How D&D Writers Fought the Satanic Panic Of The 1980s

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Second in a series of articles about the moral panic surrounding role-playing games in the 1980s, as experienced by those who lived it. You can read Geek & Sundry’s first article in the series here. 

How did the people who worked for TSR, the company that published Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, deal with the charges of Satanism, suicide, and sorcery that swirled around the game? And given that the charges were complete rubbish, why did they think a tabletop board game was the nexus of such cultural hysteria?

You can watch a representative piece of the mania, pandemonium, and outright lying in this clip below, which reads as absolutely hilarious now that we have decades of hindsight, but doubtless caused many gamers endless trouble and put struck fear into the hearts of TSR and its employees.

And so it was that Frank Mentzer was sent forth to fight for your right to game.

Frank Mentzer is a giant of the role-playing field. If you came to D&D in the 80s, you likely remember his most famous work: the iconic Red Box Basic Edition of D&D. Frank also co-wrote Basic Edition of D&D. Frank also co-wrote The Temple of Elemental Evil with D&D creator and nerd-saint Gary Gygax.

Frank was hired by TSR, the company that published Dungeons & Dragons in 1980, as the moral panic surrounding D&D was reaching a crest. And, Frank relates, a part of his job was, “Being a public spokesman for TSR, Inc. Thus I was equipped with the right insider knowledge and sent out to do battle. I ended up on Good Morning California… in ’81 right around Halloween, which made for an interesting show. I went head-to-head on the frontlines with Dr. Tom Radecki, and various other detractors of that era.”

Dr. Radecki testified at the trial of Darren Molitor, who was convicted of first-degree murder, and suggested that D&D contributed to the crime.

Frank was on TV and radio answering charges that, “this new thing that we don’t understand is the only thing we don’t understand in our children’s lives, and therefore it must be to blame” for every tragedy in the life of adolescents who played D&D.

Frank said that one of the largest fallacies surrounding D&D came from the simple truth that D&D is fictional. Every game of D&D is about constructing fiction together, a fact recognized by every person whose character was stabbed, while the player herself went uninjured. Frank said, “One of the common misconceptions, for example, that came up very often was, ‘You cast spells in this game!'” People outside the hobby were taking the fiction literally, and thinking that the spells were real!

Frank did his best to disabuse the Muggles of the 1980s of this notion. “I would demonstrate [on TV] how to cast spells and say, ‘Okay, I cast Fireball.’ And the host would look at me and say, ‘What?’ I said, ‘That’s it… The same as ‘I pick up a wrench…’ It’s a tool, not ornate, florid, it’s just a tool in this fantasy milieu, and the only people who have a problem with it are those who believe these fantasy escapist elements take you away from reality.”

Frank himself never had any problems with those in his personal life thinking D&D was evil, even though his father was a Methodist minister. Frank said, “My father… fully supported it because he read what I wrote. He said, ‘This is good work. Great!'”

By the early 1990s, TSR had taken a number of steps to try to clamp down the moral panic.

James Lowder wrote novels, and edited books for TSR’s fiction department at the time. He said, “By the time 2nd edition came out [in 1989] they’d taken devils and demons and all that out of the game as a token gesture for the people who were concerned about it, but there was still a palpable opposition to the game in the early 90s.”

James would actually get phone calls at the TSR fiction desk from people calling to ask if D&D would turn their children into Satanists. “Some people [who called] weren’t interested in doing more than yelling, or threatening… however they felt they had to react to this thing they didn’t understand… [They] just wanted to insult the company and tell whatever employee they got on the phone that he or she was going to hell for doing Satan’s work.”

Despite that, James said, “Most of the conversations were pretty positive.”

James told callers that D&D is, “group storytelling. That it’s not, at core, different than kids playing cops and robbers, except it’s got a set of rules that determines when you go ‘Bang! Bang!’ whether you hit somebody or not. Really, it’s imagination play… [like] kids have played forever. Discussed that way, it’s a lot less concerning because people can understand that’s what’s going on then…”

James remembers one call in particular from “a father who was very upset that his son was playing D&D. [Dad] didn’t understand the game and had only heard the sensational claims made by the panic-mongers. He was, he explained, very religious. I talked a lot about the idea of shared storytelling and explained that I had played for years and had only positive experiences. I talked about the moral component of roleplaying a bit, too, mentioning the paladin class and RPGs such as Pendragon that foregrounded specific moral codes. He felt much better by the time the call ended and was going to talk with his kid about the game, so he could share his concerns in a less frantic fashion.”

Despite such progress, the management of TSR still saw the moral panic as no laughing matter. James said, “When I got a job at TSR I actually put Dark Dungeons up on my door.”

Dark Dungeons is a 1984 comic by evangelist Jack Chick, designed to show people that D&D is Satanic and bring them to Jesus.

James continued, “[Vice-President] Jim Ward walked by later that afternoon and told me if I wanted to keep my job for the rest of the day, I would take it down because management did not have a sense of humor about this even by the late 80s.”

In an interesting synchronicity, when asked to explain the opposition to D&D, James said, “Mostly people are afraid because they don’t understand it,” much like Frank Mentzer said that D&D was “the only thing [D&D opponents] didn’t understand in [their] children’s lives.” It should be no surprise then that the cooling of the moral panic has coincided with the rise of RPGs. As more people experience gaming, they see it for what it is: incredibly fun fiction.

Frank Mentzer is still in the game; he’s started a company with other D&D greats called Eldritch Enterprises. James Lowder is still writing for a living. You can check out his voluminous output here.

Keep telling us your stories of the Satanic Panic in the comments below!

Feature image: Daily Trojan via Blumhouse 

Other images courtesy Wizards of the Coast and Chick Productions

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