In 1990, the Christian author James Dobson issued a grave warning about “so-called fantasy roleplaying games.” They masquerade as simple creative exercises for children, but “the fact is, in order to play these games properly, you usually have to use magic and mysticism, things that are clearly not Christian,” he said dolefully. Some former players even said the game had led them into contact with demons, he asserted. Dobson, the founder of the influential organization Focus on the Family, didn’t mention any particular game by name. He didn’t have to: by the time his warning was broadcast, Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop roleplaying game that starred elves, orcs, and other fantasy beings, had become synonymous with the “Satanic Panic” that had gripped the public imagination for the better part of a decade. If anything, Dobson’s warning arrived a little late. The game had malevolent power, evangelist Jack Chick insisted in a famous 1984 tract: it led to suicides and, even worse, goddess worship.
Dobson’s warning, which originally aired on a long-running children’s radio show called Adventures in Odyssey, circulated for years. Hearing it as a child in the late 1990s, I had a reaction Dobson didn’t intend: I was greatly impressed. Now I play in two Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. For each, I created a character who joins a handful of other players to fend off a variety of imaginative evils. The campaigns take place under a system of rules outlined in the Player’s Handbook and the guidance of a dungeon master who plans the sessions. Within those parameters, the creative and collaborative decisions of the players (and the luck of our many-sided dice) reign. Sessions typically last hours and are played around a table to make space for small props. The goal is immersion, a temporary commitment to a fantasy world. Nevertheless, reality tends to creep in. I named one character, an elf cleric, after a pair of Chick’s devil-haunted players. For me, and likely for thousands of others, the Christian right’s alarmism only increased the game’s mystique.
Today, the game is almost ubiquitous. People who have never rolled a character have probably heard of its alignment chart, which divvies personalities up into good, evil, or neutral categories along a chaotic-to-lawful axis based on their objectives or background. COVID-19 seems to have only increased the game’s popularity. CNBC reported last March that sales for the game had jumped by 33 percent during the pandemic, which followed a steady six-year growth streak. Though the game’s been around since 1974, in some respects it seems as though its time has truly arrived.
Talk of demons helped disguise the more prosaic reality of the game’s growth. As game historian Jon Peterson recounts at length in a new book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, the true history of D&D involves no mystical rituals, just familiar corporate skullduggery. While preachers and parents battled for the nation’s impressionable youth, the game’s architects battled over credits and royalties in a “great war” that would grow more fractious as the game became more popular. The stakes weren’t souls, but something else, something more tangible. Mammon rules all, and spares not even the most creative endeavor.
In the 1960s, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson became obsessed with tabletop wargaming. Gygax was a dreamer, ill-equipped for life in the modern world; Arneson had similarly dedicated himself completely to his passion. For both, wargaming was an outlet, if not necessarily a way to make money. At least, not in the beginning. “The honor of working on a set of rules that might become popular in the gaming community was the lion’s share of the compensation,” Peterson observes. “It would take a miracle for a venture like this to end up providing someone with a livelihood—let alone a fortune.”
Dungeons & Dragons was that lightning-strike chance. Yet when Gygax and Arneson first wrote the slim rule booklet that would become the most popular tabletop game in the world, their expectations were low: perhaps a few hundred dollars of royalties. Even when adjusted for inflation, that’s not much by way of profit. Their agreement to split the profits on their new fantasy game would become far more consequential than either of them probably dreamed. Never close friends, they soon found that the strain of trying to make a living from games tested their creative relationship.
In the 1970s, Gygax started a company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), to disseminate Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop roleplaying games like it. Although this was decades ago, the language used to define TSR in its early days will sound familiar. “TSR is not around solely to make money,” declared one of Gygax’s principal investors. “The members of TSR are long time gamers who have found that there is a good deal of satisfaction in creating and/or publishing a good set of game rules or an enjoyable game.” Noble sentiments, but workers have to make a living, and TSR, especially in its early years, struggled to provide. When Gygax hired his creative partner as one of TSR’s earliest employees, Arneson “found the compensation meager—it amounted to about $2.60 an hour, when federal minimum wage in 1976 would be $2.30—and saw no provisions for pay raises, bonuses, or profit sharing.” Arneson would eventually complain that Gygax, among others, hoarded all the best work, all to “avoid paying royalties to employees.” Within months, Arneson had departed TSR on the most acrimonious terms.
