By Michael M. Hughes / October 25, 2016
If you’re like me, and you played Dungeons & Dragons in the ’70s and ‘80s, then you likely encountered someone who told you you were going to Hell. Maybe your born again aunt slipped you the infamous Jack Chick pamphlet, Dark Dungeons. Or maybe it was the kid in your class who broke your record player trying to convince you of the pervasiveness of Satanic messages in backward-masked heavy metal vocals. Perhaps your mom watched one of the televised exposés, like the shameful 60 Minutes segment from 1985, and fell for the hysterical propaganda from groups like Pat Pulling’s Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), whose disciples warned that the game would turn you into a sociopathic, homosexual Satanist who would commit suicide after ritualistically killing your parents, your sister, and the family cat.
Dungeons & Dragons was a major fuel of the satanic panic that convinced gullible Americans that their children were in danger of being indoctrinated into occultism, black magic, and witchcraft. Far too many people truly believed a game in which kids (and it was mostly kids) role-played wizards, warriors, and thieves hacking and slaying monsters with swords and magical spells in fantasy settings would turn the youth of America into black-robed, pagan ritualists. Crazy, right? Well, maybe not.
Confession time: I’m a practicing occultist. Not an armchair Crowleyite bedecked in Hot Topic jewelry or fluffy RenFaire Wiccan, but someone who has worked extensively with a number of practical magical systems. And if it hadn’t been for the magical education I got playing and DMing D&D as a kid, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time reading about occultism before taking the plunge into actual practice about twenty years ago. And from informal surveys of my magician friends, D&D was definitely our gateway drug. So, in fact, that Jack Chick pamphlet was somewhat prophetic (although, I feel compelled to add, my brand of occultism does not involve harming anything or anyone, much less anything that could be remotely described as “evil”).
And although the opponents of D&D harped on mostly apocryphal psychological dangers (like sensitive kids committing suicide after the death of a beloved character), it was the magic and spells in the game that sent religious conservatives and evangelicals into paroxysms of panic. And understandably so, as the game featured not just the fireballs, lightning bolts, and healing potions of popular fantasy fiction, but necromancy, dark rituals, and demons and devils ripped from medieval grimoires. The tiny-print, hardback Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) books included diagrams of magic circles, hierarchies of demons and devils, tables of medicinal plants (like something out of Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs or Skinner’s The Complete Magician’s Tables), and ritual elements gleaned from historical and popular occultism.
AD&D’s magical lexicon was deep and rich, too. In the years before Gary Gygax, how many kids knew the meaning of words like thaumaturgy, thurible, and phylactery, much less folkloric concepts like the Irish geas and parapsychological terms like clairaudience and psionics? Where, in material aimed at kids, could you find descriptions of Neoplatonic elementals and diagrams of Blavatskian astral planes? Playing D&D was an introductory course in parapsychology, demonolatry, popular occultism, and western esotericism. And I devoured it—though the Christian fundamentalists, of course, would say it devoured me.
For an example, check out this demon summoning ritual, from the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978).
The spell caster must be within a circle of protection (or a thaumaturgic triangle with protection from evil) and the demon confined within a pentagram (circled pentacle) if he or she is to avoid being slain or carried off by the summoned cacodemon.
The components of this spell are 5 flaming black candles; a brazier of hot coals upon which must be burned Sulphur, bat hairs, lard, soot, mercuric-nitric acid crystals, mandrake root, alcohol, and a piece of parchment with the demon’s name inscribed in runes inside a pentacle; and a dish of blood from some mammal (preferably a human, of course) placed inside the area where the cacodemon is to be held.
And then there were the gods. The game’s pantheon expanded with the publication of Deities & Demigods in 1980 (17 Pantheons of Divinities!), as did the number of illustrations of bare-breasted women in the AD&D core rulebooks—always appreciated by the game’s undersexed adolescent male fan base. The book was later retitled Legends & Lore in a futile attempt to placate fundamentalists, but the possibilities remained. Now campaigns could include the gods of Babylon, Egypt, the Celts, Greece, Rome, and Sumeria, among others—you could even roll with the Great Old Ones of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (until a lawsuit from Chaosium, which owned the gaming rights to Lovecraft’s material, forced their removal).
So when, in my 30s, I gave up trying to be a professional mentalist and began to explore the idea of trying out magic of the ceremonial variety, I discovered my D&D education had allowed me to test out of Magic 101. When I read Israel Regardie’s brick of a book, The Golden Dawn: The Original Account of the Teachings, Rites and Ceremonies of the Hermetic Order, I immediately saw it for what it was: the Player’s Handbook for real life magi, complete with instructions for creating talismans and ritual tools, using tarot cards for divination, and traveling the astral planes. Time to level up!
After a few years immersed in the Golden Dawn and its offshoots, I plunged soulfirst into the magic of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks (seeking the historical source code underlying all later systems) and found myself reciting orisons to gods I’d first met in Deities & Demigods. D&D taught me the practical benefits of polytheism (the more gods, the merrier), the importance of protective circles and banishings, and instilled a healthy respect for malign spiritual entities and the dregs of the astral’s unsavory neighborhoods.
So your born-again aunt was right. Jack Chick was right. D&D made me, and a lot of other nerdy spiritual seekers, into real-life magic users, clerics, and druids. We fell under D&D’s spell and failed our save versus magic. For me, a spiritually inclined kid prone to bouts of mysticism, D&D was the gateway to a world beyond the limits of my family’s mainstream, restrictive Catholicism. It helped me realize that the power of magic wasn’t confined to the priest standing behind the altar; I could light candles, burn incense, and invoke God (and gods) with just as much authority—and it’s just this spirit of independence and distrust of authority that informs so much of the occultist worldview.
If the Bible-bangers turn out to be right, though, I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of you in the Nine Hells. Don’t forget to bring your dice.