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James Dallas Egbert III (October 29, 1962[1] – August 16, 1980), was a student at Michigan State University who was incorrectly alleged to have disappeared into the school's steam tunnels for reasons related to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).[2][3]

Egbert was indeed a player of D&D, but it was later revealed that his entry of the steam tunnels was unrelated to the game.[3] At the time, the 16-year-old child prodigy was struggling with depression, was under intense academic pressure from his parents, and was battling drug addiction. In addition, his young age, advanced intelligence, and other issues had made it difficult for Egbert to make friends on campus.[4] Egbert entered the steam tunnels on August 15, 1979 with a bottle of methaqualone intending to end his life. The suicide attempt was unsuccessful and when he awoke the next day he went into hiding at a friend's house.

Contents

Disappearance

A well-publicized search for Egbert began after The State News (MSU's daily student newspaper) broke the story of his disappearance from his room in Case Hall (a student dormitory) in an article written by Michael Stuart. Egbert's parents subsequently hired private investigator William Dear to find their son. Dear knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons at that time. He questioned some of Egbert's friends who were nearly as ignorant, since Egbert had never played the game at Michigan State. Dear concocted a theory that Egbert had gotten lost in the steam tunnels during a live-action version of D&D, and the press repeated Dear's hypothesis as fact.[5] The search for Egbert continued unsuccessfully for several weeks.

In fact, Egbert had fled campus. As the furor over his disappearance spread, several of Egbert's hosts asked him to leave their homes, fearing repercussions with law enforcement. Egbert eventually traveled to New Orleans, where he again attempted suicide, this time with cyanide. After this attempt also failed, he moved to Morgan City, Louisiana and took a job as a laborer in an oil field.

Four days into this new job, Egbert called Dear and revealed that he was hiding in Morgan City. Dear traveled to Louisiana and recovered Egbert. (Other reports say he was in Texas.) When the two finally met, Egbert asked the investigator to conceal the truth of his story. Dear agreed and released the 16-year-old to the custody of his uncle, Dr. Marvin Gross, on September 13, 1979.

Because of his promise to the boy, Dear left the false news reports unchallenged for the rest of the boy's short life. Egbert's third suicide attempt on August 16, 1980, by gunshot, succeeded. Four years after Egbert's death, Dear revealed his story in his 1984 book The Dungeon Master.

Prior to Dear's revelations, Rona Jaffe had already published a thinly disguised fictionalization of the press exaggerations of the Egbert case, the 1981 novel Mazes and Monsters. The book was adapted into a made-for-television movie (see Mazes and Monsters) in 1982.

Other incidents

Misunderstandings about Egbert's disappearance made the incident somewhat of an urban legend, inspiring several fictional premises and at least one real-life event.

Pritchard incident

In 1988, during an investigation into his stepfather's murder, Christopher Wayne Pritchard told police he and his friends mapped the steam tunnels of North Carolina State University for the purposes of incorporating them into their D&D game.[6]

In fiction

  • In the book The Rule of Four, several sections involve use of the campus steam tunnels, sometimes for games, but not for D&D.[7]
  • A similar incident is often referenced in the Knights of the Dinner Table comic. One of the characters, 'Nitro', earned the nickname "the Lord of Steam" after a live-action game in the steam tunnels under Muncie, Indiana's Ball State University went disastrously awry.[citation needed] Nitro's group continues to embark on yearly steam tunnel forays in the comics, which are simultaneously promoted and disavowed by Weird Pete's Games Pit.
  • A similar idea was used in Neal Stephenson's 1984 university satire The Big U. In the novel several live action role playing gamers head into their University's sewers to play a game called "Sewers and Serpents".
  • David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest features characters on the verge of schizophrenia clambering through steam tunnels and being hypnotically lost in media.[citation needed]
  • In the novel Mazes and Monsters by Rona Jaffe, a group of college friends play the role-playing game Mazes and Monsters, using an abandoned mine near their college campus for a live-action version of the game. One of the students (played by Tom Hanks in the movie) suffers a psychotic breakdown while playing the game.
  • The 1985 comedy movie Real Genius portrays a genius former student, Lazlo Hollyfeld (played by Jon Gries), who has been lurking in the tunnel system for years since he cracked under pressure in the early 1970s.

References

  1. ^ Social Security Death Index
  2. ^ Kushner, David. "Dungeon Master: The Life and Legacy of Gary Gygax". Wired.com. http://www.wired.com/gaming/virtualworlds/news/2008/03/ff_gygax. Retrieved 2008-10-16. 
  3. ^ a b La Farge, Paul (September 2006). "Destroy All Monsters". The Believer Magazine. Archived from the original on 2008-10-04. http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.believermag.com%2Fissues%2F200609%2F%3Fread%3Darticle_lafarge&date=2008-10-04. 
  4. ^ Dear, William C. (1984). Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. Houghton Mifflin. 
  5. ^ Fine, Gary Alan. (1983). Shared Fantasy - Role-playing Games as social Worlds. the University of Chicago Press. pp. 254. ISBN 0-226-24943-3. 
  6. ^ McGinniss, Joe (1991). Cruel Doubt. Simon& Schuster. ISBN 0671679473. 
  7. ^ Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. The Rule of Four. ISBN 0-385-33711-6. 

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