I've never RPG'd before. I've dabbled with RPG video games (ex: Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger) but I'm understanding these are way different than your "let's all sit down and have a tabletop RPG adventure" type games. I attribute my lack of RPG gaming in my youth to my over-protective mother and the 'satanic panic' of of the early 80s.
When I was much younger (between six and eight years old), I was poking through my older cousin's bedroom and found, what appeared to be, pieces for a superhero game. When I inquired about what it was, my older cousin quickly snapped it up, told me "I was too young to play" and handed me some GI Joes to occupy myself with. Ever since *that* moment, I felt that RPG gaming was super-exclusive and part of a secret super-fun cult I had not yet been indoctrinated into. It would take me several years before I realized what he snatched up were components from the 1984 Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game published by TSR. He was right to snatch them up, the game required you to own every scrap piece of paper, cardboard token and character card included in the basic set/start-up kit (these were before the days you could just find your missing/lost item online and print it out with your color printer) - and a well-meaning but curious pre-teen could easily mess that up. Jamie, I forgive you.
Sometime in elementary school, a very generous benefactor donated an entire set of TSR Endless Quest gamebooks to our class library. It's like a 'choose you own adventure', but requires a pencil, a stats sheet and some dice. All the other boys in the class were excitedly reading/playing them, but since the books contained elements of Dungeons and Dragons I was obviously forbidden by my parents from even glancing at them (see: Satanic Panic). I managed to sneak one or two in without my parents knowing, but the best times to play were when you were away from school and that wasn't going to happen at my house.
That was more or less the last time I had thought about RPG gaming until I started playing various video games with RPG elements (as previously mentioned). I guess I probably saw elements of tabletop RPGing at comic book shops and hobby shops I'd frequent, but it was always something super-foreign to me like Robotech or Mechwarrior or something else I had no interest in learning about (I had a pretty one-track mind focused on comic books throughout elementary and most of high school).
I had a few buddies I carpooled with who would regale me with tales of their tabletop RPG exploits (ex: "Our druid was going to summon a healing spirit, but then he totally rolled a 2. hyuk hyuk") and I would just smile and nod politely. I always assumed that hearing tales about other people's RPG experiences (when you've never RPG'd a day in your life) was akin to hearing other people tell you about their awesome 2 week vacation someplace you've never been to - unless you've experienced it already yourself, you can't relate and therefore couldn't care less.
For those of you who think tabletop RPGing is a 'dead' past-time and I'm just flogging away at a dead horse for the sake of a relevant article, I'll have you note that (according to a report issued by ICv2) the hobby games business has experienced it's seventh consecutive year of growth - with a growth rate of around 20%. (Please note that the 'hobby games business' is not just limited to tabletop RPGs, but also includes Collectible Card and Dice games, Board Games, and Miniatures Games.). ICv2 also estimated a growth rate of 67% for RPGing (making it the fastest growing segment) from 2013 to 2015. That same article cites the 'Hobby Games Market' as an $880 million dollar industry (with tabletop RPGing taking in about $25 million on it's own). This is information amassed by interviewing retailers, distributors, and publishers. But still, it's out there, and it's still a thing people do.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), was the first tabletop RPG commercially available to the masses. In 1974, due to an extremely small marketing budget, TSR was mainly advertising it's D&D game in fanzines (usually because marketing in these fanzines were free or cost next-to-nothing).
|Ad found in Great Plains Gameplayers Newsletter (1975)|
Due to it primarily being advertised in publications aimed at niche markets, D&D became a past time for those 'in the know'. At this point, a predominant amount of D&D players were college and university students. D&D attracted different types of crowds: people who enjoyed strategy games (i.e. chess), people who were already into wargames/conflict simulation games, fans of the sword-and-sorcery genre (i.e. Lord of the Rings), and people who "weren't into" athletics. I don't think I'd categorize D&D players as a counter-cultural movement per se, but more of a 'subculture'. Again, back in the late 70s there was no internet and you were mainly kept informed of pop culture via print publications (ex: Rolling Stone magazine, CREEM, Playboy, various fanzines) and word-of-mouth from your peers.
