The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)

Conclusion

As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

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The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.

Aboleth

The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.

Cone of Cold vs. Fireball

D&D players often wonder why cone of cold is a fifth level spell, while fireball is third level, when they do equivalent damage over multiple targets. The main advantage of cone of cold is that it’s completely safe to use. A fireball will explode and fill an area, and in a closed room that can just as easily kill you and your friends. If the room is smaller than the area of the fireball, you’ll get fried by the blowback. This is also true of the third level lighting bolt spell — there’s rebound potential if you judge the distance wrong. There are no rebound concerns at all with a cone of cold. It’s a ray of frost that can be shot at someone only 10 feet away, and with a wall behind the target, with no chance of damage being inflicted on the spellcaster.

Also with a cone of cold, you don’t have to worry too much about collateral damage. It’s far less likely than a fireball to destroy things. The saving throw vs. fireball for most items is extremely hard to make (17 for ivory, 18 for jewelry, 25 for scrolls, etc.), which means most items and valuables will be destroyed. Those same saving throws vs. frost tend to be ridiculously low (1 for jewelry, 2 for scrolls, 2 for ivory, etc.). Magic potions are really the only things you have to worry about (which need a 12 to save vs. the 15 for fireball).

Even outdoors there are advantages to using cold. Fireballs and lightning bolts can easily start forest fires, and burn down houses. Sometimes that might be desired, of course, but in most cases probably not.

Basically, cone of cold is a safe spell to use, and I suspect that’s why Gary Gygax made it higher level than fireball, even though the spells are equivalent in terms of the damage they inflict on their targets.

 

An Alternate View of the Kids’ D&D Classes

Yesterday I imagined the Stranger Things kids as D&D characters. I found a different take by Bob Al-Greene from last year. Our only point of agreement is Lucas.

According to Al-Greene:

  • Mike = paladin. The idea apparently being that as the group leader, he’s like a knight who acts in the cause of order and good. I got more creative with Finn, giving him a split personality. Unable to cope with Eleven’s sacrifices, he acquired a neutral evil alignment alongside his lawful good one. I made Finn a dual class wizard/ninja.
  • Lucas = ranger. Check. The hunter who uses wilderness skills to hunt down enemies is exactly what Lucas channeled when he split from the group and tried to find the gate on his own. I knew without thinking to make Caleb a ranger.
  • Dustin = bard. This is admittedly a good call. Dustin has a way with words and diplomacy, and uses those skills to keep the group united in the face of discord. But I’ve never had any use for the bard as a class, so I made Gaten a warrior.
  • Will = rogue. He was good at hiding in the Upside Down, which saved him, unlike Barb who was killed. I think that’s a rather superficial reason to make Will a rogue. Given everything he’s survived through the Upside Down — captivity and possession — I see him as rising from the ash anew, and so I made Noah a cleric.
  • Eleven = sorcerer. The idea being that she can use powers innately without needing to study. That makes sense, but I made Millie a wizard anyway, since I’ve always considered the sorcerer class to be redundant. Besides, I preserved her telekinetic and extra-planar powers as innate psionic abilities.

So basically my take on Mike and Will inverts that of Al-Greene. In my imagination, by the end of season 2, Finn/Mike has become the more roguish figure, and Noah/Will the more clerical. Our other differences are minor — except for the fact that Al-Greene gave the kids invincibly high levels.

The Stranger Things Kids as D&D Characters

Imagine the Stranger Things kids as a blend of their real-world personalities and their fictional ones on TV, and that they somehow became high-level D&D characters. That’s what this exercise is about.

