Dungeons & Dragons controversies

Dungeons & Dragons controversies

Dungeons & Dragons controversies concern the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), which has received significant attention in the media and in popular culture. The game has received some negative coverage, especially during the game's early years in the early 1980s. Because the term D&D may be mistakenly used to refer to all types of role-playing games, part of the controversies regarding D&D actually pertain to role-playing games in general, or to the literary genre of fantasy as a whole.

Part of the controversies that have arisen concern the game itself and its alleged impact on those who play it, while others concern business issues at the game's original publisher, TSR. The game is now owned by Wizards of the Coast.


Religious objections

In Dark Dungeons by Jack Chick, a girl gets involved in Wicca through the "occult training" she receives while playing D&D. Later she converts to Christianity and rejects the game, burning the materials and avoiding Hell; which it is explicitly stated will be the destination of all D&D players.

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons has received negative publicity for alleged or perceived promotion of such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. Especially during the 1980s, certain religious groups accused the game of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of Demons.[1] Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.

The concept of Dungeons & Dragons as being Satanic was linked to the concept of satanic ritual abuse (S.R.A.), in that both presumed the existence of large, organized Satanic cults and societies. Sources such as the Dark Dungeons[2] tract from Chick Publications portray D&D as a recruitment tool for these organizations.

Patricia Pulling

Patricia Pulling was an anti-occult campaigner from Richmond, Virginia, and was the founder of Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD). This one-person advocacy group was dedicated to the elimination of Dungeons and Dragons and other such games, starting 1982, when her son Irving committed suicide, and continuing until her death in 1997. As her son had played Dungeons & Dragons, she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her son's high school principal, holding him responsible for what she claimed was a Dungeons & Dragons curse placed upon her son shortly before his death. She later filed suit against TSR, Inc., the publishers of the game at that time.

All of her related suits lost in court[1] and most of her claims were disproved by a number of reporters,[3] especially Michael A. Stackpole, who demonstrated that suicide rates were lower among game-players (gamers) than non-gamers.[4]

When her lawsuits were dismissed, she founded BADD and began publishing information promoting her belief that D&D encouraged Satanism, rape, suicide and used an entire litany of immoral and illegal practices as part of the game.[1] BADD effectively ceased to exist with the death of Patricia Pulling in 1997 of cancer.

The Schnoebelen articles

Bill Schnoebelen claims[5] to have been a Wiccan Priest, Satanic Priest. Eschewing those faiths, he became dedicated to encouraging other people away from his earlier beliefs.[6] In 1989 he wrote an article, "Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons"[7], which was published by Chick Publications. He received a large volume of letters and emails on the subject in the years after that, and wrote a follow-up article in 2001, "Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?"[8] These essays portray Dungeons & Dragons as a tool for New Age Satanic groups to introduce concepts and behaviors that are seen as contrary to Christian teaching and morality in general. Part of his claims involve supposedly being visited by TSR employees to make sure that the magic of the game was authentic, although examination of the game rules shows no such perceived magical property.[9]

His first article summarized D&D as "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft [which] violates the commandment of I Ths. 5:22 'Abstain from all appearance of evil.'" It claimed that rituals described in the game were capable of conjuring malevolent demons and producing other real-world effects. The article further accused the Dungeon Master's Guide of celebrating Adolf Hitler for his charisma.

His second article focused on contrasting the Christian world-view and the fantasy worldview of Dungeons & Dragons, concluding, "being exposed to all these ideas of magic to the degree that the game requires cannot but help have a significant impact on the minds of the players."

The Hickman articles

Tracy Hickman, a prolific author of Dungeons & Dragons materials and practicing Latter-day Saint (Mormon), has written many articles about the ethics of Dungeons & Dragons from a Theistic point of view. His "Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game!"[10] details a number of concerns about the ethics surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, but also outlines a number of the hurdles in gamers and non-gamers communicating over these topics.

