It began with little soldiers and bright books in a shopping mall. I was 14 and hated life. Smart, reclusive and what would later be called dyslexic, I was living with my dad in Springfield, VA. My family had just split, and I spent my after-school days wandering around town or holed up in a tiny room painting models and listening to classic rock. (1) I had few friends, and they all lived near Mom. At the cusp of adolescence, I had no idea who I was, only that I was miserable.
And then, while looking for new model kits, I found tiny lead figures of orcs and knights. Living skeletons and lumpy trolls. Bare-breasted Amazons and Gandolfian wizards. It was 1979, and I had just discovered gaming.
In the late 1970s, the hobby of roleplaying games, or RPGs, was new. Evolving among wargame fans and medieval re-enactors, it had recently gone retail. I first saw those talismans and grimoires of imagination in a hobby shop. Kay-Bee Toys had gotten into the act as well, and the gaudy Players Handbook and Monster Manual beckoned to me from a hidden corner of that store. Lacking funds to buy them, I stood out of sight until my legs cramped, reading arcane charts and descriptions of a hidden world. When Christmas came, I asked for books and figures. I got my wish, and my friend Chris and I became the first kids we knew who played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
These days, RPGs are everywhere. Gaming has become a cultural force. As Erik Davis declares in his book Techgnosis, RPGs have helped to shape the systems and terminology of the Information Age. (2). No one saw this coming, though, in 1979. All I knew is that this stuff spoke to me. And I was not alone.
First came the craze. Then came the backlash. By 1980, you could find D&D in department stores or see it praised in Psychology Today; by that same year, though, “experts” claimed that RPGs were satanic in both origin and practice. (3) I didn’t know about the controversy yet, however ― I just wanted to play. In high school, I met other creative “misfit toys” who shared my fondness for gaming (4) . With occult doodles in our notebooks and weird messages scrawled on chalkboards, we formed a geek elite. Years later, we’d have been considered Goths or candidates for Columbinism; at the time, we just knew we’d found something magical.
I don’t mean “magical” literally. We never summoned demons or invoked dark arts. A panic, though, was rising; in 1982, a kid named Irving “Bink” Pulling (5) committed suicide. His mom Patricia blamed D&D. Unsuccessful in court, she soon formed B.A.D.D. (“Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons”) and built a media career as an “expert” during the satanic ritual panic of the 1980s. Books came out. Folks got sued. Suddenly, RPGs became subversive, evil, perhaps even deadly in the eyes of certain people. (6) Even now, that impression lingers. To this day, I hear “But that’s satanic!” whenever I mention roleplaying games. “Authorities” like William Schnoebelen still call RPGs “feeding program(s) for occultism and witchcraft… the materials themselves… contain(ing) authentic magical rituals.” (7) Pulling died of cancer in 1997, but her spectre remains.
To be honest, I find such misconceptions amusing. They haven’t prevented interactive fantasy from becoming THE entertainment medium of the 21st century. Yet when my editor asked me to do an article about RPGs and Paganism, I hesitated. As the Pagan game designer behind Mage: The Ascension, Deliria and The Sorcerers Crusade, aren’t I a living link between gaming and occult activity? While I have first-hand knowledge that RPG designers do NOT sacrifice Fido to the Dark Gods (8) , I likewise know that there are elements of real-world “magic” involved in RPGs. Isn’t that somewhat… sinister? Not really, unless you fear the avatar within. Because that magic is creativity, and gaming opened that door for me.
Like most kids, I was searching for identity. Although my father (a Tolkien fan) had introduced me to fantasy years earlier, the interactive element of gaming struck a chord. Suddenly, I could create and vicariously live myths, not just read about them. A few years later, I discovered an even deeper truth: the characters I created were inner avatars, aspects of my deeper Self. This seems elementary now, but I was 18 at the time and new to such ideas. Since then, though, I’ve seen roleplaying as more than simple entertainment. In some ways, it’s a mythic journey to my own potential. And that, to me, is far more “magical” than any list of spells.
The most absurd argument of the satanic panic insists that RPGs feature real-life rituals. Although certain fringe RPGs feature ceremonial elements (9) , anyone who opens a gaming tome sees charts, numbers and lawyerly minutiae. Magic is described as combat maneuvers with mathematical effects, not as arcane ceremonies featuring the neighbor’s cat. You could no more learn a “fireball spell” from the Players Handbook than you could build a car from reading the Kelly Blue Book ― though the latter would be much more possible! While certain RPGs are more authentically “magical” than others, that authenticity comes through theme, background and approach, not occult mastery. The magic in RPGs is creative, not literal. In that regard, however, it’s quite potent.
