Book banning, the Salem Witch Trials, twenty-sided die, and the Satanic Panic: what do these things all have in common? Fear and misunderstanding. While everyone knows about the Salem Witch Trials, and the attempt to ban massive amounts of books is still alive and kicking, the Satanic Panic pretty much ended in the 90’s. Right? Unfortunately, while things evolve to fit the times, the Satanic Panic is alive and well and continues to target table-top roleplaying games.
TTRPGs, or table-top role-playing games, have found themselves in the mainstream recently. From streaming shows such as Critical Role to the Netflix hit Stranger Things, suddenly TTRPGs have stepped out of basements (or den, in my case) and into the limelight. While there are many positives to its recent popularity, it seems that those old fears and overreactions have made a resurgence as well.
I play TTRPGs. I use them in my homeschool. Let me tell you, I’ve never summoned so much as the bag of Doritos from the kitchen (or would that be using the Force?), much less a demonic entity. TTRPGs, simply put, are fun. They give adults permission to do what children do all the time: use their imaginations.
My love of Dungeons and Dragons started in the mid-to-late 90s, so I only caught echoes of the panic that seemed to be everywhere in the 80s. By the time it got to me, it seemed everyone knew someone who was related to someone who played with “a guy who got sucked into the occult through D&D”. Usually, these “true stories” ended with injury or disappearance. To me, these tales felt very similar to Bloody Mary or other stories told at sleepovers.
If a teenager can see the ridiculousness of some of these fears, why couldn’t adults? And why was Dungeons and Dragons such a big target?
Margaret Weis, author of several bestselling series, including Dragonlance, was in the middle of it from a creator’s standpoint. I asked her what the Satanic Panic looked like from her perspective, as someone involved in the growing popularity of both TTRPGs and fantasy in general.
She remembers, “I was working at TSR at the time. I remember we watched the 60 Minutes show where they interviewed a mother of a young man who committed suicide and she was blaming it on D&D because she found a lot of D&D books in his bedroom. His death was tragic, but when you listen to his mother, you start to realize he was suffering from a great many problems that went unrecognized. Then there was the religious tract “Dark Dungeons”. People would place those inside D&D books at the local bookstores. We read that and honestly couldn’t believe people would think that D&D would give a person real “evil powers”. As one of the game designers said, if we really could gain such powers, why would we be working? Why weren’t we ruling the world?”
The suicide in question, that of Patricia Pulling’s son, is absolutely a tragedy. However, while he did play D&D, there has been absolutely nothing to suggest that a game of imagination caused his death. Pat Pulling was a grieving mom looking for answers and I don’t fault her for that. The problem is the answers she chose had no basis in reality and ultimately led to a spike in fears over TTRPGs and their supposed role in the occult.
Patricia would go on to form Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (or BADD), a group that would fuel the flames that consumed reason and understanding in so many people. There was also a handy-dandy (and completely bonkers) pamphlet written by Patricia called Dungeons and Dragons: Witchcraft, Suicide, Violence. Thanks to The Escapist, I was able to get a look at this pamphlet. It’s so ridiculous, it would be funny if so many people hadn’t bought into it!
YoDanno, a Twitter friend who is incredibly knowledgeable on the history of Dungeons and Dragons, kindly sent me an article by Michael A. Stackpole, debunking her many claims in no uncertain terms (you can find that full article here). Not only did she make some choices of questionable legality, she also flat-out lied to add some semblance of credence to her accusations. Michael A. Stackpole concluded, “Her methods and tactics, at their very best, taint any evidence she might offer and, at their worst, construct a monster where none exists”.
Panic over the years often comes from a simple and even admirable trait: the desire to protect our children. Of course, we want our kids to be safe and loved. The problem arises when we have no idea of the reality of what we are condemning. How can anyone judge TTRPGs they’ve never played, or call for the banning of books they haven’t read with any sort of authority? (I’ll do my best to spare you my thoughts on book banning, but no promises because it is coming pretty dang close to the Satanic Panic in proportion).
“Experts” were quick to harshly judge what they had little to no experience in. According to Texe Marrs, author of Ravaged by the New Age: Satan’s Plan to Destroy Our Kids, “This game is nothing more than an introduction to the occult. Fantasies the players involve and indulge themselves in include murder, rape, arson, pillage, terrorism, brutal torture, etc. ” (Marrs). Um…no. Nothing in that statement is close to correct. I do my absolute best to avoid reading books with r**e in them; I definitely wouldn’t play a game that would glorify it or encourage my son to play.
I asked Ms. Weis, “Did stigma against your profession bleed over into your personal life and in what way?” Sadly, it did affect her on a personal level.
“I remember the elders in [coauthor] Tracy’s church (Mormon) wanted him to quit his job at TSR because they feared he was being corrupted. He invited them to play the game with him and if they still thought it was evil, he would quit. He ran an RPG for the elders one night. Not only did they not make him quit, they asked him if he would run a weekly game for them!
My son came home from junior high one day to tell me that his teacher had asked if he tortured cats. He was astounded and asked why she would say such a thing. She said she assumed he must be a devil worshipper because his mother worked for TSR!”
All because people chose fear over an attempt to understand or learn something new.
I also asked Margaret Weis’ thoughts on why TTRPGs have been, and continue to be, such a target.
She answered, “I remember someone theorizing that the reason people latched onto D&D as being Satanic was that parents didn’t understand it and didn’t bother to take the time to learn about it. All they saw was their kids playing a strange fantasy game for hours or days, a game that didn’t have a board, used weird dice, and had its own language. The best way to deal with
this is to invite these people to play! Like Tracy did!”
Of course, this article won’t stop the judgment that seems to once again be growing in volume. People are going to overreact and condemn what they really don’t understand. But here’s a thought; just ask. If you don’t know what playing a TTRPG entails (imagination and math, at its core), how on earth can you really judge it?
Marrs, Texe. Ravaged by the New Age Satan’s Plan to Destroy Our Kids. 1708 Patterson Road, Austin, Texas 78733, RiverCrest Publishers.
“Michael A. Stackpole: The Pulling Report.” Www.rpgstudies.net, http://www.rpgstudies.net/stackpole/pulling_report.html.
“The Escapist – as BADD as It Gets.” Www.theescapist.com, http://www.theescapist.com/BADDbook01.htm.