An Overview Of All Exalted Editions
How To Create Boss Battles For Exalted 3E
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with Exalted Third Edition. You have recognized that the combat system is fairly complex, with flexible Initiative values determining characters’ momentum. You may have run some combat scenes for your group, and because the game isn’t built for clear-cut challenge ratings, you’ve probably been surprised at times that fights you thought would be difficult turned out to be super easy—or fights you thought would be easy turned out really challenging. You’ve had your players go up against seemingly impossible monsters listed in the corebook’s antagonist section and then realized that they were more challenged when faced by mortal soldiers. You tried to figure out why but couldn’t make sense of it. Maybe you tried to get a feel for your players’ strengths and weaknesses from storytelling experience. Or maybe you declared that the combat system was broken and quit playing the game.
In this article, I’m going to provide some tips on how to make boss battles more fun and engaging for both you and your players. When I say boss battles, I refer to climactic battles with narrative meaning, possibly leading up to the end of a story. These are supposed to be challenging players in different ways while making them feel like the powerful Exalts they’re supposed to be.
The main rule I want to highlight before getting into these tips is an unwritten one, but one that’s important to consider for Storytellers of Exalted Third Edition. When we talk about game balance in Exalted, players and Exalt types need to be balanced in isolation. A Solar Charm needs to be balanced to other Solar Charms, and a Dragon-Blooded Charm needs to be balanced to Dragon-Blooded Charms. Some of the main differences between Exalt types, apart from how much dice they can add to actions, come down to how they manage various Charm mechanics. A Solar is expected to have more dice than a Dragon-Blooded, which also means that a mechanic such as Double 9s is more powerful when used by a Solar than when it’s used by a Dragon-Blooded. A Solar can also often reroll all dice of a specific outcome, such as all 1s, while a Dragon-Blooded tends to be limited to (higher of Essence or 3) of a particular dice outcome. Then we have other things to consider, such as how many motes the Charms cost, and if they use Willpower.
There are some rules when it comes to Exalted Third Edition game design. Some of these rules are unwritten, going by the intuition of the game designer and (eventually) by the intuition of the Storyteller as they get more experience running the game. Other rules are written by the developers and handed out to system writers; these are called Charm Writing Guides and contain both information on how to construct a game mechanic, like what type of narrative fantasy and vision is appropriate, which Essence levels are appropriate for which type of effect, and so on. (The closest thing to a Charm Writing Guide you can find now is in Exigents).
There is a lot going into making appropriate and balanced game mechanics, but like I mentioned before, things are balanced somewhat in isolation. With different Exalt types having different rules that make up their mechanics, you cannot expect NPCs and antagonists to follow the same mechanical expectations as the player characters do. How powerful an effect is or how much Essence it requires is more or less irrelevant when determining what an NPC can do facing the players. Naturally, this doesn’t give you free reign to make mortals that whip out more dice than Solars—there is a narrative balance as well, since the game’s mechanics are aimed to uphold the conceptual ideas of what a character or creature is supposed to be capable of; then some common sense is needed too. But it does give you the option to design antagonists that have some unorthodox approaches to combat encounters. These types of approaches aren’t listed in the antagonist section of the corebook, because I don’t think the game developers considered them, but they are absolutely something that you can add as a Storyteller to improve your combat scenes.
Before we go into what these tips actually are, I want to point out some things that I’ve learned from running combat encounters in this game. First, you need to be able to maintain an Initiative value that allows for decisive attacks to be considered a physical threat. Second, if you’re outnumbered by your opponents, more opponents will have a chance at withering down your Initiative, and it will cost more to avoid onslaught and keeping your defenses up. Third, if your opponent is a single creature and you’re outnumbering it, the occasional boosts of Initiative it will get from its powerful attacks will likely not be enough to maintain for long enough to launch a decisive strike. In other words, combat is often defined by how much Initiative you can burn, gain, and how fast.
When I mentioned before that the players could feel more challenged by mortals than a badass monster, the reason is that multiple mortals give more options to wither the players (more attacks per round), while the monster is limited to a single attack. Two enemies are often more effective than a single enemy with a high dice pool. Yes, the player character must sometimes invest in a defense against the high dice pool, to avoid being struck, but two enemies will have two attacks that cause onslaught in addition to invoking a possible investment of defense. In other words, the more enemies you face, the more costly it becomes, even if their dice pools are lower. The same happens in reverse. If you have multiple PCs ganging up against a single monster, even a powerful monster will not be able to do much each round that can be considered threatening to the group as a whole. If it withers one PC, the others will wither it back down. If it has a high Defense and lots of health levels, it will only determine how long and tedious the fight is, but not necessarily how challenging it is.
When creating a boss battle, answer the following questions:
- What purpose does this boss serve in the story?
- What motivations do the players have for fighting this boss?
- What consequences will defeating the boss have?
- What consequences will losing to the boss have?
- What alternative approaches are available to the players other than fighting this boss?
The first question—“What purpose does this boss serve in the story?”—is the most important one. If you add an encounter just to have an encounter, the players will have no personal investment in the fight. They may think it’s a fun encounter, but it would serve no real purpose other than to be a fight. Make sure to set the stage for the boss battle. If the PCs are the heroes and this boss is the bad guy, take proper care in showing their villainy earlier in the story so that defeating them here will have greater impact.
The second question—“What motivations do the players have for fighting this boss?”—is all about engaging the players. We already know what purpose it serves, but the PCs should have their own stake in the fight. Perhaps the boss has thwarted their efforts previously or hurt someone they care about. As a Storyteller, you can direct player motivations through knowledge of PC backstories and Intimacies, and make sure to tie those into the conflict in some way.
The third question—“What consequences will defeating the boss have?”—is important to ensure that there is a point to overcoming the encounter. Will defeating the boss save the village? Will it lead to retribution by the boss’ allies? How will the narrative progress beyond this point? Even if defeating the boss leads to the conclusion to the story, that conclusion should be a vital consequence to present as an epilogue for the players. Alternatively, perhaps defeating the boss leads to complications in some way? Maybe the boss was an important figure in society and defeating them brands the PCs as outlaws. Perhaps defeating the boss throws a nation into ruin or civil war. As Storyteller, you may not know the exact details of what consequences there should be—since much could depend on the players’ actions—but you should at least consider some alternatives and make sure the consequences are satisfying, even if they present new challenges.
The fourth question—“What consequences will losing to the boss have?”—is just as important. Not every fight is a victory, even for the Exalted, and sometimes losing a boss battle presents new opportunities for stories. If the PCs survive a fight they initially lost, you could have an interesting recurring villain on your hands. It could also be a lesson in humility to the Exalts. It’s important to remember that losing a battle doesn’t mean that you lose a war, or that the story comes to a standstill. Consider all the consequences of this loss, lead the narrative in a way that presents the PCs with new motivations to perhaps challenge the boss again, and then make some alterations to the boss battle to avoid a repeat of the previous attempt. Change the circumstances and make the stakes higher.
The fifth and final question—“What alternative approaches are available to the players other than fighting this boss?”—is important to consider in Exalted games especially. Exalted are highly powerful, and players of Exalted characters are encouraged to be creative. It’s possible that the players will avoid a direct confrontation and attempt to overcome the boss using alternative methods, such as social influence. Consider the PCs’ individual powers and the players individual playstyles to the best of your ability and use that to consider alternative approaches. It’s important to not railroad the players towards a direct confrontation if they find a creative way to avoid it. Instead, reward the players for their creativity, and let them defeat the boss in their own way. If this means that you have to scrap a battle you’d looked forward to, then so be it. I’m sure the scenario got even more memorable this way, even if you’re initially disappointed with the outcome.
If the PCs go up against a single boss and you worry that the fight will be too easy, a simple way to turn up the challenge is by giving the boss a solo bonus. This is a quick and easy way to buff a lone antagonist you feel is too weak against a group. A solo bonus could be something like increasing attack pools by 2 and defense or soak ratings by 1 for each additional PC in the fight. By modifying an existing rating with a solo bonus, you can easily adapt the fight to how many PCs will be involved in it. This could help compensate for being outnumbered while keeping the boss from draining its resources too quickly in the fight. The drawback is that it’s easy to turn a boss into a grind if its increased values are simply too high for the PCs to feel like they make an impact.
Like I mentioned before, there’s no hard rule that NPCs and antagonists should follow the same mechanical patterns as PCs, because actually going against certain norms may provide more opportunities for challenging fights. Use common sense to draw the line. If you intend to give a solo bonus to a boss, perhaps reserve it for Exalted villains or inhuman bosses where there are no concrete expectations. Don’t give the solo bonus to a mortal, for example, without narrative reasons for its increase in power. If the mortal is alchemically or sorcerously enhanced, then we have a justification for a solo bonus. But a random mortal bandit lord, not so much. There are other ways to make boss battles more interesting when going up against antagonists that are expected to be weaker than a single PC, like a mortal.
While a solo bonus is intended to make a single boss more challenging, you can use legendary actions to make the boss fight both more challenging and more engaging. This is ripped straight from Dungeons & Dragons but is something that I’ve experimented with in previous Exalted boss battles to great success. Because it’s easy for a single boss to be withered down by the PCs, giving it access to legendary actions would allow it to affect the outcome of the battle regardless of its Initiative position.
