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The History of Role-Playing, Part IV

By Astinus

A fairly complete, mostly accurate and only slightly biased exposition of the hobby's turbulent existence, from its origins to the modern day. Serialised in six parts.

 

Part Four: Hell and High Finance


A latecomer to the history? Don't worry, just check our back issues.

It was the beginning of the 1980's, a decade that would be very big for role-playing: a time of incredible growth and expansion, when RPGs would take a world stage. A golden age. But with this new-found power would also come tragedy, hardship and abuse. While gaming was reaching some of its greatest heights, other forces were putting it through some of its toughest challenges. This combination meant that the hobby did not just grow in the eighties, it matured, changing into a whole new generation, as did its participants.

Tragic Beginnings

It all began in August of 1979 at Michigan State University. A student called James Dallas Egbert III (called Dallas Egbert) ran away from the college, with the intention of killing himself. He left a confused note that mentioned the steam tunnells under the university, and the game Dungeons and Dragons, of which James was an avid and obsessive player. James, however, did not kill himself at this time, and was later tracked down by a private detective.

During the investigation of this case, however there occurred a tragic mistake. Through irresponsible journalism, and a confusion by the authorities, it was publicised that D&D was responsible for Dallas' disappearance. When Dallas killed himself the next year, this gave birth to the first "D&D suicide". This was despite the facts that Egbert was facing extreme pressure as a child prodigy (he was 16), was an alleged drug addict, and was highly mentally unstable.


Steam tunnels are common throughout the US, and are very much part of the college experience, as are the jokes, allusions and myths that are based on them.


With reports that the steam tunnels - which for years were the basis of countless urban myths, including that they housed a serial rapist - were the site of "live" D&D games, the story rapidly grew out of hand. At the time, role-playing was very much a marginal leisure activity; its recent growth had brought the existence of the hobby to the attention of many, but any knowledge of the game was still very rare. Thus D&D was the perfect straw dog for the media, easily presented as a dangerous, cult-like obsession that was a "threat to your children". Various heavyweights of the industry were interviewed about the game, and they were quick to dispell the claims. As a result, the story died down fairly quickly, but the myth had been born.

In June 1982, another tragic suicide occurred, which would have even more damaging effects on the hobby. Irving "Bink" Pulling, suffering from chronic depression, isolation and mental instability, took his own life with the loaded pistol his mother kept in the house. Again, though the problems of the victim were obvious - with both friends and family reporting anti-social, irrational and highly delusional behaviour - the blame for his death was placed on D&D. In particular, this scapegoating came from his mother, Patricia, or Pat.


The classic example of the kind of ignorant propaganda which was produced at this time is Dark Dungeons, by fundamentalist cartooner Jack Chick.


A Time of Darkness

Pat Pulling first accused a teacher at Irving's school of killing her son, by placing a "curse" on him during the course of playing the game. No other participants in the game recalled this event ever happening, but this did not stop Pulling from taking her case to court. The case was quickly thrown out. After this, Pulling formed the society Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD). With this society, she began a war of propoganda against role-playing games, which included mass distribution of flyers and pamphlets, appearances on radio and TV programs (including the infamous talk-show "Geraldo") and live protests.

In 1984, Pulling involved BADD in the trial of Darren Molitor. Darren was being tried for the murder of a young girl which allegedly occurred while he was acting out a Halloween joke. Pulling convinced the defence to argue on Molitor's lack of culpability due to the influence of D&D, presenting many so-called "D&D-experts" as witnesses. This evidence was dismissed as irrelevant, but this did not deter BADD from intervening in other trials.

What was most frightening about this incident was that BADD was also able to convince Molitor of the game's control over his actions. Under this belief, Molitor penned a damning essay blaming D&D for his crime, which was then widely disseminated by BADD. Later, Molitor stated that he was under a lot of stress and "completely in confusion" when he wrote the essay, and hence "may have gone overboard". He added "I no longer feel the game is dangerous for everyone". This brainwashing of a person under great stress for their own propaganda purposes demonstrates the dangerous extent of BADD's tactics.

