This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)
The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.
It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.
A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.
The Steam Tunnel Incident
The panic around Dungeons & Dragons can be largely traced back to the sad case of James Dallas Egbert III, and the best account I’ve been able to find of that story is this e-book. Written by Kent David Kelly and issued first as a standalone book and then later, in an updated edition, rereleased as a supplemental volume to his Hawk & Moor series, this represents extensive research by Kelly taking into account a wide range of sources on the case.
Kelly acknowledges that his interest in the case is not neutral; as a gamer growing up in the 1980s he had to navigate the same parental concerns arising from the hysteria as many of his generation. In addition to that, Kelly was the beneficiary of an educational program to support gifted children, another background point he shares in common with Egbert beyond their common hobby interests.
A strong advocate of such programs, Kelly offers an insightful breakdown on how handling of gifted students has changed over the years; in particular, he notes how back in Egbert’s day there was an unfortunate tendency to conflate intellectual development with emotional development – but the assumption that a child who happens to be outpacing their peers academically will also be able to outpace them in terms of their emotional development and ability to make their way by themselves in an adult environment is far from correct, and Kelly makes a persuasive case that Egbert’s issues may in part have stemmed in part from being expected to enter an adult-oriented world before he was actually ready.
Kelly’s day job is as a court data analyst, and his skill at putting together a coherent narrative of events from disparate sources is very much in evidence here. The story of the scandal goes like this: young Dallas (as he preferred to be called) was an extremely intelligent youth who showed exceptional skill with computers at an early age, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that this was the 1970s and home computing wasn’t a thing when Dallas started tinkering. At the age of 16 he was sent to Michigan State University, who provided him with essentially no supervision or support despite the fact that he was a minor and several years younger than all his fellow students.
Right there is the fallacy Kelly notes about how intellectual maturity cannot and should not be assumed to be accompanied by a correspondingly advanced emotional maturity. In Dallas’s case, it’s evident that he was actually quite troubled on an emotional level, and badly needed support and patience which were not forthcoming. He had always felt extremely pressured to attain high academic standards, and being shunted into university at his younger age greatly exacerbated the difficulties he had making friends. He was also gay, and being a gay teen in 1970s America was much more challenging than it is now (and it’s often no picnic these days). These issues fed on each other in a nasty way; for instance, Dallas’ roommate asked to be transferred after discovering that Dallas was gay, which as well as being a homophobic microaggression in its own right also inevitably meant he was more isolated, and there was one less person in a position to keep some sort of eye on him and notice when things were wrong.
Dallas turned to various interests as he struggled through all this. This included SF and fantasy fandom, the booming tabletop RPG community on-campus (primarily playing Dungeons & Dragons), and the Gay Council – a sort of early prototype of today’s campus LGBT+ advocacy and support groups. However, he also got involved in less above-board activities. He got into “trestling”, a game involving dodging trains on the train tracks, and he also got seriously enough into drugs that he learned how to make them for himself. There was a student craze for urban exploration at the time, sparked by undergraduates at MIT and spreading to campuses across the country through discussions on ARPAnet, the proto-Internet; this often took the form of forays into the dangerous steam tunnels running underneath campuses connecting various sub-basements together, and Dallas made several voyages down into the MSU tunnels.
There were even a group who engaged in a sort of proto-LARPing down there, though presented less as a combat sport and more like a treasure hunt, with the woman running the group seeding a route with caches of treasure to collect along with “tricks” (fake treasure and the like) and the challenge being to use various character abilities and your own exploration skills to obtain the good gear whilst avoiding the booby prizes. Dallas went on three such jaunts with them before being told, partway through the third, that he was no longer welcome and had to leave.
Dallas’ exile from this group might have hurt his feelings and driven him deeper into social isolation, but it’s understandable on the part of the rest of the group members. Dallas was a legal minor, a risk-taker (noted for dangerous behaviour in the steam tunnel quasi-LARP), and spent a lot of time off his on drugs and emotionally disturbed with it. As well as the severe consequences that may have arisen had the urban exploration group been found involving a minor in their trespassing, there was also the simple fact that Dallas seems to have simply been a very, very hard person just to be around.
As Kelly documents, a good many of his fellow students largely remember him as being high all the time and difficult to get on with as a result. That doesn’t mean Dallas was undeserving of sympathy or help – but equally, people aren’t obligated to spend their free time palling about with a dude whose behaviour they find annoying or even potentially dangerous. Again, Dallas’s issues were beginning to feed off each other in a nasty feedback loop. He was lonely and unhappy, so he took drugs. He behaved like an asshole when he was high, driving people away from him. This made him lonelier and unhappier, guaranteeing that drugs o’clock would roll around that much sooner. I know from personal experience dealing with such folks that people who are unhappy and high all the time are incredibly difficult to deal with, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for cutting ties with such a person for the sake of their own mental health.
