Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

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According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.

Friday Feature: The Infinity Engine

In honor of our first video-game themed weekly article, this week’s Friday Feature highlights a collection of quality games from the (relatively) ancient history of PC gaming.

These games all ran on a framework called the Infinity Engine, which was responsible for creating great strategy role-playing games, played from an “isometric” (in gaming, isometric typically refers to aerial third person) perspective.

The engine entered into the gaming scene in 1998 with its first game: Baldur’s Gate. It, like most of its Infinity successors, was a Dungeons and Dragons-based strategy rpg. While Baldur’s Gate may not have been the most polished of the Infinity games, it was probably the most popular. It received rave reviews and continues to have a thriving fan-base that was responsible for the recent reincarnation Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition.

Baldur’s Gate in its original (1998) incarnation.

One of the beauties of the Infinity engine was that it overlaid character sprites onto pre-rendered backdrops. While it doesn’t sound like much, it makes for really interesting and attractive environments.

Some of the other important games made in the Infinity Engine include: Planescape: TormentBaldur’s Gate IIIcewind Dale and Icewind Dale II.

Icewind Dale II (2002).

Icewind Dale II may have been the pinnacle of the engine’s performance, graphically speaking, but by current gaming standards, all of the Infinity Engine games will look sub-par.

That’s because they’re old! But what they have going for them outlasts graphical polish. They’re just great games! 

They tell fun stories that balance the right amount of dorky humor with interesting high-fantasy plot. They get probably closer than any other video games to getting the “feel” of playing Dungeons and Dragons around a table. And if you’re looking for a challenging game experience, any of these games set on the “AD&D Core Rules” difficulty setting will be sure to teach you the meaning of “challenge.”

If you’re interested in checking these games out, they’re available for very little money on GoG.com (if you’re undecided keep your eye out for a sale, these games are among the more frequently discounted, and they’re discounted price is typically in the $2-$4 range). If you have a computer built in the last 5 years, it will run the games if you pick them up from GoG.

If you’re among our wealthier readers, or you think you’ll be concerned with something silly like “screen resolution,” check out the Baldur’s Gate: Enchanced Edition, available only on Steam at the moment. Keep an eye out for the technical requirements on the enhanced edition, I’ve read that not all graphics cards agree with it.