It’s fun to watch interviews with these kids and see how different they are from their TV characters. It got me thinking. D&D is about playing the role of a character you are not. I’ve played many roles in my time, good and evil characters of almost any class and race. But I’ve never played a kid, let alone a kid juggling two personas. I ran with this idea. Namely, that the Stranger Things actors have found a way to a D&D world in which they suddenly have the abilities and talents of high-level characters. They’ve also acquired the memories and personas of the characters they play on TV, which blur with their real memories and personas. So for example, Noah “remembers” being trapped in the Upside Down, and later possessed, though that never happened to him. Finn is in love with Millie, because Mike loved Eleven. He remembers Eleven vanishing/dying, and so thinks of Millie as someone who is both dead and alive. Their identities overlap to the extent they call each other by their fictional names as often as their real ones — like they’re in a David Lynch film. Role-playing these kids should be challenging and a bit surreal.

Here’s how I imagine the kids. In a future post I will outline an adventure scenario suited to their high levels. (Hint: it will combine two of my six prize modules.)

1. Finn

Sex: Male
Age: 14 (as of Halloween, 2017)
Class: Wizard/Ninja
Level: 9/11
Hit Points: 51
Armor Class:
# Attacks/Round: 1 (2 as ninja)
Alignment: Lawful Good/Neutral Evil
Str 9 Int 16 Wis 12 Dex 17 Con 13 Cha 15

Finn is the soul of the group and its nominal leader. He hides a deadly secret: an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder. The end of both seasons in Stranger Things robbed Mike of Eleven (first she died/vanished, then she had to go into hiding again, right after revealing herself after a year’s absence), which was more than Mike Wheeler could handle. It gave Mike a split personality, causing him to alternate between a slightly depressed version of the Mike known by his friends, and a psychopathic murderer of bullies, scientists, and police officers. So Finn has acquired not only Mike’s persona (the lawful good one), but also Mike’s secret alternate persona (a neutral evil one). Most of the time he is in the former, but during times of stress (like D&D campaigns), he has a 20% per hour of sliding into the latter for 1-6 turns. No one is aware of Finn’s alternate evil ninja persona. They believe he is a dual class wizard/thief. While he uses his “thief” ninja abilities at will, he uses his “pure” ninja abilities (and his two attacks/round) only when in the evil persona and his friends can’t see his actions. All they witness in the evil persona are what appear to be mood swings: he speaks even less, and seems to mistrust everyone, no longer showing any signs of depression but rather hyper-alert.

He retains the group’s respect despite the toll of his depression and mood swings. He is in love with Millie, but afraid of being intimate with her for fear that she will either die or vanish on him “again”. In his more ineffectual moments, Millie will essentially take over by telling him what to do, becoming the group’s effective leader by proxy. Gaten mistrusts this, while Caleb is almost ready for a Millie takeover. Noah is completely devoted to Finn (he’s in love with him, on which see below), accepts his word even if it’s by Millie’s counsel, and would rebel only potentially if Finn’s evil side were to become clear.

Finn’s homicidal urges come from Mike Wheeler’s traumas. He hates bullies, thanks to Troy in season one and Billy in season two. He despises scientists for the way Eleven was abused as a lab rat. And he loathes police officers for the treacheries, as he sees them, of Sheriff Hopper, who in season one gave up Eleven’s location at the school (so that Hopper and Joyce could rescue Will), and then did even worse in season two by keeping Eleven away from him. At the sight of any bully, scientist/alchemist/etc., or police official, he has an 70% chance of flipping to his evil side and staying in there until he assassinates (or tries to assassinate) the offender. If either Millie or Noah are threatened by anyone (beyond taking damage in standard combat scenarios), he has an 85% of going homicidal against the offender. If either Millie or Noah are killed, it’s a 100% guarantee. Going homicidal to protect Millie or Noah would not likely be taken as evidence that Finn has an evil side. But murdering pathetic bullies, innocent scientists or police officers — or demonstrating any overt ninja abilities — would obviously be a tip off that something is wrong, which is why Finn has to be circumspect in how he enacts on the urges of his evil personality.

