The 1980s Satanic Panic

In the 80s games like House of Hell had an extra frisson to them because the adults had all lost their minds and vaguely believed in widespread devil-worshiping cults, so as a kid you got the impression that this sort of Hammer Horror nonsense was actually going on somewhere, and by implication the powers of hell were very real.

Along with nuclear annihilation this was one of the dark shadows hanging over the decade that bled into gaming media; as well as horror titles I remember a scenario in White Dwarf about a village with a secret cult of Loki, which behaved essentially like a standard issue satanic cult.

And of course D&D itself was widely regarded as linked to the occult; some people believed that outright, but for the most part my experience of the moral panic involved encounters with people who didn’t believe it, per se, but sort of hedged their bets in that odd way people who don’t think clearly often do, regarding it as not necessarily satanic, because that would imply belief in demons, but esoterically sketchy, which presumably only requires belief in maybe-demons.

This podcast episode is old but I found it interesting and useful to share with younger gamers who have no idea how weird the 1980s were:

El D20ablo — The Satanic Panic & Role-Playing Games

And while it isn't readily available in any form at the moment, if you ever get the chance I recommend this play on the subject:


Do you have any memories of the satanic panic? If you were born late enough to avoid it, does it seem exceptionally baffling to you?

I was born at the beginning of the nineties, so I should have missed it. Luckily for me, here in Italy we are still dragging it, with the last episode dating to this may (which prompted me to start writing a profanity-filled post on the blog, which I abandoned after I cooled down).


I was gaming during this weird time. I started with Holmes and chits in cups/hats because tracking down polyhedral dice was tricky.

I seem to remember there was some kind of over-hyped television special about it, and this inspired my mother to try and confiscate all of my gaming books.

Fortunately for me, I had wisely used the school “book covers” on my Player’s Handbook, DMG and Monster Manual and these were overlooked in my backpack alongside my school text books (I think I only did this so I could read them in school without arousing suspicion from teachers :laughing:). It took a few months before I was able convince everyone that there was absolutely no chance my immortal soul was in peril due to a game that helped improve my imagination, math, and reading skills :slight_smile:


I remember the stigma on role-playing games in the early '80s. I had a conservative Christian aunt who was cautious about my running D&D for her sons, my cousins. I had a friend whose mother would not let him play because it “went against their Christian faith.” This friend did, though, have some kind of small-production Christian fantasy role-playing game in spiral notebooks that his mom got for him. You cast spells by reciting memorized Bible verses. I thought, at the time, even as a kid, that it was actually a cool idea to link real-world education with gaming, even though we never actually got to play it. Let’s just say I could not have cast a single spell in that system! I wish, though, I knew what that game was, just for historical interest.

My blog has an entry (April 24) that gives the entire text of an anti-D&D Christian pamphlet from 1980. Feel free to take a look if you want to see the original sort of anti-D&D propaganda. I would give the link but I don’t know if that’s allowed here. April 24, Lich Van Winkle.


Dragonraid! I have a copy of this game somewhere. It was really, really weird.


We had a little satanic panic here in Brazil during the early 2000s. A girl was killed in a cemetery “ritual” by a group of LARPers, if I recall correctly. You know, Vampire players wearing black coats even when it was 100 degrees outside.

1 Like

You found it! That’s amazing. Thank you, ktrey. I have been trying to remember this basically since 1985. I held the books in my hands and flipped through it. Weren’t there spell cards, too, with bible verses on the backs?

And, wow, it is being sold now in a second edition! See lightraiders dot com if you are interested.

1 Like

Yep! Your recollections are accurate :slight_smile:. Always seemed super weird to me:


Thank you so much for sharing that! And for demonstrating that my memory is not as faulty as my wife thinks it is! :slight_smile:

Now we need to hear from anybody at all who played the game. Does it work? Was it fun? And did it save any souls, restraining its players from the worship of Orcus and attempts to verify the effectiveness of Power Word Kill + Resurrection spells, in that order?


Everybody can link stuff as long as it’s pertinent to the discussion and it’s not against forum rules (like, please don’t link anything from the Z-guy). So, please, link away.

This is one of the most “player skill vs sheet statistics” ideas I’ve ever seen. Like, I’d really want to play this game and them mod and hack it to adapt to other skills. It’s beautiful.

1 Like

The funny thing is that some Christians believed that D&D was teaching kids magic spells. This game responded by actually teaching kids Bible verses.

The British Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson required players to memorize three-letter codes for the spells. (The game apps made a few years ago keep that.)

What if we had a fantasy game that actually required players to memorize incantations to cast spells or call upon clerical powers to use in-game powers? Satanic Panic would return, if anybody still cared.

One could make an ancient Greek heroes game in which the gods are called by verses from the Homeric hymns. Other ideas come to mind.

In the end, though, I draw a line about player skill. I don’t require my players to LARP it out.

I recently stumbled across this Kickstarter and found it interesting/relevant: The magic system is based on learning Sign Language! So I was pleased to see this type of approach of system as “teaching” tool is still alive and well. :slight_smile:


ktrey, that’s fascinating! There’s a stream of education theory that wants to embed learning in play.

