This Gary Con, I’ll be running a stream and an event using the Delve rules. Because it’s Gary Con, I try to run at least one game that celebrates the work of Gary Gygax. After all, the convention celebrates Gygax’s (and many others’) work. While I missed out on last year’s festivities (I was all wrapped up in virus prevention and coping in my own way), I ran the Delve event Under the Moathouse at Autumn Revel, exploring the dungeon level of the Moathouse in T1 The Village of Hommlet.
It was a hoot. The play flowed well, and the classic was easy to convert to Delve. At that time, I was still in the mode of playtesting the system using dungeon crawls. Why? Well, I believe that if your rules work well for dungeon crawling, they’ll work pretty well for everything else. Suppose you can run players through a churn of combat after combat for four or so hours at the player’s own pace under their own direction, without frustration, boredom, and by the end, they feel hunger for what’s next in regards to the story and game mastery. In that case, you have a recipe for a compelling RPG system. Or at least a compelling RPG system of the ilk that I enjoy creating.
But now it’s time to present the game in something a little bit more story-driven. So, I decided to aim my sights on something a bit more story-driven. I pulled out my copies of EX1 Dungeonland and EX2 Land Beyond the Magic Mirror.
Along with WG6 Isle of the Ape, these adventures took D&D out of its pulp and pseudo-historical roots. All of these presented a particular sublevel of the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk, a massive multilevel super dungeon that served as an early campaign for D&D. Many of the named characters of Greyhawk were played by actual folk, family, fellow enthusiasts, and folks that would go on to do their own work for D&D, back in the 70s. More often than not, these characters delved into the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk.
By all accounts, the Castle Greyhawk was weird. It was full of ideas pulled from Gygax’s imagination, eclectic readings, comic books, old-timey movies, local artists, and strange dinosaur toys from China. It was a garden of imagination the may seem a bit weird and shallow in the age of the internet and shows, movies, comics, and books on demand. Still, it was fairly expansive given the time and place D&D pops up. Maybe the weirdest sections of the dungeons were the sublevels, which consisted of demiplanes and strange locations that pulled players out to the constant barrage of kicking down doors, killing monsters, and outmaneuvering or (more often) outthinking traps. By the admission of his player at the time, Gary really enjoyed playfully messing with his players’ heads, forcing them to rethink the game’s assumptions. Hell, this story-telling tactic rife in his adventure design. He’s constantly taking away the players’ toys (i.e., magic items and spell access) and having them face a battery of traps that were very difficult to figure out at first glance. Some of these dirty tricks have become absolutely iconic.
If you don’t know, Dungeonland and Land Beyond the Magic Mirror is based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. You come across a litany of characters from those books within those adventures, The Mad Hatter, The Queen, as well as the Carpenter and the Walrus. I ran it several times in my teenage years, often to the puzzlement of players who only knew Alice in Wonderland via the Disney film (released 1951). While I took running it seriously, it typically devolved into jokes about the movie or what they thought they remembered.
I believe the three published Castle Greyhawk demi-plane adventure basis of the puerile goof-fest, WG7 Castle Greyhawk, an adventure I gave away after reading it and refuse to own to this day. Those of you who like that adventure excuse petty vanity. Some claim that WG7 was l a big middle finger to the outgoing Gygax. In contrast, others argue that they thought the adventure would be well received given our only authentic look at the Castle Greyhawk was through the three published (and admittedly goofy and sometimes wrong-headed) demi-plane adventures. I’ve been in enough publishing brainstorming sessions to know those goals are not mutually exclusive.
But Dungeonland and Land Beyond the Magic Mirror have another legacy beyond just being a couple of quirky adventures based on older fantasy. They were tools in the fight against the Satanic Panic.
Imagine you’re a kid living right now. Then imagine your parents are QAnon cultists. The Satanic Panic was QAnon of an earlier time. These kinds of movements pop up around tradition-change events in society. From the rise of Christianity in Rome to Salam, evil besieged the good folk of the realms. Sometimes these movements have a hero, but they always have enemies. McCarthyism is a fine example. So is the Red Scare in general. In some ways, Prohibition was such a movement (the enemy was alcohol as a way to stem violent and wanton behavior), witch burnings, persecution against the Jews, this shit goes on all the time. It’s when a well-meaning but magical-thinking people on the rampage and nothing can convince of their error. When faced with evidence, these folks create labyrinthine conspiracy theories creating a magic world where there is an enemy, powerful and diabolical, who is tricking them at every turn.
The Satanic Panic is weird and complex. Most folks who have studied it trace it back to 1972 and the publication of Satan Seller by Mike Warnke. In that book, Warnke claims he was wrapped up in a Satanic cult doing many horrible and illegal things before going to Viet Nam and found Christ.
I’ve not read this book. By all accounts, it’s utter horseshit. It’s been thoroughly debunked. Warnke was later a Christian standup comedian—a sort of Sam Kinison in reverse. He was obviously addicted to fame.
I believe it’s safe to say that Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and the publication of the Satanic Bible was also the root of the Satanic Panic. Here was this fella who seemed to step out from a 60s horror film telling people that he’s got a church and a bible devoted to THE DARK LORD OF THE ABYSS! And he was mostly doing it to freak folks out. LaVey was a bit of a carney. But he got on TV from time to time, and that was enough.
The last and fundamental root of this movement was the Manson family. Supposedly they committed cult killings. Manson, even more so than LaVey, was a trickster. He loved the attention, and he loved manipulating frightened people. The fucker had his people kill Sharon Tate and others. He was planning to ignite a race war with Helter Skelter, his master plan based on the listening of a Beatles song, or so the prosecution against him claimed. In truth, he was a manipulative madman living in a commune near Death Valley whoring out members of that commune for crime to pay for food and drugs, the access of which he used to further manipulate them. But he scared the shit out of people, thanks to heavy media coverage.
