Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Holmes and the Steam Tunnels

For myself, the early history of Dungeons & Dragons will be forever associated with the so-called "steam tunnels incident" – the disappearance of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III in August 1979 that was popularly (and falsely, as it turned out) associated with Dungeons & Dragons. There are several reasons for that, starting with the fact that my father was very interested in this news story and it was that interest that was the occasion for my mother's purchasing him the Holmes Basic Set. In truth, he had no interest in D&D as a game he might play, so the boxed set passed to me and the rest is history. 

In his book, Fantasy Role Playing Games, Holmes mentions the disappearance of Egbert and his own thoughts and experiences relating to it. 
In the long run, the publicity only popularized the game. What distressed those of us associated with D&D, however, was the avidity with which the reporters we talked to seized upon the "cult" aspect of the game to the exclusion of all else.

Bonus points to Dr Holmes for "avidity," an under-used word if ever there was one. By "cult aspect," I believe, in context, he's referring not to anything sinister but rather to the devotion that many of the game's players had to it. Throughout Fantasy Role Playing, Holmes frequently talks about the "addictive" nature of roleplaying, not in a clinical way, but as a way to emphasize how immersive the hobby can be and how much enthusiastic those involved in it can become.

"Where can I see people dressed up as magic characters act out the game?" one lady television journalist asked me.

"Nowhere," I snapped. "As far as I know, nobody plays the game that way."

"Oh, come on, doctor, what about all the stories about heard about the tunnels under Cal Tech?"

"Oh, Cal Tech," I replied. Friends of mine went to Cal Tech years ago. "I've heard tales of the steam tunnels under Cal Tech year before D&D was born. They used to claim there was a mad rapist hiding out in there."

The rest of the interview was cool.

From what Holmes says here, it sounds as if the interview in question was for TV news, which, if true, makes me wish I had more information about it. The prospect of unearthing a video of Holmes talking to a reporter about D&D at the height of the steam tunnels hysteria fills me with excitement. Unfortunately, I'd be amazed if such a video still exists, assuming it ever did. 


  1. I too would very much like to see this video!

    Have you read Joseph Laycock's Dangerous Games? It goes over the reasons why roleplaying games were the target of the various moral panics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. (I'm in the middle of it, but I suspect it points out the various religious movements who still think D&D is satanic.)

    In any case, the book has a good summary of the steam tunnels disappearance and the way it was exploited for fame and profit.

  2. And that was about the time me and some of my friends were exploring the steam tunnels under the University of Minnesota. Had nothing to do with D&D, just seeing where they went.

  3. I too lived through this era (I’m 46), and I think in retrospect that beyond the Reagan-era right wing Christian surge and Satanism panic (mostly the same sort of jerks who also thought Star Wars was Satanic), D&D/RPGs were just so INCREDIBLY outside people’s experience that people simply couldn’t believe it wasn’t (1) a cult or (2) people in costume or (3) a fancy boardgame or something. I mean, it’s only been in the last few years that D&D isn’t routinely conflated with LARPing in media representations. Even myself, as an 8-year-old kid, I tried to read the Basic D&D rules because I really wanted to play it but I couldn’t comprehend the basic concept until an older kid DMed for me. I’m sure most media ‘critics’ in the early ‘80s were even more obtuse than my 8-year-old self... XD

    And yeah, I’d love to see that video if it exists!

  4. I think what Holmes was getting at wrt the "cult aspect" of D&D wasn't so much anything intrinsic to the game itself as it was a comment on how quickly (and stridently) those "outside" the hobby made the leap from "group undertaking involving strange books and arcane practices" to "cult."
    I'm Canadian and while it's true that the "satanic panic" wasn't as much a thing up here, I do still remember the controversy and it did contribute to some element of drama around playing the game. I can remember there being some concern about allowing the books to be brought to school and so forth. It died down pretty quickly though. The Wargaming Club in my high school (early 80s) had a D&D group although in my few experiences there they never seemed to get past character generation.