On Stranger Harmon Quest Things

Stranger Things, right? It's a show on Netflix that's all about the 80's and D&D! I've got to write about it?

Well, no, I don't have to write about it and that's kind of the point.

There's the meta-level where I actually am writing about it right now in this blog post, but I'm not really. And we are just going to ignore any arguments to the contrary, that leads us to surreal territory pretty quickly.

Dungeons and Dragons is indeed part of Stranger Things. It's part of stranger things in the same way bicycles, corded telephones, and Christmas lights are. It's just a part of the setting, not more or less notable for its inclusion. Ham radios take a similar precedence and importance to the plot.

It isn't notable, because Dungeons and Dragons isn't notable. It's just a thing that people do. It comes up on network television as frequently as, say, crossfit might.

Now, of course, the Duffer brothers are obviously fans of Dungeons & Dragons, being that it comes up in about half the episodes of the series. So that's nice. The series itself is ok. I mean I enjoyed watching it, because I'm the target audience. It's shot in the old way, no quick jump cuts or handicams. It hearkens back to my childhood; both in the freedom we had to play and travel outside and the types of bonds and activities we did with friends.

This is the value in a company who doesn't have the sole motive of maximizing profit. The show is not made to appeal to the broadest audience. Most of their shows aren't. Creators are given the freedom to have shows appeal strongly to their target audience instead of trying to water it down to appeal to the most number of people possible. I mean, I have no interest in Fuller House or whatever crazy Adam Sandler vehicle Netflix gives people money to produce. But for some people, it's exactly what they want.

An environment where creatives are free to create what they want for the target audience they want is, you know, a good secondary motive for a corporation. I wondered if I was just imagining this secondary motive, but it turns out, I'm not. Netflix offers unlimited leave for parents in the first year after birth, unlimited vacation for salaried employees, they don't have yearly performance reviews and they don't need approval for the use of their expense accounts. They say they hire only "Fully Formed Adults". It shows.

Turns out, most people I ask have a Netflix account. Weird how that works.

It's in stark contrast to the health company I work for. In 2014, they profited after all expenses (payroll, expansion, interest, leave, etc.) net 5 billion dollars. That's 5,000,000,000$. Great right? Except for a non-trivial number of employees are below the poverty line. Guess who pays for that? People who actually pay taxes.

This isn't political, but it's clearly completely shitty of a company to increase profit by exploiting taxpayers who don't work for them by shortfall. To be clear, they could raise the pay of every single employee by 8$ an hour all year long, from the custodial staff, to the kitchen staff, to the doctors and nurses, and still have 4 billion dollars left. But better that those that are paid below a living wage make that up with public aid to further increase the profit.

I mean, we could end the public aid and just let those people working 40 hours a week with families go hungry or get evicted maybe? Some of these are licensed and educated personal in positions that require a license and education, so this isn't lowest common denominator unskilled labor. These are skilled, trained, specialized employees.

And we pay better than the competition!

You'll have to forgive me, I've been thinking about Shadowrun a lot lately. That's a game about a corporate dystopia. The fact is we aren't in one. Everyone I work with does have health insurance. Everyone I work with does make ends meet with the aid of social programs like the ACA and Food Stamps and Earned Work Credit. Things across the world are good and getting better all the time, in spite of news designed to inflame us to the worst possibilities.

Not so in Stranger Things. It is one of those worlds of shadowy government agents and mystical powers.  (Spoilers follow).

Here are the things I thought about Stranger Things:

  • The soundtrack and Synth was an excellent choice. As was the title font, community, and casting choices. I watched for maybe 10 minutes before I figured out that it was Wynona Rider. And being my age, that is to say her age, I'm very familiar with her.
  • They named the girl child "God". Eleven shortened to El, with El being theSemtic word for Diety , I found this to be silly and too on the nose. When they did that, I snorted and got up and did dishes.
  • The teens actually do attack the Demogoron with a sword (bat with nails) and then hit it with a fireball.
  • The heel/face turn of Steve Harrington was one of the best parts of the series. It's touches like that, that move it out of the realm of schlock into something interesting and watchable.
  • I continue to enjoy the advancement modern television has made, where you just tell the story and don't hem and haw for umpteen hours waiting for someone to believe the main cast. It makes them feel competent. As soon as the sheriff finds the corpse he tells Joyce he believes her. As soon as Joyce finds out Lonnie is just there for the money, she kicks him out. It moves.
  • On the other hand, it needs to move, it's a 10 hour movie.
  • Upside down and its introduction and use were very cool.

It's not about Dungeons & Dragons. But it has Dungeons & Dragons in it, and that's cool.
But, even though Dungeons and Dragons now is just a thing that shows up sometimes in media, doesn't mean that there isn't media that's about Dungeons & Dragons.

Harmonquest is a show that's about Dungeons & Dragons (but can't say the word).

The firstepisode is on YouTube and you should watch it. Basically, Dan Harmon of Community and Rick and Morty fame, plays Dungeons & Dragons in front of a live studio audience and the in-world fiction is animated.

Yeah. It's good. But man, oh man, do I have a lot to say about it.

