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The Missing Teen Who Fueled ‘Cult Panic’ Over Dungeons & Dragons

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.

“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.

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