Where Are All the FBI's Files on Dungeons & Dragons?

How a silly record request revealed a deeper problem with FBI transparency.


Flickr // Tom Simpson

In the summer of 1980, FBI agents arrived in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to investigate an assassination plot.

The trail of evidence—letterhead on a mysterious note describing the plans for the murder— led agents to the headquarters of TSR Hobbies, the company that owned the massively popular Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. A search of the office quickly revealed that the assassination plot was, in fact, part of playtest materials for an espionage game called Top Secret.

On Thursday Reason published an amusing excerpt from an FBI report describing beloved D&D creator Gary Gygax I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I was looking for FBI records on the Top Secret investigation, mostly because it sounded hilarious.

But it was also one of many times over the next few decades that the feds would mistake innocuous nerd culture for insidious activity. In 1990, the Secret Service raided and tore apart the offices of Steve Jackson Games on flimsy hacking allegations.

Along with several computers, the Secret Service seized a manuscript of the company's upcoming cyberpunk roleplaying game, which they considered a "handbook for computer crime." (You can read Reason's coverage of the Steve Jackson case going back to 1991.)

That case was part of a string of other overzealous hacking prosecutions that would lead to the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I was interested in seeing more about how the FBI viewed roleplaying games, given the Satanic Panic of the '80s and the government's sour opinion of cyberpunks.

Over a year after I filed my request, the FBI sent back reports and interview summaries regarding a suspected cocaine trafficking operation in Lake Geneva, the bitter rivalries within the tabletop gaming industry, and reports related to the FBI's 1995 Unabomber investigation. However, there was nothing on the 1980 search of TSR's office.

At the bottom of the FBI letter accompanying the documents sent to me, the Bureau noted that its computer search turned up more possible records, but they had gone missing.

Strangely, several other FOIA requesters in the past have asked for Gygax's FBI file, but the FBI informed them that no such files could be found. A cross-referenced search of the FBI's central records database should have turned up many of the same files I received. It's unclear if this is intentional obfuscation or just shoddy work, but it's a frustrating and common problem for journalists and researchers trying to access FBI records.

In fact, one prolific FOIA requester is suing the FBI over what he claims is its intentional use of outdated technology to produce incomplete search results. Wired reported last year:

The federal suit filed by MIT national security researcher Ryan Shapiro on the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of FOIA this month claims that the FBI is using software developed in 1995 to respond to FOIA requests. The software is so old, according to Shapiro, that it doesn't even have a graphical user interface, meaning no mouse or icons.

"You're dealing with the old IBM green screens," former FBI chief technology officer Jack Israel once described the computer system in a Q&A with website FierceGovernmentIT four years ago, which was referenced in Shapiro's complaint. "You're not dealing with a web-based environment, which every one is used to from the Internet." But the interface isn't the heart of the problem. The issue, Shapiro says, is that the software performs needlessly rudimentary searches—something akin to searching a card catalog at a library—when better technology is readily available.

Getting public records shouldn't be like navigating a monster-filled dungeon. I regret to say that for now the full details of the FBI's investigations into the world's most popular roleplaying game and its creator remain a secret.

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  1. With all the mass surveillance I wonder how much rpg gamers especially modern games like Shadowrun screw with the NSA. Bombimgs, murders etc planned out over emails all for their game.

    1. I can’t believe there hasn’t been a Shadowrun movie. It’s a billion dollar franchise.

    2. The 1990 raid on Steve Jackson Games was one of the reasons I became a libertarian.

      1. That’s a good reason. For me it was growing up in Philadelphia where it was apparent to me that one of the primary functions of the local government was to come up with new ways to shake down the public.

        1. I am a gamer and good thing I dont stream because if I ever got SWATed there would be a ton of dead cops. I have my RBAV, M4, ACH, Five-Seven next to my desk. with M855 and custom copper armor piecing rounds.

          1. point is SWATing is another reason why i am a principled libertarian.

  2. given the Satanic Panic of the ’80s

    I contributed to this. Although certainly no one was harmed and it wouldn’t have rated as a vandalism in a court of law let’s just say my handiwork made the 6 and 11 o’ clock local news and lead to police investigation of “Satanism” which, fortunately, was never traced to me. HAIL SATAN

    1. Hmmmmm … so SIV could stand for Satan In Verse, except I don’t recall any poetry form you. Or it could stand for Satan Inverse as some reverse-playing crypto-commenting, except your comments don’t make much sense backwards.

