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.

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

  1. timothypark says:

    My main critique of this post is that the various things you mention that “we know now” were known then. That particular incident and the allegations of that investigator and the hoopla in media and even courts gets the attention, but not the many other things at the same time that were pretty positive.

    The calls for bans of the game, the spurious claims, the many legal actions, came to nothing. *Then.* There was much discussion of the game by many people. Discussion requires two parties at minimum and usually involves exploring different perspectives. That was happening. Not just in 1979.

    But in that year, my senior year of high school, after most of my circle of friends had been playing D&D for about a year and a half (still mostly from the beige books) while banning play at school was considered by the principal, superintendent and school board, it didn’t happen. We still played at lunch hour and after school in the wargame club. My parents discussed the game with me, both from parental interest and concern, and from the growing discussions with other parents. Dad and Mom had a more public interest as he was pastor at a Lutheran Church in town and so many were asking both he and Mom what they thought of it. I have pretty clear memories of Mom detailing all the things she had noted, and the other mothers in my closest circle of buddies, that were positives.

    “No, I don’t have a problem with it. In fact I and Tim’s friends’ parents encourage the boys to play and we give them place to play in our homes and help them get to games. I can think of much worse things 17 year old boys get into than a game that sparks their imagination, encourages their studies, develops their oral and written communication skills, not to mention keeps them off the streets on a Friday and Saturday night.”

    Among our eight parents who were all in agreement in 1979 about the ridiculousness of the hoopla over D&D all of them had at least bachelor’s degrees, two were clergy, one a systems analyst at a Fortune 100 company, three licensed teachers.

    In the previous year and two years later I worked with my Dad’s Assistant Pastor and we developed variations on the D&D mechanic for use in small group work to explore group dynamics and consequences of relational and environmental choices.

    All of this was happening in Kenosha, WI which is straight east on US 50 from Lake Geneva, WI. The Dungeon Hobby Shop was the nearest place to acquire the lead figures, rules and other wargames that were our mainstays — among geeks and nerds we were strange because we were starting to prefer D&D to other kinds of wargaming — and there were close ties between the Kenosha wargamers and those in Lake Geneva. When GenCon moved from Lake Geneva in fact, it first landed at University of Wisconsin – Parkside in Kenosha. We were rather upset when it moved to Milwaukee.

    Parkside had a Wargame group and high school students were welcome. We played out there often and among the students we played with there were people who were “in” out at the Dungeon.

    All that is backdrop to that first media hoopla in ’79 and to another in ’85 when a young man in Kenosha County murdered his parents and in the trial blamed D&D for “provoking him” to it as part of his defense. That hoopla also made national news building on and reigniting the earlier stuff.

    Yes, there were groups who sought to ban the game. Parents who forbade their children from playing because it was “demonic” or having seen the detailed spell descriptions in the PHB determined that playing the game amounted to practicing magic. A parishioner got terribly upset seeing us playing at church once — we didn’t even have our books and dice, he just overheard us killing time before youth group, as we would frequently go totally “theater of the mind” when we had time to kill. There was a lot of energy “in the air” around the game for a bunch of years, yes.

    And there were a great many people using their intelligence and common sense and noticing and saying good things about D&D. They and their reasonable perspective “won out”. If it hadn’t, well, would you have this blog?

    That story, the positive side, needs more press than the sensational bits.

  2. chacochicken says:

    Great synopsis, DMD. This reminds me of so much.

    My hometown was a regular hotbed of D&D and satanic panic. In fact, the dangers of D&D was still a contentious point there until not that long ago.

    I come from a small town in rural West Virginia. Evangelicalism had completely overtaken the town in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandparents moved there in 1952 and were not church going types. Strike one. My mom was an unwed mother. Strike two. My uncle got the Holmes basic set while he was in the navy and introduced my friends and I to the game. Strike two and half. It was an open secret that my navy vet uncle was gay. Strike Five.

    To set the scene, it was summer 86′ and my friends and I (fortunately most kids don’t care much about the above nonsense) played a ton of D&D but we had to keep it a complete secret from basically everyone. Our town was small enough that everyone mostly knew everyone’s business. A ring of people were in charge. The bank manager was the pastor. The pastor’s brother was the county sheriff and the high school baseball coach. Nepotism all the way down. Well these folks decided that they were going to control the behavior of the whole town more or less.

