Friday, March 29, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 7: Chapter 1 It's Merely A Game - Or Is It?

Chapter 1: It's Merely A Game - Or Is It? ranges from pages 15 to 24, and consists of a single section title page, 2 blank pages, and seven content pages.

Three items of Note:
1) direct quotes from the text will be italicized,
2) my analysis of this text is not an attack on individual Christians or to paint Christians as a whole in a broad brush, and
3) the authors' ideas will be critically examined, especially when they present a Christian idea without using the same rigor that they have used on RPGs.

Chapter 1 starts with discussing the history of RPGs, explaining "at first, these games were little more than an obscure diversion enjoyed by relatively few. Today they have become virtually a national pastime" (Pg 17). Seriously? In 1984, D&D and RPGs are a national pastime? I'm really, really surprised because in my high school in 1984, baseball and football were national pastimes and RPGs weren't even close. In fact, according to a 1999 survey, 6% of Americans have played D&D since 1974 (D&D Wikipedia article, reference 8). How can one declare these games, and the game that dominated the nascent RPG industry in 1984, a national pastime?

Claiming that "sales had skyrocketed to an estimated $150 million in 1982" (Pg 17), this book obviously didn't do it's homework, yet again. In fact, according to an Inc article dated February 1982, TSR had "revenues of $12.9 million ... in the year ended June 30, 1981, and projects revenues of $27 million" for 1982. And TSR was the 800 pound gorilla in the industry, so where did the other $120 million come from? Seems like both authors are prone to exaggeration.

Only one paragraph in and this chapter has gotten so much wrong already.

The text then delves into the history and 'controversy' that focused so much attention and probably the start of the RPG "Satanic Panic," the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. "There was speculation among his friends and fellow students that his disappearance was associated with some bizarre Dungeons and Dragons plot....Egbert was found unharmed in Texas, and there was no apparent connection between his disappearance and Dungeons and Dragons" (Pg 17-18). Why bother mentioning this speculation and lack of connection unless one wants to poison the well by inferring that there was a connection? After all, Egbert himself told William Dear that he tried to kill himself and couldn't deal with the pressures of college.

As a result of the national fervor, D&D sales skyrocketed. The text then quotes Moira Johnston's article "It's Only A Game - Or Is It?" from New West magazine, August 1980, "They should raise a foundation to this Egbert kid" (Pg 18). It's a blatant attempt by the authors to poison the well.

After Egbert killed himself in 1980, "an investigation of his death and the surrounding circumstances brought forth no conclusive evidence to connect his suicide with Dungeons and Dragons" (Pg 18). I like the use of the phrase "no conclusive evidence" to insinuate wrongdoing by again poisoning the well. It implies that there is evidence just nothing that could actually conclude it.

Wild speculation in full swing, the text continues with "Concern over Egbert was soon forgotten or relegated to the past. But it was only a matter of time before other cases of apparent FRP-related problems ... were to emerge" (Pg 18-19). That's an appeal to probability. They claims that a whole bunch of murders, suicides and demon possessions have occurred between 1980 and 1984, but only presents a few and implies others, starting with Irving "Bink" Pulling's suicide in 1982 and including one of the killers in the "freeway murders" was a D&D player. No demon possessions are noted.

So Bink kills himself with his parents' gun, his family sues the school principle for $1 million because he allowed D&D as a school activity and they sue TSR for $10 million because "following precise instructions found in D&D materials .... (Bink) had calculated that if this was done by a certain time he would have a 97 percent chance of resurrection" (Pg 19).

Let's look at those precise instructions. Referencing the AD&D Players Handbook, the Constitution table (Pg 12) lists 96% and 98% resurrection survival chances for Constitutions of 16 and 17, respectively. No listing of 97%.

