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A Classic Moral Panic: The BBC on The Great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons Panic

Friday, April 11th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

D&D boxed sets-smallIf you’re as old (and as good-looking) as I am, you probably remember the occasional media hysterics surrounding Dungeons and Dragons in the late 70s and early 80s. Reports of teens committing suicide after playing D&D, getting lost in steam tunnels, turning to devil worship… it got to be almost routine by the mid-80s. You didn’t even pay attention after a while.

It certainly caused problems for some gamers, though. I knew of a few who were forbidden to play D&D by their parents. My own parents certainly heard the reports, but my Dad had a practical solution… he asked to sit in on a game. He rolled up a character named Drawde (Edward spelled backwards) and trooped down in the dungeon with us.

It was a decent enough session, actually, although my brother Mike and I exchanged a few wide-eyed glances as Dad started busting in dungeon doors. My older sister Maureen tagged along, and even my Mom joined in for a while. I remember Maureen found a +1 ring and when I explained it protected her from attack, she sauntered to the front of the party and started talking smack to the next group of orcs they ran in to.

She got peppered with arrows, and my father had to come to her rescue. She hung out in the rear after that. “Anyone want to buy a magic ring?” she asked.

We never had another family session of D&D. But my father was apparently satisfied that the game wasn’t leading Mike and I towards eternal damnation and we were never questioned after that, even as the press reports about the game got crazier. I think I still have Dad’s character sheet somewhere.

The BBC had a look back at the 1980s Dungeons and Dragons media scare in an entertaining and informative article written by Peter Ray Allison and published yesterday. Here’s some of the highlights.

In 1982, high school student Irving Lee Pulling died after shooting himself in the chest. Despite an article in the Washington Post at the time commenting “how [Pulling] had trouble ‘fitting in’,” mother Patricia Pulling believed her son’s suicide was caused by him playing D&D

At first, Patricia Pulling attempted to sue her son’s high school principal, claiming the curse placed upon her son’s character during a game run by the principal was real. She also sued TSR Inc, the publishers of D&D. Despite the court dismissing these cases, Pulling continued her campaign by forming Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) in 1983.

Pulling described D&D as “a fantasy role-playing game which uses 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 teachings.”

Pulling and BADD launched an intensive media campaign through conservative Christian outlets as well as mainstream media, including an appearance on current affairs show 60 Minutes opposite D&D creator Gary Gygax…

Looking back now, it’s possible to see the tendrils of a classic moral panic, and some elements of the slightly esoteric world of roleplaying did stir the imaginations of panicked outsiders.

Read the complete article here.

26 Comments »

  1. Ah, yes, the early 80s — good times! If it wasn’t D&D it was heavy metal — I remember our church youth group listening intently to backwards Zeppelin in search of Satanic messages, and having serious discussions about the lyrics of Hotel California for much the same reason.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 11, 2014 3:06 pm

  2. “I remember Maureen found a +1 ring, and when I explained it protected her from attack, she sauntered to the front of the party and started talking smack to the next group of orcs they ran in to.

    She got peppered with arrows, and my father had to come to her rescue. She hung out in the rear after that. “Anyone want to buy a magic ring?” she asked.”

    ROTFL

    Comment by westkeith - April 11, 2014 4:38 pm

  3. I was lucky. My step-dad tried to ban D&D from our house, but he was gone soon after and I got to do what I wanted. :-)

    I do remember being ostracized by some church kids for listening to Def Leppard in ’83. Yes, Def Leppard, those high icons of all things Satan.

    Comment by Ty Johnston - April 11, 2014 6:00 pm

  4. I purchased a couple of the books that came out around 1990 on the Satanic effects of D&D as I owned a game store at the time. They were wrong, interesting, but wrong.

    Comment by JLB - April 11, 2014 6:41 pm

  5. It is funny that these wingnuts from the 80s believed that D&D led to suicide. When you look at the profile of the suicidal you’ll find that most were socially reclusive. D&D by its nature is played in a group. The group was usually doing something cooperative and problem solving of some kind.

    The other big knock was that it led to Satanic worship. In the games I played it was usually a group of good guy characters battling evil ala Chuck Norris/King Arthur style. Sure, there might have been a thief in the group but the character class was aligned more with the Bilbo Baggins variety or a Robin Hood. Never once did I conjure up a demon– real or imagined.

    The game did attract a weird following but it also attracted creative and intelligent people too. Sadly, the spokesmen tended to be the village idiots and not the “mainstream”.

    I did have a falling out at my church. They harped on it and finally it was the fundamentalists that made me leave–not Satan.

    It ended when I asked my pastor, who claimed to be an expert in the game who had read it all. I brought in my “Satanic” volumes to him and asked if he could show me where in the manuals such a thing existed. Naturally, he couldn’t. He was a bit shocked that I, of all people, played the game.

