Dungeons & Dragons controversies

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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 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, some controversies regarding D&D actually pertain to role-playing games in general, or to the literary genre of fantasy.

Part of the controversies concern the game 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[edit]

In Dark Dungeons by Jack T. Chick, a girl gets involved in wicca through the "occult training" she receives while playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Later she converts to Christianity and rejects the game, burning the materials and avoiding Hell, which is explicitly stated as the destination of all D&D players.

At various times in its history, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) 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 sorcery and the veneration of demons.[1] Throughout the history of role-playing games, many of these criticisms have not been aimed specifically at D&D, but touch on the genre of fantasy role-playing games as a whole.

The concept of Dungeons & Dragons as Satanic was linked to the concept of Satanic ritual abuse, in that both presumed the existence of large, organized Satanic cults and societies. Sources such as the Dark Dungeons tract from Chick Publications portray D&D as a recruitment tool for these organizations.[2][3]

Mazes and Monsters[edit]

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. After this unsuccessful attempt, he hid 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 session of a live action role-playing 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; they resulted from clinical depression and great stress.[4]

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 was adapted into a made-for-television movie in 1982 starring Tom Hanks, and the publicity surrounding both the novel and film heightened the public's unease regarding role-playing games. In 1983, the Canadian film Skullduggery depicted a role-playing game similar to D&D as tool of the devil to transform a young man into a serial killer.

Dear 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.[4]

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

Patricia Pulling[edit]

Patricia Pulling was an anti-occult campaigner from Richmond, Virginia and the founder of Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). This one-person advocacy group was dedicated to the elimination of Dungeons & Dragons and other such games. Pulling founded BADD in 1982 after her son Irving committed suicide; she continued her advocacy until her death in 1997. As her son had played D&D, she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her son's high school principal, holding him responsible for what she claimed was a D&D curse placed upon her son shortly before his death.[citation needed] She later filed suit against TSR, publishers of the game at the time.[1]

The case against TSR was thrown out in 1984,[1] and most of her claims were disproved by reporters,[5] especially Michael A. Stackpole, who demonstrated that gamers had lower suicide rates than non-gamers.[6] When her lawsuits were dismissed, she founded BADD and began publishing information to promote her belief that D&D encouraged Satanism, rape, and suicide, and incorporated an entire litany of immoral and illegal practices.[1] BADD effectively ceased to exist after Pulling died of cancer in 1997.

60 Minutes special[edit]

In 1985, a segment of 60 Minutes was devoted to the game, including interviews with Gary Gygax and his head of public relations, and Patricia Pulling, as well as parents of players of the game, who had allegedly committed murders and suicides connected to the game.[7]

The Catechism of the New Age[edit]

In 1987 two pastors, Peter Leithart and George Grant, published a book The Catechism of the New Age: A Response to Dungeons and Dragons. Joseph P. Laycock wrote that their book condemned role-playing as allowing too much freedom, which the authors regard as a gateway to critical thinking which in turn may result in heretical thought.[8]

Lieth Von Stein[edit]

A 1988 murder case in Washington, North Carolina brought Dungeons & Dragons more unfavorable publicity. Chris Pritchard, a student at North Carolina State University, allegedly masterminded the murder of his stepfather, Lieth Von Stein, for his $2 million fortune. Von Stein and his wife Bonnie (Pritchard's mother) were both bludgeoned and stabbed by a masked assailant in their bedroom, leaving the husband fatally wounded and the wife gravely injured.[9]

Chris Pritchard had a history of mutual antagonism with his stepfather, and investigators learned over the course of a year that Pritchard had become involved with drugs and alcohol while attending NCSU.[9] But the authorities focused on his role-playing group after a game map depicting the Von Stein house turned up as physical evidence. Pritchard's friends, Neal Henderson and James Upchurch, 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.[10]

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 a 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, directed by Yves Simoneau. Both television films depicted Dungeons & Dragons handbooks with artwork doctored to imply that they had inspired the murder.[11]

TSR's reaction[edit]

The controversy led TSR to remove references to demons, devils, and other potentially controversial supernatural monsters from the 2nd Edition of AD&D, published in 1989.[12] These terms were replaced by references to tanar'ri and baatezu. Many of these exclusions were returned to the 2nd Edition in the late 1990s, appearing again in releases such as Guide to Hell. In 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.