I experimented with this. When I started running games for my kids, I designed a world full of Latin vocabulary. (They are learning Latin.) I used frequency lists to determine which words to use (that is, the most useful Latin words). In the end, it did not work, but I still have a partially developed fantasy setting not based on ancient Rome but in which the language of the Ancients (the bygone people who built the dungeons) is represented by Latin.

It blurred player knowledge and character knowledge, for sure, and I can’t say it worked well (I could explain why), but I think the idea has potential for a super-tiny subset of gamers who want to acquire a specific vocabulary set and play immersive fantasy games.

It’s interesting that the Satanic Panic prompted soul-searching about “educational value” in RPGs. That aspect of the Satanic Panic (which I deplore, in general) has probably been forgotten.

1 Like

I’ve been thinking about such kind of a game since this morning, so I fear you will have to blame me for that…

Kernelinyellow, such a game could (should?) dispense with INT and WIS scores, in my view. At a certain point, it’s the player who “knows the spells,” not the character, just as the player “knows how to search (describe searching) for hidden objects.”

(Here I wave my home rules in the air and shout about the virtue of having no stats representing mental acuity, but relying on player wits instead.)

The ideas discussed here have got my gears turning. Mind explaining what the problems you encountered in this campaign were?

I don’t mind at all, Kingroy23! This is likely to get split off to another thread, but I’m not sure what it will be. (Maybe: experiments with game mechanics?)

So, the hurdles to using a game to teach Latin vocabulary… Two of the problems were brought on by circumstances. One was that I had two ten-year-old players, who were both relatively inexperienced. (They had played only Hero Kids before and RPG-like board games like Talisman. My son and his friends at school also have a shared sci-fi fantasy world that they develop without rules, a spontaneous creation that they elaborate in a Google doc.) At this time I had no idea of such a thing as an OSR or a Fifth Edition, and I was not even sure how long we would be playing. We used Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e, with some modifications. So that is some context.

The main problems I had in using the game to teach vocabulary have to do with the nature of language acquisition and the Latin curriculum my kids were using. As is typical for all but the very youngest learners, word inflections are hard to acquire and use, whereas word roots and nouns are not hard. Latin is a highly inflected language. Basically the result was, at best, a pool of loan-words for a fantasy game. I was mostly conveying nouns to my kids through the game, and they had little context to apply the word endings. These nouns, furthermore, had an artificial ring to them in the context of the medium of English, and I found myself slipping merely into Latinate vocabulary. For example, if they met someone introduced the custos (guardian) of the templum (temple), they would not learn the noun stem custod- without inflectional variation. (The effort did lead me to invent a lot of new monsters with slightly erudite-sounding names, such as the Horrent or Bristle Beast.) But they weren’t learning Latin inflections, just loan-words, usually as what are called “nonce borrowings” (used once for an occasion, not repeated or acquired by the hearer). Their Latin curriculum, by contrast, has emphasized recognizing inflected forms and meanings in context, so they were unused to hearing (not seeing) Latin words outside of complete sentences, and that also was a mismatch. Basically, the attempt to do this added flavor to the game but I doubt they learned more than fifteen real Latin words each. Not nothing, but not what I had in mind.

I never realized my goal of giving spell effects to the players who could recite paradigms of inflected Latin forms. I simply didn’t have time to work it out between teaching, research, childcare, and other responsibilities, and I hesitated further to make the game into something chore-like (even though it was supposed to make learning fun). It would have required an entirely different magic system. The spell system I eventually devised for my home rules is not at all based on vocabulary acquisition.

The main reason it didn’t work, ultimately, was that we had so much fun with the adventure that we forgot all about Latin and were carried away by the fantasy. Oh, did they scream when they turned over an old boat on a subterranean beach and a sand-encrusted living corpse, trapped beneath, emerged to grasp at them! That one almost overdid it, because they were reluctant to play the next time. Playing with little kids is tons of fun, because they become so immersed that they jump up and swing their little arms around and really feel it. The downside is that they can feel things like fear more than you wanted.

These days, they are more experienced, venturing into the Barrowmaze without blinking, tracking five-minute exploration phases by means of torch cards that I printed out and wincing when they check for Random Hazards on 1D6. Their Latin is going slowly but surely, completely apart from the games, while they certainly have learned how to explain ways to search for imaginary traps and to negotiate with Mongrelfolk. They did learn English vocabulary, too, such as brazier, parapet, and crenellation!

To make it work, I’d have to have a game that was really about teaching Latin, not about adventure. The adventure should serve the educational goal, not the other way around. But we just wanted to play, in the end, so the explicit educational goal failed.

1 Like

I had wisely used the school “book covers” on my Player’s Handbook, DMG and Monster Manual and these were overlooked in my backpack alongside my school text books

I used that trick, along with expendable photocopies of books in ring-binders, and pulling open part of a coat lining so I could conceal books inside it. Feels very cloak and dagger looking back.

Always seemed super weird to me:

There’s a lot to unpack in this image. The “No Sweat” and “Right On” runes have a powerful How Do You Do, Fellow Kids? energy, and apparently there are rules for shaming dragons through the medium of homophobic abuse?

I’m not saying it’s off-brand, but still…

Also not entirely clear on whether “mind speech” indicates telepathy, or just that the dragon went to college.