Satanic Panic

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:

Yep, there he is. That evil gamer type again.

Yep, there he is. That evil gamer type again.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

5 thoughts on “Satanic Panic

  1. Patrick C Ledet says:

    To me, it’s always been about the deep themes of the game rather than what elements are present. D&D has a lot of demons and devils and supernatural imagery pulled from various sources but they’re the enemy and they can be conquered by people fighting for good. Arcane magic is not some deal with an evil being for power (barring the Warlock from 4/5E) but the result of careful study and has very specific principles and rules not unlike a science and even sorcerors have to follow those (even if they’re skill is the result of natural talent rather than devoted study). Divine magic comes from faith and the standard expectation is that good is the default state of the universe (even neutral characters generally prefer benevolence over malevolence). Evil may always come back but there are always heroes to drive it back. Now granted, you can run a game of demon worshiping clerics and blackguards but that’s true of every RPG. It would probably help if they stopped publishing “mature” idiocy like the Book of Vile Darkness though…

    D&D draws from a lot of works where Faith, Hope, and Love conquer demons, be they metaphorical or literal, and its always seemed a disservice to let the surface trappings be a reason to disdain something. I mean Pathfinder has an NPC that’s a fricking succubus that reformed enough to become a true Paladin and if that’s not some inspiring goodness…

    That said, I can completely understand the dislike for referencing specific figures from one’s religion. I imagine this is why most RPGs tend to use more obscure references (like the Apocrypha and Kabballah). Outside of White Wolf, but the company that made Gypsies a supernatural type and treated an active religion with 1 billion followers as equivalent to Greek mythology, is probably not one to emulate on that front.

  2. M Harold Page says:

    A nice, frank and lucid article!

    Quick responses:

    1. Yes and no. I think escapism doesn’t wreck people’s lives, the issues people escape from do.

    I mean, *yes*, you raise a real issue. People do get lost in escapism and it’s something to watch. However, from my own experience, I see this as a result of other factors – the issues in people’s lives. Ultimately, isn’t escaping into RPGs better than doing so into a bottle or a screen? At least D&D is social and a source of self esteem and engagement. People will escape one way or another.

    2. Objectification of Women – Yes.

    I am keenly aware of this as my daughter starts roleplaying. There’s nothing wrong with eroticism, but in the wrong place it becomes sexism or just plain inappropriate.

    3. Demons… hmmm

    As an atheist, I mostly don’t care about this one since I don’t think demons exist.

    And, roleplaying did spark my interest in the occult, which manifested in my collection of grimoires – Key of Solomon etc – and my undergraduate dissertation on the wonderful Greek Magic Papyri. This has enriched my imagination and fuelled my writing.

    *However*, some of my peers at university who were already only loosely attached to reality did go off the rails and pursue occultism to the exclusion of other things. Of course, it’s not clear whether D&D was a way station or a gateway. The occult revival in the UK was before D&D.

    I wonder though… if you have concerns about the occult aspects of D&D, might you not be better pointing your offspring toward the new Star Wars games – or is the Force an issue? Or how about one of the various Space Opera RPGs which now abound… my favourite being FATE Diaspora?

    • MadCleric says:

      Thanks for reading and interacting!

      As far as my kids go, they’re remarkably young at this point. But I imagine it will be a child-by-child sort of thing, based upon their inclinations. I play the Star Wars RPG just as frequently as D&D these days, so that would always be an opportunity too. All in all, I’m a pretty tolerant gamer on these sorts of issues and will hopefully be able to translate that into my parenting.

      And as far as escapism goes, I think you and I are on the same page. Good nuancing though.

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