    In the Army we would play in the barracks. It was cheap, fun, and when you have a bunch of broke soldiers it took the edge off of the boredom. Our chaplain got to our commanding officer who then banned the game. I could actually get busted for playing the game. It was ridiculous. Meanwhile soldiers were getting busted off base for drinking, fighting, and carrying on.

    When our “illegal game” was finally discovered I talked to the CO and he actually listened. None of the players were trouble makers. It didn’t take the CO long to figure out that he had made a knee jerk response and if we didn’t play in the barracks we would probably play somewhere off base—-or start up traditional soldier off base activities like drinking and fighting which seemed to be acceptable behavior. He let us go.

    I find the people of BADD to be despicable. They have found an easy crusade to beat down others to make themselves look better. D&D players are easy marks.

    Comment by Wild Ape - April 11, 2014 8:37 pm

  6. > Ah, yes, the early 80s — good times! If it wasn’t D&D it was heavy metal — I remember our church youth group listening intently to backwards Zeppelin
    > in search of Satanic messages, and having serious discussions about the lyrics of Hotel California for much the same reason.

    Joe,

    You’re right — what D&D got, Rock ‘n Rock got in spades in the late 70s. I definitely remember the debate about the backward masking in “Stairway to Heaven,” and seeing the purported Satanic lyrics circulating around school.

    Thank God hard rock was around to take some of the heat off D&D. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 11, 2014 8:54 pm

  7. Keith,

    Maureen’s reaction to her +1 ring is still one of the great memories of my teenage years. I still laugh when I think about it!

    Comment by John ONeill - April 11, 2014 8:56 pm

  8. > I do remember being ostracized by some church kids for listening to Def Leppard in ’83. Yes, Def Leppard, those high icons of all things Satan.

    Ty,

    D&D AND hard rock? You’re lucky you made it adulthood without being claimed by Satan immediately.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 11, 2014 8:59 pm

  9. > I purchased a couple of the books that came out around 1990 on the Satanic effects of D&D as I owned a game store at the time.
    > They were wrong, interesting, but wrong.

    JLB,

    Yeah, I remember some articles on the satanic influence of D&D in Christian newspapers my mom brought home. I saved one or two of them — they did make fascinating reading.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 11, 2014 9:00 pm

  10. > When our “illegal game” was finally discovered I talked to the CO and he actually listened… It
    > didn’t take the CO long to figure out that he had made a knee jerk response… He let us go.

    Ape,

    Wow – what a great story! Sounds like your CO was a decent guy. God job winning him over.

    > I find the people of BADD to be despicable. They have found an easy crusade to beat down others to make
    > themselves look better. D&D players are easy marks.

    You’re absolutely right that D&D players – many of us social outsiders already – were easy marks. This just provided another reason for folks to ostracize us.

    But even while it was happening, it seemed pretty obvious to me that many of the folks behind it weren’t evil. They were mothers in pain who were looking for a reason their children were gone, and who simply couldn’t accept that there might have been a deeper, more painful reason their children committed suicide.

    D&D was an easy scapegoat, and obviously preferable to accepting that your child had a mental illness or depressive disorder.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 11, 2014 9:14 pm

  11. This craze landed also on these northern shores, although I can remember only one big splash page in one of our tabloids. It was solo evident that the writers of that article did not know anything about roleplaying or D&D, and had mostly just copied their stuff – with bad translations – from foreign sources. We had a blast ripping apart the article during our weekly session.
    Also, at the time D&D was hardly a household name here in Finland, so I’m not sure if the whole debacle managed anything else than being one giant advertisement campaign to the only company at the time that was importing roleplay stuff here – especially as it was mentioned in the article.

    Comment by Dr. Inknstain - April 12, 2014 2:29 am

  12. I think I still have Dad’s character sheet somewhere.

    I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. ;-)

    Looking back now, it’s possible to see the tendrils of a classic moral panic.

    I’d say that sums it up right there. No good can come of a frothy mob.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 12, 2014 2:30 am

  13. “It was sooo evident” Damn it, Mavericks auto-correct!

    Comment by Dr. Inknstain - April 12, 2014 2:32 am

  14. On the latest Dice Tower podcast, host Tom Vasel listed HeroQuest as the number one game from his childhood. His parents wouldn’t let him play D&D, “for reasons it being the ’80s.” But when he was at a friend’s house, he figured HeroQuest wasn’t D&D, so no problem. (He never asked his parents for a ruling on it, as they probably would have said it was D&D.)

    A bit of background: Tom is a youth pastor, former missionary, and full-time board-game reviewer/discusser/player.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 12, 2014 2:45 am

  15. I was an avid DnD player (as well as several other RPG games) as a middle-schooler in the early 80s. I also remember the Satanic-scare related to DnD during that time. I even remember the Tom Hanks made-for-TV movie that lambasted our beloved game!

    In addition to the above biographical facts, I grew up in a small midwestern American town, in a conservative Christian home, one in which we “religiously” went to church (not just on Sundays either), prayed before meals, etc.