In practice, a legendary action (or a lair action) is a boss action that can be used outside of the boss’ ordinary actions. You could set up these actions in two different ways: a legendary action is a free action that the boss can use at any time, or in response to a specific situation. For example, a kraken’s legendary action could be that it gets a free grapple attack because of its many tentacles; an elemental dragon’s legendary action could be that it uses its wings to disengage into the air; a tyrant lizard’s legendary action could be a mighty roar that drains Initiative. The Storyteller should give access to a set number of legendary actions that can be used to keep the players on their toes. One recommendation is to give the boss as many legendary actions each scene as it has Essence (or as there are PCs fighting it), with perhaps some conditions that can reset them.
Another alternative is more akin to a lair action. This is an action that is outside of the boss itself, such as an earthquake happening or the ceiling caving in. These types of actions should be placed in the Initiative order. Regardless of the boss’ Initiative placement, whenever a certain tick is reached, that tick’s lair action occurs, and the players must react accordingly. The boss itself should be invulnerable to the lair action for best effect.
Consider the following scenario: The PCs go up against a necromancer in the enemy’s base of operations where there is a necromantic working in place to act as a defense. There are zombies trying to dig themselves up from the ground all over the area, causing difficult terrain. Additionally, whenever the turn order reaches a certain tick, some zombies emerge, either to make a direct attack against a player or to replenish magnitude for a zombie battle group that’s also in the scene. The necromancer also has a legendary action that is triggered the first time they suffer enough damage to become incapacitated. This action means that a soul pearl is broken, and instead of incapacitating the necromancer, it restores (its Essence) in health levels. Should the necromancer kill a PC or important NPC, or reduce the Size of a battle group allied to the PCs, it restores a used-up soul pearl, resetting its legendary action.
A boss can also be given alternative resources other than motes and Willpower to make the fight a bit more unique and interesting. One type of resource is an expendable minion armor where the boss can discard minions to negate damage. This could be a way of making a mortal boss more engaging. Have them protected by a battle group of minions, and then let them call upon that battle group as a resource. Whenever the boss is directly attacked, it can negate a certain amount of damage by permanently reducing the battle group’s magnitude—represented by guards keeping a tight formation around them.
When going up against something like a First Age warstrider, the alternative resources could be represented by Essence crystals that can be tapped in place of using motes and Willpower. The warstrider could have a set amount of Essence crystals that must then recharge before they can be used again. The PCs could attempt combat gambits to strike the Essence crystals before they’re being tapped in order to deal extra damage to the warstrider.
When going up against a prince who has been possessed by a demon, the boss could have a separate Sanity tracker that they can use as a resource to empower actions when a certain situational trigger occurs, such as when being confronted by the harm they have caused under the demon’s influence. While the resource is generally more powerful than using motes or Willpower, the more of it that is being used, the more erratic and inhuman the prince becomes—until the demon takes over entirely. The PCs must try to appeal to the prince’s humanity in order to negate the opportunities for the trigger to occur, and thus fight tactically and defensively until they can help the prince defeat the demon within.
The Sanity tracker could also be used as a form of countdown rather than as a resource. When adding a countdown to your boss battle, you need to first decide what the countdown is building up to as well as how the countdown is triggered. Should it be triggered by time, and build up to something if the fight drags too long, or should it be triggered by specific situations that eventually lead to a certain outcome?
Some countdowns could be part of larger narratives, with the boss battle merely being the final phase building up to its last trigger. For example, if the boss is trying to summon a powerful demon into the world, the first countdown trigger could be that the boss managed to secure a certain relic from the PCs’ possession. The PCs then set out to find the boss, but fail to stop the second trigger, where the boss captures the mortal NPC whom they need to sacrifice for the ritual. Finally, the PCs track down the boss and intercept the summoning ritual. The third trigger could occur in battle, after the victim has been secured in the summoning circle by the boss’ minions. During the boss battle, the PCs try to prevent this from happening. Should they be unable to, the third trigger occurs, and the summoning is completed, with the powerful demon being unleashed upon the world.
This brings us to another way to make boss battles feel more cinematic and less static, and it’s something that you often see in movies and video games. Namely, a phased boss battle. If the aforementioned countdown is completed and the demon is summoned, this could move the boss battle into a new phase, where the PCs fight the demon instead of the boss—or the demon alongside the boss. Some bosses may have different phases as well, such as a true form that is revealed after a certain trigger is met, or after the PCs defeat the initial form.
Once a boss battle switches into a new phase, something drastic should have changed that turns the tide of battle. It could mean that the boss has powered up into a more dangerous form, such as the evil necromancer rising as a powerful lich after being initially defeated. The new form should be like fighting a new boss, with a new set of powers. If the PCs are tired from using up too many resources against the first form, they may have to retreat and recover before facing the boss again in a new place and under new conditions.
A combat phase can also be environmental, with the fight moving from one location to another. Perhaps the boss battle starts out as a naval combat, with the second phase being a duel atop a sinking ship—perhaps even followed by a third phase where the sinking ship is swallowed by a massive sea creature, and you must chase the boss down within the roiling intestines of the beast as it descends into the ocean depths. Perhaps you find yourself in a situation where you and the boss must temporarily work together to get back up to the surface, or to fight off the parasitic creatures within the belly of the beast.
There are endless ways to design an engaging boss battle, and if you’re a creative Storyteller, don’t let yourself be limited by the extent of Exalted Third Edition mechanics. The antagonists in this game are all written using standard mechanics, and many of those antagonists come up short in some way or another. If you want to break free from disappointing encounters, refer to these antagonists as templates for your own custom designs. If you experiment with the mechanics and introduce something new and unique, the players won’t see it coming, and there’s a good chance that they will engage with the encounters in a different way.
But also remember that a boss fight should be the culmination or the climax of a narrative—don’t turn every encounter into a boss fight. If you add some standard encounters along the way, having the rare boss fight as a special encounter will make it much more memorable and enjoyable. Exalted is a game where the heroes are larger than life, and those heroes deserve great villains worthy of your time and attention.
Exalted 3E: Picking Your Battles
While Exalted Third Edition’s combat system is generally favored by many fans, most agree that it’s complex to a fault, and that its complexity can often be an obstacle in the way of engaging combat scenes. I want in this article focus on how to storytell combat in a way that can make it more engaging, more streamlined, and more fun. This will not include any homebrew or changes to the game’s system—only Storyteller suggestions that could make a difference if you find Exalted combat to be often tedious and underwhelming.
Because of the complexity of Exalted Third Edition’s combat system, the most important aspect of making it more fun and engaging is to make sure that it is narratively important. Of course, different groups will like different aspects of a game, but in my opinion, Exalted’s combat system doesn’t work well on an encounter-by-encounter basis. This is not the game where you want a complex dungeon crawl with different types of encounters in different rooms. This is a game where you want the narrative to bring the players to a single encounter that represents the climax of a story. There can be more encounters along the way, of course, but those need to be as narratively important as the climax itself. The players alongside their characters need to get something out of the fight; it cannot simply be an obstacle and nothing more.
By making sure that each fight has impact upon the narrative, it gives the PCs a reason to fight, which will make the players more likely to want to engage with the combat scene. If you’re creating a combat encounter out of a random situation, there’s no personal investment, and it becomes a waste of time. There are exceptions to this too, though. By presenting a few lesser combat encounters, you can allude to a larger threat. For example, the Solars could be attacked by a scouting patrol that allude to a larger Wyld Hunt. This makes the scouting patrol narratively important even though they are a minor threat. Additionally, these minor threats can be represented in a more streamlined fashion to avoid investing too much time on a fight that the PCs are very unlikely to lose.
Many of Exalted’s game mechanics are tied to specific and situational combat rules that will not be used in every fight, but that you may not want to remove from the game entirely just in case they would one day come up. My recommendation is to use advanced combat for climactic battles that present a meaningful challenge and simplified combat for lesser battles, like the one with the scout patrol.
One way to simplify a combat scene is to make it a withering-only fight. By incapacitating certain foes when crashed instead of setting them up for decisive attacks, you reduce the number of rounds required to defeat each enemy. Players who have invested in decisive-only Charms will still get to use those Charms in the more climactic battles when you’re using those rules. Additionally, certain fights with lesser opponents may be simplified even further, resolving them with a mere contested roll and nothing more.
If the PCs are sufficiently powerful, like some Solars are, you can even ignore contested rolls in certain situations, such as if the Night Caste is sneaking up on a lone mortal guard. It would be very appropriate for that Night Caste to easily dispatch the mortal guard. If you would have used the standard combat rules in this situation, it’s very likely that the Night Caste wouldn’t have been able to immediately dispatch the guard, be forced to wither them down, and give the guard ample time to sound the alarm. If the guard is a Dragon-Blood, then there should be a higher risk for the Night Caste. But presenting mortal guards and Exalted guards equally would be time consuming, vastly reduce the Night Caste’s chance for success, and make the Night Caste’s player feel like their character is less impactful in a situation where they should shine.