Looking at the spell descriptions for  Raise Dead: "When the cleric casts a raise dead spell, he or she can restore life to a dwarf, gnome, half-elf, halfling, or human. The length of time which the person has been dead is of importance, as the cleric can raise dead persons only up to a certain point, the limit being 1 day for each level of experience of the cleric, i.e. a 9th level cleric can raise a person dead for up to 9 days. Note that the body of the person must be whole, or otherwise missing parts will still be missing when the person is brought back to life. Also, the resurrected person must make a special saving throw to survive the ordeal (see CHARACTER ABILITIES, Constitution). Furthermore, the raised person is wak and helpless in any event, and he or she will need one full day of rest in bed for each day he or she was dead. The somatic component of the spell is a pointed finger." (Pg 50), and Resurrection: "The cleric employing this spell is able to restore life and complete strength to the person he/she bestows the resurrection upon. The person can have been dead up to 10 years cumulative per level of the cleric casting the spell, i.e. a 19th level cleric can resurrect the bones of a person dead up to 190 years. See rais dead for limitations on what person can be raised." (Pg 53) provides no precise instructions.

Both lawsuits fail, unsurprisingly, because they were crap. I've looked in my copies of D&D published circa 1982 and found no "precise instructions" for resurrection. Where's the link to D&D, then?

The text claimed one of the "freeway murders" killers was involved in D&D "as part of what now appears to have been an adventure" (Pg 20). These killings comprise two separate offenders and one group. Two single offenders, Patrick Kearney (apprehended 1977) and Randy Steven Kraft (apprehended 1983), are obviously not the ones J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad are talking about. Yet a review of William Bonin and his accomplices (apprehended 1980), none actually seem to have played D&D. The text says "Allegedly, one of the young men responsible .... At the age of 21 he was so preoccupied with this game that it had become his whole life" (Pg 20). Why wasn't the man specifically identified? Bonin and four accomplices killed approximately 36 victims. Which was the young man?

Bonin was 21 in 1968, so it wasn't him (besides D&D not being published until 6 years later). Of the other four, Vernon Butts was 22 in 1979, Gregory Miley and James Monro were both 19 and William Pugh was 17 in 1980. The 21 year old could only have been Vernon Butts, yet, according to, "Vernon Butts was a lowlife drifter with a long criminal record of petty offences .... (who) had been in and out of penal institutions." Hardly an endorsement for someone interested in the usually cerebral world of RPGs.

Further expounding on this young man yet never formally identifying which one of the four, the text continues, accusing this "freeway killer" of playing D&D for days on end, dressing up as his character, and "With the hope of gaining real power, he joined a satanic coven and was initiated into Satanism." None of the four are ever noted as being satanists nor dressing up in fantasy garb.

Then it continues that "he could no longer distinguish fantasy from reality .... the freeway became his game world" (Pg 20). The murders done by Bonin and his coterie included torture and strangulation with the victim's t-shirts. Doesn't sound very fantasy to me.

This whole "freeway killer" connection to D&D seems so much an urban legend. Unnamed person, no specifics except a vague series of murders, nothing to actually identify either the murderer or victims killed. No news sources listed, no definitive data, and a compelling narrative that serves as a warning. All very vague and very telling. And recognizable as pablum.

These examples, Bink's suicide and the freeway killings, "have not been numerous thus far, (yet) new cases are surfacing." The text complains that "more people are coming forward .... dungeon masters and players are realizing that others have had the same experiences." What experiences are these? Suicide, murder? Yet no other examples of suicide and murder are provided for the rest of the chapter.

Instead, the text goes on to explain that people are concerned and that the age of players has expanded to include kids younger than college age, "impressionable adolescents who are still in the formative stages of their identity" (Pg 21) and that "religious and secular observers ... have criticized FRP games for their occultic overtones, violence, and potential for negatively affecting the lives of those who play the game" (Pg 21).

OK, the implication of suicide and murder is presented, yet the book doesn't even build on that, instead softening it to the players' life will be ruined because the game will break up families, friends and churches but presumably the players won't end up dead or in jail.

Then they bring up Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D.) on Pg 21, except they don't mention that it was started by Patricia Pulling, Bink's mom, and Pro Family Forum (of Fort Worth), both of which are against D&D and have a religious context (fear of satanists). No secular person or group is identified. I wonder why that is?

The last page and a half presents a list of possible "broad spectrum of comments and diversity of opinions" (Pg 22) that divide the world into two sets "those who think they are harmless (or helpful) and those who do not" (Pg 22). But then the text says "specific cases involving FRP-related problems .... they have usually sought to explain away any FRP involvement as circumstantial. Some might admit to Dungeons and Dragons as a 'contributing' factor ... but it appears to be out of the question that a game could be the 'cause.'" (Pg 22-23).

