Tag Archives: Steve Jackson

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

Today, the number 1 rule imposed by Gen Con 17 in 1984 seems ridiculous. “Live action events are not allowed.” Today, that would forbid an entire track of live-action roleplaying, any sparring with foam swords, and the immensely popular True Dungeon.

Game Master letter from Gen Con 17 in 1984

To gamers in 1984, the rule seemed just as silly, but we understood why it existed. Live-action role playing fueled a toxic misunderstanding of Dungeons & Dragons among non-gamers. D&D’s publisher, TSR, owned Gen Con and the company forbade live-action gaming to avoid alarming parents and journalists.

At Gen Con in the 80s, any live action gaming came from the match between players of Steve Jackson’s Killer and the convention administrators fighting to stomp out this rebellion.

What toxic misconception led to rule 1?

This story begins five years earlier on August 15, 1979 when a 16-year-old college student and computer nerd named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His parents hired private detective William Dear to find their missing boy. (If this tale were fiction, the name Egbert would seem too on the nose.)

Dallas Egbert played D&D, a game that seemed strange enough to becomes Dear’s key lead. “Incredibly, there were more than one hundred dungeons in the East Lansing area alone when Dallas disappeared,” Dear wrote in his 1984 account, The Dungeon Master. His phrasing makes D&D dungeons seem like real locations hidden from polite society. The investigation uncovered rumors that some students played live-action D&D in the steam tunnels under the university. One contact explained, “If you’re familiar with the game, you’ll know that the tunnels are as close to the real thing as you can get.”

The detective focused his hunt on the notion that Egbert had played D&D in the eight miles of steam tunnels and remained lost, hidden, or trapped. Dear wondered if D&D had broken the “fragile barrier between fantasy and reality.” Perhaps D&D left Egbert so deluded that he believed he was a wizard exploring the dungeon. Perhaps his attempt to make the game real had left him hurt or even dead in the tunnels. “Dallas might actually have begun to live the game, not just to play it.”

Dear asked to search the steam tunnels, but the university refused. To force action, he turned to the press and the story fired a media furor. “Within a week, reports on Egbert had appeared in virtually every major American media outlet, as well as many international sources,” Jon Peterson writes in Playing at the World.

In Dragon magazine 30, editor Tim Kask wrote, “As I am writing this (11 Sep), Dungeons & Dragons is getting the publicity that we used to just dream about, back when we were freezing in Gary’s basement in the beginning. If we had our druthers, it would not have happened in such a fashion. Whatever the circumstances of the incident, it has been a nightmare for his parents and family, as well as for TSR Hobbies, Inc.”

Under the media spotlight, the story grew. University police took anonymous phone calls from a woman who claimed Egbert and others had played D&D in the tunnels. She said if anyone found Egbert, he would be found dead.

Egbert’s disappearance introduced Dungeons & Dragons to America. The reports painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as a “cult.” A story in The New York Times speculates that Egbert became lost “while playing an elaborate version of a bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Students at Michigan State University and elsewhere reportedly have greatly elaborated on the game, donning medieval costumes and using outdoor settings to stage the content.”

On September 9, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner published an article titled, “Fantasy cult angle probed in search for computer whiz.”

“Police hunting for a missing 16-year old computer whiz, yesterday completed a futile search of tunnels beneath the Michigan State University campus where fantasy lovers acted out roles in a bizarre game.”

Reporters consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. Under the story lies the notion that D&D pulls players so deeply into fantasy that they lose touch with reality—that the game lures players to play out the fantasy in real life.

Dear’s account gives an example. “If the dungeon master believes that a particular character is weak, he can send that character off on his own. Not just in the game, not just in his head. He can send him on a real mission. ‘You have to prove you’re worthy to play with us,’ the DM might say. ‘You have to show your mettle. I have a mission that you must complete.’ Usually the mission is something like spending a night in a haunted house, but it’s not hard to imagine that it could be much more demanding.”

Dear showed a talent for chasing fanciful tales. Later, he would appear in a 1995 broadcast showing an alien autopsy that Fox Television teased as possibly real.

On September 13, less than a month after the disappearance, Egbert called and revealed his location. The teen’s attempt to flee depression had led him on a trek that took him to the home of an older male “admirer,” to Chicago, and then to Morgan City, Louisiana. During his trek, he survived two suicide attempts.

Egbert had turned to D&D for respite from his other troubles. He faced intense academic pressure from parents who had pushed him to skip two grades. He was gay at a time when few people accepted or tolerated the trait. (Later, he would beg Dear to keep this secret hidden.) In the book Perfect Victims, journalist Bill James writes, “Egbert was living among older kids who had nothing in common with him and who didn’t particularly like him. He was regarded as an irritating little twerp. He was 16, but looked 12. He got involved in numerous campus activities and groups, each of which devised a new kind of rejection for him.”

In a press conference, Dear said the teenager’s disappearance was not related to Dungeons & Dragons. But the detective still sees D&D as a bad influence. “You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy,” Dear said. “This isn’t a healthy game.”

Three years later, the group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons would start promoting the notion that D&D encouraged devil worship. The satanic panic began. But the premise that D&D unhinged kids from reality inspired wider concerns. My community was closer to Lake Geneva than the Bible Belt, so no one took the threat of Satanism seriously. Still, plenty of parents felt that D&D players showed an unhealthy detachment from reality.

The story of James Dallas Egbert ends sadly. In 1980, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Perhaps if he had lived just a little longer, his tale could have led to a happier ending. The intelligence that isolated him could have become an asset. The secret that tormented him became more accepted. It gets better. Perhaps, in more time, D&D could have helped him find his people.

In 1984, neither Gen Con nor TSR wanted to risk letting wizards and warriors blur fantasy and reality in live action games—not where parents, journalists, and other concerned citizens might see.

Cast members of the live D&D interactive held at Gen Con 2019 (Photo by Eric Menge)

Since then, D&D’s reputation has improved, and not just because society turned to blaming video games instead.

Today, instead of seeing D&D as a break from reality, parents see real-life connections. Ethan Schoonover hosts a D&D club at the all-girls middle school where he teaches. To sell the game to parents, he offers a simple formula: “You just say, ‘no screen time’ and parents’ eyes light up.”

D&D makes a game of the cooperation and problem solving skills that kids need to succeed. More to the point of this tale, D&D teaches social skills and empathy, two assets everyone should develop.

Empathetic D&D players can see a measure of our own struggles in Egbert’s tragedy. Now we know that D&D isn’t the game that dooms geeks like Egbert. Sometimes, it’s the game that saves us.

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at Gen Con, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000