Items of note

Sword of sharpness — short sword +3, on an unmodified roll of 17+ (or the required “to hit” roll, if it’s higher), the sword severs an arm or leg
Leather armor +3
Bag of holding
Crossbow, 24 bolts

Items kept secret

Shurikens — when used as an assassination weapon, increases kill likelihood by 10%
Telescoping pole (for pole vaulting)
Disguise kit

Magic Items:

Ninja Abilities

Open abilities (standard thief) — pick pockets (98%), open locks (82%), find/remove traps (80%), move silently (96%), hide in shadows (80%), climb walls (95%)
Secret abilities (exclusive to ninjas or assassins) — disguise (60%), tightrope walk (80%), pole vault (13.5′), fall (50′), escape (60%), backstab (x4), assassinate*

* Assassination: when a surprise hit is scored, Finn has a 99% of instantly killing a 0-3rd level target. His chance is 90% against a 4-5th level target, 80% against a 6-7th level target, 65% against an 8-9th level target, 50% against a 10-11th level target, 40% against a 12-13th level target, 30% against a 14-15th level target, 15% against a 16-17th level target, 5% against an 18th level or higher target. If he uses a shuriken (ninja star) as his weapon of choice, the chance increases by 10% (but can never be higher than 99%).

Wizard spells

First level — hold portal, identify, magic missile, obscuring mist, sleep, unseen servant
Second level — dark vision, darkness, ESP, invisibility, mirror image, web
Third level — dispel magic, fireball (x2), stinking cloud, vampiric touch
Fourth level — nightmare, phantasmal killer, remove curse, shout
Fifth level — cone of cold (x2), passwall

2. Caleb

Sex: Male
Age: 16 (as of Halloween, 2017)
Class: Ranger
Level: 10
Armor Class: 1
# Attacks/Round: 1.5 (3 every 2 rounds)
Hit Points: 82
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 11 (19) Int 15 Wis 14 Dex 15 Con 14 Cha 13

If not for the intrusion of Lucas’s persona, Caleb would be the group’s ideal leader. He’s gracious to a fault, understanding of people’s shortcomings, knows how to make people work together, and has the steel to make hard decisions. That caliber has been diminished somewhat by Lucas’s impatience and judgmental streak.

The strained relationship between Caleb and Finn owes as much to one as the other, and the sort of thing that happens between best friends (which is what Mike and Lucas are). Caleb is unsympathetic to Finn and all but fed up with him, wishing he would stop being a pussy and get his shit together, while Finn has been downright nasty in his retaliations, going so far as to “bench” Caleb on one occasion at the most critical point during a campaign. (An incident which took all of Gaten’s reconciliation skills to smooth over.)

Caleb’s favored weapon is his Sword of the Bear, which twice per day allows him to run on level ground or uphill at twice his normal running speed for 20 rounds. It also allows him to roar as the fourth level wizard shout spell — an ear-splitting bear-like roar that deafens and damages creatures in its path. Any creature within a 30-foot range is deafened for 2-12 rounds and takes 5-30 hit points of sonic damage. (A successful save negates the deafness and reduces the damage by half.) Any exposed brittle or crystalline object or crystalline creature takes double the amount of sonic damage. A close second favorite weapon of choice is his Slingshot of Hyper-Inertia, which causes ammunition to do more damage the further it fires, up to a 40-foot mark.

Items of Note

Sword of the Bear — +2; allows running on level ground or uphill at twice normal speed for 20 rounds (twice/day); wielder may roar as a shout spell (twice/day)
Slingshot of Hyper-Inertia — range 40 feet, 1d6 damage at 10′ range, double at 20′, triple at 30′, and quadruple at 40′
Leather armor of underwater action — +3, confers the abilities to breathe in water and see in water (five times what normal light conditions in water allow)
Gauntlets of Ogre Power — confer a strength of 19
Rope of Climbing (120 feet)
Shield +2
Bag of holding

Tracking Abilities

Underground or Inside

  • target goes along normal passage or room — 65%
  • target passes through normal door or uses stairs  — 55%
  • target goes through a trap door  — 45%

Outside: base 90% chance to follow a creature, modified as follows:

  • for each creature above 1 in the party being tracked    +02%
  • for every 24 hours which have elapsed between making the track and tracking    -10%
  • for each hour of precipitation    -25%

 

3. Gaten

Sex: Male
Age: 15 (as of Halloween, 2017)
Class: Warrior
Level: 10
Hit Points: 91
Armor Class: 0 (-4 if parrying with bracers)
# Attacks/Round: 1.5 (3 every 2 rounds)
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 12 (18) Int 9 Wis 14 Dex 10 Con 13 Cha 11 (15)

Gaten’s Stranger Things persona isn’t so far from his own. Like Dustin, he’s a glue that keeps friendships together when they’re put to the test, and often the mediator between Finn and Caleb when they go at each other.

Anyone who makes fun of Gaten’s cleidocranial dysplasia (the disease which gives him a mouthful of baby teeth with gaps) invites ironic justice. He wields a Sword of Toothless Vengeance, which strikes as a +1 weapon against opponents who have already struck him once, +2 against those who have struck him twice, all the way up to +5. With each increase, there is a cumulative 10% chance (up to 50%) that the opponent’s teeth will fall out. In the case of creatures who attack by biting, that renders their bite attack harmless. Alternatively, if Gaten wants to use only the “toothless” function of the sword without causing hit point damage, he may strike with the flat of the blade and bark the command word, “Trash Mouth”. In this case, if he scores a hit, the victim’s teeth automatically fall out unless a save vs. petrification is made at -3. The sword’s command word can be used like this twice/day. None of this is to suggest seriously that Gaten will take out someone’s teeth for simply making fun of him — he is lawful good after all.

His Ring of Disease Management, on the other hand, has a mind of its own. The ring benefits a wearer who has a non-life threatening disease (like cleidocranial dysplasia), conferring a +4 morale bonus and charisma bonus on the wearer while the ring is worn. Anyone who bullies or makes fun of the wearer’s disease triggers a reaction in the wearer that the ring recognizes, and it lashes out at the offending bully with an orange ray of light. The ray automatically strikes, and the bully must save vs. spells or be inflicted by a random non-life threatening disease as follows:

(1) cleidocranial dysplasia
(2) psoriasis (scaly patches of skin grow all over the body)
(3) tourette syndrome (suffers rapid facial tics, and uncontrollable swearing)
(4) long tongue (tongue elongates to twice the normal length, hanging out the mouth)
(5) warts and hives (tortuous and rupturing growths break out on the nose, cheeks, arms, and legs)
(6) apert syndrome (skull and face distortion; webbed hands and feet)

The victim also suffers a -6 charisma penalty from the disease. Gaten has no control over this function of the ring, so woe to any bullies who can’t control their mouths. The ring also allows Gaten to lay hands on a subject who suffers naturally from a non-life threatening disease, and bestow a permanent +4 morale and charisma bonus to him or her. If the wearer of the ring is cured of his own disease, then the ring becomes powerless to him. For example, Noah could easily cure Gaten’s dysplasia with his cleric spell. Gaten has no wish to be cured of his disease at the present time. He does outreach on his home world to motivate diseased kids and make them feel good about themselves, and the success of that outreach depends on being a role model by example.

Items of note

Sword of Toothless Vengeance — long sword +1 against opponents who have struck the wielder once, +2 against opponents who have struck the wielder a twice… up to +5; chance that opponents’ teeth will fall out (see more above)
Bracers of strength — confers strength of 18, can parry blows for a +4 armor class bonus (cannot attack while parrying this way)
Ring of Disease Management — +4 morale and charisma bonus, plus special (see above)
Bag of holding
Platemail & shield +2

4. Noah

Sex: Male
Age: 13 (as of Halloween, 2017)
Class: Cleric
Level: 9
Hit Points: 45
Armor Class: -1
# Attacks/Round: 1
Alignment: Lawful Good
Str 7 Int 15 Wis 17 Dex 16 Con 9 Cha 14

