It used to be the devil’s game. Now it’s a favorite way to geek out.
I played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons in 1984, when I was 10 years old, gathered around a table with a Catholic schoolmate and his family. My avatar, a physically powerful but mentally meager dwarf, helped the party defeat a monster and collect a treasure of gold, gems and enchanted weapons. It was the definition of good, clean family fun.
Dungeons & Dragons?—?or D&D for short?—?is a pen-and-paper roleplaying game first published in 1974. Players create fantasy characters and go on adventures. As they gain experience by completing quests, they “level up,” gaining new skills and abilities. At its heart, the game is all about the struggle between good (the players) and evil (the monsters they vanquish).
But the cartoonist Jack Chick saw only evil in Dungeons & Dragons. Chick, a publisher of evangelical Christian comics, penned a tract called “Dark Dungeons” that portrayed D&D as a game of Satanism and witchcraft. In Chick’s story, a witchy (and pretty sexy) Dungeon Master brainwashes her innocent younger players, recruiting them into a coven and teaching them to cast spells on their parents. One player, Marcie, becomes so upset when her D&D character dies that she commits suicide.
When my friends and I read Chick’s tract, we laughed out loud. It was (literally) comical and bore no resemblance at all to the wholesome flights of fantasy we engaged in around the game table over Doritos and Coca-Cola.
“Dark Dungeons” literally demonized D&D, riding a wave of moral panic in the 80s, fueled by inaccurate media reports about the disappearance and attempted suicide of a teenager who happened to play the game. (That story was fictionalized in a truly awful made-for-TV movie, “Mazes and Monsters,” starring a 26-year-old Tom Hanks.) Church groups burned Dungeons & Dragons sets in the streets.
“Somebody said they threw their copy of D&D into the fire and it screamed,” D&D creator Gygax told Wired back in 2008. “It’s a game! The magic spells in it are as real as the gold.”
In response to the moral outrage being drummed up by the media, Gygax and Arneson removed references to demons, devils and other evil creatures in later editions of the game. While the public outcry didn’t slow sales (which continued to soar), it did hurt the reputations of D&D fans, giving birth to the stereotype of role players as social rejects keen on losing themselves in depraved escapist fantasy worlds. For years, playing D&D was something you had to keep secret, because to publicly admit it meant being labeled as a freak.
Chick died this past October at the age of 92?—?meaning he lived to see the game he’d diabolized become a major cultural force with widespread social acceptance. D&D’s renaissance has been helped along by filmmakers Jon Favreau, Dan Harmon and Kevin Smith, comedians Stephen Colbert and Patton Oswalt, the actor Vin Diesel and the NBA all-star Tim Duncan. TV shows like “Stranger Things” and “The Big Bang Theory” have helped popularize it, too. Hundreds of thousands of people watch actor Wil Wheaton and his friends play a derivative of it on YouTube.
What’s more, the concepts in the game?—?like customized characters who gain “levels” as they participate in more and more adventures?—?have become the foundation for all types of modern video games, from sports to shooters. It’s also common to read business articles on leadership and life lessons learned from the game.
That’s borne out by how tight the tabletop roleplaying community is. I’ve kept in touch with nearly all of the people I’ve ever played games with?—?chatting on social media, working together to write new games and meeting again and again in cities around the world. One guy I played D&D with once even asked me to be a witness at his wedding!
The fifth edition of the game launched in 2014, with print, board game, mobile and online versions all selling well. Dungeons & Dragons is now the centerpiece of a broad and highly visible brand that encompasses mobile apps, video games and even an upcoming movie (but let’s hope it’s better than the one that came out back in 2000).
Jack Chick lived as a recluse and generally refused interviews, so we don’t know if he ever changed his mind about D&D. Whether he did or not, gamers will always remember him for the “Dark Dungeons” tract, which places him squarely on the wrong side of history.