Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Dungeon Master

Since I've been writing a bit about the so-called "steam tunnels incident" that, in August 1979, first brought Dungeons & Dragons and, by extension, all roleplaying games to wide public consciousness (if not actual knowledge), I thought I'd turn today to another book related to the subject, this time much more directly. The Dungeon Master is a 1984 book written by William Dear, a Texas-based private investigator. Dear, who's been involved in a number of high profile cases over the years, was employed by the parents of James Dallas Egbert III to locate their son, after he disappeared from Michigan State University. The Dungeon Master is Dear's account of his investigation and what he discovered.

Dear – who is still alive, as of this writing – is a flamboyant figure, the very model of what one might imagine upon hearing the words "private investigator." He is fond, for example, of having his picture taken while holding a firearm and his writing is prone to bombastic self-promotion. Nevertheless, what comes through in reading this book is that, despite his foibles, he actually cared a great deal about the fate of Egbert and genuinely sought to understand him and his situation in order to find out what had happened to him. 

It's precisely for this reason that Dear became interested in Dungeons & Dragons and publicly opined that perhaps the then-new game might have played a role in Egbert's mysterious disappearance. As it turned out – and as Dear makes clear in this book – it didn't, but, by the time The Dungeon Master was published, four years after Egbert committed suicide, the damage had already been done. In the public mind, not only was D&D forever associated with this tragic event but it was also deemed "weird," "deviant," and "dangerous," among many more unsavory adjectives. Gary Gygax was still fielding questions about the game's supposed danger to impressionable young people in 1985, which frankly boggles my mind.

One of the most interesting parts of The Dungeon Master, particularly in hindsight, is the chapter where Dear recounts his first experience playing D&D for himself, in an attempt to understand Egbert's attraction to it. Lord Kilgore excerpts a large section of the chapter on his blog, a small portion of which I reproduce here:
My Dungeon Master and his friend arrived promptly at 2 P.M., as agreed. I’d had only two hours’ sleep, but I’d manage to shower and shave and put on fresh clothes and I felt wide awake. For reasons I can’t explain, I tingled with anticipation and curiosity. 
I didn’t know what to expect from my dungeon master. Would he show up in a Merlin costume, with a funny pointed cap and star: emblazoned all around? Would he be dressed as some authority figure, an all-knowing wizard or a god? I knew he would have complete control over the circumstances of the fantasy adventure on which was about to embark. I knew he would be absolutely fair, siding neither with me nor with the monsters I would face; he was an arbiter of the strictest impartiality, and his decisions were final. Would he com dressed in the robes of an eminent jurist? 
He came dressed in sweater and jeans and scuffed tennis shoes. He might have been Jack Armstrong, so open, friendly, and Midwest- fresh did he seem. His friend, a good-looking Mexican-American sophomore who might have been an athlete, was named Louis. The three of us gravitated to the table and sat around it, and I explained again that I had never played Dungeons & Dragons.

It's a very odd passage for a couple of reasons that strike me immediately. First, Dear once again seems have it in his head that D&D players wear costumes while they play, something I have never observed in real life, outside a handful of convention games and in those cases I'm pretty sure it was intended humorously. Second, the atmosphere of mystery and awe Dear attributes not just to D&D but to the dungeon master is odd. Having been a referee of many games over the years, I can't say anyone has ever viewed me with the reverence Dear evinces in these paragraphs. I suppose I have to remind myself that Dear, as he admits, "had never played Dungeons & Dragons" and so had little idea what to expect from it. His attitude was probably not helped by the pompous title of dungeon master for the game's referee, one I've long felt was a bit silly (mind you, I feel the same way about Call of Cthulhu's "Keeper of Arcane Lore").

The Dungeon Master has lots of flaws, both as a "true crime" book and as a recounting of the events of August 1979 and subsequently, but it's nevertheless an important document from a time that, to me anyway, seems a million years away from the present. "The past is a foreign country," as they say and it never seems more so to me than when I reflect on the bafflement and fear with which roleplaying games were greeted in some segments of society. In my own life, I only ever encountered a single adult who harbored any worries about RPGs; most adults I knew, including my own parents, looked on games like D&D beneficently and even encouraged my friends and I in our newfound obsession. In retrospect, I'm incredibly grateful for that, considering the many boons this hobby has showered upon me during my life.

17 comments:

  1. Seeing this series of bad reactions to D&D, it may interest you that here in Spain we had two 'bad rpg related events' that the media used for sensationalism. Our little 'satanic panic', though not religious.

    The first one happened in 1994 and it is known as 'the rpg crime'. Two young men beated to death a middle-aged janitor following a 'macabre game' that the oldest of the both created. The media related this to an rpg (not to the obvious and later proved mental issues of the killers) and profiteered a lot. For years rpg were associated with killing and mental issues. We even have a pair of (horrible) movies inspired by this crime: 'Nadie conoce a nadie' and 'Jugar a matar'

    The second one happened in 2000 and is known as 'the katana crime'. A young man killed all his family with that weapon and the police found that the minor had a lot of Final Fantasy games and merchandising in his room. The media made the connection and Final Fantasy, and the rpg's in general, were under fire again.

    Nevertheless today all that is nearly forgotten, thanks God.

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  2. Here on Vancouver Island, around 1992, we had a murder (Darren Huenemann hired two of his friends to kill his mother and grandmother) that D&D was associated with because those involved has apparently played together. It didn't really stick, though - the inheritance motivation was a better explanation.

    And I think we all just used DM pretty quick, when I started playing back in '78. Don't really recall "Dungeon Master" being used (it was the DMG, too, not Dungeon Master Guide), or even Game Master (GM being preferred).

