How 'Dungeons & Dragons' Rose In Popularity Due To A Missing Teen And Cult Hysteria
In the summer of 1979, a week after the annual Gen Con, Michigan State University reported that one of their students, 16-year-old Dallas Egbert, had gone missing. The last time Egbert was spotted at his dormitory was a day before the tabletop game convention began. At the time, Dungeons & Dragons hadn’t gone mainstream yet, but it was already being picked up by college gamers as an exciting new favorite.
So when investigators found a corkboard with metal tacks in Egbert’s room and his mother revealed that her son had recently learned of this new game about dungeons, the police and the media concluded that the board was actually a map to a real dungeon belonging to a secret D&D cult and that Egbert had left it there so they could find and save him from this evil cult who, we guess, worships dragons or something.
More specifically, the police stated that the locations of some of the tacks on Egbert’s board (that was just, like, a regular bulletin board with no actual map or anything) matched the locations of manhole covers on the university’s campus grounds, and that those covers would lead to steam tunnels where Egbert could possibly be found. Note that phrases used here like “some of the tacks” and “not an actual map” mean absolutely nothing because, sometimes, a coincidence simply means yes, there most definitely is a cult trying to resurrect an ancient dragon demon underneath a university. They just have to roll a six.
The investigation was filled with this kind of superstitious thinking. It was reported that police had brought in computer specialists and college students familiar with D&D to try and decode the board. The investigators even took a tarot card deck found in the kid’s room to a fortune teller to find out if the ordering of the cards held a clue he may have left behind.
On top of the police being all weird about the search for this kid, Egbert’s parents had also hired a private investigator, one William Dear, who only stoked the flames of “secret evil D&D cult” claims even more. Dear — who alleged that they used to call him James Bond in England — made a big fuss over searching those steam tunnels himself even though the police had already done so and found absolute bubkis. He also claimed that a note found in Egbert’s room about wanting to be cremated when he dies was actually forged to make it look like a suicide note.
The media narrative stoked by Dear soon turned away from “Missing Boy” and toward “Fantasy Game Actually A Death Trap,” especially since Dear — who clearly didn’t understand how the game worked at all — told reporters that “Someone is put in the dungeon, and it’s up to them to get out.” Oh crap. Guy predicted Saw.
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Dear was also pretty vocal about his belief that the boy was already dead. Even after the kid made contact informing his folks and Dear that he was in Louisiana on one of his regular get-up-and-go trips (and was also struggling with personal issues at the time), Dear pretended that he was asked to keep the whole D&D demon cult a secret because some people think they’ll spontaneously combust when they have to admit that they were wrong.
Naturally, both the public and media hysteria surrounding the whole “Oh No Not Another American Cult” event actually gave D&D some nice national attention and helped to make the game more popular. Good job. Roll 14 for a slap on the back.
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Top Image: Wizards Of The Coast, Stephen Hardy/Pexels