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.


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


No such panic in England, although I remember reading about it in White Dwarf. I was at a public school (i.e. historic fee-paying secondary school) from 1979 to 1986. The Wargaming Society had existed for a few years before I arrived and was still in existence when I left (I ran it for a few years). It had originally been founded for miniature wargaming, but by the time I arrived almost everyone was playing RPGs instead, which is how I got into them. Like any other school club or society we were allocated a classroom at lunchtimes and could book rooms after school and at weekends, and as long as we had a member of staff as a sponsor (can't even remember who that was - he never involved himself in any of our activities) we could pretty much do what we liked as long as we didn't cause any trouble.

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