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D&D in the 80s, Fads, and the Satanic Panic

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
TODAY IS A GOOD DAY TO DIE! Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam!

Wait, no, that's not it. ....Today is a good day to be alive! That's better! If you are into the history of our hobby, the last few years have seen an unprecedented explosion of material and research about the early days. Now, soon to be release, is Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs. Along with the release of this book, we have seen Ben release numerous sales figures from the TSR era. This, combined with Jon Peterson's earlier book Game Wizards (about the history of TSR until the ouster of Gygax and the Gygax/Arneson feud) has provided amazing insight into the earliest days of the hobby.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to go into a specific issue brought up by @Parmandur in the other thread. If you look at the sales charts, you will see that there is a massive dropoff in the sales of both AD&D (the PHB+DMG) and Basic D&D from 1983 to 1984, with a continuing decline until the number disappear around the release of 2e (with a brief spike for Basic in 1991 due to the release of the Black Box and RC). Parmandur's reasonable thesis is ... well, this was the Satanic Panic, right? It had to be!

The short, and unsatisfying answer is ... no. No it wasn't. To understand why, we have to do a slightly deeper dive into what, exactly, the Satanic Panic was in terms of D&D, how it affected D&D's sales, how the Satanic Panic was just part of the larger moral panics of the 80s, and why the sales figures for '83-'84 are not surprising at all.


1. Why the Satanic Panic Was Instrumental to D&D's Success.

After reading Game Wizards, the path of D&D's success became clear. Originally, TSR was set up to just publish various rules for the wargaming market. But as people began to play D&D, began to see how it was played (remember, the OD&D rules were notoriously opaque) it slowly caught on. TSR became a giant ... but in a small-sized pool. The peers (and targets) for TSR were companies like Avalon Hill. The entire market ... was a tiny hobbyist market; the entire market (IIRC) was less than TSR's revenue in 1980.

Still, TSR was doing well! The had become a major player, and were well-known in the industry, and were even instigating the (kind of hilarious) feuds over Origins and GenCon. D&D was their big product, and it was primarily an older market - adults and college kids, science fiction fans and people in the wargaming hobby. And then came the Egbert incident. In August of 1979, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room. The whole story is ... sad. But for purposes of D&D, this was the beginning of the Satanic Panic. An investigator hired by Egbert's family (William Dear) went on a media crusade and claimed that Egbert was "live-playing" D&D in the steam tunnels, and that Egbert has lost touch with reality ... and also kept hammering the "Satanic" undertones of D&D. This became the basis for the later book and movie, Mazes and Monsters.

The two things to know about this is that (1) William Dear was full of it ... none of what he was talking about was true; and (2) this catapulted D&D into national consciousness. As detailed in Game Wizards, suddenly people around the country were calling in to stores and asking if they had this "D&D" product. The recently written "Basic" (by Dr. Holmes) was a hot seller, as was the DMG and PHB. The Satanic Panic was rocket fuel to D&D. In addition, it also had the somewhat ... interesting ... effect of making the consumer demographic for D&D much, much lower than it had been before. Previously, D&D was primarily selling to college-age and older; now, D&D was primarily selling to high school and middle school kids.

This massive explosion is seen in Riggs' chart- in 1979, they were having trouble keeping up with the year-end demand (the incident played out over the fall), and then as they ramped up production, you see the 1980 explosion. This period ('79-'83) is often thought of as a golden time for D&D, because of the sheer number of publications, modules, and output. And the sales of the core books match it.

At the most basic level then, D&D as a mass-market phenomenon would not have existed but for the initial panic.


2. Pulling, BADD, and the Continuing Waves of the 80s

Of course, the Satanic Panic with D&D wasn't just a single incident. While there were other incidents (detailed in Game Wizards, and leading to TSR having a rapid response team) the primary one was the death of Irving Lee Pulling in 1982; his mother, Patricia Pulling, blamed D&D for his death. She sued a school principal and TSR- all cases were dismissed. Then, in 1983, she formed BADD (ugh ... Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons). There were innumerable media appearances and hearings, and this became a real issue for Christians.

Which ... what? Okay, backing up a bit, this is the part that doesn't get as much coverage about the 80s. The Satanic Panic? It was a real thing. Footloose? That movie was based on actual events- places at the time still had dancing bans. And people really, truly believed that there was a giant mass of Satan worshippers out there, killing people, doing ritual abuse in the name of Satan, engaged in child sacrifice. And people were ... jailed. Lost their jobs.