Let’s say a Night Caste wants to break into a palace and assassinate a feudal lord. The Storyteller should present some kind of challenge that they must overcome to enter the premises, another challenge to sneak or infiltrate their way to the feudal lord, and a third challenge to assassinate them. The guards that are described by the Storyteller as patrolling the various rooms and hallways of this palace are, in this case, challenges and not combatants. The Night Caste may decide to hide and study the guards’ movements and then sneak past them; this would avoid a fight. Alternatively, they could want to sneak up on a guard, break their neck, pull them into an empty room, and don their armor. In this situation, I would likely only have the Night Caste make a single Stealth check for them to succeed on the first three parts of that challenge: sneak up, break neck, pull aside. One roll. Then move on to the next challenge.
If you’d follow the rules as written, you’d have to make a penalized Stealth roll to sneak up to the guard, roll a contested Join Battle to get an Initiative rating, use that Initiative for a decisive Brawl attack (or possibly for a grapple gambit followed by a crush attempt if you want to be really specific). If you don’t have the Initiative, you’ll first need to make a withering attack to gain that Initiative, which will also let the guard respond with an action of their own before you can proceed to kill them. Managing to one-shot the guard is unlikely since the guard probably has seven health levels, you must acquire seven successes on a decisive damage roll, and have enough Initiative dice to be able to do this with a single Join Battle roll. If we assume that you incapacitate the guard on your first turn, there may be other guards present in the area that would enforce another Stealth roll when you drag the dead guard into another room. Then you would proceed to your disguise action as you don the armor, including looking up the armor’s stats to see how it modifies your traits. Or, you know, you could just make a Stealth roll because it’s just one mortal guard in between you and your goal.
To summarize, streamline the rules as much as possible to make the resolution as smooth as possible for situations that cannot be skipped entirely but that aren’t part of a larger climax. Once you get to the climactic battle, and once the players are immersed in their goal, then you can apply the rules as written to let the players make full use of all of their tricks.
SIMPLIFY RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
One of the major hurdles of the Third Edition combat system is tracking Initiative. Even when you run a climactic battle with the rules as written, you’re going to want to ensure that the Initiative can be tracked quickly and easily. I’ve tried different ways of tracking Initiative in my years playing this game, and I’ve found that the most engaging way is to draw up an Initiative map. This is a numbered piece of paper from, for example, +30 to –10.
After everyone rolls Initiative, place a marker (such as a coin or a die) on that map, representing each participant in the fight and their corresponding Initiative. Because Initiative moves up and down quickly, you can keep track of who has had their turn by changing their marker, such as turning their coin upside down. If you’re using dice to represent each character, you can combine your Initiative map with a Defense tracker. Players and Storytellers alike often forget to keep track of onslaught penalties. By using dice to represent your characters on the Initiative map, you can let the die show your current Defense value. Once you suffer onslaught, you change your die to represent the new number. A die can also be used to represent a battle group’s current Size. Regardless of what kind of tokens you use and what you let them represent, this kind of Initiative map gives everyone at the table a better overview of the turn order as well as which characters are in strong positions and which ones are cornered.
Another resource that’s often annoying to keep track of are motes. I’ve never been a fan of the mote system, and would have preferred if Exalted Charms functioned differently. But since motes are part of the game, I do use them. Sometimes it works to just scribble down your mote pool on a piece of paper, but you can also use something like beads or Poker chips to represent them. If using Poker chips for example, you would have piles representing your two pools, and then you’d have some 1-mote chips, some 2-mote chips, and some 5-mote chips which you draw from your piles when using Charms. If you expend Peripheral motes which should add to your anima, you could put one of the chips aside to a smaller third pile that represents your anima level. You could also represent your Willpower in similar ways if you feel the need to.
MAKING CHALLENING FIGHTS
It will take some trial and error before a Storyteller can confidently put together challenging fights for the players. Because of how powerful Solars can be, the antagonists in the corebook can often feel underwhelming if you’re using them as written. It’s important to make Solars feel powerful, but once you’ve set up a climactic fight, you’re going to want it to be at least somewhat challenging to the players.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from Storytelling this game is that what makes a fight challenging is how well the opposition can affect the PCs Initiative. This is often accomplished through numbers. If a single player is having a solo encounter against a single opponent, then the fight can often become challenging based on the dice rolls and the opponent in question. But since PCs often come in groups, a solo enemy is hardly ever a threat to them without some tweaks. The reason why solo opponents, even the stronger ones, are rarely a threat to a PC group is because the PCs can easily wear down their Defense through a barrage of attacks that, once they reach a low Initiative, tend to stay at a low Initiative. And without any chances of retaining a higher Initiative, the PCs will never feel cornered or threatened in return.
Battle groups are great opportunities for PCs to feel cornered and threatened because they cannot be withered for Initiative. If you don’t have access to battle groups, multiple lesser antagonists can present a challenge to one or more PCs by wearing down their Defense instead. If you have a climactic fight where you want the PCs to feel challenged, one way of doing so is to have the big bad there alongside goons, so that the PCs must choose whether or not to focus on the big bad or focus on the goons.
Another thing that I’ve noticed when looking at the published antagonists, and this includes the ones from Adversaries of the Righteous and Hundred Devils Night Parade, is that many of the writers tend to put more effort into the antagonist’s offensive traits than their defensive ones. The more recently published antagonists are better than the corebook ones, but there are still situations where you want your antagonists to have more opportunities to retain a higher Initiative long enough to feel threatening.
I think that while QCs can be easily thrown into a game when you need something to fight, a more meaningful big bad needs to be modified into a more appropriate threat. Alternatively, the combat scenario needs to be set up in a way where the big bad has the upper hand in some other way. Even though Solars are often individually more powerful than many of their enemies, letting a big bad have some kind of upper hand or leverage is valuable from a narrative standpoint. Like mentioned, one such form of leverage is to be surrounded by goons. Another type of leverage can be a moral one.
For example, in the fourth story arc for my campaign Dawn of the Chosen, the big bad was the ghost of the PCs’ friend who had been fettered to her duties to her Queen—though how she perceived those duties had been corrupted and she was committing atrocities in the Underworld. While the PCs could have destroyed her in combat, that alone wouldn’t have been very engaging for them. The players wanted to save their friend’s soul rather than destroy it to win. This was a form of narrative leverage that they eventually overcame by letting the ghost see her Queen through a mirror so that she could be relieved from her duties and allowed to rest.
Something else you can do when presenting bigger threats such as gods or behemoths is to apply something similar to legendary or lair actions from Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve tried this to great success in some of the games I’ve ran, and it worked flawlessly to make a single enemy feel like a major threat. One type of a legendary action can be some kind of situation that happens once every round regardless of the big bad’s Initiative placement. This can help to emulate the threat of multiple enemies through a single enemy, just to put more pressure on the players.
In the fourteenth story arc for Dawn of the Chosen, the climactic fight is probably the one my players have said felt the most epic. The PCs were Essence 2 Dragon-Bloods of each Aspect alongside an allied thunderbird. They had spent two story arcs trying to get to the inner sanctum of a lost First Age orichalcum factory hidden underneath a volcano. A corrupted god lingered in the factory and sent lava elementals out into the wilds unless it was given blood sacrifices by a surrounding civilization led by a volcano Exigent. The PCs had to first defeat the volcano Exigent who had taken control over the factory’s defenses and managed to compel the elementals into attacking the PCs. Once the Exigent and the elementals were defeated, they proceeded to the vault where the god was lingering, taking the guise of a golden dragon.
A Smaug situation ensued, and while the PCs could keep the god’s Initiative fairly low throughout the fight, I introduced a lair action each round—either a terrifying roar, a breath weapon, or taking flight. This effectively gave the god two actions each round, which helped to make the fight more intense and the players had to be more creative. In the end, the players ended up stunting, using the environment, and making clever tactics together in order to eventually take down the god for good. After the fight was over, they all celebrated by making the kinship oath together and naming their kinship after that particular event.
In conclusion, there are plenty of approaches to combat in Exalted Third Edition that makes it much more fun and engaging than what the system makes it out to be. Remember that the story you tell together should always trump the rules you think you need to tell that story. In the end, the rules are only there to facilitate the storytelling. By choosing when to apply the rules as written, when to streamline them for narrative flow, or when to ignore them altogether, you can make even a complex system like Exalted Third Edition feel easy to use.
Tabletop RPGs and the Satanic Panic
Tabletop RPGs have been a huge part of pop culture since the release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 (Noland, 2021). Players formed clubs and organized events. Even teachers used the games as part of education programs (Lancaster, 2004). But there has also been many misconceptions about these games over the decades (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014). There were instances of young people committing suicide, and parents were quick to point at tabletop RPGs as the cause. Parent groups around the United States petitioned school boards to ban the games, and the religious claimed that they encouraged devil worship and suicide (Lancaster, 2004).
In the 80s, a group called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons was leading the crusade against tabletop RPGs. The group was made up of parents, teachers, and clergy who were worried about the spiritual and mental development of children. Believing that D&D corrupted children, they campaigned against the game, warning parents and speaking out in media (Flournoy, 2018). While dwindling in numbers, there are people still today who claim that tabletop RPGs cause mental illness, violent behavior, and even satanism. In truth, there is plenty of research indicating strong benefits to playing tabletop RPGs, and the games are even used in education and therapy (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014).
