This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Twenty on 3rd August 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
A much as people whine about psionics or think that 4th edition was a tragic error on many levels, one of the largest impacts on D&D’s publication and future actually had very little to do with the mechanics of the game.
Most people who either grew up in the 80s, played D&D, or watched some of the various media that touched on it, such as Season 4 of Stranger Things, are aware of a general event called the Satanic Panic. It was a moral movement and media phenomenon spanning the 80s and it had an irrevocable effect on the game and people’s perceptions of it.
However if you ask most people about it, they aren’t aware of all the details. We’ve mentioned the Panic several times in our Short Rests previously, but we usually gloss over the details, except to say that it caused some changes because people were uncomfortable with demonic elements that were present in D&D. The whole thing was much more involved, however.
Before we start, we should note that this subject matter touches directly on some sensitive topics. Those primarily include violence, suicide, mental health and misdiagnoses thereof. If any of that bothers you, you should probably skip this segment; all of those subjects are key parts of this discussion.
In order to set the scene, we have to review a short segment of the history of society in the United States.
In the 1950s, middle America was a very Christianized society. The idea of the stereotypical White Anglo Saxon Protestant was the target of most people living in suburbia. Namely, you had a heterosexual couple living together with some number of children, and the entire family upheld basic Christian morals. Oversimplifying it, a lot of the focus of those morals centered on acknowledging the Christian god and Jesus as divine and following the tenets of the Bible. The biggest threat to regular American families was Communism and nuclear war.
By the end of the 1960s several things happened through the media that began to shatter the comfortable ideals everyone aimed for in the 50s. The civil rights movement was a minor factor in this case; it caused people to rethink what counted as an American family, but with the preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being one of the major figures, it didn’t challenge the morality everyone based their lives on; unfortunately it was still as easy to be racist at home as it had been before.
What did challenge that morality were the “free love” and “hippie” movements in the 60s. Families everywhere saw their children embracing wilder lifestyles and sexual morés that ran counter to “proper” Christian behavior. However, they took some comfort in the idea that people following those lifestyles were easily identifiable, or so they thought. In that case, they all dressed distinctively, generally had wild hairstyles, and, of course, used marijuana. The cause of all of this was, of course, rock & roll music. (It wasn’t at all, by the way, but that’s what a lot of suburban parents thought).
So by the 1970s you already had many middle class families convinced that their children would all be good Christians and follow the rules as long as you protected them from certain outside influences.
Another major influence on the Satanic Panic was a bit more indirect. By the late 1960s, the news media struck gold by focusing and continuing coverage on a new subject: serial killers. The two most prominent incidents at the time were the so-called “helter-skelter” killings perpetrated by Charles Manson, and the discovery and arrest of the serial killer Ted Bundy.
Those events fed into the Satanic Panic in three different ways, most of it due to the way they were covered in the media.
First, the media made a big deal of how Charles Manson established his so-called family. He took in otherwise regular teens and young adults, and through repeated indoctrination, eventually got them to a state where they were not only able, but eager to commit horrific acts. A lot of the media coverage repeatedly emphasized how otherwise normal the other people were prior to their association with Manson.
With Ted Bundy, a large focus of the media was on how ordinary he looked. He didn’t appear deranged, abnormal, disfigured, or otherwise obviously dangerous. There were no clear indicators, at least to most people, that would mark him as threatening.
Those two ideas, repeated over and over, reinforced new worries for most families: First, that kids were heavily impressionable, and someone with enough influence over them could convince them to do horrible things. Second, unlike with the hippies, there weren’t always clear markers telling you who was a risk to your family or children.
The third influence was the media itself. Their repeated and lasting coverage of Manson and Bundy were ratings gold. Whenever the serial killings or the killers were the focus of news coverage, viewership skyrocketed. Arguably, it convinced the news networks that serial killings or things like them were a good way to get ratings. Throughout the 70s, networks jumped on any serial killing arrest or story and played it for as long as possible.
The Satanic aspect of what eventually happened arguably came from three sources, and two of them were books.
First, in 1969, a man named Anton LaVey published the Satanic Bible. The Church of Satan had been established several years earlier, but it wasn’t until the publication of the book that it had a recognizable public scripture and wasn’t just some fringe cult with no organization.
Second, in 1971 a hit novel was published, titled The Exorcist. A movie version of it came out two years later in 1973. One key feature in the marketing for both was the repeated use of the phrase “based on a true story.” The movie also became a hit, cementing the idea that demonic possession was a true thing that happens.