Schnoebelen articles[edit]

William Schnoebelen wrote a series of articles criticizing Dungeons & Dragons from a Christian perspective. Schnoebelen stated that he used to be a Wiccan priest as well as a Satanic priest.[13] After apostacizing from those faiths, he dedicated himself to encouraging others to avoid them as well.[14] In 1989 he wrote an article entitled "Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons," which was published by Chick Publications.[15]

The large amount of correspondence he received on the subject in the years that followed led him to write a follow-up article in 2001 entitled "Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?"[16] 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. Schnoebelen wrote in 2006: "In the late 1970s, 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."[17]

His first article summarized D&D as "a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft. [...] Dungeons and Dragons violates the commandment of I Ths. 5:22 'Abstain from all appearance of evil.'"[14] It stated 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.[14]

Schnoebelen's second article focused on contrasting the Christian worldview and the fantasy worldview of D&D. He wrote that "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 its players."[16]

Hickman articles[edit]

Tracy Hickman, best-selling fantasy writer, practicing Mormon, and co-author of the Ravenloft module for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,[18] has written articles about the ethics of Dungeons & Dragons from a theistic point of view. His 1988 essay, "Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game!", addresses a number of concerns about the ethics surrounding D&D and outlines hurdles in communication between gamers and non-gamers on the subject.[19]

Clinical research[edit]

The American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Welfare Canada all concluded that there is no causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide.[20] In 1990, Michael A. Stackpole authored The Pulling Report, a review highly critical of Patricia Pulling and BADD's methods of data collection, analysis, and reporting.[21]

Researchers outside the context of BADD have investigated the emotional impact of Dungeons & Dragons since the 1980s. Studies have shown that depression and suicidal tendencies are not typically associated with role players.[22] Feelings of alienation are not associated with mainstream players, though those who are deeply, and often financially, committed to the game do tend to have these feelings.[23] According to one study there is "no significant correlation between years of playing the game and emotional stability."[24]

One 2015 study has suggested that psychiatrists do not associate role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons with poor mental health.[25]

Sociological research[edit]

In 2015, Joseph P. Laycock, analyzing the controversy in his book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds wrote that the gist of anti-D&D arguments were related to the fact that role-playing was perceived by some Christian philosophers and theologians as dangerous because it leads to critical thinking. He explicitly wrote that "The arguments presented by Ankerber, Weldon, Leithart, Grant and Abanses serve as a cover to conceal the mechanisms of hegemony as well as to cover their own doubts about how indulging their love of fantasy might challenge their own faith".[8]


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 took effect, the prison confiscated all D&D-related materials. Inmate Kevin T. Singer, a dedicated player of the game, sentenced to a life term for first-degree 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".[26]

Business disputes at TSR[edit]

The game's commercial success led to lawsuits initiated in 1979 regarding distribution of royalty payments 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.[27][28]

Gygax 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.[29]

Licensing and trademark violations[edit]

References in early TSR publications to certain creatures from J. R. R. Tolkien's mythical Middle-earth were removed or altered due to intellectual property concerns. For example, TSR replaced all references to the character race of Hobbits in D&D with their alternate name, Halflings—which was coined by Tolkien but judged by TSR to be non-infringing. In the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the threat of copyright action from Tolkien Enterprises prompted the name changes of hobbit to "halfling", ent to "treant", and balrog to "Type VI demon [balor]".[30][31][32]

TSR ran afoul of intellectual property law regarding the Cthulhu Mythos and Melnibonéan Mythos, elements of which were included in early versions of the 1980 Deities & Demigods manual. These problems were ultimately resolved by excising the material from later editions of the book.[33]