This article offers a comprehensive look at the history of tabletop RPGs with a focus on the D&D scare during the Satanic Panic, a crusade based on misinformed views and religious fanaticism. I’ll start by giving an explanation on the hobby and its history, since that will be important to understand the context behind the panic. I will then talk about the panic itself, how it came to be, and how it ties to tabletop RPGs. Finally, I’ll address what happened to the panic over time, and how it may have actually helped the growth of the hobby in the end.
WHAT IS A TABLETOP RPG?
Tabletop RPGs are traditionally structured around the use of paper, pencils, and a player’s imagination. (Flournoy, 2018). A moderator called the Game Master presents a story to a group of players, each in control of a character (Lancaster, 2004). The players are supposed to act in a way appropriate for these characters based on their characteristics (Flournoy, 2018). They interact with each other, the situations presented by the Game Master, and other non-player characters introduced and portrayed by the Game Master as part of the setting (Lancaster, 2004). The decisions that can be made in game are limited by rules dictated by the game itself, such as guidelines on how to resolve actions and conflict (Gannage, 2020). Unlike most games, tabletop RPGs don’t have a set objective. There could be an end objective, though, such as defeating a dragon and saving a town. However, there’s nothing stopping the players from continuing the game after these objectives have been filled. Some games could go on for years of continuous sessions (Flournoy, 2018).
Image Source: WikiCommons
I did mention the game Dungeons & Dragons which was published by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. However, the game’s origins date back even further than that. Gygax and Arneson came from the then popular wargaming genre and wanted to create a game that provided more creative and character-focused experiences (Sidhu & Carter, 2020). Wargames at the time were often complex simulation games, with origins as early as the 19th century when Prussian soldiers used them to teach military strategy. In these games, two opponents faced each other using miniature armies and their knowledge of military tactics. In the Prussian army, a senior officer oversaw the simulation and determined what the results of a maneuver would be, often relying on complex mathematical calculations. It’s believed that the Prussian’s military victory over France in 1870 was in part due to their use of wargames (Gannage, 2020).
It was first in the early 20th century when wargames aimed for the public were published. They became increasingly popular and, in the 1960s, there was a thriving wargaming community in the United States. Some of the issues with the games at the time were that since there wasn’t an impartial referee overseeing the game, players often bickered over rules. The games were also often designed for only two players while taking up a lot of space, and they took hours to play (Gannage, 2020).
Image Source: RPGGeek.com
One of the first attempts to transition from wargame to roleplaying game was with the experimental game Braunstein, made by David Wesley in the 1960s. He wanted a more cooperative experience and decided to incorporate additional players that took on different roles. He used a Napoleonic wargame called The Siege of Bodenburg and gave two players the roles of opposing commanders. The other players took civilian roles, such as banker and mayor. Wesley gave each role objectives and goals, and then set himself as the referee. However, the game rapidly devolved into chaos as the players were more unpredictable than he had expected. Ultimately, Wesley was disappointed, but many of the players loved it (Gannage, 2020).
One of these players was Dave Arneson who, inspired by Braunstein, came to design his own game Blackmoor—a game where university students were sucked into a medieval fantasy world. Blackmoor could be played as a campaign, where players continued their story over multiple sessions. Arneson went on to add rules for improving skills so that characters could get stronger over time. He also wanted to take combat away from the battlefield and make it more personal, so he experimented with new locations, including enclosed spaces, such as castles and sewers. These indoor environments became known as dungeons (Gannage, 2020).
Gary Gygax first played The Siege of Bodenburg at Gen-Con in 1968, and he went on to modify the game into a medieval-themed wargame called Chainmail based on an initial design made by an early associate named Jeff Perren. They released the game in 1969 and it became popular enough that Gygax published a fantasy supplement the following year, introducing creatures from popular fantasy novels, such as J.R.R. Tokien’s Lord of the Rings. He also added rules for individual characters called Heroes who had a major impact on the battles (Gannage, 2020).
Arneson incorporated elements of Chainmail into Blackmoor (Gannage, 2020), and after he and Gygax met at Gen-Con in 1972, they began to collaborate on game designs (Flournoy, 2018). Gygax founded a company called Tactical Studies Rules (later TSR Hobbies) and the two went on to design the initial rules for Dungeons & Dragons (Gannage, 2020).
In January 1974, they printed and sold a thousand copies (Gannage, 2020). In 1975, they sold four thousand (Lancaster, 2004). The game had a slow start, one reason likely being that all the equipment needed to play the game weren’t provided when buying the pre-packaged set. Another problem was that the rules were very complex for amateurs. A journalist at the time had written that the game was “only marginally less complicated than a Ptolemaic analysis of planetary motion.” Eventually, the game would find its audience in college students and military personnel (Flournoy, 2018). By 1979, there would be an estimated 300,000 players (Gannage, 2020) and TSR would gross $2 million. These profits multiplied the following years, with $8.5 million in 1980 and an estimated $20 million in 1981 (Lancaster, 2004).
Tabletop RPGs became a subculture with conventions, and supplemental books were published that offered additional rules and settings. In 1989, there were over 300 different tabletop RPGs on the market. TSR Hobbies was plagued with legal disputes and changed hands several times, but the game itself continued to grow in popularity. In 1983, CBS Network even produced a cartoon based on the game. In 1997, a major distribution error combined with heavy investment in a failed game caused the company to nosedive and their competitor Wizards of the Coast acquired it. They were later purchased by Hasbro (Gannage, 2020). As of June 2022, Dungeons & Dragons is reported to have around 50 million players worldwide.
Image Source: LA Times, July 11 1979
THE CONTROVERSY BEGINS
One of the very first articles about D&D was from Los Angeles Times on July 11, 1979, entitled “Dungeons and Dragons: Fantasy Life in a Game Without End.” The article described the game as incredibly complex where many players were university students or intellectually gifted children and teenagers. It also mentioned that the game caused players to invest significant amounts of time and money. There wasn’t much controversy surrounding D&D at the time the article was published, but quotes from interviewed players pointed out that because the game allows you do what you want, some had explored violent and sexual themes. One person was quoted saying “D&D is an escape. An outlet for aggression. It’s an ego trip – everything you could want.” (Gannage, 2020).
Image Source: The Herald Palladium, September 7, 1979
THE CASE OF DALLAS EGBERT
One especially noteworthy incident was on August 15, 1979, when 16-year-old James “Dallas” Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014; Flournoy, 2018; Gannage, 2020), leaving behind a note saying, “To whom it may concern: Should my body be found, I wish to be cremated.” His parents offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who had information about his location. Seven days later, they hired a private investigator named William Dear who was a former Florida highway patrolman and a former cult de-programmer (Gannage, 2020).
Dear discovered that Egbert had recently been exposed to D&D and was part of a roleplaying club that played a live-action version of the game in the underground steam tunnels of Michigan State University (Lancaster, 2004; Flournoy, 2018). He theorized that Egbert had lost himself in a game and become delusional, unable to differentiate reality from fiction (Gannage, 2020). At one point, he even speculated that someone else—a mysterious Dungeon Master—could have influenced the boy and used him in a real-life game (Flournoy, 2018). While it was known that Egbert struggled mentally and physically, there were no links that tied his disappearance or mental illness in general to D&D. He used recreational drugs like PCP, and allegedly struggled with coming to terms with his sexual identity, being on MSU’s Gay Council. Dear ignored all those details, instead focusing entirely on the link to D&D (Flourney, 2018; Gannage, 2020).
Image Source: Edmonton Journal, September 8, 1979
The media went all-in on this theory with headlines such as “Game Cultist Still Missing,” “Fantasy Turned Real Life May Have Killed Student,” and “Dungeons & Dragons’ Cult May Lead to Missing Boy.” Egbert was found several weeks later with no signs of D&D-related instability (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014). Instead, what had happened on the night of his disappearance was that he had entered the steam tunnels underneath the university, bringing with him methaqualone (a hypnotic sedative) with the intention of overdosing. He survived the attempt, but instead of returning home, he went into hiding at a friend’s house. Egbert then continued to travel for several weeks, staying with acquaintances. Eventually, he ended up in New Orleans, where he tried to poison himself again. After also failing this time, he decided to contact his family (Flournoy, 2018). Despite the truth coming out, the media still decided to run articles into the following year about how Egbert was a victim of D&D. The boy eventually took his own life on August 18, 1980, and it was clear that the suicide had been caused by severe loneliness and depression (Gannage, 2020).
Years after the Dallas Egbert case, and despite knowing that it had nothing to do with D&D, William Dear wrote a memoir called The Dungeon Master that was a romanticized and exaggerated account of the investigation, where he painted himself as a cool-under-pressure hero and made up events that had never occurred. Even though he had admitted in a press release after the investigation that D&D was unrelated to the case (Gannage, 2020), and that he believed that the media had seriously misrepresented the steam tunnel incident (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014), he still turned the game into a key focus of his book (Gannage, 2020).