Perhaps that’s what really scares certain folks: not the illusion of high wizardry, but the embrace of the magic within. That element, I think, is what I found in 1979: a door to my imagination, and an invitation to the possibilities beyond…
[In the next installment I’ll explore RPG design and reveal why certain RPGs are more “magical” than others. So stick around, and keep your dragon handy!]
1 It wasn’t called that at the time ― the stuff was still new back then.
2 Techgnosis, Chapter VII, esp. pages 247-266 (new edition).
3 “Confessions of a Dungeon Master” and Mazes & Monsters.
4 Chris now works in Hollywood; Doug played pro basketball. Greg joined the Post Office, Christopher joined the Air Force, and Hans is probably still “communing with weird tree gods.”
5 A nickname that the boy despised; see Wikipedia entry Patricia Pulling.
6 See Cardwell, Chick, Kjos, Pulling, Schnoebelen and Stackpole.
7 “Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons.” The same article claims that as a “witch high priest (Alexandrian tradition)… involved in hardcore Satanism” in the late ‘70s, Schnoebelen was approached by “a couple of the game writers who… wanted to make sure the rituals were authentic.” Anyone who’s read D&D material from that era knows that this is nonsense.
8 Our livers may be another story… and yes, that is a joke.
9 See Nephilim, The Everlasting and Tarot Magic.
Chick, Jack: Dark Dungeons, Chick Publications, 1984;http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp
Cardwell, Paul: “The Attacks on Role-Playing Games,” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 18, # 2, Winter 1994
Color Guy Ry and “Dr. Robert Ramos” (actually Justin Achilli), “Dr. Robert Ramos preaches fanatical sermon, Color Guy Ry responds,” 2002(?); http://dndorks.com/article/9/Page1.aspx
Coyne, John: Hobgoblin, Putnam, 1981
Darlington, Steve: “A History of Role-Playing: A Six-Part Series,” 1998;http://ptgptb.org/0001/history1.html
Davis, Erik: Techgnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information (updated edition), Five Star Paperback, 2004
Davis, Erik: “At Play on the Screens of Our Lord,” “The Gods of the Funny Books,” “Techgnosis,” “Technopagans” and other essays; www.techgnosis.com
Holmes, Dr. J.E.: “Confessions of a Dungeon Master,” Psychology Today, November 1980
Fannon, Sean Patrick: The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible, Obsidian Studios, 1999
Jaffe, Rona: Mazes & Monsters, Delacorte Press, 1981
Kjos, Berit: “Role-Playing Games & Popular Occultism: Open Doors to Forbidden Realms and Supernatural Seductions,” 2003; http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/2003/occult-rpg.htm
Magnus, P.D.: “Secrets of Dark Dungeons,” 2000;http://www.fecundity.com/pmagnus/darkdung.html
… and check out the “MST3K Meets Dark Dungeons” link, too!
Pulling, Patricia and Cawthon, Kathy: The Devil’s Web: Who is Stalking Your Children for Satan?, Vital Issues Press, 1989
Schnoebelen, William, “Straight Talk on Dungeons and Dragons” [sic.] (1989) and “Should a Christian Play Dungeons & Dragons?” (2001); http://chick.com/articles/dnd.asp
Stackpole, Michael A.: “The Pulling Report,” 1990;http://www.rpgstudies.net/stackpole/pulling_report.html
Wikipedia articles and their external links: http://en.wikipedia.org ― see role-playing games, history of role-playing games, role-playing game theory, moral panic, Patricia Pulling, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeons & Dragons controversies, and other associated topics.
Williams, J. Patrick, Hendrick, Sean Q. and Winkler, W. Keith: Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games, McFarland & Co., 2006
(This series of articles first appeared in newWitch magazine, under my column Chalice & Keyboard. Copyright (c) Satyros Phil Brucato 2007-2008. All rights to the text are reserved by the author. Copyright of the illustrations remains property of their original copyright holders. Permission is hereby granted for reposting and not-for-profit circulation, with proper attribution given.)