The youngest of the four boys is the wisest by far. Some of that wisdom was forged in the fires of the Upside Down: Will Byers barely survived captivity in season one and possession in season two; he stepped out of hell wise beyond his years. But Noah is smart and discerning even apart from the supplement of Will. He’s genuinely nice, sees the good in people, without a trace of naivete. Modest but not falsely so. Will’s trials have also yielded certain benefits. For one, he’s completely immune to fear effects cast by 9th level spell users or lower, and to fear that naturally emanates from creatures (like undead, demons, dragons, etc.) under 9 HD. This is because of the pulverizing horrors Will endured in the Upside Down and then as a possessed victim, after which most horrors are trivial. Second, he gets +3 bonuses against threats and creatures from either the shadow realm or the lower planes — combat bonuses to hit and damage, as well as saving throw bonuses.

Noah is in love with Finn, but this doesn’t come from Will. The fan theory that Will Byers is gay is baseless. Noah himself is gay, or at least bisexual, and he has made overtures to Finn which have been spurned in the kindest way Finn could manage. But if Finn cannot return Noah’s affections, he is extremely protective of Noah, and has a good chance of going homicidal against anyone who threatens him (see details of Finn’s alternate evil persona above). Noah will accept Finn’s word and decisions as law, unless perhaps he were to become aware of Finn’s evil side. Even then he would stand by him as much as possible. Noah’s view of evil is considerably mature for his age; he believes that some of the greatest good in the world comes by those able to overcome their own evil, or by those (like Will Byers) who survive violating assaults of evil at their worst. On his home world, he loves horror films, especially the hard-core classics with nihilistic endings.

Choosing a deity to worship was a tough call involving plenty of research on Noah’s part. He finally decided on Donblas the Justice Maker from the Melnibonean pantheon (see 1st edition of Deities & Demigods, p 88). Donblas is the only major god in this pantheon aligned with forces of law and good. He was driven off the Melnibonean world by the gods of chaos and evil, and waits in exile (in the Seven Heavens) to be summoned back and deal justice to that turbulent world. Noah is fascinated by this world and the stories of Elric, who is a complicated hero. Elric fought the forces of Chaos as an agent of Chaos himself; he had to destroy his world, and himself, so that humanity could start over; that’s how badly the Melniboneans had fallen. On some level, Noah sees a bit of Elric going on in Finn. Even if he’s not aware of Finn’s evil side, he does sense something subterranean in him that he believes (hopes) will out for the better.

Items of note

Flail +2, +4 against devils
Platemail +2
4 Healing potions
Bag of holding

Cleric spells

First level — cure light wounds (x3), endure elements, remove fear, sanctuary
Second level — cure moderate wounds (x2), find traps & secret doors, hold person, remove paralysis, silence
Third level — create food and water, cure disease, remove curse, searing light, speak with dead
Fourth level — death ward, detect lies, exorcise, neutralize poison
Fifth level — break enchantment, plane shift, raise dead

Turning Undead

Times/day — 3
Range — 60 feet
Turning Damage — 2d6+9 HD turned/destroyed (undead 4 HD and under are destroyed instead of turned)
Duration — 1-6 turns (for those turned); permanent (for those destroyed)

5. Millie

Sex: Female
Age: 13 (as of Halloween, 2017)
Class: Wizard
Level: 12
Hit Points: 36
Armor Class: -2
# Attacks/Round: 1
Alignment: Neutral Good
Str 6 Int 13 Wis 15 Dex 14 Con 11 Cha 12

Eleven’s quietude has done wonders for Millie’s irrepressible spirit. The introvert balances the extrovert; the traumatized lab-rat qualifies the self-assured girl of privilege. The result is a girl of remarkable duality and focus. Millie has Eleven’s uncanny stare, and conveys as much in her silences as in speech, while retaining her natural born confidence in whatever purposes drive her. She’s the same age as Noah and one of his closest friends. She has mixed feelings for Finn, on the one hand liking him as a good friend, on other occasions feeling the pull of Eleven’s more serious feelings for Mike.

