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.