RPG Evolution - True Tales from Stranger Things: Satanism, Strategy & Clubs

The hit Netflix series about the 80s-themed tale of extradimensional entities and the kids who battle them features Dungeons & Dragons prominently. And a lot of it is inspired by what actually happened. There's a lot of things Stranger Things got right, but one of them that doesn't match my experience is the Hellfire Club.

The hit Netflix series about the 80s-themed tale of extradimensional entities and the kids who battle them features Dungeons & Dragons prominently. And a lot of it is inspired by what actually happened. There's a lot of things Stranger Things got right, but one of them that doesn't match my experience is the Hellfire Club.

hellfireclub.jpg

What's the Hellfire Club?​

The Stranger Things wiki explains:
The Hawkins High "Hellfire Club" was an official D&D club at Hawkins High School headed by Eddie Munson. Members Dustin, Mike and Lucas are also members of another D&D party.
More specifically:
The Hellfire Club seems to operate the bottom of the Hawkins High food chain, due to the unique misfortunes experienced in the town due to the Upside Down and the tabloid media fear of Satanic/demonic worship among teenagers. As implied by Eddie, members are typically scouted out if they are "lost sheep" or outsiders. Eddie also implied membership came with a degree of protection, but demanded loyalty to campaign nights. Members of club both create and wear white raglan shirts with black long sleeves, finished with the Hellfire Club name and logo on the center. Hellfire Club is hosted in a drama/theatre room, as evidenced by the stage lights, curtains and props seen around them during game night.
There were lots of clubs like this at the time, but not at my high school. Why? Because of the Satanic Panic.

The Satanic Panic​

During the 80s, Dungeons & Dragons was grouped in with a lot of other teenage activities (like music) as promoting Satanism, withcraft, suicide, and murder. D&D's deadly reputation was exacerbated by the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, which was fictionalized by Rona Jaffe in a made-for-TV movie, Mazes and Monsters (featuring Tom Hanks). Patricia Pulling, an anti-occult campaigner, established Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) to eliminate D&D and disseminated material touting the dangers to schools and police. For critics, they didn't have to look far for evidence. There were plenty of demons, scantily-clad monsters that looked like human women, and even the name had sinister tones of torture (dungeons) and Satanic invocations (dragons).

The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games (CAR-PGA, I'm now Committee Chair) was formed specifically to combat misinformation campaigns led by Pulling and her adherents. But while that was happening in the battlefield of public opinion, kids like myself were still playing D&D despite all the media outcry.

This all added up to tension between gamers and their parents, in which various authority figures declared D&D evil, and then it was up to whoever was in charge to determine if it was worth the risk to let kids play. Some parents watched a few games and realized it was harmless fun; others threw away their kids gaming material. And still others simply relabeled the game as something else.

Strategy & Tactics​

When the Satanic Panic was in full swing, my gaming group had swelled to over ten members. At one point we reached 12, which I found nearly impossible to manage at once as dungeon master. But it didn't matter because we all had a good time, rotating games at different players' houses. With that many kids, it was impossible not to hear us play. My parents were always thrilled that we were at home, socializing, and laughing. No kid ever got pulled out due to any concerns over the game.

But school was a different story. There was no D&D club. When we tried to join the only role-playing game club, we learned why it was called Strategy & Tactics: the school couldn't reference D&D in the title, even though that's what most people played anyway. And if you did play, you couldn't admit that you were playing, because D&D was a good way to get the club shut down.

Although the Satanic Panic eventually comes home to roost in Hawkins, it has a surprisingly stable footing at the high school: Customized shirts? Access to the theater room? An official club at all? We could never have imagined such a thing!

It didn't matter. We showed up to one session of Strategy & Tactics and realized were were much better off playing with our existing group. And that's what we did.

Stranger Things definitely got one archetype right that was in my circle of friends, in the character of Eddie. More on him in the next installment.

Your Turn: Were there official D&D clubs at your school in the 80s?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

JohnnyZemo

Explorer
Yeah, no RPG clubs of any kind at my high school either. (This was 1983-1986.) I will say also that the whole Satanic Panic thing was regional (with some occasional exceptions like the 60 Minutes story). I played lots and lots of D&D in high school, and my parents showed no concern whatsoever. I'm not aware of any friends' parents who were concerned either. The famous Chic tract is a lot of fun, but I didn't see that until decades later.

Keep in mind that no one had internet access. There was no social media. And parents were frequently quite relaxed. Those stories about teens being outside playing all day are true. We had a lot of freedom. Some time in the early 2000's, my mom finally said to me, "I didn't know that game was satanic...." :)
 

Von Ether

Legend
There was no official club at my school.

One teacher let me run games after my players finished their classwork. We were always done first and had As in this class. We also ran some sessions in the cafeteria in the morning. Perhaps the teachers preferred we do it that way so they could keep an eye on us, but I don't remember even asking permission. We just starting doing it one day and no one said anything.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I don't remember a club but our high school hosted night school classes on how to play and run D&D.

My husband says he played at lunch in his school cafeteria, and on Activity Day they got permission to play D&D instead of choosing a sport!

This is in Canada, where the panic existed but more muted.
 

GuyBoy

Hero
There was an actual D&D club at my school from 1979 onwards; my friends and I actually founded it and ran it till we left in 1981. Bizarrely, my 12 year old grandson now attends the same school and the club is still running; he intends to join as soon as he reaches Year 9 (aged 14) to meet the entry age.
I believe that, after I had left, one of the club members was Dan Abnett of Warhammer novels fame.

The club never met any resistance as the Satanic Panic was never really a thing in UK. The only time we ran up against club-censorship in school was with the Punk Rock Club where we met at lunchtime to listen to punk music; that got banned, so we formed the Walton's Fan Club, where we met at lunchtime to listen to punk music!
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
My high school was quite small (fewer than 500 kids in grades 9-12). AFAIK three of my friends and I were the only people who played D&D.

In middle school we played at school (during lunch and free periods). But there was never an official club in middle or high school. There were teachers who were aware that we were playing and didn’t approve (not because it was Satanic, but because they thought it was a waste of time or not a sport or distracting us from academics).

I was in high school from fall ‘90 to spring ‘94, which I now know was not exactly a boom period for RPGs.

I don’t think a club would have worked, partly through lack of interest but also because it wouldn’t have been something my school would have gotten behind really. There was nobody on staff who understood it.

My rabbi played and DMed though.
 

I think it's a unrealistic that the school would allow a club called "Hellfire". They might have gotten away with a "role playing" club, or "gaming" club, or "fantasy" club. But actually naming it "Hellfire"? In Indiana? Not gonna happen, regardless of the Satanic Panic.

But this is also the kind of school where Eddie is allowed to stroll across top of a table in the cafeteria and shout out character exposition to the entire lunch room with no action from any teachers. So they've set up some clear expectations for "willing suspension of disbelief".
 

In 1978 our school's gifted teacher introduced D&D to the class. When I aged into the class the next year I had already been playing with my brother and his friends since the previous year.

We didn't have a D&D club, we sort of had a class.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
I've never been aware of any official clubs at school or anywhere when I started RPG somewhere at the turn of 1990, but my first games were through the town's cultural activities organised at the community center/mayor's office. That's the closest thing to a club I've known before college but event then, we didn't really socialise or mingled with players of other tables. Still, it shows how the satanic panic wasn't really strong where I was (in Quebec, Canada). Now that I think of it, we played in church basements too!
 
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