Again, it’s debatable how much influence those two events had on what would occur, but the moral outrage at the existence of a blasphemous Satanic Bible, as well as the widespread popularity of a book and movie where the central focus was demon possession, put demons and Satanism firmly in the minds of many people.
Arguably the first manifestation of the Satanic panic was a series of events now known as the Daycare Panic. A book was published in 1980 where a psychologist suggested she uncovered a woman’s repressed memories via hypnosis. Those memories supposedly detailed the woman being sexually abused when she was young, but because of the trauma and adult pressure, she had literally forgotten them. That primed the pump, so to speak, for what happened in Kern County, California in 1982. Two children alleged their day care teachers were sexually abusing them. After questioning, the children of the workers said the same thing, adding that the sexual abuse was part of a Satanic ritual.
Abuse of children was as good as serial killing to the media. Eventually other similar reports were made about other daycares. No physical evidence was ever found, but several daycares were investigated by the FBI during that time and arrests and trials resulted, all of which were covered heavily by the media. Nearly all of the convictions were overturned, and most of the child witnesses, when they were adults, recanted their testimony. They either said they made it up because they heard their friends saying similar things, or they were coached by adults on exactly what to say. However, all of that didn’t happen until 20 years later.
So by the 1980s, many argue, middle class families in America were hyper paranoid about external influences turning their children away from being good Christians, and they believed that almost anyone could be a culprit.
If you remember our history of D&D, or just know it off the top of your head, D&D began officially in 1974. It started slowly, but was successful enough that by 1977 first edition was released. What was great for the players arguably contributed to the problem D&D would face in the future.
Original D&D was very haphazard in its organization. Almost everything that came out for it was what we would call an adventure module today. But in addition to the maps, new creatures, magic items, and new classes or subclasses, in original D&D you would also get new playable races and new rule mechanics with each module. Establishing a cohesive ruleset required five or more different resources you had to cross-reference all the time. It also meant that if you weren’t familiar with the game, picking up a single module would barely give you a sense of what was going on. It might even just look like a comic book or short story rather than an actual game.
However, 1st edition, and the concurrent publication Basic D&D, which came in box sets, all had codified rulebooks. Also, compared to original D&D, 1st edition was chock full of lore and descriptions, with details of creatures’ appearances, behavior, and origins. There were also descriptions in some rulebooks of the rituals cultists would perform to summon creatures and make pacts with demons and devils. The fact that some of the resources had titles like “Deities & Demigods” and “Temple of Elemental Evil” probably didn’t help either.
The recognized start of the issue came in 1979. James Dallas Egbert III was a child prodigy, attending Michigan State University at the age of 16. That year, he went missing from his dorm. He was later discovered in the utility tunnels beneath the school. At the time, the private investigator hired by his family, one William Dear, made much of the fact that Egbert was an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, and theorized the reason Egbert went into the tunnels was because the D&D game was being played live, and the players were using the tunnels to substitute for a dungeon.
One year later, in 1980, Egbert took his own life. It was noted and confirmed that Egbert had been having mental health issues as well as experimenting with illicit drugs, but the media latched on to the Dungeons and Dragons aspect and Dear’s theory about the steam tunnels being used for live D&D. It gave rise to the urban legend that many people playing the game would use similar tunnels in different locations to play, and because of neglect or even design, kids would die of exposure or dehydration after being lost in them. It was prominent enough that an author wrote a book called Mazes and Monsters, a thriller novel interpretation of what had happened to Egbert. It was later turned into a movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks. In the movie, a character playing a game based on D&D suffers a psychotic break, believes he is his in-game character, commits several murders of vagrants who he believes are monsters, and is barely stopped from jumping off of the twin towers in New York City so he can cast a spell and reunite with his missing brother.
1982 is when the real panic and official efforts started. A high school student named Irving Lee Pulling committed suicide in June. Investigations revealed that pulling was a gifted student at the school, but had trouble fitting in and few friends. He did participate in the school’s unofficial D&D club after school, however.
Regardless of the investigation, and possibly because of the media around the death of Egbert, his mother Patricia Pulling became adamant that Dungeons and Dragons was responsible for the death of her son. Irving’s room had a large amount of D&D decorations and resources, and she claimed he was “obsessed” with the game.
