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The real-life tragedy and sensationalised fantasy behind D&D-inspired movie Mazes and Monsters

“There were a whole lot of people that thought it was an evil company.”

For Tom Hanks, it was hardly the most auspicious start to a movie career. Before Forrest Gump, before Turner & Hooch, before Bachelor Party even, there was 1982’s Mazes and Monsters. In the Canadian made-for-TV movie, the 26-year-old Hanks landed his first-ever leading role as freshman college student Robbie Wheeling, who becomes psychologically unhinged by a fictional, Dungeons & Dragons-like roleplaying game.

The film is trashy, schmaltzy and so forgettable that Hanks himself has barely referred to it since. But Mazes and Monsters is far more than an embarrassing ‘before they were famous’ curio. Its own story is a narrative labyrinth, whose sharp twists and strange turns begin with real-life tragedy and end with a widespread media scare that was so intense it made the creators of D&D fear for their own safety.

Content warning: this article includes discussion of suicide and depression.

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Mazes and Monsters was Tom Hanks' first major role, at the age of 26.

On August 22nd 1979, in Dallas, Texas, private detective William Dear received a call from a locally well-known surgeon named Dr. Melvin Gross. “My nephew has disappeared,” Gross told Dear.

A week earlier, 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III had vanished from the campus of Michigan State University. Small-boned and looking much younger than his age, Egbert – known as Dallas – was a precocious high-achiever with a high IQ who was already a sophomore at the college, majoring in computer science. In his dorm room he’d left a short but troubling note: “To whom it may concern: should my body be found, I wish it to be cremated.” On his cork board he’d created an arcane arrangement of pushpins. Could it be a map, the campus cops wondered? Why were several pins configured into the rough shape of a pistol?

Having just returned from solving an extortion case in Tokyo, Dear was reluctant to take the case on. But there was something about Dallas that drew him in, mainly the student’s young age; Dear himself had an 11-year-old son. After meeting with Dallas’ parents, Jim and Anna Egbert, at their home in Dayton, Ohio, he took the job.

Dear quickly formed a picture of Dallas as a profoundly troubled, lonely young man. But it was another revelation that hooked the investigator most deeply: Dallas played a game called Dungeons & Dragons.

Dear quickly formed a picture of Dallas as a profoundly troubled, lonely young man; the combination of burdensome parental expectation and the pressure-cooker atmosphere of college had left him riven with depression. He was bisexual, which Dear believed he had trouble coming to terms with. He also heavily used marijuana, cocaine and, according to one college friend, “some stuff he cooked up himself,” including PCP. But it was another revelation that hooked the investigator most deeply: Dallas played a game called Dungeons & Dragons.

“This is a board game?” the nonplussed Dear asked a student named Karen Coleman, a friend of Dallas’ who didn’t play the RPG herself.

“It’s a mind game,” she replied. “Dallas said you can make the game into anything you want.”

Coleman explained how Dallas and some other students like to “play it for real” down in the network of steam tunnels that stretched for miles beneath the college grounds. “I remember one Sunday night, late, he came back to the dorm utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. He looked terrible; his clothes were a mess. He’d been playing D&D in the tunnels.”

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Investigator William Dear wrote non-fiction account The Dungeon Master based on his search for James Dallas Egbert III, which later inspired Rona Jaffe's fictional Mazes and Monsters.

As part of his investigation, Dear actually played Dungeons & Dragons himself, hiring an unnamed college dungeon master to run a scenario in his motel room. It’s amusing to picture: the imposing Texan private eye hunched over a table and rolling d20s, scribbling on the character sheet of a third-level magic-user he’d named Tor. But Dear took it seriously and came away gravely convinced of the game’s immersive power.

“I had concentrated so hard on evading dangers, trying to gather a fortune, and simply staying alive that for long periods I actually forgot where I was and became a magic-user in the perilous maze,” he wrote five years later in his published account of the case, titled The Dungeon Master. “I had escaped to another place, another world, another time.” Dear feared that Dallas had become lost in a deadly live-action roleplaying (LARP) variant of D&D and perished down in the campus steam tunnels.

