Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, and the Macramé Planters of DARK DUNGEONS
Content warning: contains discussion and comic book depiction of teen suicide.
Undoubtedly, Dungeons & Dragons is experiencing a massive surge of popularity these days. Many attribute successful TV series that prominently feature the game, like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory, as a factor along with live game streams and shows with celebrity players. Others talk about players wanting more social engagement in gaming. The recent release of 5th edition has made D&D more accessible to new players and game publisher Wizards of the Coast declared their book sales were "unprecedented" in 2017. I wouldn't claim it is D&D's golden age, (that would conjure fiery discussions on preferred editions) but it is arguably way more ubiquitous than ever before.
It is getting difficult to believe there was a time when D&D and, to some extent, fans and players were treated with derision and suspicion, becoming a key part of a moral panic in the early 1980s.
There was a little comic book that had a (burning) hand in it.
Getting into the nitty-gritty details of the 80’s Satanic panic involves issues outside the scope of this blog, but I'll sum up for context. In the 1970s, cult behavior and the occult were fresh in American minds. Events like the Manson family trials, the release of the book and subsequent film adaptation of "The Exorcist," publication of Anton LeVay's "The Satanic BIble," and the concept of "stranger danger" all left distinct marks on culture and especially faith-based organizations. An aura of fear developed; "Satanists" could be anywhere, including your neighbors, childcare workers, and teachers.
Also at this time, several evangelicals made careers out of claiming prestigious involvement in Satanic cults before being saved by Christianity. They told lurid tales of Satanic ritual abuse (SRA), evil world conspiracies, and malevolent dark forces which only the power of the gospel could break. This narrative had great appeal to conspiracy-minded folks like fundamentalist cartoonist Jack Chick. Chick latched on to the occult as a primary antagonist for his Tijuana bible-style evangelistic booklets ("Chick tracts") which covered devilish schemes that kept some religious conservatives awake at night: "rock" music, abortion, evolution, demonic influence, and, of course, D&D. These tracts are problematically ideological, to say the least, as Chick was not shy about his anti-Catholic views, and frequently peppered his comics with anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-LBGTQ content. It would be easy to ignore and dismiss these comics as products of localized extremism, but these tracts were common in many mainstream evangelical churches that I attended and visited as a youth. Every book ends the same way, presenting the reader with a fear-based binary choice regarding their ultimate divine appointment in the afterlife: accept the gospel or face eternal damnation.
With the apparent modus operandi that it can be more effective to misrepresent something than try to understand it, Chick published "Dark Dungeons," a tale that may be the most (in)famous pieces of anti-RPG propaganda ever published.
Let's dive in and see if this story is a well-reasoned and fairly-presented critique of the game, or an exploitative misleading exposé!
The robotic dialog, absurdly large proportions of the player figures on the table, the massive dungeon master's (DM's) screen, and the sweet 70s macramé planter are laughable, but I've got to give the comic props for equal male/female representation at the table rather than showing stereotypes male nerds in a dark basement. Rules nitpick though: the monster gets a saving throw (a die roll representing a chance to avoid spell effects) before being declared blinded. Along with the formal language between the two, it seems Chick isn't quite up to speed on how the game flows. An argument can be made that they are playing the fictitious "Dark Dungeons" not Dungeons & Dragons, so the rules and context can be anything the author intends. But, as we'll see in future panels, it is clear that that Chick is specifically referring to D&D.
This is wrong on a few levels. Again, like the blinded monster, Black Leaf gets a saving throw before suffering the effects of the poison trap. Even with a failed saving throw and horrendous dice rolls, a poison trap would likely not kill a character outright in one turn. That being said, character death does suck. In any tabletop RPG, time is spent building a character and giving them backstory in relation to a planned narrative, so there certainly is a sense of panic and tension when one's character is badly wounded or near death. However, death is not necessarily final in D&D. There could be opportunities for resurrection or ways to give a character's demise certain meaning in context of the story. Marcie may create a new character and continue playing the game, or she could take Black Leaf to another play group. Which I would recommend to Marcie, because the wizard player is being absolutely horrible by denigrating Marcie (not Black Leaf), saying "she doesn't exist" and telling her to leave. Chick is setting up an ideologically-based argument for those unfamiliar with D&D, asserting that the game intentionally blurs the lines between reality and fantasy-role play for players. Any tabletop RPG usually states the goal on the first page of the rulebook: inclusive fun and enjoyment in an imaginative setting. What is happening here is a disingenuous portrayal.
