Day 891: Dungeons & Dragons & Eternal Damnation

originally published June 9, 2014

Any responsible parent already knows that their children are but a wayward blink away from an eternity of fiery evil. It seems that every fad, trend or popular pastime of the past half-century has fallen beneath the dusty scrutiny of some religious group or another, damning the activity as Satanic, amoral or corrupting (or all three for the really fun stuff). Your kid’s into Pokemon? Those monsters are an affront to God. He likes reading about Harry Potter? Just a bunch of liberal brainwashing with a firm footprint in the occult. Really into chess? Only God can steer horses along an L-shaped path.

But Dungeons & Dragons was an easy target. You’ve got a cast of creatures from Tolkien’s nightmares dotting the landscape, and children who immerse themselves into a godless world of fantasy and imagination. Since the game rose toward the mainstream of geekdom in the 1970’s – back when geekdom was a truly excluded sub-clique and not the faux-aspiration of every duck-faced twit looking for chic value because they’ve seen a Marvel movie or two – it has been under attack by the ever-threatened right.

I’m not certain why there appears to be a significant link between the devout adherence to religion and the desire to protest and/or ban things, but it’s there. Gary Gygax and the creative team behind Dungeons & Dragons had to see this coming when they first hammered out the game’s rules. But they probably didn’t expect a response like this.

When young Irving Pulling shot himself in the chest one day in 1982, it was nothing short of a tragedy. Teen suicide leaves a wake of anguish and confusion, and often a heap of unanswerable questions that will plague his or her surviving friends and families for decades. Patricia Pulling – the grieving mother – felt she had the answers she needed. Irving was an avid player of D&D, and Patricia believed his suicide had something to do with the game. I’ll point out here that Patricia was also a fundamentalist Christian, though I think that will become evident as I tell the story.

Patricia’s first lawsuit was against Irving’s principal, a man named Robert A. Bracey III. She believed that Bracey was responsible for a curse that someone had placed upon Irving’s D&D character before his death. Next she went after TSR Inc, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, for having created this toxic environment in the first place. Where most of the world saw a game of fantasy and escape, Patricia saw only witchcraft, demonology, Satanic rituals and blasphemy. She’d have her day in court.

It was a short day. Her lawsuits dismissed, Patricia next adopted a grass-roots approach, founding B.A.D.D. – Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons – to campaign against the wicked pastime. I don’t know… “Bothered” sounds like the game is more of an inconvenience. I’m ‘bothered’ by car alarms on my block or when I accidentally kick my dog’s water dish and splash my sock, but I’m not going to launch into activist mode to eradicate these horrors. But the flaw in Patricia’s enthusiasm stretched way beyond her name-picking abilities.

B.A.D.D. caught a bit of steam from right-wing Christian media, and Patricia’s cause started to spread. In 1984 she acquired her private investigator’s license, and somehow became a law enforcement consultant. She was called as an ‘expert witness’ in a number of gaming-related lawsuits, all of which were lost when actual facts wandered in and messed up the accusers’ finger-wagging arguments.

But there was a backlash against this devil-game, and it stretched beyond the screech of Patricia Pulling’s published voice.

The story of James Dallas Egbert III – which was made into a 1982 TV movie starring Tom Hanks – added more fuel to the anti-D&D fire. Egbert was also a lover of fantasy role-playing games, so when he huffed back a hearty and excessive dose of Quaaludes before disappearing into the steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University, it was believed by many that Dungeons & Dragons must have played a part in his dangerous and suicidal behavior.

Yes, I used the term “believed by many.” That deserves a dollop of explanation: James’ parents hired private investigator William Dear to track him down. Dear felt there must be a link between D&D and the kid’s disappearance, and that was the snippet of conjecture that was pushed to the forefront of the media. The truth was that James was depressed for any number of reasons a teenager might be depressed. He eventually resurfaced, but after one more failed attempt to take his own life, a gunshot did the trick.

North Carolina State University student Chris Pritchard allegedly concocted the murder of Lieth Von Stein (pictured above) in 1988. Despite the teen’s forays into drug and alcohol use, investigators focused instead on the D&D game map they found in Chris’s possession, which featured the layout of the Von Stein house. Chris and two of his friends were found guilty of the murder, but how much of their motivation came from the game and how much came from the lengthy animosity between Chris and his stepdad?

According to Jerry Bledsoe and Joe McGinnis, the true crime authors who published an elaborate account of the case, Chris’s position as a power-hungry dungeon master had everything to do with the murder. Again, TV movies (and also a mini-series!) were made, and the truth was refocused through the lens of conjecture and guess-work to make an interesting narrative. Dungeons & Dragons was a terrific scapegoat for murder.

Despite the efforts of Patricia Pulling and her B.A.D.D.-ass crusade, Dungeons & Dragons has remained a popular pastime among those fascinated with mythical creatures and fancy dice. And while Pulling’s organization attempted to rally together figures and statistics to support their claims of the game’s inherent deviancy, they were outclassed by a few more reputable institutions: the American Association of Suicidology, the US Centers for Disease Control And Prevention and Health & Welfare Canada all published their independent findings that there is zero causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide. In fact, feelings of alienation and societal dissociation – the stereotypical paintbrushes with which the D&D geeks of the 70’s and 80’s are often streaked – are not associated with mainstream D&D players.

It’s all a heap of noise about nothing. While the game does include a number of demons and otherworldly beasts, the players of the game are generally charged with slaying those creatures, not worshipping them. Yes, there is witchcraft, but it’s fantasy. Fun. Not a symptom of Satanism, except in the eyes of the most perceptually twisted.

But then aren’t those the ones who usually make the most noise?

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