TSR's reaction

The controversy led TSR to remove references to demons, devils, and other potentially controversial supernatural monsters from the 2nd Edition of AD&D.[11] These terms were replaced by references to tanar'ri and baatezu. Many of these exclusions were returned to the 2nd Edition in the late 1990's, appearing again in releases such as A Guide To Hell. In the year 2000, the 3rd Edition of the game addressed demonology and demonolatry far more explicitly than materials from previous editions; however, relations and interactions with these creatures are explicitly said to be evil. The more 'extreme' manuals, specifically the Book of Vile Darkness and the Book of Exalted Deeds, bear a "For Mature Audiences Only" label.

Psychological impact

Dungeons & Dragons has also been plagued by rumors since the early 1980s of players having psychological problems related to the game. These include claims that players have difficulty separating fantasy and reality, even leading to schizophrenia and suicide.

Mazes and Monsters

As the role-playing game hobby began to grow, it was connected to the story in 1979 of the disappearance of 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert had attempted suicide in the utility tunnels beneath the campus of Michigan State University, and after his unsuccessful attempt, hid out at a friend's house for approximately a month.

A well-publicized search for Egbert began, and his parents hired private investigator William Dear to seek out their son. Dear knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons at that time, but speculated to the press that Egbert had gotten lost in the steam tunnels during a live-action version of the game. The press largely reported the story as fact, which served as the kernel of a persistent rumor regarding such "steam tunnel incidents". Egbert's suicide attempts, including his successful suicide the following year (by self-inflicted gunshot) had no connection whatsoever to D&D, being brought on by his being depressed and under great stress.[12]

Rona Jaffe published Mazes and Monsters in 1981, a thinly disguised fictionalization of the press exaggerations of the Egbert case. In an era when very few people understood role-playing games it seemed plausible to some elements of the public that a player might experience a psychotic episode and lose touch with reality during role-playing. The book saw adaptation into a made-for-television movie in 1982 starring Tom Hanks, and the publicity surrounding both the novel and film version served to heighten the public's unease regarding role-playing games.

Dear later revealed the truth of the incident in his 1984 book The Dungeon Master, in which he repudiated the link between D&D and Egbert's disappearance. Dear acknowledged that Egbert's domineering mother had more to do with his problems than his interest in role-playing games.[12]

Neal Stephenson's fictional book satirizing university life, The Big U, published in 1984, includes a series of similar incidents in which a live-action fantasy role-player is killed in a steam-tunnel accident leading to another gamer becoming mentally unstable, and unable to distinguish reality from the game.


Hobgoblin is a 1981 novel by horror and suspense writer John Coyne which also followed on the angst about the Egbert incident, and D&D and fantasy role-playing games in general. This thriller is about a young man, Scott Gardiner, who is traumatized by the sudden death of his father and by his mother's decision to take a job as caretaker of an isolated estate called Ballycastle. Ostracized by his peers at the local high school, Scott takes refuge in Hobgoblin, a role-playing game based on Ancient Celtic cults. As the novel progresses, Scott comes to identify more and more with his character, Brian Boru, frequently thinking of himself as Brian. In an attempt to improve relations with his schoolmates, Scott throws a Hobgoblin-themed costume party at Ballycastle. Tragedy strikes when the supposedly dead former owner of Ballycastle—now hopelessly deranged—arrives at the party, killing several guests and Scott's mother. Scott—in his Brian Boru persona—kills the murderer using the weapons he carries as part of his costume.

Lieth Von Stein

In 1988, a murder case in Washington, North Carolina involving North Carolina State University students brought Dungeons & Dragons more unfavorable publicity. Chris Pritchard allegedly masterminded the murder of his stepfather, Lieth Von Stein, for his $2 million fortune. Both von Stein and his wife, Bonnie, were bludgeoned and stabbed by masked assailants in their bedroom, leaving the husband mortally wounded and the wife injured.

Chris Pritchard had a long history of mutual antagonism with his stepfather, and state investigators learned over the course of a year that Pritchard had developed some unhealthy associations at NCSU. Pritchard had a known history for alcohol and drug use. But the NCSU authorities also seized on his role-playing group after a 'game map' depicting the von Stein house turned up as physical evidence. Pritchard's friends Gerald Neal Henderson and James "Moog" Upchurch III were implicated in a plot to help Pritchard kill his stepfather. All three young men went to state prison in 1990. Henderson and Pritchard have since been paroled. Upchurch's death sentence was commuted to life in 1992; he is serving his term.