Debbie, the cruel wizard, is playing a cleric now? In D&D, wizards and clerics are two of several distinct classes that players may choose from when building their character. Unless, of course, Debbie is playing a dual-class character option that combines elements of both the wizard and cleric classes. Considering Chick's questionable grasp on the game so far, I think it's reasonable to say that's not the intent.
This tract was published during the second edition D&D ruleset (currently in fifth edition.) I don't have a 2E players handbook to make sure, but I'm quite confident that when a cleric reaches 8th level, it doesn't say "Uplevel ability score, add a 4th level spell slot, and players with the right personality may now learn to cast spells outside the game."
The mechanism behind magic is based on the player characters (PCs) abilities and classes that governs how, when, and what spells can be cast. Casting a spell is done by just saying "I cast X" and rolling dice to see what effects occur as per the spell's description. It is a pure game mechanism. You can't learn how use magic from a D&D rulebook any more than you can learn how to ride a horse, fight with a broadsword, or pick a medieval lock. You can't learn the business of real estate auctions by playing Monopoly. Again, Chick is exploiting audience unfamiliarity with the game to argue that fantasy and reality are problematically mixed up in RPGs, literally drawing absurd and illogical conclusions.
Now we finally know where this is heading, and there is no room for nuance here. D&D (no longer called Dark Dungeons) is "intense occult training": a preparatory recruitment tool courtesy of your friendly local witches' coven. Debbie is stripped of her real identity, going by her fantasy nom-de-plume Elfstar, as she accepts an invite from robed totally-not-horror-movie cultist tropes who likely chant "for the greater good" all day.
Back at Ms. DM's swanky 70s pad (she's given the again-absolutely-not-horror-movie-trope name Ms. Frost), Debbie, still rocking that Members Only jacket, is excited about her "new powers." She cast a spell on her (probably legitimately concerned) father, to buy her more books and minis. I love the exact dollar amount of $200.00; making sure to include the cents, because there isn't much else that makes "cents" in this story. Ha! Sorry.
As you can probably guess, there's no spell called "Mind Bondage" in D&D. The closest I found was "Dominate Person", a 5-level enchantment for the arcane classes (both wizard & sorcerer.) Since Debbie is presumably still playing a cleric in the game, she wouldn't have access to this spell. Also, an 8th-level character generally wouldn't be able to use 5th-level spells, either. This is all moot anyway - there is no indication on how this spell was done or achieved in the real world.
Certainly, one could argue that I'm being pedantic. However, the objective claim frequently made by Christian moralists is that D&D spells are authentic; specifically designed to emulate the “real” thing. William Schoebelen, another prominent "ex-Satanist turned Christian" whose writings on D&D are featured on Jack Chick's website, makes this assertion.
Schnoebelen has some impressive claims in his biography. He was a "90th-degree" freemason (?!), satanist, witch, practicing sorcerer, Mormon, member of the Illuminati, and even a vampire (?!). It seems he's pretty much dabbled into anything related to Western esotericism in a 16-year span.
He writes of a time when he and his wife were allegedly approached by employees of TSR:
I was a witch high priest (Alexandrian tradition) during the period 1973-84. During some of that period (1976-80) I was also involved in hardcore Satanism. We studied and practiced and trained more than 175 people in the Craft. Our "covendom" was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; just a short drive away from the world headquarters of TSR, the company which makes Dungeons and Dragons in Lake Geneva, WI. In the late 1970's, a couple of the game writers actually came to my wife and I as prominent "sorcerers" in the community. They wanted to make certain the rituals were authentic. For the most part, they are.
These two guys sat in our living room and took copious notes from us on how to make sure the rituals were truly right "from the book," (this meaning that they actually came from magic grimoires or workbooks). They seemed satisfied with what they got and left us thankfully.