Like her television counterpart, Millie is the most powerful of the five kids. Even the boys’ high level D&D abilities can’t compete with her psionic powers. Of course, she pays for overusing those powers as follows:

  • Whenever Millie performs a telekinetic or extra-planar power, she gets a mild nosebleed. She must save vs. paralysis or become fatigued. The save is made at +2. If she uses another telekinetic or extra-planar power within the next two hours, the save is normal. If she uses another power within two hours from the most recent power, the save is at -2. Etc.
  • When she is fatigued, she can’t run and takes a –3 penalty to strength and dexterity, has a 50% of botching a spell casting, and needs 3-12 (d10+2) turns of rest to recover (i.e. a half hour to two hours). If she performs another telekinetic or extra-planar power while fatigued, she does so normally, but must save at -2 or become exhausted.
  • When she is exhausted, she moves at half speed and takes a –6 penalty to strength and dexterity, cannot cast spells or work her special abilities at all, and needs an hour of complete rest to get out of the exhausted state into a fatigued state.

Telekinetic powers

Millie can move objects or creatures by concentrating on them. This ability is psionic, not magical, which means that she can perform telekinesis even on outer planes (like the Inferno and the Abyss) where fly spells and magical telekinesis don’t work (unless used by devils and demons native to the plane). She can use telekinesis in three ways: (1) sustained force, (2) violent thrust, or (3) combat maneuver.

(1) Sustained Force:  This moves a creature or object weighing up to 10,000 pounds up to 20 feet per round. An unwilling creature can resist being moved with a saving throw vs. paralysis. The weight can be moved vertically, horizontally, or in both directions. The object or creature cannot be moved beyond 1000 feet. The effect ends if the object is forced beyond the range or if Millie ceases concentration for any reason. An object can be telekinetically manipulated as if with a hand. For example, a lever or rope can be pulled, a key can be turned, an object rotated, and so on, if the force required is within the weight limitation. So Millie can do things like untie simple knots, though more complicated activities might require an intelligence check. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven’s flipping of the van, which easily weighed more than 5000 pounds; and her rescue of Mike from the cliff fall.)

(2) Violent Thrust:  This expends telekinetic energy in a single round, by hurling a creature, a large object, or as many as 20 small objects in a 50 foot radius toward any target within 100 feet. A creature can resist being hurled with a saving throw vs. paralysis. A creature hurled against a solid surface takes damage as if it had fallen 10 feet (1d6 points) and is stunned for 1-4 rounds. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven hurling Lucas away from Mike when they were fighting over her; and hurling Mike away from her when he tried to stop her from sacrificing herself against the Demogorgon.) Objects hurled cause damage ranging from 1 point per 25 pounds (for less dangerous small objects) to 1d6 points of damage per 25 pounds (for hard, dense small objects) to as much as 2d20 points of damage (for a hard large object). (An example of an object hurled in Stranger Things is Millie’s ferocious slamming of Mike’s bedroom door when Lucas threatens to reveal Eleven to their parents. No damage done there, but that qualifies as a violent thrust of a large object.)

(3) Combat Maneuver:  This allows Millie to telekinetically engage an opponent, whether by disarming, grappling, holding, or tripping the person, causing his or her body to lose control in some way, breaking an arm or leg, or even killing the individual by snapping the neck, caving the head in, etc. The opponent must be within a 50 foot radius, and gets a saving throw vs. paralysis. (Examples from Stranger Things include Eleven’s paralyzing Troy and making him piss his pants in the school gym, and then later breaking his arm at the quarry. And being trained in the lab to crush things, like the head of a cat and objects like a coke can.) Millie can engage multiple opponents at once (no limit, as long as the opponents are all in range), but for every person above 1 she stands a cumulative 10% chance of passing out for 1-6 turns after using her power. So ten opponents or more would make her unconsciousness automatic. (The example from Stranger Things is when Eleven killed the eight Hawkins goons — four in front of her, and four behind — by caving in their eyes and bursting their brains out.)