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  3. D&D spawned its own savior. I used to thank God every morning for the invention of video games, which took the heat off the tabletop. Suddenly, sitting around the kitchen table with friends on a Tuesday night seemed downright wholesome.

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  4. I'm fond of this book, though, as you say, it's deeply flawed; Dear's writing is stilted, he's prone to huge (and charming) bouts of self-aggrandizement, and the ending is beyond anticlimactic. Still and all, both Dear and Eggbert come off as relatable and sympathetic, and Dear even tries to be fair to Eggbert's mother (whom he clearly blames for the whole fiasco).

    I loved the odd take on Dungeons & Dragons also; Dear writes up the whole session in detail and with gusto, and it comes off sounding like a noir potboiler with wizards in it.

    I did find myself confused about how anybody could play D&D in those steam tunnels, though. If they're so dark and wet and full of gloop and soup, how does one read or write or roll dice? Then I realised that what they were actually doing wasn't D&D at all; they were actually playing a sort of free-form LARP, but "straight culture" at the time had no terminology for understanding that other than linking it to D&D. That more than anythingreally drove home to me how huge and revolutionary D&D actually was.

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  5. Its important to note that the entire story is false. The guy who committed suicide died years later working on an oil field in Texas or something, at least according to the podcast I listened to.

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    1. Oh yes? Here's his obituary and photographs of the grave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/178793293/james-dallas-egbert

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  6. I always find the Satanic Panic angle that American society had for D&D very weird. I think that it stems from the different approach to religion. Here in the UK D&D and RPG generally were viewed as childish and naff. My Moldvay set was bought from the guy across the road who's mother hated the game for its silliness. My Mother and Father quickly hated it too but realised that it kept me out of mischief.

    In fact it wouldn't be over-dramatic to say that D&D, MERP and Marvel Superheroes kept my group of friends (about 7 of us) away from bad influences of hanging about in corners, running about the streets in gangs after dark, under-age drinking, drugs and (somewhat regrettably) girls. Brenda, my friend Don's Mum twigged on the benefits (he lived in a fairly rough area) and positively him and the rest of us to play at her house every Friday and Saturday throughout my high school years. She laid out snacks, drinks and would make chilli or soup.

    It all fell apart within a year of us all leaving High School.

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  7. I wish my players treated their illustrious and always-impartial Dungeon Master with such appropriate reverence.

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  8. The satanic panic things was by no means universal in the US. I only encountered 1 such person, and that was back in the nineties (one of my player's wives was afraid of the satanic angle).

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  9. I had no idea this book was actually (sort of) good. The D&D playing sequence sounds very honest & open to the experience and sorta delightful. In contrast to, say, the dismissive review of D&D 3rd edition in some mainstream magazine force 2000 by some shitty humor columnist (“Haha Wizards of the Coast flew in the designers of D&D to run a game just for me, how hilariously campy, what a bunch of nerds”) which I’m clearly still holding a grudge about

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  10. Honestly, it’s fascinating how some non-nerds playing RPGs for the first time are able to take it seriously and enjoy it, whereas other people are just totally unable to get over how they’re slumming

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  11. Regarding the ‘Satanic Panic’, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it wasn’t any religious backlash that torpedoed D&D’s mainstream appeal in the early 80s. Yes, there was a media obsession with Satanism, and I remember special newscasts focusing on the occult in America. That’s because movies on the occult and supernatural were the big horror movies of the 1970s’ “Decade of Realism” (rather than movies about werewolves, vampires and such).

    But it wasn’t the religious angle that did it in. After all, teens happily ignored religious fundamentalists when they were told not do a lot of things. It was rather a wide coalition of – everyone. Journalists, doctors, mental health experts, educators, various ‘experts’, politicians, even Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon of ‘D&D will ruin your kids’.

    And worse than that, in popular media, it began being portrayed not as the game that will make you a psycho, freak or loser, but rather the game only psychos, freaks and losers would play in the first place. I’ve often thought that was how Mazes and Monsters (the movie) leveled such a hit on the hobby. Those kids were shown as kids you didn’t want to be around in the first place, not awesomely popular kids who went bad because they played the game.

    So it wasn’t a religious panic that hit it here in the States. It was a general alliance of everyone saying not only will it ruin you, but chances are, if you play the game at all, you were ruined already.

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  12. Wow, James, I was just watching the 60 Minutes D&D piece from Youtube linked in your article—you know, because fun!

    Did you notice somebody slipped a D&D commercial into the video?

    At 9:38, Ed Bradley’s voice fades into: “…the Dungeon Master has placed you in a dreadfully precarious position. You’re playing the most phenomenal game ever created…” The kids are playing from Moldvay’s Basic. The Keep on the Borderlands cover stands on the game table. We hear “It’s a product of your imagination,” and “Your choices are limitless,” among other goodness. It ends with a shot of Mentzer’s Basic and Expert boxes. At 10:05, Ed Bradley fades in to pick up the segment.

    Happy 40th, B/X!

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  13. Skimming through the larger excerpt from the actual play chapter as posted by the linked blog, I was struck by two things. One, that Dear is clearly the enthusiastic new player, continually taking chances and striding in to the unknown, while his ringer companion displays the typical hyper-caution of the "experienced" RPG player. Also, the DM seems to be quite talented in the retelling, displaying the use of such principles as "being fans of the characters" and "failing forward" that often get discussed in codified in modern games. It's great to see this in an old school setting, in contrast to the adversarial, nit-picking, monkey's paw model of GMing that often gets associated with the "classic" game.

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  14. The incident this book is based around, as well as an urban myth machine working full overtime, cost me some religious friends back in those days.

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