MORAL PANIC MONTH #8: Dungeons & Dragons, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (1974)

Type of Media: Tabletop RPG

If you don’t know how to play Dungeons & Dragons, you at least know it by reputation. D&D is synonymous with geekery, and the stereotype of a bunch of nerds rushing to their mom’s wood-paneled basement to roll some dice has endured for decades. Its stigma as a game too dweeby for general public consumption has fallen away slightly in recent years, though, thanks to its inclusion in TV shows like Community and Stranger Things, as well as the rise of tabletop gaming as a way to disconnect from electronics. However, Dungeons & Dragons still carries another stigma: as a gateway to the occult that turns innocent kids into murderous sorcerers. 

Dungeons & Dragons is the world’s first commercially available tabletop roleplaying game. In it, each player controls a single character with a name, backstory, and class that determines their special abilities. A final person, the Dungeon Master, controls the rest of the world that these characters inhabit and acts as a rules referee. The Dungeon Master narrates the story, and the players choose what their characters do. One important thing to note is that in general D&D isn’t a competitive game, and good Dungeon Masters just want their players to have a fun time. 
While many other tabletop RPGs have debuted since D&D released, D&D still reigns supreme for a specific kind of storytelling: swashbuckling fantasy. It works best when your characters are a group of mighty heroes banding together to rid the world of evil, growing in power as they gain experience and acquire new magical items. Combat is one of the primary focuses of the game, with most of the abilities centered around increasing your worth in a fight. Every class has access to unique features that help them shine, and there are multiple routes to build your character so, even if your party has two fighters, they’ll be able to differentiate themselves.

Even though D&D is all about vanquishing evil, in the early 80s it was characterized as the root of evil. Several teenagers who played D&D, such as Irving Pulling and James Dallas Egbert, committed suicide, leading to media frenzies asking what effect playing D&D has on kids. There was a rash of D&D-sploitation media, like the 1981 movie Mazes and Monsters starring a young Tom Hanks, and the infamous comic Dark Dungeons. Even the FBI started getting suspicious of D&D, investigating D&D publisher TSR for cocaine trafficking, and later questioning D&D players about connections to the Unabomber.

If you’re wondering how a fantasy game can ignite the flames of ire in otherwise rational people, convincing them their sons and daughters are communing with the devil through their D&D game, there are a few factors. First, Dungeons & Dragons borrows from a lot of other fantasy creators like J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Robert E. Howard. In the game characters can cast spells, talk to devils, or worship any number of gods, presenting a world that doesn’t line up with the beliefs of devout people from monotheistic religions.
Second, Dungeons & Dragons is escapist fantasy. That means a lot of people who play D&D have characters who do things the players wouldn’t normally do in real life. They steal, they bully, they shoot first and ask questions later. Some groups specifically run “evil” campaigns where the characters are explicitly the bad guys. Now, tons of books and movies fit into these two categories, featuring fantasy worlds populated with amoral characters, and they don’t carry the same blame that D&D does. 
What makes D&D special is the third point: it’s a game.

Games carry a strange reputation with a lot of people. They are both scoffed at as things made for children, and also held in awe for the power they have to immerse. That leads to a fear that people who play games aren’t mature enough to differentiate fantasy from reality and think their games are real. Games also require interaction, which leads to further fears that players performing an action in a game are gaining experience performing that action in real life. The end result is that people worry D&D players are actually praying to pagan fire gods and performing magic rituals, lost within their other persona during the course of a game.

This isn’t the case, of course. Dungeons & Dragons is powerful, but it isn’t overpowering. Some people can get really invested in their D&D games, but that’s only because it combines so many amazing things. D&D is imagining, socializing, and storytelling. It’s being clever, creating a world, and feeling strong. It’s gathering around a table, making your friends laugh, and finding a community. No one is coming to a D&D session because they think it’s a stepping stone to dark power, they’re doing it to hang out with their friends and pretend to be someone else for a few hours.
If you have any interest in fantasy, board games, or acting (it's a favorite game among improv comedians) and you haven’t played Dungeons & Dragons, I absolutely suggest you try it out. Find a friend who’s running a game, or start your own by downloading the basic rules for free, gathering 4 or 5 friends, and getting a premade adventure to run through. I guarantee you'll be in for at least a memorable night, and maybe a new obsession.