“Devil worshipers are going to murder you in a cabin in the woods if you play that.”

That was what my mom told me when I first asked her if I could play Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I’d found out about it from the cartoon series of the same name that ran during the 1980s; a time when the vast majority of cartoon series on TV were engineered specifically to sell toys. He-Man, G.I. Joe, Pound Puppies, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Transformers; all started as a toy line, and ended up with a show almost as a marketing afterthought that somehow took off. Your fondest television memories from childhood? Those were nothing but thirty-minute commercials. Sorry, Eighties Baby. Your life is a lie.

None of the kids I knew had the actual Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game at my elementary school, so I really had no idea what it entailed. All I knew was that I was a huge fan of Bobby the Barbarian and Presto the Magician (characters from the cartoon), and that I already had little plastic souvenirs from all of my favorite benign, family friendly Saturday morning cartoons littering the living room floor, so imagine my confusion when I received that bizarre answer from my mom.

Wait, this is really going to get me slaughtered by cultists? There’s like a baby unicorn up in this bitch.

My mom was hardly the only adult in America worried about that kind of thing at the time, and universally-debunked conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate are hardly new to American culture. Aside from being home to your favorite children-targeting animated promotional spots, the 1980s also lays claim to the “Satanic Panic phenomenon, in which society collectively lost their shit over the fear of widespread demonic influence. Let’s dig into that a little:

The 1980s: Everybody Goes Batshit over Satan

The term “stranger danger” was a product of the eighties for a number of reasons. Once sleepy towns noticed drastic upticks in population growth (read: lots of unfamiliar faces in the neighborhood). Overzealous media coverage of the Tylenol Murders, the brand-spanking-new AIDS epidemic, that one dude who poisoned Halloween candy which escalated into your parents checking EVERY SINGLE THING you brought home after trick-or-treating helped stack the kindling for what would eventually become a panic bonfire. Of course, walking down the dairy aisle and being bombarded by the cherubic faces of missing children didn’t exactly help ease tensions either. Modern families now needed two streams of income, which meant nervous moms were starting to place their kids in the care of babysitters and day care facilities for the first time. Family-friendly programming regularly featured “a very special episode” about topics like drinking, drugs, what to do if approached by someone you don’t know, etc. And just like that, a clammy blanket of distrust descended upon the land.

Paranoia about imaginary dangers to the nuclear family culminated in the rise of Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, who quickly discovered just how much money you could make from a terrified customer, and quickly attributed the blame for America’s imaginary moral vulnerability on Satan and demons and shit. A bunch of memoirs came out from people claiming they were ritually abused by satanic cultists, and, while all of them were swiftly debunked by fact checkers, the media’s relentless praise promoted them until folks just assumed those books were credible. Many experts on the subject credit one of these books specifically, Michelle Remembers, as the root of that famous “day care / satanic sex abuse” conspiracy theory that held the 1980s in its ridiculously unfounded grip.

A cottage industry of people who self-described as “occult experts” materialized out of nowhere, and made all sorts of money as consultants, authors, columnists, speakers, and paid witnesses for trials involving some flavor of demonic wrongdoing or another. Police departments paid these experts to create training videos in order to help them learn to identify satanic crimes.

I mean, look at 1995’s The Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults. Huh, all of the conveniently spray-painted devil graffiti is super fresh, and somehow it’s all in the same handwriting. This plays like a god damned Tim and Eric sketch.

In 2019, if it came out that your local PD spent community funds on something as patently absurd as this training video, your chief would be laughed out of town. In 1995, a mere twenty-four years ago, law enforcement officers tasked with keeping real people safe watched this and were like “These insights are very helpful.” Insane, right?

With Satanic Panic at a fever pitch, people eventually started getting arrested, charged and prosecuted for ritual satanic abuse and murder. Almost all of those convictions were overturned due to a grab bag of falsified evidence / coerced testimony / unsubstantiated claims, and out of the handful of cases that were prosecuted successfully, most of those ended up being overturned later for the same reasons (HBO’s lauded Paradise Lost docuseries about the West Memphis Three is a great example of this). Personally, I feel like the legal terrorization of innocent folks is WAY more terrifying than actual dagger wielding beelze-bros.

