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Stranger Things Season 3 understands the truth of trying to play D&D
There’s something in the recently released third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things that strongly, strongly resonates with some viewers. It’s not the experience of foiling secret Soviet plans, because most viewers probably haven’t done that. It’s not the experience of drinking New Coke, because not everyone remembers the ‘80s. It’s not even the broader experience of being a kid, going on adventures with your friends, and growing up.
No, it’s the experience of wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons but continuously being told that all of your friends are too busy. Season 3 of Stranger Things truly understands the D&D experience.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for Stranger Things 3.**
In the first couple episodes of Season 3, Will Byers really wants to play D&D, which makes sense. When we first meet Will in the 2016 series premiere, he’s finishing up a 10-hour campaign with Lucas and Dustin, with Mike acting as the DM. We learn that the foursome have been playing together for years, and that back in ‘79 they convinced Nancy to dress up as an elf for one of their campaigns. After Will’s abduction, D&D takes on new meaning for the boys, as they name the monster in Season 1 the Demogorgon, after a Demon in the Monster Manual, and they name the Season 2 Big Bad the Mind Flayer, after another D&D foe.
But in Season 3 Will can’t get his friends to play D&D, and it’s not because they’re busy fighting a real-life Demogorgon. Instead, Mike and Lucas are busy with their relationships, and Dustin (who claims to have a girlfriend that they can’t get in touch with) is off hanging out with Steve at the mall. Will, who appears to be maturing a little less quickly than his friends, expresses no interest in a relationship, and it’s possible he never will. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is that his friends won’t play D&D with him.
Will keeps asking his friends to play, growing increasingly passive-aggressive as Lucas and Mike keep saying no. Finally he snaps, going full role-play in an attempt to browbeat them into playing. Yet his attempt to cast a real-life version of Suggestion, a 2nd-level enchantment spell, fails.
For the most part, Will’s desire to play D&D despite his friends’ apathy is played for laughs, but it leads to some heavy scenes. Will, who was kidnapped and then possessed by a monster, wants to be a normal kid, like he was before the Upside Down came into their lives. However, his friends, who didn’t suffer the same fate, are growing up. Will doesn’t have or want a girlfriend, yet he still has to deal with Mike and Lucas’ love woes. He’s feeling left out and left behind, and it’s a pretty rough place to be.
But you don’t need to be suffering a mild identity crisis with a looming supernatural threat to feel the way Will does. In some ways, wanting to play D&D but not being able to because of your friends is the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons experience. An Ancient Red Dragon is nothing compared to the challenge of getting four or five people’s calendars to line up so everyone has a free afternoon to play D&D — especially as you get older and have more responsibilities.
Playing D&D is a fun way to hang out with friends and leave reality for a little while — you’re focusing on slaying an Owlbear or seducing an NPC, not on anything in the real world. To make that fantasy happen, though, every player needs to be on the same page and in roughly the same headspace, and that can be a little tricky.
Will’s D&D-related problems on Stranger Things are heightened, because he’s dealing with some trans-reality PTSD that no real D&D player has ever had to encounter (we hope). But even if players haven’t had to fight gore-monsters alongside their friend who has psychic powers, they might have had a friend stop playing because their personal life took understandable precedence over a campaign. Pretty much every D&D player has faced some sort of scheduling snafu.
That is okay. D&D is just a game, after all, and finding time to play games gets harder — but it's important both to find time when you can and to accept change and compromise. In Season 3, Stranger Things’ depiction of D&D grew up a little, just like the characters did.
Here’s hoping that Will gets to play more in Season 4, assuming that Hawkins doesn’t fall prey to the Demonic D&D panic that actually swept across parts of America, as teased in the closing moments of the season finale.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.