In December 2009, Hasbro filed a lawsuit against Atari, claiming Atari had breached their Dungeons & Dragons licensing agreement when Atari sold its European distribution business to Namco Bandai Partners. Atari was accused of sub-licensing part of its exclusive D&D rights to Namco Bandai Partners without authorization. Hasbro also alleged Namco Bandai had obtained Hasbro's confidential information about D&D from Atari, and that Namco Bandai had posed as a D&D publisher for digital games previously published by Atari. In addition, the plaintiff claimed Atari had sold at least four of its subsidiaries actively engaged in D&D licensed activities to Namco Bandai while denying any relationship between itself and Namco Bandai with respect to D&D.[34] Atari claimed Hasbro tried to unfairly take back rights granted to Atari, and has sought to resolve the matter without cooperation from Hasbro.[35] On August 15, 2011, Wizards of the Coast, Hasbro, and Atari announced the settlement and resolution of the complaint against Atari and the counterclaims filed by Atari against Hasbro. As part of the settlement, digital licensing rights for D&D were returned to Hasbro. Atari would continue to develop and market several games under license from Hasbro and Wizards, including Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale and Heroes of Neverwinter for Facebook. In addition, as a result of the sales of Cryptic Studio to Perfect World Entertainment Inc., the release date of the Neverwinter video game was delayed to late 2012.[36][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d 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. Archived from the original on January 4, 2013.
  2. ^ Chick, Jack T. (1984). "Dark Dungeons". Jack T. Chick LLC.
  3. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20130104131941/http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art9-roleplaying-print.html
  4. ^ a b Dear, William (1985). The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-32695-9.
  5. ^ Springston, Rex (April 7, 1989). "Local Believers Short on Evidence". The Richmond News Leader. Richmond, Virginia.
  6. ^ Game Hysteria and the Truth by Michael A. Stackpole
  7. ^ http://dangerousminds.net/comments/60_minutes_on_dungeons_and_dragons_from_19851,
  8. ^ a b Laycock, Joseph P. (February 12, 2015). Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. Univ of California Press. pp. 221, 239. ISBN 9780520960565.
  9. ^ a b McGinniss, Joe (1991). Cruel Doubt. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-67947-3.
  10. ^ Voss, Mike (May 26, 2007). "Pritchard to be paroled". Washington Daily News. Archived from the original on March 6, 2017.
  11. ^ Cruel Doubt on The Escapist's FAQ
  12. ^ Ward, James M (February 9, 1990). "The Games Wizards: Angry Mothers From Heck (And what we do about them)". Dragon (154).
  13. ^ 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 978-0-275-98717-6. 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)
  14. ^ a b c "About William Schnoebelen". Chick Publications.
  15. ^ Schnoebelen, William (1984). "Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons". Chick Publications.
  16. ^ a b Schnoebelen, William (c. 2001). "Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?". Chick Publications.
  17. ^ Stephen Weese (November 2006). God Loves the Freaks. Stephen Weese. pp. 136–7. ISBN 978-1-4303-0365-7.
  18. ^ "Ravenloft, I6 (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Official Game Adventure #9075)". Book Description. Amazon. Retrieved January 15, 2012.
  19. ^ Hickman, Tracy (1988). "Ethics in Fantasy: Morality and D&D / Part 1: That Evil Game!". Archived from the original on December 18, 2011.
  20. ^ QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT ROLE-PLAYING GAMES, Loren K. Wiseman and Michael A. Stackpole, 1991 by Game Manufacturers Association
  21. ^ Stackpole, Michael A. "The Pulling Report". www.rpgstudies.net.
  22. ^ Carter R, Lester D (February 1998). "Personalities of players of Dungeons and Dragons". Psychol Rep. 82 (1): 182. doi:10.2466/pr0.1998.82.1.182. PMID 9520550.
  23. ^ DeRenard LA, Kline LM (June 1990). "Alienation and the game dungeons and dragons". Psychol Rep. 66 (3 Pt 2): 1219–22. doi:10.2466/pr0.1990.66.3c.1219. PMID 2385713.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Lis, Chiniara, Biskin, & Montoro (January 15, 2015). "Psychiatrists' Perceptions of Role-Playing Games". Psychiatric Quarterly. 86: 381–4. doi:10.1007/s11126-015-9339-5. PMID 25589035.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  26. ^ Bauer, Scott (January 25, 2010). "Game over: Wisconsin inmate loses legal fight to play Dungeons & Dragons behind bars". Chicago Tribune. Tribune Co. Retrieved January 28, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  27. ^ Harold Kahn; Mike Reagan, eds. (April–May 1981). "Interview with Dave Arneson". Pegasus. Judges Guild (1): 4.
  28. ^ Rausch, Allen (August 19, 2004). "Dave Arneson Interview". GameSpy. Retrieved February 23, 2007.
  29. ^ Gygax, Gary. "Gygax FAQ". gygax.com. Archived from the original on January 28, 1999. Retrieved July 4, 2006.
  30. ^ Kuntz; "Tolkien in Dungeons & Dragons" in Dragon #13
  31. ^ Gygax; "On the Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games" in Dragon #95
  32. ^ Drout; "J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia", p 229
  33. ^ "The Acaeum page on Deities & Demigods". Retrieved February 21, 2007. shows contents of different printings.
  34. ^ "Has Atari gone Chaotic Evil over D&D publishing rights?".
  35. ^ "Hasbro Sues Atari Over D&D License, Atari Responds". Archived from the original on August 24, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
  36. ^ "HASBRO AND ATARI RESOLVE DUNGEONS & DRAGONS RIGHTS DISPUTE" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 9, 2016. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
  37. ^ "Atari and Hasbro Settle D&D Lawsuit; Neverwinter Delayed".

External links[edit]