Friday A/V Club: Dungeons & Dragons Will Melt Your Mind!

The 1982 film Mazes and Monsters


From the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, September 15, 1979. At this point it was clear that Edgbert's disappearance was not related to the role-playing game, but the paper used that caption anyway.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

In 1979, a Michigan State student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from campus. Egbert was a Dungeons & Dragons fan, and the media latched onto speculations that he had died in the campus' steam tunnels while playing a live-action version of the game. A moral panic over role-playing games was just getting underway, and the rhetoric around the case tended toward the Gothic. "We've sat here many an hour, all of us wondering—is Dallas the dungeon master," a private detective hired by Egbert's family said at one point. "Or if he isn't the dungeon master, is there some other dungeon master who has pulled all of us into this game by using him as some sort of pawn?"

Such speculations turned out to be untrue: Egbert had taken a bus to New Orleans, where he attempted suicide for reasons unrelated to the game. (A year later, he would succeed in killing himself.) But as the D&D panic progressed in the early '80s, the story became a sort of half-remembered cautionary tale for parents nervous about this strange new hobby. Rona Jaffe wrote a novel, Mazes and Monsters, that was loosely inspired by the most lurid accounts of the case. And in 1982, that book became a made-for-TV movie. Vague recollections of the televised Mazes and Monsters mixed with vague recollections of Egbert to form a hazy folk memory: not a precise tale with names and dates, but a legend about a guy who got lost or died or was somehow harmed because a game had taken over his life.

I've embedded the movie below. The protagonists, a collection of troubled college kids alienated in different ways from their families, get drawn into a role-playing game the way characters in other movies get drawn into drugs. (Indeed, the whole thing is stuctured like an anti-drug picture.) One of the students—played by a young Tom Hanks, whose only other notable credit at this point was the sitcom Bosom Buddies—loses the distinction between fantasy and reality, becoming convinced that he really is the cleric he plays in the game. By the end of the picture (SPOILER ALERT) he has stabbed a man, come close to killing himself, and lost his original identity permanently. The movie makes some small attempts at balance, suggesting that the game can help less fragile people work through their fears. But when the best you can say about your subject is that it's potentially therapeutic but dangerous, that's ultimately just one more parallel with an anti-drug film.

The script is clumsy even by '80s TV-movie standards—when the screenwriter wants to tell us that a character has an IQ of 190, for instance, he does it by having the boy's mom randomly mention the fact while greeting him—and the acting is mostly awful. (Hanks isn't bad for most of the movie, at least in comparison to the rest of the cast, but his performance goes over the top when his character loses his mind.) If you don't think you can sit through the whole thing, jump to 1:07:10 for a particularly potent bit of fearmongering dialogue. Then go to 1:32:20 to check out the climax atop the World Trade Center, a scene that echoes those urban legends where LSD convinces people that they can fly.

Bonus link: That's the secular version of the D&D scare. For the Christian version, I give you Jack T. Chick.

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  1. Oh my, a Jack Chick reference. Speechless.

    1. I’m convinced that Jack Chick is a master of comedy, or the ultimate troll.

      1. Don’t look now, but the comedy masterminds behind the Gamer: Dorkness Rising movie are filming Dark Dungeons.

    2. The glaring inaccuracy of Dark Dungeons of course, being that the group is heavily populated with cute girls, including the evil/hot GM.

      Such a situation was even rarer back when the pamphlet was written.

      1. We had two rather good-looking girls in our college group. We also got a young female prof to join in for a while, who was a bit chubby but made up for it by being the most evil character I had seen played by that age.

  2. By the end of the picture (SPOILER ALERT) he has stabbed a man

    That’s some shoddy film making there. Everyone knows that at the time clerics where prohibited from using edged weapons. Sheesh.

    1. Curse you, DwT, I was just logging in to make that point.


  3. A D&D thread? Shameless click-baiting. Nice job, Jesse.

    1. 4th edition: menace or marvel?

      1. No idea. My time was from the boxed sets thru 2nd edition. No clue what these whippersnappers are up to these days.

        1. They WOW-ed it. Basically, you get powers with various cooldown periods (at-will, encounter, daily). Stat blocks are much smaller. (3rd edition had enormous stat blocks… you don’t really need to know all the ability scores, skills and feats of a flumph.)

          So they streamlined it, and in the process, removed a lot of what was fun/infuriating about D&D.

          Now you’re all caught up.

      2. 4th Ed was interesting but flawed.