Dungeons & Dragons was unfortunately dragged into the mire of Satanic Panic when, in 1982, a boy named Irving Lee Pulling committed suicide. It was determined that Irving was the unfortunate host of a slew of emotional problems, but his mother, Patricia Pulling, decided it was the role-playing game her son was into that killed him. Pulling sued her son’s school and his former principal, claiming the curse placed upon her son’s D&D character as he played on school grounds was real. Pulling also attempted suing TSR, who was the publisher of D&D at the time.

After every single one of Pulling’s unfounded lawsuits was dismissed, she decided to form the group BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) in 1983, and basically ran a full-court press in the media with the help of conservative Christian associations like The 700 Club in order to discredit the game as thoroughly as possible. They attempted targeting rock bands and pornography as well, but their main focus always remained fixed on D&D.

An example of BADD’s prolific and highly wackadoo propaganda campaign

BADD ended up getting pretty big, spanning multiple continents, holding countless speaking engagements, and influencing a great deal of the world’s perception of the game. Ultimately, Patricia Pulling ended up getting majorly called out for manipulating BADD’s statistical data as well as purposefully misrepresenting her credentials, and that ultimately led to her abandoning the very watchdog group she founded, but by then it was too late. The damage to Dungeons & Dragons’ reputation had already been done.

So, as we circle back to a young Mike asking his mom if he can play Dungeons & Dragons, we now have a better understanding of why she said no.

MIKE’S SIDE THEORY: The Era of Demonized Intellect

OK, so we know why people started flipping their collective shit about Dungeons & Dragons, but that alone doesn’t explain why, after not being allowed to play it on that fateful day, I spent three entire decades making fun of it. Mom’s concern about it certainly informed my young brain, but that alone didn’t sour me on role-playing games.

For whatever reason, pop culture in the 1980s/90s was obsessed with ridiculing smart people. Don’t believe me? Here are twenty-two god-damned examples of what I’m talking about, and I’m only stopping there because I ran out of room in the free photo collage program I’m using.

While I was a bit too young to really have experienced Satanic Panic, I was the *chef’s kiss* perfect age during the 80s and early 90s to experience this dork-culling phenomenon firsthand. Nearly everything on TV and film repeated the “nerds are to be either mocked (Saved by the Bell, Family Matters) or overhauled until socially acceptable (Teen Witch, She’s All That)” trope, and in turn, American society parroted what they saw on TV and film. Anyone who showed signs of being of above-average intelligence was classified as a nerd, geek or dweeb, and quickly shunned by the upper echelons of polite society. While everyone can remember watching a nerd get abused at some point in their lives, I can’t think of one instance in which benevolent cool kids from the real world ever took it upon themselves to drag a lowly wretch from the depths of geekdom all the way up to the golden pastures of popularity.

I don’t consider myself to be of above-average intelligence (and I’m sure my childhood testing results echo that sentiment), but I read a lot, was involved with Odyssey of the Mind, played the cello, didn’t play sports, and did all sorts of other shit that would be deemed nerdy by the standards of yesteryear. Subsequently, I was bullied by elementary school classmates to the point that I, a twelve-year-old-boy, fantasized about killing myself so wouldn’t be forced to live through another day of being pelted by rocks on the way home from school, or asked out by a girl only for her to scream OH MY GOD I’M OBVIOUSLY KIDDING I’D NEVER HAVE A DORK FOR A BOYFRIEND to the applause and laughter of my entire class who’d been secretly in on it.

I obviously survived childhood long enough to watch the majority of my old bullies devolve into unemployed alcoholics, violent spousal abusers and model inmates, but lots of kids, including Irving Lee Pulling, weren’t as lucky. People like Irving Lee Pulling checked out early in the worst possible way, and I grew up to be someone who passively made fun of kids who were in an awkward, shitty situation just like I was…and I’m literally coming to this awful epiphany for the very first time as I finish this sentence [Reading Enhancement Tip: Now would be a great time to have Cat’s in the Cradle playing in the background.].

It is my personal belief that Dungeons & Dragons was not only an unfortunate victim of the Satanic Panic era, but also a victim of the equally absurd Era of Demonized Intellect™, and it was the combination of the two that pitched the classic role-playing game headlong into years and years of public contempt and ridicule.