Three observations on this statement:
Schoebelen is vague. He doesn't provide names or references to who came to his house. TSR is long gone, as well as author and co-founder Gary Gygax, so there is no easy way to verify his story. He doesn't provide an example of a D&D spell compared to an "authentic" one.
D&D was first published in the early 1970s, not late 1970s. The next iteration, Advanced D&D (AD&D), was released around the time Schnoebelen claims, but the spells and magic system changed little in that publication and subsequent editions. Here's what really inspired the magic system in D&D .
Players do not physically perform rituals as part of the game. As I've said before, magic in D&D is a game mechanism and performed by the characters in the story. There is a distinction here that Schnoebelen, Chick, and other fundamentalists continue to obfuscate. As a fun side note: this person tried his hand at fictional spellcasting to see what would happen.
Given his story, is William Schoebelen disposed to flights of fancy without evidence? Looking at a recent blog post, he claims:
HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and the fictional Necronomicon are real, and not a product of Lovecraft's imagination.
The United States government has been in contact with aliens since the 1940s. And these aliens are "Watchers"... fallen sons of God, referenced in the apocryphal Book of Enoch.
All the classic alien conspiracies are true: Roswell crash, Area 51, MJ-12, et al. The Watchers gave advanced technology to ancient civilizations... and to Nazis, of course.
Also, for good measure, he's anti-vax, claims the Illuminati wants to take away guns, dabbles in geocentrism/flat earth beliefs, and says that cancer cures are suppressed by the Illuminati and "Nazi mega-cartels." I'll leave my readers to decide for themselves, but given a glimpse of his worldview and altered reality, I consider Schnoebelen, at best, an unreliable source on the question of D&D being used as an occult training tool.
Back in a pre-texting and pre-smartphoning world, Debbie is too busy dealing with "the Zombie" to talk to an upset Marcie (who she already treated like garbage on page 2); another attempt from the author to shift the blame of bad choices onto a game. FYI: an 8th level or higher cleric shouldn't have any trouble with a single zombie; undead enemies are a cleric's speciality. That fight would probably last less than one round.
The story quickly takes a dark turn.
While presenting D&D as a recruitment tool for Satanists or witches' covens is factually dubious and laughable, framing D&D as a cause of teen suicide is a serious assertion.
There were a number of teen suicide cases in the 80s that some parents, evangelicals, and activists (including Schnoebelen) attributed to D&D.
One well-known example is the 1982 death of teen Irving Lee Pulling, who killed himself with a handgun kept at his family's residence. He was described by his peers as a loner and likely suffering from severe depression. His mother, Patricia Pulling, blamed Irving's death on his involvement with D&D and (unsuccessfully) filed a wrongful death lawsuit against TSR and the principal of Irving's school. Local and national media promoted her story with great interest; Pulling was called a "gaming expert" on various talk shows, and appeared on 60 Minutes. After her lawsuits were tossed out, she founded the advocacy group BADD ("Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons"), campaigning for school bans and warning labels on D&D books. Pulling was accused of manipulating statistics in BADD literature. In one instance, she claimed that eight percent of America's population were Satanists; she arrived at this figure by adding together stats that reported four percent of adults and four percent of youths were involved in occult activity. Pulling became a licensed private investigator, and consulted with police detectives on alleged cult-based crimes, using problematic criteria on what may cause teen involvement in Satanism and cults. She passed away in 1997, and BADD subsequently disbanded.
Schnoebelen (n.d.) lists 11 murders and suicides which are claimed to be caused by involvement with Dungeons & Dragons. One study (Carter & Lester 1998) showed no difference in level of suicide ideation, depression, neuroticism or psychoticism between gamers and a control group but such comparison can be easily biased by the composition of the control group. Stackpole (1989) investigated suicide rates of those involved with role-playing games by calculating the expected suicide rates per the gamer population, then, an estimated 4 million players worldwide. The estimated suicide rate for this population would be 500 individuals, per year. However, in his study, Stackpole had documented only 7 suicides of game players per year, and inferred that playing Dungeons & Dragons appeared to cause a lower suicide rate amongst the youth involved in it. He also suggested that role-playing games could even be used as a public health measure due to these ﬁndings.It should be noted that conﬁrmation bias may play a part in the tenacity of the media when it comes to the detrimental effect of games on the players.