In 1979, a 16 year-old Michigan State University student named James Dallas Egbert III went missing. Apparently, after lunch one Wednesday afternoon, Egbert entered the University's steam tunnels and had seemingly disappeared. A police investigation/search ensued. It was revealed that students often played live-action sessions of D&D in the steam tunnels, and it was theorized that Egbert met a grisly end during one of these sessions. The local media picked up this story and sensationalized the connection between Egbert and the D&D sessions. The big controversy here was that D&D books were filled with images of mythological/fantasy elements (demons, dragon, skeletons, druids, etc) and someone poking through these tomes for the first time might mistakenly believe D&D had occult/demonic connotations. I'm not sure if this was THE incident that caused the speculation that tabletop RPGs had negative psychological effects on gamers, but it certainly didn't help. The James Dallas Egbert III story created a media circus and inspired at least two books (Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe, The Dungeon Master by William Dear) and a made-for-TV movie (1982's Mazes and Monsters starring Tom Hanks). All of this media attention had an opposite intended affect as it suddenly shone a national spotlight on this relatively obscure game.
This really wouldn't be a very good 80s blog if I didn't explain the 'Satanic Panic' of the 1980s. The Satanic Panic was a culmination of: the media buzz surrounding the James Dallas Egbert III case, busybodies needing something to fuss about, North American "Christian Fundamentalism" flexing it's muscles, and the belief that subversive Satanic cults were secretly influencing the youth.
|early pamphlet denouncing D&D (circa 1982)|
The idea that Satanic cults were secretly operating in the background wasn't anything new (the idea really gained momentum in the 70s), but things really came to a head when James Dallas Egbert III disappeared and the media went nuts about it. A best-selling book released in 1980, called Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith, was one of the first books to recount a first-hand account of Satanic ritual abuse (the book has since been debunked) which contributed to the Satanic Panic hysteria. Heavy Metal music was also a major target for the Satanic Panic movement - Christian Fundamentalists believed that subliminal messages in Heavy Metal music were instructing listeners to murder people. The fastest way to get a teenager interested in something is to forbid them from doing it (coincidentally, Heavy Metal more or less hit the mainstream around this time).
By 1982, D&D had more than three million players around the world, thanks in part to the game expansions/supplements, rule revisions, a loyal fan base and the public scorn of nearly every Christian Fundamentalist group and meddling authority figure across North America.
By 1984, you were able to buy D&D and other tabletop RPGs in the Sears Christmas Catalog. Joseph Goodman, of Goodman Games, stated that "D&D sales were at their peak in 1982, that the mid-80's were a declining period, and the 90's were a trough". Goodman would also point out that D&D sales had another peak year in 2001, and suggests that "D&D has roughly one peak every generation".
|1984 Sears Christmas Catalog|
Something that was extremely appealing about D&D, to students, is that it required little to no cost. A player could spend as little or as much as they wanted (going so far as purchasing miniature figs, maps, cosplay costumes, etc). On a Friday night (circa late 70s/early 80s), if you had money, you could hit the arcade or dance club/roller disco. If you were broke, you were most likely hanging out with your friends playing D&D.
I'm only breaching the tip of the iceberg here. So much more could be written about the history of the RPG movement of the late 70s/early 80s, as well as the Satanic Panic of the 80s. I was only planning on a half page article, and here we are. If you're still interested, I'm going to leave you with some links you can follow up on:
- DC comics tried to get in on the D&D market, too! (The Crapbox of Son of Cthulhu)
- Disinfo's "Mazes, Monsters, Charlatans, Satan and Suicide: A Short History of the Satanic Panic"
- The Escapist's "Days of High Adventure: Satanic Panic"
- Talks at Google: David Ewalt, "Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons..."
- Noisey's Revisiting America's Satanic Panic: When Heavy Metal and the Devil Himself Stalked the Earth
- The Great D&D Moral Panic of the 80s by Caverns and Creatures
- BBC.com's The great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic
- Slate.com's The Gygax Effect
- Infernality.blogspot.ca's A History of Heavy Metal