Celebrity, Analog Novelty, and D&D’s Resurgence

The breakout success of Netflix original series Stranger Things is widely considered to be responsible for the Dungeons & Dragons renaissance we’re experiencing today. Sure, The Big Bang Theory’s frequent dice rolling (uselessly bitter side note: I despise this show so much) and a wider acceptance of fantasy themes courtesy of Game of Thrones have contributed to D&D’s spectacular revival, but Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, is experiencing record profits and popularity thanks to handful of kids battling a demogorgon in a dimly lit basement [insert Netflix “bum bummm” here].

Case in point: they even made an inexpensive Stranger Things themed D&D starter set for the swarms of people who became interested in role-playing games because of the show.

Another major factor in Dungeons & Dragons’ newfound popularity? Famous people. As it turns out, loads of celebrities are super into D&D.

With Dungeons & Dragons officially destigmatized by some of the most famous people on earth, Twitch / YouTube channels like the incredibly successful voice actor driven Critical Role further spread the word about just how much fun it can be to sit down with your buddies and make shit up.

This leads to what I personally consider one of the biggest factors behind Dungeons & Dragons’ unfamiliar popularity; the novelty of analog entertainment in the digital age.

Video games. Movies. Television. YouTube. Twitch. Smartphones. Smart TVs. Firebox. Apple TV. Roku. Sling. The Internet has become an umbilical cord of perpetual stimulation for the majority of people currently breathing, and whenever something becomes universally enjoyed by society, a diametrically opposed counter-culture crops up. It’s inevitable. Global capitalism takes off? Punk rock pops up to challenge it. Hippies Elyse and Steven Keaton have a baby? Guess what? It ends up becoming semi-lovable conservative wet blanket Alex P. Keaton. You get the drift. As we all march into a largely digital future, more and more people are wanting to at least temporarily unplug from the endless stream of digital content, and find enjoyment in the world around them. It explains the newly burgeoning board game industry, the influx of people spending money on outdoor activities, as well as the 40 million people playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Mike Takes Interest in D&D, Rolls for Initiative

I experienced a revelation after having attended PAX East (an enormous indie gaming convention) for the first time this past spring, and that revelation was that I really love board games.

My experience with board games before PAX East wasn’t exactly glowing. A half-crumpled cardboard box was typically doled out by parents to us children on rainy days, power outages, or basically whenever they felt it important to keep us busy with something while they did something else. Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, Chinese Checkers, the occasional fist-fight inducing marathon round of Monopoly.

Board games were all pretty much low budget “last ditch effort” fun until Fireball Island came around. That was the first board game I was ever truly excited about. Navigating around an island while trying to keep from being charred to a crisp by a fireball vomiting volcano god?! That was RIGHT up my alley.

I forced everyone to play Fireball Island with me. I made my mom and sister play it with me whenever I could, and when I’d visit my dad, I’d bring it along with me and get the other side of my family to give up on our traditional game of Old Maid (which typically ended up with me crying when I lost) to set up Fireball Island. That old cardboard box saw so much travel that it eventually disintegrated, and I eventually lost enough pieces to force the game into a kind of “toy retirement” until it was thrown away during one house cleaning project or another. As time went on, my attention inevitably drifted toward video games, where it still remains fixed to this day.

Thirty years later, I stood in the secondary entry line at PAX East, which was situated near the tabletop gaming section of the convention center. As I waited for the ropes to be dropped, I was floored by the sheer amount of space tabletop gaming took up. Rows upon rows of shelving stacked full of board game boxes I’d never seen before. An endless sea of kiosks selling interesting looking dice and figurines of monsters and heroes. An enormous portion of the floor taken up by plastic picnic tables at which attendees could sit down and play any game they chose. It blew my mind. Why, at a convention filled with the latest video games to play before they’re available to the public, was the dumb tabletop gaming section so big?

When the ropes eventually dropped and the crowds stampeded into PAX East, I decided to hang back and explore what was clearly a massive part of the show’s experience.

It was then that I came across this absolute gem.

“It’s actually a remake of the original Fireball Island.” A helpful woman at a register told me as I stared slack jawed at the reincarnation of my long lost love. “It started out as a Kickstarter, believe it or not. It’s a lot of fun, and there are expansion packs to keep it interesting after you’ve played it a bunch.”