In August 1979 Dallas attempted suicide, hiding in the steam tunnels and taking an overdose apparently for the sake of making his body difficult to find. He survived, made it to the house of a gay friend he’d met in a bar, and spent time recuperating. As the search for him became a media sensation, he was passed from house to house, making himself useful by manufacturing drugs. We don’t know an awful lot about who he was staying with, beyond that they seem to have been very worried about the consequences of coming forward, probably due to a combination of fear of a homophobic backlash (they primarily seem to have been gay households) and wanting to avoid drugs charges. Eventually they packed him off to New Orleans where, failing to get in touch with the point of contact he was given there, he spent a few days homeless before signing on to work on an oilfield, where eventually his co-workers worked out who he was and encouraged him to call home.
The oilfield workers were able to figure out Dallas’s identity partly because he’d become a national news story. Due to their lax oversight of him, MSU didn’t work out that Dallas was meeting for some days, but once they got their act together and the Egbert family were informed, Dallas’s parents enlisted the services of private investigator William Dear. Far from the impoverished, rumpled popular images of the private investigator who sleeps in his office in a threadbare suit, Dear was (and still is) a high-powered professional, the head of his own firm, with a mansion in Texas and a willingness to put a Lear jet on standby if that’s what a case demands.
Dear is also a deeply controversial figure. Outside of the steam tunnel case, he was also involved in the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981 in order to check out a theory that the man shot by Jack Ruby was a Russian duplicate and not the real Oswald, claims to know the identity of the second gunman at the JFK assassination, and investigated the “alien autopsy” tape that was a brief fad of the 1990s. In more recent decades his brushes with mass media attention have hinged on his claims about the OJ Simpson case. (He claims that OJ is innocent, but his arguments that lead him to that conclusion are rather suspect.)
In this case, Dear seems to have exacerbated the situation by using loud, high-profile shock tactics intended to startle people into compliance and scare people into providing information. He was quick, for instance, to put out the idea that the gay community was being looked into, which meant that people stopped cooperating with him (to the point where the MSU Gay Council formally declared that they weren’t going to talk to him without their attorney present) and probably caused the concealment of Dallas in the first place, or at least made it last way longer than it might otherwise would have. Likewise, he butted heads with both the local police and the MSU campus authorities, including holding a press conference when he insisted that the steam tunnels under MSU absolutely must be searched, despite the protests of MSU authorities, and all but directly accused the university of having something to hide, all in the name of strongarming the university into allowing the search.
It was through one of his press conferences that Dear would drag Dungeons & Dragons into the story. Dear had only a fuzzy idea about the game, and doesn’t seem to have had much understanding of it even years after. (Kelly points out that much of the discussion of D&D in Dear’s later account of the case, The Dungeon Master, was taken from D&D products that wouldn’t see the light of day until 1983 – and therefore couldn’t have been referred to during the investigation in 1979.) Conflating the subterranean treasure hunts with D&D, along with Dear’s garbled characterisation of it as a “mind game” (because most of the action takes place in the imagination), resulted in a story too sensational and juicy for the press to resist, kicking off a controversy and a swathe of urban myths that would haunt the game for over a decade and, in addition to that, drive sales through the roof.
This was exacerbated by the lack of a public explanation for Dallas’s disappearance. After he re-emerged, Dallas asked Dear not to tell people where he’d been or what the truth behind his disappearance was, and for a few years Dear would honour this. However, after Dallas committed suicide in 1980 an anonymous source calling himself “David”, fed up of the misinformation, started putting the real story out. This prompted Dear to write his 1984 bestseller The Dungeon Master. Though it chronicled the facts of the case – including the fact that D&D hadn’t driven Dallas into a delusional fantasy world or caused him to be sacrificed by Satanists – the combination of the sensationalising title and the fact that Dear still seemed to think D&D had some sort of unsettling mental potency meant it did little to calm matters.
Kelly’s account of these facts is readable, sympathetic, and comprehensive. I particularly like the picture he draws at the beginning of how college geek culture in the 1970s was coalescing, with cultural tropes and ideas spreading via ARPAnet and tabletop RPGs, text adventures, pranks, LARPing/reenactment and urban exploration all swirling about in this mix. Despite his avowed bias I found that his presentation of the facts was convincing and clear enough to allow me to draw my own conclusions – in particular, I’m much less impressed by Dear as an investigator than he seems to be. As well as stirring needless controversy, Dear seems to have taken bizarre, pointless risks, like attempting that train-dodging sport of “trestling” in an attempt to get inside Dallas’s mindset, or getting himself scalded by steam on a bout of solo trespassing in the steam tunnels after one of his own team had already been down there and told him it was dangerous. As such, this is the best discussion of the case I am aware of.
