The topic has come up in almost every Chasing the Dragon podcast we’ve had: Satanic panic. That period in the eighties when good, virtuous mothers and churchgoers were warned against the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons. And the edition that brought on these accusations most powerfully was the exact edition that I’ve been reading, re-reading, playing, and podcasting about: First Edition AD&D.
Some of you may not know this about me, but I am a Protestant pastor in the Southern United States. I’ve been accused of being too conservative…and also accused of being too liberal, which is probably a good place to be. But as a Protestant pastor in a denomination that uses the word “evangelical” to describe itself, rest assured I lean right compared to a more liberal, mainstream Protestantism.
Why does that matter? Well, it seems that if anybody would be sympathetic to the Satanic panic of the ’80s, it would be this guy:
So let me say very matter-of-factly, I do not think the Satanic panic of the ’80s was warranted…for the reasons given. No, I don’t think AD&D was causing suicides around the country. I especially don’t think that Gary Gygax or his game were overtly subversive or intentionally hurtful. Gary seemed like a good guy. Intense and obsessive (like me)? Yes. Subversive? Maybe barely. Hurtful? No way.
So let me give my educated, theologically-informed, and (dare I say even) pastoral opinion:
The Dangers of AD&D, First Edition
Like I said, I don’t think 1e is intentionally hurtful in any way. The writers and producers seem like generally great guys. The problems that I have with AD&D are problems that I have with probably most roleplaying games on the market:
- Escapism unchecked leads to unengaged living.Escapism and fantasy are a healthy part of life. The human brain is geared to dream at night and during the day. It’s good for our physical, emotional, and mental health. Escapism as a hobby can even be healthy. It can help distract us from painful situations for a time, just to breathe. It can help us work out internal conflicts and frustrations. It can even be just plain fun–and that OK!
But escapism can be overdone. As I was telling a friend recently, it’s a good thing that I discovered tabletop RPGs after I had my Master’s degree. Otherwise, I could have seen it getting in the way of a lot of studying. In my current life phase, my gaming is limited by necessity. Family, work, and friends demand much of my time, which keeps my gaming in check.
But if a person can’t keep their gaming in check, it can overwhelm your time and schedule. The last thing that I (or Gary Gygax) want is for you to hate your life, while loving your game. We want you to love both. And a big part of that is a healthy gaming-life balance. And that’s not just an AD&D thing. That’s a healthy living principle for any kind of hobby.
- Objectification of women
I recently watched a humorous interview with Tim Kask about sexual themes and imagery in AD&D. It’s totally worth a watch. Click it. I’ll still be waiting here.OK, welcome back. Listen, I get what Kask is saying. The pictures in the Monster Manual are not as racy as what anybody could see on the internet within the click of a button today. I would not categorize AD&D’s raciest pictures as pornography. Mostly because they look like an eleven-year-old drew them. But there’s a deeper issue at play.
In a males-dominated hobby, we need to be careful what expectations we put on the women we love. We also need to be careful what we are communicating to our fellow female gamers, whom we want to be very welcome at the gaming table. Now granted, I doubt the female gamer in our group was offended as she looked through the Monster Manual (or as I made fun of some of the pics in our last session). But as a father, I do find myself thinking, “Do I want my daughter to imagine her first PC wearing a Princess Leia bikini?” Of course I don’t. I want her to be able to express her femininity without being roped into a half-naked, oversexed stereotype–whatever that may look like.
Stereotypes can stifle expression. And no one is more susceptible to that than children. So I think parents should be engaged with their children in these kinds of conversations, if their kids play roleplaying games. In the end, this too is not an AD&D issue. It’s an issue in most RPGs I’ve played. Fantasy Flight Games is a notable exception, but their previous Art Director, Zoë Robinson, did a hell of a job making sure that was the case.
- Demons, magic, and the likeGoing back to my profession and background, I do believe in the spiritual realm. I do believe in angelic powers–some who have your best in mind, others that do not. I do believe that people can be affected negatively by witchcraft, voodoo, and the like. I’ve lived in three different regions of the US that are impacted significantly by these practices. So what are my concerns on this front?
My mother didn’t allow me and my brothers to watch He-Man or the Smurfs because of religious concerns. Realistically, D&D was never even on our radar as kids. But her reasoning was sound. As a child, she became interested in witchcraft and the occult because of the sitcom Bewitched. Sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it?
At the end of the day, kids are more impressionable and they think illogical things. As a thirty-something who takes his faith seriously, nothing about a demogorgon in AD&D makes me think more or less of real angels and demons. That said, I’m not too quick to name an NPC Lucifer, Abaddon, or Baal. Just because it’s weird. There are too many contextual touchpoints with my own faith.
Here’s what I’m getting at (a similar point that I made in this post): you know what you’re comfortable with. Most well-adjusted religious adults can deal with these matters in AD&D without fear. When my kids are getting older, I’ll have to judge when they’re ready. But it seems apparent that 4th or 5th edition, which are a bit more tamed down, will be available to them much earlier. But by their twelfth year, I assume AD&D will be fine for them, so long as I’m engaged in conversation with them.
In the end, I’m playing AD&D First Edition without any sense of compromising my conscience. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I love the game. As with any game, you’ve got to be careful–take the good, pass by the bad, and just have a good time.
I know I’ve got plenty of religious readers out there. If anybody would like to say more, feel free to sound off in the comments below or on Twitter!