Total Nerd

The History Of How D&D Became One Of The Most Controversial Topics Of The 1980s

These days, Dungeons & Dragons is a beloved tabletop role-playing game popularized by the likes of Joe Manganiello, Kevin Smith, Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, and many more notable celebrities. There are well over a hundred video game adaptations, feature films, animated series, comics, and much more dedicated to the franchise, but it wasn't always like that. In the beginning, D&D was a misunderstood threat plotting to undermine American youth by tricking them into Satanic worship.

In Season 4 of Stranger Things, the characters see this controversy first-hand, as the parents of Hawkins, Indiana, are whipped into a frightened panic over the people who play the game. That was truly how things went down in the 1980s, and it took a long time for D&D to become normalized in popular culture. The history of how this happened is fascinating, and it's detailed below. Take a look and learn how an entertaining game among friends became the #1 threat to America.

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  • D&D Was Blamed For The Disappearance Of A 16-Year-Old Boy In 1979

    D&D Was Blamed For The Disappearance Of A 16-Year-Old Boy In 1979
    Photo: Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

    The public outcry over Dungeons & Dragons didn't appear out of the blue; it stemmed from the disappearance of a literal genius in 1979. James Dallas Egbert III was a 16-year-old prodigy attending Michigan State University when he disappeared, leading to a frantic search. Egbert was nowhere to be found, so his parents hired a private investigator, William Dear, to try and bring him home.

    Dear came to the conclusion that a new game, Dungeons & Dragons, was responsible for the disappearance of Egbert, and he ran with that to the media and anyone else who'd listen. Egbert did play D&D, but it had nothing to do with his disappearance. In truth, the young man attempted suicide and survived. He hid out in some steam tunnels beneath the campus for a while before he could make his way to friends out of the area. He was eventually found, and D&D was proven to have nothing to do with his disappearance, but the damage was already done.

    Few knew much about D&D at the time, as it had only been around since 1974 and had a small but growing audience. Without the Internet or other modern resources available to them, the American people learned everything from the news and programs like 60 Minutes, so when all of the news about D&D was negative and responsible for a child's disappearance, people took that as uncontested information. Egbert's disappearance became known as the Steam Tunnel Incident and became the basis for several books. Sadly, Egbert successfully committed suicide a year after the incident.

  • Tom Hanks And The 'Mazes and Monsters' Connection

    Tom Hanks And The 'Mazes and Monsters' Connection
    Photo: CBS

    Tom Hanks is a household name these days, but it took years for the actor to go from playing low-budget comedic characters to stacking awards on his mantle. In the beginning, Hanks was unknown, like most actors struggling to find work, and his long struggle finally came to an end when he landed his first leading film role. Hanks was cast to play Robbie Wheeling in the 1982 made-for-TV film, Mazes and Monsters. The movie is based on the book of the same name, and it's all about the dangers of role-playing games.

    Dungeons & Dragons isn't mentioned in the film, which is centered around a game called Mazes and Monsters. It's essentially the same thing and follows the story of Wheeling as he becomes engaged in the game, which presents several dangers. The movie features scenes of game-induced hallucinations, psychological illness stemming from playing the game, and more. The film and the book it's based on is all about the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III in 1979 and jumps to many of the same conclusions that led the country into a moral panic over D&D.

  • A High School Student's Suicide Was Blamed On D&D In 1982

    A High School Student's Suicide Was Blamed On D&D In 1982
    Photo: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial / Universal Pictures

    In 1982, a 16-year-old high school student named Irving Lee Pulling II died by suicide. While his death was a tragedy, its impact on society would be felt for decades, as it became a lynchpin moment in the national panic centered around Dungeons & Dragons. When the police investigated Pulling's death, they noted his bedroom was filled with D&D-related items, including a magazine and books related to the game.

    Misinterpretations regarding Pulling's suicide note led investigators to conclude, or at least theorize, that D&D was somehow responsible. Pulling's parents sued his high school principal the following year for allowing D&D to be played as an "organized school activity." The lawsuit sought damages of $1 million over the boy's death. Their complaint stemmed from one of the teachers who was "allowed" to operate as a "Dungeon Master, or whatever you call it." The Pullings also sued TSR, Inc., the game's publisher at the time.

  • The Emergence Of Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) In 1983

    The Emergence Of Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) In 1983
    Photo: Stagefright Films / Vimeo

    The Pulling family wasn't content to sue their school principal and TSR; they came after the role-playing game hard. Patricia Pulling, Irving's mother, founded BADD, or Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, in 1983. It called for the regulation of D&D and all role-playing games. Pulling created a pamphlet demonizing the game, which she said encouraged devil worship and a host of other concerns. In the pamphlet, Pulling wrote the following about D&D:

    [Dungeons & Dragons is a] fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, [sexual assault], blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination, and other teachings.

    The pamphlet was essentially a bingo card of everything the religious right feared in American society, and BADD picked up steam. Despite having no basis in fact, BADD was featured in the media, which helped to further the moral panic gripping the nation. The panic did two things: it bred concern among parents and conservatives, and it brought D&D to the attention of a lot of gamers, increasing its popularity. As the game's audience grew, Pulling's conclusions were more heavily scrutinized and her moral outrage began to fade into the background.