True crime authors Joe McGinniss and Jerry Bledsoe played up the role-playing angle. Much attention was given to Upchurch's influence and power as Dungeon Master. Bledsoe's book, Blood Games, was made into a TV movie, Honor Thy Mother, in 1992. That same year, McGinniss' book was adapted into a two part TV miniseries, Cruel Doubt. The latter film featured real role-playing game materials, doctored to imply they had caused the murders.[13]

Israeli army

The Israeli army has an official policy that frowns on the playing of D&D by its soldiers. Their position is that game play makes players "detached from reality and susceptible to influence”, automatically lowering their security clearance. Due to these pressures, most soldiers who play D&D hide this fact.[14]

Clinical research

The American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health & Welfare (Canada) all concluded that there is no causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide.[15] In 1990, the writer Michael Stackpole authored The Pulling Report, a review highly critical of Patricia Pulling's and BADD's methods of data collection, analysis and reporting.[16]

Even outside of the context of BADD, researchers have investigated the emotional impact of Dungeons & Dragons since the 1980s. A number of studies have shown that depression and suicidal tendencies are not typically associated with role players,[17] feelings of alienation are not associated with the mainstream player (though those who are deeply, and often financially, committed to the game do tend to have these feelings),[18] and according to one study there is "no significant correlation between years of playing the game and emotional stability."[19]

Promotes gang related activity

In 2004, Wisconsin's Waupun prison instituted a ban on playing Dungeons & Dragons, arguing that it promoted gang-related activity. The policy went into effect based upon an anonymous letter from an inmate stating that the four prisoners that played the game were forming a "gang". When the ban went into effect, the prison confiscated all Dungeons & Dragons-related materials. Inmate Kevin T. Singer, a dedicated player of the game, who is sentenced to a life term for first-degree intentional homicide, sought to overturn the ban saying it violated his first amendment rights. However, on January 25, 2010 the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban as a "reasonable policy".[20]

Business disputes at TSR

The game's commercial success led to lawsuits initiated in 1979 regarding distribution of royalties between D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Specifically at issue were the royalties for AD&D, a product for which TSR did not acknowledge Arneson's intellectual property claims. Those suits were settled out of court by 1981.[21][22]

Gygax himself became embroiled in a political struggle for control of TSR and disputes related to the company’s deteriorating financial situation in the early 1980s. The disagreements culminated in a court battle and Gygax’s decision to sell his ownership interest in the company in 1985.[23]

Licensing and trademark violations

Early in the game's history, TSR summarily revoked the license to create AD&D-compatible items it had previously granted to the publishing company Judges Guild. TSR's action was a primary cause of the smaller publisher's decision to cease operations in the early 1980s.

Grimoire Games, which published David A. Hargrave's multi-volume Arduin series, had no such license. When presented with a cease and desist order regarding the use of TSR's trademarks, Grimoire was forced to rely on white-out and typing correction tape to mask its use of AD&D references in subsequent printings of the Arduin series.