I bought it instantly, and lugged the giant box around with me throughout the convention for hours until I eventually caught a bus back home to New Hampshire. I was beyond excited to crack it open, and scheduled a game night for friends to come over and try it out with me, and that ended up being the real draw of Fireball Island for me as an adult; a group of great friends all hanging out together and enjoying an analog relic from our childhoods. No TVs. No phones. No crowded bars. No expensive tabs. Just some dice rolling and a hell of a lot of laughs.

I even went a little further, and made a rule that you had to down a gross shot of Fireball if your game piece was taken out by a fireball marble. Most of us were too hammered to play by the end of it, so I’ll probably skip that requirement next time. Whooooooops.

My rediscovery of Fireball Island sent me into a tabletop gaming frenzy. I started compulsively scooping up all sorts of fun board and card games I’d never heard of before. Ramen Fury, Santorini, Gloom, Pandemic, Scythe, Mansions of Madness, Redneck Life; I quickly filled the storage area underneath our bar with games, and finally slowed down when I realized I was buying games faster than I was playing them.

I was on Amazon hunting for the next fun board game to try when I came across the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, and in the effort of trying new things for the Was I Wrong About it All These Years blog theme, I snagged it.

During the descent portion of my infamous Tuckerman Ravine hike, I mentioned to Micah (who is rapidly becoming a fixture in this series) that I’d bought the D&D kit so I could write about it. He said he was way into trying it out, that he’d played it as a kid, and that he even had a couple friends who would join us. I figured it would take me months to assemble an open-minded crew willing to sacrifice a few hours to the nerd gods, but there we were. Ready to go.

We set a date to play a few weeks later, I cooked a gigantic lasagna for everyone, and I hosted my very first Dungeons & Dragons night.

[SPOLIER ALERT: I talk a bit about the adventure book includes in the Starter Kit after this. Probably not enough to bum you out if you want to try it yourself, but I wanted to warn you just in case.]

Some Rules, Some Doubts, and a God Damned Bugbear

Me, my wife Jess, Micah, and Micah’s friend Scott who’s played role-playing games his entire life gathered around my coffee table. We opened the box, pulled out the contents and examined them. The adventure book, a rulebook, player sheets, and a handful of weird-looking dice, including the infamous d20 – the twenty-sided die that even the furthest removed and uninitiated recognize as the unofficial symbol of global nerd culture.

On top of the players who are all working together to win the game, each game of Dungeons & Dragons requires one person to act as “Dungeon Master” or “DM”, who basically acts as the game’s referee and narrator. They read the storyline out to the players, play the parts of the villains / monsters, and make decisions regarding certain outcomes. Scott, who handily had more role-playing experience than all of us combined, decided he wanted me to DM the game, as he’d never been a part of a game with a DM who’d never played before. I was a little hesitant to agree, but I ultimately did. What the hell, right?

Unlike a traditional game of Dungeons & Dragons in which you create a character from scratch and roll the dice to determine what kind of stats it has (stuff like strength, agility, smarts, hit points or “HP”, which are how much damage you can take, etc.), the streamlined Starter Set includes pre-made character sheets for your group to choose from. Scott chose the hill dwarf soldier, Micah opted for the high elf wizard, and Jess picked the lightfoot halfling rogue, which is basically a mean ass hobbit criminal. Each character has inherent skills, bonuses and drawbacks which are unique to them, so there’s definitely some strategy involved in choosing who you’re going to play. All of the characters in this kit start out at level 1 (the most basic bitch, bottom rung level), and levels up with experience points earned along the way, which in turn makes them more powerful. Everybody had a blast coming up with creative names for their characters, especially Jess. I still can’t stop laughing at “Audrey Butterton”.

With the characters created and named, it was my turn to get situated as Dungeon Master. Scott graciously provided me with a folding Dungeon Master’s screen to block the players from seeing the adventure book (the story we were about to play through, my dice, notes, etc.), everybody introduced their characters to each other, and I began reading the story out for everyone. The game had begun.