      I am at a loss.

      1. For yrs. I thought it was Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, until he explained it was Single Issue Voter.

    2. Have we finally stumbled upon the origin story of SIV?

      “I knew that I had to go all out to show that I don’t need society or their silly rules. I really wanted to make the local Baptist minister’s jowls quiver with outrage and fear. I was going “full Satanic.” I wanted to sacrifice a goat at the doorsteps of the church, but goats were expensive. So I bought a young rooster. In my hatred of the Baptists in my town, I named him Icky Christ Fag. But as I stood on the doorsteps of the church at midnight under a full moon, butcher knife in one hand, Icky Christ Fag in the other, the rooster looked at me. It was a look no one has ever given me before, A look that said so many things at once: I really see you, I accept you, I make no demands of you, and yes, I want you. I could not go through with it. I saw the error of my ways. I saw that I was lashing out because I was lonely. But I no longer felt lonely.”

      1. While that is good stuff, I think the simplest answer is that SIV is The Church Lady!

  3. I was an avid D&D’er back in the early 1980s. Before CJ started writing about Gygax’s FBI files, I had no idea I was such a badass.

    I was also a fan of Infocom’s text-based computer games, for anyone old enough to remember titles like Zork and Deadline.

    1. I was a HS & college classmate of Marc Blank. I programmed a Monrobot programmable calculator the Math Dept. at Horace Mann School had, to generate random #s for his & Alex Citron’s MLB season simulator, CWABL.

    2. I had Zork, and Planetfall.

  4. Getting public records shouldn’t be like navigating a monster-filled dungeon.

    If it was literally like navigating a monster-filled dungeon, I would be much more fun.

      1. ‘Requisition me a beat!’

  5. Over a year after I filed my request

    Freedom takes a year, if you’re lucky.

  6. Back in 2000 when the FBI caught the phrase “72 virgins” their reaction was “Pfft, just more nerds.”

    1. They were right. Muslim nerds with bombs and AK-47’s.

  7. 13 year olds navigate monster filled dungeons successfully every day. What dose this day about our brave dedicated FBI.

  8. On the “outdated tech” front, you can go buy an appliance from people like google that can handle this problem. Not even very expensive either.

    Or you could get the fancier version with all the tracking and controls from people like Norton.

    In any event, putting all of the documents that they already have on computer into a modern search engine for discovery requests is not a big challenge. SOX and other business regulations have made this sort of service an off-the-shelf purchase, with loads of companies offering these sorts of compliance services.

    So in short, yeah, I think the good professor has a point when he posits that they are doing it on purpose.

  9. Since we’re talking about files from the 70s and 80s, it’s probably a case where the original files were actual paper files, and while their existence was later indexed on computer, the files themselves really are lost in some FBI version of the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark

    1. i.e., they’re someplace like this:

      Sinkhole of bureaucracy

      The trucks full of paperwork come every day, turning off a country road north of Pittsburgh and descending through a gateway into the earth. Underground, they stop at a metal door decorated with an American flag.

      Behind the door, a room opens up as big as a supermarket, full of five-drawer file cabinets and people in business casual. About 230 feet below the surface, there is easy-listening music playing at somebody’s desk.

      This is one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government ? both for where it is and for what it does.

      Here, inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers.

      But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.

      The employees here pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees’ personal data, one line at a time. They work underground not for secrecy but for space. The old mine’s tunnels have room for more than 28,000 file cabinets of paper records.

  10. Monochrome monitors & command line interfaces or text menus should be fine for database queries. GUI & color are overrated for many appl’ns. I’ve gotten used to GUI, & there are many appl’ns which are so graphic that a pointing tool is the only reasonable way to use them, but I wouldn’t complain about a database program’s lack of such a thing.

  11. The issue, Shapiro says, is that the software performs needlessly rudimentary searches?something akin to searching a card catalog at a library

    Let me guess…WAIS? Gopher?

  12. Maybe they failed a saving throw when looking for the records.

  13. I’m not saying that the government isn’t reflexively secretive, but it is also fundamentally incompetent. I figure that transparency problems are at least as much that latter as the former, at least where innocuous matters like a raid on TSR are concerned.

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