souls. Whilst our contemporaries flirted with the opposite sex and drank cider in the park, we flirted with danger, and drank flagons of mead in taverns that only existed in our heads.
But the world changed, and perhaps the strangest thing about Stranger Things is that those awkward, isolated roleplayers went on to find a place in the future, writing, acting, and creating. The misfits inherited the earth, and now in a massive reversal of fate, an affectionate look at kids playing Dungeons & Dragons can become the biggest TV show of the year.
So while I’m rooting that our heroes complete their quest, find their friend, and save the day, I’m really rooting for them to grow up and become the best they can be, to share their adventures with everyone. And that everyone watching who has a passion that drives them lets it help them become the best they can be.
Or, as we would have said at the time, “+ 5 experience.” Steven Rainey
Illustration by Loreana Rushe