James Dallas Egbert III was a bright kid. He finished high school early, he was just 16 years old. Then, in the summer of 1979, he enrolled in Michigan State University. He is one of the youngest people admitted to the school.
It was a thrill for him to be admitted, and he was excited to start college. A new start for him, a chance to make new friends. According to the New York Times, he also hoped that by moving away from his parents, he could explore parts of him that might upset them.
Egbert was gay.
During this time, being queer was still taboo in most places. However, on a college campus and with the right set of friends, it would be acceptable. The young man also wanted to explore a burgeoning love of the role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.
He found friends to help with both those things. Rumors on campus swirled that the group would use the steam tunnels to act out the story in their campaign. There was no evidence to suggest that this was true. Though some officials at MSU did admit that students would wander within the underground passages sometimes.
On August 15, 1979, Egbert did use the steam tunnels to hide. The MSU Archives show that he'd taken a few Quaalude pills in an attempt to take his own life. It did not work, he was found and taken to get medical attention. His parents were not notified of this.
After he woke up, he went to stay with a friend. It appeared that nobody realized the young man was missing from his dorm.
Missing Dungeon Master
Some people claimed to see Egbert at Gen Con XII convention on August 16, 1979. Investigators believe that it is possible the young man went, though there is no evidence to definitively tie him to the event. The New York Times suggest that his love of Dungeons and Dragons would have propelled him to attend the event.
Eventually, one of Egbert's friends noticed him missing and told the university. They didn't sound the alarm, thinking that the young man might have gone home for a few days after his suicide attempt. However, on August 20, they called his parents to find out if he would be returning to school.
His parents were surprised by this news, they thought their son was at school. It wasn't uncommon for them to go a few days without hearing from him, so they hadn't taken note of it. But with officials at MSU saying that Egbert hadn't been seen in a few days, they began to worry.
The Washington Post reports that on August 22, 1979, Egbert's parents hired William Dear, a private investigator. During their initial conversation, a theory emerged that the young man might have taken his own life. Complaints were also made that it took MSU officials five days to contact them.
Dear immediately linked Egbert disappearing to Dungeons and Dragons. He seized on the rumors that the students played the game down there and claimed that either the young man had gotten lost or injured. This propelled a notion that players of the game were secretive and in a cult.
Later, it was discovered that Egbert was living between two houses during this ordeal. The New Yorker says that he later left for New Orleans.
Lost And Legacy
Egbert made it to New Orleans safely. He knew that his parents were searching for him and didn't want to be found. Sensing that they were close, he attempted to take his own life again. Once again, he survived. After recovering, he left for Morgan City, Louisiana.
Money was tight by this time, so he took a job as a roustabout, someone who didn't have expertise in any one area. The work was awful and after four days, he decided that it was best if he went back home with his parents, so he called Dear to come get him. According to The Lansing Pulse, there was a condition to this, his parents could never know the truth about why he ran away. Egbert wanted to conceal his homosexuality from them for as long as he could.
Dear agreed to the terms and travelled to Louisiana to collect him.
On September 13, 1979, Dear released the young man to the custody of his uncle. Things seemed to settle down and Egbert began going to therapy to work on his mental health issues. However, on August 16, 1980, the young man tragically died of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Four years after Egbert's death, Dear wrote the book The Dungeon Master, where he revealed everything he learned during his investigation.
While the moral panic of playing Dungeons and Dragons, the controversy was not bad for the game. According to Polygon, sales went from about 5,000 copies a month to about 30,000 a month.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call or text 988 for help.