I know .. crazy, right? Only in the 80s could some sort of bizarre conspiracy theory spread like wildfire that baseless accused people of ritual child torture and trafficking. ....Wait... what? Oh ... never mind.

But this was a very real thing. There were experts that testified at trials about the "Satanic cults" responsible. Child protection agencies had to have training on Satanic ritualized abuse. The 80s weren't all trapper keepers and day-glow colors.

And it wasn't just D&D! Companies like Proctor & Gamble had to battle this as well because of their logo- with Church groups claiming that the executives were in league with Satan. Constant rumors circulated about every single rock group - and, of course, the implicit Satanic messages from playing the records backwards (??)_. It's crazy in retrospect ... but it's there.


3. Did the Satanic Panic Cause D&D's Crash?

In a word ... no. The Satanic Panic clearly affected D&D. But it wasn't the cause of the crash. To understand why, it helps to first understand the ways in which the Satanic Panic affected D&D. First, it should be acknowledged that, despite the bravado espoused by Gygax and others, TSR was concerned about the moral panic. There is evidence of this long before the 2e transition. For example-
1. Renaming Deities & Demigods (and changing the cover picture) to Legends and Lore in 1985. Gygax complained about this capitulation.
2. By 1982, TSR already had a one-page Code of Ethics that required, inter alia, that good always triumph, ridicule of religion is not permitted, and evil will neve be presented in glamorous or alluring circumstances.
3. As recounted in Game Wizards, TSR was already reacting to, and softening, its material due to these pressures in the early 80s.

But this is missing a very salient point about the specific timing. For this, we are going to go briefly to E.T. Remember in E.T. who is playing the game that is D&D (albeit not called that)? That's right- the cool older brother and his cool friends. In the very early 80s, D&D was ... cool. It was a fad, like a lot of things that swept through the 80s. Like parachute pants. Or a cabbage patch doll. Amazingly, in 1984 TSR was worried by the rise of a new fad that was eating their lunch ... TRIVIAL PURSUIT.

It was also ubiquitous. You could get D&D from a Sears catalog. Or from B. Dalton. Or from Kaybee toys. Or from any one of a number of sources.

Finally, the books lasted forever. The original PHB, DMG, and MM ... were well made. They lasted forever (for the most part). And unlike the phenomenom we see with 5e, people weren't buying multiple copies of the books in a group.

Which brings us back to the chart- looking just at 1980 - 1983, we can see that almost 2 million core books (PHB+DMG) were sold. Two. Million. Books. Contrasting this with the revenue numbers from Game Wizards, we see that revenues didn't plummet in 1984. TSR was still selling a lot of stuff. Just not the core rule books. Which makes perfect sense! The market was saturated, and the fad period was ending. The people that wanted the rules books to play had already bought them in the prior four years.

The primary issues with TSR were at the corporate governance level; in essence, the company was poorly run, they were making decision based on the past growth, and they were funneling money to the Blume family and to Gygax's ... adventures ... in Hollywood as opposed to their core business.

Did the Satanic Panic hurt actual people? Definitely.
Did it affect sales? Sure, at the margins there were people that would have played, but could not because of their families/church groups/etc. Arguably, that may have been counterbalanced by the people that played because they heard of it through the free media.
But was the Satanic Panic responsible for the collapse in sales in 1984? Not based on what I've seen.

So I'm throwing this out for general conversation. Also? Go ahead and pre-order the book by Ben Riggs. I bet it's awesome!
 

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Wait... parachute pants were a fad? :oops:

As someone who started playing DnD in grade school in, wait for it, 1981, our group lived the satanic panic. Actually, our forever DM (who we still play DnD with), had a family member who constantly sent his mom pamphlets and other propaganda about the dangers of DnD. Fortunately, for all of us, all of our parents paid it no mind (and we were all parochial school kids too!). Their response: 1) I know where my kids are, and I'd rather have them in the basement than wandering the streets; 2) we trust them; and 3) I've read the game material/heard about it, and its no big deal.

We also never paid attention to the overall ups and downs of the brand. We never noticed when TSR struggled, or paid attention to their internal issue. One, we were kids, two, the internet didn't exist, and we didn't have "social" media to follow everyone's every whim, gastronomic preference, etc. We bought new books when they came out, subscribed to Dragon, Dungeon, and RPGA, and our intensity of play waxed and waned as we got older, found and unfound relationships, computer games started to get better (beyond Pong), etc. But we still managed to play from Basic through to 5e, and remain together as a group (now mostly VTT, even though we all live in the same metro area).

