Serendipitous History Lesson – B.A.D.D. – roots #DnD
I work for our county school system in the Technology department, which generally means troubleshooting software and hardware throughout the schools. I’m based in the high school of my particular district, so I tend to get to know the media center staff pretty well, as they are in charge of laptop carts and have a good amount of desktops in the library itself.
The media specialist called me over the other day to show me a book he was discarding because according to its card sleeve, it hadn’t been checked out since 1991. The book is The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III by William Dear. The media specialist had no idea I even played dungeons and dragons, I assumed he called me over to laugh at the obscurity of the books he was discarding. He was genuinely surprised when I told him I was a pretty big fan of role-playing games, and mentioned his only experience with RPGs was playing Rifts with a friend in college. He then offered me the book, as they were going to get rid of it anyway, which I happily excepted.
That is when I started doing a bit of research. I had never heard of James Dallas Egbert III, but I had heard that in the early 80s, D&D was wrongly associated with the Occult and Devil-worship. It turns out the two are interrelated. The synopsis is this: a brilliant but troubled teen goes missing. Anxious parents hire a private investigator to track him down. The teen plays D&D and was known to explore the steam-tunnels underneath his university. The private investigator prematurely and incorrectly reports to the press that perhaps he was playing a “live-action” version of D&D and got lost. In actuality, JDE III did go to the steam tunnels, but he went to commit suicide. The attempt failed, and he hid out with some friends around town until those friends asked him to leave, fearing repercussions from law enforcement. He fled to New Orleans, where the P.I. caught up with him. JDE III made the P.I. promise not to reveal the truth of his story. JDE III ended his own life in 1980, and the P.I. kept his promise to the boy until 1984 when this book came out.
In the meantime, the novel and movie Mazes & Monsters came out (featuring a young Tom Hanks) in which a boy has a psychotic breakdown while playing a thinly veiled version of D&D. Also, Patricia Pulling started an organization B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) after she lost her own D&D playing son to suicide. B.A.D.D. circulated a bunch of propaganda including a petition from a former player about the evils of D&D. After reading it, other than the first and last few paragraphs, it reads like a love letter to D&D. It reminded me exactly why I got in to the game, and recalled many afternoons and late nights of adventuring that were all in the theatre of the mind. Studies were done by the Center for Disease Control and the American Association of Suicidology (I did not realize that was a thing) that debunked B.A.D.D.’s claims. Arguably, the height of the panic culminated in this 60 minutes interview featuring Gary Gygax himself.
I found it fascinating to explore this dark time in D&D’s history. I’m glad that while D&D still has some social stigma in some circles, we’ve come a long way to acceptance.