Gaming with Black Leaf and Elfstar - D&D in the 80s

Excerpted from Jack Chick's Dark Dungeons for purposes of illustration

For those who entered the gaming hobby after the 80s it is difficult to imagine the impact D&D had on popular culture.

I first encountered the D&D game in elementary school - I believe I was in 5th grade, probably winter and spring of 1982 which would fit in with the 8th printing of the D&D Basic Set - the first magenta-boxed rules with the Erol Otus cover. To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for this version of the rules. At the time it was just beginning its upward swing in popularity - I purchased my copy of the rules in a Toys R Us.

Fall of 1983 had me entering the 7th grade and the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon going on the air. I didn't get to see too much of it as this coincided with Saturday morning soccer (no Tivo, VCR, or streaming...)

1983 was also the year that a revision to the Basic Set was released, the Red Box with the Larry Elmore cover. In my circles this version of D&D was extremely popular. Kids would play it in study halls, there would be D&D clubs in school, etc. I was something of a holdout, clinging to my magenta rules for the longest time, though I eventually gave in and also acquired the red box. I also remember we used to play a ton of Star Frontiers. There would be ads for D&D and Star Frontiers in all the kids magazines and comic books.

However during this golden age there was also controversy. Now to be honest, I was fortunate. I grew up in Connecticut, very far removed from the Bible Belt so for me the controversy was mainly something I caught on the news. I first learned about D&D from my neighbors, whose mother was a very conservative Catholic whom I can recall having no big problem with the game. It wasn't an issue for my more liberal parents either - the only time D&D would get me in trouble with my parents was when I'd spend too much time playing D&D and not enough time doing homework. However they were well aware that a game need not be a tool of Satan in order to distract a kid from his homework. It was (and is) one of many things that competed for a child's attention. (Heck, my parents were mainly glad playing D&D got me to socialize more.)

But you only had to turn on the television to see that there was controversy brewing. The most famous incident and possibly the spark that kicked the whole thing off was the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year old child prodigy attending Michigan State University. He went into steam tunnels on campus intending to commit suicide. The attempt was unsuccessful. After the failed attempt he went into hiding. A private-investigator concocted the theory that Egbert had entered the tunnels as part of a Dungeons & Dragons game. (He had not and indeed didn't even play it.) The media latched onto this and treated it as fact. Egbert was eventually recovered and brought home, though he eventually committed suicide by gunshot in 1980. The steam tunnel story never really went away and was used as the basis of Rona Jaffe's novel Mazes & Monsters about a player in her stand-in for D&D, "Mazes & Monsters", who lost his mind to the game. This was eventually made into a tv-movie starring... Tom Hanks!

The steam-tunnel controversy was minor, however, next to the religious attacks on D&D. In 1982, Irving Pulling, a high school student who played D&D, committed suicide. The mother, Patricia Pulling held Dungeons & Dragons directly responsible for his death. She filed suit against his high school principal (apparently blaming him for a "D&D curse" being placed on her son) and she also sued TSR, publishers of Dungeon & Dragons. Though the lawsuits were dismissed, she founded the organization BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) where she linked D&D to occultism, describing the game as "a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings." She achieved a great deal of success in her crusade, both in Christian media and in the mainstream media, appearing on 60 Minutes. (Gary Gygax appeared on that episode of 60 Minutes as well. My recollection of it was the interview with him was edited in an unfavorable way - which would not have been surprising, as a controversy about an evil game seducing our innocent children is great for the ratings.)

That brings us to our friend Jack Chick. Jack Chick is famous for his "Chick Tracts", short comics which show you the one true road to salvation (accepting Jesus as your personal savior) - failing to do this sends you to hell. (I'm triply damned per Jack Chick's standards, playing D&D, being a Catholic, and supporting same-sex marriage.) One of the more famous tracts is Dark Dungeons, which features two girls who are pulled away form Jesus by the evils of Dungeons & Dragons (their characters being named Black Leaf and Elf Star). One commits suicide and the other finds her way back to Jesus and burns her D&D books. While horrifying in both its ignorance and its offensiveness, this one tract has generated lots of satire. Chick also features articles about the evils of D&D at his website. For example:
Literally millions of young people are unknowingly participating in genuine occult practices and opening the doors for demons to enter their bodies through this seemingly innocent game.
By the time they find out they were hood-winked, it's too late. They have taken that last step down the stairway to hell and are greeted by the engulfing flames. 

While there have been some well-written defenses of D&D refuting these inaccurate charges (for example, Michael Stackpole and Tracy Hickman have both penned defenses of the game), TSR removed a number of these "offensive" elements from the 2nd edition of AD&D, removing elements like demons, devils, assassins, half-orcs, etc. Over time these elements all made their way back into the game as the media spotlight moved to other items like the dangers of the Mortal Kombat Nintendo game...


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