Lost Mine of Phandelver started out with our group being hired to escort a wagon full of goods to the town of Phandalin, and keep it safe from bandits and marauders along the way. Before anyone other than Scott really had their bearings about what the hell we were doing, we came across some dead horses blocking our cart’s path. There was also an empty leather map case lying right in front of everything. Ooh, where is the map? What does it give directions to?

As we got closer, we realized the dead horses were studded with arrows. It was a trap, and we’d wandered right into it.  

Four goblins popped out of the brush and ambushed us. This was our very first combat encounter, so Scott walked us through the mechanics of it:

  1. Rolling for initiative: Attacks happen in turns. Everybody basically rolls dice to see who attacks first, second, third, etc. The DM rolls initiative for the enemy the players are fighting.
  2. Taking your turn: Everybody takes their turn in order. When it’s your turn, you have several choices regarding what you can do with it; attack, try to hide (maybe if you’re super low on HP), cast a spell, help one of your fellow characters who’s been banged up by the enemy, etc. Attacking looks like the most fun, to be honest. You roll to see if your swing or ranged attack (read: arrow or whatever) hits them, and if it does, you roll again to determine how much damage they took.
  3. The enemy’s turn: The DM rolls for the enemies, and decides whether anyone in the group gets hit.

You keep going around and around doing this until your enemies are dead, or everyone in your group is dead. If people fall in a combat encounter (the enemy hit you until all of your HP are gone), you’ll be revived after the rest of your group kills the baddies. If everybody in your group falls in an encounter, the game is basically over.

In our first of many, many combat encounters, all but one of us survived the ordeal, forcing us to “take a break” in order to revive ourselves and regain our characters’ collective composure.

Once that was done, the continued down the path with our cart, and had to fight some more goblins. We almost all died that time, too. That’s the thing about level 1 characters; they’re hilariously fragile. We kept running into goblins, and they almost ended the game for us over and over again. It was nerve-wracking, a bit tedious, and I’m not going to lie, at that point I started regretting buying the starter kit a little. There were so many rules to take in, and the progress was so slow at first because everybody except Scott was brand new to Dungeons & Dragons, and I kept screwing up as Dungeon Master by reading parts of the story that were meant for just me and not for the players to hear. The learning curve was a bit aggressive, and I wasn’t sure if role-playing games were going to be my thing.

I remember thinking how funny it would have been if those Satanic Panic weirdos from the 80s actually sat down to see what D&D was all about, only to realize it’s less about summoning demons and human sacrifice, and more about constantly flipping through a rulebook and doing basic math on a notepad.

The players reached the mouth of a cave, at which a couple of goblins were standing guard. We’d reached THE goblin hideout, where all of those little assholes ate dinner and slept and hoarded their stolen goods. The brush was thick there, so they never saw us approach. We had the option of sneaking around them and continuing on the town of Phandelver so we could get paid, or we could sneak attack the goblin guards, make our way into the cave, and clear it of the gruesome little shit birds who’d been terrorizing that lonely trail for so long.

The players looked at each other, concluded that they really had nothing to lose at that point, and decided they were going to kick the shit out of a bunch of goblins.

And that’s when my entire attitude about Dungeons & Dragons changed.

The players snuck up on the goblin guards and promptly handed them their asses; the first fight they’d gotten into in which they had the total advantage. Our spirits lifted a little, or at least mine did. Everyone walked into the cave, climbed around, fought a couple more groups of goblins, and they dispatched them all.

After a bit more cave exploration and a little more climbing, the adventurers ended up saving some random warrior dude named Sildar, who was being held hostage by the second-in-command goblin, a shithead named Yeemik who threatened to kill Sildar if we didn’t strike a truce with him. We were all like “screw this dude”, and killed Yeemik, too. Micah froze him with an ice spell, and toppled him over so he shattered into a million pieces like the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The group decided Sildar should lay back and rest while the rest of the players continued on through the cave, clearing it of anything that remotely posed a threat to the outside world. Everyone cheered every time someone rolled a hit. Momentum had been achieved. Hopes were high. It was awesome.

We finally came to a large naturally formed room in the middle of the vast cave system. This is where the batshit head honcho of the goblins chilled. The story read that he was super nuts, and that referred to himself in the third person all the time. His name was Klarg, and he was something called a bugbear.

“Oh shit, a bugbear?” Micah chimed in. “That’s basically like a huge goblin.”

