The Dungeon Master (1984)

The Dungeon Master is William Dear’s account of the disappearance, discovery and eventual death of James Dallas Egbert III, a tragic case that would taint the reputation of Dungeons & Dragons for much of the 1980s.

Egbert was a child prodigy who found himself studying computer science at Michigan State University at age 16. He struggled with depression, substance abuse and, according to Dear, was a closeted homosexual dealing with tremendous parental disapproval. In 1979, Egbert attempted suicide, then disappeared when the attempt was unsuccessful. Egbert’s parents hired Dear, a private investigator (pictured here, with a statue of a deer – he’s a bit of a character), to find their son.

Dear learned about Egbert’s enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons and publicly theorized that it was connected to his disappearance. Students played live-action versions of D&D in the university’s steam tunnels and the fear was the Egbert was hurt or lost within them. In reality, he had fled for New Orleans, where he made another failed suicide attempt and worked for a time as an oil field worker. Dear eventually tracked him down and brought him into the custody of his uncle. Unfortunately, Egbert’s third suicide attempt, a year after his initial disappearance in 1980, was successful.

Dear’s hypothesis that Egbert’s disappearance was connected to D&D was seized upon by the press, which sensationalized the theory even after Dear discarded it (Dear explains in the book, printed in 1984, that he regrets ever making the connection). From there, the idea of the troubled young man who plays D&D and cannot distinguish its fiction from reality entered public consciousness.

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