Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons have always been paired with each other. The opening minutes of the series feature four friends gathered around a table, rolling dice and arguing over what actions to take next. It ultimately became a metaphor for how the show's major characters fought through the actual supernatural happenings around them, and a key indication of the show's relationship to the fiction that inspired it. In Stranger Things 2, that relationship deepens, and it becomes a D&D fan's dream.
SPOILERS FOR ALL OF STRANGER THINGS 2 AHEAD
Stranger Things has always been intimately connected to the stories it's inspired by, from Steven Spielberg movies to sessions around the gaming table. For better or worse, it's woven into the fabric of how this show tells its tale. That could be seen as a cynical ripoff of someone else's work, but as a function of the story it's really based on how the main characters often behave as the children that they are. Children have often not experienced much of life, but they have experienced many, many stories. Whether it's a Batman cartoon or a set of G.I. Joe action figures or a Disney movie, the world of imagination is open to them long before the world of adult experience is. That means they often frame experiences in the context of the fiction they know. It's why I used to take a stick out into a field and cut the heads off of thistles while pretending I was a Jedi.
It's also why the kids of Stranger Things 2 refer to themselves often as "The Party."
"The Party" is, for those of you who don't know, a roleplaying game term meant to describe a group of adventurers as they navigate a fictional landscape. Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas are a party. They became that when they started gathering in Mike's basement to fight a fictional Demogorgon, then grew even closer when the fictional encroached on their lives and they started to fight an actual Demogorgon. Kids love stories about monsters, but they also love hearing that monsters aren't real. It creates a safety net for their make-believe worlds, whether those are in RPGs or TV shows. The kids of Stranger Things learned last season that monsters are real, so the idea of "The Party" became more than a make-believe concept. It became a support system for people who got trapped in an unbelievable situation.
If you've ever played D&D, you know that the idea of "the party" can often become a very serious experience, even when it's all just make-believe. You don't ever fight actual Demogorgons, but when you're at that table, eating snacks and rolling dice, you feel like a unit. In the most lighthearted times it can feel like you'll never make better friends than the ones you're surrounded by in that moment. In the more intense times you can feel like you've just gone into battle together. In the right setting, with the right party, that experience can feel like it's real.
For the kids of Stranger Things, that actually happened.
So, "The Party" became a real thing, as Mike lays out for Max: He's the Paladin, Will is the Cleric, Dustin is the Bard, and Lucas is the Ranger. They've actually fought monsters together, so he's comfortable in saying that, and in telling Max that it's not so easy to join them after all they've been through. In the same way, Dustin makes sure to call the creatures they're fighting "Demodogs," and to correct anyone who says otherwise. Dustin's read the Monster Manual and he knows it's important to be precise about these things, because they're actually real this time.
In the season finale -- while Hopper and Eleven head to close the Gate and Joyce, Jonathan, and Nancy try to burn the Mind Flayer (another D&D reference) out of Will -- the rest of the kids are stuck at the Byers house with Steve. They all hatch a plan to draw the Demodogs away from the lab long enough to keep Hopper and El safe. Steve, who's supposed to take care of them all, emphatically says no, emphasizing that they're all supposed to stay on the bench. Mike responds:
"This isn't a stupid sports game!"
Steve could have easily replied that it's not a stupid tabletop RPG either, but he didn't, because he understood that the monsters were real. In Stranger Things 2, a session of Dungeons & Dragons has basically come to life. It's why when Max steps up and defeats her awful stepbrother Billy, everyone starts to listen to her. She's become, in some way, the Barbarian of The Party with her guts to drive fast and her nail-covered baseball bat. Or, as she would say, she's become the "Zoomer."
Then, when everything is on the line and Steve is still protesting, Dustin lays down what might be the show's greatest message:
“A party member requires assistance and it is our duty to provide that assistance.”
That's what this show's about. It's about friendship and love and the idea that, when the monsters come, you have each other's backs. Anyone who's played a really good game of D&D knows that's true. They know that "The Party" can actually be a real thing, even if we don't live a world of Demodogs. Stranger Things is a riff on the pop culture that came before. Even if you love the show, you can't deny that. Sometimes, though, this show hits upon something that both reminds us of something we love and tells us something new.
"The Party" is perhaps the best encapsulation of that this show has produced.