        Some of the WOWifications actually improved the game. For instance even though there were fewer diversification options you ended up with a much wider diversity of characters because each class was basically balanced. In the other D&D games (including the otherwise far superior 3.x) you had a million and one ways to make 1 fighter different from the next and yet none of it mattered because by 6th or 7th level at the latest your fighter was nothing more than a meatwall to protect the spellcasters who did all the real work.

        The downsides were far too much reliance on ongoing condition monitors (you could easily have a character being effected by a dozen different conditions simultaneously each with a different duration and effect and the basic elimination of rules for anything BUT combat

        1. The loss of customization drove me away from 4th. I usually built to concept, and the basic set rendered it to “use our archetypes – or else!” Their archetypes limited the actual role-playing and charactization elements from their “role-playing game”, so I left. I’ve not looked back since.

          1. Yeah I only played 4th a couple of times. I didn’t mind the lack of character customization options because I make my characters unique in their personality not their stats, it was the ongoing condition monitors that were the problem for me. They rapidly became way too cumbersome to manage

            1. Personality dictated what the character would spend their time doing and be more capable in. The difference between a seige engineer and a sneak thief, though both might be rogues, for instance.

  4. NO! I am the Dungeon Master!

  5. Before the days of serious computing power, I spent my early teenage years playing AD&D, Car Wars, Battletech, and some others ones I’ve probably forgotten.

    And then I got interested in cars & girls.

    1. +CoC, Shadowrun, GURPS, White Wolf.

      Total RPG nerd.

      1. Same here, I was even smart enough to marry a geek girl so we still play D&D and I’m trying to get interest up for a Shadowrun campaign

    2. I used to play a ton of Battletech. I loved how detailed the world was, hated the combat mechanics and the complete and utter lack of knowledge of current military technology the writers had. I mean the longest range non artillery weapon in the game had a maximum range of under 1000 meters and the longest range artillery could only shoot 10 KM.

      1. But if you inject modern capabilities into the setting, current anti-tank tactics would render the star BattleMechs useless.

        1. That was even worse.

          If you played the game as designed a well run mixture of Infantry and tanks could easily take out an equivalent unit of Mechs.

          Just nobody ever played tanks and infantry because they weren’t cool.

          Basically you take 1 squad of infantry split into it’s 4 platoons 1 squad of LRM carriers and 1 squad of heavy tanks and you could pretty easily take out a mixed company of mechs if you knew what you were doing.

          The infantry platoons hide and acts as spotters for the LRM carriers using indirect fire, the heavy tanks act as calvry to keep the mechs engaged and in the kill zone

          1. err, reverse that on the infantry. I meant 1 platoon split into 4 squads

          2. How much did the ‘Mech players whine when that happened?

            1. Not as much as you’d think since they were used to getting their asses handed to them by me.

              And this is not even getting into the evil that is FASCAM (Field Artillery Scatterable Minefields, basically you use missile systems to deliver minefields rather than to directly attack the target. Since the mines only attack the legs it very quickly renders all those fancy Mechs into very expensive pillboxes)

    3. I snagged the man who would become my husband at an AD&D game. Teenage girls are clueless generally, if you are looking for a hardworking smart guy, who will worship the ground you walk on, there’s no finer place to look than a D&D game.

      1. I generally agree, though there are more than a few clingy ne’er-do-wells to weed out in searching for the diamonds in the rough. Still, it’s a great way to enjoy a lot of attention while you look.

        1. Seriously. Girl gamers are nowhere near as rare as they used to be but even today a relatively homely looking girl can have a whole harem of gamer geeks at her bidding if she wants them.

          Back during the Dot Com boom I peripherally knew a group where 4 guys who were all software developers paid their common girlfriend (they were all poly) to be a live in GM

        2. I used to dismiss the guys without jobs outright to save time on the weeding process and also avoided the guys who only ran female elves. Nearly 30 years on my selection criteria proved relatively accurate. The guys without jobs then, still don’t have jobs and the guys who only played female elves are dating each other.

          1. the guys who only played female elves are dating each other.


            I played the female elves so i could draw them and fap to them later.

      2. I had no idea the girls I played with were into me.

        “Holy shit someone asking to play D&D with me?!?!”

        Was pretty much the only thing going on in my head.

        The fact that they had no idea about the rules or had none of the books and had never played it before with anyone else did not strike me as odd.

  6. On a related note, what was the most libertarian RPG out there?

    My vote goes to Shadowrun. The world was certainly not libertarian but the characters sure could be and the game very much catered to the individualist spirit and desire to fuck the system in all of us

    1. On a related note, what was the most libertarian RPG out there?

      I think by their nature they are all libertarian.