What a load of crap Chapter 1 has turned out to be: one disappearance and suicide that had nothing to do with the game (admitted by the victim Egbert himself), a suicide that couldn't be linked to the game (and a mother on a crusade), and an urban legend of an unnamed killer. Then several pages of meandering narrative that twists those three cases together with the old stand-by of a loaded question - "Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?" - and D&D is presumed guilty by association with these deaths. Except no formal evidence is ever provided, only innuendo and insinuation that some bad things have happened.

What excellent journalism! What profound analysis! J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad performed quite a good bit of research on this section, getting nearly everything so wrong in seven short pages. I'm not quite yet bleeding out of my eyes from this book but the stupidity of the content surely will abate and they'll actually provide some evidence to back up their wild assertions, right? One can hope but I don't count on it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 6: Introduction

The Introduction ranges from pages 9 to 14, and consists of a section title page (1 page), 1 blank page, and four content pages.

Three items of Note:
1) direct quotes from the text will be italicized,
2) my analysis of this text is not an attack on individual Christians or to paint Christians as a whole in a broad brush, and
3) the authors' ideas will be critically examined, especially when they present a Christian idea without using the same rigor that they have used on RPGs.

The Introduction starts with two 'actual play' descriptions pulled from two different publications. They were actually pretty cool to read. The first one takes place in some ruins near a city called Welkeep, which is in the elven kingdom of Celene. The four PCs are the usual mix of characters with equally annoying (Bushido the Dwarf) or cool (Citatzner the Wizard) character names. They fight some creatures and "in the ensuing melee, the monsters are subdued and their throats are slit" (Pg 11).
I don't recall any D&D rules at the time that allowed subduing an enemy, with the exception of subduing a dragon. I'm guessing that the original fight just was a standard combat and the whole "throats are slit" image was added to sensationalize and scandalize it for the reader in the original publication.

The second 'actual play' outlines a party's encounter with a woman in white. "She's a chaotic illusion" (Pg 12) and the PCs attack, "tearing off her arm" (Pg 12) and "spears her in the head" (Pg 12) until she disappears, to return later as an incubus. Really? A chaotic illusion? What the hell is that? Sounds like a square circle to me. Again with the gratuitous descriptions designed to shock!

Both of these 'actual play' scenes are simply an effort by the authors to cause the readers to make a hasty, and negative, stereotype. They have employed a faulty generalization called misleading vividness by using two anecdotes as exceptional occurrences of implied wrongdoing.

The text continues by explaining that, no, you're not listening to a tale or reading a lurid fantasy novel, it's a bunch of people sitting around a table playing Dungeons and Dragons. Then it says "Why the great interest today in such games as Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, Chivalry and Sorcery, RuneQuest, Arduin Grimoire, Swordbearers, and Demons?" (Pg12).

OK, the first four are actual games (published 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, respectively). Arduin Grimoire (1977) at the time was an unofficial supplement to D&D, not it's own RPG (that wouldn't be until the Arduin Adventure in 1981, published well before Playing With Fire, so why not mention it instead of the supplement?), and there is an RPG called Swordbearer (no "s"), first published by Heritage USA (1982) then by Fantasy Games Unlimited (1985). But I found no evidence of an RPG called Demons, even after looking in my copy of Heroic Worlds by Lawrence Schick (1991), the definitive work listing RPGs from 1974 to 1991. In fact, Demons was a board game published by SPI (1979) and has been out of print since 1982.

Frankly, 4 correct out of 7 isn't very good. One title misspelled, one supplement mis-identified as an RPG and one not even an RPG. One would think an author, much less two, would be able to get the proper names of the games they're examining correct. (Interestingly enough, The Devil's Web (1989) by Patricia Pulling also has a similar list: D&D, T&T, Arduin Grimoire, Runequest, Empire of the Petal Throne, Nuclear Escalation, Traveller, Boot Hill, Demons, Court of Ardor, Melee and Wizard, Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. The Pulling Report has an analysis on Pulling's book, so I won't go into it here)

They go on to explain these games fit in with "the early 1950s naturalism" (Pg 13) and "it's accompanying doctrine of rationalism" (Pg 13) to explain reality, claiming that these were the "settings in which the games were created...." (Pg 13). Yet the authors fail to adequately explain what they mean by naturalism and rationalism, instead pointing to a footnote referencing another text for further reading (as if readers are going to actually follow that reference).