TSR itself ran afoul of intellectual property law with respect to the Cthulhu Mythos and Melnibonéan Mythos it had included in early versions of the Deities & Demigods manual. These problems were ultimately resolved by excising the material from later editions of the book.[24] Similarly, references in early TSR publications to certain creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien's mythical Middle-earth were also removed or altered due to intellectual property concerns.[25] For example, TSR replaced all references to the race of Hobbits in D&D with their alternate name, Halflings — which was also coined by Tolkien but judged by TSR to be non-infringing.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Waldron, David (Spring 2005). "Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic". Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 9. http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art9-roleplaying-print.html. 
  2. ^ Chick, Jack T. (1984). "Dark Dungeons". Jack T. Chick LLC. http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp. 
  3. ^ Springston, Rex (7 April 1989). "Local Believers Short on Evidence". The Richmond News Leader (Richmond, Virginia). 
  4. ^ Game Hysteria and the Truth by Michael A. Stackpole
  5. ^ Eugene V. Gallagher; W. Michael Ashcraft (October 2006). Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: African diaspora traditions and other American innovations. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 163. ISBN 9780275987176. http://books.google.com/books?id=ClaySHbUEogC&pg=PA163. "William Schnoebelen, who claims to have been an Old Order Catholic priest, a Wiccan High Priest, a Satanist High Priest, a Master Mason, and a Temple Mormon, has (not surprisingly) been accused of simply inventing a past to gain countercult credibility. (p. 155)" 
  6. ^ "About William Schnoebelen". Chick Publications. http://www.chick.com/information/authors/schnoebelen.asp. 
  7. ^ Schnoebelen, William (1984). "Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons". Chick Publications. http://www.chick.com/articles/dnd.asp. 
  8. ^ Schnoebelen, William (2001?). "Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?". Chick Publications. http://www.chick.com/articles/frpg.asp. 
  9. ^ Stephen Weese (November 2006). God Loves the Freaks. Stephen Weese. pp. 136–7. ISBN 9781430303657. http://books.google.com/books?id=zgBG6vqyin8C&pg=PA136. 
  10. ^ Hickman, Tracy (1988). "Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game!". http://www.trhickman.com/Intel/Essays/Ethic1.html. 
  11. ^ Ward, James M (9 February 1990). "The Games Wizards: Angry Mothers From Heck (And what we do about them)". Dragon (154). 
  12. ^ a b Dear, William C. Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, Houghton Mifflin, 1984
  13. ^ Cruel Doubt on The Escapist's FAQ
  14. ^ Greenberg, Hanan. "Army frowns on Dungeons and Dragons". ynetnews.com. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3052074,00.html. Retrieved 2007-02-01. 
  15. ^ QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT ROLE-PLAYING GAMES, Loren K. Wiseman and Michael A. Stackpole, ©1991 by Game Manufacturers Association
  16. ^ The Pulling Report by Michael A. Stackpole
  17. ^ Carter R, Lester D (February 1998). "Personalities of players of Dungeons and Dragons". Psychol Rep 82 (1): 182. doi:10.2466/PR0.82.1.182-182. PMID 9520550. 
  18. ^ DeRenard LA, Kline LM (June 1990). "Alienation and the game dungeons and dragons". Psychol Rep 66 (3 Pt 2): 1219–22. PMID 2385713. 
  19. ^ Simon, Armando (October 1987). "Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons & Dragons". Psychology in the Schools 24 (4): 329–32. doi:10.1002/1520-6807(198710)24:4<329::AID-PITS2310240406>3.0.CO;2-9. http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/Home.portal?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=RecordDetails&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ364547&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=eric_accno&objectId=0900000b8005f3fb. 
  20. ^ Bauer, Scott (January 25, 2010). "Game over: Wisconsin inmate loses legal fight to play Dungeons & Dragons behind bars". Chicago Tribune (Tribune Co.). http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/sns-ap-us-odd-dungeons-and-dragons-inmate,0,6644834.story?obref=obnetwork. Retrieved 2010-01-28. 
  21. ^ "Interview with Dave Arneson". Pegasus (Judges Guild) (1). Apr/May 1981. http://www.judgesguild.net/guildhall/pegasus/pegasus_01/interview.shtml. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  22. ^ Rausch, Allen (2004-08-19). "Dave Arneson Interview". GameSpy. http://pc.gamespy.com/articles/540/540395p1.html. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  23. ^ Gygax, Gary. "Gygax FAQ". gygax.com. Archived from the original on 1999-01-28. http://web.archive.org/web/19990128161605/http://www.gygax.com/gygaxfaq.html#What%20Happened%20to%20Gygax%20-%20TSR?. Retrieved 2006-07-04. 
  24. ^ "The Acaeum page on Deities & Demigods". http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/deities.html. Retrieved 2007-02-21.  shows contents of different printings.
  25. ^ Copyright conflicts with the Tolkien Estate lead to removal of references to Hobbits, Ents and others, shown on "The Acaeum page on Original D&D Set". http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/original.html. Retrieved 2007-02-21. 

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