      If only because their competition (board games) are so restrictive.

      Plus it depends how you play it. Like in D&D if you play a chaotic good Ranger you are playing a pretty damn libertarian game. On the other hand if you play a lawful evil Paladin you are playing a progressive and/or a conservative.

      1. Note that 4th edition has paladins of freedom (CG) and paladins of tyranny (LE).

        1. paladins of freedom (CG)

          Oh fuck that noise!!

          Paladins are lawful and rangers are chaotic (or neutral i guess)

          How the fuck can a knight be a knight without roads for his horse and taxes on the iron mines for his armor.

          This is just so much bullshit.

          1. I’ll be getting off your lawn now. 🙂

    2. Within D&D, I’d think that Dark Sun is a libertarian-amenable campaign setting, in a dystopian way.

      All the city-states are ruled by tyrants. There aren’t any benevolent kings anywhere. Only Tyr is relatively free after the slave uprising.

      If you’re a good or neutral guy, you’re probably either working to overthrow a sorceror-king or trying to fly under the radar.

  7. So…a Michigan State student you’ve never heard of, a novel you’ve never read, and a crappy TV movie you’ve never seen somehow became a “moral panic” you never heard about? I’d call that a stretch if it weren’t insulting to stretches.

    1. It was pretty big and widely known at the time, and that chain of events laid some of the groundwork for the ’80s bigger and broader “Satanic Abuse Panic” which ruined a lot of lives and built Janet Reno’s career. So it wasn’t exactly irrelevant.

    2. So…a Michigan State student you’ve never heard of, a novel you’ve never read, and a crappy TV movie you’ve never seen somehow became a “moral panic” you never heard about?

      That’s almost exactly right. Except you should change “student you’ve never heard of” to “student whose disappearance attracted heavy news coverage.” Also, change “novel you’ve never read” to “bestseller.” While you’re at it, “movie you’ve never seen” should be “movie that attracted millions of viewers.” Oh: and “somehow became a moral panic you never heard about” should be “were just a few elements of a larger moral panic that many people remember.” Otherwise, that’s some top-notch summarizing.

      1. “Moral panics” are by definition ephemeral. If you queried 1000 people who were adults at that time, I’d bet that 999 of them wouldn’t know what you were talking about. That’s how important and long-lasting this particular “panic” was.

        And believe it or not, outside of libertarian geekdom, most people have never heard of D&D.

        1. “Moral panics” are by definition ephemeral.


          outside of libertarian geekdom, most people have never heard of D&D

          Wrong again. (Unless you mean “most people” literally, as in you’re counting all of Mongolia and Sudan.)

        2. I played D & D at recess in elementary school.

          After that movie some parents called up complained and we had to stop playing.

          1. The point being that D&D was mainstream at one point then the moral panic then decades of stigmatizm.

            That moral panic was far larger then say the Pokemon moral panic or sponge bob moral panic that you know about.

            And unlike those which had no effect the monsters and mazes moral panic changed how D & D was viewed by the public for at least a generation.

    3. I remember the moral panic, I remember the movie, and I’m aware of the book.

      I deduce from that exquisite combination of ignorance and arrogance that you are a Millenial.

    4. What are you, like 14?

    5. TV movie you’ve never seen

      This was back in the days when there were only three networks.

      Everyone who was alive and aware knew about it and it was in the three network news as well.

      Hell that TV movie probably had better ratings then any episode of Game of Thrones if only because back then there was no choice.

    6. Speaking of weird TV movies that millennials know nothing about.

      You guys remember The Day After and the news coverage of college students getting physically ill after watching it.

      I was pretty young when I saw it. Only remember the bad special effects of the nukes and close to the ending when that girl suddenly got a blood stain on her dress at her crotch. I never knew what that meant. Was it her first period or was it sickness from the fall out?

      Is it worth re-watching now?

      1. I wondered about that, too. But I don’t think it was her period, because she was pregnant, as I recall.

        1. Oh I guess I did not catch that she was pregnant.

          Maybe my parents shuffled me out of the room during the sexy parts…I can’t remember.

          1. There weren’t any sexy parts, just places where it was implied that sex had happened sometime in the recent past

      2. Hey, maybe Stimpy should come back and tell us that he’s never heard of that movie, and that nobody was ever really worried about nuclear war.

      3. Yes I remember it, there was also a Brit version of the same thing which was if you can believe it much darker but I don’t remember what it was called

      4. Oh yeah and

        +1 Lawrence Kansas

  8. Too lazy to find the link right now, but I once read a MST3K-style takedown of Dark Dungeons. It’s hilarious.

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