“These tunnels were practically guaranteed to set your imagination racing,” Dear wrote, “but you didn’t need an imagination down here.”

This fear was compounded when, during a search of the genuinely perilous tunnels, Dear discovered a small room containing a neatly cloth-covered table, on which stood a papier-mâché head: evidence of a recent game? “These tunnels were practically guaranteed to set your imagination racing,” he wrote, “but you didn’t need an imagination down here.”

Dear was not shy in sharing his theories. To the annoyance of the local police, he regularly spoke to the press. Soon, Dear’s theory was transmuted into ‘fact’ by the excited media and the story of a young college kid who disappeared while playing a ‘real’ game of D&D in a ‘real dungeon’ rapidly spread nationwide.

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Rona Jaffe's book was released in late 1981, and adapted into a film the following year.

Among those roused by the troubling story was celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe. The Brooklyn-born author had caused a stir in 1958 with her debut The Best of Everything, a candid account of working women’s lives that has recently been praised as a kind of proto-Sex and the City. Reasoning the Egbert case had all the ingredients for a juicy, romantic social-problem thriller, and concerned someone might beat her to the punch, Jaffe dashed out Mazes and Monsters as quickly as she could, getting it published in September 1981.

Jaffe’s grip on the reality of roleplaying games is hilariously tenuous - and her ill-researched gaffes carry over into the film adaptation.

In Jaffe’s daffy page-turner, Dallas is effectively split into three male leads: computer-whizz Daniel, 16-year-old prodigy Jay Jay and shy Robbie Wheeler, who all play the titular RPG alongside wannabe-novelist protagonist Kate. Jaffe’s grip on the reality of roleplaying games is hilariously tenuous - even before her characters start LARPing in the nearby abandoned caverns - and her ill-researched gaffes carry over into the film adaptation, directed by jobbing TV helmer Steven Hilliard Stern.

In the book’s prologue, Jaffe describes Mazes and Monsters as “a war game with a medieval background, in which each player creates a character who may be a fearless Fighter, a treasure-hunting Sprite, a magic-using Holy Man, or a wily Charlatan. The point of the game is to amass a fortune and keep from getting killed.” In the movie, we’re treated to the sight of Daniel (David Wysocki) and Jay Jay (Chris Makepeace) painting their ‘miniatures’ - which are actually four-inch tall standees. During another scene, when Hanks’ Robbie and Wendy Crewson’s Kate first meet a party, we suffer this excruciating exchange:

  • Robbie: I played a game called Mazes and Monsters a little too much.
  • Kate: No kidding. What level?
  • Robbie: Uh, nine. Ninth level.
  • Kate: So am I! Isn’t it wonderful to be finally creating your own scenarios?

It’s all so laughably clueless, but it comes with a hysterical edge. Subsequent to Robbie becoming convinced he is his character, Holy Man Pardieu, he goes missing, and is told in a dream that he must travel to New York and jump off the top of the World Trade Centre. (He believes he’ll fly, of course, thanks to his “pouch of spells”.) Robbie/Pardieu’s friends rescue him, but his mind is forever lost to the game’s never-convincing world of reptilian Gorvils, evil Voracians and “the wicked Ak-Oga”.

“These players, the ones who had gone too far and the one who disappeared, could be anybody’s kids,” Jaffe sermonises in her prologue. “Bright young college students sent out to prepare for life, given the American Dream and rejecting it to live in a fantasy world of invented terrors. Why did they do it? What went wrong?”

What went wrong with James Dallas Egbert III had nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons. William Dear found him in Morgan City, Louisiana on September 13th, 1979. Dallas had gone into the steam tunnels, it turned out. Not to play - though he had done previously - but to take his own life by overdosing on a sedative. After awakening, he’d hidden out in a series of friends’ houses before absconding to New Orleans, where he tried to kill himself again.

There was no evidence that Dallas' depression was connected to Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, he told Dear, the game was “a terrific way to escape”.