Conﬁrmation bias (Klayton 1995), or conﬁrmatory bias, is a prejudiced way of looking at information, and causes an individual “to seek and interpret information in ways that are partial towards existing beliefs” (Ask & Granhag 2005). Individuals have this inclination towards favouring information which stands to conﬁrm a pre-existing ideas and hypotheses, and interpreting information in a prejudiced way, regardless of the truth of the information in question.
I sympathize with Pulling on a certain level. Seeking answers and closure in tragedy is perfectly normal; and I do often catch myself reframing events though confirmation bias, seeing causality where none may actually exist. A simple explanation is preferred over a complex one, even though it may be incorrect.
However, Pulling's activism did not help teens struggling with severe depression by supplying fact-based resources, but spread misinformation which disturbingly echoed antiquated beliefs that mental illnesses are a product of demonic influence. I do not know if Chick was inspired specifically by Irving Pulling's death, but Marcie's suicide certainly supports Pat Pulling's misguided ideals.
On this subject, if you or you think someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK. Here is an excellent list of other mental health resources, which includes resources outside the United States, compiled by Kim at The RP Repository.
Ms. Frost's lawful evil alignment is finally shining through. A clear connection is drawn between the game and Debbie's "spiritual growth," expressed in evangelical terms, and once more doubling-down on the fantasy/reality argument through Debbie's identity crisis (and unintentionally funny dialog.)
Debbie’s trauma with finding Marcie isn’t mentioned or acknowledged anymore; it’s all about the witchcraft for Mike. Clearly, this isn't about Marcie's suicide.
I don't have much to say here, other than it's hard not to feel bad for Debbie. Seeking help and guidance after a horrific experience certainly is a healthy step; it's a personal decision where it is sought.
In Debbie's confession, a D&D Players Handbook is equivocated with a "guide" for "Life." There is nothing in a D&D rulebook that would help anyone live any kind of life or establish a belief system. Stache Pastor lays hands on her, and wispy demon-y thingys are shown leaving Debbie, with a Biblical "don't try this at home" footnoted warning. I find it ironic that this is the closest thing depicted that could be interpreted as genuine magic.
As instructed by Stache Pastor, Debbie burns her $200.00+ collection of D&D books and figures, err, I mean, "occult material" that evening. She probably could've gone to her friendly local game store to trade the whole lot for another game that would be a better match for her personal values, but to each their own. Though, the idea of burning "occult material" feels a little... weird to me when considering the history and folklore of other burnings motivated by religion.
This is where we leave Debbie's story, but you get a handy exit survey regarding your faith decision, as if you could get a Starbucks gift card or a free chalupa from God after filling it out.
The tract fails to address a legitimate negative aspect of gaming, or any hobby, for that matter. If a hobby is detrimental to one's well-being, in other words, if it's consuming time, money, and resources that needs to go elsewhere, then maybe the hobby should be reevaluated. However, this story is not concerned about matters of personal responsibility. It is written not to help those struggling with mental illness, to foster understanding, or to present facts to motivate informed decisions, but to manifest fear and doubt.
Speaking of facts, many of the aforementioned evangelists' demonic resumes and stories were found to be fake, including that of John Todd, another one of Chick's primary sources of occult information for "Dark Dungeons" and other Chick tracts. SRA, as a widespread issue, is now largely discredited, although belief in SRA had serious negative impacts for a few people (warning: linked articles have disturbing and graphic content.)
Decades later, Dungeons & Dragons still carries a bit of this baggage over its 44-year history, though other moral panics have come and gone. What can we take away from Dark Dungeons? Is it still relevant? Sadly, Yes. Our culture war has not changed; and is even more divisive. Reason and individuality gives way to manipulative lies and appeals to emotion and fear. It is up to us to recognize and call out those who benefit from inducing public hysteria, no matter which side of the aisle they sit on, or which deity they do or do not serve.
They are the real devils among us.