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

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

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.

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Joe H.

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.


“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.”


Ty Johnston

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.


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.

Wild Ape

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.

Dr. Inknstain

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.

Jeff Stehman

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.

Dr. Inknstain

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

Jeff Stehman

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.

James McGlothlin

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.

Wild Ape

–@ 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.

Fletcher Vredenburgh

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.

David Munger

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.

James McGlothlin

@David Munger

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

M Harold Page

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.

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