Extra-Planar Powers

Millie is attuned to both the Shadow Plane (the Upside Down) and the Outer Planes, and she can interact with those planes in three ways: by (1) dream visions, (2) planar windows, or (3) gates. As with telekinesis, these are innate psionic abilities and not magical spells.

(1) Dream Vision:  Millie can send a soothing vision to a mortal who is in the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane (even if she is on a different plane, like the prime material). The dream conveys a general message (for example, “we’re coming to get you”, “we have succeeded at our end”), enhances the person’s restful sleep and heals 1-10 points of damage, leaving the person refreshed and with a +2 to all saving throws for the next day. If someone casts dispel good on the recipient while Millie is sending the dream, then the dream is thwarted and Millie receives a forceful blowback on her end and is stunned for 10 minutes per level of the caster of the dispel good. If the recipient is awake when the spell begins, Millie can enter a trance until the recipient goes to sleep, whereupon she becomes alert again when he or she goes to sleep. When Millie enters a trance she is not aware of her surroundings or the activities of others. Needless to say, creatures who don’t sleep or dream (like elves) cannot receive a dream vision.

In order to perform a dream vision, it helps if Millie is immersed in either a sensory deprivation tank (filled with salt water), and also if she knows the subject or has some sort of physical connection to the subject.

Sensory deprivation tank or tub — Base chance 70%
Without sensory deprivation tank or tub — Base chance 30%

Knowledge modifiers:

No knowledge of subject: -20%
Secondhand (she has heard of the subject): +/- 0%
Firsthand (she has met the subject): +10%
Familiar (she knows the subject well): +20%

Connection modifiers:

Likeness or picture: +10%
Possession or garment: +20%
Body part, lock of hair, bit of nail, etc. +40%

Millie’s chance of sending a dream vision can be a low as 0% and as high as 100%. (The example from Stranger Things is when she used the bathtub to reach out and comfort Will in the Upside Down.)

(2) Planar window:  Millie can communicate, and allow others to communicate, with a mortal who is in the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane. She does this by causing a translucent window to appear in any hard fixture, like a wall or table, which must have a surface area of at least 2 feet by 2 feet, and a thickness of at least 2 inches. Eleven was able to do this at a long distance for Joyce, but that was with the advantage of radio waves. In the D&D world, Millie must open the window within a 50-foot range of her. Her base chance of success is 30%, with the same knowledge modifiers and connection modifiers for the dream vision ability (see above). If successful, a blurry image of the subject appears in the window, and can be vaguely heard. Millie and anyone with her may then communicate with the subject, but they must yell in order to be heard clearly by the subject, who must yell in return. The window stays open for 5-10 minutes (d6+4). (The example in Stranger Things is when Joyce and Will yelled to each other through the planar window in Joyce’s living room wall.)

(3) Gate:  Millie can open a gate from the Prime Material Plane to either the Shadow Plane or to an Outer Plane. Conversely, if she is on the Shadow Plane or an Outer Plane, she may open a gate to the Prime Material. Alternatively, she can use her power to close an already existing gate instead of opening a new one. She can do either of these once per week. (In Stranger Things Eleven used this power once each season, first on Sunday, November 6, 1983, when she opened the gate to the Upside Down, and then on Monday, November 5, 1984, when she closed the gate.)

Opening a gate creates an inter-dimensional connection between the two planes, allowing travel between those them in either direction. It’s usually circular in shape from 5 to 20 feet in diameter, and appears at a fixed point within 100 yards of Millie when she creates it. It functions as a plane shift spell, except that the gate opens at specific points on each plane. Unlike the ninth level wizard spell gate, which lasts 1 round/level of the spellcaster, the gates that Millie opens are permanent until closed.

