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