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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A brief history of tabletop RPGs (from the POV of someone who wasn't allowed to play)

A few years ago I wrote a review about the DC Heroes RPG system (published by Mayfair games in 1985) from the perspective of somebody who has never played a tabletop RPG game before in his life. When I read it over recently, it sounded a little dismissive of the whole past time. Since then, I've encountered more and more people who play tabletop RPGs. There's actually WAY more than you'd think. They don't really advertise it and tend to keep it on the down-low. Take a look at the person sitting next you - if they are somewhere in the 25-to-45 year old age range, there's a pretty strong chance that they've sat through a RPG gaming session before. Hell, they might even still be playing on a monthly basis.

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:


  1. I Played OD&D in Junior High and AD&D first edition in High School. After high school, I started working at Leisure World in the Carlingwood Mall. It was a hobby shop that sold yarn and needlepoint on one side and model kits and war games on the other. I still played with friends on the weekend - including one epic adventure featuring the gnome brothers Hitar, Lowtar and Notar (we were all smokers). It must have been 1982 around the time of the Irving Pulling suicide when a woman came into the store complaining about D&D - that it was evil and her son wanted to buy it but she wouldn't let him and we shouldn't sell it.

    I spent at least a good hour talking to her about it and walking her through the tragic story of Irving Pulling. Did she know how he committed suicide? - he shot himself. Did she know where he got the gun? It was kept loaded in a side table drawer by the front door of the house. The drawer was not locked and the pistol was not otherwise secured. Did she know he had a younger brother? About 8 years old. Did she think it was good parenting practice to leave an accessible loaded handgun in a house with an 8 year old? I may be conflating another case but I think Irving had shown other signs of mental distress.

    We then talked about obsessive behaviour in other games, sports and activities, and of course drugs and how no obsessive behaviour was not healthy and parents had to be vigilant.

    In the end I think I convinced her that even if D&D was a contributing factor, Irving's suicide was far more due to bad luck and bad parenting.

    I recall giving a similar talk to parents and grand parents a couple of times more. The store closed a while after AD&D 2nd ed came out - the version stripped of all the demons etc. It was not well received by existing players and had far too many add on books.

  2. D&D has really extended beyond its humble Wisconsin beginnings. Your article cries out for a sequel! D&D is now available as a board game, multiplayer PC game, several console games, two quite memorable arcade games, and several flavours of role-playing game. And it can get pricey. There's a whole ancillary world of accessories beyond the obvious dice and miniatures: maps, constructable 3D cardboard terrain and buildings, software, world-building geographical programs, and playing-group-building social media websites (Roll 20 for instance) just to name a few. And of course more fantasy novels are set in D&D related worlds than there are Star Trek novels (which is really saying something).

  3. The most entertaining part of the satanic panic of the 80s in regards to tabletop RPGs has to be the Jack Chick tracts such as Dark Dungeons. I was a late adopter of tabletop RPGs (I started in college) and remember discovering those tracts and been fascinated how a hobby that by then had been an integral part of "nerd culture" had once been so controversial with fundamental Christian groups.

    1. ah yes! the Jack Chick Tracts! I totally forgot about those! Jack Chick has his own publishing company now: I can imagine someone being really disappointed when they type in the URL and landing on Jack's page. ;)

      Here was the comic strip you were referring to:

  4. I see one big error...D&D was not part of the popular cultural back in the 70s and early 80's. Back then, it was the domain of Science Fiction (SF) fandom, and The Society for Creative Anachronism (What we would call now Medieval LARPing), which itself came out of Science Fiction Fandom, and to a much lessor extent, Military Strategy gamers. Before widespread adoption of computer networks, the primary way for information to spread in SF fandom was at Science Fiction Conventions, SF clubs and through our publications, the Fanzines. In fact, the term "fanzine" comes from SF Fandom. Until Starlog became popular, the only time that D&D appeared in "Mundane" (ie, non SF, or "boring") media was in "look at the freaks" type articles. You have to remember, Science Fiction Fandom, Star Trek fandom and comics were all "subcultures" back then. The mainstream media looked at us as a bunch of freaks and weirdos, not much different than the hippies and druggies. And SF (eg Steve Jackson Games) and Fantasy gaming was a sub-sub culture off of SF Fandom.

