How Did Gaming Greats Navigate the Satanic Panic of the 1980s?

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In the Reagan era, Dungeons & Dragons was beset by (now-debunked) allegations of Satanism, the occult, and suicides. The 1980s were the first golden age of the tabletop role-playing game. In 1985,  60 Minutes reported that there were between 3 and 5 million  Dungeons & Dragons players, and TSR, the company that owned D&D, grossed over $30 million.

But as D&D grew in popularity, a moral panic rose to meet it. Organizations such as Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons linked the playing of D&D to suicide. A novel by Rona Jaffe entitled Mazes & Monsters was made into a TV movie starring a young and unlikely Tom Hanks. In the film, Hanks becomes befuddled by the imaginary world of a role-playing game entitled Mazes & Monsters, and engages in unlikely behaviors such as celibacy and trying to jump off the World Trade Center to cast a spell.

Other, organizations saw D&D as the frontline of Satanism, possession, and even human sacrifice. Like the Puritans of 1692 Salem, adults perplexed by the behavior of the young found the devil behind it. There is not a shred of truth to the allegations of course. Both the Center for Disease Control and Health & Welfare Canada found no link between role-playing games and suicide.

With D&D and role-playing ensconced in 21st-century culture, it is easy for us to look back on such insanity and laugh. But what was it like to be a gamer on the ground, just a kid, and live through the moral panic first hand? Gaming legends Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook remember it.

Bruce Cordell worked for 18 years on Dungeons & Dragons and recently created  The Strange, a science fantasy role-playing game of alternate dimensions. Monte Cook is one of the creators of the iconic third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and is the creator of Numenera, a role-playing game set on Earth one billion years in the future. And in an amazing synchronicity, the two of them met in shop class in the 8th grade.

Bruce said, “Monte happened to notice my leather coaster project featured a sword crossed with an axe, and asked, ‘Do you play D&D?'” Bruce did indeed play D&D, and the two struck a fast friendship.

Bruce sailed through the moral panic untroubled. He said his parents, “were thrilled that I was an RPG nerd. They loved my friends, and appreciated that I was hanging out evenings playing games instead of—I assume—getting up to the sorts of delinquent behavior that parents fear.”

Monte, however, had challenging waters to navigate. He said, “I was raised in a pretty religious (evangelical) Midwestern household. When I was a kid, my mom didn’t approve of D&D for some [of] the reasons we’ve all heard a million times: it dealt with ‘the occult,’ it involved demons and spells, and didn’t have a Christian outlook overall. Nothing really new or different. Pat Roberson’s ill-informed 700 Club speeches didn’t help the situation.”

His mother’s disapproval led to a crisis for Monte. He had invested a lot of money in his D&D books. (A 1st edition Player’s Handbook retailed for $15, which was a lot of comic books back in the 80s.) Throwing them away was obviously out of the question, but there were too many books to hide them. What to do? Bruce was the answer.

Monte passed the bulk of his D&D library on to Bruce. Bruce said, ” I got all Monte’s D&D books out of the deal… I think I still have some of them actually.”

Monte said, “Eventually, my mom and I pretty much came to terms with everything (writing for D&D professionally for years pretty much requires something like that) and our relationship is solid.”

After a distinguished career writing for TSR and then Wizards of the Coast, Monte struck out on his own, creating Monte Cook Games. Bruce followed him shortly afterwards, and if you want to see what these prolific veterans of the gaming industry are up to now, you should check out their current Kickstarter which is funding not one, but three different games translating the flexible, fast, and fun Cypher System into the genres of epic fantasy, time travel, and super-powered psychological horror.

While the moral panic surrounding D&D has largely subsided in the 21st century, there are still stalwarts of the movement to be found. Pat Robertson, for example, still repeats the old lie that D&D is demonic, and has done so as recently as 2013. Furthermore, the Waupun Correctional Institute in Wisconsin banned D&D and a judge upheld the decision, saying that D&D encouraged, “hostility, violence, and escape behavior.” With gaming culture ascendant, it is easy to laugh at these old bugaboos, but they are still real, still out there, and likely still making the lives of some young gamers difficult.

What are your memories of the Satanic panic of the 1980s? Do you have friends or family that still frown on your gaming habit now? Let us know in the comments section below.

Feature image courtesy Andrew Smith.

Other images courtesy Monte Cook Games, and Wizards of the Coast. 

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