First, they are clearly playing Pathfinder. This must be the rules-lightest version of Pathfinder ever in the history of ever. I just don't understand it. Secondly, each show is apparently filmed on a different day (as evidenced by the guest stars and clothing changes), so what exactly is happening outside of the 20 minute episodes we are witnessing? Third, it is entertaining to watch entertainers play Dungeons & Dragons. It is not entertaining to watch people play Dungeons and Dragons.

I write about games and play games. That's what I do. My gaming schedule at any given time has a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 4 days in which I play tabletop role-playing games for 4-8 hours. I draw pictures for role-playing games. I write modules for role-playing games. I write role-playing games.

Unsurprisingly, I watch people play role-playing games online and it is a process involving stabbing flaming toothpicks in your eyes. Watch as the Dungeon Master spends literally four minutes looking in the rulebook while the rest of the players say nothing and act awkward. Listen to people have awkward ignorant side-conversations showing prejudice and bigotry. Gaze upon the predominantly pasty white bearded males. Claw at yourself as the "celebrity" dungeon master spends entirely too long reading boxed about the weather trying to set the mood, only to repeat it again as the players have to ask for all the relevant information because they tuned out. Scream inside your fleshy prison as freedom is taken away from the players again and again, invalidating their choices in the name of the Dungeon Master's ego.

That said, Harmonquest is entertaining because it's a group of comedians and comedic guest stars playing Dungeons & Dragons, where the good parts are animated into a cartoon.

It is it a railroad? Hell yes. At one point this is even lampshaded by Harmon, when he says "Really? We're all restrained?" and the Dungeon Master makes some comment about their low reflex save. It's pretty clear that the Big Bad Evil Guy is significantly more powerful than the players, and it Pathfinder that means something more serious then in other editions in the game. 

Does it matter that it's a railroad? Not really, because it's just a forum for comedians to be funny. And it's very funny at times. Watching the first season just left me with a lot of questions. Like, how did Dan Harmon grow up with the Dungeon Master always rolling all the dice? Why does the audience cheer every time someone deals damage? Why are they playing Pathfinder? When does season 2 come out?

Hack & Slash 


  1. Harmonquest is the spiritual successor to years worth of D&D on Harmon's podcast.

    And yeah, it's all very tough to listen to.

  2. What a lot to write about. How come you haven't written lately when you have so much to say?

  3. ^^^ I signed in with my daughter's account by accident.

  4. The DM Rolls All is also present in the D&D episodes of Community. Just who ran Dan's games?

    Fun fact — this week I also learned that it was Harmon who wrote the D&D skit at the end of Summoner.

    1. I can't speak to Harmon's childhood games, but a good portion of his adult D&D has been performed on a stage while he was blackout drunk.

  5. In defense of actual-play recordings (sort of), I just want to say that there are diamonds in the rough out there. The One Shot and How We Roll podcasts are both uniformly excellent. I flatter myself to say that my own actual-play, The Esoteric Order of Roleplayers, also breaks the mold you describe. What all these podcasts have in common are diverse groups of players of the non-jerk variety and a willingness to edit out the boring bits to some extent or another. (How We Roll takes it into almost radio drama territory; for my own, I try and keep the recordings as raw as possible, but will cut out the occasional moments of extended silence or non-game-related stuff.)

    Not for nothing, but all of the above-cited podcasts tend to truck with non-D&D-type games, as that's just my personal preference. I'm sure there must be some decent D&D podcasts out there as well. (Haven't checked out Critical Role yet, but I've heard raves from friends.)

  6. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way about the 'celebrity' DM. That hollywood voice-guy talks. too. $%&*ing. much.

  7. So, in all fairness to Harmon's DM, (a guy named Spencer) he never really set out to do this. He's a reserved, down to earth guy who doesn't really seem to be passionate about playing D&D. He just happened to be in the audience on night when Harmon said "Does anybody in the audience know how to be a Dungeon Master?"

    Spencer has often said that he's not really anything special as a DM. It's mostly his celebrity friends who proclaim him to be the greatest DM of all time, and they don't seem to have much of a basis for comparison.

    None of which is to say the show is above criticism. (Being familiar with this group's style of playing D&D, I never even bothered watching it.) But be honest: if a crazy rich guy offered you a well paying job being his Dungeon Master, would you decline simply because there are better DMs out there?

  8. The Adventure Zone is solid, but it has all the editing and jokes to make it good.

  9. I am new to this whole "railroading" understanding, with what is and isn't railroading, however, when I recently watched the first episode of HarmonQuest and while they were fighting the cultists and the DM announces "While you were battling, this giant black armour clad guy you didn't notice walks right through the battle and steals the rune you were fighting so hard to protect and then tears a hole in space that releases these very important key plot demons and then seemingly disappears into thin air." Suddenly what railroading is was VERY clear to me! :P

  10. I actually appreciated the "on the nose" El reference. In fact, I've been wondering if the reference was more about God v Satan as it was with the idea of the the "architect of the Universe" aspect common to Gnostic stories of El, Elohim, and Demiurge (usually all the same entity, but sometimes separate aspects).


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