Also unlike the wizard spell, Millie does not have the ability to summon creatures through the gate. Instead, she has the opposite ability — to banish a creature back to its shadow or outer plane. She essentially uses her telekinetic power to “push” the creature back home. (In Stranger Things this happened when Eleven banished the Demogorgon at the very end.) Millie can banish a creature or creatures whose collective hit dice total 24 or under. If they fail a save vs. petrification, they are whisked away to their home plane, and if they fail by more than 4 on the d20, they are disintegrated (a roll of 1 means automatic disintegration). She may do this once per week. However, the telekinetic force required for an extra-planar banishment is so great that it has a 60% of sucking her into it and whisking her away too.

Items of note

Ring of armor class 0
Wand of magic missiles (42 charges) — shoots up to four missiles/round for 2-7 damage each
Bag of holding

Wizard spells

First level — color spray, comprehend languages, identify (x2), read magic
Second level — dark vision, detect invisibility, ESP, locate object, resist cold or fire
Third level — dispel magic (x2), lightning bolt, non-detection, tongues
Fourth level — illusory wall, locate creature, rainbow pattern, scrying
Fifth level — dominate person, fabricate, sending, wall of force
Sixth level — disintegrate, true seeing, veil

How D&D modules might look in the future

tombThe novel Ready Player One takes place in the year 2044, where virtual reality videogames are the everyday escape from global misery. Earth has become poverty-stricken, with a 1% billionaire class lording it over the rest of humanity, and the OASIS is the globally networked virtual reality where kids attend school online, people hook up in chat rooms, and everyone who is someone is a gamer. The OASIS basically allows people to live exciting lives as powerful avatars in another universe.

By this point in the world’s history tabletop RPGs are a thing of the past, and the main character has difficulty grasping how they even worked. Here’s how he reacts when browsing through the classic 1978 D&D module Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Horrors was a think booklet called a “module”. It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.

As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind.

One the one hand, I look forward to virtual reality becoming more real-life (the day perhaps is not far off), but frankly, no matter how sophisticated, video reality will never hold a candle to old-fashioned tabletop RPG play. It may be more labor intensive and demand shitloads of prep work and brain power, but that’s the point: nothing beats the power of human imagination.

The Episodes of Stranger Things Ranked

After this list, check out the season 2 rankings.


Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: tense and emotional, with the right payoff and surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself and devastating poor Mike. Aside from Mizumono (the second season finale of Hannibal), this is the best finale to any TV show I’ve seen.

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Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The final act of this episode is a piece of cinematic art, and my favorite scene of the season. Hopper and the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river, and they have no reason to think it’s a fake. Mike’s reaction is heart-rending, as he accuses El and runs home enraged. And the scoring of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” is genius. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara killed in the shadow realm; the scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s breakthrough with Will, as she communicates with her son through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get out of the house as the Demogorgon bursts out of the living room wall.


Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode everywhere, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s not the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives (like Terry Ives) and child abductions (Jane = Eleven). Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are hard-hitting (I thought Jonathan was going to beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue isn’t as predictable as you’d think it would be. Her reconciliation with Mike is sublime.

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Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is precious. The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early ’80s. It establishes their acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; the hilarious Dustin ruled by his appetites; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away. Eleven’s encounter with Benny Hammond is a perfect introduction of her character. In the short space of his screen time I really loved the guy and was pissed at the goons who shot him.

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Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the boys dressing up El and Mike becoming increasingly smitten by her; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last is one of my favorite scenes of the series, and it gave me a nightmare.

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Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 ½ stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between him and Mike before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

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Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene is their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) Another great scene is El’s flipping the game board as she tries to convey the concept of the Upside Down. The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the way of teens. But it’s precisely for this reason that their story arcs pay off so well in the later episodes.


Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The prologue is the best part, and could stand its own as a short film: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike almost making a move on El, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike in the junkyard. The rest of the episode is also good, though somewhat underwhelming, as it centers around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). I think it’s the way the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend themselves. Here they are just gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.