Pulling attempted to sue both the principal of the school and TSR itself for damages related to her son’s death. Both lawsuits were dismissed. However, Pulling went on to create the group “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons”, usually using the acronym BADD. She and the group engaged in a furious media campaign, generally through conservative Christian outlets, where she outlined the various ways that D&D promoted anti-Christian views up to and including demon worship. Their common refrain stated D&D was “a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings”
Mrs. Pulling had a lot of what she thought was evidence to back up her claim. As we’ve mentioned before, D&D pulled a lot of its source material from Christian mythology, and that included demonology. Many of the demons and devils in D&D monster manuals have names taken from medieval and renaissance Christian texts that supposedly identified and classified the various demonic entities in Hell. Though not recognized as scripture in any sense, many Christian groups tacitly considered them to be proof that demons were real and a threat to Christians.
Also at issue were some player options. Players were allowed to play characters and races that identified as evil, and there were explicit instructions in the rulebooks that dictated what behaviors would allow you to maintain evil alignments. Also some of the classes were problematically named. “Rogue” at the time was called “thief”, so by definition that was bad. Also, more conservative groups took issue with “Monk,” as it clearly had ties to Eastern religions, and many fundamentalist groups believed that eastern religions were Pagan practices that actually worshiped demonic forces disguised as other gods.
And then there was the sex, because of course that had to come up somehow. Apart from there being demons such as succubi and incubi in the game, by the 1980s D&D was profitable, so TSR was able to hire actual artists to draw the monsters.
As we’ve said before, a lot of the creatures in 1st edition D&D came from classical mythology, with origins mostly in Norse, Greek, and even Christian sources. To get inspiration for the look of these creatures, the artists went back to the original sources, which were often Greek sculptures or Renaissance paintings. Not to put too fine a point on it, there are two things that both the sculptors and the painters loved to put in all their work, and those things can be found on many human women’s chests.
They could also be found on the chests of a lot of monsters that were drawn in the monster manuals for first edition. So of course Mrs. Pulling took one look at the monster manual and basically declared that it was pornography. That, again, was in addition to supposedly providing explicit instructions for how children could summon demons into their bedroom and copulate with them.
The media, of course, recognizing a juicy trend in the making, ran with this. Every actual legal challenge Pulling tried to make against anyone in relation to her campaign was dismissed out of hand, but the hype was there. Unfortunately, troubled young adults and teens committing suicide is a common problem, and it was just as much of one in the 1980s. Regardless of other factors, by the mid-80s whenever a teenager committed suicide, the question was always asked: did they play Dungeons and Dragons?
Things sort of came to a head in 1985, when the reputable news show 60 minutes did a segment in which it interviewed Mrs. Pulling, a psychologist at the University of Illinois Dr. Thomas Rudecki who had joined her cause, and also Gary Gygax and a spokesperson for TSR.
In the segment, Gygax and his associate are confronted with the, at the time, 28 deaths where Dungeons and Dragons was explicitly mentioned, which by that time included at least one murder as well as suicides. Gygax and the TSR rep of course dismissed any idea of a link between the game and the deaths, pointing out that they estimated somewhere between 3-4 million people played D&D in the age group in question. Not only would it be likely anyone in that age group dying would have played D&D, it meant there were literally millions of people playing D&D with no negative repercussions at all.
Mrs. Pulling reiterated her usual complaints about the game, citing immoral and Satanic influences and her concerns about the fact that a singular figure (the dungeon master) has apparent total control over the players. She also fixated on the fact that a curse had been placed on Irving’s character in his most recent D&D session, a curse where the creature cursing him would “choose his time.” In the note left by Irving, he claimed he was being compelled to end his own life.
Dr. Rudecki emphasized how impressionable young minds were, and brought up concerns over whether some players would be able to separate themselves from the game over the long term. He also considered it likely the children would begin believing some of the rituals, spells, or other things in the game were actually real and attempt them. He claimed several of the suicides had been done as part of rituals reenacted based on instructions from D&D modules.
When questioned about Irving’s mental health, Mrs. Pulling insisted he was consistently well adjusted and physically and mentally healthy. However, in another part of the interview, the TSR rep pointed out that many investigations of Irving’s and similar kids’ deaths revealed the parents were, at best, misunderstanding their children’s experience at school. At worst, they were intentionally ignoring it.
Two concrete things came out of the interview. The first was a cease and desist letter TSR had sent to Pulling’s group that essentially asked her to stop badmouthing their product. She claimed they interfered in the investigation of her son’s death, which supposedly proved they had something to hide. The other thing was that after Dr. Rudecki was confronted about the circumstantial nature of his evidence, he called for independent research and investigation of the affects of D&D on youth.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Pulling, that 60 minutes interview was the beginning of her end.
TSR of course hired their own psychologist to do a study, but some independent groups and professionals started doing research too, many of them funded by BADD or affiliates. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
After the interview, several high profile murders perpetrated by young adults and teens involved D&D being used as a defense, where the accused stated D&D’s influence is what led them to commit the crimes.