    That being said, you may find it surprising that I cannot relate to those who were persecuted for playing DnD during this time period. Moreover, you may find it even more surprising that my conservative grandmother bought me my first boxed set of DnD (from a Sears catalogue)!

    What was the deal? Were my Christian forebears hypocrites secretly killing cats over pentagrams in darkened basements?

    No. So what was the story? Why was I not forbidden from playing this obviously wicked game. Simply this: my family, despite being very religious, were also open and analytically minded. They actually thought about issues instead of giving knee-jerk reactions.

    A family trend that I hope I have upheld.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - April 12, 2014 9:17 am

  16. –@ John–I think you make a very good point about mothers in pain and not wanting to deal with mental illness–especially back then when mental illness had a much bigger stigma attached to it. It would be easy to blame a game that is a little weird to begin with. I’m glad we live in a more enlightened time period.

    Comment by Wild Ape - April 12, 2014 10:58 am

  17. Grew up in a pretty Lutheran home and most of my fellow players were from very Catholic ones. None of us had any D&D problems from our parents. I think our folks were happy to know we weren’t out drinking and causing trouble.

    On the other hand, my one friend’s mom, a college professor, was always showing him the Monsters and Mazes sorts of scare stories. Even at 15 I knew Rona Jaffe was full of crap.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - April 12, 2014 1:12 pm

  18. > Also, at the time D&D was hardly a household name here in Finland,
    > so I’m not sure if the whole debacle managed anything else than being one giant advertisement campaign

    Dr. Inknstain,

    You’re right. I’ve heard a few people argue that the smear campaign against D&D, in the end, only helped bring more attention to the game, and in fact gave it the kind of edginess that made it attractive to some players.

    I’m not sure I buy that completely. But on the other hand, there’s no argument that D&D is no longer considered dangerous… and it’s also not nearly as popular.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:28 pm

  19. >> I think I still have Dad’s character sheet somewhere.
    >
    > I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. ;-)

    Jeff,

    I am something of a pack rat, it’s true. FINDING the sheet… that’s a different story, however. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:31 pm

  20. > On the latest Dice Tower podcast, host Tom Vasel listed HeroQuest as the number one game from his childhood.

    That’s interesting… I hadn’t considered moral outrage at D&D as something that provided a window for other role playing games. But it makes total sense. If I’d been banned from D&D, I almost certainly would have turned to something that approximated it, like HeroQuest.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:34 pm

  21. > my family, despite being very religious, were also open and analytically minded. They actually thought about issues
    > instead of giving knee-jerk reactions.

    James,

    Honestly, I think this was the rule, rather than the exception. My parents are Catholic, and I was raised Catholic… but that didn’t stop them from looking critically at all this nonsense and making up their own minds.

    Year later, I asked my mother if she’d ever had any reservations about us playing D&D. “Oh, I did, yes,” she said. “But the advantage was you were always at home, playing in the basement. I always knew were you were.”

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:38 pm

  22. > It would be easy to blame a game that is a little weird to begin with. I’m glad we live in a more enlightened time period.

    Ape,

    Well, enlightened in terms of attitude towards RPGs, at least. :) I think there’s still a lot of fear out there governing people’s reactions to social change…. and there probably always will be.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:40 pm

  23. > None of us had any D&D problems from our parents. I think our folks were happy to know we weren’t out drinking and causing trouble.

    Fletcher,

    Exactly. My Mom had the same reaction.

    > Even at 15 I knew Rona Jaffe was full of crap.

    Yeah. One thing that taught me at least, even in my late teens, was to spot these kinds of witch-hunts in the press. I think that was a fine thing to learn.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 13, 2014 1:42 pm

  24. My parents were conservative Christians. They were concerned about the D&D hysteria, but it wasn’t too bad because, unfortunately, I never found enough people willing to play a game of it. I went to a very small religious school that didn’t have a large enough nerd population for this to hit critical mass.

    However, when Dad saw me reading the very first Dragonlance novel, he asked to see it. He had it for a few days, then told me I couldn’t have it back. His main complaint – oddly – was that it was written poorly. He sort of insinuated that the prose was stiff and insistent and thus clearly an attempt at brainwashing.

    Funny thing is, neither of my parents were really readers. This is the only time Dad ever had a literary criticism to express.

    Also, this: http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp

    God bless Jack T. Chick.

    Comment by David Munger - April 13, 2014 6:56 pm

  25. @David Munger

    Oh God, chick tracts . . . please don’t get me started.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - April 13, 2014 9:43 pm

  26. Oddly, my research library of original grimoires in translation does owe its existence to playing D&D… however, I was raised rationalist/atheist, so it really was just a research library.

    These days I GM for *my* kids and had recently had the Country and Western full circle lump in the throat joy of watching my son and an old party member’s sons sit down to play D&D together.

    Comment by M Harold Page - April 17, 2014 1:49 pm


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