    So we played that summer, a few other kids knew but none of our parents at that point. We were known to have played before, see above – uncle, so everyone was wary of us. My friend Dustin, yes his name was Dustin, his parents ransacked his room and found his character sheets, dice, and some D&D ads torn our from his comic books. I’m not exaggerating, they burned all of his toys, all of them, on the front yard as he basically had a nervous breakdown. He was not allowed to speak to us again and they couldn’t risk us meeting at school so the next year he was home-schooled.

    We were torn as to whether to play anymore or not because we were afraid of the possibility of punishment. Our defiance won out and we kept playing in the loft of an old barn next to my uncle’s house. He vouched for us playing regular old board games, fishing, and running around in the woods.
    Then terror struck. A dog went missing somewhere close. Then a second. Then an older man “disappeared” People went crazy. “It was Satanists!” The Panic hit full bore. The school confiscated anything to do with heavy metal music. Prayers before baseball games asking for protection against the devil worshippers that invaded our town. D&D was the primary suspect.

    To be fair, as kids, we were scared too we just knew D&D didn’t have anything to do with it. My uncle reassured us that most of the town were a bunch of crazy backwards hillbillies. He wasn’t wrong. He made a critical mistake however. I’ll never forget what happened on August 2nd 1986, a Saturday. My uncle threw a big BBQ for some of his navy buddies. We were invited to so we got some food and headed over to our barn for D&D by lantern light. My drunk uncle let slip to a friend’s wife that we were playing the devil’s game and she called her father, the aforementioned county sheriff.

    We were right in the middle of the game when the sheriff and four deputies arrested us at gun point. They pointed guns at 5 kids playing a game. They were sure we were a satanic cult cell. They put three of us in one car and two in the other. The entire drive they kept asking us about satanism and did we kill the dogs. They didn’t take us to our parents or the police station, they took us to the church so the sheriff’s brother could rebuke us while we were in handcuffs. It was completely insane. There were 5 of us and we were all terrified except for my friend Nathan, who thought this was hilarious. His laughing and mocking the pastor helped a ton actually. We got our wits back and demanded to see our parents and told them they had just kidnapped us and we were going to call the FBI.

    The sheriff took us home after that with a stern warning and a veiled threat asking me and my friends if my uncle had ever touched any of us. The next day my mom filed a formal complaint and my friend Matt’s father challenged the sheriff to a fist fight. He did not accept. The old man that “disappeared” wasn’t dead he was on vacation in Maine or some such that summer and one or both dogs were found. We took a break from D&D for a while but picked it back up when the Forgotten Realms grey box came out the next year. The pastor finally died in 2012 and the newer younger pastor now let’s kids play D&D other ttrpgs and board games in the church annex on Thursday nights.
    So that’s the story of how D&D destroyed the brains of the people of my town for two decades because of the the media furor.

  3. alphastream says:

    I wish I had a screen shot of an old post on the WotC forums by Mike Mearls during the 4E era. 4E era, mind you! That’s long after this event. In it, he briefly mentioned that when WotC was looking at the design for 4E organized play, there was a push to eliminate LARP and town-fair style play. It was due to the effect it has on the perception of the game.

    I mention this not because I think WotC was necessarily wrong (okay, they were, but)… they were trying to gain acceptance for the game. I mention it because LARPing was still seen as problematic as recently as 4E. And, because it is ironic that what has helped RPGs become mainstream during the 5E period is acting, both on livestreams and in media (Stranger Things, etc.). It is now very welcome to have people in costume, and WotC staff get in costume for livestreams and big events such as the Descent marketing event. It’s a remarkable change that has come only very very recently.

  4. Keith S says:

    Does anyone else have the concern that once Descent to Avernus stuff hits the shelves we’ll have another Satanic Panic? The socio-political situation in the U.S. feels ripe for it in my mind. I think the modern community is robust enough to withstand it, but I worry about the impact on more vulnerable folks in the community.

  5. HMTKSteve says:

    I wrote my high school term paper on DnD and the related Satanic Panics surrounding it. Find times playing DnD in the 80’s.

    I even knew a few kids who had their books burned by religious parents. I even had one friend pass on his miniatures collection to me because his RC grandmother moved in with his family and declared them idols!

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