Role-Playing and Urban Legends Part 1

With Halloween around the corner, it is time for ghost stories to make the rounds again. And in my opinion the best ghost stories are the ones that grow into urban legends. I love urban legends.
When I was about 12 years old, my mother heard that a woman at our local Kmart had been killed by a snake that had gotten into a shipment of clothes from overseas.  She became very concerned that this could happen at other stores, and wanted me to be careful when we were out shopping.
Two days later, our local newspaper ran a story on about this incident. More to the point: they ran a piece debunking it as an urban legend. It was a well-written piece that covered what an urban legend was, how they spread, and some of the most common ones.  It also cited a book by Jan Harold Brunvand called The Vanishing Hitchhiker: Urban Legends & their Meanings.
The next day I checked out this book from the school library.
I was hooked. I found other books, and from there, following urban legends became a small hobby of mine.
I suppose I should make sure you know what I am talking about before I go on. Of course the best way to educate yourself on this would be to check out Professor Brunvand’s books on the subject.
Basically, an urban legend is modern folklore. It takes the form of a story relayed as being true, usually happening to “a friend of a friend,” and that usually holds some kind of cautionary tale or supernatural element.
But why I am I bringing this up on a site devoted to geek culture?
It’s due to some doozy urban legends that have grown around role-playing games.
Since almost the time of their inception, fantasy role-playing games have attracted their own set of urban legends.
These grew out of three sources.
The first was simply that fact that some people would look at the fantasy elements in Dungeons and Dragons and assume it meant the game was Satanic. The idea that any role playing game will lead to devil worship come from this basic misunderstanding. I’ve always found this one funny since many of those fantasy elements were lifted from the writings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom had Christian allegory in their stories.
The second source was an attempted suicide in the utility tunnels of Michigan State University that was erroneously linked to Dungeons and Dragons. A student at MSU went to the steam tunnels to commit suicide by overdose. He left a map on graph paper (left over from a D&D game) of his location so his body could be found. Instead of dying he wandered off. A detective hired by his family to find him idly speculated that he had gone to the tunnel to play a live action version of the game, and the press latched onto that as fact. This led to the myth of someone getting killed playing a live action Role playing game. This myth got leveraged in an incredibly bad book called Mazes and Monsters, which in turn got turned into a lousy TV movie starring Tom Hanks.
The third source was the suicide of a high school student in Richmond Virginia that is mother attributed to his involvement with a Dungeons and Dragons game he played at school. She tried to sue TSR, the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons at that time. All her lawsuits were dismissed. In response, she formed Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) to combat the “evils” of roleplaying. It got to the point that game designer and future Star Wars author Michael A Stackpole wrote the article “Game Hysteria and the Truth” to debunk BADD’s claims. 
These stories have a life of their own now. Even though role-playing gamers now have an image of the loner geek in his mom’s basement, many of these stories still persist. Even now, there is probably a preacher somewhere firm in the belief that role-playing leads directly to Satan.
And in the next post I will discuss how all of this intersected directly with my life.
Here is a hint: I used to work for Wizards of the Coast

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