We also did what most did back then, played the game our way, with our understanding of the rules and our preferences, and had a blast doing it. We still reference ridiculous or cool situations that occurred 35 years ago (and never let our DM forget them). We didn't have group think about how to play, didn't have play guides, or optimization beyond that one guy in the group who was always able to find the broken stuff (our resident engineer). Which is how we continue to mostly operate.

Like any long lasting IP/Brand, I imagine that DnD will continue to have its ups and downs, as every company does or will, and we'll continue to enjoy all of it. We still stay away from forums (except me, I think I have a problem), and play the game that we want. We have less time now than before, so the up all weekend marathon play sessions don't happen, but we want our gaming to not be a waste of time, so we play the edition we like best, change what we want, try things out etc.

DnD is likely my longest running hobby, aside from baseball, but playing that is dangerous at my age, so actually, it is my longest running. (and I still have my old Dragons, Deities and Demigods (though our DM has the Elric/Cthulhu version), and other really old books. They just keep lasting.
 


Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I know .. crazy, right? Only in the 80s could some sort of bizarre conspiracy theory spread like wildfire that baseless accused people of ritual child torture and trafficking. ....Wait... what? Oh ... never mind.
only in America could such cultist fanaticism see an actor elected as president and big hair and big shoulders become symbols of hope and exceptionalism.

I agree though any sales decline in the 80’s is more likely to have been due to the market becoming saturated with alternatives both competition and substitutes
 
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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Which ... what? Okay, backing up a bit, this is the part that doesn't get as much coverage about the 80s. The Satanic Panic? It was a real thing. Footloose? That movie was based on actual events- places at the time still had dancing bans. And people really, truly believed that there was a giant mass of Satan worshippers out there, killing people, doing ritual abuse in the name of Satan, engaged in child sacrifice. And people were ... jailed. Lost their jobs.
This is super important and I am glad you brought it up. A lot of folks see the Satanic Panic as this funny kitsch 80s thing, and for gamers it was pretty tame. But it hit things like child care facilities extremely hard, with crackpot hypnotists getting little kids to accuse adults of horrible crimes. People not only lot their jobs and went to jail, some committed suicide. it was horrible.

I lived in rural Ohio in the late 80s when I was in high school and at least one of our players had to lie to his parents about what we were doing to be able to play D&D.
 


Bupp

Adventurer
I should be in hell already with all the D&D I played and metal music I listened to in the 80s.

I also had a player that had to lie about playing to his parents. Kept his dice and character sheets at my house.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
But this is missing a very salient point about the specific timing. For this, we are going to go briefly to E.T. Remember in E.T. who is playing the game that is D&D (albeit not called that)?
I don't think they show or name the game like a product placement, but it's clearly D&D. The screenplay identifies it as D&D.

EXT: SUBURBAN HOUSE: NIGHT

[This is an establishing shot.]

INT: ELLIOTT'S HOUSE: NIGHT

A group of boys are sitting around a table playing a DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS
game. One boy is on the telephone ordering a pizza. They throw wads of
paper at each other as they play.

Elliott, the youngest boy, sits behind the counter. He's separated from the
other boys. After a few moments he yells that he's ready to play the game.

[The character's positions are structured to emphasize Elliott's separation
from the others.]

One of the boys tells Elliott that he can't join when they are in the
middle of the game.

[Audience empathy is generated for the young child who is being excluded
from the game.]

Elliott walks up to the table and yells at his brother, Mike. Michael says
that Elliott has to ask Steve, who is the Game Master, and who has absolute
power.

[The notion of "absolute power" is set up here, for a "payoff" later when
Elliott uses it to keep Michael silent about E.T.]

The mechanics are portrayed a bit less accurately than in Stranger Things, but it's pretty clear.

 


having started with rpgs in 1980, I saw the Satanic Panic thing as something.... that happened way over there. In spite of the fact that I grew up in a tiny MT town surrounded by some rather religious conservative types, the whole anti-D&D thing was never really a thing there. People generally regarded it as just some geek thing that college kids were into (and which surprised no one at all that I was into it, having been a rather major geek at the time). About the only thing I ever saw on it locally was some mom who was irked by it up in Missoula, where it was enough to make the local papers (on page 5 or 6)....
 

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