Author Rona Jaffe was inspired by the newspaper accounts of this case, took some of William Dear’s concepts, and wrote a bestselling novel named Mazes and Monsters. The book became popular enough to be made into a film, starring Tom Hanks. Though Rona Jaffe did take a more balanced approach in her book and even presented some positive aspects of roleplaying, she still shared the perception that D&D could be linked to delinquency and vices. However, while cases such as the Dallas Egbert one had caused people to start linking D&D to mental illness, there was also a growing idea that the game was connected to satanism (Gannage, 2020).
THE SATANIC PANIC
The 1970s may have seen the birth of D&D, but it had also seen a steady rise in America’s fear of brainwashing and cults. The Cold War, movies like The Manchurian Candidate, and new studies in psychology helped turn “brainwashing” into a trigger word throughout the United States. Many feared that Communist states—or other groups they deemed evil—were trying to secretly control their youth. Parents were suspicious of things they didn’t understand, including the games their children played (Flournoy, 2018). People believed that there were criminal networks operating at all levels of society, from high-level politicians to ordinary teenage pranksters. These performed occult rituals with human sacrifice to destroy anything humanity perceived as moral and good. Tabletop RPGs, such as D&D, were considered one of the most effective and ingenious tools for spreading this kind of satanism (Noland, 2021).
The entire premise of the Satanic Panic (also called the Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic) was created on fictitious conspiracy theories—a mass hysteria and the purest case of moral panic (Gannage, 2020; Sidhu & Carter, 2020; Noland, 2021). And it wasn’t just the general public that was affected; therapists, police officers, psychologists, and child-protection workers all believed in these organized cults and that people infiltrated child-care centers and preschools to abuse children in debased rituals. A survey from Redbook magazine showed that 70% of Americans believed in these satanic cults and a third believed that the authorities purposely ignored them. In total, this panic would result in over 12,000 accusations. While there were occasional cases of individual abusers using occult trappings, there was no evidence of any organized satanic cults who engaged in such abuse (Gannage, 2020).
But why was this a thing to begin with? There were primarily three contributing factors: first, there was the increased awareness of child sexual abuse; second, there was the fear over cults and satanism; and third, there were questionable advancements in psychology (Gannage, 2020).
The first factor, as mentioned, was the increased awareness of child sexual abuse. This was a topic that no one really spoke about in the 70s. The public perception was that this was something that deranged fathers did to their daughters, but the feminist movement argued that there were larger issues at play, such as traditional gender roles and patriarchal authority. This caused the perception to shift towards mental illness, and psychoterapists suddenly took a larger role in dealing with victims and perpetrators than impartial investigators. It’s important to point out that in the 70s, because sexual abuse was almost never spoken about, false accusations were incredibly rare. When someone was accused, the accusations were usually true. A study at the time concluded that 62% of women had suffered sexual abuse in some form. These statistics generalized all forms, though, which meant that children abused by their fathers were grouped together with grown women cat-called on the street. However, the media at the time ran these numbers without elaboration, and let the public draw their own conclusions about what they meant. Naturally, people assumed the worst, and both journalists and politicians capitalized on that concern. There were even claims that as many as 50,000 children were kidnapped every year – which, just wasn’t the case at the time. According to the Department of Justice, most cases related to missing children were family abductions, runaways, and forms of disappearance not associated with abduction. But public perception had already been formed (Gannage, 2020).
The second factor was the growing concern over cults and satanism, and here the term demonize is apt. Because of the prevalence of Christianity in western culture, the concepts of Satan and his demons were often tied to heresy and foreign religions. It was also common to use ethnic groups or political ideologies as scapegoats for social turmoil, such as accusing Jews and communists of forming conspiracies to destroy society. But where did all the satanists come from? The short answer is, Hollywood. In the late 60s and early 70s, Hollywood drew audiences with films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. The Christian fundamentalist movement was growing at the same time, with their literal interpretations of the Bible. For them, it wasn’t a question of whether Satan was real, but rather in what capacity he was influencing society. So, a combination of Hollywood’s use of satanic imagery and the rise of Christian fundamentalism contributed to an increase in public belief that Satan was real (Gannage, 2020).
Image Source: Newsday (Suffolk Edition), 25 November, 1978
The 60s also introduced new spiritual and religious groups, such as the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, which were both accused of brainwashing their members. In the 70s, these groups were compared to Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate. There was also the confirmed cult of Jim Jones where over 900 people committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. The term cult was now a real thing and associated with disturbing criminal activity. There were also various occult belief systems entering the public marketplace, such as Wicca and neo-Paganisms. Actual satanists were different, though. While there were several organized satanic groups, such as the Temple of Set and the Church of Satan, they weren’t involved in sexual abuse claims. They were strange and anti-Christian, but not necessarily criminal. Most occult-related crime included mischief such as graffiti, cemetery vandalism, and church desecration. These crimes were most often perpetrated by white teenage boys as well—satanism at the time was basically a rebellious fad for the young white male (Gannage, 2020).
The third and final factor behind the Satanic Panic were questionable advancements in the field of psychology. In 1980, the bestselling book Michelle Remembers was published. This book was an account into horrific abuse suffered at the hands of a satanic cult back in 1955, written by Michelle Smith and psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Pazder. Dr. Pazder also presented a paper at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting where he coined the term “ritual abuse.” However, none of the events depicted in the book was ever verified, and the only reasonable explanation was that Michelle Smith’s memories had been constructed during her therapy; this is called false memory syndrome. Sigmund Freud had developed the concept of repressed memories, where traumatic experiences are unconsciously forgotten as a coping mechanism. This was a time in history when hypnosis became a fad, with charlatans claiming to be able to help people reconnect with lost memories. No one has been able to verify that even the concept of repression is real, (Gannage, 2020) so while it’s a concept often spoken about even today, most research psychologists are skeptical that it actually happens in real life. Today, most psychologists use the term dissociative amnesia to refer to repressed memories, but it’s still a controversial term, because of the problematic consequences it can lead to.
Image Source: LA Times, April 2, 1984
One notable example of how this fantasy could be harmful was the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California in the 80s. A paranoid mother who was clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia was confident that her son had been abused at his preschool. The authorities took her at her word and called in a professional child abuse interviewer. The boy originally denied any abuse, but then began to admit to it after the interviewer hadn’t taken no for an answer. There was no actual evidence against the preschool apart from the boy’s testimony, which is now discredited. This became the longest running court case in US history. The preschool received death threats from people across the United States. People even became convinced that there was a giant sex ring in the town itself, and they began to report anything that looked suspicious to the authorities. At its peak, there was a full-blown witch hunt in the town, with countless people falsely accused of sexual abuse. Even Dr. Pazder, the co-author of Michelle Remembers, came to the town to discuss his theory on an international satanic conspiracy being at play. Eventually, the trial ended with hung juries—because there was no actual proof—but the panic continued to spread. Some respected child-protection professionals even suggested that anyone expressing skepticism about the trials were agents from the other side. And naturally, when even professionals legitimized the concerns, there was no hope of reducing the panic, which spread across the nation (Gannage, 2020).
While the general populace was more concerned about the criminal implications of occultism, the religious conservatives were largely focused on the reality of Satan. To a Christian, satanism wasn’t just a criminal threat—it was a spiritual attack. Dramatic cultural shifts in the 60s, such as the sexual revolution, supported the Christian view that the United States had lost its cultural morality. The old clashed with the new, and this conflict wasn’t just cultural—it was political. A subculture emerged centered around defending conservative moral values as found in traditionally literal interpretations of the Bible. These were evangelicals (Gannage, 2020).
To the evangelical Christian, conversion is completely transforming, meaning that a Christian must avoid worldly activities and seek out things that are holy. Even things that the Bible never explicitly states as sins were deemed as such, such smoking, drinking, gambling, cursing, movies, and certain forms of music. Sacrificial service and devotion to one’s faith called evangelicals to a higher standard than the average religious person. Another focus was on the evangelical family, which was a nuclear family with well-defined gender roles and authority structures. The evangelical family was to be a place of safety and peace where children could be sheltered from worldly influences (Gannage, 2020).
The 60s countercultures were attacks against the evangelicals’ so called “traditional” values. Christian movements against moral issues had been non-political cultural dissentions in the past. Now, when America had become a godless society, there was a spark of Christian political activism dedicated to halting this moral decline. The sexual revolution was not only an insult to the biblical teachings on sexual ethics, but it also challenged assumptions about women’s place in society, and thus the idea of a “traditional family.” The feminist movement escalated the issue and challenged the desirability of homemaking and childrearing as fulfilling purposes for a wife or a mother. There was also the legalization of abortion and the removal of prayer and reading of Scripture from public schools, as well as entirely new counterculture movements like the New Age movement. The only thing the evangelicals could do at this point to protect their children was to go on the offensive. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell appeared to steer things right, and they even one time televised an episode on Dungeons & Dragons (Gannage, 2020).