BADD also campaigned to the Consumer Product and Safety Commision to have warning labels placed on RPGs, a case that was also rejected. Meanwhile, Pulling continually tried to make herself more credible, by acquiring a private investigation licence and attracting the support of psychologist Dr Thomas Radecki. Pulling also wrote a book on the subject, entitled "The Devil's Web", and Rona Jaffe penned "Mazes and Monsters", a fictional work about a teenager being lured into the occult through role-playing. These publications and credentials added much to the apparent plausability of their claims. However, the gaming community was beginning to strike back.


Mazes and Monsters was made into a movie. It was released in 1983 and starred Tom Hanks.


BADD's propoganda had raised the interest of many. After BADD petitioned the Safety Commision, the Game Manufacturing Association (GAMA) carried out their own studies, as did many independent researchers. In 1987, Armando Simo'n published the first paper on the psychological status of role-players, and many more followed. Every case of D&D-inspired crime or suicide that BADD listed were thoroughly investigated and no culpability of the game was found.

GAMA also commissioned Michael Stackpole to investigate BADD and Pulling. In 1990, he released his now-famous Pulling Report, which exposed the spurious and manipulative methods used by BADD. This led to the discrediting of BADD, and the group dissappeared. The Comittee for the Advancement of RPGs (CAR-PGa) was formed to work against the defamation of the hobby.

It is often difficult for gamers of today to realise the extent of the threat BADD presented to RPGs. Despite its lack of legitimate authority, BADD captured the attention of many, and, at the peak of its power, had a significant level of influence across the US . Many schools banned the games, churches condemned them and shops stopped carrying them. Gaming stores were often forced to close and more than one small company went bankrupt. Worst of all, BADDs propoganda was able to convince thousands - possibly even millions - that role-playing was dangerous and evil. This was so effective that even now, over ten years later, people continue to associate the game with suicide and the occult.


Many of us have suffered some sort of prejudice from the community. Why not tell us about your experiences, and how you handled them.


This prejudice continues to surround us: role-playing is still occasionally slighted by the media and religious groups, and anti-gaming crusades still occur. Two years ago, another large movement began in Italy, after a so-called "role-playing suicide". However, the situation is much better today and it is irresponsible to think or act as if the battle-lines are still drawn.

The Golden Age Continues

This baptism of fire formed a very important part in our hobby's history. The gaming community learnt much about itself, and became more close knit as loyalties were tested. This produced a maturing effect, especially on the old-time gamers who had fought the hardest. The result was something of a generation gap between gamers who began playing before the mid-eighties, and those that joined after.

But this was not to be divisive, and the gaming community was ultimately strengthened and educated by the ordeal. Likewise, BADD's propoganda lifted the profile of the game to new heights around the world, and when the fuss died down, the name was still known. Indeed, this rise in fame helped the golden age really take off, while the new-found maturity stopped the subsequent explosion in popularity from going to the industry's collective head. The experience hardened the industry, gave it the guts to go from basement enterprises to world-wide corporate giants; from adversity came the strength and wisdom to truly make gaming great.

The Unstoppable TSR

The backbone of the golden age was to come from commercial presence, and none made the transformation into merchandising machine better than TSR. Their popularity continued to skyrocket with the release of the Advanced system for D&D. Books and supplements were released faster than ever before.


Unluckily, the very first AD&D supplement was the controversially titled "Deities and Demigods"


As the pressure from outsiders grew stronger, things like clubs and conventions became more and more popular. In 1981, TSR invested the Role-Playing Games Association (RPGA) to help unite gamers across the US. Today, RPGA is a powerful force, connecting millions of gamers, world wide.

