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.

 

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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
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 saw tragedy on the character of Eleven (she either died or vanished, the second time maybe even for good), 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 vanish or die 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 especially 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. 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: 15
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. His jealousy over Eleven in season one was forgivable. His treatment of Mike in season two less so.

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
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
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
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 any of these twice per week. (In Stranger Things Eleven used this power twice, first on Sunday, November 6, when she opened the gate to the Upside Down, and then on Saturday, November 12, 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. She may do this once per day. 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. Needless to say, if a gate remains open, any banished creature(s) could well come back. (Which is why in Stranger Things Eleven used her ability to close the gate on top of banishing the Demogorgon.)

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

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

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

And after this list, see the more detailed 20 Best Scenes in Stranger Things.


Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary 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 end of this episode is the best scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to think it’s a fake, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a rare piece of genius scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful 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 powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly 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 and child abductions. 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 pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. 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 my fourth favorite of the series (if you need to know my second and third, they would be the twin-climaxes of the finale, in which Mike’s promise to make El his girlfriend is thwarted as she sacrifices herself, while in the Upside Down Will is finally rescued and barely resuscitated). 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.

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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 would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn 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 them 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.

Image result for the weirdo on maple street
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.) 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 worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.


Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The road-chase prologue is the best part: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike telling El how nice it is that she’s back home, 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. The rest of the episode is somewhat underwhelming, centering 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 still very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.

The Evolution of Demogorgon

Stranger Things made me relive the horrors of Demogorgon in my D&D days. The Prince of Demons is described thus:

“Demogorgon is 18 feet tall and has two heads, which bear the visages of evil baboons or mandrills. His two necks resemble snakes. He is insanely powerful: (1) He can hypnotize up to 100 creatures with his gaze with less than 15 hit dice with no saving throw. (2) The left head has the power of a rod of beguiling. (3) The right head can cause insanity, which lasts 10-60 minutes. (4) He has a forked tail that drains 1-4 levels of the people it hits. (5) If he hits you with his arm tentacles, a limb on your body will rot off in 6 rounds, which permanently removes 35% of your hit points. (6) He’s got every psionic power, 95% magic resistance and plenty of spell-like abilities.”

The Demogorgon I know is represented by the lame sketch of the first image below. While I’m an old-fashioned curmudgeon who lives and dies by 1st-edition rules — the classic D&D of the 70s and early 80s played by our young heroes in Stranger Things — I will admit that some of the artwork from the early Monster Manual was primitive and silly. Later imaginations did justice to what the most terrifying demon lord should look like. Here are the best representations I could find. My favorites are the 2009 versions.

1978: Monster Manual (1e)

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1987: Dungeon Magazine (issue #120)

 

2007: Dragon Magazine (issue #357)

 

2009: Monster Manual II (4e)

 

2009: The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos (4e)

 

2015: “Out of the Abyss” adventure module (5e)

 

Deviant Art