Cautionary Tales – Demonising Dungeons & Dragons

16th April, 2021

How the hunt for a missing teen saw a role-playing game denounced as a demonic and deadly pursuit.

When James Dallas Egbert III was reported missing from his college dorm – one of America’s most flamboyant private detectives was summoned to solve the case. “Dallas” had many of the same problems that most teenagers face – but P.I. William Dear feared that he had fallen under the evil spell of a mysterious and sinister game…. Dungeons & Dragons.

The global panic about the dangers the role-playing game posed to impressionable young minds may seem quaint 40 years on – but again and again we show how fearful we are of creative endeavours we don’t quite understand.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading and listening

David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men is a fun and accessible history of Dungeons & Dragons. Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is a more scholarly and hugely detailed treatment of the same material. Both contain useful accounts of Dallas Egbert’s disappearance.

Another important source – including for most of the dialogue in this episode – is William Dear’s vivid description of the case, The Dungeon Master.

Contemporary media reports were useful. “Tunnels are Searched for Missing Student” (New York Times, 8 Sep 1979), “A Brilliant Student’s Troubled Life and Early Death” (New York Times, 25 Aug 1980), and Carla Hall’s “Into the Dragon’s Lair” (Washington Post 28 Nov 1984).

The American Hysteria Podcast “Satanic Panic: Part One” offers another account of the case.

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