Evangelicals were concerned about most things in pop culture. They were against rock music because of sexual content, violent and vulgar language, and recurring occult themes, with some bands even hailing Satan. They were against television because it exposed and desensitized children to violence, and because of its sexual content. They were against Dungeons & Dragons because of its addictive nature, how they perceived it to cause players to lose a sense of reality (and potentially cause suicide), as well as its occult themes and ideas. Christian fundamentalists have a fervent belief that the supernatural is real. While people joke about demonic possession, Christian believe that it exists. They also believe that Satan directly influences the world, causing them to approach new things with discerning eyes. To evangelical Christians, this is a war over the souls of their children (Gannage, 2020).
ACCUSATIONS AGAINST D&D
In 1980, the public school district of Heber City, a small town in Utah, used D&D in a gifted and talented program to help “stimulate imagination, creativity, and teamwork among talented children.” A community of mostly Mormon parents were concerned about satanic influences in D&D, and they brought complaints about it to the local school board. In one meeting, 300 people opposed the game, despite strong support from both players and members of the Parent Teachers Association. The New York Times covered the story with the headline “Utah Parents Exorcise ‘Devilish’ Game; Fomenting Communist Subversion Complaints Began Right Away.” The article describes how teachers and school officials were shocked and amused by the community’s reaction to their program which was focused on using D&D to encourage imagination and teamwork. Instead of having been recognized for their efforts, they were accused of satanism and communism. One minister told a reporter that the game “can be very dangerous for anyone involved in [it] because it leaves them open to [real] satanic spirits.” The article also included a response from Brian Blume, vice president of TSR Hobbies, who explained that the game was about heroic fantasy and required obstacles for the players to overcome. He said that “The things most fun to overcome are things that are evil, foul, rotten, and nasty, so we also included some things that were evil, foul, rotten, and nasty for that reason.” The program ended up being cancelled—a victory for the Mormon parents (Lancaster, 2004; Gannage, 2020).
This victory emboldened these religious groups. In 1981, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today released an article entitled “D&D: A fantasy fad or dabbling in the demonic?” After reporting on the game and its popularity, the article relays criticisms from evangelicals all over the United States. It points out that D&D was successfully forced out of a summer recreational program of a Sacramento suburb, and that a minister in Hutchinson, Kansas, wanted to collect money to buy up and burn every copy he could find of the game. The article also describes how many takes issue with the game’s inclusion of supernatural characters such as demons, harpies, gnomes, and witches; something which evangelicals claimed encourages occult influences and dabbling with demonic spirits (Gannage, 2020).
In the book Painted Black, philosopher and theologian Carl Raschke writes that “because there is no exit to the dungeon fashioned brick by brick by the mind, the suicide solution frequently seems the only cogent alternative … The game is one’s fate. Like a Lear or any other tragic hero, it is not inconceivable that the only conceivable outcome is madness, or death.” He also states that D&D is an elementary-level home study kit for black magic, that the game causes players to go off the deep end, and that they are apt to identify with Satan (Lancaster, 2004).
Image Source: Dark Dungeons by Chick Publications (1984)
Another harsh criticism of D&D was published by Jack Chick’s Chick Publications in 1984: “Dark Dungeons” was a comic book style tract about two teenage girls who started playing D&D. It turns out that D&D is an actual cult, and the Dungeon Master recruits the girls to a witch coven and teaches them how to cast real spells. The Dungeon Master compels the main character to commit murder to gain her powers as a witch. When one of their characters die in the game, that girl grows depressed and takes her life. The other girl has a demon exorcised by a preacher and is charged with burning all of her D&D books, rock music, and occult literature (Wilson, 2019; Gannage, 2020).
In 1989, Pat Robertson had a segment on Dungeons & Dragons. He said that “Some claim it’s a simple harmless game, yet suicides, murders, and robberies have been linked to this game.” There’s a five-minute interview documentary following a young man who became obsessed with D&D, grew depressed, considered suicide, and then stopped playing thanks to his mother’s prayers and a young Christian group. A program like this would have proven very effective at convincing Christian parents around the United States of how games like this could be evil (Gannage, 2020).
BOTHERED ABOUT DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS (BADD)
On June 9, 1982, 16-year-old Irving “Bink” Pulling committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. After finding out that he had been playing D&D at school, his distraught mother, Patricia Pulling, was convinced that the game had been a factor in his suicide (Wilson, 2019; Gannage, 2020). In actuality, Irving had only played nine hours of D&D at school—hardly enough to cause a break from reality. He did suffer from mental illness, though, with classmates testifying that he wasn’t well-adjusted and struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. He also dealt with two parents who were both having affairs. According to an anonymous source, Irving’s suicide was an act of aggression towards his mother Patricia. She did not see things this way, though (Gannage, 2020).
Patricia Pulling came from a Jewish background, was highly religious, and believed that suicide was a violation of her beliefs. It was unthinkable that her son could have taken his life of his own accord, and she was convinced that he had been influenced by the devil. Because of her belief that tabletop RPGs were evil, they were easy to blame as the tool Satan used to communicate with her son. In her book “The Devil’s Web: Who is Stalking Your Children for Satan?”, she explains that she had found a note with a written curse and assumed that her son had taken it literally and killed himself (Gannage, 2020; Noland, 2021).
Patricia Pulling failed to sue the principal for her son’s death. She then failed to sue TSR Hobbies directly. While the courts failed to accept the accusations, the media capitalized on the lawsuits and planted ideas in the public’s mind. She gained a lot of support from others, and founded the organization Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) in 1983 (Wilson, 2019; Gannage, 2020). This was an advocacy group that published misleading information about how D&D used demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination, and other such subjects to provoke young people into suicide and violent behavior (Sidhu & Carter, 2020). She believed that the corrupting nature of tabletop RPGs came from a Game Master being a person of power and the occult rituals being found in the game’s rulebooks. In the latter half of a nearly forty-page pamphlet, Patricia Pulling and her fellow activists compared D&D spells with real world occult practices to illustrate ties between them (Wilson, 2019).
Patricia Pulling partnered with psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, director of the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), and the two became the strongest organized groups against D&D (Lancaster, 2004; Gannage, 2020). Radecki wanted to remove overtly violent images from TV because of the impact they could have on children. When presenting his cases, he sometimes used outright false statistics or cherrypicked what to use. For example, he once stated that one in four Hollywood films contained a rape scene, which was easily provably false. In one case, he even cited a letter from the fictional film Mazes and Monsters to show that D&D had directly caused the death of a player. Radecki appointed Patricia Pulling to help him lead the NCTV and he supported her claims by putting in weight as a psychiatrist (Wilson, 2019).
Together, they attempted to have the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Protection Agency force TSR to put warning labels on D&D publications (Lancaster, 2004). They appealed to congressmen, and even appeared on talk shows and current affairs programs, such as 60 Minutes. Despite having no formal education, and only a two-year associate degree in art, Patricia Pulling called herself an occult expert and gave public seminars linking D&D to occult crimes, suicides, and satanic ritual abuse. She even spoke at events such as national law enforcement conferences. Both she and Radecki appeared several times as expert witnesses in high profile court cases where defendants claimed that D&D had affected their ability to discern reality. This came to be called “the D&D Defense” and was never successful in trial with the exception for one case with a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with schizophrenia (Gannage, 2020).
BADD kept a list of all reported suicides where the victims had been associated with D&D—a list of around 150 cases. D&D was shown to be the cause in none of them, but even if it were, it would show a decrease compared to the national average for suicide. Because there were around four million players at the time, the national suicide average should have reported 6,840 cases of D&D-linked suicide, and not just 150. But Patricia Pulling used this number as proof that D&D was the leading cause. She was sloppy with statistics when presenting her misleading claims, but this didn’t impact the effect she had on police departments. She offered a guide for investigators entitled “Interviewing Techniques for Adolescents” that was designed to help them know what to do when they suspected a D&D player had committed a crime (Gannage, 2020).
In 1989, fantasy author and game designer Michael Stackpole wrote an article entitled “Game Hysteria and the Truth” which he followed up in 1990 with “The Pulling Report.” These articles aimed to debunk groups like BADD’s mythos surrounding tabletop RPGs, going over Patricia Pulling’s blatant misrepresentation of facts as well as her lack of credentials as an investigator. Stackpole cited sources that included a study from the Center for Disease Control, as well as a study from the American Association of Suicidology, which stated that suicide among teens were no more common in those who played D&D than in those that did not. While “Game Hysteria and the Truth” focused more on the general claims, “The Pulling Report” focused on Patricia Pulling specifically. Stackpole pointed out that her first foray into being an “occult expert” came after she sued the principal of her son’s school after his suicide. He also pointed out that her 1987 claim of having been a private investigator for six years was false, and that she had only received her private investigator license that same year. He analyzed the guidelines Pulling had written for police departments and pointed out how she never provided evidence for her claims. After the publication of “The Pulling Report,” Patricia Pulling left BADD (Wilson, 2019).
After this, BADD’s influence began to wane. Because there was no evidence behind their claims, they began to lose support (Gannage, 2020). While Patricia Pulling deserves sympathy for losing her son, she deceived herself until the end. She was looking for someone or something to blame, slipping further into delusion despite overwhelming evidence disproving every claim she made (Hawkes-Robinson, 2014). She died of cancer in 1997 (Gannage, 2020).