With their help, it seemed sure that TSR would continue to dominate the gaming industry, despite the huge number of gaming titles and companies coming into being. Something else, however, cemented their position at the top of the heap forever. A little something called Dragonlance.

In the early eighties, the AD&D designers realised that many of the new games had the edge over them in that they were based in a world and ethos that already existed. The Star Trek RPG (FASA, 1982) for example, was incredibly successful because of the attraction of the setting. To match this, they decided to design their own world, and release both books and supplements simultaneously. Staff writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were given the job.


Before it became Dragonlance, this initiative was known at TSR as "Project Overlord". Nasty.


The result was "The Dragonlance Chronicles", and it was staggeringly popular. In fact, soon after its release in 1984, it became the first fantasy series to feature on the New York Times' Best Seller list, and has sold over three million copies world wide. It has since inspired more books than almost any other fantasy series, a plethora of modules, supplements, computer games and recently, even its very own RPG - Dragonlance: The Fifth Age. It also turned TSR into a major paperback publisher and made Larry Elmore a household name.

TSR played this to the hilt, releasing one of the biggest campaigns ever to match the storyline of the novels. There were 12 altogether, stretching from Dragons of Despair to Dragons of Triumph, over three years later. This also proved to be the most commercially successful campaign ever released. Thus Dragonlance cemented Raistlin and Tanis firmly into gaming ethos, and TSR firmly into mega-corporation status. At this peak, TSR was noted among the big guns of the business world, and big companies suddenly became interested in the new market. AD&D soon became the basis of a woeful animated series, which spawned its own line of merchandise, and there was talk of a movie.

And still TSR went on. Some bright spark turned the Basic Game into five separate games (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal) to make it both easier for new gamers to get into, and much more profitable for TSR. Dragon Magazine became syndicated worldwide, and it was soon joined by Dungeon Magazine. In 1987, Ed Greenwood's world of the Forgotten Realms was released, and it performed almost as strongly as Dragonlance, breaking the latter's records for both number of subsequent novels and game supplements. And in 1989, the second edition of the AD&D rules were released and broke more records in RPG sales.


This site has more on the history of AD&D and TSR.


At the end of the seventies, AD&D had stood on almost equal footing with its few competitors such as Tunnells and Trolls, and RuneQuest. In less than a decade, AD&D had become the richest, most popular and most powerful game in the world, while the others had all effectively vanished. This was because TSR always ran itself as a corporation, treating their games as merchandisable product. TSR proved that gaming could involve big money - even huge money - if it was done right. They set the path to success that future games were quick to follow.

Though some cast aspersions on the effect this corporate mindset had on the quality of the output, AD&D continued to be immensely popular, so they must have been doing something right. TSR also used their money and power to take gaming to new levels of fame and fortune, and thus are responsible for bringing RPGs to more people than all the other games put together. Thus AD&D wrote itself into the history books for the second time: as not just the first ever role-playing game, but the biggest and best as well.

Without AD&D, role-playing would not be where it is today; the two have existed in almost a symbiotic relationship since the very beginning. If any game ever epitomised and encompassed the hobby, this was it, and this was its greatest hour.


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But the rest of the gaming industry was not slow to follow, nor were they far behind. In the next installment, we'll look at the companies which were to learn from TSR's examples, combining to convert the hobby into the million-dollar industry it is today. And we'll look at the opportunities for creativity this corporate presence would provide. For on the crest of this commercial tidal wave, the quality of design and expression that RPGs offered would reach higher and higher levels, until it became not just a game, but something approaching an artform.


Acknowledgements: Much of this information used in this history came from the following websites. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance provide a good essay which clearly lays out the facts about gaming and its detractors, and has a very useful list of references. Those interested further in the practices of BADD should read Michael Stackpole's Pulling Report. This essay by Jeff Freeman is also a good summary. For some views from the other side, this site contains some articles against role-playing, and includes the Darren Molitor essay.

Can't wait? Go on to The Hist ory of Roleplaying Part V.

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