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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Missing Teen Who Fueled 'Cult Panic' Over Dungeons & Dragons

This story is adapted from Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, by Jon Peterson.


Tactical Studies Rules, the company cofounded by Gary Gygax to publish the rules for Dungeons & Dragons, held its annual “GenCon” convention in the summer of 1979. At that point, D&D had not quite become an object of mainstream notice, but the game was very popular among gamers, especially college students. One such student suddenly raised the game to popular notoriety during the course of a fateful week in early September.


Things had settled down a few weeks after the convention, and a TSR employee named Rose Estes was in the middle of writing up a piece about GenCon for a hobby magazine when she received a call from The Dayton Journal-Herald. Estes was a spokesperson for TSR at the time, and was accustomed to trying to explain the game to baffled reporters. After hearing complaints from the reporter that the game was totally sold out in Dayton, she was then asked to comment on the situation with the missing boy.

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“What boy?” she replied.

GenCon had ended on August 19. The Michigan State University paper, the State News, ran a headline the following Saturday, about an “MSU student reported missing for two days from Case Hall,” one of the university dormitories. It accompanied this article with a picture of a young man, just 16 years old, captioned with the name Dallas Egbert. It explained that Egbert was from Dayton, Ohio, that he was an Honors College student at Lyman Briggs College, and that the last time anyone could be sure he had been seen at the dorm was August 15—the day before GenCon started.

Egbert was attending a summer semester because an illness had forced him to drop some of his spring classes. Officially, he was still considered a freshman. The State News suggested that a friend of Egbert’s indicated that he had been “known to leave campus before for destinations unknown.” She added, “Fall term he took off and told me he was going. He was gone for two weeks.” A university official observed that this was “not a unique situation. He’s 16 and brilliant. We’re concerned due to his age.” His roommate reported that Egbert was ordinarily one to play his stereo to the point that it “pounds the wall down, but I haven’t heard that lately.” Apparently, he had no driver’s license and regularly took buses to get around.

Someone missing for a couple days is not news, but after another week passed, on Sunday, September 2, the story had spread to local papers and become a police matter. In the Lansing, Michigan, State Journal, a front-page article that day wondered, in its title, “Did Missing Student Leave Clue?” That paper reported that Egbert’s room was uncharacteristically orderly, stripped of its bedsheets and a customary ream of posters, and that in their place, “perched on an otherwise cleared desktop was a neatly printed note two lines long, telling what Egbert wished done with his body ‘should’ it be found.” In what could be generously called an understatement, police investigators conceded he might be suicidal.

Searching for leads, the police took a tarot deck they found in the room to a fortune teller to inquire if some sort of message could be found in the ordering of the cards. But the deck was not the most enigmatic object left in his dorm—that would be a corkboard leaning up against a wall, with 36 plastic and metal tacks embedded into it, which investigators scrutinized for hidden meaning. In that same September 2 article, Egbert’s mother, who reported that she had played games with her son in the past, proposed that it might be some sort of message, perhaps a map. “This year,” the State Journal related, Egbert had “told her about a new game he had learned, called Dungeons & Dragons.” Rather matter-of-factly, the newspaper attested that “the tacks on Egbert’s board resemble a dungeon used in the game,” and that Egbert’s friends did not remember seeing the board there before he disappeared.

According to Estes, the campus police at the time were unaware that D&D was a commercial product: They found no rule books in Egbert’s room and assumed it was a game that had been invented by students at the university. Since they could find no students willing to come forward and explain the game, they spoke to the press about it as a “bizarre and secret cult,” which naturally created some interest in the game, and in the curious bulletin board “map” that they had associated with it.

A cluster of blue and white tacks formed a rectangular block in the lower right corner of the board, something that might be the shape of a room or building. A single yellow tack by itself occupied the upper-left corner. The remainder of the tacks seemed randomly positioned. But police determined, upon comparing the board to a campus map, that “some of the locations of the tacks matched the locations of manhole covers leading into the university’s steam tunnels.” Extrapolating from that hypothesis, the cluster in the lower-right corner might depict a power plant.

But these guesses at the meaning behind the board were admittedly conjecture. By September 5, a UPI story was reporting that police “called in computer and logic specialists plus those familiar with an elaborate board game popular among college students in an effort to decode the board.” That game was “a highly complex game involving fantasy and role playing.” Bill Wardwell of the MSU police had been trying to find people who played the game with Egbert, without success. “I’d hate to say it’s a secretive game, but you get into it only by invitation,” Wardwell told the media. The authorities had now caught wind of a Wisconsin D&D convention that took place around the time Egbert vanished: GenCon. They reached out to TSR Hobbies, sending photographs of Egbert and the mysterious thumbtack board, which were apparently lost in the mail and had to be resent.