Pulling, in the meantime, got a private investigator’s license and began hiring herself out as a consultant and expert witness on the subject of gaming related deaths. She also co-authored a book called “The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan?” In it, she urged police to begin interrogations of teens with questions about whether they were familiar with the Necronomicon, a fictional work by H.P. Lovecraft.
Pulling’s problems piled up quickly. Firstly, none of the cases in which she gave “expert” testimony held up in court. None of the defendants won their cases. Also, the psychological studies were finishing up and not only could none of them find a link between D&D and occult behavior, they actually showed that teens and young adults who played D&D had a lower suicide rate than most of their peers.
However all of that had taken time, and by the time 2nd edition came out in 1989, presumably after at least a year or year and a half of development, the effects that the panic had on D&D and TSR were obvious.
2nd edition’s initial release materials had significant changes to player characters. Player races and characters were now required to be, at worst, neutral alignment. Rogue was now a major class, with the former thief a subclass of it. The Monk class was gone, rewritten to be a subclass of the priest class.
When you got to the Monster Manual was when the changes really became obvious. Devils and Demons were no more. Instead, the Baatezu species and its various subraces inhabited and ruled the Nine Hells, while the Tanar’ri and the subspecies of that group populated the Abyss.
The artwork had also been updated, particularly where the obviously female versions of creatures were concerned. Creatures like Lamia suddenly tended to favor hairstyles with long, thick hair draping in front of them. Nymphs and sylphs made a habit of flying or prancing through small strands of hanging cloth. As for infernal creatures like Erinyes [er-IN-yeez] and Succubi, apparently Victoria’s Secret opened up a branch somewhere on the river Styx.
Most of the modules, classes, and other material in the early part of 2nd edition made it very, very clear that the characters were on the side of good, explicitly fighting against unquestionably evil forces.
After the court cases and the psychological reports began damping down the panic and the hype, TSR relaxed the reins in 2nd edition. The artwork remained firmly PG, not even straying into PG-13 for the most part, but character options slowly introduced darker and darker aspects. Soon enough, the evil aligned player races returned as options. Adventures also started presenting greyer and greyer scenarios where motives and alignments weren’t quite so clear cut. By the end of the 90s, the moral and character options available in 2nd edition were little different from what had been around in 1st edition.
The changes weren’t necessarily a bad thing, or a brief inconvenience to be endured until cooler heads prevailed. Particularly in the case of the Nine Hells and the Abyss, the effort to remove classically demonic overtones from the lore of the game was a net positive. Whole new portions of lore and stories had to be written to describe how the Baatezu and Tanar’ri in D&D were very much not the demons and devils of Christianity and Satanism. The result is a lot of lore and stories that still influence storylines in the game today.
As for BADD, Pulling’s credibility continued to nosedive. After the failure of more of her cases, police departments ceased to focus on D&D and the occult as a factor in criminal cases and she was no longer called as a witness. She also began making more dubious statements in public, such as when she gave an interview claiming that eight percent of the population of Richmond Virginia were Satanists. She arrived at that figure by adding her estimates that four percent of adults and four percent of teenagers were involved. And that sound you hear is Ostron’s brain melting down because even I know math doesn’t work like that.
The final nail in her coffin came by way of the game designer and author Michael A. Stackpole. He collected a detailed analysis of Pulling’s claims, evidence, methods, and qualifications and basically tore them completely apart. He disproved nearly every point she had been making over four years, and highlighted several possibly illegal acts she had committed. After the publication of the report in 1990, Pulling quit BADD. Then in 1991 the American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Health and Welfare Canada all concluded that there was no causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide.
Unfortunately the panic never completely went away. Every now and then the game will be the scapegoat for some sort of issue. In 1995, the FBI interrogated several groups of D&D players in connection with their investigation into the Unabomber. Then in 2004, prison officials in Wisconsin forbade inmates from playing D&D as they believed it promoted gang activity. People from more fundamentalist sects of Christianity in America, particularly, will still tell you that D&D is seen as a Pagan influence at best and actual Satanic material at worst.
However, in the general public at least, D&D’s reputation has vastly improved. The inclusion of it as a central theme in Stranger Things is a clear indicator of how much it’s infiltrated the mainstream, but the psychological perspective on it has done a complete 180. Where psychologists in the 80s were warning about D&D being a potentially harmful influence, now organizations like Take This and The Bodhana Group are recognized, accredited professionals using D&D as part of clinical therapy and mental health treatment.