Dark Dungeons – Shedding The Stigma

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In my last article I mentioned a kid named Tim. Tim is an original member of our D&D group that didn’t last. Someone asked, “What happened to Tim?” That’s a good question, and one that is part of a much larger story connected to Dungeons and Dragons. You see, Tim fell victim to The Dark Dungeons.

Looking for the Devil in all the Wrong Places

TSR’s use of certain references, images, depictions and verbiage assured Dungeons & Dragons would conflict with the Church on some level. When it did, the conflict put an ugly stain on the game for long time. I suspect that even today there are people who believe evil lurks between the covers of D&D books. We have Dungeons & Dragons to thank for bearing the brunt of this early on. After what they went through, and ultimately vindication of any connection to the occult, games today can include occult-type material with more deference toward its intent.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, there was a wholesale attempt to find Satan anywhere he might be able to steal the souls of the innocent. From games to backward messages on records, ignorance and fear ruled a significant number of mothers and churches they attended, and the press was only more than happy to help conjure a juicy story.

The Catalyst

The stories that fueled the “Hunt for Satan” within the pages of the Dungeons & Dragons books of the late 70’s and 80’s go back to its most famous story: James Dallas Egbert III. It’s a sad tale of a clinically depressed prodigy that entered college at the age of sixteen. Egbert was an avid fan of Dungeons and Dragons. When Egbert disappeared from campus one day, ignorance and fear of the unknown drove the lead investigator of Egbert’s case to suggest that he was somehow impacted by an healthy attachment to a little known game called Dungeons & Dragons. You can read the true accounting of the story here. For a truly ridiculous twist on the story, look for Mazes and Monsters starring a very young Tom Hanks. It’s a graphic bastardization of what D&D really is.

Ignoring Facts

Other stories like Egbert’s would follow; Each time it was the same outcome. The evidence would show that Dungeons & Dragons had nothing to do with the problems of certain troubled youths. In 1988, a North Carolina State University student, Chris Pritchard and two friends murdered Pritchard’s stepfather for his fortune. The stepfather and wife (Pritchard’s own mother) were bludgeoned and stabbed in their bedroom. Pritchard’s stepfather was killed and his mother badly wounded.

True crime authors Joe McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe saw an opportunity to exploit the negative publicity surrounding Dungeons and Dragons to sell a book. Once again they ignored the facts which told the story of a troubled youth involved in drug and alcohol abuse. At the time, I worked with a member of the family, albeit distant. While they didn’t understand the Dungeons & Dragons, they were sure there were far greater influences on Pritchard’s decision than a game.

In 1985 60 Minutes broadcast an episode about a “disturbing number of teen suicides” with the common link being that they all played D&D. It was estimated at that time three to four million people were playing the game. It was a handful of suicides out of millions of players.

As I said before, Gary Gygax and TSR didn’t do themselves any favors with certain content they included in the game. Fortunately there were enough people who either took it for what is was (a game) and/or choose to see the flaws in the argument that religious leaders and groups like BADD (Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons). But, I can appreciate the sensitivities people have to some of the subject matter included in the game, especially in the early days of D&D.

The Bible Belt

Back to my friend Tim… By now you can probably put the pieces of his story together. To be clear, Tim was-and-is a well adjusted person. We were good friends all throughout High School and beyond, but in the “Dark Dungeon Days” Tim’s family was also heavily involved in a church. I don’t think there was pressure directly from his parents. In fact, they were really awesome people. But, I think church had enough influence that having a hobby that attracted so much negative attention might put a strain on the family/church relationship. It was probably easier for them to give in to the pressure than fight it. In their mind, between church, family and a game, the game is going to lose. I can respect their decision.

Not all families bought into the rumors about D&D. I am an example of one such family but I have an even better example: In my previous story where I talked about my introduction to D&D and I first mentioned Tim. I also introduced you to David, the Dungeon Master. David is the one who introduced Dungeons & Dragons to what would become my gaming group. Well, David was the son of a Methodist minister.  

The Damage is Done

Fortunately, not all parents are swayed by those wanting to crucify TSR for their heresy, but there was enough negative attention that, for me and anyone playing D&D in those days, especially in what is known as the bible belt, we faced these prejudices. Therefore, we often kept our discussion of it on the down low. I don’t remember having lively discussions about our adventures through Greyhawk between class changes in school. We certainly did not have an after school D&D club, and if we brought any D&D books to school they stayed in our locker or never left our book bag.

What the opponents ended up doing was further alienating the type of kid that was most often attracted to D&D. The game is attractive to kids considered outside “normal” accepted peer groups.  Speaking for myself, back then we tended to be less the athletes and more the bookworms. For most of us there was a reason why we didn’t quite fit in. (An interesting observation about my group – as we progressed through high school everyone in my group ultimately found their niche’ in respective social circles. These changes ultimately marked the end of our group).

“Satan’s Not Here”

Needless to say, Dungeons & Dragons did not lead any of us down a dark path to despair or satanic worship. Of the old group, we are now an Environmental Engineer, a college professor of Engineering, An Army Corp Engineer and a Product Support Engineer. And, of my friends and acquaintances I have made through playing Dungeons & Dragons, I have yet to meet anyone I wouldn’t leave my pet with for fear they would become a sacrifice in some dark ritual.

For more details on the stories described above and other controversies from the past look here.

Here is a great piece covering the “Satanic Panic” by Retro Report. It’s a great bit of vindication of the game. [embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATUpSPj0x-c[/embedyt]

The image slider below contains some images that likely gave some people cause to question. They are from the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual and Dungeon Masters Guide 1st edition

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Gravy Kingpin exists in two gaming worlds - Pen & Paper and console/PC. He's a part time guardian, part time Dungeon Master, and a full time husband and father of two.

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