Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

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.

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error”

Last Night A DM Saved My Life

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.

Trigger warning before we kick off here: suicide and suicidal ideation are going to come up a lot in this review.

The 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a troubled student at Michigan State University, should in principle have been one of many missing persons case – sad, concerning, but not the cause of widespread scandal. It became the sort of story tabloids dream about when William Dear, a private detective hired by the Egbert family to track down Dallas, theorised that Dallas may have disappeared into the steam tunnels beneath the university under the influence of too many games of Dungeons & Dragons.

In fact, Dear soon abandoned this theory, but he found himself unable to contradict or retract his previous statements – for when Dallas was found, it turned out that he had run away in part because he was in the closet and was not at all coping with it well. Desperately afraid of his family’s reaction, he made Dear promise to conceal the real story of his disappearance, and therefore Dear kept his silence until 1984 – 4 years after Dallas succeeded at the latest of a string of suicide attempts, and well past the point when the anti-D&D witch hunt the case had kicked off had become impossible to contain.

In the gap between the news story first breaking and Dear’s The Dungeon Master finally setting the record straight, Rona Jaffe wrote Mazes & Monsters, a sensationalist novel based around a highly fictionalised version of the Egbert case – or rather, the Dungeons & Dragons-based urban legends surrounding the case. And in 1982, a fresh-faced young Tom Hanks took the lead role in a TV movie adaptation of Jaffe’s novel. The end result is a movie widely reviled amongst gamers as a component of a bizarre smear campaign against their hobby. However, when I sat down to watch the movie (obtained on a shockingly cheap and probably quasi-official DVD) with Dan and Kyra, we noticed a curious thing: although if you really wanted to you could see it as a harrowing expose of the dangers of RPGs, you can only read it that way if you were already hostile to the hobby and inclined to believe that the game was inherently dangerous. Shorn from the original context of the Satanic Panic, the movie isn’t actually about how evil Dungeons & Dragons is at all.

Actually, it’s about ethics in Dungeon Mastering.

Continue reading “Last Night A DM Saved My Life”