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.
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.
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.