Asked if the police were grasping at straws by inquiring with TSR, Wardwell conceded, “A little bit.” But no straw would go ungrasped when, the next day, the megaphone of the media landed in the hands of William Dear, a private investigator hired by Egbert’s desperate parents. Dear launched a series of expensive and flamboyant measures, like flyovers of campus in his private plane, to gauge how well the bulletin board corresponded to an aerial view of the campus. His daily rate was $500 to $700, plus expenses. There was talk of shipping in specially trained tracker dogs from Texas. Naturally, Dear needed to search the steam tunnels personally, although police had already done so a week before: nearly 15 miles of tunnels, in which the temperature was 115 degrees, requiring an eight-hour search. Dear would take nothing for granted. The note found in Egbert’s room describing how he wanted his remains to be treated was, according to Dear, a suspected forgery, a case where “we think someone was trying to mimic his writing.” Press reports began to suggest that Egbert’s parents, who had offered a reward for information leading to their son, were convinced their son had been abducted, and that the physical evidence on the scene in his dorm room was intentional misdirection.

But it was the “highly complex game” that Dear most sensationalized for the press. Dear demonstrated his understanding of the game when he suggested, from the configuration of the bulletin board, that “the number of different pins indicates the beginning of the game,” and that players familiar with the game might try to implement “Egbert’s pattern” in order to divine his intentions.

On September 7, the story broke nationally through the Associated Press and the Knight Ridder system, but it was less a story about a missing college student than it was a rash amplification of Dear’s most lurid speculation about D&D. “Game Might Have Turned Into Deathtrap,” The Appleton Post-Crescent headline supposed. “Fantasy Game Death Feared,” read The Des Moines Tribune. “Game May Have Killed Computer Whiz,” according to The Wausau Daily Herald. Or, “Fantasy Game May Have Claimed Missing Genius,” as the Los Angeles Times would have it. Nightly news reports on television were little better. Dear’s quotes in these articles go beyond just grasping at straws; his understanding of D&D is summed up by preposterous allegations like “Someone is put in the dungeon, and it’s up to them to get out.” The only subject Dear spoke to more confidently than D&D was Egbert’s almost certain death at its hands: “If he’s where he’s supposed to be,” that is, in the steam tunnels, “then he’s dead.” Or, “It is our opinion that the boy is dead,” as he was widely quoted as saying.

Rose Estes at TSR ended up fielding the September 7 press calls in Lake Geneva, most of them frantic demands to explain D&D within minutes of meeting their deadlines—which, as anyone who has played the game knows, is no mean feat. She patiently attempted to communicate basic facts about the game, like that there were now an estimated 300,000 players nationwide. That number was not about to shrink when articles running over the next week would feature the box cover of the Basic Set, sometimes obligingly held up by William Dear himself. The Associated Press quoted Estes denying any live-action component in the game, insisting that “in all of the variations—and there are a great many—we know of none that are actually physical.” Apart from anonymous and unsubstantiated rumor, there was no indication of any real-world, real-space game of D&D taking place at MSU. The New York Times deemed the “bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons”— illustrated with a snapshot of William Dear heroically exploring the steam tunnels that had already been searched a week before—a tabletop experience “for the players to find a way out of an imaginary labyrinth to collect great treasures.” Speculation grew so intense, Estes recalled, “the only way to stop a national broadcasting system from going on evening television and labeling the game a sadomasochistic torture cult was to call campus police and insist that irreparable harm would be done to their university if they didn’t call the reporter and stop them.”

This all must have lit up the switchboards in East Lansing. A higher-ranking officer took over public relations for the investigation as of September 8. Captain Ferman Badgley would dismiss all of the game theories as “merely speculation” and more candidly relate, “we don’t have any clues we can hang our hat on.” Indeed, Badgley feared that the intense press coverage could be keeping Egbert in hiding.

By September 9, the futility of continuing tunnel searches had become evident—even Dear would inform the captivated national media that “we’re satisfied that he’s not in there”—but that did not let D&D off the hook. Now headlines like The Fort Lauderdale News’ “Missing Genius Reportedly Seen at Game-Playing Cult’s Convention” dragged GenCon into this mess. A day later, the game was still the “No. 1 Clue in Genius Search” according to The Tampa Tribune, in an article that began by listing a summary of clues available, including “a suicide note, a cult game convention in Wisconsin and his ties with the gay community.” Badgley, with his typical circumspection, explained what police interviews with GenCon attendees had revealed: “Nobody has positively identified him, but a couple of people may have seen him up there.”

