These days, The Big Bang Theory presents Dungeons & Dragons – one of modern Fantasy’s origins – as an innocent pastime. However, Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura reminded me recently of the media panic over the game when it had first appeared.
Back in the early 80s, playing Dungeons & Dragons was seen as a surefire ticket to madness and damnation. The game rapidly became associated with violence and teen suicide, casting a spell over the media that resulted in some strident anti-fantasy propaganda.
In the unlikely case you’ve never heard of Dungeons & Dragons, it is a tabletop role-playing game created by Gary Gygax, and first published in 1974. Taking place in a Tolkienesque world of high fantasy, it involves players assuming the roles of fictional characters and talking their way through quests, with the help of the Dungeon Master – a designated player whose imagination makes up the particulars of the world surrounding the players.
The game became an instant hit among mid-70s “indoor kids,” who were looking for a fun way to exercise their imaginations and play around in a vast, complex world of magic and mystery. Unfortunately, that same desire for escape among teenagers often goes hand-in-hand with depression and other feelings of isolation.
The disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III
The catalyzing event that started the moral panic over D&D was the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Egbert was a gifted computer programmer studying at Michigan State University, having been accepted at the age of 16. While there, he was involved with a D&D group that would sometimes do a little play in the privacy of the university’s underground steam tunnels. Egbert disappeared into the steam tunnels in August of 1979, with the intention of committing suicide by overdosing.
Egbert’s family hired enterprising private detective William Dear to find their son. During his search, Dear learned of Egbert’s D&D hobby, and made it the focus of his investigation. Egbert’s disappearance came to be blamed on a “Dungeons and Dragons game gone awry.” Dear concluded the game had driven him mad, that he lost the ability to discern reality from fiction and had gone off on some insane, delusional quest. Of course when the media got wind of this, it planted the seeds of D&D as a corruptor of youth, and maybe even worse.
As it turned out, Egbert’s participation in D&D games was not the reason for his disappearance. He had struggled with drugs and depression, which were the true culprits behind his suicide attempt. Tragically, another attempt the following year ended in his death. But even with the truth of the case settled, Dungeons & Dragons had acquired a bad reputation.
Mazes and Monsters
Dear sensationalized the Egbert case in his 1984 true crime book The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, but before even he could get there, novelist Rona Jaffe churned out the moral panic classic, Mazes and Monsters. Capitalizing on the public fear of D&D evoked by Egbert’s case, the plot of Jaffe’s novel revolved around a gaming group in which one of the players goes off the deep end, and begins hallucinating that the fantasy world is real, both scaring his friends and eventually attempting suicide.
By 1982, CBS had produced a low budget TV movie based on Mazes and Monsters featuring a young Tom Hanks as the teen who loses himself in the game.
By 1984, fantasy roleplaying had evolved from threatening the innocent minds of America’s youth to threatening their eternal salvation. Religious mini-comic author Jack Chick published a pamphlet about the issue, tying fantasy roleplaying directly to the occult. Called Dark Dungeons, the thin pamphlet tells the story of Debbie, a young woman who gets seduced by a witchcraft-practicing dungeon master who teaches her to embrace evil through the game.
Through the course of the story, Debbie uses a “mind bondage” spell on her father to get spending money and finds the body of a friend who committed suicide after losing her game character. Eventually, Debbie seeks the help of an ex-witchcraft practitioner (a Fundamentalist Christian), who casts the demons from her and invites her to a book burning. Dungeons and Dragons had always featured demons, angels, and other monsters with biblical ties, but these in-game creatures were now being seen as conduits to the “real” thing. Some had even come to believe that the gamebooks contained actual spells and curses that kids were taking part in.
Like Mazes and Monsters, Dark Dungeons was recently adapted into a short film.
The fear of fantasy roleplaying was truly legitimized in a 1985 60 Minutes broadcast in which Ed Bradley took an arguably biased look at whether or not Dungeons & Dragons was as harmful as many thought. The highlights of the story are interviews both with D&D creator Gygax, as well as the Pulling family, who in 1982 had started an anti-occult group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), after their son killed himself.
The Pullings came to believe that their son had been placed under some sort of death curse while playing D&D at school the day he died. Bradley gives some voice to a group of players as well as Gygax and TSR’s PR agent, but most of the piece is spent on the Pullings and investigation of crimes said to involve D&D. At one point, Bradley even asks Gygax why he doesn’t add a warning to the game letting people know of the potentially harmful effects it might have on players, tacitly confirming the fears fantasy role-playing’s opponents had been creating.
The controversy surrounding Dungeons & Dragons continued throughout the 1980s. When the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1989, TSR removed all mention of demons and devils and skewed gameplay to more heroic actions as opposed to the more ambiguous tenor of the first edition. As the 1990s moved on, attention moved away from the evils of pen-and-paper roleplaying games and focused on violent video games or other cultural boogeymen.
D&D eventually got its devils back, publishing such great sourcebooks as The Book of Vile Darkness. However, in those circles where reference to Harry Potter and talk of fantasy violence is still seen as a ticket to the dark side, D&D is still the bad boy of roleplaying.