Was playing D&D in the 80’s like Stranger Things?

When the pop-culture loaded Stranger Things arrived on Netflix in July of 2016 it brought with it a depiction of teenage boys enjoying the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game in the summer of 1983. Being an ‘old fart’ who has played tabletop roleplaying games himself for well over 30 years I had a few people ask me (many half my age) if what was depicted on the screen was an accurate representation of Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s.

The short answer is – Yes.


While the fashion, hairstyles, music, and technology has changed and we will never return to that period in time, the ‘feeling’ that many of us older gamers get when we watch Stranger Things has little to do with gaming in the 80’s, but simply the reminder of what it’s like to enjoy tabletop roleplaying as an adolescent.

The Stranger Things characters were 12 at the time of the first season, which is set in November of 1983. I was also about 12 when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1988, so that gives the Stranger Things kids about five years on me.

My first campaign was Basic Dungeons & Dragons, and consisted of myself, a friend from school, and my father as the Dungeon Master. It wouldn’t be until ’89 when I moved schools that I’d begin playing with friends. I can attest that the opening scene of the first episode of Stranger Things is (for me at least) quite accurate.

Dad’s map from my first ever Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

But if you’re a younger gamer, don’t for one minute think you missed out on some glorious ‘golden age’ of gaming. If you check out Ivan’s series of articles he’ll even explain to you in bullet point form why some of the earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons are worth avoiding and that those of you coming into the game with fifth edition are much better off.

The nostalgia that comes with watching Stranger Things isn’t so much the 80’s, but rather the connection to my youth. Endless summer holidays as a teenager, hanging out with friends, having sleep-overs, and spending long days and nights playing your favourite RPG.

I have vivid memories of trying to find a place for my friends and I to play. While those in America and other places in the world have access to basements, here in Australia it was typically the garage. Long sessions were had in stinking hot or freezing cold sheds amongst the spiders and the dust.

As we got older it was then a half dozen of us crammed into my three by three bedroom with all of us filling the room with cigarette smoke and farts.

Again, despite the fashion, hairstyles, music, and technology, all of these feelings and emotions can easily be replicated today. In 20 years time there will be gamers in their 30’s that look back fondly on these days and feel the same connection to a show depicting kids playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 2010’s as I feel with Stranger Things.

Stranger Things doesn’t remind us so much of playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s as it reminds us of playing Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, and the magical memories that stay with us.

If you’re in your teens and getting into tabletop roleplaying games for the first time, enjoy it, savour it, because you’ll never quite capture that experience again.

P.S. I was totally listening to the Stranger Things season one soundtrack while writing this article.

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