After building up this very limited straw man, they proceed to knock it down by saying man was "left uncertain about the deeper meaning of life" (Pg 13). They then start delving into some weird bullshit about people redefining stuff and creating a new philosophy which, quite frankly, they haven't even proved exists except in their own heads. And what does this have to do with playing a game called Dungeons and Dragons? Well, it's because man will then include "superbeings and mythical gods; excursions into the magical, the mystical and the unknown; the pursuit of sorcery and spiritualism; and much more" (Pg 13).

What the hell does that mean?

Look, I know you're both evangelicals, J. Weldon and J. Bjornstad. That means that you, yourselves, believe in gods, mystical, the unknown, and spiritualism. If I was sitting around a game table and one of the guys said 'I think that D&D is great philosophy and I can cast magical spells as a result,' he would have gotten a can of coke chucked at the head with a 'stop this with your magical powers, jackass' thrown before the can.

They argue that man "creates his own universe around him" (Pg 14) and that "this is the very setting in which fantasy role-playing games develop their fantasy milieu" (Pg 14) and for man to be "greater than he really is" (Pg 14). They continue by saying that "fantasy and FRP games are natural to this world view" (Pg 14) and conclude with questions of whether these are merely games (hinting at no, they're not because they're 'occult'). How do we know that anything that they say is true? Where is their supporting rationale for this point of view? They simply assert this and then move on, ending with a bible passage (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 "examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil") (Pg 14).

In four pages, the authors present two lurid scenarios from two publications (note these are second-hand reports and they present no direct experience playing a game of D&D from themselves), 7 games (4 correctly identified, 3 incorrectly identified or not even RPGs), then a build up of a straw man of the world RPGs exist in, an argument of world views that was without supporting documentation in any shape or form. Invoking the Thessalonians quote at the end, to "examine everything carefully," is a joke - they completely fail to provide any substantive examination in their introduction while at the same time getting so much wrong.

So far, this book is turning out to be just 'a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' (MacBeth, Scene V).

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 5: The Front Matter Pgs 1-8

The Front Matter, also knows as the preliminaries, ranges from page 1 to 8, containing the Bastard title (a single page with the title on a single line), the Title page (1 page), the Colophon (verso of the Title page, containing the copyright information and edition dates), the Contents (1 page), the Dedication (1 page) and 3 blank pages.

The authors and publisher are listed, as is all the necessary copyright and edition information. The dedication page only lists names of people who the authors wish to thank, without (except for J. Bjornstad's child) any explanation of who they are or whether indeed they had any part in the writing of the book. In no case was anyone listed with any sort of credentials, say a psychologist or a game theorist, that would have any sort of insight into the subject following.

In fact, one could just as easily see "Bill and Loretta Bowers, Tom and Naomi Brewer, Steve and Susan Clark, Mike Dosh, Phil and Nancy Miller" as J. Weldon's game group - except that I fear that neither author even bothered to play even one session of any of the games they condemn.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 4: Outlining My Bias

I have to admit my own biases when reading this text.

First, I'm a gamer. I started playing D&D in 1978 and enjoyed a variety of RPGs through the late 70s to the early 90s, specifically the ones outlined in the book. I still play to this day and write about games on this blog. I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.

Second, I was active in RPGs during "The Satanic Panic" and received my own fair share of "this game will send you to Hell" from a spectrum of religious folk. Yet, while I only got verbally hassled about playing the Devil's game, I did know some folks that had worse happen to them.

Third, I don't believe either author actually played any of the games they condemn. And there is no evidence in the text that would support that they did play. While one could argue that it's not necessary to have played baseball in order to understand it, one would hope that a deeper understanding of the game would be had by actually playing it, rather than simply being an armchair pitcher. It smacks of lazy journalism to me and looks more like a smear job rather than an honest critique.