Dallas, it turned out, had been planning his disappearance and suicide for nine months. There was no evidence that his crippling depression was connected to D&D. In fact, he told Dear, the game was “a terrific way to escape”; if anything, its role in his life was more therapeutic than disruptive. To be fair to Dear, who seems to have developed a genuine affection for Dallas, he didn’t treat D&D as the ultimate cause of his problems. However, in his 1984 book, the detective does sensationally conclude that during his disappearance Dallas had become a kind of real-world dungeon master: “By disappearing, leaving clues, and setting up alternative outcomes for his adventure, he had created a game in which the other adventurers - me and my men, his parents, anyone who was involved - never knew what to expect. In Dallas’ ultimate game of Dungeons & Dragons, his only real opponent had been death.”

Of course, the true facts of the case were never as widely publicised as all the wild theories about the psychological impact of this “far-out” new game. The idea of D&D as a potentially perilous pastime became baked into the national conversation.

The Egberts never denounced Dungeons & Dragons, but other American parents - many of whom were encouraged by the reporting of the Egbert case - saw the game as a pernicious, unholy influence on their own troubled offspring. As early as May 1980, parents in Heber City, Utah cancelled an after-school D&D club for fomenting devil worship and “Communist subversion”. In Summer 1982, the game was banned from school districts in Oklahoma owing to its “Satanic nature”. Most famously, in late 1984, Patricia Pulling of Richmond, Virginia tried to sue D&D’s Lake Geneva-based publisher TSR and co-creator Gary Gygax after her 16-year-old son Irving took his own life as the result, she believed, of being “cursed” by a fellow D&D player. The suit failed, but she still formed the anti-D&D group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD).

To Pulling, the game was characterised by “demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings”. That’s quite a rap sheet. D&D continued to come under criticism well into the late ’80s, swept up into a broader cultural panic over a perceived rise of the occult in the USA.

“I was at TSR when all that went down,” says game designer Michael Gray, whose time at the company brackets both the publication and televising of Mazes and Monsters. “It helped the sales of D&D, but there were a whole lot of people that thought it was an evil company. Gary Gygax felt so threatened he got a new house quite a ways away from Lake Geneva - it was a big secret.”

Gray even felt threatened himself. After creating TSR board game Fantasy Forest, which featured cartoony vampires, dragons and werewolves, he remembers receiving hate mail. “It would be better if you were never born than to put these monsters in the minds of children,” one person wrote. “That bothered me,” Gray says.

Eventually, TSR responded to the ‘Satanic panic’ pressure by removing any mention of demons and devils in the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1989. Over time, of course, the panic subsided and the denizens of the Abyss and the Nine Hells were reinstated in the rulebooks.

TSR responded to the ‘Satanic panic’ pressure by removing any mention of demons and devils in the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1989.

Most people involved in the strange story of Mazes and Monsters did well out of it. Jaffe’s book sold solidly. (It was “Better than anything else Rona Jaffe has ever written,” the cover quote stated, incorrectly.) Dear became a minor celebrity; he’s since appeared on Fox Television’s Alien Autopsy and argued for OJ Simpson’s innocence on BBC documentary OJ: The Untold Story. And Tom Hanks, of course, levelled up into a two-time Oscar-winning megastar, aka The Nicest Man In Hollywood.

But not everyone came out of it okay.

On August 11th, 1980, James Dallas Egbert III sat down on the living-room couch of his one-bedroom apartment in Dayton, Ohio. He held a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. After five days in intensive care he passed away. He was 17 years old. It is hard not to wonder if, had more attention been given to the realities of his illness, rather than the fantasy of D&D’s effect on him, he might still be alive today.

UK and Ireland: You can contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. Call PAPYRUS (Prevention of Young Suicide) on 0800 068 4141 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org.

US: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.

For further information on international suicide helplines visit befrienders.org.


Dan Jolin avatar

Dan Jolin

Contributor

Dan has been a tabletop gamer ever since he first played Dungeons & Dragons as a 10-year-old during the ’80s, just like the kids out of Stranger Things. Unlike the kids out of Stranger Things, however, he’s never killed a Demogorgon. Rather less excitingly, he works as a freelance writer, specialising in cinema and gaming, and has recently launched his own board gaming magazine, Senet. (Image: Marco Vittur)