James Dallas Egbert III (October 29, 1962 – 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).
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Misunderstandings about Egbert's disappearance made the incident somewhat of an urban legend, inspiring several fictional premises and at least one real-life event.
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.