Arneson had a particular beef with Gygax, but he wouldn’t be the last worker to desert TSR under a cloud. One departing worker complained that
TSR claims that it cares about and values its employees, and that it wants all employees to be happy in their jobs; yet any who become unhappy are considered to have “bad attitudes” (a currently very popular euphemism), and rather than investigate the causes of employee discontent, TSR prefers to take the simplistic view that such persons are malcontents and that mass terminations are the best solution.
TSR spared its workers the typical boring slog, but it was a company like any other, plagued by flaws that will likely cause a knowing shudder in anyone who’s held a job. Workers had no union, and no semblance of workplace democracy. Nepotism was rampant. With his spoils, Gygax moved his family to an estate and got into horse-breeding.
For decades, Gygax and Arneson fought a war over money that hinged on obscure intellectual property claims for Dungeons & Dragons—and who had been screwed over more by the other. (Both men could hold a grudge.) Peterson doesn’t take a side; it’s clear from his narrative that Dungeons & Dragons exists as players like me know it today because of both men.
Alongside the story of TSR’s business practices, Peterson weaves material on the cultural context in which the game’s popularity grew, specifically the Satanic Panic, in which Dobson tried to convince me that playing D&D would turn me into a warlock. The panic was at its core a reactionary backlash to changing social norms. To Christian parents, the real risk of D&D is that it would indoctrinate the youth, turn them against traditional values and toward an unknowable future that could eventually drive them mad. Despite all the outrage, however, D&D was just a product, and TSR just a company. The only magic at work was capitalism. Nerds would see this combination of right-wing hysteria and capitalist exploitation again in response to violence in video games, the earliest of which were often either inspired by D&D or directly licensed by TSR.
When Gary Gygax died in 2008, he’d lived long enough to see D&D transcend its earliest niche. It survived him, and his war with Arneson, and the moral crusade against its cultural influence. There’s even a new D&D movie in the works, and a cartoon just launched on Amazon based on a D&D web series watched by millions each week. D&D hasn’t quite lost its countercultural reputation yet, in large part because of how the Christian right’s war on deviltry shaped the game’s image. But with D&D poised for true superstardom, there may once again exist a temptation to bestow the game with powers it doesn’t really possess.
Fundamentalists were reacting to more than the presence of magic in the game. Reliant as they are on the player’s imagination, D&D and games like it can feel as though they have subversive, even radical potential. In D&D, it’s possible to overthrow or at least cheat the local slumlord. A player can defend the common folk from predatory cults. Imagination does threaten the right and its grip on power. If anyone—especially a young person, and especially in the company of others—can dream up a different kind of world, then perhaps the rules of this world are not totally absolute. That’s what drew me to science fiction and fantasy, and later to D&D itself. There, if through a glass dimly, new possibilities take shape.
The fears that Jack Chick voiced in the 1980s were hilariously literal; he thought players wanted to wield real magic. Magic would certainly be cool, but D&D players know that magic isn’t real, and that when they gather around a table, it’s just a game. Yet fictional magic attracts because the status quo does not. Sometimes a task is so difficult that it seems to require superhuman abilities to surmount. But D&D also underscores the power that comes from working with a group. Where capitalist society lauds the entrepreneur, the great man, the mythic genius, D&D’s trials are communal, and so too is victory. Your chances against a foe are only as good as your party. Each character brings different qualities to the table, which compensate for one another’s weaknesses, and decisions about how to tackle various obstacles are hashed out in deliberative discussion. Whether you’re facing a dragon or a halfling who’s extorting the small business community, the game never expects you to stand alone.
But it’s easy to take the idea of this radical potential too far. Look no further than the social justice points that are lavished on Marvel properties. When nerdy titles go mainstream, fans don’t always navigate the transition well. The bullied can become the bully, as legions insist that their interests aren’t only valid but virtuous as well. Gygax, for his part, was more cynical about the potential of his co-creation. Peterson quotes him speaking to an Inc. reporter in the 1980s: “Playing D&D is ‘a lot like business. . . . I’d like to think that it teaches our employees to analyze and cooperate. Game players have to learn to look beyond the obvious and see the number of variables they have to deal with.’”
The rules of D&D order play to an extent, but the game is mostly what the player makes of it. It is designed to be escapist; it doesn’t offer players a way to change the world, but a way to cope with it. Radicalism is a quality the player must bring to D&D, and reality shapes the game, not the other way around. Games are a viewscreen through which players can glimpse realities in a new light, or even experiment with alternatives. But revolutions aren’t magic, or play. They’re hard work.
Sarah Jones is a senior writer for New York magazine and the author of The Sin-Eaters, forthcoming from Avid Reader Press. She is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.