THE MORAL PANIC NEVER ENDS
While domestic sexual abuse was a real problem in the 70s, there simply wasn’t any evidence of organized satanic infiltration of child-care facilities, as people claimed in the 80s. These were moral panics (Gannage, 2020). This is a term coined by Howard S. Becker in 1963 to describe people who create or maintain social norms, and who stir social concerns about various issues deemed threatening or evil. According to Becker, there are two groups of moral entrepreneurs: rules creators and rules enforcers. The former establishes social norms while the latter takes action against those who step out of societal norms (Wilson, 2019).
When it comes to the Satanic Panic, we have the concerned parents. It’s a parent’s job to protect their children and it’s only natural for them to be on guard for anything that could be a threat (Gannage, 2020). While assertions of a game being a significant danger to young people seem absurd to most people, it wasn’t absurd to many parents, such as Patricia Pulling. This was a time when Americans felt under siege by shifting cultural tides that pushed things like drugs, rock music, and horror movies that all went against traditional Christian family values. People like Patricia Pulling began to question who should be protecting children, and they arrived at answers ranging from communal efforts to policing children’s media or even to actions on the part of the United States government (Wilson, 2019).
The concerned parents can be excused for making leaps in logic when wanting to protect their children, but it is really problematic when the professionals legitimize these leaps, and when news reporters take them as fact and spread them across the nation. Dr. Pazder was an expert, but he also enjoyed the public attention he got for his important role in “uncovering” a satanic conspiracy. Dr. Radecki was also an expert, but he gave legitimacy to Patricia Pulling’s claims while he himself engaged in faulty science. And when it comes to media in particular, first impressions are extremely powerful. When it was proven that Dallas Egbert’s disappearance had nothing to do with D&D, the story was already out there, and the media had little incentive to deescalate a situation that earned them views (Gannage, 2020).
Moral panics like the Satanic Panic and the D&D scare all run on urban myths, and false memory syndrome can be used to verify such urban myths. The fear of satanists was a major factor behind the Satanic Panic, spearheaded by misled parents concerned for their children, sparked by events that were misunderstood or misinterpreted, and then hyped and sensationalized by the media. It’s also important to point out that the ones swallowed up in this were not just the social conservatives, though the movement leaders often were. But no, the panic spread to all parts of society, and there are moral panics still today targeting new groups as perceived threats (Gannage, 2020).
The D&D scare and other anti-gaming panics were started by religious parents like Patricia Pulling, but these were just some moral panics in a sea of others. Anti-drug campaigns; fears surrounding violence on television. There were many parent-driven movements aimed to protecting the American youth from perceived evils, and this continues to this day. But to claim that these moral crises are mainly caused by religion fails to consider broader parental movements—many of which are secular. For example, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) aimed to protect children from sexualized music. PMRC, BADD, and other groups, often used television to garner support for their moral panic, such as how PMRC used television to pressure Congress to have a hearing on the content of music in 1985. In another example, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America was known for their “Any Questions?” PSA where they likened a brain on drugs to a frying egg. A concerned parent didn’t have to go further than to their living room to be exposed to moral panics about the dangers of a shifting culture. While there certainly were real dangers out there, such as a rising crime rate, the conflation of these with satanism and tabletop RPGs were constructions (Wilson, 2019).
THE BENEFITS OF TABLETOP RPGS
In 1994, an article pointed out that if people who were speaking out about D&D were correct, there would be many more suicides and violent incidents in the roleplaying community. Though that same article did report that D&D players tended to report higher levels of alienation, (Gannage, 2020), it also pointed out that further research was needed to explore whether intense roleplaying caused players to become alienated or whether intense players were already alienated prior to playing. It was possible that the feelings expressed by the players in this study were no different than the feelings of other individuals who were intensely committed to other recreational activities (Lancaster, 2004).
There was also a study made in 1995 where the goal was to find connections between D&D players and those dabbling in satanism. It didn’t find any such connections, instead discovering that fantasy gamers had significant differences to “satanic dabblers.” The conclusion of these articles was that D&D is no more likely to be dangerous than a book or a movie. As a matter of fact, researchers have found evidence linking tabletop RPGs to improved mental health, with games being used in therapeutic environments to help both children and adults. High-risk children appear to have improved socially, emotionally, and intellectually through the use of D&D as a safe environment for learning (Gannage, 2020).
In England, the Surrey County Schools’ inspector for English and Drama had students compete in a D&D competition, reporting that the teachers were impressed by how the game showed the kids’ ability to develop socially, with clear communication and character analysis (Lancaster, 2004). In fact, tabletop RPGs have proven effective in helping even people with more complex psychological conditions. A case report from Dr. Wayne D. Blackmon details how a 19-year-old college student diagnosed with free-floating depression, suicidal tendencies, and schizoid nature, underwent months of formal therapy from multiple psychiatrists without any positive benefits. He was then introduced to D&D which helped him develop complete characters with emotions he couldn’t express on his own. As the other players consciously used the game as a means of therapy, his own demons were brought to light within an environment that was both comfortable and safe. In this case, D&D succeeded at something individual therapy had failed at (Noland, 2021). It could help a person reflect on their emotions and identity, using imagined characters as a medium for thought (Flournoy, 2018).
Today, the use of tabletop RPGs in therapy is more accepted than ever before. Nonprofit organization Game to Grow develops games specifically to help those struggling with autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety (Noland, 2021). They were launched through a successful crowdfunding campaign aimed to “provide therapeutic and educational gaming groups that contribute to the growth of communities … [and] promote an understanding of the power and benefit of games across the world.” (Sidhu & Carter, 2020). Their game Critical Core is also helpful in anger management and in increasing empathy and happiness, all while promoting fun and cooperative interaction (Noland, 2021).
Tabletop RPGs can also be a very inclusive hobby. Of course, not every game setting depicts a perfect world, but fantasy worlds like those in D&D are disconnected enough from reality that the racial structures of real life don’t have to be seen in that same context. Immersive games like D&D can empower individual players and help them combat the self-loathing that some may feel after being persecuted by others for things that set them apart (Noland, 2021). I myself did a study on the therapeutic applications of tabletop RPGs back in 2020 where I interviewed several licensed practitioners who use the game in therapeutic settings.
Tabletop RPGs have nothing to do with beliefs, gender, race, or satanism. They supply a welcoming space for players, where every campaign is unique and tailored to personal experiences. In some cases, they can be more therapeutic than traditional practices or prescription drugs. A tabletop RPG can help a player look inside themselves, bond with others, and critically think about situations that can reflect upon real life. It helps the player train empathy, as they get to walk in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the feelings of someone other than themselves (Noland, 2021).
Finally, tabletop RPGs is a form of escape. Traditionally, the idea of escapism has had negative connotations. It insinuates that someone tries to live in an imaginary world and tries to avoid dealing with real-life issues or situations. However, escapism is a natural part of the human experience. People practice escapism when immersing themselves in a television show or when in deep conversation. J.R.R. Tolkien called escapism the “escape of the prisoner” rather than the ”flight of a deserter.” He said, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks about and talks about other topics than jailers and prisonwalls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” Tolkien believed that immersion in literature or other means could be therapeutic, as it allowed one to—for a moment—escape the pressures of life. But escapism doesn’t only take you away from something else. It adds something new. Power structures are rearranged, social contracts are rewritten, and even moralities are changed and reimagined. These stories don’t just provide temporary escape, but they add context and meaning for you to evaluate (Flournoy, 2018).
Much has happened to tabletop RPGs and to D&D in its almost fifty years. It survived the moral panics of the 80s and 90s, having gone from a satanic product causing teen suicides to become a wholesome activity applauded for its pedagogical and social benefits (Sidhu & Carter, 2020). Back in 1983, interest in fantasy was characterized as limited to hardcore nerds—those who didn’t meet or adhere to many of the “normative requirements of conventional society.” That was 1983. In 2019, the online streaming show Critical Role held a live show in Los Angeles called The Search for Grog, which sold out thousands of seats within a matter of hours. Critical Role in particular has broadened the interest in D&D and in tabletop RPGs in general since their debut in 2015 (Sidhu & Carter, 2020).
There’s reason to argue that D&D’s success was not in spite of but because of the moral panic surrounding the game. The early 80s saw a drastic increase in customers, and many of these were likely curious teens and young adults who wanted to see what the outrage was about. BADD, who wanted to keep children from these games, instead increased the popularity of them. Unlike larger organizations like PMRC, who managed to enact actual change, BADD only influenced certain individual parents and local groups. While some school districts banned the game, there was no lasting legislation. That the hobby could be a satanic cult is a joke made by many gamers today. It’s more popular than ever before, much thanks to the efforts of people like Patricia Pulling (Wilson, 2019).
I think that looking at this story—the history of tabletop RPGs as well as the rise and fall of the Satanic Panic—helps us to better appreciate the games we play. It’s important to remember, though, that Satanic Panic was a product of its time, but it was only one moral panic in a sea of others. Today, new moral panics are at full display, and social media has played a bigger role than the media in spreading destructive ideas to people who are susceptible to them. And everyone is susceptible to some degrees.