    I was first introduced to D&D in 1978 at SF Convention in Ottawa, Maplecon I. They needed one more player for a tournament that was happening, and someone I new through the SCA convinced me to get up at 7 am to have a crash course on playing D&D for a begin the game at 8. We used the "little brown books", the original three 8.5 x 11 folded in half books. A few years later, the former president of the Ottawa Science Fiction Society, John Mansfield, with some partners, opened Fandom II above a restaurant on Rideau St., on the top floor of what today is The Horn of Africa Restaurant. They carried D&D, dice, Steve Jackson Micro-Games, various other SF strategy games, and a host of other Fantasy Role Playing games, all that aimed to "correct" the problems with D&D...Chivalry & Sorcery aimed to be more "realistic", coming from the SCA ranks who though they know sword & shield fighting and thus could make it more realistic...a round of melee could easily take 10+ minutes! Or simpler, like Steve Jackson Game's GURPs), but for the longest time, Fandom II was the only place to buy such merchandise unless you went to a Science Fiction Convention. Later, when D&D became more popular, Games stores, which carried board games like Monopoly, and Billiard/Pool supplies would carry D&D books and dice.

    I started a D&D club at my high school, Confederation HS in 1979. We frequently held after school gaming sessions that would last well after 6 pm, going until the janitors would kick us out. This club lasted well after I left Confederation, and introduced many to D&D.

    The real turning point for D&D's popularity was the Satanic Panic events. Although it was tragic, the publicity catapulted D&D into the mainstream culture like nothing else. It's the old saying about any publicity is good publicity, and it certainly proved to be true for TSR and D&D. Throughout the mid and late 80s, D&D grew by leaps and bounds. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    1. Hi Farrell - I had many of the same experiences at Woodroffe HS in the late 70's early 80's except we had a friendly teacher onside because all the D&D players were in the chess club and on the Reach for the Top team. Geekdom was not nearly as popular back then as it is now.

      I will say my D&D experience is a little different from yours though we were in the same city. Most of the D&D players I knew came to it from traditional war gaming; board war games from Avalon Hill, SPI and the like and traditional miniatures war gaming. There was always an SF and fantasy aspect to war gaming and there always was cross over with other geek communities especially once D&D started getting popular in war gaming circles and other RPGs started getting published.

      The real difference for me is that I didn't know about or get involved involved with formal SF/Trek/SW fandom until my 20's and I only dabbled in larping/SCA after that. D&D was played old high school friends and war gaming was mostly other reservists and as far as I knew no one in either groups were fen or SCAdians.

      Currently, I am pretty much a pure war gamer and those of our age tend to follow the same route: Airfix or Britains as a kid, then onto AH/SPI board war games with WRG rules for moderns, ancients and Napoleonics. Then usually a long side trip in your teens into D&D, Traveller, Warhammer Fantasy, WH 40k. This sometimes continues into university/college often with a resurgence in Napoleonics and historical miniatures gaming as players formally studied the actual history. Then life/wife/kids suck up all the free time and money. The in their 40's back into miniatures war gaming when time and money (especially money) are more avaialble. What is interesting is that children of the original waves of wargamers and rpgers are getting introduced to it by their parents. My daughters have both GMd 4th ed (heresy I know but what's a dad to do...) and other RPG systems. The surge of RPG light faction games and pre-paint miniatures games like X-wing also makes me optimistic for the future.

  5. I have just been on the receiving end of "gaming is evil" for 30+ years. And I am not the best candidate for using gaming is evil propaganda. I actually started playing D&D after watching Mazes and Monsters.

    I was such a geeky rebel.

    I remember we had a copy of the Jack Chick Dark Dungeons at my church. I was so annoyed reading it. Even at the age of 10 I couldn't understand how parents and preachers would believe that Satan would use a game to destroy someone's faith.

    I have always been of the mindset if a game or idea or article can destroy your faith, it isn't that strong to begin with.

    "Transcendental Meditation opens your minds to Demons."

    "Halloween must not be celebrated on a Sunday. Opens your minds to Demons."

    "RPGs are evil. Opens your minds to Demons."

    I will have to find the bible verse that was used in an article I read about the evils of D&D. It was in 1985 I believe. Almost had me convinced..... almost. Until I realized that imagination is not acceptance.

    I am actually surprised I still have anything to do with the church given my upbringing.

    And whatever you do, don't ever use Leviticcus as an argument with me.