Mike Mearls talks Stranger Things, Dungeons and Dragons and learning to play RPGs
If you have Netflix or friends with Netflix, you’ve probably heard about Stranger Things. It’s the 80s inspired retro-horror show set in a sleepy little town called Hawkins, Indiana.
The main characters are a group of four young boys, and later a young girl, who love fantasy and sci-fi. They are all super nerdy gamer types, bullied at school for their interests and hobbies.
It was surprising how many people connected with one or more of the characters, but even more surprising was how many people identified early on that the show ran like a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Stranger Things Dungeons and Dragons
The opening scenes show the four boys, Mike, Will, Lucas and Dustin, around the table rolling dice and describing their characters actions. This scene really sets the pace and theme of the show. And while the actual D&D content in the show is minimal, it’s impossible to deny that iconic RPG helped shaped the writing, from monster references to entire fantasy realms.
When I saw the Stranger Things starter box for Dungeons & Dragons I remember thinking that it made a lot of sense. But after having played through the introductory adventure I am overjoyed at what this could mean for the Dungeons & Dragons.
It could mean a whole new audience and new players taking their first steps into the awesome and exciting world of roleplaying games.
What’s Mike got to say?
I was fortunate enough to spend some time interviewing Mike Mearls, Writer and Designer for Dungeons & Dragons as well as other fantasy games and fiction. The interview was mostly me gushing over cool things that happened in the game I played the other night or how big of a fan I am.
However, outside of that, we discussed the rise in D&D’s popularity, what the development team is doing to help introduce new players and what cool new content we can expect from them in the future.
PowerUp! – The mini-campaign from Stranger Things Dungeons and Dragons feels authentic and genuine to what Mike Wheeler was running for his friends. How close did you work with the writers of the show when making the Stranger Things starter box?
Mike Mearls – For the process of making the product we had an initial pitch over to Netflix. Originally we sounded out a few different proposals we sent over to them.
It was important to them we ground this new starter box in the reality of the TV series as much as possible. That’s where we started making this an adventure that was written by the character Mike Wheeler. So Stan Brown, the gentleman who wrote the scenario in the starter box, re-watched the first season, taking notes along the way.
Particularly the last episode when the boys get together to play D&D.
He focused on capturing their references and the feel of that scenario that the character Mike Wheeler runs for them. But also what’s on Mike’s mind as he runs this adventure. His adventures are shaped by things he’s seen and done. How the events of his life changed him and the game he runs for his friends.
PowerUp! – With D&D now coming into the mainstream with Stranger Things as well as streamed shows like Critical Role, we are seeing a massive resurgence of D&D. But why now?
Everyone I speak to these days either plays, has played or would like to play D&D.
Mike Mearls – I’ve been working on tabletop roleplay games for, I’ve just realised, a little over twenty years.
I remember Wizards of the Coast used to publish an RPG called Everway, in the mid-90s. I remember when they were figuring out how to market it. The game is out there and getting great reviews but just not getting any traction with players. A few of my friends at the time worked on the game and they had an idea.
What if we could package the game designer with the game. If everyone could see the lead designer Jonathan Tweet run a game of Everway, you’d understand why this game is so much fun.
And now we’ve come full circle where we have personalities like Matt Mercer or Matt Colville running streamed games. Chris Perkins who writes for D&D is running adventures at a PAX convention. We essentially box these guys up with the game and it’s a mouse click away to watch them playing or running these games.
D&D has always had this image of seeming strange and remote from the outside, but once you actually play you realise how simple it is. It’s you and your friends sitting around the table making things up and rolling dice.
PowerUp! – With the growing popularity of D&D and the success of DNDbeyond, has come more tools like DNDBeyond’s Twitch extension to make streaming games easier and neater.
Do you think these tools help D&D grow or is it more of a cool side feature that just helps games run smoother?
Mike Mearls – I have to admit I don’t know too much about it, I know they were working on it but it has the overlay for character stats to make it more visually appealing and clear for an audience. It helps the viewers keep track of hit point totals and spell slots used.
As far as it helping D&D grow, I think it’s more aimed at what I’d call like a middle-tier player. Seeing people playing is what hooks someone coming into roleplaying for the first time, and so if the tools mean more people stream then that’s great.
The Middle tier player benefits from these overlays because it helps them better understand the rules, gives them some confidence or understanding. So maybe they can sit down at their table and understand what the character sheet.
Our focus for at least the next few years is what really is that onboarding process? As streaming becomes a solidified aspect of Geek culture, what are other things that we can do to make the process of becoming a player or Dungeon Master? What we have right now is great and right now we have more people than ever playing Dungeons & Dragons, but our focus right as a development team now is what barriers exist for new players and how can we make those barriers smaller.
