Kent on the evils of AD&D

Q: What year did you first start playing AD&D?  Can you provide us with a brief synopsis of your playing history?

A: I started hearing about Dungeons & Dragons in early 1980 at the age of 9, and was introduced to play through Dungeon Module B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands).  I was forbidden from playing by my parents unless I bought my own materials.  They probably thought that was the end of the matter.That summer, I bought modules Q1 and S2, not because I understood what I was doing, but because they were less intimidating than the hardcovers and they had the most interesting covers I could find.  I bought some dice too.  Considering my $16 investment was about 6 weeks of allowance and chore money (and $40+ in 2013 dollars), it was a considerable gamble.

I loved the modules and convinced a friend who had more lenient parents to get a basic set, and the rest is history.  I became the DM because I knew what was in the dungeons.  It took me several years to own all of the books, but by 1988 I had a collection of hundreds of books and modules.

Q: I remember hearing lots of things about the evils of AD&D growing up, in fact I was strongly discouraged from playing it.  What memories do you have of such warnings, either from personal experience or just from the media?

Most of the furor was caused by the tragic death of James Dallas Egbert III, which led to the “steam tunnel” urban legend in 1979-1980.  I chronicle that grim and true story in one of my books, Steam Tunnels: The Myth of the Killer Dungeon.  Then Mazes and Monsters turned everybody nuts in 1981 and 1982.  The funny thing is, people who didn’t play all thought that the game was Satanic and that it drove kids insane, like a “Necronomicon Junior” or something.  But the religious zealots were behaving more madly than any D&D player I’ve ever seen.

My own D&D books were taken away in 1982, on condition that I improve my reading skills.  (Play time was cutting into homework time.)  In response, I gave my teacher an essay which included words I had only learned from Gary Gygax (dweomer, doughty, demesne, phantasmagoria, milieu, melee, bec de corbin and so forth), but he wasn’t impressed.  I got my books back in 1983 and hid them under my mattress.  (It hardly mattered, I had spent the entirety of 1982-83 writing down all my own rules in notebooks, which officially marks the beginning of my writing and game design career.  Thanks mom!)

Meanwhile on the national front, Patricia Pulling’s son died, and she formed Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons.  In response to that and the histrionic 60 Minutes “devil game episode,” some book stores stopped selling D&D to teenagers.  By the late 80s, most of the hysteria had blown over and those who had gotten all worked up seemed to be too embarrassed to admit the extremes they’d been going to, “protecting” kids from a fantasy game.

Q: These warnings don’t seem to have persisted 25 years later, in fact AD&D is going strong and now has some successful competitors.  Do you have an idea when and why the concerns about the evils of AD&D died down?

A: This is a large question, and my personal answer is that this is all firmly tied into the “nerdification” of modern society.  In short, the things D&D is really about (fantasy, science fiction, dragons, role-playing, videogame adventures, etc.) are all considered cool now.

The shift began with the Atari 2600 for Christmas 1979 (and then the Adventure cart).  Then the shift got huge and seismic with the arcades, Commodore 64, Apple ][ and Nintendo.  Videogames (particularly CRPGs, Ultima, Gauntlet, Dragon’s Lair, Bard’s Tale, Final Fantasy, Zelda, etc.), along with the associated interests they engender (Star Trek, Middle Earth, anime, Shogun Warriors, Edgar Rice Burroughs and all that), became widely embraced.

I suppose it’s easy to preach against D&D, or to shove little kids, when the game is just played by weird skinny geeks who keep to themselves.  But it’s a lot harder to look down on interactive fantasy when your aunt Sally, boyfriend/girlfriend, dad, boss and grandma are all into the same things.  In short, D&D is no longer “evil” because the majority populace only brands outsiders and misunderstood things as evil.  D&D is on the inside now, so it’s a little odd, but perfectly fine.

Q: According to Wikipedia, Unearthed Arcana was one of the most controversial AD&D products in the 1980s, which ironically was the only AD&D book I owned during jr high/high school.  This controversy was partly because the book introduced the possibility of players having half-orc characters.  In 3rd edition AD&D and Pathfinder, characters can play essentially any race: orcs, goblins, half-devils.  Why isn’t there an uproar about races like tieflings now, and when did this idea of racial taboos become less important?

Actually, I think it’s a bit more pragmatic than that. 🙂  Half-orcs were introduced to D&D as a way to sneak the Uruk-Hai into fantasy play without angering the Tolkien estate. 

I don’t think there’s currently an uproar about Tieflings because nobody outside of the game actually knows what a Tiefling is.  If you called them Demon Spawn, Goat Witch Daughters or The Devil’s Children, you’d get a big reaction from those people.

Q: Looking back on the AD&D that was around when I was in jr. high, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about: you were roleplaying heroes trying to fight off evil.  If anything, the game seems to have gotten more “evil” while the outrage about it seems to have gone away.  Demons and devils are more prominent than ever, with tiefling as a playable class.  Alignment restrictions have gone down and “evil” modules like “We Be Goblins” have been published.  The only real reference to drugs or alcohol in the original game was “so you all meet in a tavern” while now there are game mechanics built around drunk fighters and a spell called “Polypurpose Panacea” which produces drug-like effects.  If the game that exists now were around 25 years ago, I could see more justification for parental concern, but they’re not now even though they were back then.  I mean even if you had things like kitsune and oreads 25 years ago you would expect critics to say the game was encouraging bestiality and objectum sexuals, as ridiculous as that sounds.  Do I have a polyanna memory about the original game, or is this the downfall of Western civilization going on and we just don’t know it?  Or is there some other explanation?

Well, I think fiction, gaming and the overall culture have gotten much darker and more mundane over the 40 years since D&D was first play-tested in 1972-1973.  This is hard to explain, but …

Before the public Internet, the USA was a simpler place in a simpler time.  Most people including me were superstitious, and everyone personally knew a sincere adult who swore on their soul that they had seen a real ghost.  The Manson murders, the Exorcist movie and similar things had made the Antichrist and Satan worship into genuine, terrifying concerns.

A lot more people believed in demons and devils then, and playing a game about them (to draw a crude equivalent) would be similar to playing a role-playing game called “SEALs vs. Al Qaeda” today, in which you start a character in the Twin Towers or Tora Bora and players talk about stalking and killing Americans or terrorists in obsessive detail.  It’s eccentric, unsettling and philosophically daring.  It’s playing with the real dark side, even if you’re the “good” guy.

We’ve lost a lot of the mystique and traditional respect for the supernatural over time.  These days, dark stories about demon slaying, devil worship and all that just represent another flavor of weekend fantasy.  Even young adults are sold stories about thrill kills and sport murders, the glorification of murder.  You can get those tales from Scholastic now.  As long as it isn’t real, no one cares.  Conceptual Miltonian (or even Machiavellian) evil is just a titillating flavor to salt the mass consumption.

We’ve lost a lot of our fear, which is good; but we’ve also lost a lot of our magic, and I fear the innately mortal sense of wonder is being replaced by an overexposed and jaded nihilism that makes me rather sad.

Nevertheless, things like Harry Potter and the literacy explosion, as well as the triumph of nerd culture, give me hope.  I think role-playing is going to become a generational tradition.  Our grandchildren will play in virtual reality sim RPGs just as frequently as people today go to the movies or watch sports on TV.

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