What you can do is to be aware of the things around you, be critical of the news and opinions that enter your feed, and focus on being the best person you can be for yourself and for others. Players of tabletop RPGs used to feel alienated, but we don’t need to feel that way anymore. Be kind. Be inclusive. Be your best self. And show people that this is the best hobby in the world.
Flournoy, B. L. (2018). Tabletop Role-Playing Games, Narrative, and Individual Development. ( Link to full article: https://digitalcommons.gardner-webb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=undergrad-honors )
Gannage, Elias. (2020). Misguided Paladins: A Sympathetic Investigation of Cultural Factors That Gave Support to the Factually Inaccurate Campaign Against Dungeons & Dragons. 10.13140/RG.2.2.13521.97125.
Hawkes-Robinson, W. (2014). Self-Deception & Propaganda Against Role-Playing Gamers by B.A.D.D. and Others. ( Link to full article: https://www.academia.edu/42079329/Deception_Term_Paper_Hawkes_Robinson_20140315i_Rev_20140922j )
Lancaster, Kurt. (2004). Do Role-Playing Games Promote Crime, Satanism and Suicide among Players as Critics Claim?. The Journal of Popular Culture. 28. 67 – 79. 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1994.2802_67.x.
Noland, C. G. (2021). A Drug You Can Trust. In B. Siebert (Ed.). The Angle: Journal of Student Writing (pp. 11 – 16). Washburn University
Sidhu, P. & Carter, M. (2020). The Critical Role of Media Representations, Reduced Stigma and Increased Access in D&D’s Resurgence. ( Link to full article: http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/DiGRA_2020_paper_223.pdf )
Wilson, A. (2019). Demons & Devils: The Moral Panic Surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, 1979-1991. http://hdl.handle.net/1808/29349
Alien RPG | Basic Rules
The Current State of the Machineborn RPG (December 2022)
Tabletop RPGs and the Satanic Panic
Exalted: Planning Your First Game
It is often said that Exalted is a game where you, as the Storyteller, can’t plan for your players’ shenanigans. It is said that the player characters are too powerful to be contained within some kind of planned narrative. This is an exaggeration. Exalted is a very different game to storytell compared to many other games, but it can definitely contain a narrative with more or less Storyteller influence, depending on the game you want to lead.
ESTABLISH A SETTING
Before you sit down and start planning, and before the players make their characters, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what kind of setting you want the game to take place in. Does the game take place in Creation? If so, in what Direction. What is the general cultural themes? How does the environment look? What kind of climate is there? If you know the answer to these questions, it will be easier to build a story using that setting.
What kind of setting you choose can also be directly associated with the Exalt types the players are going to play as. Solar games can be widely spread, but they are usually held within the Threshold—especially for new players. Dragon-Blooded games can also be held in the Threshold, but the Blessed Isle is full of Dragon-Bloods and there are plenty of story opportunities there. Mixed games are trickier, and it’s nothing I recommend for new Storytellers.
I usually ask my players where they want the game to take place, but that’s not something I recommend for a new Storyteller with limited setting knowledge. If this is your first time storytelling Exalted, I recommend a starting location that requires little established knowledge. Keep it away from Realm politics and various important players, such as Ma-Ha Suchi or Lookshy, and just add your own land and culture to a random blank spot on the map (the Hundred Kingdoms is good for this). If your players are new to the game as well, and they are all going to play as Solars, it could be a good idea to keep them at a distance from the Realm so that they can be allowed to roam more freely with their powers.
You don’t need to design all the intricacies of your setting. Just a general idea of the environment and culture should be enough for now. If your game starts in a town, note some key locations or important details to make that town stick out. Perhaps there is a palace in the center of town. Who lives there? Is the town peaceful or at war? Is there a festival taking place? If so, why is it taking place? You don’t need to think too much about the actual narrative yet, but once you have a general idea of a setting, it’s time for the players to create their characters.
INCORPORATE THE CHARACTERS
I believe it is more helpful than detrimental to give the players more freedom to make the characters the way they want them to be. Since you’ve already decided on a starting location and you have some basic ideas of what’s important about that setting, ask your players to tie their characters to that setting in one way or another. This is something you can discuss with them depending on their character concepts. Are they native to the setting, or are they travelers passing through? If you have more than one player, try to build connections between them as well. It’s always easier for a new Storyteller to start a game with an established group rather than have them meet in game.
Once the players are happy with their characters, and you are happy about the location, it is time to start building a narrative that will connect with the players and the setting. I personally find this easier to do after the players have made their characters for one particular reason: their Intimacies. Exalted is a game where the player characters are powerful enough to take what you have planned and throw it out the window. If you want to tie those characters to a narrative, then you must be aware of the ties and principles of those characters.
Try to single out the Intimacies that your players care the most about—something you know that they can’t ignore, that will drive their story. See how these Intimacies can be incorporated in the setting you have created. Let’s take the example town mentioned earlier. There is a palace in its center and a festival that has attracted people from neighboring lands. If a running theme between the player Intimacies is a disdain for authority, use that and build a narrative where the local ruler is a tyrant who is going to execute members of a rebellion as part of a festival to himself. Try to connect the players to the rebellion by using their Intimacies to lure them in. It’s still important that you let the players make their own choices and have agency over their characters’ decisions. However, by appealing to their Intimacies, you can nudge them towards a narrative that they actually want to partake it.
There will be times when the players don’t swallow the bait and decide to ignore this narrative. If you want to avoid improvizing an entirely new narrative on the spot, it can be a good idea to figure out one or two backup lures that try to connect the players with the narrative in other ways. So the players don’t want to associate themselves with the rebellion, and they don’t care about the people in the town enough to want to challenge the tyrant. They are ignoring that particular story hook, focusing instead on enjoying the festival, and planning to leave the town once the festival is over. First, if your players aren’t at all interested in the story hooks you present them with, then you should listen to the players and see what they actually would like to see in game. It could be that your narrative just isn’t compelling enough for the players, who would rather do something else. However, it could also be that you’re too passive in your approach, and could benefit from a proactive approach. For example, perhaps have the tyrant’s soldiers single out the players for a crime they haven’t committed. As long as the players believe that it is their choice to take on the tyrant, they won’t see your red thread as a railroad (or they will see it, but they won’t mind).
The next step will then be to be aware of what the players can actually do to overcome or subvert challenges. Because depending on your players’ Charms, it’s possible that what you perceived as a challenge didn’t turn out to be a challenge at all.
BE WARY OF POWER
The biggest hurdle when trying to retain a narrative is player unpredictability. If one of the players is specialized in social Charms, maybe she rallies the people in the town in an uprising against the tyrant with a few choice words, or perhaps she talks herself to the tyrant’s side and convinces him to change his ways. If she’s a merchant with Bureaucracy Charms, maybe she navigates through the tyrant’s bureaucracies to end up ruining him and taking the town for herself. Or maybe she’s a combat monkey who just starts cutting down soldiers until she has the tyrant at her heels.
The Exalted are supposed to be powerful, and they are supposed to be able to do all of that and more. And more importantly, as their Storyteller, you’re supposed to encourage them to do all of that. The key to maintaining some kind of narrative through the Essence fever of naive young Exalts is to make yourself aware of what your players are capable of and planning for it. This does not mean that you should necessarily counter it. But you should know how to respond to it.
Make note of your characters’ Charms, spells, and Evocations so that you have a grasp of how capable they are within different areas of expertise. If your Night Caste is a stealth and larceny specialist, you need to know that the Night Caste should have little to no issues sneaking into the tyrant’s palace and assassinating him in his sleep. If your Zenith Caste can make people fall in love with her or worship her, then become aware that any mortal enemy you present may be turned into an ally at the whim of a few dice rolls.
You should never fear these powers as something that will break your narrative and force you out of your comfort zone. As long as you are aware of what your players can do—and what they likely want to do using their powers—incorporate those details into your plans. What would happen if the Night Caste sneaks into the palace and assassinates the tyrant? Perhaps the tyrants’ soldiers start lashing out at the people by breaking their doors and dragging them screaming out to the streets. What would happen if the tyrant is never alone, and if someone witnessed the assassination and managed to escape to tell everyone that super-powered demigods just murdered the boss? What would happen if the tyrant was charmed or manipulated to change his ways? Well, maybe he is a puppet controlled by a powerful demon? Maybe his palace is a manse with sorcerous defenses? Maybe the tyrant himself is some kind of Exalt. And more importantly, don’t be afraid to make things up.
What makes Exalted into such an interesting game to storytell for is that it is your players that drive the narrative. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a sustained narrative. What I want you to take with you is that the most important thing you can do as a Storyteller is to know your players and their characters. Know what drives them and know what they are capable of. The interesting part of the game is not the town and its tyrant. It is the choices your players make within the setting you present to them.
I usually write a page or so before each session where I note specific hooks for each individual player, based on their Charms, Intimacies, and what I know about their likes and dislikes. I try to cover something for each player so that everyone gets something to do and won’t feel left out. Sometimes it won’t work the way I hoped it would, but often times it is the surprises that make for memorable gaming experiences.