I checked. Micah was right. Homeboy was vicious.

Now our group of three was up against giant ass Klarg, his pet wolf Ripper (of course he had a giant wolf, because why would this be easy), and two more goblins. The players had been getting their butts handed to them by regular goblins for most of the game, so we were all starting to think Klarg and company might be the end of the line for everyone. Could you imagine playing what was supposed to be the easy version of a game for the very first time, only for it to end before you were even halfway through it because you sucked that badly? The thought was too much to (bug)bear.

Micah’s wizard character rolled the best initiative, and he decided the only chance the group would have to get out of that cave alive was for him to cast a sleep spell on Klarg. If the rest of the group could kill Ripper the wolf and two goblins, they could all basically run a blanket party on the bugbear while he snoozed. The problem was that Micah would have to roll a pretty high number to land a sleep spell, as Klarg’s stats were pretty beefy. If it didn’t work, one swipe from Klarg’s weapon would instantly kill any one of the adventurers. That would pretty much be the end of it. There was obviously no money on the line, but the anticipation and excitement I felt at that moment was very similar to how I feel when I place a big bet at Mohegan Sun. Almost everything in this game is governed by chance. This is a lot like gambling, I thought.

Everyone agreed with Micah’s assessment, and we all held our breath as he rolled his d20.

IT WAS A HIT! HOLY SHIT! KLARG WAS WALLOPED WITH A SLEEP SPELL AND PASSED THE FUCK OUT! We screamed and high-fived each other in celebration of a truly momentous turn of events for this sorry band of brittle little warriors.

The group quickly started going to town on the two goblins and the pet wolf while Klarg took a nap on the cave floor. One by one, the remaining enemies fell to the adventurers’ swords, daggers and arrows, and then they all moved on defenseless, crazy old Klarg.

Jess was the one to put the big boy down after having missed nearly every one of her targets throughout the game thus far, and when asked to describe what happened, she blurted out “I SHOT HIM WITH MY SHORT BOW THROUGH THE BACK OF THE HEAD AND THE ARROW WENT THROUGH HIS EYE!!!” She just made that up, right there on the spot. My wife, a mid-30s financial consultant who considers herself one of the least creative people on the planet was absolutely loving all of this.

Klarg was defeated. The goblin caves had been cleared by the heroes. They plundered the treasure left behind by the savage little jerks, and everyone earned enough experience points to move their characters up to level 2, which meant it wouldn’t be as easy for them to fall in combat going forward. The team grabbed poor Sildar from the cave they’d left him in, made their way back to the wagon filled with supplies, and headed toward Phandalin to collect their payment.

And that’s where we stopped for the night. I checked my watch. It was ten-o-clock. Over three and a half hours had passed since we first started playing. It honestly felt like maybe an hour, tops. Micah and Scott got in their cars and drove off to their respective homes, and Jess and I headed up to bed. It was a school night, after all.


It’s fun. It’s social. It’s inexpensive. It’s immersive. It’s exciting. It’s creative. It’s challenging. It’s artistic. It’s beautiful. It’s hilarious. It’s different. As it turns out, Dungeons & Dragons checks off A LOT of boxes for me. Even as I type this, I find myself excited to get the gang back together and see what happens once we reach Phandalin. I’m pumped to DM all the way through this adventure, and then play the next one with a customized character of my very own. I was way, way off about this stuff. If I’m bummed out about anything, it’s because my stupid preconceived notions and prejudices kept me from playing Dungeons & Dragons for so long.

But that’s what this whole blog series is about, right? Forcing myself to do the things I’ve always thought were stupid, and publicly flagellating myself for your entertainment if/when I discover I was wrong about them. Personal growth at a price, if you will.

As an official act of contrition, I’ve made a donation to the D&D Extra Life 2019, a fantastic annual charity drive that raises funds for the Children’s Hospital Network (and I challenge you, dear reader, to do the same). I will also help spread the Dungeons & Dragons gospel by randomly springing unannounced games on unwitting friends who think they’re just coming over for casual dinner and drinks. Be forewarned, guys: you’ll never know if a night of grilled steaks and wine will turn into an epic sword-slashing adventure for treasure and fame until it’s far, far too late to decline.

Written by Mike