Fourth, nearly all the evangelical writers and apologists that I have read have a tendency to quote-mine sources and not apply the same skeptical rigor to their own belief systems as they do to the subject that they are condemning. They also have a predilection to emphasize their own or their supporters academic credentials without explaining what those credentials are. Point in fact, John Weldon is listed as having a B.A. and M.A. and James Bjornstad is listed having a B.A., Th.B., M.R.E, and Ph.D. What fields are these degrees associated with? Are they valid to the subject matter? Unfortunately, nowhere does it even mention the fields of the authors. As a result, I usually start reading any text written by evangelicals with even more skepticism than other authors.

Fifth, the publisher, Moody Press. Besides journalists, who seemed to get the whole concept of RPGs wrong and sensationalized a bunch of nerds hanging out in their parents' basements as the start of a new evil cult, complete with twirling mustaches and baby sacrifices, no other class of publisher did more to promote "The Satanic Panic" than did religious publishers, and Moody is one such. And I'm sure they made a bit of coin on it from their credulous supporters while condemning TSR for the same.

The first two I can't do much about - I'm a gamer, writing a gaming blog, and my game experience in the 80s is germane to the topic. For the third, fourth and fifth, I'll focus on a critical review of the ideas presented and the research (or lack thereof) on gaming because I still hope to present a quality and honest perspective on this text. At least until my eyes start bleeding ....

Monday, March 11, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 3: Place in History

Here are some of the highlights of the "Satanic Panic" and Playing With Fire's place within them. Note this is not a complete timeline.


Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, supposedly in the Michigan State University steam tunnels playing D&D

A month later, he is found by William Dear, a P.I. hired by his family


James Dallas Egbert III commits suicide


Publication of fiction novel Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe


Suicide of Irving "Bink" Pulling

Mazes and Monsters made for T.V. movie airs, starring a young Tom Hanks


Patricia Pulling sues her son's high school and TSR Hobbies, case thrown out of court

Patricia Pulling forms Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (B.A.D.D.)


Publication of The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III by William Dear

--> Publication of Playing With Fire by John Weldon and James Bjornstad

Publication of Dark Dungeons by Jack Chick


60 Minutes episode about Dungeons and Dragons airs, includes interviews with Gary Gygax and Patricia Pulling


Publication of The Devil's Web by Patricia Pulling


Publication of The Pulling Report by Michael Stackpole

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 2: Book Information

Playing With Fire by John Weldon and James Bjornstad
ISBN 0-8024-0425-1
(c)1984 by Moody Press
Review copy is 7th B+ printing (1988)
Paperback, 96 pages

Playing With Fire is a small format paperback, a slim volume of 96 pages, of which only 62 have content. The rest consist of blank pages (17), bastard title (1), title page (1), colophon (1), contents (1), dedication (1), section titles (8), select bibliography (3) and publisher page (1).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

[Let's Read] Playing With Fire, Part 1: Overview

In 1984, a book called Playing With Fire was published by Moody Press, an evangelical publishing house. The book decried the playing of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons as a tool that would lead participants into the occult. And it wasn't the first, nor would it be the last, to make these claims.

Nearly 30 years later, it seems pretty crazy to talk about, but during that time, there was public discourse about the "Satanists next door." Newspaper articles, books and even 60 minutes all talked about Satanists and their recruitment tools - violent role-playing and video games, occult books and hard rock music - that were, according to both evangelical and mainstream religious leaders, leading "our precious children" to the Devil by bloody and unnatural murder, teen suicide, baby sacrifices and ancient rituals. That time has colloquially become known as "The Satanic Panic." It steadily built up through the 70s, reached it's peak in the 80s and faded from the public consciousness in the 90s.

I look back at "The Satanic Panic" completely dumbfounded with the insanity and stupidity of it. All my friends and I were doing was staying out of trouble in our parents' basements. We weren't out drinking or getting girls in trouble or doing drugs. We were pretending to be elves and dwarves in Middle Earth. We rolled dice, we ate CheetosTM, and drank copious amounts of fizzy drinks. We never wore robes or chanted in strange tongues or sacrificed babies to the Devil. We just had fun. And that seemed to bug people.

When I found a cheap copy of Playing With Fire last year, I laughed out loud and bought it for fun. I recently pulled it from the shelf and decided I'd do a review.

Five pages into it, I wanted to throw it across the room.

Instead, I decided to do an in-depth review of the book. So watch for all the parts.