Friday, April 23, 2021

"Ritualistically Murdered by Satan Worshipers"

Illustration by Andy Schoneberg accompanying the article
I don't think it's unfair to say that the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III on August 15, 1979 served to catapult Dungeons & Dragons to broad public consciousness in North America and eventually the world. Gary Gygax admitted as much in Moira Johnston's August 1980 article in New West. In the weeks and months immediately following Egbert's disappearance, a slew of articles appeared discussing it and Dungeons & Dragons, which was falsely believed to have played a role in the affair. A great many of these articles were poorly researched and sensationalistic, while others were better, attempting to understand what the game was really about and why its players found it so engaging.

The Billings Gazette published an article of the latter sort on September 26, 1979, about six weeks after Egbert disappeared and after he'd been found and two weeks after he'd been found, alive, in Louisiana. The article is especially interesting to me, because Gary Gygax is quoted extensively throughout and what he has to say on several topics is worth sharing – and, unlike some, there's not a hint of disdain or disparagement of the man. 

Gygax is introduced in the context of the Egbert case, about whom he says the following:

"We're glad he's okay, that he wasn't found ritualistically murdered by Satan worshipers … There were a lot of strange things written about 'D and D' while Egbert was missing. I imagine there are a lot of people who think all 'D and D' players are pretty weird.

"They ARE dedicated. They get really caught up in it. But I've met some obsessed golfers and tennis players too. 'Dungeons and Dragons' is just a different kind of release."

I once had a friend who was an obsessive Star Trek fan and he regularly made the point that his knowledge of the minutiae of Gene Roddenberry's series was no odder than someone who devoted themselves to memorizing baseball statistics. Gygax suggests something similar here and it's a reminder of a time before fantasy and science fiction were mainstream interests.

Later in the article, Gygax talks about the role of the Dungeon Master, which is, I think, one of the more unique aspects of D&D.

The Dungeon Master is like a playwright … Players are the actors. The DM knows what elements he needs for the game, but the script is flexible so the players can create their own lines. But certain things happen to the players over which they have no control, and that's where the element of survival comes in."

Some might see this quote as at odds with Gygax's later fulminations against "amateur thespianism," but I don't think it is. What Gygax seems to have disliked is an over-emphasis on theatrics – props, speaking in funny voices, etc. All he's doing here is analogizing roleplaying to something an uninitiated audience might understand. Regardless, he goes on:

"When you start playing out a fantasy, it can really eat up time and capture you totally … Most people can handle it, but there are probably exceptions. You can get very emotionally involved. I've got several characters I've nurtured through many tension-fraught, terror-filled "D and D" games, and I'd really be crushed if I lost one of them. They can become very much a part of you."

 At several points, the article notes that D&D allows its players to experience – and overcome – challenges they might otherwise not encounter in their daily lives. A psychologist is quoted as saying: "Life for most people is boring. There's not much excitement. We've run out of frontiers. The only frontiers we have left are in our minds." That's a theme I've noted in many early defenses of roleplaying, including J. Eric Holmes's Fantasy Role Playing Games. I think there's something to this line of thought, though I can't say that it's ever been the main reason I was drawn to RPGs. I'd say Gygax's final quote, which ends the article, is closer to the truth.

"What middle-class child doesn't get fed a diet of fairy tales and fantasies? … My father was a great storyteller, and there were Disney's dragons, Grimm's fairy tales, toy soldiers, chess and, finally, my own games and fantasies."

 Just so.


  1. As usual, I've been enjoying your cultural history of the game (as well as all your posts).

    The cusp-of-the-80s panic that people might believe the game is real just brought to mind a different topic: the early 80s fiction that in some way presented the game as immersive. I'm thinking Larry Niven's and Steven Barnes's Dream Park, though the immersion here is simulated, and Joel Rosenberg's The Sleeping Dragon, which, in different ways, look toward today's "litrpg" subgenre, not to say video gaming. Diana Wynne Jones's fascinating children's book The Homeward Bounders is also part of this (and probably a much better book). It's interesting that as some were panicking that people might get lost in the game, writers were taking that up as an opportunity for fiction.

    1. Likewise the film, Westworld which actually anticipated live action roleplaying games. In 1973, it showed us a future where adults immerse themselves in a simulated environment to roleplay adventure tropes from different periods and genres as a form of escapist entertainment.

    2. Can't leave Quag Keep off that list either, especially since Rosenberg pretty much inverted its ending for the start of the Guardians of the Flame Series.

      Funny, I always though of Westworld as being more of a spin on historical re-enactors, but that's a (somewhat tenuous) form of roleplaying as well.

    3. In Michael Crichton's first screenplay about a high-tech amusement park whose attractions end up killing the park's guests, visitors can be wild west cowboys, knights in shining armor, or citizens of ancient Rome.

      In the movie's sequel, the new "land" is a sci-fi themed simulation of a futuristic orbiting space station.

    4. And Mr. Satanis, I love Westworld too. But I have to say your presence here on a D&D blog seems to confirm the worst suspicions of B.A.D.D. Nice job!

  2. "...that he wasn't found ritualistically murdered by Satan worshipers …"

    "Ah ha!" says the Satanic Panic conspiracist. "The operative word there is found, you deluded fools! How many other innocent victims of D&D haven't been located because their bodies were consumed at a cannibalistic orgy, Gary?"

    Seriously, there's some crazy people out there.

  3. I've often pondered that big scare from back then. Again, didn't play D&D in the day, but knew many who did. The best way I can say it is that in 1981, when I first heard about the game, probably 1/2 of the guys in school were playing it. By 1984, only about 10-15% would admit to playing, or ever having played, the game. I wonder about that. I don't think it was all those religious people waving flags of warning.

    I know it's often the "Satanic Panic", but recall that was a media driven scare tactic. Churches were sounding the alarm bell about a great many developments in society by the late 1970s, with little to no traction in the national press. But stories of the occult, of Satanism, of dark rituals on country roads? That was the press learning, I think, a lesson it still cherishes today: It can cause panic plain and simple, while targeting various sub-cultures of the country, and get 60% of Americans on board.

    That churches are so implicated in the panic is likely due to the fact that at that time, churches were enjoying a sort of last hurrah. It would be the last time the national press would speak the churches' words on the churches' terms. Whether journalists believed the actual religious aspects I don't know. But it was the last time I'm aware of that the press and the traditional religious bloc of America were on the same, and not opposed, sides.

    1. Hitting a nail on the head? This is what it looks like. Great observation.

  4. I wonder why no one ever worried about SCA members losing their minds to imaginary characters. Running around in armor and fighting battles seems way more immersive than talking around a table.

    1. That's a good question, though I suspect the answer is banal: no one in the SCA (that I know of) was ever involved in a high profile national news story in the way that James Dallas Egbert was.

    2. Also, the SCA members tended to be adults, rather than the many impressionable young kids playing D&D in the early 1980s.

      I can see how the Monster Manual's several pages of loving detail on various Demons and Devils could spook some impressionable young parents about a new, impenetrable game their kids were suddenly obsessed with, combined with the media's panicked coverage of satanists in general and missing D&Ders specifically. Thankfully, my parents were never among them.