Then, by September 11, the excruciating frustration of Egbert’s parents turned to suspicion of the college and its responsibility for oversight of their son. But the press continued on. “Did Dragons, Dungeons Swallow Dallas Egbert?” asked a headline in the Press and Sun-Bulletin of Binghamton, New York, on September 12. Badgley decided to end daily press briefings, as there had been no new developments in the case. Will Niebling at TSR could report that the police had some information in the mail, and that “we will take a look at it and see if we can deduce anything.” The gaming hobby was still small enough that TSR staff members recognized Egbert when they finally saw the pictures, though no one could quite place whether they’d seen him at a past GenCon or perhaps at a WinterCon in Michigan. Egbert had not registered for the 1979 GenCon—though with nearly a thousand unregistered persons counted in attendance, official records could not tell the whole story. And then suddenly, on September 14, newspapers reported that Egbert had been reunited with his family after he contacted Dear, who arranged a private plane to transport him from Louisiana to Texas. He had not died in any steam tunnel, and had not been playing D&D.

Dear was not about to admit any error on his own part. He now shifted to represent himself as the guardian of a secret that Egbert did not want divulged, and as such, Dear refused to clarify whether D&D had been a factor in Egbert’s disappearance. He would at least freely volunteer that Dungeons & Dragons proved meaningless in the search for Egbert. This let some of the more reckless press outlets off the hook: In follow-up articles they could say it was unknown if and how D&D had factored into Egbert’s situation, rather than admit that prior reporting was all nonsense. Egbert’s parents had nothing further to say publicly about the matter, for the moment. The media, however, was in no hurry to exonerate D&D; one article contended that “details surrounding the discovery and condition of the 16-year-old computer science student with a taste for the offbeat remain uncertain.” The full story would have to wait for the following summer, when it returned for a sad conclusion.

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One thing that last UPI bulletin said was that D&D “has a cult-like following at many colleges.” That word, “cult,” and the connotations it carried now became attached to D&D—it had been less than a year since almost a thousand people died in Jonestown under the influence of a cult, and the Manson family’s crimes remained fresh in American memory. A few D&D fans took it upon themselves to try to correct these misapprehensions in the popular press, but these sorts of rebuttals would do little to sway a new court of public opinion that was convening around the game.

These events, which loom large in hindsight, played out on the national stage over the course of only about a week, between September 7 and 14. Game industry periodicals like Dragon were at best monthlies—Different Worlds was bimonthly—so by the time they could weigh in, it was all over. Tim Kask wrote an editorial in Dragon lamenting how the “detective hired by the parents has made some incorrect statements regarding the game that have only fueled the controversy.” But he had to balance that against the fact that Dungeons & Dragons was “getting the publicity that we used to just dream about, back when we were freezing in Gary’s basement in the beginning.” In its October issue, Different Worlds ran two clippings from September 9 and September 14, with the speculative headline “Fantasy Cult Angle Probed in Search for Computer Whiz” pitted against the breaking news, “College Fantasy Game Victim Recovered Alive.” Although the latter article qualified its text with Dear’s refusal to divulge the cause of Egbert’s disappearance, the headlines would always remember Egbert as that fantasy game’s “victim.”

Egbert’s adventure in the steam tunnels was no more real than a game of D&D—but there was real treasure at the end of it. In the wake of the Egbert incident, media coverage of D&D pivoted from its former frenzied speculation to the story of the game and its unexpected success. An article at the end of September summed up the situation nicely, that D&D “was a relatively obscure pastime until the August disappearance of a 16-year-old computer wiz from Michigan State University catapulted the game into national prominence.” It cites anecdotal evidence from various hobby stores, including “Something to Do in Louisville, Kentucky,” which reported that the game was becoming a best seller, and a statement from ABC Hobbycraft in Evansville, Indiana, that D&D “tops the fantasy games that now account for 20 percent of the store’s business.” An October 3 article in The New York Times reported a similar situation in Washington at a game store called Your Move. “I can’t keep the D&D reference books in stock,” exclaimed the store’s manager. “Every other phone call is about the D&D books.” In a way, the Egbert situation was a magical event for TSR, something that transmuted supposition into gold.


Excerpted from Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, by Jon Peterson (MIT Press 2021).

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