The Rumour Grows
The next major development in the growth of the panic was the publication of Rona Jaffe’s Mazes & Monsters. It forms the basis of the movie of the same name, and if you absolutely have to partake in this particular cultural artifact I’d say just check out the movie – it’ll take longer and you won’t need to deal with Jaffe’s utter contempt for the reader. Jaffe clearly seems to have considered her job here to be to write prejudice-confirming propaganda for conservative Reagan-era housewives, and also seems to have decided that her target audience are as dense as a bucket of rocks and need everything really clearly telegraphed to them.
I just couldn’t tackle the book itself because the prose was just impossible for me to engage with. Every character is fully explained when they are introduced, and every plot point is relentlessly hammered on because Jaffe just doesn’t trust you to be able to concentrate. As I concluded about the movie, Jaffe doesn’t even seem to entirely believe in the “evil RPG” premise either; the game falls by the wayside in the latter half of the book in favour of concentrating on Jaffe’s completely garbage depiction of mental illness, and if you piece together the plot and have even the slightest knowledge of how mental health actually works it’s instantly apparent that playing a tabletop RPG – or even LARPing it – had nothing to do with the protagonist’s breakdown.
Then again, I fully expect many readers never bothered to read that deep, and that much of its audience would get most of their impression of the game depicted – and thus Dungeons & Dragons itself – from the intro, which is presented like the story is based on a true case and this is a summary of the facts before we get into the fiction. (This doubtless conflated itself in reader’s minds with their recollections of the Egbert case.) It culminates in saying that Mazes & Monsters players were privileged kids who were given “the American Dream” and spurned it for the sake of a fantasy world of imagined terrors, and expects its readers to blandly nod along with that rather than scoffing at the idea that the American Dream is any sort of Utopian ideal.
The intro also breathlessly mentions how a former Mazes & Monsters fan burned all his game materials – which cost the princely sum of $100! Even accounting for inflation, a hobby which you pursue for years and only spend about $100 on accounts for incredible value for money. Based on inflation from 1980 to 2018, you’re looking at $306. Even if you only play for a couple of years and only manage to play once a month, you’re still looking at $12.75 per game session, which compares very favourably to what you’d spend on, say, a monthly cinema trip with your friends or something.
Ultimately, if the most striking and enduring impression people have of your novel – the fact that it involves D&D players LARPing in a dangerous set of caves – is actually a total red herring that has nothing to do with the overall arc or resolution of the plot, that’s kind of a major issue.
Skip this one and listen to the I Don’t Even Own a Television episode on it instead – they pull out the most interesting bits so I don’t have to. It’s interesting to hear that Jaffe presented the game in the book as something which pretty much every student on campus was taking part in – something the movie dialled back on – as well as the theory that Jaffe had a bunch of notes for a novel she was actually intending to write about how shitty parenting messes kids up and leaves them unprepared for adulthood which she then quickly repurposed for the book when she and her publisher decided to rush-release it to beat everyone else to the punch.
As mentioned above, another book significant to the subsequent development of the rumour is William Dear’s The Dungeon Master, published in 1984, was too little, too late. Under the circumstances, I can’t wholly blame Dear – as mentioned above, Egbert had asked for his discretion and the least he could do was extend that to him. However, the book did little to really settle the matter – particularly since the title played on the rumour and Dear’s garbled explanation of the game helped perpetuate people’s confusion about it.
On top of that, it’s not really that good of a book – again, I imagine many people simply never finished it. Dear’s approach is less journalistic or documentarian than it is novelistic. In particular, he reports conversations by trying to write out the actual dialogue people used at the time, which in my experience unless someone is actually transcribing from taped material is a sure sign that they’re, if not bullshitting, at least applying a little creativity in filling out the details of what happened – generally, people don’t remember conversations down to the level of being able to report the exact words used. As such, what might have been an interesting procedural account of a particularly interesting missing person’s case gets weighed down with Dear’s pretensions of being a novelist and his tendency to self-aggrandise a little.
It’s particularly poor value now that Kelly’s done The Steam Tunnel Incident if you just want the straight facts on the incident itself – and I have no idea why you would be interested in reading The Dungeon Master if you weren’t interested in those facts. Kelly extracts from The Dungeon Master the useful information, but also sets it against information from other sources and generally manages to get a much broader perspective on things than Dear does, so if you are at all interested in the case itself you’re much better off sticking to that.
That, then, is the Egbert case, and the fanning of the flames of rumour which immediately followed it – but it’s clear that there’s still some logical leaps needed before the smears against Dungeons & Dragons make the leap from armchair psychology to full-on occult conspiracy theory. We’ll get onto that in the next part of the article, when we tackle the wild career of Pat Pulling.