In the tail days of Viet Nam and the start of the War on Drugs, Watergate unfolded, as did unrest and dire poverty in the cities. Recession, gas crises, and the horror of nuclear Armageddon, one can see how the Satanic Panic took hold. And it did so in many areas. Most dramatically in daycares, primarily in Manhattan Beach, California, but reaching out to other cities. It took aim at rock music and the movie industry. And with the sensational tale of Dallas Egbert III and the steam tunnels under Michigan State University, it first hit Dungeons & Dragons. When the private detective, William Dear, became fixated with the game and its possible place in the young man’s disappearance. The media, knowing a ratings hit when they saw one, came along for the ride.
Here was the deal with the young Mr. Egbert. He was a gifted but awkward kid, virtually abandoned by his parents, in college at 16. He was weird, he was gay, he was left alone on a college campus when he was fucking 16! He was also abusing drugs (not that I hold that against anyone of majority) and suicidal. His world spiraled out of control. Dear found Dallas, determined that D&D had nothing to do with his disappearance, he quietly released Dallas to his uncle.
Dallas committed suicide nearly a year later.
But that just whetted the appetite for attacks on the game. Its greatest champion was Pat Pulling, who created Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). She started that organization after her son, Irving, committed suicide. She blamed Dungeons & Dragons and attempted to sue her son’s school principal and TSR, Inc. (the then publisher of the game) and when her case was dismissed for lack of anything sane or based in reality (sound familiar?). She then created BADD to confront D&D in another way—by way of ridiculous and rather unlettered liable and slander. And just as before, the media pounced. Hell, 60 Minutes did a whole expose pitting Pulling vs. Gary Gygax in a stunning display of fake news wrapped in slick and supposedly intellectual packaging.
These things stirred up a stone among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians that D&D was harmful and Satanic.
As a way to confront the bad press, TSR, Inc. hired Dr. Ruth Brothers to advocate for roleplaying games as not only not dangerous but also beneficial.
At the time, Dr. Brothers was mom’s favorite psychologist. Rising to fame by winning $64,000 Question, a popular game show in the 50s, she parlayed her fame to create a media empire offering relatively common sense and non-threatening psychiatric help to families via print and TV media.
The Christian groups made a big deal as to the fact that Dr. Brothers was paid, but of course, she was paid. I’m sure she was classified as a consultant due to her credentials, media-savvy, and her beliefs about the game, which we now accept as fact. But she did play D&D, a game that Gygax ran, and Gygax said, “she was mildly amused…mainly by the setting.”
You have to understand, there was a lot of junk psychology being thrown around in the 70s and the 80s. While the media carried the bucket, junk psychology was the font. And I think Dr. Brothers and other psychologists fought against such junk psychology and moved to combat it with compassion and reason. In the end, it did some good. Silly lawsuits finally slowed to a crawl, especially after Judas Priest won their suit against assumed hidden satanic messages in their reporting. Dee Snider (and others) crushed the PMRC on national television. No, music, games, comic books, and other such fictions and fancies can’t turn you into raving lunatics. It takes myth wrapped as news and awful YouTube algorithms to even approach that level of madness and only when mixed with stunningly stubborn ignorance.
While there is no doubt that the Satanic Panic catapulted D&D into a cultural phenomenon in the 80s, those creating the game seemed uncomfortable with the nature of its publicity. It’s frustrating when the bat-shit crazy crap on your stuff for idiotic reasons. I think EX1 and EX2 were presented in attempts to show folks that D&D was just a flight of fantasy in the way that humans have been fantasizing since the beginning of time.
Did it work? Maybe, sometimes. There were a lot of barriers to getting the point across. First, you had to be willing to play D&D. Second, you had to know about these specific adventures. Third, you had to appreciate Carroll’s work. It was a rather high-brow gambit against a foe that was decidedly not. But I think it did resonate with more open-minded folk and taught a few of us that were strange and wonderous worlds outside the dungeon to explore.
Strangely enough, the Satanic Panic just sort of fizzled out…sort of. It’s painfully apparent that QAnon and its predecessor Pizzagate are the ripples of the Panic. And beyond that lunacy, even thoughtful and well-meaning people continue to propose that somehow art, literature, and pastimes can somehow create monsters through the junk psychology of desensitizing (whatever the fuck that means). Listening to Slayer won’t make you a nihilistic killer, nor will playing Grand Theft Auto or reading edgy comic books or grimdark novels. Magic isn’t real. Fumbling explorations of other cultures can be tools for growth, and watching porn won’t make you deprived. At best, these are just fumbling defenses for the people’s horrific behavior to shed the blame for one’s own actions in life.
Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror was an attempt to use reason and art to point this out. And while neither was a game-changer on the stage of popular opinion, I appreciate both adventures for the attempt. Both are sometimes fumbling and disjointed. I actually think that UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave by Dave J. Browne, Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris did a better job of presenting this type of D&D adventure; Gygax’s forays into Wonderland hold a favored place in my gaming library.
Don’t ask me my thoughts on Isle of the Ape.
I will be steaming Delve’s Beyond the Magic Mirror at this Saturday, March 27th at 10 a.m. Pacific time. You can watch it on the Gary Con Loch Jineeva stream
I will also be running it for a group of Gary Con attendees this Sunday, March 28th at 9 a.m. Pacific time. As of writing this there are a couple of seats left if you are interested in checking it out.