So things like rewarding local participation, simplifying rules that hang people up or giving new Dungeon Masters tools for creating stories and worlds. Tools like this help, people feel uncomfortable in their first game and we want to ease that.
PowerUp! – The anxiety of doing something for the first time, being new and joining a new group can be quite overwhelming for new players. How do you plan to combat this barrier to entry?
Mike Mearls – When we look at feedback from players, the real barrier is finding a playgroup. When you’re learning a new game and trying to teach other people how to play it can be daunting. The ideal pathway is from player to Dungeon Master as you become more experienced, so that’s something we are looking at. The rule of thumb for D&D or other roleplaying games has always been this. The more Dungeon Masters or Games Masters or whatever you call them, the more players you will have.
So we look at tools and products to help Dungeon Masters and help new players feel like taking on that role is easier. So that the pathway from player to Dungeon Master is easier to navigate.
PowerUp! – With all the DNDbeyond tools, resource books and adventure modules you’ve been working on, is there any plans for your own virtual tabletop to help players find groups online and stick with them?
Mike Mearls – That’s not something we are planning to work on, we have great partners in Fantasy Grounds and Roll20. They have an established player base or customers who use their product, so with our partnerships, we have a really strong offering.
Modules are available for purchase that load straight into the game making that Dungeon Master pathway easier as we talked about before. Also, Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 have been working in the virtual tabletop space for years so they are the experts on it all.
It’s better for Wizards of the Coast and for Dungeons & Dragons as a whole for us to focus on making a great game and then partner with these guys who have the technical ‘know how’ to really make the game accessible through their platforms.
They all do a great job and by giving them more content to work with it’s better for us, better for them and most of all it’s better for the players.
Everyone Remembers Their First
As I discussed Dungeons & Dragons with Mike, I recalled the first adventures I ran. I remembered as I became more experienced, how as I grew up and learnt or did more with my life out of the game, my games of D&D changed.
From dungeon crawling to complex political intrigue or exploration. As a kid, there was just another dungeon waiting for you. When we grow older we add things in between those dungeons to try to connect it all. But there is something very dear to our hearts about viewing life like levels or challenges, find the next challenge and beat it, get stronger, find a new challenge.
The Stranger Things starter box pays tribute to the old classic ‘red box’ starter from the 80s. It’s likely the starter box the boys from Stranger Things would have used to get into Dungeons & Dragons, a well-received nod to the game’s roots.
The starter box doesn’t feature any rules or variations that aren’t already accessible, so if you have the core books or regular D&D starter then the only real benefit is a small pre-written adventure and some miniatures. Including a set of dice, the box is everything you need to get started.
Great for Newbies and fanatical Collectors
The adventure included, which mimics the game Mike Wheeler ran for his friends in the show, contains great advice for new Dungeon Masters. Helping guide the players along is important and the adventure includes tips and tricks to keep the action flowing when the players seem at a loss.
The rules are explained in an easy to grasp gradual way, introducing mechanics as the game progresses.
I was excited to get my copy, as a collector of all things D&D I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. However, the Demogorgon miniature left me a little disappointed.
Modelled on the Demogorgon from the show and not the fantasy Demon Prince from D&D’s established lore, the miniature was quite small and poorly painted, granted the also give you an unpainted one, as a way into the painting side of the hobby.
I would have loved a pewter or plastic replica of the model Mike uses in his games of D&D. But most importantly I felt the miniature was just too bit small and underwhelming.
This is a rather minor gripe in a well thought out starter box, but something about the Lord of the Abyss as a medium-sized monster just sat wrong with me.
The Hunt for the Thessalhydra
Mike’s adventure, titled Hunt for the Thessalhydra, is simple yet deals with complex D&D terms. It’s very clearly written to emulate the boy’s lives, including their new friend Eleven. But the enemies Demogorgon and Thessalhydra are massively iconic and powerful enemies in Dungeons & Dragons.
They give the adventure brand recognition for anyone coming to D&D from watching the show, and that’s about it. The puzzles and traps are all very simple, again mimicking a 12-year-old boys idea of a challenging and entertaining adventure.
I remember fondly, and also cringe when I think back to my previous adventures as a young lad.
Hunt for the Thessalhydra captures the invincibility of youth and creativity of a curious mind quite well. The only real problem is just as you’re really getting into it, it’s over.
Lasting at most two sessions, probably just one long session. I believe the Stranger Things D&D starter box does a great job of introducing new players to the concept of Dungeons & Dragons.
However, I’m a firm believer that the Lost Mines of Phandelver mini-campaign in the original starter box for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons gives players a better experience.
Thanks to Mike Mearls for his time.
A copy of the Stranger Things Dungeons and Dragons set was provided to PowerUp! by Wizards of the Coast.